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On Poor Management, Or, Did You Know There Was Another Deepwater? June 16, 2010

It is by now obvious that even after we stop the gentle trickle of oil that’s currently expressing itself into the Gulf of Mexico (thank you so much, BP) we are not going to be able to get that oil out of the water for some considerable length of time–and if you think it could take years, I wouldn’t bet against you.

While BP is the legally responsible party, out on the water it will be up to the Coast Guard to manage the Federal response, and to determine that BP is running things in a way that gets the work done not only correctly and safely, but, in a world of limited resources, efficiently.

Which brings us to the obvious question: can the Coast Guard manage such a complex undertaking?

While we hope they can, you need to know that the Coast Guard has been trying to manage the replacement of their fleet of ships and aircraft for about a decade now…and the results have been so stunningly bad that you and I are now the proud owners of a small flotilla of ships that can never be used, because if they go to sea, they might literally break into pieces.

It’s an awful story, and before we’re done you’ll understand why Deepwater was already an ugly word around Headquarters, years before that oil rig blew up.

“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news –
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

–William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

We’re going to try to keep today’s story relatively short (we won’t succeed, I’m afraid), and that means I’ll be a bit tighter with words than I would be normally, so let’s get right to the heart of the matter:

The US Coast Guard (USCG) works its ships and aircraft too hard, with inadequate downtime; as a result an old fleet is even older than its years.

Just like an old car, you have to work harder at maintenance, but things keep breaking down, and the costs really start to add up.

It’s not entirely their fault: they have more and more to do, especially after September 11th; they’re also expected to operate farther from home, and the tours of duty are longer.

At the same time the money they get to do it all keeps going down.

This circle had to be squared.

A decision was made to begin planning for the modernization or replacement of pretty much everything USCG owns that operates out in the deep water (that’s more than 50 miles from shore), and that’s how the Deepwater program was born.

Total assets involved: roughly 90 large ships, over 100 small boats, about 250 aircraft, and not quite $25 billion dollars.

USCG was convinced that they did not have the ability to manage this sort of program on their own, and they decided to procure everything from one prime contractor, a Lockheed/Northrop Grumman partnership.

The idea was that they would tell the contractor what they wanted the finished product to be able to do (in this case, the product was a fleet of ships and aircraft that could interact as a system), and the contractor would determine how to manage the program to completion.

With the “management” part of the process out of USCG’s hands, all the Admirals would have to do was “supervise” the contractor to make sure things were on time and on budget.

They did that by creating teams that would each watch over a small portion of the bigger picture, coordinating with each other and USCG senior management.

The next step was to determine what ships and aircraft to build; today we’ll concentrate on just four elements of the system, which should be enough to make the picture clear.

–The Coast Guard owned a number of 110 foot patrol boats, and they decided to refurbish them, to provide new capabilities within a 13-foot longer hull. This required the ships to be cut apart, and then reassembled.

As it turned out, that idea sucked.

One way to interpret the results would be to say the first eight newly-delivered craft were so unseaworthy (the hulls of the “brand-new” ships were actually cracking), so full of electrical problems, and so unable to protect classified communications that they never entered service, and they will be scrapped.

Another view: for quite some time Baltimore was continuously guarded by eight Coast Guard vessels, and the city was incredibly safe—as long as none of them had to actually leave the pier or do anything.

The loss: about $100 million. USCG is trying to get the money back.

“It’s going to be difficult to counter the bad publicity we’ve had despite the best efforts of our communications team,” admitted J. Rocco Tomonelli, director of Coast Guard business development at Northrop Grumman.

–From the article Coast Guard May Face Rough Seas as it Takes Control of Deepwater, National Defense Magazine, October 2007

–USCG needed a big ship with the ability to operate as far away as the Middle East, and the National Security Cutter was it.

The job required that the vessels delivered had to be structurally sound for use in the North Pacific’s very rough seas for 30 years. The contractor was convinced the ships were sound, the Coast Guard was not, and the Navy was brought in to settle the argument.

USCG won, the taxpayer, again, lost.

An odd, but not surprising, solution was found. If USCG would just agree to not ask that the ships be so annoyingly capable, everything would be fine…so they did; this was done by assuming the ships would be at sea fewer days every year.

We now know that USCG expected some of the ships’ structural components to only last three years in actual service.

In 2006 it was reported that the first two hulls may or may not be fixable, and may have to be scrapped.

The first ship delivered, the Cutter Bertholf, was not allowed to perform any missions for almost seven months after commissioning due to its own failure to perform as expected. In October 2008 Bertholf conducted its first “shakedown” cruise and officially entered operational service.

More of these ships are being built, with fixes hopefully in place. Two are in acceptance trials; a funding request exists that would expand the fleet to five.

Our cost?
At least $650 million per ship.

–USCG planned to buy a dozen Fast Response Cutters; the contractor wanted to use newfangled composite hulls, reportedly for longer life and less maintenance.

That idea also sucked.

Officially, and I quote: “…the cutter design satisfied contract terms but did not meet Deepwater mission needs.” The resulting ships were judged to be too heavy and lacking in performance.

It is suggested that the contractor wanted to build this type of hull because they had a new composite facility available and there was money to be made. We’ll discuss that in a minute.

The plan now is to build the ships with metal hulls.
USCG is not attempting to recover the lost money on this one.

–USCG wanted Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for the new ships. A fancy-schmancy tilt-rotor design that was already somewhat developed had to be abandoned because they couldn’t afford to produce the thing.

Current thinking is to steal something from the Navy’s UAV development program, stick a USCG radar system on it, and call it good.

The GAO and the Congressional Research Service have been looking into all this, a lot; they feel USCG has failed to properly resource the teams that are supposed to be supervising this process.

Excessive workload, transferring people in and out, failing to put team members in locations that are close to other team members, and failing to fill leadership positions were all issues noted in the reports.

The idea that the contractor would “own” the whole process, might work against USCG interests, and that USCG would be at their mercy was also noted. (Remember those fiberglass hulls?)

We’re told that teams working on the National Security Cutter tried to warn USCG senior management about the problems with the first few ships, and that they were ignored.

Total cost of all the mistakes: more than $1.5 billion.

Frankly, this is all Admiral Stuff, and the Admirals at USCG have nothing to be proud of, based on this part of the record.

USCG is now trying to turn all this around by taking over management of the program themselves, and although there is reason to believe things may be somewhat better, even that “fix” is creating problems.

For example, it’s reported that USCG is moving ahead on acquisition decisions even though they haven’t fully decided what the designs should be.

At this point, however, USCG has little choice: they can’t wait several years to train up a new crew of contract managers, then design, then build.

That’s because, right now, things are very bad for the Fleet: of the first 12 ships USCG sent to help after the earthquake in Haiti…10 broke, at various times, and that kept them from conducting rescues until they were fixed. Two of those had to return to the US for major repairs.

And here’s where the circle closes.

Admiral Thad Allen, who’s running the show on the Gulf Coast, spent the past four years as Commandant of the Coast Guard, and before that as Coast Guard Chief of Staff…which means, for good or for ill, he’s covered in Deepwater all the way up to his Cutterman Insignia.

The question now is: was he the reformer who fixed this stuff when he finally got the chance, or was he part of the problem in the first place?

I could not get the answer to this most critical question, so all I can tell you is to watch very, very, carefully—and don’t be afraid to assume the worst, until we truly do know better.

WARNING – Blatant Self-Promotion Ahead: It’s Netroots Nation time once again, and the fine folks at Freedom To Marry have chosen me as a finalist for their Blog 4 Equality contest. If I am one of the chosen, it’s off to Vegas…in July. You can vote for that Don Davis guy here, which is my “in person” name, once every 24 hours, so vote early and often. Voting ends June 25th. Thanks very much, and we now return you to your regular programming.


On Crying Wolf, Or, Why I Don’t Want To Give You $700 Billion September 24, 2008

As this is being written we are in the midst of the second day of testimony before Congress by Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson in support of the Administration’s proposed financial rescue package.

The basic sales pitch is that the Nation’s financial problems are at this moment so severe that the only solution is to expose to risk $700 billion dollars of taxpayer money to buy assets with a currently unknown price…and to give the absolute and total power over what those valuations are, what should and should not be bought, what repayment terms will be sought—and additionally, what happens to any money recovered–to one man, Henry Paulson.

