Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Desperately seeking inflection

I have little today. Pittsburgh unemployment rate up again showing there is no escaping the recession completely. Detroit's numbers just came out... hitting 13.6% for the region there and a really frightful 22.8% for the City of Detroit. If you really want to squint there are a couple less-bad (since it's hard to call any of this 'good') things I see looking at the Michigan stats. Detroit's increase of 0.6% points is less than the larger increases of immediately preceding months. There are even some small declines in the unemployment rates in regions like Flint. Yeah, it's weak and probably an aberration, but when the recession begins to end it will show itself in less than obvious factoids like those.

Random thought #1: I rarely feel jealousy over things like this, but I have to admit this would have been cool.

Random thought #2: I am a little curious what other personnel changes may be in the works down at the ACCD as a result of the change at the top.

Random thought #3: 7 weeks until the primary.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Anticipating a big voter turnout?

Voter turnout and voter participation in the post 2008 age is a recurring topic. Via PolySign is a link to a LA Times article that has several datapoints that imply increased turnout may have been a fleeting thing. They quote the turnout from a mayoral primary in LA just last month as coming in at 17% despite having historic turnout just a few months earlier in the 2008 general election. Too early for me to predict what turnout will look like in the primary coming up, but it's hard to believe it would be that low here no matter. Whether turnout will be higher than average is another question altogether.

A good point to mention that Monday, April 20, is the deadline to register to vote in the May 19 primary election. Some may need to re-register to be able to vote in the location they want to. It's hard to explain completely, but I have had innumerable conversations over the years with even smart and politically active folks who are convinced they get to vote for the Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh yet they live in Etna for example. I kind of wonder if the mayor's service center tracks how many people call in from outside the city with people expecting help in some form. Some of the folks on the fifth floor know those same calls come in to them as well.


Billboards evermore

With both the great Billboard and other signage Downtown in the news again... I just think it's worth keeping in mind how long some of these battles have been going on. From an early blog post fyi. Try this for bedtime reading:

Fighting "Civic Smallpox': The Civic Club of Allegheny County's Campaign for Billboard Regulation, 1896-1917

by Kristin Szylvian Bailey, Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Jan. 1987)


Sunday, March 29, 2009

NPR peering into the Rust Belt

Check out NRP Monday morning when they have scheduled a piece talking about the history down in Homestead among other post-industrial, or soon to be post-industrial, towns. See: Factory And Auto Towns Shift Gears that is slated to air Monday AM on NRP's Morning Edition. People do love to come and visit Homestead, almost as much as Braddock of late. Reminds me of some other public radio coverage here including Global 3.0.
Also note that there is a complementary audio piece that will run on Cleveland Public Radio Monday as well. See (or listen to later on) to another version of: What Pittsburgh Can Teach Us. Looks like one of the guests is the reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer who wrote on us a few months ago... and who was laid off from the paper the next day. Looks like he landed on his feet.

I also have an animated GIF graphic which shows some of the history at the Homestead/Waterfront site.

Which is a good foil to update my Rust Belt watch.. Some of this data was revised a fair bit for months in 2008. Cleveland's unemployment rate trend over the last year now looks awfully flat over the next year. Not quite sure about that. But here is what it looks like. Obviously upward movement in our unemployment rate, but the Detroit freefall continues. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Detroit came in at 11.9% for January. Their raw number is at 13%!

Seasonally Adjusted Unemployment Rate: Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit 2000-Jan 2009

But I have no idea what to make of this.. This is the comparison of Pittsburgh and Charlotte, NC

Seasonally Adjusted Unemployment Rates: Pittsburgh and Charlotte, 2000-present

What's the punch line? Is Charlotte the new Rust Belt?


Cleveland seeking immigrants?

Interesting editorial on immigration in distressed regions and a mention of some visa reform local congressman Jason Altmire is planning on introducing soon... interesting because it's up in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.



Friday, March 27, 2009

remember Vallejo

Something that I have not had a chance to look at in depth... but there has been news in the case of Vallejo, California's Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The news of late is that the judge has ruled that he has the authority to void the city's labor contracts. To skip my repeated rambling on the context and background.. my long musings on what the Vallejo bankruptcy may mean to Pittsburgh I put in a couple posts in the past.... Why Vallejo Matters and Why Vallejo Matters pt. 2.

So first off, I actually am confused why this is news. It seems pretty obvious to the non-lawyer that I am that a bankruptcy would open the door to all contracts with the city being voided in one way or another. I am surprised this was even taken up as debatable as to whether this could apply to the city's labor contracts. The punch line of my earlier posts is that the big question in a bankruptcy is how workers claims will be balanced against other claims, in particular bond debt.
Forbes already points out the role of bonds in the Vallejo bankruptcy in their recent story on the topic: Beware Defaulting Bonds. So at the end of the day, this would have been bizarre news if the ruling had been the contracts were inviolate in a bankruptcy... but as it is the state of things seems much as it was before. Still with the big questions unanswered.

