The Wreck of the Penn Central: Conservatives want to replicate another financial debacle?

Rail logos Two days ago Fox News was happily promoting the privatization of Amtrak. [C&L]

“Gasparino went on to promote privatization. He said that the northeast corridor, between Washington and Boston, is a “very profitable service” and “there is no rationale why that service cannot be privatized. …If you put private management in there, it would probably be even more profitable and they could pay for even more upgrades.” “I’m not saying privatize the whole thing, at least not at first,” Gasparino said. But he insisted that privatization would make for “a Jet Blue of rail traffic.”

I admit to having “senior moments,” but I haven’t forgotten the fact that the reason Amtrak was created in 1971 was because of the FAILURE of private corporations to run the railroads.

A Bit of History

Once upon a time there was the Penn Central Transportation Company.

“The Penn Central merger was consummated on February 1, 1968, between the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad. At the end of 1968, the New York New Haven & Hartford Railroad was merged into PC by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Financial problems plagued the PC during its first couple years. Even though the merger had been planned for 10 years (on and off) before its inception, many problems faced the combined companies, such as incompatible computer systems and signaling systems.

Penn Central also invested in other companies, such as real estate, pipelines, and other ventures. The idea was to create a conglomerate corporation, with the railroad as one part of it. This diversification program, even 20 years later, is a point of debate over the fall of the PC, as some people say funds that were invested in other companies could have been used to run the railroad.” [PCRRHS]

Take a measure of mergers/acquisitions, add “diversification,” and … the world watched as the newly formed company created “dismal numbers.”  Enter the investment bankers. There were warnings.  One warning came before the big merger, in which it was noted that Penn Central had more than $1 billion in debt which would mature by 1982. When Penn Central finally went into bankruptcy it’s long term indebtedness, including obligations due in one year was an eye-popping $2.6 billion. $1 billion was due in five years; $228 million fell due in 1970; $156 million was due in 1971; $172 million came due in 1972; $270 million due in 1973, with another $160 million due in 1974. [Wreck of PCentral]

How this happened should sound eerily familiar:

“…economist Henry Kaufman says of this period in the late 1960s, “I watched with growing alarm as sources of corporate borrowers – in an effort to circumvent regulatory lending constraints – piled into the commercial market as issuers. The trend continued, and culminated in the collapse of the Penn Central Railroad.” [BuyHold]

And collapse it did, into the largest bankruptcy the nation had experienced up to that point, but not before:

“Penn Central’s subsidiaries were stripped of their treasuries in order to prop up PC’s own earnings. For example, New York Central Transport, a trucking subsidiary, had profits of only $4.2 million and yet paid $14.5 million in dividends to the parent. Despite this kind of maneuvering, the dividend on Penn Central common was slashed from $2.40 to $1.80 in 1969. Chairman Saunders vowed to hike it back up, soon. [It was later learned, however, that insiders at PC were unloading their company stock and bonds while all of this was going on.” [BuyHold]

We had a batch of corporate borrowers trying to get around regulations on lending, combined with a company fiddling the books trying to prop up its earnings reports, and taking on massive amounts of debt.  What could possibly go wrong?   The answer, of course, was “everything.”  June 21, 1970 the company declared bankruptcy.  What of the passengers?

“October, 1970, in an attempt to revive passenger rail service, congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act. That Act created Amtrak, a private company which, on May 1, 1971 began managing a nation-wide rail system dedicated to passenger service.” [Amtrak]

Where was Wall Street?  Again, Wall Street didn’t appear to be all that helpful, except perhaps to themselves.  Goldman Sachs won “the opportunity” to underwrite Penn Central’s commercial paper in 1968.  We can almost guess what happened next:

“For large fees, Goldman sold the paper to its clients, including big companies such as American Express and Disney, and smaller ones such as Welch’s Foods, the grape-juice maker, and Younkers, a Des Moines retailer. Welch’s and Younkers, particularly, counted on the fact that Goldman told them that the Penn Central paper was safe and could be easily redeemed. Welch’s invested $1 million — some of it payroll cash — and Younkers invested $500,000, both at Goldman’s recommendation.” [TribLive]

After the Penn Central’s bankruptcy filing the SEC conducted an investigation.  This, too, is a bit too common for comfort:

