Monday, March 30, 2009

Detroit Woes

The United States auto industry has fallen down and it can't get up. Well, maybe that's not true for Ford, but General Motors and Chrysler are certainly on death's bed.

Today President Barack Obama announced he has rejected both GM's and Chrysler's reorganization plans. Together they were seeking an additional $20 billion in taxpayer financing. Instead, GM CEO Rick Wagoner was shown the door by the White House. The fact that this caused shock in some circles is puzzling because Wagoner should have been fired long ago by his feckless board.

Wagoner has been at GM since 1977, and in charge of the company since 2000. He comes out of finance, not product design, sales or marketing. The first thing he did when taking over GM was to emphasize the truck and SUV markets at the expense of hybrids. Under his tenure GM bled money and lost market share. Strike one. He flew to Washington on a corporate jet late last year to beg Congress for money, and was skewered by critics for his insensitivity. Strike two. Wagoner submitted a restructuring plan to Washington in which he requested an additional $16.6 billion in government loans. GM has already received $9.4 billion in loans from Washington. But the President's Task Force on the Auto Industry concluded that GM had not met its promises and its new plan would fail. Strike three.

The President represents the taxpayers who have stepped up to the plate on behalf of numerous failing companies. I applaud his strong action with GM. Now a stronger board must be put in place and further management changes are likely. GM will then sell or discontinue product lines like Saab, Saturn, Hummer and maybe Buick. The company will focus on Chevy, Cadillac and GMC. To remain viable under any scenario GM must get contract concessions from the UAW and address significant legacy costs.

The President's Task Force was harsher on Chrysler, concluding that that the nation's number three auto company could never be a viable company. It urged them to merge with a partner. Chrysler has announced there is a "framework" for a deal with the Italian auto maker Fiat, though details have to be worked out. Chrysler's biggest problem was market appeal, as every one of their brands rated in the bottom quarter of customer preference. If the Fiat deal actually goes through Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli is likely to become a short termer. The alternative is Chrysler goes bankrupt and sells off assets.

How did the U.S. auto industry get so out of whack? Today few Detroit brands have strong market appeal. The industry is burdened by inefficient operations, costly production, onerous labor contracts, and enormous costs associated with employee health plans and other benefits. Detroit has gone from industry leader to global laggard in three decades.

Nothing will change unless the Detroit culture changes back to what it once was, entrepreneurial, creative, innovative, market savvy and cost effective. This calls for visionary and strong leadership, as well as a smart experienced board.

Where is the Lee Iacocca of the 21st century? I know, I can do a search on Facebook!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Extraordinary Measures

"We have an extraordinary crisis which calls for extraordinary measures." That was the basic theme of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's remarks during his appearance today before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The appearance came just before he and President Barack Obama travel to London for the G-20 meeting of the world's leading finance ministers, which begins April 2.

In his remarks, Geithner called for Congress to act quickly on legislation that would give the U.S. Treasury sweeping new powers to seize financial firms whose collapse could jeopardize the American economy. The legislation, which will be sent to Congress this week, is intended to head off another A.I.G. crisis. “One of the key lessons of the current crisis is that destabilizing dangers can come from financial institutions beyond banks, but our current regulatory system provides few ways to deal with these risks,” Geithner said.

Secretary Geithner gave a curious set of responses to a question about the role of the U.S. dollar as the world's dominant currency. The issue was first raised earlier this week by a Chinese central banker who seemed to suggest that another currency should be created to replace the dollar. "We are actually quite open to that suggestion," was the essence of Geithner's initial response. But the moderator, recognizing a problem, rephrased the question at the end of the session. Geithner was then more direct, "The dollar remains the world's dominant reserve currency. I think that's likely to continue for a long period of time," adding, "as a country we will do what is necessary to make sure we are sustaining confidence."

Secretary Geithner is much different in person than he seems to be on television. He exudes charm, a quiet confidence, he speaks articulately about complicated financial details and he makes good use of humor. One questioner wanted to know what the total dollar amount was for all the debt facing the banking and financial system. Tilting his head slightly to the side, Geithner gave a deadpan response, "For lots of reasons, that's like a really hard question to answer." As the audience laughed, he went on, "If we knew that number with precision we wouldn't have a financial crisis."

Secretary Geithner claimed there has already been "significant progress" in the markets. He repeated that it will take a long time to restore our economy, and he praised the G-20 for its coordinated efforts to address this crisis.

Remarkably, there was no mention of bonuses at the Council on Foreign Relations session. Yet our nation has been whipped into a populist frenzy over Wall Street bonuses by outraged politicians from both sides of the aisle. In many cases, the rage comes from hypocrites who have consistently benefited from Wall Street's campaign largess. To revise the old adage, "don't bite the hand that feeds you, unless you are a politician!" It is time for calmer heads to prevail.

There are plenty of greedy bankers to blame for our current travails, many having already pocketed large payoffs. They should be made to pay for their misdeeds!