For more on the situation in Vallejo, BusinessWeek had a recent report: Portrait of a Broke Town. What I have pointed out in the past is that as bad as Vallejo's situation is, from a purely fiscal perspective the state of Vallejo's city budget is nowhere near as bad as Pittsburgh's right now. Go figure.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

downsized... Pittsburgh... got it. Next.

The teased this story last week, but now have an explicit list. It didn't make it into the first paragraph, but the 2nd paragraph had an obligatory reference to Pittsburgh of course in the Forbes story: America's Eight Most Downsized Cities by diasporan Lauren Sherman. We are in fact listed at number 8 which makes me wonder if we were the cutoff by intent which would be fine... can't have a downsized city article that does not include us right?

Forbes also recently ranked Pittsburgh as the single best place for unemployment pay. I guess that is a good thing although it's a hard thing to sell explicitly. Note that as I when I type this, the Forbes entry for San Antonio on this also has a picture of Pittsburgh. Not sure anyone has ever really confused the two regions in the past.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

muni muck

Bloomberg is out with what is an almost routine update on the sorry state of municipal finance.. Note that the PWSA issue here is mentioned. See: Municipal Market Regulator Regrets Enabling Losses .


and after my brief look at this... and then some coverage in the news, take a look at the latest PR from Delta which now shows an even cheaper Pittsburgh to Paris cost of $329 each way. Great for us, but it is a sign they are having problems filling the seats.. My question is that I wonder how that deal works that they are reimbursed if they do not fill enough seats. There must be verbiage in there on what fares they have to offer. Otherwise, what incentive do they have to cut the fare to the bone vice keeping prices a big higher and then demanding reimbursement via their agreement. Just asking, I have to believe the lawyers have it worked out somehow in the details.

and I just noticed..... that Pittsburgh to Paris cost is tied for the cheapest (whoops... Denver to Shannon is the cheapest at $299 each way, but the main point I think is still valid) European airfare Delta is advertising in that press release. What could that mean? low demand? Big supply? The core factoid put out on the Delta flight that 170 or so people in Pittsburgh originate a trip to Europe daily comes to mind. I don't dispute it at all... sounds right although I have no info on that. But is that really enough to support a flight. I am not sure its reasonable to think such a flight would ever capture all or even most of that demand. I flew to Europe a lot even when the Pittsburgh to Frankfurt and even the Pittsburgh to Gatwick flights were around, but I think I only took the USAirways to Frankfurt flight once. For scheduling or cost reasons it would often no be what I got to take even if I might have liked the idea purely on convenience. And that 170 number must be calibrated to a pre-recession world. I wonder what it really is these days if it's a knowable number.


If only I had time.....

If only I had the time....

The Philadelphia branch of the Pennsylvania Economy League has a neat online budget tool you can use to create your own version of Philadelphia's budget. Could be fun to do here.


Also.. A decent first cut and some interesting discussion of the issues that will be center stage in Pennsylvania congressional redistricting are all in post on the blog: swingstateproject.com. I may have to come up with some versions of how I think Pennsylvania's congressional districts may be reshaped after 2010.


Curious news... the state office building sold for $4.6 million. I had some thoughts earlier if anyone is interested. Question now is whether a developer will get further tax breaks or tifs to redevelop the building even after buying the building at a fire sale price.

There are lots of odd angles to this actually. While it seems like a bad deal for the state, as per some of the criticisms of the auditor general..... nonetheless, from the perspective of the city proper there are some advantages. Government building = no tax. Private building = tax. Which begs the question of how much in taxes? Is it a $4.6 million dollar building? Base year assessments right. It is assessed at $14 million which may be a properly assessed value as of a few years ago. Nonetheless I suspect an appeal is inbound. But a $14 million dollar property is enough to be noticed a bit in city and school district budgets. I wonder if the transfer tax applies to sales of state property. That would be something else.

Still pretty amazing when you consider that what may be the single best parcel of property in the region barring a few spots on Mt. Washington sold for so little. Makes you wonder how other real estate ventures Downtown are economically viable.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

tick toc

exactly 8 weeks until the primary... does anyone else think it does not seem like it?


Monday, March 23, 2009

céad míle fáilte

Lots of fun snippits in this Irish welcome for Dan Rooney from the Irish Times.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Weekend update

Funny timing when we get the little blurb that the Port Authority is extending its public comment period by a month for its planned route changes. Could it be because they are not getting an appropriate amount of input for what describe as the "biggest changes Pittsburgh has seen since the Port Authority was founded"? Other issues?

