How About a Stimulus for Financial Advice?

February 26, 2009

By ROBERT J. SHILLER
Published: January 17, 2009

In evaluating the causes of the financial crisis, don’t forget the countless fundamental mistakes made by millions of people who were caught up in the excitement of the real estate bubble, taking on debt they could ill afford.

Many errors in personal finance can be prevented. But first, people need to understand what they ought to do. The government’s various bailout plans need to take this into account — by starting a major program to subsidize personal financial advice for everyone.

A number of government agencies already have begun small-scale financial literacy programs. For example, the Treasury announced the creation of an Office of Financial Education in 2002, and President Bush started an Advisory Council on Financial Literacy a year ago. These initiatives are involved in outreach to schools with suggested curriculums, and online financial tips. But a much more ambitious effort is needed.

The government programs that are already under way are akin to distributing computer manuals. But when something goes wrong with a computer, most people need to talk to a real person who can zero in on the problem. They need an expert to guide them through the repair process, in a way that conveys patience and confidence that the problem can be solved. The same is certainly true for issues of personal finance.

The significance of this was clear at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association this month in San Francisco, where several new research papers showed the seriousness of consumer financial errors and the exploitation of them by sophisticated financial service providers.

A paper by Kris Gerardi of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Lorenz Goette of the University of Geneva and Stephan Meier of Columbia University asked a battery of simple financial literacy questions of recent homebuyers. Many of the respondents could not correctly answer even simple questions, like this one: What will a $300 item cost after it goes on a “50 percent off” sale? (The answer is $150.) They found that people who scored poorly on the financial literacy test also tended to make serious investment mistakes, like borrowing too much, and failing to collect information and shop for a mortgage.

A paper by Liran Einav and Jonathan Levin, both of Stanford, reporting on work with William Adams of Citigroup, shows how sophisticated automobile lenders can be in their loan technology. They use complicated statistical models not only to approve people for credit, but also to fine-tune the down payment and even to suggest what kind of car individuals can buy. This suggests to me that many borrowers can’t match the expertise of lenders.

And another paper, by Paige Marta Skiba of Vanderbilt University and Jeremy Tobacman of the University of Pennsylvania, showed that payday loans — advanced to people who run out of cash before their next paycheck — exploit people’s overoptimism and typically succeed in charging annual rates of interest that may amount to more than 7,000 percent.

One wishes that all this financial cleverness could be focused a bit more on improving the customers’ welfare!

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ETFs: A Better Bet in a Bear Market

February 26, 2009

Amid the financial crisis, tax advantages are but one benefit of exchange-traded funds. Their transparency, liquidity, and lower fees also appeal to investors

By David Bogoslaw
BusinessWeek.com

Imagine having invested in the DWS Commodity Securities A Fund (SKNRX) in 2008. The mutual fund had an annual return of -45.9% and also distributed nearly two-thirds of its net asset value as capital gains, incurring a substantial tax bill for investors on top of the losses they suffered. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only mutual fund to do so: More than three dozen funds with negative returns of at least 21% paid out over 30% of their net asset value as capital gains last year, according to Morningstar (MORN). Ouch and double ouch.

Making capital gains even higher than usual was the fact that most traditional mutual funds were forced to sell legacy holdings that had dramatically appreciated in value since being purchased in order to fund redemptions as nervous investors fled the market.

That may have prompted more people to switch to the mutual funds’ chief rival for the affections of diversification-minded retail investors, exchange-traded funds. Unlike mutual funds, ETFs incur zero capital gains until an investor actually sells his shares. While turnover in an ETF’s holdings can be high, it is done through in-kind exchanges of one security for another rather than through selling and buying.

But since the deepening of the financial crisis last September, the tax advantages of ETFs are just the icing on the cake.
Transparency, Liquidity, Lower Fees

The primary reason ETFs are more popular than ever is they give financial advisers the ability to better control their clients’ investment portfolios. First, there’s the transparency of knowing exactly what’s in an ETF on any given day, which matches advisers’ need for real-time management of investments in order to minimize wealth destruction. In this regard, ETFs have a clear advantage over mutual funds, which are required to disclose their holdings only four times a year. Of course, there are plenty of traditional index funds that are just as transparent as ETFs by virtue of the ability to see the contents of the underlying index on any chosen day, says Russ Kinnel, director of fund research at Morningstar.

