Category: Finance

WeWork’s Rise: How a Sublet Start-Up Is Taking Over

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 4.30.28 AMCritics have derided WeWork as overvalued and vulnerable to the next downturn. But the company holds so many leases in so many cities, it might hold more power than its landlords.

Real estate titans have long scoffed at WeWork, which in eight short years has managed to attain a $20 billion valuation by selling short-term leases for shared office space with a mixture of stylish design and free-flowing alcohol.

Derided by some as a real estate company masquerading as a technology company, it has been called everything from a “$20 billion house of cards” to a “Ponzi scheme.”

The naysayers argue that WeWork’s business model looks brilliant only in a rising economy that has allowed it to lock in long-term leases and then re-rent that space to other businesses at a premium. The enormous valuation it has obtained is higher than that of Boston Properties and Vornado, two of the country’s biggest office-space landlords — companies that actually own the kind of space that WeWork usually rents.

Now, with interest rates creeping higher, residential real estate prices flattening and fears of an economic slowdown coming, real estate insiders are gleeful at the notion that a downturn could be an existential threat for the company.

But a funny thing happened as WeWork has scaled up all over the globe: It may have become too big to fail.

WeWork has gobbled up leases for so much space in so many cities, there’s a compelling case to be made that its landlords wouldn’t be able to afford for it to go under.

Because of WeWork’s size, “they have more power in a down market,” said Thomas J. Barrack Jr., the longtime real estate investor and founder of Colony Capital.

The company is scheduled to release third-quarter financial results on Tuesday. A WeWork spokesman, citing the coming report, declined to comment.

The conventional wisdom is that when the economy turns south, WeWork’s customers — many of which are start-ups and may be the most vulnerable — will simply walk away. The flexibility of WeWork’s short-term leases is part of its appeal, after all.

READ MORE: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/business/dealbook/wework-office-space-real-estate.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage

Uber, Lyft and the Urgency of Saving Money on Ambulances

‘Don’t reflexively call an ambulance,’ a Harvard researcher says. In many cases, a cheaper way makes sense.

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An ambulance ride of just a few miles can cost thousands of dollars, and a lot of it may not be covered by insurance. With ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft far cheaper and now available within minutes in many areas, would using one instead be a good idea?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer in many cases is yes.

The high cost of an ambulance isn’t really for the ride. It comes with emergency medical staff and equipment, and those can be very important, of course, even lifesaving.

But they are not things you always need, although you (and your insurer) pay for them with every trip.

“Don’t reflexively call an ambulance,” said Anupam Jena, a physician and researcher with the Harvard Medical School. “Ambulances are for emergencies. If you’re not having one, it’s reasonable to consider another form of transportation.”

READ MORE: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/01/upshot/uber-lyft-and-the-urgency-of-saving-money-on-ambulances.html

Why Is College in America So Expensive?

The outrageous price of a U.S. degree is unique in the world.

college ripoffBefore the automobile, before the Statue of Liberty, before the vast majority of contemporary colleges existed, the rising cost of higher education was shocking the American conscience: “Gentlemen have to pay for their sons in one year more than they spent themselves in the whole four years of their course,” The New York Times lamented in 1875.

Decadence was to blame, the writer argued: fancy student apartments, expensive meals, and “the mania for athletic sports.”

Today, the U.S. spends more on college than almost any other country, according to the 2018 Education at a Glance report, released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

All told, including the contributions of individual families and the government (in the form of student loans, grants, and other assistance), Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year—nearly twice as much as the average developed country. “The U.S. is in a class of its own,” says Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, and he does not mean this as a compliment. “Spending per student is exorbitant, and it has virtually no relationship to the value that students could possibly get in exchange.”

Only one country spends more per student, and that country is Luxembourg—where tuition is nevertheless free for students, thanks to government outlays. In fact, a third of developed countries offer college free of charge to their citizens. (And another third keep tuition very cheap—less than $2,400 a year.) The farther away you get from the United States, the more baffling it looks.

This back-to-school season, The Atlantic is investigating a classic American mystery: Why does college cost so much? And is it worth it?

At first, like the 19th-century writer of yore, I wanted to blame the curdled indulgences of campus life: fancy dormitories, climbing walls, lazy rivers, dining halls with open-fire-pit grills. And most of all—college sports. Certainly sports deserved blame.

