Cut Out The Middleman If You Dare

We are living during an economic revolution wherein the “middleman” is being eliminated. In most cases this is good news. If you need a cab you now call Uber where both the driver and the passenger benefit. Cab companies no longer have a monopoly on who can drive and, most importantly, who can obtain a license (medallion) to do so. Uber opened the industry to millions of people who wanted to drive a cab and earn some money on the side but for whom obtaining a license was cost prohibitive and oftentimes a political impossibility.

Airbnb is another example of a company that has so benefited. Historically, if you needed a place to stay in a town you were unfamiliar with you had to go through a hotel booking site. No longer. Airbnb opened that market by allowing homeowners to rent out rooms and, in many cases, their whole house.

There are many other such examples but its not always the case.

Within the field of institutional finance it has been a disaster. Investment banks use to act as the middleman when it came to clearing transactions; but, with the advent of Dodd-Frank and the elimination of investment banks, there are no middlemen to clear trades. Nowhere is this more disastrous than in the bond market.

In life, the things we know are dwarfed by the things we don’t.  The bond market is boring to most people as they feel it has little consequence in their lives. In fact, the bond market greatly affects all of our lives. In 2008, it was the collapse of bond market that almost precipitated the entire destruction of our financial system. Therefore, its safe to say the bond market is something we should definitely try to understand.

Let’s do a basic primer.

The bond market is really the main determinate of what sets the rate for money.  Any time you need to buy a car, a house or apply for a credit card, the rate that applies is determined by current bond market rates. Thus the speed, quality and efficiency of the bond market affects all consumers in a variety of economic activities.

Prior to the bond market collapse of 2007-2008, investment banks would act as an intermediary for all bond transactions. When the market was selling off, bond traders at investment banks would come in and buy the bonds and act as a stabilizing effect on the markets. They did so because the market would reward them for assuming this risk.

However, after the collapse of 2008, investment banks ceased to exist, They were transformed into commercial banks. Under regulatory oversight and applicable law, commercial banks can’t use depositors’ monies for speculative purposes. In addition, the banks were further prohibited from taking speculative positions and could only transact when they had an available buyer and available seller on the other side.

Since these changes have been implemented, very little secondary trading takes place. Mutual funds and pension funds now know that when they buy a bond there is a good chance they will have to hold that instrument until maturity. They know it will be very hard to sell their bond holdings. These investment funds have very little turnover in their portfolios and are assuming greater and greater risk as a result.

Currently, with low volatility and low yields, nobody seems to be worried too much about this problem; but, crisis always hits the financial markets and what’s ahead will be no different. Although there has not been a financial crisis since 2008,  during the previous ten years there were four major shocks to the system: dot com bust in 2000; the Russian crisis in 1998; Long Term Capital bust in 1998, and the Asian crisis in 1997. The fact is: booms and busts are part of, and natural to, the credit cycle.

We have already seen a glimpse of what is to come with the collapse of the Third Avenue Focused Credit Fund in 2015. Given the problems the fund endured, it had to unwind. However, it took over two years to get the investors their money back. Why? Because the investors were trapped. There were no ready and willing buyers to buy those distressed assets. The fund was not huge. It had about five billion in assets. Imagine the problems that will come when a much larger funds needs to be liquidated. Now think about those investors who could not get their money out and had to raise liquidity to meet their own obligations in other ways.

What happens when you cut out the middleman out of the bond market is that panic ensues.

Here in the U.S., we have been quick to embrace many of the new technologies that eliminated the need for a middleman. But let’s be clear. Investment banks did very well for years clearing bond trades. Now that mechanism no longer exists. We are entering uncharted territory and this lack of a middleman should worry us all. What happens when a large pension fund is forced to sell off some of its assets and isn’t able to meet its redemption needs?  Are we going to tell the retirees to wait two years for their liquidity?

The technocrats point to Uber and Airbnb as companies that have benefited us all by cutting out the middleman. But, uh oh!, very few if any of these companies are making any money. The bet on these companies is that one day they will make money. Even titans like Amazon, Netflix and Tesla have struggled to make money because they have had to spend a fortune on growth. Such companies could only exist in an environment like the current one… where the financial markets are so distorted they can borrow unlimited amounts of money to fuel their growth.

