Monday, April 09, 2012

The Right Kind of Howler

So, inspired by the return of the Mig and his, er, fresh new venture called Gripper, I've decided to eject a post that's been bouncing around my cranium a few months now.

Despite, or perhaps because of, not living in a city any more, I spend a large portion of my otherwise inert disposable income on new vinyl records. Middle aged physical media fetishists are, after all, the record industry's Last Marks. And given I'm too old to be getting drunk in the many and varied central business districts I still visit on the course of my travels, I now tend to spend any spare hours visiting random record shops.

The cash outlay is about the same, and since I'm visiting these locations using public transport rather than taxis I usually just about end up ahead. Unless I'm really bored and in Asia and visit the electronics bazaars instead. Singapore's Funan mall has the world's slowest pizza hut, Hong Kong's Apliu has a dedicated valve amplifier stretch, and Bongkok's Pantip Plaza is brutally hard to get to using the elevated metro. All of these electronics temples are easier on the wallet, and probably, whatever Mike Daisey has said, easier on the conscience, than sex tourism.

Should you require death metal vinyl in Singapore, may I recommend Hell's Labyrinth, and should you be in need of sludge metal in Berlin, may I recommend Bis Aufs Messer (though BAM loses points for not, apparently, knowing where to get a coffee anywhere in Friedrichshain).

But my favourite random record shop experience so far has been at Vinyl Grove in the Hague. I'd been on a business trip across the Netherlands that would have been described as epic if only the Netherlands was a bit larger. As things stood, and thanks to some rather lax planning, I'd been zigzagging across the country by train rather than clustering meetings by town. I was, truth be told, knackered. Before heading over to the Denneweg for a moderately expensive, and moderately satisfying, dinner, I stopped by Vinyl Grove for a browse.

The owner was awesomely fun to chat to, though somewhat sceptical when I urged to him to play Thou's "Summit", while casual visitors browsed his shelves. He even gave me a beer, which therefore meant I was obliged to buy some of his stuff. I bought two albums released on Small stone records, mostly because the owner distributes the label in Europe. Lo Pan's "Salvador" is just a little too sleek for my tastes, but Acid King's "Early Years" is just magnificent.

The last purchase that evening was an impulse buy. Based mostly on the cover, and with the store owner's admonishment for me to not let it put me off at first, I bought This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. And it's this album I'd like to talk about today, because it's deeply misunderstood. The main reason it's misunderstood is that Howlin' Wolf disowned it. Not definitively, in the sense that he refused the royalty cheques (not that it sold massively, mind), or even refused any meretricious follow-ups (I'm looking at you, The London Sessions).

The album's backstory and frontstory are both rather fraught and complicated, and clouded by the racial politics surrounding the popularisation of the blues. Chess Records Scion Marshall Chess had a small hit with Muddy Waters' "Electric Mud" album, and decided to record an album with a similarly "psychedelic" slant with Howlin' Wolf. "Psychedelic" is one of the least helpful terms in all of music, as you'd expect from a genre that in its earliest iterations consisted of amped up blues rock. Having not listed to "Electric Mud" I can't speak for its degree of psychedelicity, but I've finally decided that "This Is…" is not a psychedelic album.

This is important, because you then need to approach the politics of the album differently. It would be easy to say that Marshall Chess foisted a bunch of white kid-friendly longhairs on Howlin' Wolf, and told him to put up while they wanked all over his musical legacy. There's a problem with this version of events even if you do ignore the psychedelic tag. As Wolf subsequently pointed out, and what made the record's sub-headline "He Didn't Like His Electric Guitar At First Either" particularly unfair, Wolf had been pretty comfortable with the use of electric guitars, though he did apparently tell a session guitarist on the album, Pete Cosey: "Why don't you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it off in the lake — on your way to the barber shop?"

No, if you want to make an album a prime example of white entertainment executives desecrating black culture in search of record sales, you'll need to look elsewhere. Maybe "London Sessions". In fact, be horribly mean to it anyway, on principle. But "This Is…" is best understood as a funk album. I say this partly because Cosey ended up being central to Miles Davis' equally-maligned funk albums, and Julian Cope will explain why these albums are also very important. But I say it mostly because much of the album is VERY fruggable. Go on, play it next to James Brown's "The Payback" and see what I mean.