I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn't just put that news out there on Friday... and that the paper just got around to doing something on Saturday which is where this appeared. If not? Here is one of those real basic rules of all public relations.... if there is news you want to minimize coverage on, make sure you release it on a Friday in the hope that it just gets buried in Friday evening or weekend news when fewer people are paying attention to print or local tv news. Especially Saturday, not even the Sunday paper.

A small observation I will admit, but certainly fits pattern and practice pretty well at this point. Even if I am being overly cynical in their motivations, the result is the same. Nobody knows this change was made. I went to the Port Authority website several times since seeing this news story and see absolutely nothing about this extension being made. Even when you dig into the sections asking for public comment there is no mention at all of the date changes? I still believe few actual riders of the Port Authority are aware of the changes being planned... certainly not the scale of changes being planned. Some may disagree with that, but ask around and see for yourself. I'd love it if someone actually did a onjective formal survey just on the effectiveness of public outreach to date on this.


Blue Shift

No, it's not a post about politics. I know that disappoints some....


I hear that at least the Downtown Crazy Mocha had a blowout couple of days because of our visitors, relativistically speaking that is.


Random news of the day... PG covers CMU's class in Sneakerology 101... also mentioned somewhere last year. :-) There is also a blog just on sneakers; a long tail phenomenon?... see SneakerObsession.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

How long until football season?

from the Null Space sports desk....

The headline comes across a lot worse for them than what's in the news blurb, but it sounds like the Ravens are starting out the football season with a confidence problem. The Baltimore Sun is reporting that the: Ravens ask NFL for no prime-time game in Pittsburgh.


And I wouldn't even mention this if the result yesterday was different... but I remember well the 50-49 Georgetown/Princeton game in 1989 that came as close as any game ever has of a 16 seed knocking off #1. A result that is still not without controversy.


Friday, March 20, 2009




Say Aloha to those 'T' cars

I had half forgotten this, but Ed H. caught something on 60 minutes and reminded us of what could be another looming bomb affecting public finance here.

AIG bonuses are in the news of course… PWSA bonds were at least briefly in the news as well… but there is this little issue of how the miasma at AIG is impacting public transit systems across the county. The version of the story on PBS’ Newshour is online here. The issue are some semi-complicated buyback schemes public transit systems entered with some large capital purchases in recent decades. Basically transit systems 'sold' high cost equipment to bank or bank-like institutions who 'leased' them same equipment back and the deal worked out to some financial advantage to the agencies it appeared at the time. Problem is that these deals were insured by AIG. As AIG's financial miasma has escalated it's credit rating has put the deals at risk and potentially triggering the need for large cash payments from the affected systems. In one case a Belgian Bank has already tried to foreclose upon the rolling stock of Washington DC's transit agency. That is the bizarre world we live in now.

What I noticed last fall was that the Port Authority of Allegheny County here is indeed on the list of affected transit systems, although I have seen no news coverage on the issue here. I can be naïve.. I have to believe that if this was an issue here it would have been reported on by now. The fact that there has not been any news coverage leads me to believe any issue here is de minimus..... but you never know these days.
I have not seen any recent updates on transit systems being hit my these deals, but there is news of similar deals hitting other utilities. And with AIG in the news all the time these days, is this story really dead and buried around here?

Even if it isn't a big enough deal to be worked up about... things like this and then the PWSA bond deal are out there and clearly not made known to the public for the most part. It really really makes you wonder what other similar issues are out there that nobody has poked at at all.
Speaking of the PWSA bond deal... if anyone thinks it is just a passing political spasm... take note of the new developments in Jefferson County, Alabama where their sewer system is being put into receivership because of similar variable rate bond-induced problems.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

to twitter or not to twitter

You know... I've been avoiding this whole twitter idea, but I may need to try this since it would be good for these short thoughts. I am shocked: Charlotte raw unemployment rate data just out = 10.5%. When did Pittsburgh last have a double digit unemployment rate? June 1985. I literally didn't believe it when I saw it, thought I had some parsing error since it didn't pass the eyeball test.... or so it seemed.

Detroit, the region, up to 11.9% unemployment.... but Detroit, the city, is now over 22% unemployment.


Population ever again

I'll just put this update here: Not related perefectly, but there are Pittsburgh and Youngstown mentions in this article in Forbes by diasporan herself Lauren Sherman: America's Downsized Cities

Yeah, yeah, another year's worth of new census estimates of the region's population are out. Read the PG or the Trib versions of the story or the bigger picture from the AP.