Before the markets become rational again, and they will, there will be blood on the streets. Then, once again, markets will reward companies that make money and punish those that don’t. This is the way it has always been during rational times. We will again see the value of companies based upon the merits of their ideas and the profits those ideas generate. We will even see the error of government regulators in taking away the role of investment banks to naturally provide liquidity in the financial markets. Until then, buckle up.


Catch-22 and Freedom

When I told him I didn’t like Obama’s policies he replied, “Well Bush was a terrible president!”… to which I agreed. He looked at me dumbfounded.  It seems I had taken the wind out of his sails. You see, it is much easier to attack somebody’s candidate than actually defend your party’s own positions.


Political discussions are always fascinating because, in a two party system, people naturally assume that if you are against a certain politician then you are for the other side.  Instead of defending Obama’s policies, my friend decided to attack “my candidate”. The fact is I did vote for Bush, but I have no allegiance to him.  He was a public servant and it was his job to serve the public’s needs. I that regard I believe he failed. Just because I voted for him does not mean I am forever obliged to defend his policies.

People on both sides of the political spectrum are always trying to figure out who’s on their “friends and enemies” list so they know who is owed when payment is due. My political friends and enemies list is entirely based on who gives me more freedom. Joseph Hellers famous satirical book Catch-22, which centers around American aviators during World War II. The pilots come to the conclusion that anybody who shoots at them is the enemy.  Since their superiors send them out on missions to get shot at, their Commanding Officers should be treated as the enemy as well. Hence, the aviators always feel that they are surrounded by enemies.

I have the same attitude towards politicians. Anybody who restricts my freedoms is an enemy regardless of political affiliation. The sad fact is that both political parties have morphed into one general party, Progressives, with each infringing more and more upon our individual freedoms.

Republicans tend to have better policies for business. However, over the years that has morphed into the party that promotes corporate welfare. Corporate welfare tends to empower large companies and hurt small business owners.  On the other side of the aisle, Democrats have policies that tend to favor workers but these polices add undue costs to business owners and, ironically, end up hurting job seekers.

I now find myself like a character in Catch-22 where both parties have become my enemy!

New advances in technology have reshaped the discussion over governance. Changes have come so rapidly that it has left both parties perplexed as to how they are to position themselves. Technology has reshaped the debate about the future of freedom. Ironically, many techies align themselves with the political Left but are starting companies that are disrupting industries beholden to the Left’s principals.

In Austin TX where I live, the two ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft left the city after city council imposed new restrictions on them. In a nutshell, regulators wanted to add new regulations upon their drivers that both companies felt were too onerous. Once passed, both companies summarily closed their doors and ceased operations within the city.

The beneficiaries of these new regulations were the existing taxi companies and the unionized workforce. The taxi companies in Austin pay the city $400 a year per taxi. The companies then lease the permits to the drivers for $250 to $295 a week. For Yellow Cab, which controls more than 60 percent of the market, that works out to nearly $6.8 million a year in revenue from permits alone. By having Uber and Lyft leave, the city guaranteed the future cash flow of these medallions (taxi licenses) and guaranteed the current profitability of these three companies. The other beneficiaries were the unionized taxi drivers who no longer have to compete with the part-time Uber and Lyft drivers

With Uber and Lyft now gone from Austin, Austinites have less options for getting around town. Uber and Lyft created thousand of jobs for workers, increased the tax base for the city and provided safer driving conditions for all concerned. In addition, ride sharing in Austin decreased DUI’s by 23%!

Upon reflection,  I could see why the measure to keep Uber and Lyft operating in Austin failed. Uber and Lyft represent freedom for the individual which, as a voting block, is not well organized. The taxi companies had a natural ally in the Republican party defending their rights, while the unionized drivers had a natural ally on the Democratic side of the aisle. It is through this process, and the abilities of both political parties to get their people out to vote, that doomed Uber and Lyft. Individualist and Libertarians, by nature, do not coalesce around groups and get out to vote as a block. Because of this, those companies are no longer here.