But the overwhelming majority of bankers work enormously long hours building value and fueling the economy. One Wall Street wife said to me, "I have been a single parent for a dozen years; he seldom sees the kids." Yet many bankers are paid a relatively modest salary, typically one that does not cover all their family expenses, with the understanding that they will receive a bonus. Many received stock rewards in their own firm, stock that is now worth a fraction of its value a year ago.

To assess a 90% tax on these bonuses retroactively is grossly unfair as well as unconstitutional. The consequences of such a tax would be catastrophic. It would serve as a deterrent to healthy bank activity. It would force many bankers to file for personal bankruptcy. It would likely drive investment banking overseas. Already most investment bankers spend a good portion of their time polishing up their resumes and looking for work.

These are truly extraordinary times, but this is one extraordinary measure that should be killed. In Secretary Geithner's words, "let's take advantage of the moment for broader reform."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fox Strategy Room

Congratulations to Mike Straka, the creater and executive in charge of the "Strategy Room" on Foxnews.com. It is an interesting news and information content platform streamed live for several hours each weekday. Fox News stars, such as Alan Colmes, Brian Kilmeade and Rick Leventhal, take turns anchoring panel discussion about a wide variety of topics.

This past Monday I appeared as a panelist and our discussion focused on the economy, Obama's "60 Minutes" interview and plane crashes. It was a lively, loud and fun.

Take a look any time by going to the Fox News website. And I'll be on again next Monday at 1pm ET.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Turning Thirteen Hollywood Style

Zoe officially became a teenager today. We celebrated by going Hollywood!

Our first stop was CBS's Studio City for the rehearsal and taping of "American Idol." Ten of the eleven finalists practiced their music as the production crew taped cutaways and wide shots of the audience. These will be edited into the program as needed. This was our second visit to "Idol." Last year we attended an exciting semi-final, which aired live on the Fox Network.

The program originates from a studio on the CBS lot because the it is the ideal size needed for the show. The set is spectacular. Lights beam, blink, pop and seem to explode from every corner of the stage area. The acoustics are fabulous, especially with the band housed in an upper tier above the stage. The music pours over the audience. And everything on the show is pre-produced and planned to the micro-second. The talent performs before an energetic audience, young and old, which is cued and whipped up by the stage manager. It is easy to see why this is such a successful program.

Our second stop was to the "CSI" set on the Universal lot. Building 24 was ground zero for today's filming. An autopsy scene that may last a minute in the final program. Two cameras captured the actors who were discussing clues to a mysterious death. It is remarkable to see the detail planning and organization that goes into each shot. The director leads the cast and crew through many takes, each with cameras at different angles.

Zoe met Laurence Fishburn, who wished her a happy birthday. He has a strong presence in person, as on camera, and he was quite nice. Marg Helgenberger, an original cast member, spent ten minutes with us discussing the program and its evolution. Zoe also talked with George Eads, another original cast member. And we had a long talk with Eric Szmanda, a wonderful young actor. Later we visited the "CSI" morgue, where Susan and Zoe posed for pictures.

Our takeaway from "CSI" was they are a well-oiled assembly line. The new cast has brought a new energy and character to the program. The director and support staff are thoroughly committed professionals who make great television. No wonder this program is so enduring and endearing.

Tonight we cap our celebrations with a big dinner at "Ivy by the Shore" in Santa Monica. Who knows, maybe a talent agent will discover a new star who happens to have just turned thirteen!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ron Silver

Ron Silver was a man of great passion and compassion.

His acting skills were remarkable, whether on stage, screen or television. He was a powerful presence whatever role he played. He was also a devoted parent. Ron was a wonderful and caring man, so I was most fortunate to spend time with him over the years.

Perhaps it was Ron's passion as a political activist that will be his most important legacy. For sure, at times he was controverisal. But he derserves great respect for his outspokenness, his candor and his commitment to this country.

I will miss him.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cramer vs. Cramer

It was one of the best television interviews I have ever seen. It was journalism at its finest, with a capital "J." A great deal of work went into preparing for the interview; the interviewer had a smart strategy and a clear point of view. The outcome was informative and enlightening. And, true to fast-paced world we live, the interview has gone viral. Edward R. Murrow would have been proud were he alive today.

And who was this impressive interviewer, this outstanding practitioner of journalism, this most revered member of the "fourth estate?" None other than Comedy Central's Jon Stewart. Call him "The Great Eviscerator!" His victims: the Goliath of business news, CNBC, and its mercurial host and commentator, Jim Cramer.

Jon Stewart raked CNBC over the coals, accusing them of under-reporting the events that led up to our current financial crisis. Worse, he accused them of knowingly misleading viewers about what was really going on, in effect, CNBC was a co-conspirator. Then Stewart played a three year old tape of Cramer advising hedge fund investors to manipulate the market for personal benefit.

At one point, Stewart charged, "This thing was 10 years in the making . .(the economic collapse) . . The idea that you could have on the guys from Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch and guys that had leveraged 35-1 and then blame mortgage holders, that's insane!"

Cramer responded, "I always wish that people would come in and swear themselves in before they come on the show...I had a lot of CEOs lie to me on the show...It's very painful...I don't have subpoena power."

In other words, Cramer was the victim!

But Stewart wasn't buying it, "You knew what the banks were doing and were touting it for months and months...The entire network was."

Cramer tried to name names, "But Dick Fuld, who ran Lehman Brothers, called me in - he called me in when the stock was at 40 -- because I was saying: 'look, I thought the stock was wrong, thought it was in the wrong place' - he brings me in and lies to me, lies to me, lies to me."

Mocking a shocked expression, Stewart said, "The CEO of a company lied to you?"

Cramer tried to be funny, "Shocking."

Then Stewart pulled out the knife and stuck it in his victim, "But isn't that financial reporting? What do you think is the role of CNBC?"

Cramer tried the "my-problem-is-I-am-too-nice" defense, "I didn't think that Bear Stearns would evaporate overnight...I knew the people who ran it...I thought they were honest...That was my mistake...I really did...I thought they were honest...Did I get taken in because I knew them before? Maybe, to some degree." Cramer continued, "It's difficult to have a reporter say: 'I just came from an interview with Hank Paulson and he lied his darn-fool head off.'..It's difficult...I think it challenges the boundaries."

Then Stewart dropped the hammer on Cramer, "But what is the responsibility of the people who cover Wall Street? . . . . I'm under the assumption, and maybe this is purely ridiculous, but I'm under the assumption that you don't just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out (applause)."

In fairness, CNBC has some outstanding reporters, David Faber, Joe Kernen, Erin Brunett, Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and Maria Bartiromo, to name a few. Much of its live coverage is extremely good, as are its documentaries and specials. CNBC serves its high-income and highly educated audience well, and it is a huge cash cow for NBC and GE.

CNBC has no real competition, except for itself. When one of CNBC's reporters shouts from the floor that the government should not be bailing out the mortgages of "losers," or a couple of its reporters get into a highly personal and inappropriate on-air spat, or anchors resort to excessive yelling and constantly interrupt guests, the whole franchise is diminished. At its worst, CNBC is like those televised world wrestling matches.

But at its best, CNBC is a trustworthy and vital source for important financial and business information from around the world. Now more than ever, America needs CNBC to be the best it can be!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Where's Me Money, SpongeBob?

For years the rich got richer and everyone else, including the middle class, saw real income slip. Deficits ballooned, government oversight and regulations eased and no-bid contracts were awarded to favorite contractors. Greed and corruption permeated business practices. The SEC ignored credible warnings of a massive Ponzi scheme. Where was the leadership? Where was responsibility and accountability? It was time for a change in direction.

Last November Americans voted for change. The newly elected President warned that change would not be easy, that it would be a difficult challenge to restore the nation's ailing economy and confidence in government. Now those who led America into this dark and uncertain crisis are speaking out against change. Many on Wall Street and Republicans have declared that this is President Barack Obama's recession, even though he has been in office for barely six weeks. His policies, they say, are the reason America is in trouble.

They have taken to the airwaves, to print and the Web to excoriate President Obama. They accuse Obama of doing too little, while at the same time doing too much. They complain the President is not moving fast enough, while at the same time accusing him of moving too hastily.

They are pounding away at Obama's tax plan, which raises taxes on Americans making more that $250,000 per year, while increasing taxes on capital gains and dividends. The top tax rate will go up from 35% to 39.6% when the Bush tax cuts for the rich lapse. Obama is being accused of socialism and his plan is described as, brace yourself, radical. "This is the reason the stock market has crashed," yelled one commentator. "It's class warfare," screamed another. In the words of Mr. Crabs, "Where's me money, SpongeBob?"

The Republican strategy is simply to say no. There is no real leadership within the party, except for entertainer and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. And he has rallied the beleaguered right wing by calling for President Obama to fail. This icon of the conservative movement recently bounced on stage at the CPAC meeting in Washington, dressed in a black jacket and black silk shirt opened at the neck. His flashy eyes, fleshy chest and flabby girth were symbolic of a Republican party that feasted for eight years on Bush deregulation and government deficits.

"We can take this country back," he declared. "We conservatives have not done a good enough job of just laying out basically who we are because we make the mistake of assuming that people know." Memo to Limbaugh, America already knows. "We love and revere our founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," he continued. "We believe that the preamble of the Constitution contains an inarguable truth, that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, freedom. And the pursuit of happiness." So, therefore, the President should fail?

Freedom of speech is an essential principle of our great democracy. We have long benefited from our diversity and differences of opinions. New ideas and constructive criticism lead to a stronger and healthier nation. But when criticism is emotional, vacuous and divisively strident it can be destructive. Driving a political wedge through the heart of this country will result in further chaos, confusion and great harm to the health of America.

It is time for calm voices and thoughtful ideas. It is time to come together as one nation. Rather than thinking about the next election cycle, it is time to do what is best for our children and for America.