Here is what is interesting for us. IMHO of course. Total net migration estimated for the Pittsburgh region over the last year is all of 708 more people who left compared to the number that arrived. So it's still true that more people are leaving, but 708 is a pretty small number for us. Here is what the net migration trends are for the Pittsburgh Region from the data just released:

I'll add a technical point that is important just a bit. This data reflects population as of July 1 each year. So the change data is for change through a 12 month period ending on July 1. So if there is some connection between this data and the ongoing recession, this data is really reflecting only the the early parts of the recession... it is now officially dated back to November 2007, but as of July 1, 2008 (the last estimate per this report) the recession's start had not yet been dated and some of the worst was yet to come..

As these things go, that's a pretty big difference from 2005 until recently. Still a negative number, but one of the smallest numbers since the early part of the 1990's when there was a brief period when net migration was positive. What may be causing that trend in lower net migration from Pittsburgh? Here are my quick blog musings on how relative economic conditions are affecting migration trends here. In that old post, the graphic I put together is from early last fall and could use updating.. point is probably a little bit stronger these days even.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

hotel mystery update

Just a factoid of note on the great Pittsburgh hotel mystery... even given the projects that are being delayed or canceled. I am told that literally every hotel room Downtown or its environs is booked today because of a convention of physicists. Physicists... Pittsburgh... about as close to Men in Black as you can get here on earth.

But on that topic just out is this PR from a firm that tracks lodging trends in the US. The forecast for Pittsburgh is down next year, but I think (it's unclear to me a bit) it is saying Pittsburgh's forecasted decline is the smallest in the US.


Burgh on CNN?

Mike Madison gives a heads up that CNN may be doing a segment tonight (Wednesday) on the essence of Burgh-dom... possibly including an interview with him. He says it is the Anderson Cooper 360 show which I think runs from 10-11:30pm or something like that.

That reminds me.. whatever happened to Aaron Brown?


à chacun ses avions

So, if you saw the PG's "Top 50 in Business" section yesterday, there was a full page ad on the back touting the new Delta flight from Pittsburgh to Paris starting in June. It sparked a question. The original news article on this said that the new flights would split between Pittsburgh and Raleigh departures. In November the news quote was that:

The service is expected to start with four to five flights a week, with at least two of those originating in Pittsburgh.

Yet the ad yesterday said clearly that the new service would run a full 5 flights a week:

"Departing flights leave Pittsburgh 5 days a week at 6:15pm...."

So I looked up the original press release which also clearly said it was going to be 5 days a week as well... so I don't know where the 'at least two' came from early on. But I noticed something else. The original announcement was all about new flights to Paris from both Pittsburgh and Raleigh. I didn't know that the planned Raleigh flights to Paris have already been canceled even before they began. Worth noting especially as we think about whether this flight will be around for the long term. It also gets back to that big ad in the paper and why it might have been there.


and just an odd question if anyone knows the answer. I lost a postcard I got in the mail last month. I swear it said there was a community meeting in Lawrenceville on the topic of homeowners and mining rights for natural gas or something like that. It was some commercial thing it seemed to me. I think it already happened but I don't have any of the details. So I am curious if anyone knows about this, if anyone actually went, and if it really is true someone thinks there are gas exploration options in Lawrenceville of all places. How can any parcel have enough space for that?


Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I think it was Bram who suggested in a comment that Dan R. is now our best chance at getting direct Pittsburgh-Ireland flights started. We'll see. I was thinking of asking how many places Pittsburghers have served as ambassadors.... but the question would rather be where have Pittsburghers have NOT been named ambassadors. It would probably be impossible to categorize the diasporans who went off into the foreign service or by other means became ambassadors.. That list at least includes Roy Atherton, Ambassador to Egypt, and one of the unsung folks who probably made the Camp David accords happen. but how about the lifelong locals who wind up heading overseas.

Just a quick start on such a list: Pittsburgh mayor George Guthrie would go on to be the ambassador to Japan early in the 20th century. Andrew Mellon was ambassador to the UK and McKeesport's Adolph Schmidt would be ambassador to Canada in the 1970's. Can we come up with a list of others?


site selection in the Burgh

Behind in my reading.. but the March issue of Site Selection magazine lists Pittsburgh as #7 among regions in their count of corporate facility projects attracted to the region. FWIW. Pennsylvania also ranks #3 with 11 of the top micropolitan regions by similar criteria.


Monday, March 16, 2009

bus stops

I once commented that public transit usage was relatively high in Allegheny County compared to other places. The question is what are the trends for the future? There is now enough data to look at some clean data that is not impacted by the route cuts in terms of how transit usage is faring here vs. elsewhere.

Here is data like what I have shown before with the percentage change in the transit ridership between the 4th quarter of 2008 versus the 4th quarter of 2007. So even without the route cuts impacting the results, here are the results of the latest data on transit ridership in nation's the largest bus agencies. It's hard to tell from the graph, but Pittsburgh is in that range of virtual no change, +0.3%.