ETFs’ inherent liquidity is also more valuable than ever in view of the continuing high volatility in stock and bond markets. Then there are the lower fees typically charged by ETF sponsors, which make a big difference in the current environment, where returns are mostly underwater.

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Housing fix leans on troubled firms

February 24, 2009

Obama is relying even more heavily on mortgage finance agencies Fannie and Freddie to help troubled borrowers and keep the housing market afloat.

By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com senior writer
Last Updated: February 24, 2009: 3:19 PM ET

NEW YORK(CNNMoney.com) — Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) won’t be leaving the federal government’s nest anytime soon.

President Obama is leaning heavily on the teetering mortgage finance titans to help stabilize the housing market, even as it pumps hundreds of billions of dollars into them to keep them afloat.

As the housing crisis deepens, the question of the companies’ long-term future has been set aside.

“The Obama administration has indicated that Fannie and Freddie will continue having a key role in the nation’s economy as we go forward,” James Lockhart, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates the companies, said in a speech last week. “At this point, our primary focus has to be getting through the present crisis.”

Fannie and Freddie, which long straddled the line between private companies and government agencies, were taken into conservatorship last September to prevent their collapse. Each were given a lifeline of $100 billion.

Their importance to homebuyers and lenders is clear – they accounted for more than 75% of mortgage originations at the end of last year, injecting much-needed financing into the lending arena. They own or guarantee almost 31 million mortgages worth $5.3 trillion.
Crucial to foreclosure rescue plan

And they are playing an pivotal role in Obama’s foreclosure prevention program, which was announced Wednesday.

Under the plan, Fannie and Freddie will provide access to low-cost refinancing to borrowers with little or no equity in their home. The administration expects this will help up to 5 million borrowers avoid foreclosure.

The companies are also contributing more than $20 billion to subsidize struggling borrowers’ interest rate reductions as part of Obama’s $75 billion loan modification program. This is expected to prevent up to 4 million foreclosures.

The administration, realizing it needs to boost confidence in the struggling companies, has agreed to double its level of support for the firms to $200 billion each, as well as boost the amount of mortgages they can own or guarantee to $900 billion, up from $850 billion.

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Most Profitable Mutual Funds Ever

February 20, 2009

Friday February 20, 10:55 am ET
By Max Rottersman

HANOVER, NH (ETFguide.com) – The highest mutual fund advisory fee, of all time, was collected from the Fidelity Magellan Fund (FMAGX).  In 2001 it took in $792 million.  Magellan has earned the top three, all-time records, grossing $1.8 billion between 2000 and 2002.  Much of that is profit, from future retirees who don’t read their statements.   Most can’t believe such large sums go directly into one manager’s pocket.   After all, if they did, wouldn’t we read about it in the press?  No.  Mutual fund companies provide a steady stream of advertising dollars.  It isn’t a conspiracy.  It’s natural self-interest for all involved, from The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal.

Ironically, American mutual fund regulation is the finest in the world.  I’m not joking.  There’s no secret to the numbers I’m pointing out.  They’re sent to every shareholder once a year.   Sadly, few journalist read fund financial statements either.  And any Fidelity shareholder who doesn’t like the fees is free to leave.

Mutual funds are corporations run on the behalf of their shareholders, represented by a board of trustees.  It’s a legal structure that makes for some confusing language; for example, fund fees are often called expenses (which legally they are), rather than fees (which functionally, you pay).  For example, Fidelity never charges you, the shareholder, directly. Rather, the fund trust pays a fee, from the fund’s assets, to various Fidelity companies (which are separate from the fund corporation) for various services.  Your board of trustees enters into contracts, on the shareholder’s behalf, with the advisor (like Fidelity) and other service providers.  Ironically, mutual funds were born during a ‘socialistic’ time in American history.   Again, I kid you not.  Should shareholders revolt, trustees can easily fire the portfolio management companies which serve the funds.   Interestingly, that has seldom happened.

If you have any question about the profitability of the fund business, consider this.  Last year, these five funds alone earned over $2 billion in advisory fees. Fidelity Contrafund: $522 Million (FCNTX), PIMCO Total Return Fund: $506 Million (PTTAX), Growth Fund Of America: $450 Million (AGTHX), Europacific Growth Fund: $439 Million (AEPGX), Fidelity Diversified International Fund: $374 Million (FDIVX). Again, believe it or not, these are the fees the manager charges for a few people to pick stocks for the fund.  The operational costs are separate.

Flying under the radar, because they don’t offer shares directly to the public, the CREF Stock Account Fund paid $586 million in advisory and administrative fees, the largest amount of any fund in my database.  TIAA-CREF says it’s ‘at cost’.  We have to assume it’s true, that the teachers did their own homework and thought for themselves.

Every shareholder should understand that all mutual funds have two basic costs.  The first is the cost to manage the portfolio; that is, buy and sell stocks and bonds.  A single person with a brokerage account can do this.   In mutual funds, the fee for this ‘portfolio management’ work is called the advisory fee.  The second basic cost is operational.  This work is often done by hundreds of people: administrators, call center workers, accountants, IT professionals, custodians, printers and lawyers.  The operational work is what shareholders ‘see and touch’ when they deal with their mutual fund.  Shareholders seldom, if ever, have any contact with the portfolio manager (advisor).

In 2001 Fidelity charged shareholders $162 million for operational costs (on top of the $792 million).  Fidelity probably makes some money on these costs too, since Fidelity subsidiaries handle shareholder servicing, administration and other ‘touch’ services.  Yet most people don’t believe me when I say most of the advisory fee is profit.  They just can’t believe it’s legal for Fidelity to collect $792 million for a few people picking stocks (which they pay a handsome salary in the millions, but it’s a fraction of what they charge). Here’s a list of 58 Fund Managers Who Took in Over $100 Million in Advisory Fees Last Year.

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Obama sets aside $75 billion to slow foreclosures

February 18, 2009

Program would seek to bring mortgage payments down to 31% of income

By Ronald D. Orol, MarketWatch
Last update: 2:38 p.m. EST Feb. 18, 2009

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — The White House unveiled a plan Wednesday to help 9 million “at risk” homeowners modify their mortgages, committing $75 billion of taxpayer money to back the initiative.

The plan contains two separate programs. One program is aimed at 4 million to 5 million homeowners struggling with loans owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae (FNM) or Freddie Mac (FRE) to help them refinance their mortgages through the two institutions.

The Obama mortgage plan

Below is a list of key elements of the plan outlined Wednesday by President Obama that aims to aid as many as 9 million households in fending off foreclosures:

* Allows 4 million–5 million homeowners to refinance via government-sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
* Establishes $75 billion fund to reduce homeowners’ monthly payments.
* Develops uniform rules for loan modifications across the mortgage industry.
* Bolsters Fannie and Freddie by buying more of their shares.
* Allows Fannie and Freddie to hold $900 billion in mortgage-backed securities — a $50 billion increase.

A separate program would potentially help 3 million to 4 million additional homeowners by allowing them to modify their mortgages to lower monthly interest rates through any participating lender. Under this plan, the lender would voluntarily lower the interest rate, and the government would provide subsidies to the lender.

“The plan I’m announcing focuses on rescuing families who have played by the rules and acted responsibly: by refinancing loans for millions of families in traditional mortgages who are underwater or close to it; by modifying loans for families stuck in subprime mortgages they can’t afford as a result of skyrocketing interest rates or personal misfortune; and by taking broader steps to keep mortgage rates low so that families can secure loans with affordable monthly payments,” President Barack Obama said.

Homeowners that have Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loans, who are having a difficult time refinancing and owe more than 80% of the value of their homes, would be eligible to refinance with this program. Even if homeowners with Fannie or Freddie loans have negative equity on their mortgages, they can qualify for this refinancing program. The program would only help homeowners occupying the property, not individuals who own property as investors.

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Gold Demand Pushed Through $US100 Billion Barrier as Investors Turned to Recognized Store of Value

February 18, 2009

Wednesday February 18, 2:00 am ET

NEW YORK & LONDON–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Sustained investor interest in gold over the course of 2008 against a backdrop of the worst year on record for global stock markets and many other asset classes, helped push dollar demand for the safe haven asset to $102bn, a 29% increase on year earlier levels. According to World Gold Council’s (“WGC”) Gold Demand Trends, identifiable gold demand in tonnage terms rose 4% on previous year levels to 3,659 tonnes.

