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From Zero to 32.73 at Bank of America

4:11 am in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

First, a correction. In my last post about the 2011 proxy season, I wrote that shareholder resolutions requiring disclosure of grassroots political spending brought by AFSCME to Prudential and Bank of America had met with zero support. That is incorrect.

ProxyMonitor reported the zero vote tally because the votes had not yet been cast. The two AFSCME proposals regarding grassroots lobbying were listed on ProxyMonitor with other, fully tallied 2011 results, including one AFSCME proposal to IBM that received nearly 30 percent support; and I wrongly assumed that that meant the Prudential and BofA proposals had already been voted on. Instead, ProxyMonitor included them simply to show – I guess — that they had been filed and were on the docket. At the time I wrote my last post, zero results had been reported, because the shareholder meetings hadn’t yet been held.

Serves me right for relying solely on the numbers in the “Votes” column on the database. Common sense would dictate that with AFSCME in the room a tally of zero would have been unlikely, unless (as I thought) some agreement to table the proposal had been reached before the meeting; and I should have checked the reported data against other news stories and the companies’ own sites. It’s a little odd that ProxyMonitor indicates a pending vote by reporting a tally of zero, and I’ve written to the Manhattan Institute asking about this point. But now I understand that the ProxyMonitor database is not strictly historical, and that should be taken into account when looking at emerging trends or patterns in 2011.

In any case, votes on those resolutions have now been cast, and the site has been updated with the results.

The proposal to Prudential won a modest 8.03 percent of the vote — no big surprise there.

The proposal to Bank of America – which held its shareholder meeting on Wednesday of last week, amid protests over its mortgage and foreclosure practices — was another matter altogether. 32.73 percent of BofA shareholders voted in favor of grassroots lobbying disclosures. That is well past the conservative 30 percent threshold set by Ernst & Young. BofA’s board of directors can’t put off this issue much longer.

This outcome is in keeping with the trend toward political disclosure I’ve discussed previously, with shareholders pressuring companies to report on where they spend their lobbying dollars, and lobbying now considered part of a company’s risk profile. The question is what Bank of America’s board will do about it: will they show leadership, or try to hide out for another year?

It’s unlikely they will do all that the proposal requires. AFSCME asked Bank of America to provide an annually updated report disclosing 1) policies around lobbying contributions and expenditures; 2) payments, “both direct and indirect, including payments to trade associations, used for direct lobbying and grassroots communications.” The kicker was a third request, requiring the bank 3) to identify — for each payment — the person who decided to make the lobbying expenditure and those who participated in the decision to make payments to grassroots lobbying campaigns. Now that sounds like accountability.

John Keenan, the champion of the proposal and a strategic analyst for AFSCME, seems braced for a long tough slog. “We have concerns over our company’s sincerity when it comes to commitment to transparency and accountability,” he said in his remarks at the shareholders’ meeting [Keenan's remarks start at around 1:29 in this webcast]. Keenan noted that “last year, BofA agreed to disclose its political contributions on its website, including accounting for political contributions made by the Bank’s PACs,” but the reporting was so “anemic” that the “company and the board should be embarrassed by this weak effort.” The bank pointed interested parties to a federal database and left them to figure it out for themselves.

And though Keenan and others were able to determine that BofA “spent about 7.4 million in 2009 and in 2010 on Federal lobbying activities,” he noted “incomplete disclosure at the state level as state lobbying disclosure is not comprehensively required by law.” Keenan and his colleagues were able only to paint a “partial picture,” which showed BofA spending “more than 2.3 million” in 17 states. As for the rest? Even Bank of America itself may not have the whole picture.

It gets murkier. As I noted in a previous post, the area where it is most difficult to document these expenditures is in contributions to industry trade associations. Keenan cited an April 23, 2011 article in the LA Times documenting “a parallel, opaque system of political giving” in which the leading, politically active trade associations – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chief among them – “took in more than $1.3 billion, more than the state of Vermont collected in taxes. These groups, in turn, spent some $500 million on lobbying and other political activity such as television advertising.”

How deep this goes is anybody’s guess. The LA Times report found that “substantial corporate political spending remains in the dark, leading to an incomplete, and at times misleading, picture of companies’ efforts to influence legislation and elections.” Keenan began to make the same point at the BofA shareholders’ meeting, but a testy and “impatient” CEO Brian Moynihan interrupted him repeatedly, told Keenan that his time was up, and then, finally, just cut him off.

