Wall Street Has Met Eugene’s Main Street

If the city of Eugene walked under a ladder or crossed the path of a black cat, this Friday the 13th would be the time to admit our bad luck, and then hope for the best. Investment bankers have come to towns like ours to turn a quick buck, and it’s starting to affect our daily lives.

This misfortune has befallen communities across the nation over the last two decades, but Eugene has been targeted specifically because of its successes. Investors like best the places they’ve heard about. Football Saturdays on ESPN put Eugene on the map.

So Eugene has seemed like a good place to visit for these investors’ funds, but they don’t plan for their money to stay here long. That’s our bad luck.

One point of clarification. As Chicago and New York have very different ideas about pizza, community banking and investment banking have divided into very different things.

Community bankers hold money for and lend money to neighbors to pay for a house or a car or a business. Investment bankers bundle assorted financial obligations (loans, debts, deeds, etc.), label them “instruments,” and sell them to investors.

The Great Recession, hastened and deepened by the creativity of investment bankers, made earning 10 percent nearly impossible inside the financial sector. So investment bankers began venturing into commerce — using their culture and techniques to wring extra money out of companies that trade in daily transactions.

Mergers and acquisitions are nothing new for investment bankers, but they’ve recently turned to building businesses from scratch with an eye toward resale — quickly enough and profitably enough to satisfy their investors.

Our student housing boom lasted because people wanted to invest their money here. Capstone and Core Campus and others picked Eugene for its name recognition and the opportunity it affords their investors.

Most don’t expect to manage their housing projects for very long. Their plan is to show positive cash flow, sell their complex to a property management company, then reinvest the proceeds in other projects elsewhere.

As long as they can move that money quickly and profitably, they can offer their investors a high rate of return. Student housing was never more than a means to that end.

Much has been written about Uber, the ride-sharing program. I’m not against ride-sharing. In fact, I wrote a column in 2009 suggesting that Eugene deregulate fare-rides completely. (Here’s a link: http://www.dksez.com/607 ) That was before Uber’s first test run in New York City. Uber is not about rides or cars. Uber is a vehicle for attracting and collecting investment capital.

Experts estimate Uber’s current market valuation at $40 billion. Some expect that number to reach $100 billion by the time they have their Initial Public Offering. Uber is building name recognition. Fines and lawsuits only burnish their image as a “disruptive” innovator.

Uber’s owners and investors will become billionaires without ever giving a ride to anyone. They care less about ride-sharing than Capstone cares about students’ security deposits. Their money has very little to do with us.

And most of us have very little to do with it. We don’t need student housing and we don’t need rides. But what about groceries?

When Albertsons bought Safeway, anti-trust rules forced them first to sell 121 stores, including two in Eugene. “If you read the terms in their request for bids,” Market of Choice CEO Rick Wright told me from his office in south Eugene, “the terms clearly favored buying all 121. You couldn’t buy just one or two stores.”

Haggen bought them all. Haggen has been “keeping Bellingham fresh and local since 1933,” so that’s good news, right? Well, no. The Haggen family recently sold control of its small chain to Comvest Partners, a Florida-based investment banking firm. Comvest typically holds their investments for less than seven years, according to their own spokesperson.

Wright expects Convest to sell off stores one at a time, turning a tidy profit. Haggen could sell you a frozen pot pie tomorrow that won’t expire until after Comvest’s money has left town for better luck elsewhere.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs