Tuesday, February 17, 2009

CIRM Touts Its Financial Outlook

CIRM has officially but quietly announced that it hopes to raise $400 million through 2010 by selling California state bonds privately, a task never before achieved in state history.

The information on the private placement goal was posted Friday on the CIRM web site with virtually no notice or fanfare. The CIRM home page, which often carries far more trivial matters, makes no reference to the item about the state of CIRM's troubled finances. The three-paragraph posting was placed near the top of the CIRM web page page entitled "Funding Opportunities" and "Current Requests for Applications."

As far as we can tell, the item is the only significant reference on the CIRM web site to the hours and hours spent by worried directors last month discussing the agency's cash woes, other than the transcript of the meeting itself.

While the agency is now about seven months away from running out of cash, the Friday item has a positive headline, "CIRM's Financial Commitments Are Secure." The language is tailored to reassure grant applicants, especially those applying for the $210 million disease team RFA that was also posted on Friday.

The financial-status posting also refers to a "CIRM program with the state treasurer" for private placement of bonds. If the program is actually in place, it is a significant advance on the situation discussed by directors just three weeks ago. Many questions were raised at the time by directors about the plan. CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, who devised the private placement effort, promised to report back to the board at its meeting March 12.

CIRM seems determined not to call public attention to its financial problems, given its handling of the matter as long ago as its December board meeting. The January meeting included a lengthy briefing on the subject, but the public had no advance notice from CIRM of the sweeping scope of the problem. Even directors seemed taken aback.

A number of the directors were concerned about the public relations message that would be delivered as a result of the briefing and the ensuing discussion. There was a decided effort at the time to put a positive spin on the news. However, while directors approved $58 million in grants, they balked at funding until they knew more about the agency's finances. Efforts were also made to reassure current recipients of CIRM grants that money would still be forthcoming.

The public relations and positioning tactics could be construed as Pollyannish. But the agency must act in a way to retain the faith of the stem cell community that it will continue to operate unimpeded by what it hopes are transitory issues. CIRM needs a positive outlook to attract the best proposals for its disease round. It also must sell a story of past accomplishment and a rosy future to potential buyers of its bonds. No one is going to invest in a sinking ship.

At the same, CIRM directors and its executives should not be misled about the realities. Waiting too long to act on other measures to deal with the cash crunch will only compound the problem.

(A side note: In an operation independent of CIRM, the state of California is expected to announce later this week that it will make its first private placement of general obligation bonds, which could help smooth the way for CIRM sales with nervous investors. If the state does, in fact, make the private sale, CIRM, which has recorded a number of firsts in its brief life, will not have the opportunity to record another.)

Here is the full text of CIRM's "secure finances" posting:
"California voters approved the sale of  $3 billion in bonds to fund the work of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The State finance committee created to oversee those bonds has authorized the issuance of the full amount.  A total of $2.5 billion in authority remains in funding availability. Proceeds from sale of the bonds are constitutionally protected and can only be used to fund CIRM programs and operations.

"CIRM currently has significant cash reserves of $160 million, which can fund all existing commitments through at least September. The agency’s plans have always called for raising new capital on a cash-flow, as-needed basis. We expect the traditional bond market will open soon with resolution of California’s budget situation.  To supplement this public bond market, CIRM is working with the State treasurer’s office on a CIRM private placement of $200 million in general obligation bonds this year and $200 million again next year.  The CIRM program with the State Treasurer is designed to produce sufficient funding in 2009 and again in 2010 to maintain the pace of funding under CIRM’s proposed grant schedule.

"The Agency intends to continue the planning and review needed to maintain its mission on schedule and expects that additional bond funds will become available by the time they are needed."
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  1. FOr more on politics and the stem cell debate:

    David Granovsky

  2. update: