Saturday, May 30, 2015

The aftereffects of Michigan's largest Ponzi scheme

You may have been aware that last year David McQueen was sentenced to 30 years in prison as a result of his part in one of  Michigan's largest Ponzi schemes. This huge fraud, which affected 800 families and involved 46.5 million dollars in losses, has resulted in misery across the area for people who invested up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings as a way of accumulating money for retirement and now must live only on Social Security benefits.

McQueen's company, Accelerated Income Growth, or AIG, did not start out as a Ponzi scheme. He himself invested in a company called Multiple Return Transactions, or MRT, which was itself a Ponzi scheme. MRT paid out and then went under, leaving McQueen with the responsibility of telling his own investors that he'd lost their funds. Instead, McQueen chose to gamble with the remaining money in various speculative ventures while sending out statements showing growth of the investors' original funds. In August of 2009, both the IRS and the FBI obtained search warrants and the full breadth of the AIG's fraud came to light.

McQueen's co-conspirator, Trent Francke, testified against him in return for a plea deal. He received a 7-year sentence. Another man, Jason Juberg, is serving a 5-year sentence. The federal investigation continues.

Recently, the case received more coverage because of attempts to recover funds lost to investors. Last November, the Resurrection Life Church in Grandville received an email from Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Borgula requesting that they return the $300,000 Mr. McQueen donated to them. In April MLive reported that Resurrection Life's Board of Elders had rejected the request, saying that part of the money was donated 9 years ago and the church used it for their building program and cannot return it. Bernard Blaukamp, the church's pastor, stated that he believed the church had been unfairly targeted by the FBI in a way that other business and charity recipients of the money had not.

Then this month a Lansing woman is fighting claims to a coin collection made by Trent Francke's father, Edward Francke. The assets in question included 15 American Eagle silver coins, 20 one-ounce American Eagle gold coins, as well as silver bars and silver rounds. The woman believes that Edward Francke is holding this collection for his son and will return it to him when he has served his prison sentence. Edward Francke says he wired the funds used to purchase this collection to his son and is entitled to keep it. Their hearing is set for June 30.

This case has a number of unfortunate aspects to it: the number of people who were conned out of their savings, the retirement age of those people and their inability to make up the loss, the enormous amount of money that is just - poof! - gone, and the way that money crisscrossed through the community leaving any number of potential conflicts between those who were victimized and those who benefited from this crime, all unknowingly. Expect more of this mess to be revealed as the FBI works their way through the files.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Kent County tops list for most job gains in the state

Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data paints a rosier picture of the current Grand Rapids economy, certainly one that is recovering from its low point during the Great Recession. The real estate market has bounced backbusinesses are sellingunemployment is down statewide, but particularly in West Michigan. Approximately half of the almost 156,000 jobs the state lost during the last downturn have returned, but the Grand Rapids area has claimed a much larger percentage of that number than other counties.

Of the top 10 counties in Michigan with the largest job growth, Kent County and Ottawa County have added more jobs than the next 8 counties combined. Since 2005, approximately 54,000 jobs have been added - 24,000 of them just within the first three quarters of 2014. Southeast Michigan, the area of the state with the strongest economic performance for decades has been slow to regain jobs partly because the automotive industry is still considerably weakened, and so many businesses there were directly related to car manufacturing.

In West Michigan, manufacturing is coming back stronger because of its greater diversification and more adaptable population. If the strong union climate in the Detroit Metro Area is a disincentive to would be employers, West Michigan, by contrast, looks appealing. The furniture sector is back on track, and a number of manufacturing companies, including Dicastal North America and Plasan Carbon Composites, have announced plans to relocate to West Michigan. Grand Rapids also has strong healthcare, research, and education sectors as well as many opportunities in agribusiness.

Unfortunately, as with many of the jobs created after the recession, current wages do not match those of the jobs lost. Union jobs left, and part-time or lower wage jobs have replaced them. And despite the economic wounds inflicted on Southeast Michigan, the economy of just Oakland County is still three times as large as Kent County’s, and wages there are still higher.
Additionally, while jobs are coming back to the area, in manufacturing and other high tech fields, economists are worried that the lack of skilled workers will leave many positions unfilled and will cost industries and the economy in terms of unrealized growth and profit. This is hardly a local problem. Young people today are overlooking manufacturing as a potential employer and failing to pursue training in S.T.E.M. fields where many of the most lucrative positions will be.

Still, both industry and the State of Michigan have been motivated lately to create incentives to lure knowledge workers here, and the growth and diversification of the economy can only be seen as very positive developments for the people living here who wish to stay here and prosper.