Posts Tagged ‘Financial crisis’

Putting a Positive Spin On It – Or At Least Trying to Do So

Monday, June 15th, 2009
The New Direction of the Financial District

The New Direction of the Financial District

The Alliance for Downtown New York hosted the Small Business Community Expo, a networking event for small business owners, advocates and service providers. Alliance president Liz Berger stated that “people are really pushed and empowered by the current economy to try things they haven’t tried before. They’re hungry for knowledge and they want to know that they’re not out there by themselves.” It often feels that way. Wall Street has lost nearly 20,000 jobs since August 2008, according to the New York State Department of Labor. And Wall Street isn’t the only Manhattan industry that is downsizing; the media and fashion industries are also in trouble. But in Lower Manhattan, where rebuilding the World Trade Center site is moving at a glacial pace, it is small consolation to know that it isn’t just the financial district that is experiencing the economic pain. However, the Alliance for Downtown New York points out that that despite Lower Manhattan’s reputation as an extension of Wall Street, less than a third of jobs in the area are finance-related, and a growing number of them are in the creative and nonprofit industries. In addition, they say, the residential population of Lower Manhattan grew 11% last year, to 53,900, and is forecast to reach 60,000 by 2011. The growth of the residential population in an area that used to go dark at 7:00 p.m. as financial district workers left for home creates an opportunity for small businesses to provide retail services that the residents will demand, so says the Alliance.

I am all for an optimistic outlook on life, so I applaud the brave efforts of the Alliance to try to do something for economic development by reaching out to small businesses. But there is no way that this development can be interpreted as anything by the sad consequence of disastrous government policies. Lower Manhattan has become a miserable place to live, I know. The round-the-clock and unpredictable disruptions around rebuilding the World Trade Center site, orchestrated for nearly one decade by those who don’t have to live in the area, has taken its toll on the community. The encouragement to offer new retail services to new residents is a bit misleading; while the residential population has increased, it has not done so at a rate sufficient to offset the decline in employees in the area, employees who sustained restaurant and other retail businesses. I have watched as neighborhood fixtures like Foxhounds go out of business because the loss of 20,000 jobs in Wall Street following the loss of 50,000 workers based at the World Trade Center basically wiped out their luncheon business and the new residents are not dining out enough to offset that loss.

And you wonder how long the new residents will stick around. Many of the residential apartments were conversions motivated not by market demand but by incentives, such as Liberty Bonds, offered to real estate developers. One such result is the conversion of 180 Maiden Lane, which used to be the office of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a Wall Street law firm. I toured the apartments with a broker; they had all the charm of a law clerk’s cubicle. You could almost imagine Bartleby the Scrivener hunched over his desk here. The real estate developers apparently were unwilling to spend the money required to do a complete gut renovation and change the bones of the building to make the place feel like home. Still, the interior is less depressing than stepping outside and looking at all of the half-finished construction projects, stalled for lack of financing. These projects were not motivated by market demand; they were a response to corporate welfare offered by post-9/11 reconstruction plans of the government.  Small wonder that many of the journalists who work for the Wall Street Journal are looking forward to leaving the World Financial Center and moving to 1211 Avenue of the Americas in mid-town Manhattan. My friends who continue to work in the neighborhood describe it as a “ghost town”.

What is so sad is that the events of 9/11 notwithstanding, Lower Manhattan was a vibrant community of economically productive small businesses. When government policy decided to distort market mechanisms for supply and demand, we were displaced to make way for boondoggle real estate projects that were dependent of subsidies and ultimately, were not sustainable. Many of the new residents of Lower Manhattan chose to live there, despite the poor quality of life, for its proximity to work and the incentives offered to sign apartment leases. Basically, you had to bribe people to live there. But when Merrill Lynch, AIG and others got into trouble, residents lost their employment and until they find new work, they cannot afford to move. But rest assured that once they find new jobs, they will. Even if a few new restaurants and shops appear to serve this transient residential population, these are low-margin businesses that don’t generate the kinds of returns to replace the employment and tax base supported by the commercial businesses that were driven out. If you doubt me, go to the Tiffany’s shop on Wall Street at lunch hour and observe that there is not a single customer there. The market would have adjusted supply and demand for commercial real estate in the aftermath of 9/11 by the mechanism of price. Offering corporate welfare to wealthy real estate developers allowed them to continue to benefit from a real estate bubble that should have burst a bit earlier. But the distortions effectively destroyed a community. Only now are politicians and various business improvement district groups recognizing the importance of local small businesses – now that we are gone.

Clouds on the Horizon

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009
Clouds on the Horizon

Clouds on the Horizon

Crain’s New York Business reports that Lower Manhattan is “on the edge”, citing the following grim statistics:

  • 48,000 fewer workers downtown than before Sept. 11
  • 2.7 million fewer tourists downtown than before Sept. 11
  • 13% of downtown real estate is occupied by AIG, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs
  • 12 million square feet expected to come on the market, excluding financial services consolidation
  • 57,000 residents in lower Manhattan
  • 1/3 of all downtown jobs are tied to financial services, insurance and real estate

The Lower Manhattan community has not fully recovered from the losses caused by the events of September 11 and now faces a much greater threat from the collapse of the financial sector, the leading employer in New York City. Local restaurants report that business is down as much as 40% as compared with this time last year and other small businesses that serve the financial sector, such as car services, law firms, accounting firms, print shops, etc., report comparable declines. Given the lack of diversification of the economy, the mood in the community is grim. The consequences to our local economy here in New York are not likely appreciated elsewhere across the United States, given the entirely appropriate focus on the consequences of the credit crisis for all of us. But for many of us here, the financial crisis is a small business disaster. What has not yet been reported, and I hope will attract the attention of journalists, is that many of the same institutions currently receiving bailouts in the form of TARP funds also received federal government aid in the aftermath of 9-11 – aid which was championed for the benefit of firefighters and emergency rescue workers with urgent medical needs, small businesses and other less powerful constituencies.

What Happens to Insurance Companies in a Financial Crisis?

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008
New York Stock Exchange, A Photo I Took Not Far From My Office

New York Stock Exchange, A Photo I Took Not Far From My Office

On Monday, I was in the Wall Street area where the mood was decidedly somber. I was standing at one of the street food vendors buying lunch when I saw CNBC anchor Dylan Ratigan leaving the New York Stock Exchange and entering the Wall Street subway station. CNBC interrupted its ordinary broadcast that evening to provide programs with experts discussing the concerns about the safety and soundness of our Wall Street institutions with specific reference to Lehman Brothers and AIG. Later that evening, one of the cable television networks (NOT CNBC) featured a guest commentator urging that the federal government “rescue” AIG because it is the world’s largest insurance company and policyholders must be paid. For people in the Gulf Coast and the Mid West recovering from Hurricanes Ike and Gustav and the associated flooding, the failure of an insurance company at this time is the last event they want to contemplate. Let’s try to separate the facts from the cable television theatrics to examine what the real issues are.

When insurance companies write business, they collect premiums and set aside required reserves to cover future losses. That is the first layer of protection for the policyholders: those reserves are set aside for their benefit. They are not available to retire other financial obligations of the company. Second, states have policyholder guarantee funds for life insurance companies to provide an additional level of security in the event of insolvency. Third, insurance companies pay premiums for reinsurance coverage, which provides an additional layer of capital available to pay claims. In the event that an insurance company becomes insolvent, the reinsurance company is not relieved of its obligation to pay the claims to the ultimate beneficiaries – the policyholders. What would happen in such an event is that the state insurance commissioner would establish a trust and appoint a trustee to oversee the orderly liquidation of the insurance company. The reinsurance company, or companies, as insurers often buy layers of capital protection from multiple sources, would pay their required claims into the trust in lieu of to the insurer and the trust would pay the policyholders. Finally, the insurance commissioner would likely to try arrange the sale of the insurance company’s operations to a financially sound insurance company which would then assume all of the liabilities for the policyholders it would acquire (along with the associated reserves).

With specific reference to AIG (American International Group), it has many subsidiaries operating in many different financial sectors, some of which are insurance companies. But the assets and the liabilities of these businesses are not fungible. The assets of its property-casualty insurance companies, for example, are held separately from certain of its other businesses that have exposures to the sub-prime mortgage market. More broadly, with respect to any corporate restructuring, there are different classes of constituents that have claims against a company should it go into bankruptcy: employees, creditors, suppliers and vendors, stockholders and, if the company is an insurance company, policyholders. In all cases, the policyholders’ claims are senior and superior to all others. They will be paid first. The cable television commentators I observed on television appeared to have confused the risks for the policyholders with those of the stockholders, bondholders and employees. They are certainly not the same. Nevertheless, the financial crisis underscores the importance of the advice we gave in the first (published in 2002) and second (published in 2008) editions of the book: consider the financial strength and claims paying ability when selecting an insurance company.