Tapping The New [Extended] Home-Buyer Tax Credit

November 16, 2009

By Amy Hoak
DOW JONES

House shopping usually slows down in the winter, as people put their home searches on hold to trim the tree, buy presents to put under it and avoid the chilly weather.

This winter, however, might be different, thanks to the extended–and expanded–first-time home-buyer tax credit.

“We’re going to see far more interest in the fourth quarter than we generally do because of the tax credit,” said Heather Fernandez, vice president of Trulia.com, a real estate search engine. Traffic surged on the site on Nov. 5, the day Congress approved the credit extension, she said.

The new law extends the tax credit for first-time home buyers and opens it up to some existing homeowners as well: The credit is now 10% of the home price, up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and up to $6,500 for repeat buyers.

All buyers must have a binding contract on a house in place on or before April 30. The sale must close on or before June 30.

To be considered a first-time home buyer, an individual must not have owned a home in the past three years. And to be eligible, existing homeowners need to have lived in the same principal residence for five consecutive years during the eight-year period that ends when the new home is purchased. The credit is only for principal residences.

Income limits have risen as well. According to the IRS, the home-buyer tax credit now phases out for individuals with modified adjusted gross incomes between $125,000 and $145,000, and between $225,000 and $245,000 for people filing joint returns.

Will Credit Spur More Buyers?

The inclusion of move-up buyers might inspire homeowners to take action and list their house if they’ve been putting it off, said Carolyn Warren, a Seattle, Wash.-based mortgage broker and banker and author of the book “Homebuyers Beware.”

“If somebody loves their home, it’s not going to entice them to sell. If they’ve had it in the back of their minds and really would like to move up, it might push them into doing it sooner than later,” Warren said.

The credit isn’t expected to have as large of an effect on move-up buyers as it has on first-time buyers, according to the Campbell/Inside Mortgage Finance Monthly Survey of Real Estate Market Conditions. The maximum tax credit is about 4% of the average purchase price for first-time buyers, but about 2% of the average purchase price for move-up buyers.

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U.S. bailout program increased moral hazard: watchdog

October 21, 2009

Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:30am EDT
By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s $700 billion financial bailout program has increased moral hazard in the markets by infusing capital into banks that caused the financial crisis, a watchdog for the program said on Wednesday.

The special inspector general for the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) said the plan put in place a year ago was clearly influencing market behavior, and he repeated that taxpayers may never recoup all their money.

The bailout fund may have helped avert a financial system collapse but it could reinforce perceptions the government will step in to keep firms from failing, the quarterly report from inspector general Neil Barofsky said.

He said there continued to be conflicts of interest around credit rating agencies that failed to warn of risks leading up to the financial crisis. The report added that the recent rebound in big bank stocks risked removing urgency of dealing with the financial system’s problems.

“Absent meaningful regulatory reform, TARP runs the risk of merely reanimating markets that had collapsed under the weight of reckless behavior,” the report said. “The firms that were ‘too big to fail’ last October are in many cases bigger still, many as a result of government-supported and -sponsored mergers and acquisitions.”

ANGER, CYNICISM, DISTRUST

The report cites an erosion of government credibility associated with a lack of transparency, particularly in the early handling of the program’s initial investments in large financial institutions.

“Notwithstanding the TARP’s role in bringing the financial system back from the brink of collapse, it has been widely reported that the American people view TARP with anger, cynicism and distrust. These views are fueled by the lack of transparency in the program,” the report said.

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Dow closes above 10,000 for 1st time in a year

October 14, 2009

DJ comeback: Stock market’s best-known barometer closes above 10,000 for 1st time in a year

By Sara Lepro and Tim Paradis, AP Business Writers
5:08 pm EDT, Wednesday October 14, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) — When the Dow Jones industrial average first passed 10,000, traders tossed commemorative caps and uncorked champagne. This time around, the feeling was more like relief.

The best-known barometer of the stock market entered five-figure territory again Wednesday, the most visible sign yet that investors believe the economy is clawing its way back from the worst downturn since the Depression.

The milestone caps a stunning 53 percent comeback for the Dow since early March, when stocks were at their lowest levels in more than a decade.

“It’s almost like an announcement that the bear market is over,” said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co. (JEF) in Boston. “That is an eye-opener — ‘Hey, you know what, things must be getting better because the Dow is over 10,000.'”

Cheers went up briefly when the Dow eclipsed the milestone in the early afternoon, during a daylong rally driven by encouraging earnings reports from Intel Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) The average closed at 10,015.86, up 144.80 points.

It was the first time the Dow had touched 10,000 since October 2008, that time on the way down.

“I think there were times when we were in the deep part of the trough there back in the springtime when it felt like we’d never get back to this level,” said Bernie McSherry, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Cuttone & Co.

Ethan Harris, head of North America economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC), described it as a “relief rally that the world is not coming to an end.”

The mood was far from the euphoria of March 1999, when the Dow surpassed 10,000 for the first time. The Internet then was driving extraordinary gains in productivity, and serious people debated whether there was such a thing as a boom without end.

“If this is a bubble,” The Wall Street Journal marveled on its front page, “it sure is hard to pop.”

It did pop, of course. And then came the lost decade.

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U.S. 30-year mortgage rate retests record lows

October 1, 2009

Thu Oct 1, 2009 10:35am EDT

NEW YORK, Oct 1 (Reuters) – The average rate on 30-year U.S. home loans fell in the past week to retest record lows, helping stimulate housing demand, Freddie Mac (FRE) said on Thursday.

The most widely used long-term borrowing cost dropped 0.10 of a percentage point in the week ended Oct. 1 to 4.94 percent, the lowest since late May, and near the all-time low of 4.78 percent set in April.

A year ago, before government interventions aimed at cutting borrowing costs to stimulate housing and the economy, the rate was 6.10 percent.

Freddie Mac started tracking 30-year mortgage rates weekly in 1971.

The 15-year average mortgage rate, which it started tracking in 1991, set a record low of 4.36 percent in the latest week. A year earlier, this rate was 5.78 percent.

“Low mortgage rates are helping to stabilize home sales,” Frank Nothaft, chief economist at Freddie Mac, said in a statement.

New home sales in August rose to the highest annualized pace since September 2007, while unsold inventory fell to the lowest sine February 1983, he noted.

Sales of existing homes declined in August but were at the second-highest pace in almost two years. And home prices, based on the S&P/Case-Shiller indexes, have risen for three straight months through July after plummeting for three years.

Pending home sales gained 6.4 percent in August in the seventh straight monthly increase, reaching the highest level since March 2007.

The U.S. housing remains depressed despite the recent signs of life and there is growing concern about how the market will hold up if the federal $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit is not extended past November 30.

Home prices on average remain more than 32 percent below 2006 peaks, and many economists expect further erosion under the weight of rising foreclosures.

Lenders charged an average 0.7 point in fees for 30-year loans, up from 0.6 point the prior week.

(Reporting by Lynn Adler)


Wall Street’s Math Wizards Forgot a Few Variables

September 14, 2009

by Steve Lohr
Monday, September 14, 2009
The New York Times

In the aftermath of the great meltdown of 2008, Wall Street’s quants have been cast as the financial engineers of profit-driven innovation run amok. They, after all, invented the exotic securities that proved so troublesome.

But the real failure, according to finance experts and economists, was in the quants’ mathematical models of risk that suggested the arcane stuff was safe.

The risk models proved myopic, they say, because they were too simple-minded. They focused mainly on figures like the expected returns and the default risk of financial instruments. What they didn’t sufficiently take into account was human behavior, specifically the potential for widespread panic. When lots of investors got too scared to buy or sell, markets seized up and the models failed.

That failure suggests new frontiers for financial engineering and risk management, including trying to model the mechanics of panic and the patterns of human behavior.

“What wasn’t recognized was the importance of a different species of risk — liquidity risk,” said Stephen Figlewski, a professor of finance at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. “When trust in counterparties is lost, and markets freeze up so there are no prices,” he said, it “really showed how different the real world was from our models.”

In the future, experts say, models need to be opened up to accommodate more variables and more dimensions of uncertainty.

The drive to measure, model and perhaps even predict waves of group behavior is an emerging field of research that can be applied in fields well beyond finance.

Much of the early work has been done tracking online behavior. The Web provides researchers with vast data sets for tracking the spread of all manner of things — news stories, ideas, videos, music, slang and popular fads — through social networks. That research has potential applications in politics, public health, online advertising and Internet commerce. And it is being done by academics and researchers at Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook.

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Bailed-out bankers to get options windfall: study

September 2, 2009

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:14am EDT
By Steve Eder

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As shares of bailed-out banks bottomed out earlier this year, stock options were awarded to their top executives, setting them up for millions of dollars in profit as prices rebounded, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The top five executives at 10 financial institutions that took some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts have seen a combined increase in the value of their stock options of nearly $90 million, the report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said.