In the wake of Citizens United, Keenan and others like him are trying to do what Congress has so far failed to do. We probably should not expect the appointed guardians of our republic to step up anytime soon. The news in mid-April that President Obama had drafted an executive order requiring disclosure of political spending — including contributions to third parties — from companies contracting with the federal government met with immediate denunciations from Republicans, who complained about Orwellian oversight and muttered things about the First Amendment. They did not offer a better proposal. Nor did the Democrats. In fact, just last week, The Hill reported, a growing number of Democrats repeated the Republican criticisms of the President’s executive order, and urged the administration to drop the plan, for fear that it might “politicize” the Federal contracting process.

To keep politics out of business, they oppose any measure to keep business out of politics.

Why Pollard, Not Manning? Ask John McCain

6:02 pm in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

Last week we learned that John McCain has joined the ranks of those calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Pollard, you will recall, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for espionage – specifically for passing tens of thousands, “possibly over a million” U.S. classified documents to the Israelis, many of them related to the military activities of Arab states.

In a February 15, 1987 article for the Washington Post, Wolf Blitzer set out a partial list of the secret materials Pollard stole and passed on to his Israel handlers. The list reads eerily like a prologue to the past twenty-five years of American foreign policy: it includes American reconnaissance of the PLO, information about Iraqi and Syrian chemical warfare facilities, details of Soviet arms shipments to Syria and Lebanon, and reports on what was then Pakistan’s fledging nuclear weapons program. “What Pollard did,” wrote Blitzer at the time, “was to make virtually the entire U.S. intelligence-gathering apparatus available to Israel.” The Israelis found the intelligence Pollard provided “breathtaking”; Caspar Weinberger at the time called it “treason,” noting that once in Israeli hands the same information could pass easily to the Soviets.

According to the terms of his sentence, Pollard will be eligible for parole in 2015. But that is not soon enough for many American politicians, who range from Barney Frank to Anthony Weiner to Henry Kissinger, and now, McCain, who has done an “about face” on the matter: until recently he was adamantly opposed to Pollard’s release, telling the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Pollard had “betrayed our nation.”

The argument for clemency usually takes a few forms: Pollard is ill (where have we heard that one before?). Freeing Pollard now will be a goodwill gesture toward the Israelis, and will help the Obama administration advance Middle East peace talks: but exactly how is unclear. Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, recently decried Pollard’s “harsh sentence” in an Op Ed for the conservative Jerusalem Post, claiming “whatever facts [Pollard] might know would have little effect on national security.”

Can’t the same be said for the classified information released on Wikileaks, and linked by the U.S. government, via Adrian Lamo, to Bradley Manning?

John McCain called Cablegate “an incredible breach of national security.” But in the moment of candor that just cost him his job, P.J. Crowley admitted that “from a State Department perspective, we’re not really embarrassed by what came out. A British colleague observed that his opinion of US diplomacy went up as a result of reading the cables.” So while Crowley thinks “Manning is in the right place” – why, and based on what evidence, he does not say — neither he nor anyone at the Pentagon will say that Wikileaks has harmed national security.

So it strikes me as curious that our leaders are eagerly lining up to advocate for the release of a convicted spy, but are unable to summon the courage to ask for the humane treatment of an Army private who has not even had his day in court.

A Connecticut Lobbyist in Obama’s Court

9:45 am in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

There has been plenty of griping and grumbling over the past twenty-four hours about the President’s appointment of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. While he may be an idol of corporate America, Immelt appears to be an unlikely champion of American job creation. “Since Immelt took over in 2001,” Shahien Nasiripour reports in an article on Huffington Post,

GE has shed 34,000 jobs in the U.S., according to its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But it’s added 25,000 jobs overseas.
At the end of 2009, GE employed 36,000 more people abroad than it did in the U.S. In 2000, it was nearly the opposite.

To make matters worse, Connecticut-based GE has not exactly been focusing its investments on American innovation and growth: in 2008 and 2009, Nasiripour points out, GE decided “indefinitely” to invest earnings abroad, while booking losses at home: as a result, General Electric enjoyed a negative tax rate in 2009 and a low rate of around 5 percent in 2008.

It stands to reason that more inducements and allurements, in the form of corporate tax breaks, are in the works to help focus Immelt and other corporate leaders on job creation. To help bring some of those foreign investments home, Immelt and other corporate titans will most likely continue to push for making the Research and Development Tax Credit permanent. They give the impression they are holding the spirit of Thomas Edison hostage, and will only release him if their conditions are met.

You might be forgiven for asking whether this is really the best way to spur American innovation, or whether Jeffrey Immelt and GE really have America’s best interests at heart. I’m sure Immelt believes he does; but can he, really? Maybe it all depends on how you sweeten the deal. Immelt himself reassured analysts and investors yesterday that he will always put GE first: “My commitment to GE and my leadership at GE, that doesn’t change,” he said on a conference call. He knows, I suppose, that no man can serve two masters.

