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Friday, February 15, 2019

Amazon defeated in New York UPDATED

In the biggest ever defeat for a subsidized project in history, Amazon announced February 14th that it was canceling its planned half of HQ2 for New York City, which was to receive subsidies worth at least $3.133 billion. After facing months of public opposition, the company provided a Valentine's Day present in the form of capitulation. Amazon showed that, like Electrolux, its efforts to extract maximum subsidies from 238 cities constituted corporate rent-seeking on a grand scale. Not only did Amazon conduct an exploitative public auction for the supposedly single HQ2 facility, it furthered the impression that it was engaging in rent-seeking by its refusal to discuss alternatives with New York officials, by its absolute insistence on opposing a union for its workers, and by its sudden though not unexpected cancellation announcement. Activists scorched the firm, too, for the fact that for the second year running, Amazon will pay 0 in federal income tax despite earning $11.2 billion in profits in 2018 and $5.6 billion in 2017.

This is not to be confused with Foxconn, which is looking more and more like an economic development failure. There, it appears that the company will not be able to provide the investment and benefits it promised in Wisconsin. With Amazon, what we have is a case of the company being unwilling to continue the political battle to obtain its $3+ billion in incentives. While Amazon is by far the largest project ever defeated, such defeats are not unprecedented. I participated in two successful campaigns in the late 1990s and early 2000s against abusive tax increment financing (TIF) projects in the St. Louis suburbs of Olivette and O'Fallon, but these were on the order of $40 or $50 million, not $3 billion. Alas, I was also on the losing side of an exceptionally bitter battle against a TIF-funded mall in Hazelwood, Missouri, which still hurts to think about. The residents lost their homes to eminent domain, the city administration was high-handed and manipulative, and the new mall contributed substantially to the death of at least two nearby malls, part of the $2 billion retail subsidy merry-go-round during 1990-2007 documented by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.

In addition, as Richard Florida reports at Citylab and Good Job First points out at length, the victory has also energized reformers around the country searching for a solution to the problem of corporate bidding wars. I myself have received inquiries from multiple elected officials' offices about the European Union's systematic control of investment incentives, and I know of other efforts to make the shocking subsidy and perhaps even more shocking victory against it into a national teachable moment. For the first time in the over 20 years I have been fighting wasteful corporate subsidies, which is to say the vast majority of them, this is the first time it feels like it's possible that we could really see reform take place -- though not without a political battle royal. Buckle up!


Monday, February 11, 2019

Electrolux closing Memphis plant; Economic development malpractice leaves Tennesse holding the bag

On January 31, Electrolux announced (h/t Alan Freeman, ipolitics.ca) that it would be closing its new (2012) factory in Memphis, Tennessee, by the end of 2020. This facility, you may recall, was a subsidized relocation from L'Assomption, Quebec (a Montreal suburb) that had an aid intensity of at least 99%! Yes, Tennessee state and local governments gave Electrolux a free factory ($188.3 million at present value in subsidies) while allowing it to get rid of its union, cut 60 jobs, and save over $4 per hour in wages on the jobs they kept.

As if all that weren't bad enough, the state of Tennessee agreed not to put clawback provisions into the contract with Electrolux, although the state was already requiring such clauses in contracts with major companies like Volkswagen in Chattanooga. That piece of economic development malpractice has now come back to bite the governments involved where it hurts. Not only does the contract specifically prevent the state from getting its money back, state and local governments guaranteed loans connected with the project, the payments for which will last until 2036. According to the Commercial Appeal's article, state government is on the hook for $48.5 million in loans, while Memphis and Shelby County governments must pay off a further $28.0 million.

While Electrolux committed to employing 1,240 people in order to receive the subsidies, its peak employment appears to have been the 1,100 who were employed in 2017. Now, just two years later, the company employs only 530 in Memphis, a figure that has been stable for about a year, supplemented only by overtime and temporary workers, both of which have now disappeared.