Until we truly get a party that represents freedom, expect more and more of it to be taken away.


NOTE: Steve and I write our posts separately and rarely discuss them until they are done. So, the irony of this post followed by mine below should not be lost on anyone! Steve’s reason for why Uber and Lyft lost out in Austin, “Individualist and Libertarians, by nature, do not coalesce around groups and get out to vote as a block”  is exactly what I conclude we need to do in 2016 to get choices other than Clinton or Trump.  Please read both posts…Steve’s them mine below.

Break The Rules

The world has changed and the lawmakers and regulators are having a hard time keeping up.

A few months ago, the creator of the underground website Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison for creating an online space that allowed people to use bitcoins, a cryptocurrency, to buy and sell things anonymously. Some used Silk Road to buy and sell  legal,  as well as illegal, drugs.  Since people do this anyway in the physical world, with or without Silk Road the drug trade marches on.

Break Rules

Ulbricht’s aim in creating Silk Road was to establish a marketplace free of government interference. He believed that some of the methods used by the government to regulate commerce are a form of coercion and aggression.

If you disagree and think the government is not heavy-handed, check out these examples:

  • Don’t pay your taxes, you will end up in jail. (see Wesley Snipes)
  • Don’t pay your property taxes and your house can be purchased by tax lien buyers. In most states, tax liens are senior to mortgage notes. What this law is telling you is that the government’s claim come first.
  • Don’t want to bake a cake for a gay wedding – watch your business get shut down. (Gay Baker Story)

We have been taught that the nation that we live in the freest nation in the world. But, try not paying your taxes and see what happens to you. Or take the example of  The Branch Davidians, who were massacred by the police, resulting in the death of 76 people, for not letting the Federal authorities enter their compound. Many of those killed were innocent women and children.

Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, and procuring murder although the murder charge was later dropped. He claimed he just wanted to let other people engage in peaceful transactions absent the government’s increasing encroachment and force by way of regulation, law, and police actions. Consequently, there is a real need for the entrepreneurs of today to break the government stranglehold of business and create new means for people to determine how they want to work and live.

Take the many issues Uber has had to deal with. For the uninitiated in the transportation world, most cities have a Taxi and Limousine Commission that regulateS the drivers, the cars, the hours they work, the areas that people can be picked up in as well as the rates that can be charged. It’s a lot of laws for a fairly simple transaction! One party needs a ride and the other wants to provide it.

But this is where politics enters the game. All of these laws, rules and regulations add up to lots of fees, tickets and massive revenue for the cities. In addition, given the plethora of regulations, this keeps the flow coming into the cash trough for political donations.  And also realize that given the amount of employees in the transportation industry, it is much easier to organize and coalesce a large block of these voters (union employees) rather than independent entrepreneurs providing the same services.

Currently, regulators are having a hard time deciding which rules apply to Uber and which don’t. Part of the issues is that Uber is really just a platform that connects drivers with people who need a lift. So in every city Uber has tried to enter the marketplace, they have encountered brutal resistance from the political class. The good news is that the politicians have had a hard time stopping Uber due to the enormous popularity with its users and fear they will experience even greater backlash from the voters if they don’t allow Uber’s operation.

Or take the case of Free Ride, whose shuttle service offers exactly that — free rides in New York State, Florida, San Diego, etc., made possible by the low operating cost of the company’s small electric buses and paid for by local businesses advertising on the vehicles. The Free Ride idea seems simple. Like all good ideas, in retrospect it’s hard to believe no one else was doing it. The model now exists where commuters can travel for free. Imagine the backlash that is going to come from all the bus companies and the people they employ!

All of these changes, and the rapidity at which they are occurring,  has the government worried. We are forging ahead with a new communities and, hopefully, a society unfettered by the rules of government. In every area, the technological age is transforming our lives right before our eyes. Actors no longer need the gatekeepers of Hollywood as they can now upload their talents directly to YouTube; authors self-publish via CreateSpace. Need a hotel?  Skip the hassle and get a room via Airbnb and so on.

