Partners - Stock market, economic and political commentary by Patricia Chadwick

Archive for February, 2010

Jet Blue – the New Corporate Paradigm

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

It seems that almost everyone likes JetBlue and some people even claim to love the company. As well they should. JetBlue has taken the bad name out of flying and is proof positive that no condition in business is too dire to turn around.

The first sentence of JetBlue’s Customer Bill of Rights (How many companies even have a Customer Bill of Rights?) says it all. “Above all else, JetBlue Airways is dedicated to bringing humanity back to air travel.” What a bold and daring statement for an airline to make.

And to its credit, JetBlue has indeed brought the humanity back to what has become an almost excruciatingly unpleasant experience – the attempt to get from one place to another by air.

Several days ago, as I planned to fly on JetBlue on a short round trip to Florida, I took note of an alert on the company’s website. It was a recommendation that because JetBlue “had just completed transitioning to a new reservation system, wait times and line at the airport might be longer than usual.” They suggested I get to the airport two hours before the flight.

That meant getting to JFK at 6:15am rather than 7:15am. I followed their advice. But I need not have. The system for checking in was efficient and pleasant. It has been designed so that the traveler, increasingly a media/technology savvy individual, can handle everything – from checking in, to putting one’s own luggage on the conveyer, to changing a seat, to deciding if one would like to spend $25 extra to get a bit more leg room. The people who are there to help are friendly and jovial.

Within ten minutes of arriving at the terminal, my luggage was checked and I had completed security clearance. I had plenty of time to get a cup of tea and enjoy the laid-back, almost college campus atmosphere of JetBlue’s giant terminal. Efficient cafeterias offered healthful selections that included organic quinoa and Mediterranean pickles. The choices seemed endless.

Everything about JetBlue is different from all the other airlines, and that’s what makes it so wonderful. The very egalitarianism of its seat configuration makes for an ambience of camaraderie. No cordoned off section called First Class where drinks are free and food is served. On JetBlue’s airplanes, entertainment is the substitute for differentiated classes and differentiated treatment. And everyone loves entertainment.

Yesterday, on my return flight to JFK, I watched curling at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Stephen Colbert doing his Vancouverage, Wolf Blitzer on CNN and Bill O’Reilly on Fox. All in the space of two hours and it was live. By the time I landed, I was relaxed and entertained. Admittedly, my book, Game Change, lay unread on my lap.

The flight attendants on JetBlue flights are not only friendly, they are comedians in training or better. Each one of them brings his or her own sense of humor to their communication, from telling jokes to suggesting that someone come and take over their position because they would prefer to stay in Florida and not head into what will be another giant snowstorm in New York.

Okay, there are a few inconveniences. The seats don’t go back very far which makes the normally compulsory nap a bit less enjoyable, but watching Stephen Colbert kept me from getting remotely sleepy.

I am sure that there are plenty of people who have a complaint or two or even more about JetBlue, and yes, I can admit to some long delays when I wanted to speak to an agent because of weather problems. And there are probably many who will never forget the harrowing experience of 2007 when over 1000 JetBlue flights had to be cancelled because of a snowstorm. That event itself would have killed a lesser company. But it didn’t kill JetBlue. The company learned from its mistake and has grown and today a still growing transcontinental success story.

Good companies are not created out of thin air. They are built by individuals – people with a vision and with leadership. The top management at JetBlue has changed since its inception in 2000, but what each new CEO has done is continue to foster through the company’s employees the culture of ‘bringing humanity back to air travel.”

Thank you, JetBlue.

p.s. In the interest of full disclosure, I have never met any one of the management of JetBlue nor have I every owned the stock of the company.

p.p.s. Isn’t this the kind of company that Warren Buffet should love?

The Nuclear Option is Here for Real – Thank You, Mr. Obama

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

President Obama’s support of nuclear power generation in the U.S. should be welcome news not only to the utility industry but to the nation as a whole. Despite its carbon free emissions, nuclear energy has been a dirty term for the last thirty years, since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

Hopefully President Obama will be able to break that spell. In his State of the Union message less than a month ago, he spoke of the need to build “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country”.

And the President has backed up that proclamation with the announcement yesterday of $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for Southern Company’s two new nuclear reactors. That action was key because the capital needed up front to build new nuclear power plants in this country has become so prohibitive that without Federal loan guarantees, there would be little incentive for the private sector to take the risk.

Thank you, Mr. Obama for lending credibility to your stated support for clean nuclear power generation.

But ultimately, the nuclear power industry will need to be able to produce and deliver nuclear energy without Government support. That should happen if enough plants are approved to create a viable vendor industry – supplying turbines, reactor parts, pumps, generators and on and on. I believe that can happen.

Let’s remember also that in a nuclear power plant, the upfront capital costs relative to the operating costs are far higher than in a coal fired plant. So once a nuclear plant is up and running, the marginal costs are small and very predictable.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I sit on the board of a publicly held utility company which does not own any nuclear facilities.

To quote Lewis Carroll (or perhaps the Walrus), “The time has come… To talk of many things.” It appears that finally after a hiatus of more than thirty years, we are able again to talk of nuclear energy.

