What the hell happened here? Seven floors above the iced-over Dallas North Tollway, Raghib (Rocket) Ismail is revisiting the question. It’s December, and Ismail is sitting in the boardroom of Chapwood Investments, a wealth management firm, his white Notre Dame snow hat pulled down to his furrowed brow.
In 1991 Ismail, a junior wide receiver for the Fighting Irish, was the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Instead he signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts for a guaranteed $18.2 million over four years, then the richest contract in football history. But today, at a private session on financial planning attended by eight other current or onetime pro athletes, Ismail, 39, indulges in a luxury he didn’t enjoy as a young VIP: hindsight.
“I once had a meeting with J.P. Morgan,” he tells the group, “and it was literally like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher.” The men surrounding Ismail at the conference table include Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, Cowboys wideout Isaiah Stanback and six former pros: NFL cornerback Ray Mickens and fullback Jerald Sowell (both of whom retired in 2006), major league outfielder Ben Grieve and NBA guard Erick Strickland (’05), and linebackers Winfred Tubbs (’00) and Eugene Lockhart (’92). Ismail (’02) cackles ruefully. “I was so busy focusing on football that the first year was suddenly over,” he says. “I’d started with this $4 million base salary, but then I looked at my bank statement, and I just went, What the…?”
Before Ismail can elaborate on his bewildermentâ€”over the complexity of that statement and the amount of money he had already lostâ€”eight heads are nodding, eight faces smiling in sympathy. Hunter chimes in, “Once you get into the financial stuff, and it sounds like Japanese, guys are just like, ‘I ain’t going back.’ They’re lost.”
At the front of the room Ed Butowsky also does a bobblehead nod. Stout, besuited and silver-haired, Butowsky, 47, is a managing partner at Chapwood and a former senior vice president at Morgan Stanley. His bailiwick as a money manager has long been billionaires, hundred-millionaires and CEOsâ€”a club that, the Steinbrenners’ pen be damned, still doesn’t include many athletes. But one afternoon six years ago Butowsky was chatting with Tubbs, his neighbor in the Dallas suburb of Plano, and the onetime Pro Bowl player casually described how money spills through athletes’ fingers. Tubbs explained how and when they begin earning income (often in school, through illicit payments from agents); how their pro salaries are invested (blindly); and when the millions evaporate (before they know it).
“The details were mind-boggling,” recalls Butowsky, who would later hire Tubbs to work in business development at Chapwood. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
What happens to many athletes and their money is indeed hard to believe. In this month alone Saints alltime leading rusher Deuce McAllister filed for bankruptcy protection for the Jackson, Miss., car dealership he owns; Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad put his mansion in Charlotte up for sale on eBay a month after news broke that his entertainment company was being sued by Wachovia Bank for overdue credit-card payments; and penniless former NFL running back Travis Henry was jailed for nonpayment of child support.
In a less public way, other athletes from the nation’s three biggest and most profitable leaguesâ€”the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseballâ€”are suffering from a financial pandemic. Although salaries have risen steadily during the last three decades, reports from a host of sources (athletes, players’ associations, agents and financial advisers) indicate that:
â€¢ By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.
â€¢ Within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke.
An amazing long form essay by the Detroit Free Press. Â The answers may surprise you – and don’t blame Coleman Young.
Detroit is broke, but it didnâ€™t have to be. An in-depth Free Press analysis of the cityâ€™s financial history back to the 1950s shows that its elected officials and others charged with managing its finances repeatedly failed â€” or refused â€” to make the tough economic and political decisions that might have saved the city from financial ruin.
Instead, amid a huge exodus of residents, plummeting tax revenues and skyrocketing home abandonment, Detroitâ€™s leaders engaged in a billion-dollar borrowing binge, created new taxes and failed to cut expenses when they needed to. Simultaneously, they gifted workers and retirees with generous bonuses. And under pressure from unions and, sometimes, arbitrators, they failed to cut health care benefits â€” saddling the city with staggering costs that today threaten the safety and quality of life of people who live here.
The numbers, most from records deeply buried in the public library, lay waste to misconceptions about the roots of Detroitâ€™s economic crisis. For critics who want to blame Mayor Coleman Young for starting this mess, think again. The mayorâ€™s sometimes fiery rhetoric may have contributed to metro Detroitâ€™s racial divide, but he was an astute money manager who recognized, early on, the challenges the city faced and began slashing staff and spending to address them.
And Wall Street types who applauded Mayor Kwame Kilpatrickâ€™s financial acumen following his 2005 deal to restructure city pension debt should consider this: The numbers prove that his plan devastated the cityâ€™s finances and was a key factor that drove Detroit to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July.
The State of Michigan also bears some blame. Lansing politicians reduced Detroitâ€™s state-shared revenue by 48% from 1998 to 2012, withholding $172 million from the city, according to state records.
