S and P Downgrades Uncle Sam; Upgrades…Regions Bank

While Standard & Poor’s has taken the historic step of downgrading U.S. debt for the first time ever, the influential rating agency has done the opposite thing for Regions Financial Corp. and its banking subsidiary.

S&P has raised its outlook for Regions – beset by loan woes, still holding on to TARP funds and preparing to sell its beleaguered but profitable Memphis-based investment banking unit Morgan Keegan – from negative to stable.

According to BusinessWeek:

“S&P said the Birmingham, Ala.-based company’s profitability in recent quarters has modestly exceeded expectations.

The lender’s results have been buoyed by improved loan performance, gains on securities sales and a small level of reserve releases, S&P said.

S&P credit analyst Robert Hansen forecasts that Regions will see its loan-loss provisions diminish as loan performance continues to improve.

Those factors and the potential sale of Morgan Keegan increase the likelihood that Regions will redeem its preferred shares sold to the Treasury under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, S&P said.”

So, just to re-iterate, the raters at S&P consider a bank on a stronger trajectory than Uncle Sam.

First Day Of School: Back To Reform


The school year is underway for the Memphis City Schools system. And reporters as well as two dozen attorneys directly involved in the case continue their watch on the Memphis federal court website for a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays on the schools consolidation lawsuit.

Meanwhile, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said today (Monday) that the Obama administration is about to establish a system to be used to consider granting waivers to states that want relief from No Child Left Behind federal education standards.

We’ve had quite a bit of coverage since late July about Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam seeking such a waiver for Tennessee – the first state to formally seek such a waiver but one of numerous states looking for such relief.

Duncan will outline a more specific process today, but he has said already it will be open to all 50 states.

The increasingly specific work of education reform is included in our ‘Back to School’ cover stories this week in The Memphis News.

We won’t reinvent the wheel in this blog post and recap what’s in the story. Just a few points about how the start of the school year became such a high point in several years worth of education related drama and how it was resolved.

Last month, the Memphis City Schools board threatened to delay the start of the school year until it got several different amounts of funding owed by the city of Memphis from past fiscal years.
What resulted was a payment plan for the current fiscal year that gives each side in the political dispute something they can call a victory.

The school system will get $77 million of the $78 million it requested from City Hall.
The City Council gets to reduce funding to $68.4 million based on a state enrollment count that shows a drop in enrollment of 2,500 students.
What makes this brand of political face saving possible is that the city will pay about $9 million it owes from the fiscal year that ended June 30. That is what the money is allocated for, but it will be used in the fiscal year that began July 1 along with about $1 million from the school system’s reserve fund to come out to $78 million.
As the funding standoff, the latest since the council’s 2008 decision to cut school funding, appeared to resolved, a controversial set of teacher layoffs that seemed to target the very teachers MCS is trying to attract worked itself out.

The school system is working to keep more new teachers to reverse a trend in which 40 percent of teachers in their first three years with the school system leave the school system. The statistic is at the core of the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, the primary reform program backed by funding over several years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. TEI is also a cornerstone of the statewide education reform plans

The layoffs in their initial form seemed pointed at teachers just starting their careers and weighted in favor of teachers with more seniority.

The layoff process, referred to as “bumping” is a waiting game of nerves for teachers. But this year’s bumping process featured the best indication yet that MCS reform efforts may be about to emerge in the foreground of a political landscape that has obscured them for the last year or so.

A Money Manager Looks Back to Davy Crockett

The latest monthly investment commentary from Bill Gross, co-founder of Pacific Investment Management Co. (PIMCO) and who manages one of the largest mutual funds in the world, is built around a theme that literally hits close to home.

To describe the seriousness of the challenge that now faces Congress and the White House in getting the national economy back on track, Gross turned to famed Tennessee outdoorsman and former Congressman Davy Crockett.

He begins with an excerpt from a Davy Crocket speech to Congress in 1830:

“Over the years, we’ve had some fun together – killin’ some ‘bars’, drinkin’ moonshine – some even in these chambers … But the time for funnin’ is over. They’ll be no jokes from David Crockett today.”

And with that, Gross – a widely watched market prognosticator – launched right in to his piece, titled “Kings of the Wild Frontier.”

“Figurative coonskin cap on head, I echo the sentiments of Davy Crockett – Indian fighter, Alamo defender and Tennessee congressman – not necessarily in that chronological order. The debt ceiling may have been raised and the palpable sighs of relief heard across global financial markets, but the fun times are over. They’ll be no jokes from Bill Gross today, nor across this land for years to come, I suspect.”

Amazon Prime-d

This thing about Amazon.com and sales tax is really heating up.

State lawmakers keep dipping their toe into that fracas – over whether to make the giant retailer cough up sales taxes like regular stores. Amazon says its fulfillment center in Tennessee shouldn’t count. And it’s threatened to pull such facilities from other states that target Amazon.

The response from opponents is getting testy:

More On ‘Budget Redux’

An update to our cover story in this week’s edition of The Memphis News on the effort by 13 unions representing city employees to reopen the just-ended city budget season.

The unions filed a lawsuit in Memphis Federal Court in July making a case for a court order that would stop a planned and about to be implemented 4.6 percent pay cut as well as a voluntary buyout offer to city sanitation workers.

At the center of the lawsuit are memoranda of understanding with each of the unions in which they agreed to forego any pay raise for the fiscal year that began July 1 but did not agree to a pay cut.

The city of Memphis has not filed its response yet and is asking for more time citing the complexity of the separate memoranda – which in government speak are called MOUs. The city filing also adds that the MOUs are “non-binding.”

“The negotiations were done separately with each plaintiff union,” reads the city filing by senior assistant city attorney Jill Madajczyk and deputy city attorney Regina Newman. “Therefore, counsel for the city must undertake extensive factual inquiry before responding to the plaintiffs’ complaint.”

Attorneys Deborah Godwin and Timothy Taylor, representing the unions, responded by accusing the city of intentionally seeking to delay a hearing on their request for an injunction. They contend the complexity of the individual agreements and how the terms were arrived at are not at issue.

“Plaintiffs respectfully submit that this case is essentially legal in nature – and there are few if any factual disputes,” their latest filing reads.

Federal Judge Hardy Mays granted the city’s request for more time to respond. The deadline is now Aug. 8.