For those who fear another Three Mile Island or worse, another Chernobyl, it may help to look to France as an example of a country that embraced nuclear power as the solution to the energy crisis way back in 1973 after the first oil crisis. Today nearly 80% of the country’s electricity is generated from its 59 nuclear plants and they continue to build new plants. And rather than being reliant on foreign oil, the country exports nearly 20% of its electric generation.

The French have addressed the issue of nuclear waste by recycling. They create new fuel rods from unused uranium, thus greatly extending the life of the rods and ultimately generating far less waste.

For thirty years, nuclear energy has been the ‘third rail’ of the utility industry – basically untouchable. It was one of those issues that was so fraught with emotion that Washington didn’t want to go near it. Democrats, in particular, railed against it, while Republicans gave it lip service.

Today President Obama has dared to touch that third rail. That is leadership and he is to be congratulated. Years from now, the American public will look back on his leadership in this matter and be grateful.

JOBS, JOBS – Will They Ever Come Back?

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Yes and No!! That’s the honest truth and that’s the way it’s been throughout history in an innovative and vibrant economy like ours in the U.S. Some jobs constantly disappear while new ones are being created. Unfortunately, the job destruction part often comes harder and faster than the job creation part.

Just a decade ago, we experienced the Dot.com bust in this country. The “new” economic paradigm came crashing down and the “old” economy survived despite its foretold demise. The bloated workforce dedicated to an industry that seemed to go from infancy to adulthood in the span of less than five years, found itself decimated. Those Dot.com jobs have not been restored. But the technology that spurred the meteoric rise of the Dot.com industry did not die. And steadily over this last decade, continued advances in the area of telecommunications have spawned innumerable jobs in our economy.

A decade before that, we experienced the S&L crisis, where a large number of savings and loan organizations met their untimely demise through their own mismanagement. That was just as their future seemed glorious in the aftermath of the industry’s deregulation by Congress. The housing industry came to its knees. But it did not die; slowly and steadily, after the bloated inventory of second and third homes became absorbed into the economy, housing once again became a vibrant industry.

And only ten years before that, we lived through the rise and fall of the energy industry. With oil prices hitting $40 per barrel in 1980, (that was the equivalent of over $100 today) workers in the northern states were leaving “the rust belt” as the manufacturing heartland of this country was dubbed, to head for the “gold” in the oil fields of Texas. The migration was huge, raising real estate prices in the Southwest and decimating them in Michigan, as auto workers became oilfield workers. And then hardly a year after the peak in prices, it all ended. The price of oil came crashing down and oilfield millionaires turned into oilfield bankrupts. Homeowners abandoned their mortgaged houses and the State of Texas was the least exciting place to live.

This go round is really no different in its nature. An industry, in this case the banking/mortgage industry, brought about its own destruction. By using borrowed money with abandon in order to grow, by encouraging its customers to pile on debt and by lowering its own standards for lending, the banking industry sowed the seeds of its current crisis. Now, as the industry shrinks from its bloated size, it is shedding employees that were needed only when it was overweight. A trimmer industry will emerge and some people will be hired back, but not to the levels of just two years ago.

But fear not, the spirit is willing even if the flesh is weak. That entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the U.S. New industries will arise and they will create new jobs – green jobs, telecommunications jobs, jobs in industries without a name as of yet. It will take time and that is the frustrating part. And a decade from now, a new economic crisis will raise its ugly head to prove yet again that trees do not grow to the sky.

Patricia on Market Outlook

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Don’t Rob Peter to Pay Paul!!

Friday, February 5th, 2010

It is good to see that the President has bipartisan support for the budget proposal to give tax incentives to small companies in this country.

Over half of the workforce in this country is employed by small companies and most of the job creation comes from small and new companies. Tax relief such as recommended in the bill, will help in spurring private sector growth and pulling the economy out of the recession.

However, if simultaneously, the Government turns around and raises income taxes on individuals or corporations, the overall economic benefit will be non-existent.

The Federal Government cannot endlessly pour money into the economy to create new jobs. Sooner or later it must let the private sector take over. As the Federal support is withdrawn, the private sector needs to be given incentives to take risks and make investments. Raising income taxes will have exactly the opposite effect.

During the late 1990s, when the Federal Budget went from deficit to surplus, it was after President Clinton had cut the capital gains tax. What ensued was a strong wave of capital investment and corporate profits growth both of which generated huge incremental tax revenues – both income and capital gains – for the Federal Government.

Admittedly, the deficit turned surplus of the 1990s was augmented by the sharp cut in defense spending by the Federal Government, not an option on the table today. However, despite the vocal concerns of many pundits, primarily on the far right, the level of the U. S. Government debt and even the very high current budget deficits, should not necessarily doom us to third world status.

What we need in this country is private sector growth, not Federal Government loans injected into the economy. The Federal Government should do all that it can to augment and support the private sector, so that it can remove itself as the agent of stimulus. Only then will hiring commence and personal income start to grow.