As shares on stock markets around the world lost an estimated $14 trillion in value, identifiable investment demand for gold, which incorporates exchange traded funds (ETFs), and bars and coins, was 64% higher in 2008 than in 2007, equivalent to an additional inflow of $US15bn. Over the year as a whole, the gold price averaged $872, up 25% from $695 in 2007.

The most striking trend across the year was the reawakening of investor interest in the holding of physical gold. Demand for bars and coins rose 87% over the year with shortages reported across many parts of the globe.

The figures compiled independently for WGC by GFMS Limited, showed jewelry demand up 11% in dollar terms at almost $US60bn for the whole year, but down 11% in tonnage terms at 2,138 tonnes. The adverse economic conditions across the globe paired with a high and volatile price impacted jewelry buying in key markets, but resilient spending on gold jewelry indicated the strength of underlying demand when the market offered attractive price points.

Industrial demand in 2008 was another casualty of the global economic turmoil, down 7% to 430 tonnes from 461 tonnes in 2007. With the electronics sector the main source of industrial demand, reduced consumer spending on items such as laptops and mobile phones had a direct impact on gold demand.

Aram Shishmanian, Chief Executive Officer of World Gold Council, said:

“These figures confirm that investors around the world recognize the benefits of holding gold during this time of unprecedented global financial crisis, recession and concerns regarding future inflation. Gold has again proven its core investment qualities as a store of value, safe haven and portfolio diversifier and this has struck a chord with uneasy investors.

“While current market conditions have impacted consumer spending on jewelry, purchasers in many of the key gold markets understand gold’s intrinsic investment value and continue to buy.

“The economic downturn and uncertainty in the global markets that has affected us all is unlikely to abate in the short term. Consequently, we anticipate that gold, as a unique asset class, will continue to play a vital role in providing stability to both household and professional investors around the world.”

Total demand remained very strong in the fourth quarter of 2008, up 26% on the same period last year at 1036 tonnes or $26.5bn in value terms.

The biggest source of growth in demand for gold in Q4 was investment. Identifiable investment demand reached 399 tonnes, up from 141 tonnes in Q4 2007, a rise of 182%. The main source of this increase was net retail investment, which rose 396% from 61 tonnes in Q4 2007 to 304 tonnes in Q4 2008. The most dramatic surge was in Europe, where bar and coin demand increased from just 9 tonnes in Q4 2007 to 114 tonnes in Q4 2008, a 1,170% increase. ETF holdings broke new records during the quarter. Although the net quarterly inflow was down from the level of the previous quarter, the growth rate on Q4 2007 was a strong 18%.

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Obama signs $787 billion stimulus into law

February 17, 2009

Ceremony setting highlights investment in ‘green’ technology

By Robert Schroeder, MarketWatch
3:39 p.m. EST Feb. 17, 2009

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — President Barack Obama signed the sprawling $787 billion economic stimulus package into law on Tuesday, saying it will help the struggling U.S. economy but warning that the recovery process will be challenging.

“Today does not mark the end of our economic troubles,” Obama said before signing the bill in Denver, Colo. “Nor does it constitute all of what we must do to turn our economy around.”

But, said Obama “it does mark the beginning of the end” of what the U.S. needs to do to create jobs, provide relief to families and pave the way for long-term growth.

Obama signed the bill on Tuesday afternoon in a ceremony in Denver after touring a solar panel installation project at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Among other things, the bill funnels money to alternative energy projects, provides tax cuts for individuals and businesses and gives aid to states.

Congress approved the bill on Feb. 13. Democrats voted overwhelmingly in the House and Senate to back the bill, but no Republicans voted for it in the House and only three voted for it in the Senate.

Obama has repeatedly described the stimulus as the first in a multi-part strategy to hasten an economic recovery. Read a summary of the stimulus.

On Wednesday, the administration plans to announce details about a $50 billion program to modify mortgages for troubled homeowners. The Treasury Department plans to use $50 billion of the remaining $350 billion in a bank-bailout fund for a program to help troubled homeowners avoid defaulting on their loans by subsidizing mortgage payments.

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