On first glance, the new international data provide some support for this narrative. The U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world for spending on student-welfare services such as housing, meals, health care, and transportation, a category of spending that the OECD lumps together under “ancillary services.” All in all, American taxpayers and families spend about $3,370 on these services per student—more than three times the average for the developed world. One reason for this difference is that American college students are far more likely to live away from home. And living away from home is expensive, with or without a lazy river. Experts say that campuses in Canada and Europe tend to have fewer dormitories and dining halls than campuses in the U.S. “The bundle of services that an American university provides and what a French university provides are very different,” says David Feldman, an economist focused on education at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Reasonable people can argue about whether American universities should have these kind of services, but the fact that we do does not mark American universities as inherently inefficient. It marks them as different.” READ MORE:https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/09/why-is-college-so-expensive-in-america/569884/

Hidden From View: The Astonishingly High Administrative Costs of U.S. Health Care

It takes only a glance at a hospital bill or at the myriad choices you may have for health care coverage to get a sense of the bewildering complexity of health care financing in the United States. That complexity doesn’t just exact a cognitive cost. It also comes with administrative costs that are largely hidden from view but that we all pay.

Because they’re not directly related to patient care, we rarely think about administrative costs. They’re high.

A widely cited study published in The New England Journal of Medicine used data from 1999 to estimate that about 30 percent of American health care expenditures were the result of administration, about twice what it is in Canada. If the figures hold today, they mean that out of the average of about $19,000 that U.S. workers and their employers pay for family coverage each year, $5,700 goes toward administrative costs.

Such costs aren’t all bad. Some are tied up in things we may want, such as creating a quality improvement program. Others are for things we may dislike — for example, figuring out which of our claims to accept or reject or sending us bills. Others are just necessary, like processing payments; hiring and managing doctors and other employees; or maintaining information systems.

That New England Journal of Medicine study is still the only one on administrative costs that encompasses the entire health system. Many other more recent studies examine important portions of it, however. The story remains the same: Like the overall cost of the U.S. health system, its administrative cost alone is No. 1 in the world.

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Using data from 2010 and 2011, one study, published in Health Affairs, compared hospital administrative costs in the United States with those in seven other places: Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

At just over 25 percent of total spending on hospital care (or 1.4 percent of total United States economic output), American hospital administrative costs exceed those of all the other places. The Netherlands was second in hospital administrative costs: almost 20 percent of hospital spending and 0.8 percent of that country’s G.D.P.

At the low end were Canada and Scotland, which both spend about 12 percent of hospital expenditures on administration, or about half a percent of G.D.P.

Hospitals are not the only source of high administrative spending in the United States. Physician practices also devote a large proportion of revenue to administration. By one estimate, for every 10 physicians providing care, almost seven additional people are engaged in billing-related activities.

It is no surprise then that a majority of American doctors say that generating bills and collecting payments is a major problem. Canadian practices spend only 27 percent of what U.S. ones do on dealing with payers like Medicare or private insurers.

Another study in Health Affairs surveyed physicians and physician practice administrators about billing tasks. It found that doctors spend about three hours per week dealing with billing-related matters. For each doctor, a further 19 hours per week are spent by medical support workers. And 36 hours per week of administrators’ time is consumed in this way. Added together, this time costs an additional $68,000 per year per physician (in 2006). Because these are administrative costs, that’s above and beyond the cost associated with direct provision of medical care.

In JAMA, scholars from Harvard and Duke examined the billing-related costs in an academic medical center. Their study essentially followed bills through the system to see how much time different types of medical workers spent in generating and processing them.

At the low end, such activities accounted for only 3 percent of revenue for surgical procedures, perhaps because surgery is itself so expensive. At the high end, 25 percent of emergency department visit revenue went toward billing costs. Primary care visits were in the middle, with billing functions accounting for 15 percent of revenue, or about $100,000 per year per primary care provider.

“The extraordinary costs we see are not because of administrative slack or because health care leaders don’t try to economize,” said Kevin Schulman, a co-author of the study and a professor of medicine at Duke. “The high administrative costs are functions of the system’s complexity.”

Costs related to billing appear to be growing. A literature review by Elsa Pearson, a policy analyst with the Boston University School of Public Health, found that in 2009 they accounted for about 14 percent of total health expenditures. By 2012, the figure was closer to 17 percent.