There are those who are not on board. They have critics, who continue to stress the dire consequences of inaction.

With all due respect to those critics…we have been down this road before with this Administration—and last time, they weren’t so big on telling the truth…or getting the job done effectively.

We’ll cover that ground, we’ll talk a bit about “mark to market” issues—and on a positive note, we’ll address the role of “warrants”, the negotiating power of Warren Buffett, and how the taxpayer could actually see substantial recoveries of money down the road.

So let’s start with the biggest elephant standing in the Plan’s way:

Weapons Of Mass Destruction.

This Administration flat-out lied to the American people to justify the current Iraq adventure. “Just trust us” was the basic message at the time, followed by “we absolutely know that Saddam is an imminent threat because of his Weapons Of Mass Destruction”, followed by “this will cost maybe $50, 60 billion…maybe as much as $200 billion”–which turned out to be possibly the worst estimate in the history of budgeting–followed by variations on The “I’m not the Commander-in Chief, General Petraeus is” Theme…followed by flag-draped caskets that the Administration still hides from public view.

All of this to find not one single operable WMD.

Now comes before us Federal Reserve Chairman Henry Paulson and Treasury Secretary Ben Bernanke, who tell us of imminent threat, who tell us to just trust them…who tell us that they are the most qualified people to understand the issues and take the appropriate action…and who, to top it off, must be left to the task unsupervised and uncontrolled, otherwise the plan will fail.

We are also being told that if we were just economically sophisticated enough we would understand why this plan must be put into place, and that our objections must be related to our economic ignorance.

To which I pose a question to the Joe Kernans of the world (well, one of them anyway): what if the public fully understands that the system is at risk…but we don’t trust the leadership?

(Ever watch “Sex And The City”? This would be the part where they would cut to Carrie’s laptop screen and we would see the words appear as she types them…)

…What if we think the Administration is lying?

I have heard so many lies from the President and his advisors that if Jesus Christ was Treasury Secretary and Mohammed (PBUH) was Chairman of the Federal Reserve I would have doubts about this proposal.

Back in March, Paulson (who, it turns out, is not a Deity) was telling us that “the worst is behind us”…meaning he either does not really understand what is going on here—or that somebody is trying to blow smoke up some unpleasant places, using Paulson as a sort of economic “General Petraeus” who is intended to divert attention from the real economic Commander-in-Chief.

So can this Administration be trusted to handle this without outside supervision?

“Trust, but verify”, Ronald Reagan used to say, and without outside oversight this proposal should be instantly dead on arrival to the Congress.

This might be the most critical issue surrounding this entire plan…and we must demand Congressional oversight. This is far too big a process for any single individual to manage—and too big for any single branch of Government, as well.

Go watch this satirical slap at Bernanke from a wannabe Bernanke.
It’s hilarious—and revealing.

That issue resolved, some economic education is in order:

What, you may ask, is “mark to market”?

Holders of assets are required, for accounting purposes, to report the value of those assets based on what they are worth at the current time. Normally you do this by seeing what “the market” thinks your asset is worth—something that is fairly easily done if the asset is, for example, your house.

On a larger, corporate scale, this marking to market each accounting period can cause the state of your company’s balance sheet to lurch around and gyrate from time to time—sometimes violently…which is the source of much complaint from corporate interests, but for the most part, it all works out. Recently, it has not.

The challenge in today’s economic environment is to figure out what an asset is worth when no market exists for that asset.

Banks are holding quibzillions © of dollars worth of paper that represent streams of mortgage payments that will continue for years into the future…but some unknown number of those mortgages will not be repaid.

The concerns about what can be repaid (or not) and who is holding how many of these “nonperforming” loans has caused virtually all the normal buyers of these kinds of assets to run away in fear, which is the simplest way to explain the “credit crunch” we hear so much about.

The Paulson proposal is based on you and I buying some portion of those assets, today, from the current holders and reselling the assets later. This will allow banks and other institutions to begin making loans, and will hopefully create the confidence needed to induce investors to again buy “pools” of those loans from those banks…after which, the lending cycle begins anew.

The hoped-for outcome, from the perspective of ordinary mortals such as you and I, is to minimize any losses to the taxpayer…or maybe, if we get lucky, generate a profit.