“Not only are these executives not hurting very much from the crisis, but they might get big windfalls because of the surge in the value of some of their shares,” said Sarah Anderson, lead author of the report, “America’s Bailout Barons,” the 16th in an annual series on executive excess.

The report — which highlights executive compensation at such firms as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Morgan Stanley (MS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) — comes at a time when Wall Street is facing criticism for failing to scale back outsized bonuses after borrowing billions from taxpayers amid last year’s financial crisis. Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have paid back the money they borrowed, but Bank of America and Citigroup are still in the U.S. Treasury’s program.

It’s also the latest in a string of studies showing that despite tough talk by politicians, little has been done by regulators to rein in the bonus culture that many believe contributed to the near-collapse of the financial sector.

The report includes eight pages of legislative proposals to address executive pay, but concludes that officials have “not moved forward into law or regulation any measure that would actually deflate the executive pay bubble that has expanded so hugely over the last three decades.”

“We see these little flurries of activities in Congress, where it looked like it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Then they would just peter out.”

The report found that while executives continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars in compensation, 160,000 employees were laid off at the top 20 financial industry firms that received bailouts.

The CEOs of those 20 companies were paid, on average, 85 times more than the regulators who direct the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, according to the report.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; editing by John Wallace)


Investors trading 3 stocks that may be doomed

August 27, 2009

Investors still trading Fannie, Freddie, AIG shares, even though prices are likely to hit zero

Daniel Wagner, AP Business Writer
Thursday August 27, 2009, 5:36 pm EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Investors are still trading common shares of Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE) and American International Group Inc. (AIG) by the billions, even though analysts say their prices are almost certain to go to zero.

All three are majority-owned by the government and are losing huge sums of money. The Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators lack authority to end trading of stocks in such “zombie” companies that technically are alive — until the government takes them off life support.

Shares of the two mortgage giants and the insurer have been swept up in a summer rally in financial stocks. Investors have been trading their shares at abnormally high volumes, despite analysts’ warnings that they’re destined to lose their money.

“People have done well by trading them (in the short term), but when it gets to the end of the road, these stocks are going to be worth zero,” said Bose George, an analyst with the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

Some of the activity involves day traders aiming to profit from short-term price swings, George said. But he said inexperienced investors might have the mis-impression that the companies may recover or be rescued.

“That would be kind of unfortunate,” he said. “There could be a lot of improvement in the economy, and these companies would still be worth zero.”

The government continues to support the companies with billions in taxpayer money, saying they still play a crucial role in the financial system.

Fannie and Freddie buy loans from banks and sell them to investors — a role critical to the mortgage market. They have tapped about $96 billion out of a potential $400 billion in aid from the Treasury Department.

Officials have said AIG’s failure would be disastrous for the financial markets. Treasury and the Federal Reserve have spent about $175 billion on AIG and AIG-related securities. The company also has access to $28 billion from the $700 billion financial industry bailout.

But analysts say the wind-down strategies for the companies are almost sure to wipe out any common equity, making their shares worthless.

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CFTC moves to rein in small ETF investors: report

August 22, 2009

Sat Aug 22, 2009 12:18pm EDT

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Exchange-traded funds or ETFs have become a top target in U.S. regulators’ efforts to rein in excessive speculation in oil and other commodity markets, The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday.

Commodity ETFs, which came into existence in 2003, offer one of the few avenues for small investors to gain direct exposure to commodity markets. The funds pool money from investors to make one-way bets, usually on rising prices.

Some say this causes excessive buying that artificially inflates prices for oil, natural gas and gold.

Commodity ETFs have ballooned to hold $59.3 billion in assets as of July, according to the National Stock Exchange, which tracks ETF data.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has said it seeks to protect end users of commodities, and that cutting out individual investors is not the goal.

“The Commission has never said, ‘You aren’t tall enough to ride,'” CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton was quoted as saying in the WSJ article. “I don’t want to limit liquidity, but above all else, I want to ensure that prices for consumers are fair and that there is no manipulation — intentional or otherwise.”

Limiting the size of ETFs will result in higher costs for investors, the WSJ reported, because legal and operational costs have to be spread out over a fewer number of shares. Investors range from individuals to banks and hedge funds with multimillion-dollar positions.

The CFTC is currently considering a host of measures to curb excessive speculation, including position limits in U.S. futures markets. Many U.S. lawmakers called for greater regulation of some commodity markets after a price surge last year sent crude oil to a record high of $147 a barrel in July 2008.