One obvious source of complexity of the American health system is its multiplicity of payers. A typical hospital has to contend not just with several public health programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, but also with many private insurers, each with its own set of procedures and forms (whether electronic or paper) for billing and collecting payment. By one estimate, 80 percent of the billing-related costs in the United States are because of contending with this added complexity.

Read More:https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/16/upshot/costs-health-care-us.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

Down and Out in San Francisco, on $117,000 a Year

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The threshold for classifying a family as “low-income” in the Bay Area is the highest in the nation — and no surprise…..

It’s beyond laughable that a one-bedroom apartment can sell for $1.5 million in San Francisco — and get multiple offers within a day. Or that dumpsters sport satirical “for rent” signs. Or that the asking price for a side order of brussels sprouts at many restaurants is $16.

Beyond laughable because such stories pass like a Bay Area breeze in the city named for a pauper from medieval Assisi. But the latest assessment of the out-of-reach quality of one of the world’s great places to live came as a real jolt:

A family of four earning $117,000 a year is now classified as low income in the San Francisco area. This threshold, used to determine eligibility for federal housing assistance, is the highest in the nation — and no surprise.

Once upon a time in the American West, the most exclusive places — Sun Valley, Aspen, Lake Tahoe, the San Juan Islands in Washington State — were known as “golden ghettos,” an imperfect term used by trendy demographers.

But now the entire West Coast, from San Diego to Vancouver, British Columbia, is a string of gilded megalopolises. These are the tomorrow cities, the tech cities, the cities of the young and educated. And each of them is struggling with a prosperity crisis that threatens the very nature of living there.

A New Yorker would say, “So what, get used to paying through the nose to live in a tiny space on limited land.” Manhattan, Brooklyn and now Queens have seen it all. But people on the West Coast, perhaps naïvely, are not ready to say, “Fuhgeddaboudit.” Not yet. With varying degrees of success, they are fighting for the soul of their cities.

Residents of San Francisco are troubled by the same things that we are in my hometown, Seattle — the homeless and the high cost of living. The issues are linked, but not entirely.

“Walking the streets of San Francisco can be a frightening, demoralizing, even unhealthy experience for residents and tourists alike.” This commentcame not from the medical association that just pulled its convention because its members no longer feel safe in a city of 7,500 homeless people. It came from the woman just elected mayor of San Francisco, London Breed.

Raised in poverty, and the first African-American woman chosen to lead the city, Breed has vowed to remove homeless encampments within a year. There is nothing compassionate or financially sound in spending $250 million a year on homeless services that still leave thousands sleeping on the street.

In order to do the other thing that Breed wants to do, build more housing of all kinds, she has to secure the social contract. That is: Can people accept more crowded neighborhoods, in a city that is already the second most densely populated among big cities in the nation, if they feel that elected leaders do not have a decent plan — or a clue?

As Breed notes, San Francisco has created only one home for every eight new jobs between 2010 and 2015. She may not be ready to utter a hard truth that some residents already have: that not everyone who wants to live there can.

In Seattle, the nation’s fastest-growing city for this decade, the social contract is nearly broken. The city used to be run by creative problem solvers. Now, an ideologically driven City Council dreams up new things to anger residents while seeming to let the homeless have the run of the place.

The latest backward move was a tax on jobs — quickly repealed after a citizens’ revolt. While the council was trying to target Amazon, the city’s biggest private employer, the tax would have also hurt grocery stores and family-run businesses, as if they had caused the homeless crisis and spike in real estate.

An unholy alliance of socialists and developers threatens to destroy the city’s single-family neighborhoods with a major upzoning — further disrupting trust between residents and politicians. If the intent is to make Seattle more affordable, this approach has failed. The city has built more new units of housing over the last five years than in the prior half-century. And yet Seattle continues to lead the nation in home price increases.

Vancouver has taxed speculation, hitting foreign buyers and those who own homes that sit empty. Prices have stabilized somewhat. But the globalization of the housing market is a problem more particular to British Columbia.

No matter what you hear anecdotally, people will continue to move to the West Coast. The City of St. Francis has seen far worse than the present crisis. More than half the population was homeless after the 1906 earthquake. But by midcentury, it was the American city, birthplace of the United Nations.

We need a new urbanism. For all the grumping about how great the cities facing the Pacific used to be, they can be greater still if the bright minds now trying to “disrupt” a grilled cheese sandwich can focus on the biggest challenge of this generation. We know what doesn’t work. The task is to find a creative mix of solutions that do.