Change in Total Passenger Trips, largest bus agencies, Q4 2008 vs. Q4 2007

See the link above for the actual source and the names of the relevant transit agencies that are being depicted for each region in the chart. Off the top of my head I'm not sure what is up in Cinci or Houston. The highest growth areas is far from explained by population growth alone. Even Phoenix is not growing that much population-wise, and Detroit is not doing well economically or I presume with population. Phoenix opened up a new subway line last year. Other than that I will let the graphic strand on it's own if anyone has thoughts on Pittsburgh near zero performance while transit usage is shooting up across the country. Zero is at least an improvement from the results that were impacted by the route cuts.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Follow those stories...

Stimulus giving new life to Maglev? More from the Trib today. And you thought I was joking. Note the mention of Morgantown's Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system which is an offshoot of Skybus. More on that in a second.

Pat F. hired in WV. Commentary in the Trib. Also not a joke.

The great Pittsburgh hotel mystery. PG describes how two more projects are now in 'limbo'.

News always: The history of the North Shore Connector is in the PG today. And look, they do quote some from the core history mentioning the Allegheny County Rapid Transit Study (also known to some as the 'Skybus Study'... see above as well) which I have scanned online here. Basically all transit planning in town to this day can be categorized within six degrees of Skybus.

Recession watch. PBT reports that Pittsburgh area business bankruptcies were up 2% in 2008. A sign the recession has caught up to us? National business banruptcies they report were up 54% over the same period. So a ways to go.

Stimulus, stimulus, stimulus. The PBT also has what I think may be the most honest headline in a sense for a section they have put online. They describe a new resource as "Stimulus, what's in it for you?" which actually has a good list of stimulus related web links. My working hypothesis is that most folks looking for stimulus money will be disappointed in what they get. Too many needs, too many folks looking for help. Big chunks are going to be eaten up by things that are really needed, but not noticed by everyone. Note the big chuck of change going to locks and dams, which is a good thing... trust me on just that.

Casino Watch: The casino opening really is getting closer every day. Reuters reports that "Business at Atlantic City's 11 casinos is falling at a record pace."

and finally some smokestack chasing with a twist.... Didn't Bill P. spend some time over in Norway. Maybe he built some contacts to help us land a new Norweigan Auto plant being planned for the US.


now this will be a case study for the financial engineers

Think the problems with the PWSA bond issue are convoluted? I caught this via Mike M's post on Blog-Lebo who caught this via the South Hills' Almanac.net: Upper Saint Clair finds bank to remarket bonds. Looks like the are caught up in two distinct issues making this more complex than the PWSA problems in the news. The decline in the credit rating of the bond insurer is causing problems for the interest rate swap they used to finance a community recreation center of all things?!

Even if I could I am not even going to try and explain. This really is more convoluted than any of the other things in the news of late. I worried once that the bonds used to finance the SEA bonds would be impacted by a decline in the credit rating of it's bond insurer FSA. Then there is the news of the the PWSA's recent bond suffering from different issues related to the complexity of the interest rate swaps and rarely encountered 'renewal risk'. What I can figure of the problems in UC, the issues at hand are both of these two things at the same time: the decline in the bond insurer's credit rating is forcing the banks to decline continuing their remarketing role. That just wasn't part of the equation when anyone priced these bonds.

Reading the story of USC's problem with a $32 million dollar bond (nice community center I hope?).... I just can't help but wonder why or why not there are not similar problems with the $313 million SEA bonds for the new arena which were also insured by FSA. The devil is in the (many many) details so just to be clear I am just asking the question. But either way there has to be news in this. Either the SEA has a problem that has not made the news, or it's news in itself that somehow they are threading the needle and avoiding the problems bond issuers in similar situations are facing more and more.


Just for the uber finance wonks out there... there is news that that the SIFMA ARS index is being phased out. (Don't ask). While it's not the same as the SIFMA Municipal index that is important to the SEA bonds, the whole point of these indices is that they are supposed to be there forever and are crucial to some of the deals being talked about. The fact that one can disappear has some implications worth thinking through.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Catching up with Steve Leeper

Long before PF was named economic development czar, or whatever the post was named, there was Steve Leeper. Has it been 5 years since he left town? The Cincinatti Business Courier has a profile of the man who built the stadia.


Friday, March 13, 2009

USAirways ever again

Caught this short article in some airline focused site: US Airways Says It's Not Scared Of Southwest . But check out the last sentence:
US Airways CEO Doug Parker has also noted that the airline has cut its fleet almost to the minimum size allowed by its union contract with pilots... so the airline can't cut capacity much further if the economy continues its current flat spin.

