news

It would appear The Greenville News has decided to go easy on hometown banking company The South Financial Group. How else do you explain the kid glove treatment the company received earlier this week when South Financial held its annual meeting in Greenville?

Under the headline “South Financial CEO resolves to meet economic challenges,” The News begins its story by stating that South Financial “… like nearly all financial institutions, is facing its most challenging environment and ‘change is needed,’ the company’s chief executive told shareholders Tuesday.”

The story continued by reporting that Chief Executive Lynn Harton said that while there maybe some 500 bank failures nationwide in the current economic downturn, South Financial “has taken steps to strengthen its capital base and maintained its liquidity position, with unused secured borrowing capacity of $3.9 billion on March 31, so it can survive the current crisis.”

“South Financial must ‘navigate through this,’ Harton told the shareholders.

The story devotes just three paragraphs to South Financial’s performance last year, stating it has posted “five straight quarters of operating losses, including a first-quarter loss of $90.8 million, or $1.10 per diluted share.”

“We’ve underperformed,” The News quoted Harton, in what has to be one of the major understatements of the year, adding that the company has struggled under the weight of its real estate portfolio in Florida, where it operates Mercantile Bank.

The story also reported on South Financial possibly selling its corporate campus along Interstate-85 and later added that it will continue to focus on credit management, reduce costs and set clear performance targets. The report concluded with results of shareholder voting.

Incredible. It’s as someone completely unfamiliar with South Financial’s dismal performance in 2008 did the reporting, or better yet, the company itself wrote the story. Here’s a little of what was left out:

  • Company founder and Chief Executive Mack Whittle saw the writing on the wall as South Financial’s losses mounted and its stock tanked. He took a lucrative golden parachute worth at least $12 million, drawing the attention of regulators and political leaders;
  • Whittle “retired” earlier than he’d originally planned so that South Financial could get in on $347 million in federal bailout money, funds that might have been in jeopardy if he’d gotten the rich payout after the application had been received;
  • As part of a settlement involving a pair of shareholder lawsuits related to Whittle’s golden parachute, South Financial was forced to enact significant corporate governance reforms and Whittle had to resign from the company’s board;
  • South Financial lost $569 million in 2008;
  • Its stock price fell from $15.67 a share to $4.31. It closed at $1.85 Thursday and had been below $1 earlier this year.

Nothing big, right?

One has to wonder if South Financial, whose subsidiary Carolina First Bank is among The Greenville News’ major advertisers, has threatened to pull its ads if the paper doesn’t go easy on the company.

That seems incredibly far fetched, but then again, so does a story on a hometown company’s annual meeting that fails to mention the departure of the disgraced CEO, shareholder lawsuits, $347 million in federal bailout money, a $569 million annual loss and the fact that the company stock lost nearly 90 percent of its value during the previous 17 months.

lonesome highway

If South Carolina needs a nickname for its recently unveiled “Hydrogen Highway,” the 59-mile stretch of road between a pair of hydrogen fueling stations in Columbia and Aiken, SC, “Lonesome Highway” comes to mind.

The multimillion-dollar investment in state and local tax dollars that went into the two hydrogen stations certainly won’t suffer from overuse; South Carolina at present has just a single hydrogen-powered vehicle in the entire state.

Well, at least there won’t be any lines when it comes times to fuel up, right?

Thursday, The State newspaper in Columbia ran an op-ed piece from The South Carolina Policy Council decrying the use of tax dollars to fund this highly speculative, completely unnecessary project. It’s reprinted below in its entirety: 

“S.C. leaders recently rolled out the state’s new ‘Hydrogen Highway,’ opening hydrogen fueling stations in Columbia and Aiken. The two publicly funded stations equal twice the number of hydrogen vehicles operating in our state.

“In the past few years, taxpayers have poured tens of millions of state and local tax dollars into hydrogen research even though multiple experts question how viable the technology will be in offsetting U.S. reliance on foreign oil or reducing carbon emissions.

“‘A hydrogen car is one of the least efficient, most expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gases,’ said Joseph Romm, a physicist in charge of renewable energy research during the Carter administration. Asked when hydrogen cars will be broadly available, Romm replied: ‘Not in our lifetime, and very possibly never.’

