Economic Resurrection for My Neighbors at Easter Time

[CAF Note: I originally published this is April 2003. I am republishing as we explore ideas to rebuild income and employment.]

“Arise, shine: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people:
But the Lord shall arise upon thee and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and Kings to the brightness of thy rising.”
–Isaiah 60:1-3

April 2003

Willits Family Trucking Enterprises
250 Powell Street
Hohenwald, TN 38462

Dear Ruth & Joe,

This morning in Women’s Bible Class, Ruth asked for prayers for your trucking business. Your request struck a chord. I know you both to be excellent, hardworking people. If your trucking business is not doing what you want it to, it is not for lack of performance on your part. This is true not just for you but also for many fine people in our area. What to do?

To celebrate a beautiful spring day, I went outside after church and lay under my Tennessee poplar tree to pray about our economic dilemma. The following thoughts emerged from that time.

What Tennessee Truckers Need

What most independent Tennessee truckers need are:

· Lower Expenses: Profits can be maintained with lower revenues if we can lower our expenses. So this is critical. One of the expenses that is eating us all alive is our interest expense . As the economy slows, we need to ensure that our businesses are not eaten alive by debt service and the time consuming hassles of dealing with too much debt. Another is the amortization of back office expenses through a co-op mechanism that protects independent truckers from being out competed by large organizations who can afford to pay for cross cutting capacity that lowers variable expenses.

· Equity Financing: Small truckers in Tennessee are paying substantially more for capital to fund our businesses than the corporations who are accessing our state and local pension funds and other savings through the stock market. Hence, we are financing large corporations in a manner that disadvantages our own businesses competing in the marketplace. Worse yet, pension fund performance is poor as corporations like Enron & WorldCom and venture capital like pump and dump stock market frauds cannot produce the yields on investment of our savings that our own honest small business can.

· More Revenues: As the economy slows, the question is how we generate sustainable revenues for our trucking businesses. If we are going to be attractive to equity investors, our market needs to be healthy in both short and long term. Besides, the best way to finance a business is with profits.

What are some of the steps that we could take? Let’s explore some of them.

Step One: Conversion to Equity Financing 

We need to shift our financing from debt to equity.

The best way to finance one or more equity pools would be a community offering of non-voting shares to people in the area combined with a sale to one or more state and local pension funds or corporate pension funds of companies headquartered in Tennessee. The specifics are something that would benefit from consultation with a variety of parties, but would certainly include Eleanor Gordon here in Hohenwald who is a local leader with significant knowledge and experience in both banking and business, and her son, Maxwell , who is a banker with a regional bank in Nashville.  Certainly we would want to look to at some of the leaders in the local Chamber and Rotary as who might be interested as well as determining ideal structures along with some trusted local attorneys and accountants.

My stock and venture model – the Solari stock model – divides ownership and control into the capitalization of a company. “A” shares represent the voting shares. “B” shares represent the economic value of the company. So a small businessman can own and control the voting shares in his company while selling a portion of the economic value of the company with non voting shares that still maintain some rights.  B share in individual businesses could be purchased by a Venture fund governed by a board of trusted leaders who would hold the A shares. The fund in turn distributes non-voting B shares for sale in the pool. This way neighbors can flow capital into local businesses in a manner that protects both businesses and investors from local politics. I can be a shareholder in your company without being able to use that against you if we have a fight down at the PTA about our kids or school policy.

The potential capital gains on such an equity pool could be significant:

· Liquidity: small business equity is generally valued at 1-5 times annual net income, while that same income in a liquid equity stock that could be created by a larger pool could rise to as much as 10-20 times.

· Increased Profits: Lower debt service and a profit flow from government reengineering and any crosscutting efficiencies achieved over time would increase profits.

The combination of increased profits combined with a higher equity multiple would generate sufficient capital gains opportunity to attract global capital of the kind that would ensure a profitable exit and/or liquidity for some of the initial local and pension fund investment, so long as mechanisms were in place to ensure a sustained balance between local and non-local investment in the non-voting shares.

Step Two: Pay Off Our Debt

Let’s say we created a local venture fund to raise equity capital to pay off all of our debt. Assuming we can figure out the best structure given state and local laws and our individual needs, we would lower our expenses significantly and would be in a position where whatever cash dividends we do pay would increase the value of our equity. Depending on where the needs are we could do a pool for trucking businesses, one for farmland, one for small businesses, etc. If you have ever seen a “family of mutual funds,” this is conceptually similar.


Step Three: Build Infrastructure That Generates Revenues, Lowers Expenses & Builds Local Customer Loyalty

Once our existing businesses are freed from debt worry, we should also think in terms of using equity investment to grow our businesses and incubate new businesses that would help generate new revenues for existing businesses.

Several excellent local wineries have started in recent year. Top of the World farm is now doing a significant livestock business into Memphis and Nashville Jackie Keener and her husband Richard have started a Farmers Produce Shed that could help generate significant local intra-county markets for food and produce grown locally — something that local markets could also use to provide an alternative to the big box store in town. Indeed, if the equity pool were defined for all small business  in combination with a community offering, we would create a financial incentive for everyone in the area to shop there or at any other business in the pool.  If the customer owned stock, then their purchases would generate increased equity value for the customer – something that will not happen at the big box store.

Another example is a shared website/marketing capacity that helped market our local business and products in combination with supporting an increased tourist business in combination with local festivals and Arts Council, church and other events. There are numerous other possibilities in this category, which I would be delighted to explore if there is interest. However, it is critical to emphasize the power of what is possible when equity financing creates incentives systems that support far greater cooperation locally.


Step Four: Review of Federal, State & Local Expenditures in Tennessee for Reengineering Opportunities to Generate Trucking and Local Business Revenues

Tennessee taxpayers fund significant contracts and purchases here in Tennessee. A detailed review of the trucking business (and all businesses) generated by these contracting budgets and expenditures and credit support will show that local trucking and small business can provide better services at a lower cost than the current state of affairs. It will also show that our current expenditures are also not generating equity for Tennessee citizens, homeowners and taxpayers. It’s the worst of all worlds. We are paying more than we would if our business were doing the work; meantime, our pension funds are losing money because they are financing someone other than us, and our taxes are not generating equity for us.

Another area of great concern is food stamps. The data servicing jobs on the food stamp programs in Tennessee are outsourced to JP Morgan Chase servicing from sites in India, funded with taxpayers funds. These are jobs that could be outsourced through telecommunications to any community in Tennessee, including communities with unemployment rates of 25% are higher. Why are we paying people to not work when we are shipping jobs they could do abroad?Don’t even get me started about how much land is lying fallow while we bring in billions of processed food originally grown far away.

If we could build a constituency of local businesses, the governor and our local legislative representatives might be open to encouraging the transparency of federal and state expenditures that we need to identify reengineering opportunities. Indeed, if the state and local pension funds are our investors, such reengineering could have a significant impact on improving their investment yields, which may help the state budget and ease the concerns of retirees.

Normally, a transparent review of governmental expenditures would not be politically feasible. However, given the downturn in the economy combined with state financial problems, such transparency should be more feasible at the state level. While the political sensitivities of transparency at the federal level have traditionally been significant, the federal governments refusal to comply with the laws regarding financial disclosure and the significant amount of money that is missing from federal agencies in recent years (over $14,000 missing for every man, women and child) strengthens the hands of citizens who are prepared to improve the productivity of our governmental expenditures and do so in a way that also addresses local unemployment and poor pension fund performance. I have also enclosed an article on participatory budgeting practices adopted in Brazil to deal with similar reengineering opportunities that we are facing.

A thorough review of governmental budgets in Tennessee will produce significant opportunities to increase local business revenues, decrease local business expenses and increase local capital gains/equity through government reengineering that also soften the blow of budget cuts. Assuming we do our job in selling equity to all the right constituencies, we should be able to create a powerful foundation/alignment, which can make such reengineering politically and economically feasible in a practical way.


Step Five: People Matter – Let’s Identify the Community Wizards

Ultimately, the health of any economy or business comes down to putting the honest, hardworking people in charge. The problem with the current construct of federal government budgets is that a great deal of contracts and spending is organized to generate profits and subsidies for large companies and their investors, organizations and individuals whose performance is not as excellent as that which can be generated by businesses based here in Tennessee or in the region. In short, our economy has become more centralized that economic performance would warrant. At the root, the reengineering opportunity is to shift capacity over to the most productive people in the county in a way that benefits local, state and global investors.

I describe our most productive people as the “Community Wizards.” Here are some Community Wizards who I would recommend consulting with to “put our oxygen mask on” here in Lewis County:

1. Bob and Donna Milstead : Bob and Donna are very astute at the farming business and many aspects of small business and government here in the county.

2. Jamie and Alice Milstead : Jamie runs a trucking business in addition to running the farm business with his cousins.

3. The Gordons : The Gordon family owns and runs an auto distributor and shop and are very knowledgeable at banking, investment and small business.

4. Kerry Keener : Kerry runs her farm in Lewis COunty and is knowledgeable about the trucking business. She is working with the group at University of Tennessee that are helping small farmers reengineer their businesses. They are a group that Kerry could help involve, if appropriate. In, addition Kerry is on several state committees that are relevant to support for small business.

5. Other members of our congregation: This would include other members with trucking interests Charles & Fiona and members who might be looking for local investments and successful small business people like Patricia & Ricky .

6. Mike Willits :  Mike is an architect and his wife, Leila , is one of the top consultants in Tennessee (if not the country) on tourism. Mike and Leila could be invaluable in helping us understand the how to build alignment with numerous constituencies that would help ensure such a venture got off the ground and performed excellently over time.

7. Additional Family: We have additional family and close friends in Tennessee who might be potential trucker and small farm and business owners, investors or participants in developing a model that could be used in Perry and Wayne County and around the State. The more communities interested in doing this, the more feasible it will be to achieve state support for creating transparency in the state and federal budget.

8. Other Organizations: I have mentioned the Farm Coop, several local community banks, the UT Agriculture Extension and the Chamber of Commerce. Others that come to mind as organizations and businesses to consult with include: the leadership of the Farm Bureau, the Library (for data collection), the local brokerage firm (re: Community Offering), the local paper, Validity Magazine, and one or more trusted local attorneys and accountants. Whatever happens should be organized to use and build business for existing capacity — with a focus on first moving oxygen to the most productive and trusted people.

Step Six: Using Equity Capital, Take Advantage of Strategic Opportunities Now

There are a number of areas where acting now can transform our current economic risks into significant opportunities for us.

Privatizations : My understanding is that the current Administration is negotiating to reduce the barriers to global investors in buying up critical strategic governmental and civic infrastructure in the US – including water, electricity/power, and land. We will shortly be in a position to watch significant capital, which has been moved illegally offshore out of our federal government and pension funds moving back in to buy our land and infrastructure at below market prices that reflect the economic troubles that such theft helped to create. This process is what has devastated Latin America and Asia. I am very concerned that we avoid this process in the US.

Rather than sitting back and being the victim of such a trend – lets take advantage of it to benefit our family, our neighbors and us.

If we organize a equity pools now, we can first rid ourselves of our debt. Too much debt is what makes us vulnerable to global and corporate models that are less than optimal. Then lets privatize or finance our infrastructure under strong local control and use non-voting shares in the local model to attract in the global equity capital at the best price for us. Such a structure allows us to allocate stock and stock option opportunities, which incentivize local players to support local citizens. By asserting control now, we get a bigger share of the equity and ensure a more strategic and economic performance over time. Global investors make more than in the current models and we with them.

Land & Real Estate: Equity pools would also allow us to buy up local land and real estate, including swapping equity for defaulted debt held by government, national entities and banks. In 1989, when I served as Assistant Secretary of Housing, the federal government in the form of FHA, VA, Farmers Home and with Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and FHLBB, owned as much as 70% of the homes in a small town as a result of defaulted mortgages. Local communities were not set up to exchange local equity for these assets. As a result, the resulting workouts and liquidations were less than ideal for the citizens, homeowners and taxpayers.

However, if we start now, we can ensure that the most productive people control the workout of defaulted assets in our area in a manner that generates income and retirement savings for us.

Local Alternative Energy and Food: Finally, as the recent events in the middle east make clear, there are benefits to all of us of generating more local income by reducing our dependency on fossil fuel. If we have the equity and capacity to reengineer, there are numerous energy strategies that could generate increased revenues for local farmers — wind, solar, corn husk and corn stoves , bio gas production from manure and ethanol and bio diesel production among them. These do not even include the exciting developments in the free energy area.

This is not just economic – this relates to our faith. As Christians, it is our duty to reduce our dependency on resources that are scarce and therefore triggering warfare not to mention harming our environment. I am also very concerned about the heath implications of eating corporate food and food shipped at very long distances. Shifting market share to local farmers we know and trust means local jobs, local equity and stronger immune systems — not to mention better, fresher tastes.

Tax/Debt Reengineerings: Once we have an equity vehicle, there may be attractive opportunities to swap our non-voting equity shares with private investors for outstanding federal, state and local government debt in a three party transaction in which we renegotiate the sources and uses of federal, state and local funding and regulation in our area. Government failure to comply with the laws regarding financial, tax and debt management in combination with weakening credit ratings and/or defaults may strengthen the opportunities that we have.

Consumer Debt: We have numerous neighbors struggling under a load of very expensive credit card and IRS debt. If we have an equity vehicle that can generate jobs and small business income, we can also profit from refinancing high coupon consumer debt for local citizens who are likely to participate in job creation.

Community Currency: Recent developments in open source software and gold money that can be transferred and accessed with debit cards make it possible for us to create local currencies that would be more attractive to some local citizens that the currency issued by the Federal Reserve and which would circulate more money and purchases locally. Check out the Silver and Gold Payment Calculator that Franklin Sanders and I created to help people convert from US dollars or other currencies to gold and silver. You can pick up Android or iPhone apps at the website, so you can take it with you shopping. If enough merchants would agree to take coins, we could start a community currency by the “just do it!” method.

Young People & Educational Institutions: One of the advantages of creating an equity structure for our community is that we could start to use equity options and incentives to attract our young people to come back and build our local businesses and incubate new ventures on Main Street. This is particularly true give the power of digital and new applied technology to allow small and new businesses to compete globally.  Many young people do not want to get stuck in one small business, but an internship program that allowed them to circulate among many businesses and connected them with leading citizens as mentors offers many possibilities. This includes programs that could be connected to the leadership, business, technology and engineering programs at some of our local universities and colleges.

Rather than have our young people incur significant student loan debt, let’s craft programs for them to live and study closer to home, and work in local businesses along the way. It could mean more equity for our businesses and a lot less debt and better skills for our young people. Indeed, our largest investment in Lewis County is our investment in raising and educating our children. We need to rethink how that investment cycles back into both our children, the family wealth they will inherit and our county well being.

Next Steps

If these ideas are of interest, I can do a workshop one afternoon over at The Emporium to describe the opportunities to a group of our interested “Community Wizards.” All of the opportunities described require an invention by a group of people, so first we need to simply ensure a common literacy of the conceptual opportunities to the extent we understand them. Second, we need a process for brainstorming and deciding on a pathway that gives immediate support to our pressing business needs.

My Interest

I moved to Tennessee because I believed the way to implement local transparency and equity financing was locally —- here in Tennessee among those who would most benefit from decentralization of markets based on excellence, performance and integrity.

There is so much more to say about our opportunities if we can somehow come together to address them. Let’s see if this is of interest and then let’s get folks together to explore the possibilities.

Very Truly Yours,

Catherine Austin Fitts

Related Reading:

The Comfort Call Story: Organizing the Legal Structure for Your Start-Up

The Experience of the Participative Budget in Porto Alegre Brazil, MOST Clearing House Best Practices Database

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