Explaining Southern California's economy

Let's hope Stockton can use mediation to avoid bankruptcy

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

STOCKTON, CA - APRIL 29: Cars drive through downtown Stockton April 29, 2008 in Stockton, California. As the nation continues to see widespread home loan foreclosures, Stockton, .California led the nation with the highest foreclosure rate. One out of every 30 homes in Stockton is in foreclosure, close to seven times the national average for a metro area in the U.S. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The town of Stockton is lurching toward a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. But thanks to a law that Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed, before a California municipality can head to bankruptcy court, it needs to submit to mediation. What this means is that the city and its creditors sit down a less formal environment than a court of law and try to iron out a solution. Generally speaking, this means that bondholders (for example) will accept a "haircut" on debt up front, rather than fighting it out on court.

If a mediation can lead to a successful resolution, it can be a real boon for the city that's in trouble. Bankruptcy is expensive. The lawyers have to be paid and the whole process has to be financed so that the municipality can continue to operate while its litigating. We're talking tens of millions of dollars.

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Dodgers sale: Rick Caruso and Joe Torre yank bid over parking lots

Dodger Stadium Bleachers

pvsbond/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

The bleachers stand empty at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.

Parking lots? Yes, parking lots. The Dream Team of bidders for the bankrupt Los Angeles Dodgers, developer Rick Caruso and former Dodgers manager Joe Torre, has dropped out of the final rounds of bidding because current owner Frank McCourt insists on keeping the parking lots that surround Dodger Stadium.

The Los Angeles Times has obtained a copy of the letter that Caruso and Torre sent to Major League Baseball on Feb. 17. In it, they leave open the possibility of re-entering the fray. But in retrospect, we should have seen this coming. The parking lots aren't part of the bankruptcy proceeding. But it was widely assumed that McCourt would let them go to sweeten the deal. 

Of course, McCourt is, down deep, a parking lot guy. This is where he made his money, back in Boston before he came west to try his hand an running a storied MLB franchise. Caruso is also a parking lot guy, in a manner of speaking. If he and Torre had been able to buy the Dodgers, he would have let Joe run the team while he set about remaking Chavez Ravine in the manner of the Grove and the Americana at Brand, his beloved, Vegasized shopping meccas in L.A. 

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The parallel universe of Mitt Romney's auto industry rescue

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Rom

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney holds a Caucus election night at Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 4, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Mitt Romney is doubling-down on his negative view of the the 2009 bailouts and bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler. In late 2008, he argued in the New York Times that a bailout of Detroit would mean the end of the U.S. auto industry. Today, in the Detroit News, he refuses to back off from his earlier position, says that a "managed bankruptcy" of GM and Chrysler was what was needed all along, and that the Obama administration practiced:

"...crony capitalism on a grand scale. The president tells us that without his intervention things in Detroit would be worse. I believe that without his intervention things there would be better.

And:

Before the companies were allowed to enter and exit bankruptcy, the U.S. government swept in with an $85 billion sweetheart deal disguised as a rescue plan.

By the spring of 2009, instead of the free market doing what it does best, we got a major taste of crony capitalism, Obama-style.

Thus, the outcome of the managed bankruptcy proceedings was dictated by the terms of the bailout. Chrysler's "secured creditors," who in the normal course of affairs should have been first in line for compensation, were given short shrift, while at the same time, the UAWs' union-boss-controlled trust fund received a 55 percent stake in the firm.

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Chevys and Twinkies both survive the apocalypse...and bankruptcy?

I think my favorite Super Bowl commercial was from Chevy. In it, a guy driving his Silverado pickup with his dog discovers that he's survived the Mayan 2012 apocalypse. As grateful man and beast drive through a ruined landscape, the rubble of cities, flaming Big Boys, with spacecraft crashed along roadsides, volcanoes erupting, and asteroids still hurtling toward the Earth from space, they realize their good forture as Barry Manilow serendes them with "Looks Like We Made It." They then discover that they aren't alone. Other Chevy owners have also survived. And the Ford owner? Well, he didn't make it.

But the Twinkies did! Interestingly, Chevy had to survive General Motors' bankruptcy in 2009 to be able to survive the 2012 end of the world. The company that makes Twinkies, Hostess Brands, also came through bankruptcy, back in 2009 after declaring Chapter 11 in 2004. It just declared bankruptcy again, however. In TV land, the apocalypse probably put an end to all that. Luckily, as it turns out — we all knew Twinkies would survive, even if we weren't sure about Chevys.

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Who is Tom Barrack, the latest billionaire to covet the Dodgers?

Bill Shaikin of the LA Times is reporting that Tom Barrack, an LA-based billionaire real-estate investor, has joined the ever-expanding list of potential bidders for the Dodgers. The team was put into bankruptcy by embattled owner Frank McCourt and has to be sold to somebody by April 30.

Prospective somebodies include Rick Caruso and Joe Torre; Magic Johnson; Mark Cuban; and a furtive Connecticut hedge-fund billionaire, Steven Cohen

Barrack ads some new local flavor to the action. I feel obligated, however, to explain how the various Very Rich Men who are interested in owning the team made their money — and what that could tell us about how they'd run the Dodgers.

I've already tackled how Steven Cohen amassed his hedge-fund billions. Now I'll take a look at Barrack.

At base, the guy does real estate. From the helm of his $34-billion private-equity shop, Colony Capital in Santa Monica, Barrack manages this most debt-intensive of investments. His mojo is to zero in on "distressed" assets — properties that could be worth a lot more than their apparent face value and, being real estate, provide an obvious form of collateral to use for leverage — and, to put it simply, fix them up. This is from a New York Magazine profile of Barrack, a 63-year-old USC grad, that appeared in late 2010:

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