So USAirways legally can't cut any more than it has? Would it cut more if it could? When does the contract with the pilots expire. Will there be any USAirways left in town once they are free to cut as much as they want? Makes you wonder.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Street becomes An Alley

wow... I am not sure what just happened to Jim Cramer on the Daily Show. Jon Stewart just ran over him with a cement truck or something.


Build, Pay, Borrow, Repeat

News yesterday that the construction costs for the new arena have gone up significantly. First thought was no big surprise. But wait, recession and all the news is nationally is that construction costs are declining most everywhere driven by lower fuel costs, relief from wage pressures as unemployment jumps and other competitive forces normal for a recession. I would have presumed those forces would impact local construction costs as well by this point in the recession.

But that would have been wrong it turns out. A quick look at the latest data I can find shows that Pittsburgh is one of the very few regions of the nation where construction costs are going up (actually that's the same link, but read past the headline where it points out Pittsburgh costs are +3.4% in the last year). Bad for those who have to pay the bills of course, but for the region as a whole that has to be a sign of continued building doesn't it? Good news for those who are working in the industry a bit, as well as for various contractors getting the business. Stimulus right?

Not quite sure why weakness in construction elsewhere has not had more impact here. One way or another thay may be coming to an end pretty soon with all this stimulus money. In another time it would be bigger news that the city housing authority alone is getting 27 million it will need to spend quickly on. Yet, that is just a drop in the bucket of what ought to be coming. Given that Pittsburgh is already one of the very very few regions where construction employment has not declined at all compared to the same time a year ago, you have to wonder whether there will be enough construction resources to implement all the stimulus-paid construction projects that are slated to come. But we will see.

But speaking of financing for the arena. I am a bit surprised nobody is at least mentioning the bonds the SEA floated to pay for the arena. While I do not know of any problem exactly similar to the issues in the news at over recent PWSA bonds... i.e. I do not hear any word of that the banks are backing out of their standby bond purchase agreement for the SEA bonds. Don't hear any word to say there isn't a problem either for the record. Nonetheless a lot of the fundamental issues being talked about apply because both the PWSA bonds in question and the SEA bonds for the arena are variable rate bonds. One difference worth noting is that the standby purchaser for the PWSA bonds are JP Morgan and Dexia while the institution filling the same role for the SEA bonds is PNC. If that is gibberish, try going through the slides Bram posted (the last link above) from the Dowd press conference. Interesting question though why some institutions can back out of these agreements and others can't or choose not to. That is the heart of the problem with the PWSA bonds. To my media friends, someone needs to have an objective bond lawyer look at the two bonds (the PWSA bond and the SEA bond) to see why one is in trouble and the other seems not to be at this point.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Men in Black

Sewer boots, sewer bonds, mayoral candidates and synthetic interest rates. I've had it with trying to figure it out. I am left with the only explanation that really makes sense of it all. See the Philadelphia Examiner from last week: Do UFO's favor Pennsylvania? Statistics say yes.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

bonds under water

I don't have anywhere near the time to figure out exactly what is going on with the PWSA bonds that were in the news yesterday. The problem as best as I can figure is not exactly what I warned about last fall for either the variable rate PWSA bonds, or the variable rate SEA bonds. Think it's not at least potentially a big deal. In Alabama, the Jefferson County Sewer system system is deep into bankruptcy proceedings that also stemmed directly from variable rate bonds gone awry.

Some general questions this all raises beyond the political fireworks. What are the legal liabilities that fall back on the City of Pittsburgh if the PWSA, or any of the city authorities for that matter, run into dire circumstances? I would suggest that is not a fully answered question that impacts a whole lot of things in town here. More important than the details of this one bond deal.

But on this particular issue in the news. The professionals are better at explaining the heart of the problem here in a finite number of words. For the less feint of heart you can read the whole bond prospectus here:


Maybe we will throw in here for good measure the obvious question of why things like this bond prospectus are not put up on the PWSA web site?

I can't find anything in the bond prospectus to explain the current machinations. Further detail has to be in other covenants somewhere that are less available to the public. But here are some things to consider. Not too long ago the School District of Erie sued JP Morgan over some similar interest rate swap deals that went south. Is the PWSA considering similar litigation in its case which involves a much larger sum than what was in play in Erie? What is also worth noting is that JP Morgan got out of the muni bond interest rate swaps bond business not long ago. The PWSA deal may actually have been one of the last such deals they got involved with. Think about that a bit.


Monday, March 09, 2009

so says Yoda

Yoda was right it would appear. I still have to wonder if that is for real, no msm coverage as yet.

At least in terms of how this could shakes things up... .in economics we would probably call that a disruptive technology.

Speaking of the mayoral race. Bond insurance in the news? Who ever talks about such boring stuff?

update: ok.. it's not really the bond insurance at issue here despite how it is being described. A bit more complex than that. Maybe I will get into it tomorrow.


Foreclosures - Cleveland, and more real estate

Worth a read... the NYT Magazine has an article on what the foreclosure crisis has meant to Cleveland. See: All Boarded Up, by Alex Kotlowitz

Speaking of real estate... here is a bad factoidto keep an eye on. Bloomberg notes in passing that Pittsburgh ranks high in late payments among "loans packaged into commercial mortgage- backed securities". I guess my first question is how we rank in terms of the proportion of relevant local loans that are covered by that metric.

More real estate..... something I caught last month, but still have not seem any local coverage of is the story of Chinese real estate speculators coming to America. The SF Chronicle has a recent story on how Chinese are coming to buy distressed American Real Estate. See: Cash-rich Chinese coming to do some house hunting. What I really want to know more about is why the most quoted firm facilitating this new market demand is based here in Pittsburgh? Apparently Fortune Group Realty Co (is this their web site?) in the Strip District. Seems to me like it would be worth some local news coverage, but I see nothing. Looks like one of those things where the national and international media is more interested (think Jero?).

The quoted Mr. Chen seems to have another venture foreopen.com that lists real estate assessment appeals as one of its services. If this is all a spinoff of the county's assessment miasma in recent years, that would be great. Remember Bram says today we may learn the Supreme Court's decision on base year assessments.

If the reporting is correct, the prerequisites for Chinese visitors to come on some of these organized tours includes certain income levels, but also that they have to own property in China already. I still think that property ownership in China will prove to be one of the biggest forces of social change in the world impacting the 21st century. That and I keep thinking of this picture of ol Vlad (via the Innovations in Newspapers blog) which may be one of the greatest pictures of the last decade:


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Gotta reset that counter to zero again

Last fall Potter asked a question. ADB finds the answer which translates to No.

Note the new job is just up the road... virtually in Greater Pittsburgh. It's the same distance from Pittsburgh to Weirton as it is from Pittsburgh to Greensburg. Not super surprising, he has been in the news doing some consulting in WV since he left Pittsburgh.

Even the billboard, generally speaking that is, will be back in the news on Wednesday.

Seriously though. It's actually a fairly big job. You have to start from the assumption that they did their due dilligence and are unconcerned that there is any risk PF will be caught up in some of the ongoing investigations that at least mention him. Curious.

Any pesky bloggers in the WV Panhandle?


Counting (on) students

On Friday the Pitt News had one of those articles that will be repeated in coming months: Students gear up for mayoral contest. Worth a read, but keep in mind this one little problem that distinguishes an off-year municipal primary in Pennsylvania versus the presidential election we just had. Come May 17th 19th, the date of the primary, Pitt students will have been finished with their finals 3+ weeks earlier. Thus the problem of getting votes from resident students is an awfully lot more difficult than in the general election. Few students are actually residing in May where they were during the school year. Always the opportunity for absentee ballots, but that is its own challenge.

That being said, it is very true that student turnout could sway many an election in town. In 2001, the race for mayor between Tom Murphy and Bob Oconnor was won by a margin of merely 699 votes. Some kvetched that the election's result could have been distorted by the presence of 18 year old high school student Josh Pollock on the ballot and the 1,094 votes he himself pulled. I kind of doubt the Pollack voters would have gone to O'connor by the 80-20 split they would have had to in order to alter the election. Which makes me ponder whether students will really vote as a unified bloc in the race coming up... maybe more on that later.

But on the demographics of local elections, I am pondering the news I read that Christine Stone is not going to run for City Council but is instead reported to be running for School Board in the City School District #1. If true, it's an interesting choice. Something I will come back to in April of 2011 (when we will first learn new census data) is what is at stake in local redistricting that will have to happen soon thereafter. Few seem to question why Pittsburgh City Council has little chance of more than 2 of 9 African American districts yet the city school district has been consistently electing 3 of 9 African Americans to its board. The answer is all in how the maps are drawn, but more on that down the road. What I wonder about is how the race for district 1 could play out. By my count, in 2000 School Board District 1 was 51% African American, 41% white among it's voting age population.

Demographics like that would seem to make District 1 a clear "Majority-Minority" district that will elect an minority. Probably is still the case, but as some of us know the rate of depopulation in a lot of Pittsburgh neighborhoods is pretty extreme in certain neighborhoods..... in particular neighborhoods like Homewood which makes up a big chunk of District 1. Given that it will be almost 9 years from the 2000 census when the primary takes place it's possible that there has been palpable shifts in what makes up the district. Could it be enough to alter the results?? If it does, it will say a lot about the demographic trends impacting the city.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Pittsburgh Rapid Transit?