The overall reality remains that every aspect of our lives is still ruled by the government, with its control implemented and maintained by way of police, courts, jails and weapons (both civil and military). For now, the consequence can still be dire. So caution is the word of the day as you can yet end up on the wrong side of the political class. One need to look no further than the founders of Silk Road to see how badly, in fact, it can end.

Caution. Yes. But optimism for the future.


We Are All Uber Drivers

I grew up in NYC. I took cabs my whole life.

uberI started taking cabs when I was 9 years old because it was too late, and dangerous, to take the subway home. Those taxi rides were always exciting as the drivers reminded me of modern day pirates. They were always colorful, crazy and almost always immigrants. Taxi drivers seemed a strange species of human that inhabited New York City whose lives I found fascinating. What a cool job…driving around the city, picking up all of these eclectic people! I was secretly jealous when a high school acquaintance of mine became a taxi driver and worked for years driving around “Gotham.”

It was never easy to become a taxi driver in N.Y.C. Getting a livery license was cumbersome and expensive. Driving a cab also had its hurdles to be scaled. You  had to “rent” the cab for at least 12 hours at an exorbitant rate. If you wanted to own your own vehicle, you had to buy a taxi medallion and they could run close to a million dollars.

If you did rent a taxi for the day, you had to hustle during those 12 hours and work non-stop to make money. Given the hassles associated with driving a cab, most people otherwise inclined to do so opted out. In addition, there was a bit of a stigma to driving a cab as most New Yorkers looked down on cab drivers.

Uber dispelled that notion. Given the chance to drive a taxi, New Yorkers (and many all across the country) flocked to Uber to become drivers. What happened? Uber removed the road blocks, hurdles and stigma that had previously been deterrents. Uber dispelled the notion that people didn’t want to work doing “menial work” as many politicians claim in the immigration debate. The genius of Uber is that it tapped into a hungry part-time work force and into the reservoir of cars that were not being used.

With Uber:

  • You are your own boss. You decide how much you make. You are an entrepreneur and some “Uberpreneurs” make over $250,000 per year.
  • Easy Application. The application is simple and straight forward. After a background check is done, you are on your way.
  • No taxi license required. The state used to control the amount of taxi drivers that were on the road and collected fees for licensing. With Uber , drivers by pass this whole process.
  • Flexibility. An Uber driver can work as often, or as little, as they want. The phone/application can be turned on at any time to work and turned off just as easily. Thus, the driver creates her or his own schedule on the fly.
  • Meeting new people. I have been very impressed by Uber drivers as they seem like really intelligent and nice people. In addition, their cars are always clean.

Uber has many critics precisely because it has exposed many of the fallacies of both the taxi industry and governmental bureaucracies.

Here in Austin, I have seen advertisements where the ads warn riders of getting into a Uber car because…” you have no idea who your driver might be. He might be a criminal a rapist or even worse.” But underlying that argument is that insidious intention to perpetuate the fallacy that anything not sanctioned by the state is dangerous.

What the ad is not saying, but implying, is that by driving with a licensed taxi company the government is guaranteeing your safety. However, its an implication they cannot warrant. Simply put, the state hates people making decisions on their own without governmental approval and, more importantly, thereby precluding the state from collecting the fees that go with licensing.

Uber drivers are rated. The customer rates the driver as well as all future customers. They rate and comment. So when you get into any Uber taxi you have a reasonably good idea of who your driver is. Not so with state licensed taxi drivers where all your given is the drivers name and license number. The rider has no other way to evaluate the driver, her or his disposition, or the overall ride about to be had.

I believe the Uber revolution is here to stay . In the early 90’s, Ebay and its users made a fortune by extracting value from unused items in their homes. Uber is doing the same thing… by tapping into the workforce of people who want to make extra money as well as tapping into all those vehicles that would otherwise sit idle. Its a necessary use for human capital and an efficient use of vehicles.

Companies in the future that can tap into unused supply and allow people to work directly with each other, operating outside our Leviathin government, will be the ones to grow and prosper. And the people who take ownership of their careers and learn how to make income in a variety of ways will be the ones that move ahead.

For more information on how to become a Uber driver click here: