Tipping, Up In The Air

Next week I’ll be taking my first flight ever on Frontier Airlines.  It’s branded as a low-cost airline that differs from other carriers in that it charges you separate fees for things like your carry-on bag and basic in-flight drink and snack options.  Frontier presents its approach as allowing it to keep base fares low and giving travelers “options that allow you to customize your flight to match both your wants and your wallet.”

flight-crewNow I’ve learned that Frontier differs from other airlines in another, more interesting way:  it’s the only airline that encourages travelers to tip its flight attendants.  Beginning January 1, 2019, individual Frontier flight attendants can accept tips, and if a traveler purchases in-flight food or beverages, they get a prompt from the Frontier payment system notifying them that they have the option to leave a tip — just like you get in many restaurants.  In the article linked above, Frontier explains:  “We appreciate the great work of our flight attendants and know that our customers do as well, so [the payment system] gives passengers the option to tip.”

The union that represents Frontier flight attendants, the Association of Flight Attendants International, isn’t happy about Frontier’s tipping policy and says that the airline should be paying flight attendants more instead.  The union and Frontier have been trying to negotiate a new contract, and one union official has said that “[m]anagement moved forward with a tipping option for passengers in hopes it would dissuade flight attendants from standing together for a fair contract — and in an effort to shift additional costs to passengers.”

I’m not quite sure how I come out on the issue of tipping flight attendants.  Obviously, their job involves a lot more than donning a little apron and serving drinks and snacks, so there’s a bit of a disconnect between the tipping option — apparently presented only when food or drink is ordered — and the actual contours of the flight attendant’s job.  At the same time, many airlines are nickel-and-diming passengers with fees, so perhaps tip income for flight attendants is the wave of the future.  And I’m all for airlines adopting different models — like Frontier’s low-cost approach — as they compete for passengers, and letting the passengers themselves decide which approach they like best.

I’m thinking my flight on Frontier next week is going to be a bit of an adventure.

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The Coming College Collapse

Some pretty alarming predictions are being made about American institutions of higher education these days.  Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, predicts that half of all colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.  That’s upping the ante on a prediction Christensen and Michael Horn made in the New York Times in 2013:  that the bottom 25 percent of every tier of colleges and universities will close or merge out of existence in the next 10 to 15 years.

Abandoned HospitalWhy the dire forecasts?  Because colleges have been struggling for a while now, their business models aren’t sustainable, and demographics and economics indicate that things are going to get worse very soon.

Here’s an interesting point made in the first article linked above:  “Many colleges and universities are increasingly unable to bring in enough revenue to cover their costs. Indeed, the average tuition discount rate was a whopping 49.9% for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2017–18, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That means that students are paying roughly only half of what colleges and universities say they charge. A tuition discount rate above 35% puts a college in a danger zone, particularly when it is heavily dependent on tuition. Many institutions have discount rates far above that now.”

The fact that the average tuition discount rate is nearly 50 percent indicates that it’s high times if you’re somebody whose child is getting ready to go to college.  College tuitions may be like hospital prices lists for different procedures — that is, they are quoted amounts that almost no one really pays — but an average discount of 50 percent is staggering.  Clearly it’s a buyer’s market out there, and buyer’s markets are bad news for sellers, who get caught in price wars that do nothing except cut into their bottom line.  And, in the case of colleges and universities, the fight for students not only involves cutting tuition, but also building new, high-end dormitories, workout facilities, student centers, and other facilities that might appeal to high school kids who are trying to decide where to spend the next four years.

Statistics also show that about 25 percent of private colleges are operating at deficits, and that expenses have exceeded revenues at public colleges over the past three years.  And demographics aren’t helping, either:  the number of American 18-year-olds who are going to college is declining, and the decline is supposed to get worse within a few years.  Combine fewer applicants with tuition price wars and high fixed costs to pay expenses like tenured faculty salaries and building maintenance costs and you start to see the obvious challenges.  Throw in the possibility that some kids who have grown up sitting in front of their computers might decide to opt instead for the on-line learning options that are making increasing inroads, and the picture becomes even bleaker.

Often, predictions turn out to be wrong, of course, but there is no doubt that these are tough times for American institutions of higher education.  Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you hear that your alma mater is closing its doors.

 

Oil Independence

Last week the United States passed a milestone that is almost unimaginable for those of us who have lived through the “oil crises” of the past.  For the first time in 75 years, America ended its dependence on foreign oil and became a net oil exporter.

shutterstock_360583700-0The transition of America to a state of energy independence has largely occurred because of the huge surge in production of oil and natural gas from shale formations that have been found throughout the country, in Texas, and North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, and even here in Ohio.  Last week there was a sharp drop in imports and a sharp increase in exports that nudged the U.S. into energy independence territory.  And while the production of oil will vary, the amount of oil-producing shale formations will likely keep America in positive net production territory for some time.