The Los Angeles Times was blunter in assessing the future of hydrogen-powered vehicles: ‘Hydrogen fuel-cell technology won’t work in cars…. Any way you look at it, hydrogen is a lousy way to move cars.’

“And it’s not necessary, The Times added: ‘Fuel-cell technology has been eclipsed by vastly cheaper, here-now advances in batteries and plug-in electric vehicles. To knit together even the barest network of H2 refueling stations would cost billions. And, in any case, the fuel itself, whether produced by cracking natural gas or hydrolyzing water … represents a horrible energy return on investment.’

“However, that hasn’t kept S.C. officials from promoting hydrogen as both a solution to the state’s future energy needs and a key to its economic future. House Speaker Bobby Harrell likened the opening of the Hydrogen Highway to the laying of railroad tracks before that mode of transportation had really caught on.

“‘And hydrogen fueling stations are much cheaper to build than railroad tracks,’ Harrell told The Aiken Standard.

“Given the spotty financial record of many of South Carolina’s early railroads, that model may not be an ideal one for the state to follow. Still, a genuine need existed for early railroad transportation. That is not the case with the Hydrogen Highway.

“Today, there is one operational hydrogen-fueled vehicle in the state, a $175,000 Chevy Silverado truck in Aiken. A second vehicle, a Federal Transit Administration bus, is expected to begin a one-year demonstration in Columbia later this year. The hydrogen bus is a prototype with an estimated price tag of $1.2 million to $1.4 million.

“Right now, the bus is in Colorado undergoing performance testing. After it arrives in Columbia, hydrogen officials say it needs two months of testing before it can transport passengers. That means the Columbia fueling station, which cost 1.5 million tax dollars, will sit idle for most of this year.

“According to the S.C. Research Authority, the city of Columbia contributed $840,000 to the Columbia station, EngenuitySC put in $325,000 from a federal grant, the S.C. Research Authority and SC Launch! added $300,000, and the University of South Carolina-Columbia Fuel Cell Collaborative (comprised of USC, the city of Columbia, EngenuitySC and the S.C. Research Authority) contributed the remaining $48,000.

“The high cost of hydrogen fuel cells pushes vehicle prices from $100,000 to more than $1 million, and that doesn’t even include the cost of the fuel. Hydrogen at the Columbia site costs $9.50-$10 per gallon. Hydrogen fuel also has to be shipped from out of state because none is produced in South Carolina. That makes the cost even higher and makes it increasingly unlikely citizens will ever see many hydrogen vehicles on state roads.

“Expensive hydrogen vehicles offer little appeal for consumers, particularly when the fuel isn’t available at a reasonable cost, and the private sector has so far been unwilling to invest billions of dollars in hydrogen when there is no evidence that it will ever be a viable energy source.

“There is neither demand nor supply for the hydrogen fuel economy, and the government cannot artificially create either. Yet despite the troubled economy and clear lack of demand, the state Senate put more than $775,000 for hydrogen research at the University of South Carolina in its version of the budget.

“Hydrogen-fueled cars are unlikely to ever play a significant role in South Carolina’s transportation future. But even if hydrogen vehicles were viable, consumers should drive the demand, and private enterprise should invest the capital, create the jobs and reap the benefits. Now more than ever, with state lawmakers arguing they have no choice but to fire teachers and release prisoners into the streets, there is no justification for gambling millions of scarce tax dollars on such a risky venture.”

Even in good times, government has a bad track record in terms of driving economic development. Private business, on the other hand, understands much better the correlation between poor investments and poor returns.

Government, in essence, can afford to gamble on risky ventures like the Hydrogen Highway because, unlike private business, it’s using other people’s money and knows there will always be billions more in tax dollars available the following year, no matter how poorly this year’s “investments” perform. That’s not exactly a sound strategy for success.

mace

Ten years ago today, Nancy Mace became first female cadet to graduate from The Citadel.

Mace entered The Citadel in the summer of 1996 with three other female classmates. Of the four females that entered the school that year, only Mace and one other female successfully completed knob year.

Mace’s father, Brigadier General Emory Mace, became the Commandant of Cadets during her second semester at The Citadel.

She would have been scheduled to graduate with the class of 2000, but was allowed to accelerate her studies by transferring in credits from another college, allowing her to finish a year early.

Today, Mace is a marketing and public relations consultant who lives in the Atlanta area with her husband Curtis and son Miles, and is expecting her second child shortly.