Decades of mismanagement added to Detroitâ€™s fiscal woes. The city notoriously bungled multiple federal aid programs and overpaid outrageously to incentivize projects such as the Chrysler Jefferson North plant. Bureaucracy bogged down even the simplest deals and contracts. In a city that needed urgency, major city functions often seemed rudderless.
When all the numbers are crunched, one fact is crystal clear: Yes, a disaster was looming for Detroit. But there were ample opportunities when decisive action by city leaders might have fended off bankruptcy.
If Mayors Jerome Cavanagh and Roman Gribbs had cut the workforce in the 1960s and early 1970s as the population and property values dropped. If Mayor Dennis Archer hadnâ€™t added more than 1,100 employees in the 1990s when the city was flush but still losing population. If Kilpatrick had shown more fiscal discipline and not launched a borrowing spree to cover operating expenses that continued into Mayor Dave Bingâ€™s tenure. Over five decades, there were many â€˜if onlyâ€™ moments.
â€œDetroit got into a trap of doing a lot of borrowing for cash flow purposes and then trying to figure out how to push costs (out) as much as possible,â€ said Bettie Buss, a former city budget staffer who spent years analyzing city finances for the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. â€œThat was the whole culture â€” how do we get what we want and not pay for it until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?â€
Ultimately, Detroit ended up with $18 billion to $20 billion in debt and unfunded pension and health care liabilities. Gov. Rick Snyder appointed bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr as the cityâ€™s emergency manager, and Orr filed for Chapter 9 on July 18.
It’s an amazing story and one that many cities could repeat if they can’t make hard financial decisions (Saskatoon loves our debt too). Â Nice job by the Detroit Free Press to bring all of this together. Â Including this great quote.
â€œIt just makes me ill. Almost cry,â€ said former Mayor Gribbs, now 87, who served from 1970 to 1974. â€œYou canâ€™t continually borrow money and use it for operating expenses and expect never to have the trouble of paying it back. Thatâ€™s where you end up going bankrupt.â€
The New York Times is saying what many of us have been saying for a while. It may be better for everyone if General Motors was forced to reorganize under bankruptcy protection rather than get a bailout from the government.
But not everyone agrees that a Chapter 11 filing by G.M. would be the disaster that many fear. Some experts note that while bankruptcy would be painful, it may be preferable to a government bailout that may only delay, at considerable cost, the wrenching but necessary steps G.M. needs to take to become a stronger, leaner company.
Although G.M.â€™s labor contracts would be at risk of termination in a bankruptcy, setting up a potential confrontation with its unions, the company says its pension obligations are largely financed for its 479,000 retirees and their spouses.
Shareholders have already lost much of the equity that would disappear in a bankruptcy case. Shares of G.M. rose 16 cents Wednesday, to $3.08, but they have fallen 90.5 percent over the last 12 months, amid sharply lower auto sales and fears about G.M.â€™s future.
And as companies in industries like airlines, steel and retailing have shown, bankruptcy can offer a fresh start with a more competitive cost structure to preserve a future for the workers who remain.
This is a tough subject as it affects hundreds of communities across Canada and the United States but giving General Motors more cash (which is essentially more debt) may be only slowing down the problems and not helping. General Motors seems to think that if they get more cash, their turnaround will be a forgone solution, just like the previous turnarounds were forgone conclusions. For years business analysts have been saying that General Motors has too much capacity for a changing marketplace. Subsidizing an old business model this big may work for a time but after a while it becomes untenable. Bankruptcy may be the only one option.
First, auto companies’ existing creditors need to write down their debts. Even with federal aid, companies will shrink. Economist McAlinden estimates that the country has surplus assembly capacity of about 4 million vehicles, much owned by the Big Three and destined to be shut. GM will need a $25 billion government loan to get through the recession and cover closing costs, says Lache. But GM already has $48 billion of debt. Unless the old debt is sharply written down, GM would be overburdened and its rendezvous with bankruptcy would merely be delayed. Already, shareholders are essentially wiped out.
Second, labor costs need to be cut. By Lache’s estimates, GM’s hourly compensationâ€”wage plus fringe benefitsâ€”totaled $71 in 2007 compared with Toyota’s $47. Health benefits for retirees (many in their 50s, having retired after 30 years) are expensive. These costs contributed to GM’s massive cash drain, $31 billion since 2005. But the United Auto Workers opposes making concessions. Just the opposite. Government aid, says UAW president Ron Gettelfinger, is needed “so that auto companies can meet their health-care obligations to more than 780,000 retirees and dependents.” The bailout should be more than union welfare.
Finally, automakers need a consistent energy policy. Congress demands that companies produce more fuel-efficient vehicles (35 miles per gallon by 2020, up from 25mpg now). But politicians also want low gas prices. These goals are contradictory. To encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, Congress should mandate higher gas prices. Gasoline taxes could be raised gradually (say a penny a month for four years, possibly offset by other tax cuts). Wild swings between low and high fuel prices have crippled the U.S. industry by erratically shifting buyer preferencesâ€”to and from SUVs.
Easier said than done.