Nothing from me, but FatherPitt has created a neat notional map of Pittsburgh Rapid Transit. Not sure the Mon Incline counts as rapid, but I won't quibble. It's not really notional in that it is just a different presentation of what is already here.

Speaking of infrastructure. I was checking out the site Pennsylvania set up to track stimulus spending. http://www.recovery.pa.gov. The site is a great idea. But it advertises a section: How can I get recovery money? Clicking on that I just have to wonder if people will feel disappointment at what that web page brings up. It all but screams out "SIKE!". I know everyone is angling to get a slice of the stimulus money, but at this point I am not sure it's a good idea to lead people to believe there is some untapped trough they can still draw from.


Friday, March 06, 2009

afternoon musings

The good: See the PG coverage that finally starts up front with news on the number of local foreclosures by finally pointing out that the local trends are downward. Earlier in 2008 the news was almost hysteric that we were going to have a record year for foreclosures. The question now is whether 2009 will come in for a 3rd straight lower number overall.

Also via JimR is a good catch of a small item from Charlotte showing how local firms are recruiting down there. Why? Well... someone must be hiring here at the very least. Also, Charlotte unemployment has quickly gone from 4.8% in Dec 2008 to 8.9% in Dec. 09. These are workers who probably never conceived of being unemployed. Go back a decade and in 1998 Charlotte unemployment dipped to an unbelievable 2.1%, which Pittsburgh probably never saw except at the peak of WWII. I really am beginning to shift my thinking on what the biggest recession story is for Pittsburgh. For awhile I was thinking it was simply how we are faring relatively better than elsewhere and the reasons for that... but for the longer term, the bigger impacts may be coming from the changes in migration trends that are probably shifting as a result of the ongoing recession.

The bad: WPXI posts the question in the back of everyone's mind on whether Pittsburgh's economic calm could be coming to an end. The factoid of the day is Pitt's decision to freeze salaries. Yet is the news that salaries are being frozen, or is the news that there has not been a layoff as yet. Half empty? half full?

The ugly: Not here, but Michigan just posted another big jump in their statewide unemployment rate from 10.2% in December to 11.6% in January. I shudder to think what Detroit's is going to look like when we learn it in a couple weeks.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

monster says.....

This blog thing is easy if people keep emailing me content. From a Null Space stringer is this info FWIW: Monster.com says Pittsburgh is doing ok. The money quote in this PR for data about online job postings in February is:
"Pittsburgh registered the largest monthly rise, bolstered by substantially increased demand for business and financial operations professionals and blue-collar workers."
For the record I still have not quite figured out WIW, but it has to be a whole lot better than this index saying we are worse than elsewhere.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

rumors there be


Wettick Watch

You can read the comments in a post here from January to see how Bram has put his money down on Monday March 9th for when we will see a ruling from the PA supreme court on the (PA) constitutionality of the base year assessment system. Some have told me privately they expect the court to punt this down the road as long as possible, but they will have to rule someday. Bram may have nailed it.

If correct, will this be Bram's entree into the world of elite Blawgdom? Does anyone have an over/under running on the date of the ruling or what the ruling will say? Will the ruling (whenever it comes) mark the real beginning of the governors race coming down the pike?

tick tock .......


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Pittsburgh hangs out help wanted sign

Shouldn't overinterpret this, but a very short outsider's view of the Pittsburgh economy from the St. Louis Today Jobwatch blog (or column or something??). See: Pittsburgh hangs out help wanted sign.

StLouistoday.com... hey, that sounds familiar. This seems to be the online presence of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But a labor force dedicated blog in the media or elsewhere would be a great idea for somebody to set up and maintain. And a journalist dedicated to the labor beat is an ever rarer thing these days.


remembering the 14th Quartermaster Corps

I know this may seem like news overcome by more recent history, but last week was still the anniversary of the scud attack that hit the barracks of Greensburg's 14th Quartermaster Detachment in February 1991.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Backyard Brawl: the pension edition

Here is a pension factoid. From the Charleston Daily Mail is an article on the collective public pension problem for municipalities across West Virginia. They quote the total unfunded liability statewide as $700 million. Again, that is the number for all municipalities summed together.

By my estimation, the total unfunded liability just for city of Pittsburgh pension funds would be at least $700 million if we were to calculate it as of today.


10 best websites

Just for fun.. Planetitzen has put out its annual 10 best planning, design, and development websites:



Sunday, March 01, 2009

Social networking of fraud and failure

If you have been following the news of the failed investment scheme that both Pitt and CMU are caught up in... Muckety has a neat interactive chart on the social network behind the principals involved. You have to start up the java interactivity to get the full effect. Can anyone think of other local topics you could apply that type of presentation to? If you had the data that is...