The fate of the Memphis facility is to be consolidated into another Electrolux plant in Springfield, Tennessee, in a transformation that will add no jobs in Springfield because of increased automation. According to a story in the Canadian Press (paywalled behind the Nexis database), Electrolux plans to invest $250 million to centralize all its U.S. cooking production at the Springfield facility.

A final twist in the Memphis story is that in 2016 Electrolux workers formed a local union of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Union business manager Paul Shaffer says he was "assured" by the company that the closure was not related to the decision to unionize. Color me skeptical, but thanks to our old friend information asymmetry, we'll probably never know. But the timeline is: 2016, unionization; 2017, 1,100 workers; 2018, 530 workers; 2019, closure announcement. Yes, I'm still skeptical.

I've been telling people for years that we need to explicitly include corporate rent-seeking into models of site-location decisions. Both Investment Incentives: Growing Use, Uncertain Benefits, Uneven Controls (2007: download here from the first link) and Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital (Palgrave, 2011) make this case strongly. How else can we interpret Electrolux's behavior, squeezing every last dollar out of desperate governments near the height of the Great Recession, and demanding no clawbacks, except as a manifestation of rent-seeking? It's time to revise site-location theory to reflect this.

And in my standard EU comparison, let me point out that an aid intensity (=subsidy/investment) of 99% is not allowable anywhere in the European Union, where the maximum aid intensity allowable is only 50%, and that only in the poorest regions of the Union, such as Bulgaria (and that only on the first €50 million of investment; with a maximum of only 25% on the next €50 million of investment, and a maximum of 17% on any investment increment over €100 million). People were saying it was a bad deal when it was announced in 2011, as pointed out in these pages and in the great series the Commercial Appeal produced at that time. We were right, far more than we wished.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Foxconn is flailing in Wisconsin (Insert your joke here.) UPDATED

In what may end up as the biggest economic development failure in U.S. history, Foxconn announced Wednesday that its $10 billion Wisconsin factory will not be a factory. Instead, the company says, it will still create 13,000 jobs, but these will be research jobs rather than manufacturing ones. I'll believe it when I see it.

Accompanied by an almost $4.8 billion subsidy package as estimated by Good Jobs First (follow the link to the spreadsheet), the project was heavily criticized even before it was announced in 2017 (my take here and here). The massive subsidy helped normalize the idea of multi-billion investment incentives and gave Amazon a handy benchmark for its own effort to break the bank.

As I analyzed a year and a half ago, it didn't make sense to manufacture electronics in the United States when everything was cheaper in China, unless you were worried about access to the U.S. market. The illegitimate Trump regime had already created an unpredictable and protectionist trade climate, and this was long before the trade war with China really took off. If Foxconn felt it had to locate in the United States, the country was in a strong bargaining position, but by playing the states off against each other, it was still possible for a foreign company to score huge subsidies.

What happens next? As noted, Foxconn still says it will build a huge facility and hire 13,000 workers. But in 2018, it failed to meet its job creation target and forfeited what would have been a $9.5 million subsidy. I predict we will see more such failures from Foxconn until it finally pulls the plug. Indeed, on January 31, Good Jobs First called for the immediate cancellation of the deal, with the company financially responsible for expenses made by the state and by Racine County in connection with the project. This would be a fair resolution of the situation, appropriately leaving egg on the faces of the deal's promoters, the recently defeated Governor Scott Walker and the head of the illegitimate Trump regime.

As you see, I have managed to steer clear of the obvious puns. Instead, I invite you to insert your joke here.

UPDATE: Foxconn now says that it will indeed still build a factory, citing a conversation between CEO Terry Gou and Trump (h/t commenter Joel at Angry Bear). This is certainly clear as mud. As others have pointed out, several promised investments from Foxconn have failed to materialize at anywhere near the scale promised, including in Brazil, Pennsylvania, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India. So I am going to remain skeptical on what was a terrible deal in the first place.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.