What does America’s status as a net oil exporter mean?  The oil boom has obviously produced a lot of new wealth and jobs in the U.S., but more broadly it means that the role of OPEC as a major world player, capable of affecting the economies of oil-using countries with a few pricing decisions — or even worse, embargoes — has been greatly diminished.  In fact, the production from the United States has effectively flipped the power equation, because many of our producing wells are profitable at oil prices as low as $30 a barrel, which is a lower price than is profitable for many OPEC countries.

The American oil boom thus presents OPEC with a serious challenge:  if it tries to enforce higher prices, buyers will turn to American oil and OPEC countries will lose market share — but because Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries need higher prices to be profitable, OPEC can’t afford to let profits fall.  Last week in Vienna, OPEC and Russia announced an agreement to cut production in order to keep prices up.  It remains to be seen whether that agreement will work, given American production, or whether OPEC members will begin trying to recapture market share by selling at lower prices than OPEC is trying to enforce.  In fact, there are signs that the oil cartel is fraying around the edges.  Last week, for example, Qatar announced that it is leaving OPEC.

Imagine:  an American foreign policy that no longer needs to focus obsessively on the Middle East in order to ensure that the oil spigot remains turned on.  That’s just one of the interesting consequences of our surging domestic production.

 

Aftermath Of The GM Bailout

General Motors — the company that American taxpayers bailed out less than a decade ago, rescuing the company from near-certain bankruptcy after years of mismanagement — continues to struggle, and the dominoes that were toppled by the bailout decision continue to fall.

636198172298775780-lsjbrd-04-17-2016-gli-1-a001-2016-04-14-img-gm-shutdown-jpg-1-1-fhe0e7gq-l792930015-img-gm-shutdown-jpg-1-1-fhe0e7gqYesterday the company announced that it is engaging in a massive restructuring that will close assembly plants in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, eliminate thousands of jobs, and end some car lines.  One of the vehicles  being discontinued is the Chevy Volt, the electric hybrid GM rolled out to great fanfare.  The company said that “GM is continuing to take proactive steps to improve overall business performance, including the reorganization of its global product development staffs, the realignment of its manufacturing capacity and a reduction of salaried workforce.”  GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, said “GM wants to stay in front of changing market conditions and customer preferences for its long-term success.”  One of the “changing market conditions” is the declining public demand for passenger cars like the Volt and the Chevy Impala, which also is being discontinued.

President Trump and the United Auto Workers are both unhappy at the GM move.  Trump said he didn’t like GM’s decision and reports that he told Barra “You know, this country has done a lot for General Motors. You better get back in there soon. That’s Ohio, and you better get back in there soon.”  The UAW, which will see the loss of lots of blue collar jobs held by its members, said:  “This callous decision by GM to reduce or cease operations in American plants, while opening or increasing production in Mexico and China plants for sales to American consumers, is, in its implementation, profoundly damaging to our American workforce.”  The UAW news release added that “GM’s production decisions, in light of employee concessions during the economic downturn and a taxpayer bailout from bankruptcy, puts profits before the working families of this country whose personal sacrifices stood with GM during those dark days.”

GM’s decision will no doubt be devastating to those employees who lose their jobs and the communities where the plants will close.  But it also makes me wonder how even the advocates for the taxpayer bailout of GM less than 10 years ago feel about their decision to prop up GM now.  The underlying question raised by the UAW and President Trump is legitimate:  Was the bailout worth it, in view of these kinds of decisions?  GM remains a public company, and it gets to make decisions that it considers to be in its own competitive interest.  And if changing market conditions really do require GM to cut thousands of jobs that the bailout advocates expected would continue indefinitely, that may just tells you something about the wisdom of taxpayer bailouts generally.

Blue Chip Gone Bad

In the not too distant past, General Electric was one of the most valuable companies in the world.  GE was the bluest of the blue chips, the maker of light bulbs and everyday appliances, a company so solid and trusted and reliable that it was a standard holding for retirees who bought it because it paid an old-fashioned quarterly dividend.

ge-led-bulbs-led11da19-870-h-64_1000Now, GE’s stock price has plummeted to less than $10 per share, its its renowned quarterly dividend has been reduced to a penny per share, and there’s actually talk on Wall Street that GE debt — which is now rated at BBB — could be reduced to junk bond status.

What happened? Many things have contributed to GE’s abrupt fall.  The company has a lot of debt, some of it generated back when GE had a AAA rating.  The debt has put GE into an increasingly leveraged position as the company’s stock price has fallen, which in turn has put pressure on the trading price of GE bonds.  The company’s lines of business have experienced some down years, and prior management was viewed as too slow to respond to the challenges facing the company.  To address the problem, GE has shifted to new management, which is trying to sell off assets to improve the company’s capital structure, boost the stock price, and keep the company off the junk heap.  And, as GE sheds assets, new management will have to figure out what the company is and where it is going, long term.  GE can no longer get by on its reputation.