The hoped for outcome, for the current holders of these assets, is to minimize their loss.

So how do you decide what price the taxpayer will pay for these assets?

Picture, if you will, a $100 US Savings Bond. If you bought that bond today, it would cost you $50, and in 17 years the US Treasury will pay you $100, representing the interest income to you from that loan to the Treasury.

The “hold until original maturity” value of that bond is $100.
The “mark to market” value, if you’re “marking” it the day you bought it, is $50.

If you became convinced the Treasury might not pay back the loan, or all the interest, you might sell the bond for less than the original $50, just to recover something from the deal.

That process will work as long as someone else is willing to believe the bond will be repaid, and is willing to put up enough money on that bet to get you to sell.

If no buyer can be found, your bond’s value becomes either “unknown” or “zero”, your personal assets decline—and maybe, down the line, your credit score is affected by some small amount.

Picture that on a massive, quibzillion © dollar scale, and you can see what is happening in the mortgage market today—and to the investors, all over the world, that hold the debt from our collective mortgages.

When the Treasury prepares to buy a CDO or some other mortgaged-backed security from an investor in the near future, Paulson will have to decide, with no help from any market mechanism, if that paper is worth the “hold to maturity” value, zero, or somewhere in the middle…and he has no way to know if the pool of mortgages he’s buying with our money will be 100% repaid, 0% repaid, or something in between.

This issue will be one of the most contentious parts of the entire deal (and the most ripe for abuse…as it would be very easy indeed to reward friends and punish enemies in a system with no oversight), so watch carefully to see how it plays out.

Hint: when asked about this today, I heard Bernanke answer that he expected the Treasury to pay prices similar to what are seen “…in a more normal market…”.

Another satirical video: “Damn, it feels good to be a Banka”.

What’s a warrant?

It sounds all technical and tricky, but actually it’s not.

Warren Buffet invested $5 billion dollars this morning in Goldman Sachs, and as part of the deal he got the right to purchase up to $5 billion in Goldman Sachs stock, at a time in the future of his choosing, for $115 a share (roughly 43.5 million shares). That right is referred to as a warrant.

At this moment, the stock’s last trade was at $130.48. The difference between $115 and $130 is the current available profit to Buffett if he were to “execute” this warrant right now (which is just over $650 million profit in less than 12 hours)…but it’s not the maximum potential profit executing this warrant might bring.

In November of ’07 Goldman Sachs traded at $250 a share…and if Buffett is able to someday execute the warrant at that “strike price” (fancy technical term) the profit on his 43.5 million available shares would be $5.8 billion.

When we take assets from banks and other investors with depressed stock prices, we as taxpayers need to make the same deal Warren Buffet made—we need to demand warrants, and later, sell that stock back to the market, reducing the cost to the taxpayer over the long term…and maybe even making us actual profit….which could help to repay some national debt, perhaps?

There is precedent here. In the 1980’s the US did a bailout deal with Chrysler that involved issuing warrants…and the profit to the Treasury was substantial.

This is an additional huge part of the deal…and you can bet that there will be investor stockholder groups that will lobby—and lobby hard–to stop us from getting warrants.

We need to demand that we get our cut of the profit our tax dollars create…and to do that we need to get warrants as part of these deals…so bug your Member of Congress loudly and quickly on this one.

So, for the moment, let’s recap:

If the Administration wants to sell this plan they better acknowledge that it isn’t economic ignorance that’s the issue…that, instead, the problem is the basic element of distrust that they previously created by lying about matters of war and peace and Katrina…and if you want any plan at all, this is the issue you need to fix first.

Next, we need confidence that the prices paid for bad assets are not going to be excessive, we need oversight that allows us to be confident this isn’t another typical “reward and punish with taxpayer dollars” operation; and finally, we need to demand warrants, the tool that could make this something that turns the transactions, for a change, to the advantage of the taxpayer.

If we insist on these sorts of protections we have the chance to make this at least a fair deal for the taxpayer—and maybe even a good one. After all, if Warren Buffet can get good terms for a mere $5 billion investment…imagine the negotiating power $700 billion should be able to get us.

Even without the Priceline Negotiator, we should still demand the best deal possible…and if the currently frozen financial services industry doesn’t like that, perhaps they should borrow $700 billion somewhere else.