Sunday, February 20, 2011

All the Right Moves

Frank Pasquale

I've talked in previous posts about a "closed circuit" economy among the wealthy. A plutonomy at the top increasingly circulates buying power (be it luxury goods, real estate, gold, or securities) among itself. The middle class used to dream that a rising Wall Street tide would lift all boats; as Felix Salmon shows, that hope is fading. Whatever innovations arise out of these companies aren't doing much for average incomes.

On the other hand, financial innovation has done wonders to extract purchasing power from the broad middle into the closed circuit at the top. Here, for example, is how one of our leading firms created enormous value in 2006:

Consider the tale of Travelport, a Web-based reservations company. [A] private equity firm and a smaller partner bought Travelport in August 2006. They paid $1 billion of their own money and used Travelport's balance sheet to borrow an additional $3.3 billion to complete the purchase. They doubtless paid themselves hefty investment banking fees, which would also have been billed to Travelport.

After seven months, they laid off 841 workers, which at a reasonable guess of $125,000 all-in cost per employee (salaries, benefits, space, phone, etc.) would represent annual savings of more than $100 million. And then the two partners borrowed $1.1 billion more on Travelport's balance sheet and paid that money to themselves, presumably as a reward for their hard work. In just seven months, that is, they got their $1 billion fund investment back, plus a markup, plus all those banking fees and annual management fees, and they still owned the company. And note that the annual $100 million in layoff savings would almost exactly cover the debt service on the $1.1 billion. That's elegant---what the financial press calls "creating value."

The corporate geniuses at Boeing offer another display of modern-day business acumen.

The more stories like this you read, the more you realize that massive unemployment isn't a bug in our economic system; it's a feature. A country can't have legal rules that permit these moves without expecting to hemorrhage jobs. All the Michael Porter homilies in the world can't put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Disposable People

However, society is at least groping toward rationales for denying opportunities to those on the losing end of today's zero sum economic games. Those with criminal records have long faced devastating collateral consequences for their convictions. Those with "preexisting conditions" should also keep worrying, especially if the big plan to repeal the ACA goes ahead. Consider this story on one person's quest to obtain insurance:

Most employees assume that if they lose their job and the health coverage that comes along with it, they’ll be able to purchase insurance somewhere. . . .My husband, teenage daughter and I were all active and healthy, and I naïvely thought getting health insurance would be simple. . . .

Then the first letter arrived — denied. . . .What were these pre-existing conditions that put us into high-risk categories? For me, it was a corn on my toe for which my podiatrist had recommended an in-office procedure. My daughter was denied because she takes regular medication for a common teenage issue. My husband was denied because his ophthalmologist had identified a slow-growing cataract. Basically, if there is any possible procedure in your future, insurers will deny you. . . .

As I filled out more applications, I discovered a critical error in my strategy. The first question was “Have you ever been denied health insurance”? Now my answer was yes, giving the new companies reason to be wary of my application. I learned too late that the best tactic is to apply simultaneously to as many companies as possible, so that you don’t have to admit to a denial.

As was recently reported, "50 to 129 million (19 to 50 percent of) non-elderly Americans have some type of pre-existing health condition." The "health care market" is sending a strong signal: don't step out of the system, even for a day, if you have any continuing need for even minor care.

The job market is becoming similarly unforgiving. As an LA Times story relates, "there's a growing trend of employers refusing to consider the unemployed for job openings." Again, stay in the system, or else.

Someone has to pay for the private insurer CEO salaries, or the "business efficiencies" of private equity and outsourcing. There is so much economic pain to go around that the rationales for distributing it are becoming increasingly harsh and arbitrary. When so many of society's resources go to the top, there is little margin for error at the (ever larger) bottom. Kudos to the House representatives who gave up their employer-provided health insurance to discover this harsh reality.

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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