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Old 10-26-2008, 02:40 PM   #1  
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Default Fred Smith in the WSJ

Washington Is the Problem

FedEx's CEO on McCain, free trade and the tax bias against capital-intensive industries.

Memphis, Tenn.
Fred Smith is in an agitated state. He's just returned from a Washington Redskins game -- played in FedEx field in Washington -- and the team has been upset by the St. Louis Rams. "It was just awful," he grouses. "My son's one of the coaches, and he was ready to jump off the ledge of the stadium."

There are few better people to ask about our current economic precipice than Mr. Smith -- or, as some people call him, "Fred Ex." His company has $38 billion in sales, employs four football stadiums full of workers, owns 300 jet airplanes, and tens of thousands of trucks and vehicles. FedEx moves an incomprehensible seven million packages each day to every corner of the globe. And the good news is that Fred is optimistic -- sort of.
Ismael Roldan

"Oh, the country is going to get through this and the financial markets will stabilize," he assures me, but only after we go through a period of "trauma and readjustment."

I ask him just what he means by "trauma." He attributes the financial crisis to "the intersection of four long-term developments." Reckless mortgage lending policies; high energy prices; mark-to-market accounting rules; and national policies that favor what he calls "the financial sector over the industrial sector."

"Rather than in our business where you have to have a dollar of equity for, 10 cents or 15 cents of debt," he explains, "it's exactly the opposite in the financial sector where you have one dollar of equity for 10, 25, 50 times risk." "Things became so flipped upside down," he explains, that "the assets at these banks became the liabilities and the liabilities became the assets. These people were making these fantastic returns -- at places like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- but in reality they weren't adding a lot of value. I have said time and again that there is a fundamental tendency in good times in the financial sector to over-leverage. Our national policies actively encouraged all this debt."

How so? "The United States has a completely uncompetitive tax structure in general and it has a particularly onerous tax structure for firms that are asset-intensive. If you run an industrial company like FedEx, which employs 290,000 folks, most of whom are blue-collar people, the way we have to run this business is to equip those workers with billions of dollars of assets that allow them to pick up and deliver millions of things around the world."

His theory is that the tax bias against capital explains why so much top U.S. talent got whisked off to become investment bankers. "Not too many young people coming out of school are studying to be production managers at General Motors." He says that most of FedEx's first line managers come not from the top flight universities, but out of community colleges and the military. "The top talent has wanted to go to Wall Street."

He has come to hold the get-rich-quick Wall Street financiers in more than a little disdain. He views the heroes of the U.S. economy as the companies that actually produce real goods and services. He sees the Wall Street collapse as an inevitable byproduct of investment bankers building multitrillion dollar debt pyramid structures.

So how do we fix this problem and retool our industrial sector in a pro-competitive fashion? "We've got to reduce the taxes on equity. Let companies expense their capital purchases."

He uses an example from FedEx. "Look, our capital budget as we went into this year was about $3 billion. We went out to Boeing in July for our board meeting to see the new triple seven, [the Boeing 777] which we have bought. If we had a lower corporate tax rate with the ability to expense capital expenditures, guess what? We'd buy more triple sevens. We absolutely have to cut the corporate tax. Our current tax rate is about 38%. Even Germany has a 25% rate."

We turn to the election. Mr. Smith is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of John McCain among the Fortune 50 CEOs. When I ask why, he says instantly: "Because I agree with him on trade, taxes, energy and health care."

Next I ask Mr. Smith about the class warfare theme of the political debate. "The politicians deplore the fact that we have a disparity of income," he says, but "the only way to make a blue-collar person earn more is to invest in capital, training and infrastructure. So the more you tax capital, the more you hurt workers." He estimates that about 70% of the return from FedEx capital expenditures is captured by workers in the form of higher wages as their productivity rises.

He sees a big problem in that so few Americans now pay any income tax. "We're now at a point where a very large part of the population pays no federal income tax at all. When you have a majority of the population that realizes that you can transfer money from the productive to themselves, that's one of the great questions for the future of civilization, as far as I'm concerned."

As for CEO pay, Mr. Smith concedes that in some cases corporate management pay scales have gotten far out of line with shareholder interests. But he is quick to add: "I don't think anybody begrudges somebody making a large amount of money as long as it benefits everyone else.

The problem is when they make a large amount of money and the shareholders get clobbered." As he sees it, "There's only one solution, and that is for a competent board of directors to oversee managers and give them incentives which are long-term in nature and which are irrevocably tied to the fortunes of the shareholders."

I tour the FedEx command and control center outside the Memphis airport. It's an awesome sight. FedEx operates its own air traffic control system and its own weather monitoring services. It takes over whole airports at night, and it operates its own risk mitigation operation to prepare for every possible contingency. "We have to know instantly how we reroute our planes if that storm in Tulsa turns into a tornado," the operations manager explains. There's a massive screen covering an entire wall that monitors the location and progress of every FedEx plane in the sky.

The computer technicians show me a jaw-dropping display on the computer screen of a fast-motion day of FedEx plane travel. Starting in the wee hours of the morning, the planes descend from all over the country into the Memphis airport. A few hours later, after being loaded with packages, the jets begin their assault on the major cities of the nation and world. They call this the "ant farm," because it resembles armies of ants scurrying to every corner of the globe. This is a company that has staked its entire reputation on getting packages to their appointed destination, "absolutely, positively overnight."
I keep thinking how many tens of billions of dollars Uncle Sam would save if it were one-third this efficient. These are the people that should have been in charge of the rescue operation during Hurricane Katrina. "We got all our people out -- no problem," Mr. Smith tells me.

Considering FedEx's world-wide operations, and its rapid expansion in China, it occurs to me that there is perhaps no other company in the world more dependent on international trade. Sure enough, Fred Smith is a fanatical supporter of free trade. So much so that he says, "I think the best thing the United States could do is to unilaterally disarm. It should open up markets. The agricultural subsidies are terrible. They're just immoral."
On economic grounds, he continues, "I think the history is very clear, that trade is the main reason that the world has enjoyed the prosperity. Look at China. They've drug hundreds of millions of people out of poverty through trade."

Trade aside, no issue is of greater consequence to FedEx than energy policy. FedEx consumes 1.3 billion gallons of jet fuel a year, and is the largest user of energy in the world next to the U.S. military. Mr. Smith sits on the board of the Energy Security Leadership Council, which issued a report a few months ago advocating a huge expansion of domestic energy supply. How do we do this?
"Two things," he insists. "The first is we should maximize oil production in the United States in every respect.

Everything, offshore, Alaska, shale, nonconventional, coal to liquid, gas to liquid, and nuclear. Let the market work.
"Second, and this is where I am an apostate on the free market, and also where I disagree in the main with, with Boone Pickens," Mr. Smith adds. "The United States has only one real way to reduce our dependence on foreign petroleum, in terms of reducing demand while we're increasing our domestic supply, and that is to electrify the short haul transportation system, to go to battery powered cars. The technology that brought us laptops and cell phones has reached a point where these lithium ion batteries can now produce cars like the Chevy Volt and the new plug-in Toyota Prius." Many FedEx trucks are already using this technology, though he admits they aren't yet cost efficient but are 42% more fuel efficient.

Mr. Smith ends our interview with a little sermon about what the U.S. must do to retain its global economic superpower status. "Many of our current policies are not conducive to continued economic leadership. We restrict immigration when we have thousands of highly educated people that want to come to the United States, and some of our greatest corporations [are] crying out that we don't have the scientific talent that we need to develop the next generation of innovations and inventions . . .
"That's where all wealth comes from . . . It's not from the government. It's from invention and entrepreneurship and innovation. And our policies promote a legal and regulatory system which impedes our ability to grow entrepreneurship. Lastly, if we want to make [America's workers] wealthier we have to quit demonizing quote, big corporations."

As I walk out the door I ask Mr. Smith if he's communicated these ideas directly to Barack Obama. "I haven't met Barack Obama," he replies. "He's certainly a charismatic fellow and well-spoken. I just disagree with him on trade and taxes and energy and health care."

Mr. Moore is a member of the Journal's editorial board.
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Old 10-26-2008, 03:37 PM   #2  
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I must say, I am glad he is on our side. You can't deny his place as a visionary.
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Old 10-26-2008, 03:41 PM   #3  
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You beat me to the post Huck, I am an electronic subscriber to the WSJ and read that article earlier. I am also glad he's on our team.
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Old 10-26-2008, 03:44 PM   #4  
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I hope he's hitting that stairmaster nice and regular.....
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Old 10-26-2008, 03:49 PM   #5  
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Originally Posted by Huck View Post
I hope he's hitting that stairmaster nice and regular.....
Fred's dad died from a heart attack at a pretty young age .... let's not get him too excited about the Stairmaster idea
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Old 10-26-2008, 09:37 PM   #6  
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I wish more people in the government/Congress would listen to him. It all makes sense to me.
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Old 10-26-2008, 10:05 PM   #7  
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My father called me to inform me about the article. Needless to say he was impressed with Smiths quotes. Got to admit that I didn't disagree with a thing he said.......
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Old 10-26-2008, 11:34 PM   #8  
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I didn't disagree with a thing he said.......
I disagreed with one thing:

I think the best thing the United States could do is to unilaterally disarm

MIGHT be a little premature ...
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Old 10-26-2008, 11:38 PM   #9  
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Originally Posted by MD10PLT View Post
I wish more people in the government/Congress would listen to him. It all makes sense to me.
AND. . .ALPA is 'sort of' endorsing . .WHO!! ?? . . .or is it 'whom'?

LOOK at who they endorsed the last time . .retch !!

Phred for Secretary of Treasury !!!
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Old 10-27-2008, 12:33 AM   #10  
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Originally Posted by rotorhead1026 View Post
I disagreed with one thing:

I think the best thing the United States could do is to unilaterally disarm

MIGHT be a little premature ...

Well, he was talking about free trade which he is for and subsidies which he is against. That's what he meant by 'disarming first' - in other words we should stop subsidizing our farmers, etc first and the world will follow. Not sure if I agree with him on that but I don't know enough about the subject, nevertheless I think he makes a very good point...

Here’s his full quote:
“ … So much so that he says, "I think the best thing the United States could do is to unilaterally disarm. It should open up markets. The agricultural subsidies are terrible. They're just immoral… "
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