Marshall Chess did two things to make sure that his version of events of the run in with Wolf ended up being part of posterity. The first was to become executive music producer of the semi-fictionalised story of Chess, Cadillac Records, which doesn't cover l'affaire "This Is…", but does make sure that Howlin' Wolf is portrayed as a whip-smart commercially-minded auteur, in other words not the sort of guy, even in comparatively advanced years, to be anyone's stooge. The second was to bring together some rappers to record some blues covers. Chuck D's on record as saying he's a big fan. In this light, the real story of "This Is…" is not white-black artistic conflict but conflict between two different generations of black music.

The theory isn't perfect. The album has plenty of heavy metal fans. Soundgarden covered "Smokestack Lightning" as it appears on "This Is…", not that Allmusic worked this out (Allmusic doesn't get this on a couple of levels. It rates "This Is…" very poorly, without venturing any reasons). I don't think any simplistic analysis of the cast of the record, or even of Wolf's intentions, would help prove this theory of mine. I'm not even sure I should even be discussing the record in terms of race (call this post-Derbyshire caution.

The final problem with trying to reclaim "This Is…" is that the history of the blues has ended up in the hands of rich old white men. These cultural gate-keepers are as easily embarrassed by accusations of a lack of authenticity as the artists that exploited the blues. The sound of the album is close enough to the pop music that blues purists reject to make it very easy to throw the record under the bus.

The problem, then, is with the context, not the record. So here's why I like it: It annoys so many people that I'm prepared to overlook the fact is also seems to have annoyed its creator.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

M180 Boogie

It's been a little over a year since I last updated this blog, and the only activity that anyone would have noticed has been the occasional squeal from the bottom of the Ambit Energy pyramid. There have been a few reasons for this. The Atlantic Yards saga moved into phase about which I could not ethically comment, and then beyond that I had much less to contribute anyway. I stand in awe that Mr. Oder is still on fire.

Once I acquired offspring I stopped going out much, and the few gigs I went to could be reviewed just as economically on twitter. Under my real name. Despite the fact at least four or five very fun bars and restaurants opened up near me, I didn't really have the enthusiasm to review any of them (For what it's worth, here's my take on Fornino Park Slope: "Please end your quixotic grilled pizza crusade. La Villa can't be paying you that much to eschew tasty Neapolitan crusts.")

In any case. I've moved. To hereabouts. And will have to stop being accustomed to instant, plentiful stimulation. Books will be read. Records will be savoured, just as soon as the next consignment from All That Is Heavy arrives. This is an area that doesn't do renewal, or gentrification, or any real estate greed at all really. If you would like to build an arena there, I'm sure you could find the space pretty easily, and you wouldn't excite much resentment, so long as you left the mighty Iron be.

It might make a good subject for a blog, though I will probably need to settle a lot longer before I put pixel to screen. I'd sound a little too condescending or wistful for now. Or alternatively, I could set up a pirate radio station - blasting the latest rock sounds I'd picked up on the East Coast to the hungry natives. "It's been done", you say? There's the internet, you say? Don't you have automobiles, washing machines, modems and other symbols of a sick society to procure? True. All true.

Anyhow, Gothamist is gone from my RSS feed. At some point No Land Grab will be too. I'll be left with a grab bag of doom metal and finance feeds, and my perspective on life will be the poorer for it. Or I'll get heavily into animal-raising or furniture restoration.

A few weeks before I left I went on a lone bar crawl of the five boroughs. Before you criticise me for embarking on what was essentially a day-long, transit-heavy schlep with fairly minimal boozing beyond that contractually required to visit an open-air drinking establishment in each borough, you need to realise that it was a day-long, transit-heavy schlep with fairly minimal boozing beyond that contractually required to visit an open-air drinking establishment in each borough. I don't think I have any friends that like to spend three hours on the Lexington line, or an hour on the G train replacement bus.

But the bars weren't really the point. The idea was to get a half-decent cross section of the New York I was leaving behind. I don't think I really went through it like rock. I always erred on the side of the picturesque. From the walk through Pelham Bay Park from the 6 train to the Reef Fish Bar on City Island, through to the cheeky pint at Stone Street's Ulysses on Manhattan, then via the Staten Island Ferry to the World-flattening Killmeyers, I took my fill of the view from sundry buses, subways and ferries.

From there it was pretty much all downhill. The nearest bar I could find to the S79 bus stop was so bad I decided that I would have to tack on another Brooklyn bar to the end of my trip, and the R train and G train were tantrumming so badly I took a good couple of hours to make it to the Bohemian-Beer-Garden-goes-Disney called Studio Square. I finished at Mission Dolores, one of those places I'd have called a local four years ago, but it didn't feel right. Too many youngsters.

When it comes down to it, there's only ever been one bar I felt truly comfortable walking into on my own, or somewhat inebriated, or both, and that was Freddy's (The link has automatic sound. But Freddy's can do what the hell it likes, K?). When I started work on this post late last year (gives you an idea of where blogging stands in my list of priorities right now), Freddy's did not exist in any form.

Since then, not only has it opened up in a new location in Sunset Park/South Slope/Greenwood Heights, but I've been back to New York and had a chance to visit. And it's wonderful. Even at 3am in the morning and not that busy. It was nice to hear the staff talk about how they were going to bed down in the community, and grapple with what to do when there's not a built-in fan-base of starry-eyed hipsters nearby. All of these issues are important, and it's not often that a bar's management has to sit down and think about its role in quite such an abstract fashion. In any case, I wish them well.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New York Times Plays Nuclear Gotcha. Badly

Time to reacquaint myself with the mysteries of blogging, and there's no better way to do that than by jumping down the throat of the New York Times, which just lost a finance writer under unpleasant circumstances (Email me, guys, my rewrite skillz are unstoppable. And untraceable).

Behold, the New York Times, on the new nuclear loan guarantees. Southern Company, the utility that Boss Hog from the Dukes of Hazzard would be if he was a utility (See Greg Palast here), has received a guarantee for $3.4 billion in financing for two new nuclear units. For some reason, the Times has managed to inflate that figure to $8.3 billion, maybe by including both potential interest and principal payments, even though Southern is quite clear (pdf) on the number.

But the reporter's most conspicuous boo-boo is right here:

The new aid for the nuclear power industry serves many of the Obama administration’s objectives, helping broaden support for its energy policy proposals, which face obstacles in Congress; helping control emissions of greenhouse gases; and to some extent bolstering employment and domestic energy production.

Mr. Obama said, “Make no mistake: whether it is nuclear energy, or solar or wind energy, if we fail to invest in these technologies today, we’ll be importing them tomorrow.”

But these reactors were designed by Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba, and many major components will be fabricated abroad. And nuclear power is of limited use in offsetting oil imports.

This is, to say the least, rather unfair. I've been very critical in the past of politicians conflating the debate about how the US generates its electricity with that about where it gets it oil from, since so little of the US generating fleet runs on oil. But Obama didn't say that. Obama, notes the reporter, wants to bolster domestic energy production, without specifying what kind of energy production it wants to bolster. He then notes that Obama says "if we fail to invest in these technologies today, we’ll be importing them tomorrow.

Our reporter took one look at the word "import" and thought he would like to take the president down a peg. He notes, correctly, though huffily, that "nuclear power is of limited use in offsetting oil imports," though he could have said the same about any source of fuel for generating capacity. But Obama was talking about importing technologies, not hydrocarbons. I'm not one for squealing about moments of laisse majeste (as I never tired of saying yesterday, I wasn't allowed to vote for the bugger), but this is weak fuel for a hail of peanuts.

UPDATE: The article has been revised with the gotcha nonsense removed. Fortunately, the reporter has added a new bit of nonsense for me to pounce upon. This time, he's positing the notion that "banks", by which one assumes he means commercial lenders, will be funding the loans guaranteed by the Federal government. WRONG! Lending money to a project with the full faith and credit of the federal government is just not profitable. One can simply buy government debt to earn pretty much the same return with fewer headaches. Soooo, as again the Southern press release makes clear, the actual money for the loan will come from the government-owned Federal Financing Bank. Since the government is taking on the credit risk, it might as well front the cash itself.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

You *Genius* Onexim

The country whose corporate finance market gave us the Aluminium Wars vomits forth a hunk of ill-informed conjecture on the Nets stadium financing so wacked-out I just have to say "bravo"! I'm almost envious.

Via nolandgrab, we hear that, like some low-rent London estate agent, the Atlantic Yards stadium finance coterie is hoping that mentioning a wealthy Russian in the same sentence will make their stinky Pimlico maisonette of a stadium financing look more appealing.

Mikhail Prokhorov, a nickel magnate, is apparently interested in a Nets bailout, though his recently-founded Onexim Group, whose website lists no financial information, and whose press release page is dominated by news of legal actions. I note, as nolandgrab notes, that his name often seems to be waved around near flailing sports franchises, and why the man wouldn't buy an equally crap team with a better balance sheet is beyond me.

I'm not even going to even start speculating about how this fantasy wormed its way into the cranium of Reuters' ace Moscow reporting duo. One can read, in this profile of the estimable finance blogger Felix Salmon, that Reuters, since its acquisition by Thomson, has regained some of its mojo of late.

Could be so, and its capital markets coverage has been much more prominent on the web the last few months. Its municipal finance coverage, however, has suffered from Thomson's disposal of the Bond Buyer some months before the Reuters purchase.

When one reads the following it's fairly apparent that there's no-one inside the Reuters brain trust to talk to any more about municipal finance:

Prokhorov is considering issuing a bond worth $700 million through Onexim to help fund the project, one source close to the deal said. The source said the bond must be issued before the end of 2009 so it is exempt from government taxes, adding: "This is a pure business story. The value potential of the club and arena are very high."

That said, any reporter that will allow the gibberish that is that final quote to make it into their story may have more immediate parts of their reporting toolbox in need of an upgrade.

But back to the first sentence. "Through" is the wrong preposition, pure and simple. The bonds would be issued through the Brooklyn Area Local Development Corporation as part of the hastily-approved corporate welfare package put together by the city and state for Atlantic Yards. The bonds can't be tax-exempt if they're issued by Onexim. I thought briefly that Onexim might borrow the money on a taxable basis and lend it on to the project, but that isn't what the article suggests in the sentence after.

So let's assume the Reuters guys aren't too hot at verbs or prepositions. Could they mean that Prokhorov is buying the bonds through Onexim? It would mean that Prokorov might decline to demand a prepayment penalty on the bonds, although I doubt that he would be able to avail himself of most municipal bond interest breaks, since he's not presumably paying much in the way of US tax.

He is far from the most suitable buyer for a tax-exempt bond, unless the arena bonds are Build America Bonds, where the tax subsidies are paid direct to the issuer, but I don't think they are.

They could have been told that Onexim is considering guaranteeing the bonds, by putting up a performance bond, in exchange for a substantial stake in the Nets or arena company, though I have no idea whether Onexim has the resources to make a $700 million contingent commitment like that, and whether the ratings agencies would believe them.

Still there must be a reason why someone close to Onexim or Ratner is babbling about bonds when no-one asked them to. I hope you will agree with me now when I say the Reuters reporters don't sound like capital markets vets. What we're hearing, via an elaborate and far from lucid chain of whispers, is that the bond financing is looking as hairy as the Net's team finances. This should be far from reassuring to Ratner's pals at the ESDC.

"Odd", Eric, ain't the half of it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Ratner Hat Syndrome

Just got back from a trip to Canada. So it's taken me a little while catch up with the Atlantic Yards hullaballoo. Saw the renderings in the Times on the way home.

I must say the first thing the new arena put me in mind of was the funny helmets the rebels used in the third Star Wars movie. Which makes the new arena mid-80s futuristic, I guess. It also looks a little more low-slung, which is in general a good thing. If the man managed to put it up nearby without throwing people out of their homes and gorging on public subsidies I might even learn to love it.

Two small details intrigued me. The first is that Ratner's moving the team offices out of the arena, which sounds like a pretty desperate stab at cost-cutting, and may well reduce the attractiveness of the arena to another buyer. I'm sure Ratner has lots of Brooklyn office space standing by idle right now, but am not sure that whatever mug he manages to dump the team on will be similarly, um, blessed.

The second is that Ratner has decided that the new arena will include retail space. This is interesting, because, again, and this can be confirmed fairly quickly by a quick stroll through his two ugly malls, Ratner's not hurting for vacant retail spaces in that part of the world right now. Is Ratner, or his bankers, or the agencies, so worried about the revenue that the arena will produce, that he's trying to juice it with some retail rentals?

Alongside the release of the new rendering, Ratner also granted Eliot Brown, the only professional journalist spending much time writing about the arena financing, an update on that end of things. There's not much new in here, more a sort of confirmation of some of the proposals that Ratner's been floating around the last few weeks and months.

He confirms that he does have a $200 million equity gap, but seems to indicate he's looking for outside providers to take equity in the project company, rather than pay Ratner for a stake in the Nets, which Ratner would then contribute to the project as equity. This could be smart, since there are a couple of private equity and real estate investors that might like a direct stake in an asset like this.

They'll only do it, though, I imagine, if the Nets sign a long and expensive lease on the arena, which would doom his chances of trying to sell the team for a while. Of course, Ratner says that FCE could meet this $200 million from its own resources, but I think a commitment that large would put its return on capital so far in the toilet it might as well go back to building strip malls in Cleveland.

Then there's this issue of issuing the bonds to finance the stadium and then holding them in escrow until the litigation can be resolved. Ratner has told Brown that he can do this. I'm still not sure how that will work. I'm fairly certain the tax consequences for investors of being made whole (paid back early) on these bonds would be horrible. But it might be possible, and FCE, in one final throw of the dice, might be able to put up the premium to prepay the bonds itself. Certainly it would be easier to find that kind of money than $200 million in equity.

But the process is likely to be hideously complex. Go look at this page to get an idea of how difficult refinancing municipal bond debt is. Yeah, I'm copping out a little bit here, but I had a rather large lunch, and municipal finance terminology is not my strong suit. Let's just say we're getting a clearer idea of what route Ratner might be taking, his likely gearing, and his timeline. It's a pity Brown didn't ask if he was talking to Assured Guaranty about bond insurance, though.

Oh my god, municipal finance commentary and Star Wars references. This really is turning into a low-rent Accrued Interest, isn't it?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Soon You're Talking Real Money...

I finally got round to picking through this extremely interesting, timely, lucid, and well-reported Q&A at Nets Daily post about a potential sale of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. It's awesome. Go read it. Go read it again. Go pick through it yourself like an episode of The Wire. There at the bottom is a comment from me. I'm going to elucidate here on what I wrote there.

The blog's pseudonymous author has worked out that there are a lot of rather angry investors in the Nets ready to vent at the nearest knowledgeable Nets fan, and the author has done a very good job of tracking them down. They also have appeared to have gleaned a pretty convincing idea of the Nets team finances.

But buried down in the information is something pretty momentous - Ratner needs to scare up another $200 million from somewhere to finish his new stadium in Brooklyn.

According to one insider, half the $400 million [sales proceeds] would go towards the down payment on the Barclays Center and half towards reducing team debt.

I'd been working on the assumption that the $150 million that he'd sunk into the project - on land acquisitions, fees and site work, would be considered an in-kind equity contribution, its "down payment", as the Nets Daily writer put it.

Looking back at that assumption now I should have realised that FCR, which has mortgaged a lot of the footprint property to Grammercy Capital, would probably have to pay back that financing before the site could be considered equity, since I can't imagine that Grammercy would find it very entertaining to try and foreclose on land that's got a massive arena on top of it.

But there might be more to this. I've always thought that at some point the ratings agencies, no matter how supine they can be when confronted by the considerable charms of the Goldman Sachs sports financing team, might start to bite back. This is a tremendously over-leveraged developer trying to pitch a tremendously over-leveraged project to the market.

My assumption was, without knowing much about the conventions of sports team financing, that the Nets would throw whatever revenues they had at their disposal into the mix until the arena looked like it could cover its debt comfortably. TV, advertising, sponsorship, concessions, and so on. Which they may have done.

No matter. Credit markets have thawed a little, and it looks increasingly likely that the Nets - if they get the right financing structure in place - could get the bonds done at an interest rate of no more than about 2 percentage points higher than the other New York team stadiums did. But they won't be able to put in a token equity contribution.

What the agencies might be saying is that the project is so speculative, or the economic environment is so poor, that the developer is going to have to kick in some more cash to absorb revenue shortfalls before bondholders do. When the Jets and Giants are struggling to shift some seats at their new stadium this is an understandable position to take. So Ratner needs to sell the team to get this equity contribution, suggesting that additional stock or bond issues by FCE to fund this commitment are not feasible.

Now go back to the Nets Daily article and take a gander at the logistics of this. Ratner wants to sell the team, and use the proceeds to fund the stadium. But buyers - with the NBA's support, apparently - do not want to be locked into an above-market lease for a Brooklyn arena. They want to own the arena, but probably don't have the resources to convince the agencies to follow through.

The Nets losses then, are only part of the reason Ratner needs to sell. But Ratner might not be able to sell the team until the financing is in place, but needs to sell the team to conclude the financing. Can he bundle both into a single instantaneous transaction? Watch this space.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

RIP Ellie Greenwich

Pop genius Ellie Greenwich is no more. She's probably the reason why, despite his crimes, I'll never stop listening to Phil Spector music. Off to the Brill Building in the sky.

Even The Ramones treated her compositions with respect. Though in that case they were encouraged to behave by the presence of one Phil Spector sat behind the control desk and presumably waving a BIG BLUDDY GUN around. Here they are being all respectful on Top of the Pops. If you look closely, you can see Spector on the sidelines pointing a bazooka at them.RIP Ellie Greenwich