GE’s current plight is another example of how the American economy moves quickly, and if companies don’t move with it they can be left behind.  As recently as 2005, GE’s stock market price made it the most valuable company in America.  Now, it’s fighting for survival.  And in boardrooms throughout the corporate world, CEOs should considering this cautionary tale and asking themselves:  “What should I do to keep my company from becoming the next GE?”

Dow And Up And Dow Again

I don’t know what’s harder to read about right now:  political news, or the stock market.

dreamstime_xl_29871962-customSince I don’t want to lose any readers, we shan’t be talking about political news.  But checking out what’s been going on in the stock market recently is equally stomach-churning.  October has been one of the worst months in the stock market in a very long time, generating talk that we’re in the midst of a dreaded “correction.”  Even after springing back up by more than 400 points yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is still down almost 6 percent this month, making it the worst month since August 2015.  The news for the S&P 500 has been even worse:  in October its down almost 8 percent, its worst month since May 2010.

And for those of us who aren’t working on Wall Street, the movements of the markets seem random and inexplicable.  Stock are down, then up, then down again — sometimes, all on the same day.  On Monday, the Dow surged upward, then plummeted, and ended up covering more than 900 points in its abrupt mood swing.  You read the reports on the markets that try to make sense of the movements — on Monday, for example, the stated culprit for the downturn was concerns about new trade actions with China, and on other bad days it’s those nefarious “profit takers” — and you really wonder if anybody knows why the markets move as they do.  And this shouldn’t come as a surprise, either:  after all, the markets are the sum of the actions of millions of individual investors, mutual funds, trading bots, institutional investors, portfolio traders, brokerage firms, foreign investors, and countless other actors.  It would be an unusual day, indeed, when all of the disparate participants in the market are motivated by the same news to take the same actions on the same day.

So, what’s a small investor to do?  I think the key is to not overreact, and to realize that investing in the market is supposed to be a long-term thing.  The little guy is never going to have the information the big players do and can’t plausibly time the market or anticipate the abrupt movements.  If you’re in the market long-term, don’t get distracted by the sickening plunges or the big climbs, because you’re really focused on what’s happening over the course of years.  And if you can’t take a long-term view, maybe you shouldn’t be in the markets at all.

Ignoring that stock market app on your phone helps, too.

Empty Malls

Sears announced this week that it is going into bankruptcy.  Once the largest retailer in the United States, Sears disclosed in August that it was closing 46 stores, and with its bankruptcy filing this week Sears identified another 142 stores that will be shuttered.

IMG_6692If you’ve been to one of the ubiquitous indoor malls in America recently, you didn’t need the bankruptcy filing to tell you that Sears has been having serious problems.  For years, Sears was one of the mainstay, “anchor” tenants in countless malls, usually located at the end of one of the concourses.  Sears and other department store tenants were key parts of the mall structure, giving shoppers a chance to check out their varied offerings, from women’s clothing to home furnishings to makeup and perfume, before the shoppers wandered out to hit The Gap or Foot Locker while sipping a drink they got from Orange Julius.  For generations of kids, the “mallrat” experience with their friends on a weekend day was a big part of growing up.

But if you’ve been to one of those malls recently, you’ve seen that some of those big storefronts for the anchor tenants at the end of the concourses are vacant.  Kish and I went to a mall in Bangor, Maine this summer, and it had the big void where one of the department stores used to be.  Many of the slots adjacent to the anchor location also were empty and closed up, leaving the whole section of the mall, where I took the picture for this post, feeling shuttered and empty.  And there’s nothing quite so desolate and deserted as a cavernous mall that is totally devoid of shoppers.

I’m old enough to have seen the whole arc of the American mall story.  I remember when the Summit Mall in Akron, Ohio opened to great fanfare, drawing throngs of shoppers away from the downtown stores to one convenient location.  In Columbus, the City Center mall in downtown Columbus opened in the ’80s as a key part of the downtown Columbus redevelopment plan — but then it failed within only a few years, to be torn down and replaced by a park.  The new approach to retail eschews the closed mall design in favor of open air developments like Easton in Columbus — which feels a lot like the downtown shopping areas that got elbowed to the curb by the malls.  Now we’re seeing many malls struggle, and in some extreme cases, city planners are left wondering what the heck to do with the huge, empty edifice that used to be a roaring hub of commercial activity and tax revenue.

And now Sears is going into bankruptcy.  The story linked above reports that liquidation sales at the 142 stores that are closing will begin in the next few weeks.