The disturbing truth is that there really isn’t any great conflict of interest here: GE’s interests are not so far from American lawmakers’ interests. This happy consensus is largely the result of GE’s lobbying campaign, which in 2010 amounted to $39.3 million. $9 million of that campaign was dedicated to lobbying around a single project: the F-136 propulsion engine.

Developed for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet (a big $382 billion project), the F136 propulsion system is GE’s “alternative” to the F-135 propulsion system developed by Pratt & Whitney. An alternative. That is, there are no plans to use GE’s F-136 engine in the fighter jets. Pratt & Whitney won the government contract for the F-35’s propulsion system. You’d think that would have resolved the matter.

But these things have a momentum all their own. Funding for the F-136 started as an earmark in a defense bill, and grew. The Bush administration tried to kill the F-136 engine; Secretary Gates called it a “boondoggle,” and President Obama promised to veto any defense bill that included the GE engine. Robert Gibbs yesterday reiterated that the engine is “not something we need.” But GE, arguing that competition drives down costs, has lobbied and continues to lobby for its engine, running ads, working both sides of the aisle, and spreading its message through the press.

Newly elected House Republicans are not going to stop the F-136. Congress has already funded its development to the tune of $3 billion, and funding will continue unabated through March 4th of this year. And just yesterday, a GE spokesman told ABC News that “newly elevated leaders are even more likely to keep the engine program afloat.” It remains to be seen whether, come March, the President can or will stand his ground.

Can America Still Bring Good Things to Life?

3:20 pm in Uncategorized by lvgaldieri

When announcing the appointment of General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness today, President Obama vowed to put “our economy into overdrive.” He meant what everybody took him to mean: we are now going to get things really going, shift America into high gear, pull out all the stops, discover our inner Edison, “build stuff and invent stuff,” and export it to the world.

But the word “overdrive” is probably not the word the President should have chosen. Or at least it commits him to positions he isn’t going to take – positions I wish he would take.

Indulge me for a moment. Overdrive is not just high gear. Overdrive also means better fuel economy. When you put your car into overdrive you get the best mileage per gallon, because the overdrive mechanism allows “cars to drive at freeway speed while the engine speed stays nice and slow.” Or, as the entry on Wikipedia puts it, overdrive “allows an automobile to cruise at sustained speed with reduced engine speed, leading to better fuel consumption, lower noise and lower wear.”

At the very heart of the President’s metaphor, then, are two ideas: one, economy, a more efficient or economical use of resources (or fuel) and two, sustainability, maintaining a constant speed without causing wear and tear. Right now, we are desperately in need of both: new ways of conserving the resources we have and a more sustainable way forward than the cycle of boom and bust, or dangerous exuberance followed by social collapse.

Those ideas were not on display today in Schenectady. There was some talk about clean energy – a business GE is in, and where, not surprisingly, Immelt thinks a “partnership” between the private and public sector is “essential.” But the main focus was on U.S. manufacturing and U.S. exports, which the President wants to double over the next five years. “For America to compete around the world, we need to export more goods around the world,” said the President. So we need to innovate and invent new “stuff,” or bring good things to life, as the people at GE used to say. “Inventors and dreamers and builders and creators,” we need to expand our manufacturing base and bring American products to the global marketplace.

Reading these remarks, I can almost hear the old General Electric jingle. “We still have that spirit of innovation,” Immelt said. “America is still home to the most creative and innovative businesses in the world,” said the President. We are “still” innovative, both leaders took care to say — almost as if we no longer believe it or doubt it’s true. We’ve still got it. Our force is not spent.

It’s great to be reassured of our continued prowess. There are, however, lots of unexamined assumptions at work here, and chief among these is one I’ve discussed in earlier posts: namely, the assumption that “innovation” is the surest path to “growth,” and that growth – even unsustainable growth – is good in and of itself.

Sustainability doesn’t really enter into this conversation – partly because, I suppose, it really isn’t a conversation. It’s all bluster and boosterism.

Nor would anyone at these events, the President least of all, take a step back and ask whether, while we are doubling our exports, we should also take some steps toward greater self-sufficiency. Doing that, especially when it comes to energy — and energy consumption — would leave us less exposed.

I’m not even convinced doubling our exports or even saying we are going to double our exports is the right thing — for the dollar, for trade agreements we have in place, for the very focus of American industry and innovation. For his part, Immelt has no doubts:

“It’s the right aspiration,” Immelt said of the president’s goal of doubling American exports to more than $2 trillion in five years, during a Nov. 6 interview in Mumbai, where he joined Obama for a meeting with business leaders. “We’ve done it in the last five years as a company.”

Maybe in the long run, or at least in five year’s time, what’s good for General Electric will turn out to be good for the republic. How could it be otherwise?