After Penn Central filed for bankruptcy, an SEC investigation discovered that Goldman continued to sell the railroad’s debt to its clients at 100 cents on the dollar — even though, by the end of 1969, the firm knew that Penn Central’s finances were deteriorating rapidly.Not only was Goldman privy to Penn Central’s internal numbers, it also heard repeatedly from the railroad’s executives that it was rapidly running out of cash. [TribLive]

By February 1970 Goldman had about $10 million in Penn Central commercial paper on its books.  On February 5, 1970 Goldman Sachs demanded that the railroad buy back that $10 million inventory at 100 cents on the dollar even though it obviously wasn’t worth that much at that point. Goldman Sachs didn’t tell any of its clients about the offer, nor did it tell the customers that it had already taken care of its own interests before theirs.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose? [see also: WaPo 2102]

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how (1) a boom in commercial paper – indebtedness; combined with (2) underlying debts incurred in operations, mergers, and acquisitions; abetted by (3) investors seeking ways around regulations; and (4) investment banking more interested in self preservation than best business practices combined to create a blockbuster bankruptcy. 

But yet, we have the Cato Institute, the bastion of conservative economic imagination pontificating:

“Budgetarily, Amtrak has become a runaway train, consuming huge subsidies and providing little or no return. Four decades of subsidies to passenger trains that are many times greater than subsidies to airlines and highways have failed to significantly alter American travel habits. Simple justice to Amtrak’s competitors as well as to taxpayers demands an end to those subsidies. The only real solution for Amtrak is privatization.”

The conservatives are missing several points.  The point may not be to “alter” travel habits – but to maintain services which people were already using for their commute to work, especially in the Northeast Corridor.  The rationale for the act included stabilizing services for passengers, the general public, and shippers. [RRA]

Going to Court

Amtrak is a private corporation, albeit one with some very special features.   If we want to get technical about  it, the official name is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.  In fact, the point was driven home in a legal case two years ago in which the private nature of the NRP Corporation was pivotal:

“A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington today said Congress had improperly delegated to Amtrak, a private corporation, the power to draft performance standards that affected companies whose tracks the passenger carrier uses. Amtrak trains have legal priority over freight.

“Though the federal government’s involvement in Amtrak is considerable, Congress has both designated it a private corporation and instructed that it be managed so as to maximize profit,” U.S. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown said in the ruling.” [Skift]

The case got the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. [FRAdvisor] Enter the “fish or fowl” phase.  Roger’s decision was “vacated and remanded” on a 9-0 decision.  Could Amtrak “metrics and standards” be set aside because the Congress unconstitutionally delegated power to a private corporation? And the Court said:

“No. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion for the majority. The Court held that, for purposes of determining the validity of the metrics and standards, Amtrak is a governmental entity. The members of Amtrak’s Board of Directors are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and Amtrak is required by statute to pursue broad public objectives. Because of Amtrak’s significant ties to the government, Amtrak is not a private enterprise, and therefore, treating Amtrak as a governmental entity is consistent with the constitutional separation of powers.” [Oyez]

Therefore, what the Cato Institute and its allies are arguing is that the decision in DOT vs. Association of American Railroads (49 USC 24301) should be overturned and the railways should exist without any “regulations” imposed by Amtrak which would be applicable to freight haulers.   Extrapolating the Cato’s position to absurdity, under their reasoning we could revert to the wonderful old days of differing track gauges. 

Riding the Thin Rail

However, perhaps the most crucial point the conservatives are missing isn’t about the legislative and legal nature of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, but why this entity was established in the first place.  Although a person might think we’d have learned something from the financial debacle of 2007-2008, the calls to privatize Amtrak have a remarkably familiar ring.

In a financial atmosphere in which commercial debt is treated as fodder for the creation of derivative financial products, and trading is barely regulated in the face of financialist opposition, and mergers and acquisitions generate incentives for corporate mismanagement, and there isn’t an old school investment bank left on the American landscape because of the casino mentality of Wall Street during the Housing Bubble, are we truly going to believe that privatization is the panacea for all that ails the passenger rail system in the United States?

Comments Off on The Wreck of the Penn Central: Conservatives want to replicate another financial debacle?

Filed under Economy, financial regulation, Infrastructure, public transportation

Comments are closed.