Tuesday, December 29, 2009

CPSIA - Another Big Fine for L-I-P: What Does It Mean?

The CPSC today lashed out at RC2 Corp. for significant lead-in-paint violations on its Thomas & Friends wooden toys in 2007. The fine totalled $1.25 million. The facts of the case are relatively simple - an original recall in June 2007 of 1.5 million pieces was quickly followed by an additional September 2007 recall of 200,000 units. You can read all the details in the provisional agreement between RC2 and the CPSC. The agreement, however, doesn't mention the really famous bit, namely that the second lead-in-paint recall included some of the "bonus gifts" that RC2 sent out to people who returned items in the first recall. Not a real confidence builder, apparently . . . .

We probably owe the CPSIA to RC2 and Mattel, who together so shocked and motivated Congress (and my hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune) that nothing could stop that runaway train. Since Thomas the Tank Engine was such a beloved traditional toy, the public's sense of betrayal was understandable. Unfortunately, it is hard to believe that RC2 didn't see this coming. The law on lead-in-paint was clear and unambiguous. The righteous outrage and the perceived need for retribution eventually led not only to the awful new law but also to this fine.

Let's try to put it in perspective.

First, RC2 Corp. is a big company and won't feel much pain from today's action. It has peak sales of over $500 million and peak earnings of over $80 million. It has generated over $100 million in annual cash flow at least twice. In other words, they have pretty deep pockets. This fine is basically "walking around money" for them. They are even projecting earnings this year in excess of $25 million and cash flow of over $40 million - and 2009 was an awful year for the toy industry. As if that weren't enough evidence of the symbolic nature of the fine, RC2 recently raised almost $60 million in a stock offering. In no sense will this fine imperil or even perturb the business over at RC2 - as an official "big business", they seem structurally exempt from the pain we ankle-biters might feel.

That said, hasn't RC2 paid quite a bit for its folly already? According to their 2008 year end financials, they incurred recall-related costs of $28.3 million in 2007, $14.3 million in 2008 and a further $13.9 million in 2009 year-to-date. Those are total costs of $56.5 million, excluding the new CPSC fine. Arguably, the CPSC recalls induced or precipitated these costs. These costs presumably also take into account the impact of RC2's $30 million settlement of a class action lawsuit and related legal expenses.

[According to the provisional settlement agreement, in the wake of the publicity of the recalls, RC2 was hit with a number of allegations of injuries and claims from lead-in-paint, leading to lawsuits. I have no way of estimating the financial impact of these claims on RC2. The validity of the claims is also unknown. Welcome to America.]

These losses exceed RC2's typical annual earnings - most people would call that a pretty high price paid, something that gets your attention.

And as the CPSC slams the barn door long after the horses got out, the company must now reiterate that it learned its lesson . . . three years ago. The press, however, will frame this case as a remedy much needed: "Toymaker's fine in lead case tops $1 million. Oak Brook-based RC2 sold Chinese-made toys that were later recalled" [Headline from print edition].

With all this as background, I think the fine looks a bit different:

a. The fine cannot be justified as punishment, as the CPSC's previous actions induced a very high stream of costs for the company. It cannot be justified as an inducement to behavioral reform, as better safety practices at RC2 began in 2007. What is the purpose of the fine then? I think the fine is intended for political purposes, to make the CPSC look "active" and "tough". It hardly matters that the fine is opportunistic and coercive. [CPSC fines under the CPSIA are also arbitrary and hard if not impossible to negotiate.] Apparently, the RC2 recalls were not enough to satisfy the personified "Congress" - it wanted pecuniary revenge. This allows the Chairman and her fellow Commissioners to look "tough" to Congress and it allows the RC2 company to look "contrite". Two needs met, neither of which should be part of our law.

b. The fine (the supposed punishment for the "crime") is so detached from the time of the infraction that it has no actual connection as a "remedy". The passage of time sacrificed any moral high ground for the regulators - its fine is only a gratuitous penalty now.

c. By waiting three years to impose a high profile penalty like this, the CPSC deals the company a cruel blow to its market. The fine makes it look like RC2 needed more correcting three years after the fact - isn't that what any rational person would think? Yet RC2 already paid for its failings to the tune of more than $50 million out-of-pocket. [This does not include the significant loss of goodwill from the recalls, a tangible loss to RC2 business managers.] They also changed their safety practices, presumably quite significantly. The defective goods are long off the market. Yet, with the imposition of this high fine now, the company looks like a creep, again - even though there is no sign that it is anything but a good citizen today. As a consequence of the CPSC's action, RC2 must again counter with more PR to attempt to preserve its good name.

Even more outrageous, to squeeze in the fine under the wording of the CPSIA, the CPSC asserts that the RC2 violation was made "knowingly". [See par. 16 of the provisional settlement agreement.] I highly doubt that it was "knowing" in the plain meaning of the word and naturally, the company denies it, too. It's a ridiculous contention. However, the law defines "knowingly" to include imputed knowledge; if the CPSC deems that RC2 should have never let this happen (duh), they can assert the imputed knowledge of a reasonable man to convert the infraction into a "knowing" violation. Prest-o, change-o! Incompetence or organizational failure can thus be given the appearance of ill intent. Since virtually any violation can be deemed "knowing" with the aid of 20/20 hindsight under this terrible law, the CPSC now has an unwritten strict liability penalty policy at its disposal. That's sweet for an agency that is part legislature, part judge, part jury. As for companies cited for "knowing" violations, denials ring hollow. Frankly, it's a set-up . . . and when this happens to you, it will feel the same way.

d. The CPSC's apparent indifference to these factors will have a chilling effect on the children's product market. There is no question that business people tend to look at these cases as "there, but for the grace of G-d, go I". If RC2 can be hammered this way, what will happen to us if we make a mistake? There is just no way to tell. But, the RC2 and Mattel fines make it clear that "over" isn't "over" with the CPSC until the statute of limitations passes. This fine came more than three years after the recalls. When are you allowed to move on from your mistakes? Seems like never. The recent fines levied against Excelligence for $25,000 are of a similar vintage, so this can happen to small companies with small infractions, too. This is randomness run amok. The fact that the agency has been unable to issue final penalty factors in more than a year does not help matters.

Finally, of course, we private business people can't just stick our palm out to Wall Street for more money whenever we need to restock the coffers. The RC2 capital raise restores 100% of their losses from the recalls. Nice for them! Small private businesses have to go to their banks or our personal bank accounts to fund remediation of these problems. And let's hope your bank sticks with you after bad publicity. . . .

Could the CSPC be so myopic that it doesn't know how these risks affect the thinking and planning of small businesses? I can only conclude that the answer is yes.

Let's hope that the RC2 fine helps the agency and its leadership build up a suitably tough image. And for their sake, one can only hope that the architects of this law and the agency's penalty strategy are long gone, onto their next glories, before the cumulative impact of the CPSIA and its implementation are felt. And for the rest of us . . . good luck!

1 comment:

jennifer said...

thanks for the continuing coverage...the thought of endless fines for a mistake and bad press gives all of us making children's products pause...eventhough they are "safe". we do need to take back our country from this insanity.