Sunday, October 12, 2008

Comcast, Comcast, Comcast....

Comcast's three premium services for $99.00 rate ended a few months back. I cut back to just slower internet and basic phone for a few months to get to about $70 dollars a month from the $140 or so they were trying to charge me.

Then Verizon came along with FIOS in my area. They offered the all important three services for $99.00 price point including high definition and a free multi-room DVR for a year. So, off I go to Verizon to give them a shot a for a year. After a year I'll cut back whatever I need to (TV is the least important, phone I can get cheaper from a 3rd party) to keep my bill down in the $70-$100 range.

These companies haven't made the switch particularly easy. Verizon didn't get that I was coming over from a competitor. I don't think they have the whole competition thing down yet. They had to recreate my order through a different department, the "win back" desk. Even the name "win back" implies all the customers were once theirs and will be again.

Once they contacted Comcast and we went through the neutral 3rd party to say "yes I really do want to change my number" Comcast decided they would take the full 10 business days they are allowed to take to move the number. This has to be a less than one minute process for them. I set my Comcast number to forward calls until the cut off date. I am still wondering if they will charge me until they stopped forwarding my calls today.

For Comcast's last delightful trick, they stopped forwarding my calls not on the Monday cutoff date, but on the Sunday before. Sunday when Verizon has no one available in the order department who needs to handle the task of turning on the number for their service. Note to Verizon, if Comcast is going to cut people off on Sunday, maybe you should have someone in the office who can actually turn them back on Sunday.

Now, Comcast may think they are making Verizon look bad making me want to leave when my contract is up. But what they are doing is making it hard to switch. And if I remember it is hard to switch, I'm going to stay where I am. Right now, I'm with Verizon.

So, the marketing lesson for service providers is: When people must leave you, try to leave as good a taste in their mouth about you _and_ about changing providers. Because you want them to change providers at least one more time.

Antoher marketing lesson, one year deals are risky. If it takes a good one year deal to get someone to go with you, chances are they value your service at about that one year price. If you try to jack them up very much, they are going to cut services to get to that one year price or leave you. At least they will if they are paying attention. I guess Comcast and Verizon can tell us if enough people aren't paying attention to make jacking the price up at the end of one year worthwhile business. At minimum, one year deals gives you a lot of "at risk" customers after one year. Companies should have a strategy for retaining those at risk customers.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Financial Bailout, Market Failure or Government Failure

Failure to regulate or regulatory failure?

Like many regulated industries the financial industry bought the regulation they wanted. Huge contributions and lobbying by the financial industry, led by Fannie and Freddie, bought the lax oversight and government guarantees the financial industry wanted.

So, is that a market failure? It was the free market financial industry that bought access to taxpayer money. Free market incentives led Fannie, Freddie, and commercial banks to take on excessive risk to claim profits for private parties while backed by guarantees and insurance from taxpayers.

Or is it a government failure because government officials sold access to taxpayer guarantees for campaign contributions, contributions to lobbying firms, high paying jobs for Washington insiders, and sweetheart VIP mortgage deals.

It is the government that has the responsibility to look out for taxpayer money and the implied guarantees offered up on behalf of the government. The U.S. Government could not walk away from the implied guarantees to Fannie and Freddie so taxpayer money went out to take over bankrupt institutions that private parties profited handsomely from creating.

Government clearly has the power and responsibility to regulate commercial banks. They simply failed to do that. They allowed commercial banks to get over leveraged and to rely on assets the regulators didn't understand for their capital. Regulators should be aware that banks with insured deposits and especially banks that are "too big to fail" have incentives to take on excess risk and earn additional profits because failure is less likely than for uninsured institutions that aren't "too big to fail".

Investment banks are regulated differently, but if the failure of an investment bank can bring down regulated and insured commercial banks, then commercial bank regulators should have an eye on that risk and either regulate the investment banks or force commercial banks to mitigate the risk even if it means lower profits.

Yes, private greed went unchecked. But it was government policy that turned private greed into a national crisis and put taxpayers and our children on the hook to pay for risky bets that we would not have benefited from if they worked out well.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Selling our San Jose Home

I've been keeping you in suspense about our San Jose home. I posted about our difficulties selling but didn't tell you what happened.

Our contract with our realtor ran out at the end of Summer 2006. We were contacted by many realtors who specialize in "expireds", expired listings. This actually seemed to be a fairly competent group of realtors. They advocated listing at a considerably lower price than we had been listing. One thought he could get some bidding going by listing it low enough to attract attention.

One of the realtors who contacted us wanted to buy the house himself. He set the price low enough that he got all the benefit from not paying a third party realtor the commission. This price seemed really low at the time and it was really hard to sell at that price.

In late September I was offered a job in Portland which is where we were wanting to move, so selling the house became a fairly urgent priority. I took the realtor's lowball offer. I considered it selling at about the price I wanted with a 10% commission to get a quick sale. The sale went very smoothly, he got his financing and cleared contingencies quickly. We had already done inspections and he accepted ours.

We were able to buy a house in the Portland area so I could start my new job on the day the house was available for us to move into. We were able to stay with my brother-in-law a few days while we prepared our house to move in.

We like it here in the Portland area and real estate in the Portland area has so far retained more value than California real estate. So, overall it worked out well.

Rent Seeking and Bailouts

Rent seeking behavior is using resources to claim "free money" or economic rents. Rent seeking causes what are called "dead weight losses", wasted resources, because free money is available to claim.

Taxpayer money given out to private enterprises is one form of "free money". As financial companies recognize that free money is available they turn their attention away from saving themselves by raising capital, doing deals that make sense, and running their businesses towards grabbing a piece of the political pie, lobbying for a bigger piece, and paying off the political class in Washington.

We saw this behavior as Lehman Brothers potential acquirers dithered looking for a Bear Sterns style guarantee. We see it with Citigroup getting a taxpayer handout to acquire what turned out to be a very valuable Wachovia. To review, taxpayers took on billions of liability so Citigroup would buy Wachovia for around 2 Billion dollars. Wells Fargo offered 16 Billion without taxpayer liability! In short, taxpayers were getting screwed to the tune of billions for the benefit of the well connected, privately owned Citigroup. It turned out Wachovia shareholders were getting screwed too. Citigroup even has the gall to sue to protect their taxpayer funded purchase!

More evidence is in the Bear Sterns bailout. Taxpayers took on bad debts in a deal where stockholders appropriately for a a failing firm got very little. Stockholders pushed and got more. Taxpayers didn't get a better deal! The deal was more about getting taxpayer free money than ding the economically best deal.

Unfortunately, a lot of smart, hard working people working at financial companies are going to be spending their time, effort, and money maximizing their share of taxpayer's bailout money instead of doing anything that creates wealth.

That deadweight loss is one reason market reaction to the bailout has been so negative when it was proposed, when it failed, and when it passed.