A PR firestorm around Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert’s $5.5 billion Detroit project shows that money isn’t the biggest challenge he faces in revitalizing the city

Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been transforming downtown Detroit for almost a decade. Since moving his mortgage company Quicken Loans to the neighborhood in 2010, he’s invested $3.5 billion (with $2.1 billion in development) through his real estate firm Bedrock.

With a roster of around 100 properties in or around the downtown area, it’s the most ambitious private project in Detroit, a city that recently survived bankruptcy and had developed a reputation around the world as a ghost town, a post-apocalyptic shell of a once great American city.

But even though Detroit’s downtown is now filled with bright new storefronts, renovated office buildings, and fast-moving construction sites, it’s still a city of around 670,000 people who have dealt with years of strife, corruption, neglect, and poverty. Many Detroiters are rightfully skeptical of change. And that came to a head last year, when a Bedrock ad sparked a major controversy in July.

If you don’t live in Detroit or aren’t aware of its history, the ad, which primarily features a crowd of young adults with the words, “See Detroit Like We Do,” may seem benign. But the lack of context that went into it is exactly why it became such a problem, and why it shows that community relations, not access to capital, is the biggest challenge in Gilbert’s massive undertaking.

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In a city that is 80% black and largely working class, the poster seemed to communicate that Bedrock stood for a new Detroit for and by white people working for their companies, where a white downtown could thrive while minority neighborhoods would continue to languish. Local Detroit media ran with the story and it blew up on social media in the worst way possible.

Business Insider spoke with Gilbert in May, for an episode of our podcast “Success! How I Did It,” and he explained why he publicly apologized for and denounced the poster.

As he wrote in a Facebook post last year, “Although not intended to create the kind of feelings it did, the slogan/statement we used on these graphics was tone deaf, in poor taste and does not reflect a single value or philosophy that we stand for at Bedrock Development or in our entire Family of companies.”

Gilbert told us that Bedrock had developed a variety of ads featuring a diverse group of people around the city (he posted the full ad series on Facebook). A contractor they hired put up the first ad downtown and planned on finishing the rest on Monday. But Gilbert acknowledged that regardless of the images used, he found the slogan itself condescending and had not personally approved  it.

“Who cares how ‘we see Detroit’?!” he wrote on Facebook. “What is important is that Detroit comes together as a city that is open, diverse, inclusive and is being redeveloped in a way that offers opportunities for all of its people and the expected numerous new residents that will flock to our energized, growing, job-producing town where grit, hard-work and brains meld together to raise the standard of living of all of its people.”

But even after the poster was taken down and the slogan abandoned, Gilbert needs to convince remaining skeptics in the city that Bedrock and the rest of the Rock Ventures companies. He told us his companies employ 4,000 people in Detroit, and that they have been instrumental in blight removal (destroying abandoned or ruined properties) and the rejuvenation of homes outside of downtown. He also acknowledged that Rock Ventures could have a better line of communication with the neighborhoods outside of the downtown area, and that his Detroit project is indeed holistic.

“There’s no way businesses can be successful by having really bad neighborhoods and a successful downtown,” he told us. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

The Trump Administration to Restaurants: Take the Tips!

Most Americans assume that when they leave a tip for waiters and bcapital-one-credit-cardartenders, those workers pocket the money. That could become wishful thinking under a Trump administration proposal that would give restaurants and other businesses complete control over the tips earned by their employees.

The Department of Labor recently proposed allowing employers to pool tips and use them as they see fit as long as all of their workers are paid at least the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour nationally and higher in some states and cities. Officials argue that this will free restaurants to use some of the tip money to reward lowly dishwashers, line cooks and other workers who toil in the less glamorous quarters and presumably make less than servers who get tips. Using tips to compensate all employees sounds like a worthy cause, but a simple reading of the government’s proposal makes clear that business owners would have no obligation to use the money in this way. They would be free to pocket some or all of that cash, spend it to spiff up the dining room or use it to underwrite $2 margaritas at happy hour. And that’s what makes this proposal so disturbing.

The 3.2 million Americans who work as waiters, waitresses and bartenders include some of the lowest-compensated working people in the country. The median hourly wage for waiters and waitresses was $9.61 an hour last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Further, there is a sordid history of restaurant owners who steal tips, and of settlements in which they have agreed to repay workers millions of dollars.