(Reporting by Matthew Lewis; Editing by Toni Reinhold)


In sign of strength, S&P 500 breaks past 1,000 as Wall Street rally blows into August

August 3, 2009

By Sara Lepro and Tim Paradis, AP Business Writers
Monday August 3, 2009, 6:02 pm EDT

NEW YORK (AP) — The Standard & Poor’s 500 index (SPX) is four digits again now that the stock market’s rally has blown into August.

The widely followed stock market measure broke above 1,000 on Monday for the first time in nine months as reports on manufacturing, construction and banking sent investors more signals that the economy is gathering strength. The S&P is used as a benchmark by professional investors, and it’s also the foundation for mutual funds in many individual 401(k) accounts.

Wall Street’s big indexes all rose more than 1 percent, including the Dow Jones industrial average (INDU), which climbed 115 points.

The market extended its summer rally on the type of news that might have seemed unthinkable when stocks cratered to 12-year lows in early March. A trade group predicted U.S. manufacturing activity will grow next month, the government said construction spending rose in June and Ford Motor Co. (F) said its sales rose last month for the first time in nearly two years.

“The market is beginning to smell economic recovery,” said Howard Ward, portfolio manager of GAMCO Growth Fund. “It may be too early to declare victory, but we are well on our way.”

The day’s reports were the latest indications that the recession that began in December 2007 could be retreating. Better corporate earnings reports and economic data propelled the Dow Jones industrial average 725 points in July to its best month in nearly seven years and restarted spring rally that had stalled in June.

On Monday, a report from the Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing executives, signaled U.S. manufacturing activity should increase next month for the first time since January 2008 as industrial companies restock shelves. Also, the Commerce Department said construction spending rose rather than fell in June as analysts had expected. The reports and rising commodity prices lifted energy and material stocks.

Ford said sales of light vehicles rose 1.6 percent in July. Other major automakers said they saw signs of stability in sales. Investors predicted that the government’s popular cash for clunkers program would boost overall auto sales to their highest level of the year.

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SEC makes emergency rule targeting ‘naked’ short-selling permanent

July 27, 2009

By Marcy Gordon, AP Business Writer
Monday July 27, 2009, 8:03 pm EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators on Monday made permanent an emergency rule put in at the height of last fall’s market turmoil that aims to reduce abusive short-selling.

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it took the action on the rule targeting so-called “naked” short-selling, which was due to expire Friday.

Short-sellers bet against a stock. They generally borrow a company’s shares, sell them, and then buy them when the stock falls and return them to the lender — pocketing the difference in price.

“Naked” short-selling occurs when sellers don’t even borrow the shares before selling them, and then look to cover positions sometime after the sale.

The SEC rule includes a requirement that brokers must promptly buy or borrow securities to deliver on a short sale.

Brokers acting for short sellers must find a party believed to be able to deliver the shares within three days after the short-sale trade. If the shares aren’t delivered within that time, there is deemed to be a “failure to deliver.” Brokers can be subject to penalties if the failure to deliver isn’t resolved by the start of trading on the following day.

At the same time, the SEC has been considering several new approaches to reining in rushes of regular short-selling that also can cause dramatic plunges in stock prices.

Investors and lawmakers have been clamoring for the SEC to put new brakes on trading moves they say worsened the market’s downturn starting last fall. SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro has said she is making the issue a priority.

Some securities industry officials, however, have maintained that the SEC’s emergency order on “naked” short-selling brought unintended negative consequences, such as wilder price swings and turbulence in the market.

The five SEC commissioners voted in April to put forward for public comment five alternative short-selling plans. One option is restoring a Depression-era rule that prohibits short sellers from making their trades until a stock ticks at least one penny above its previous trading price. The goal of the so-called uptick rule is to prevent selling sprees that feed upon themselves — actions that battered the stocks of banks and other companies over the last year.

Another approach would ban short-selling for the rest of the trading session in a stock that declines by 10 percent or more.

Schapiro said last week the SEC could decide on a final course of action in “the next several weeks or several months.”

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Investors dump brokers to go it alone online

July 24, 2009

Fri Jul 24, 2009 12:31pm EDT

By Rachel Chang

NEW YORK, July 24 (Reuters) – The collapse of Lehman Brothers (LEH) last September marked the start of a downward spiral for big investment banks. For a smaller fraternity of Internet brokerages, it has set off a dramatic spurt of growth.

Since the start of the financial crisis, $32.2 billion has flowed into the two largest online outfits, TD Ameritrade Holding Corp (AMTD) and Charles Schwab Corp (SCHW), company records show.

By contrast, investors have pulled more than $100 billion from traditional full-service brokerages like Citigroup Inc’s Smith Barney (C) and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC).

Of course, Americans still keep more of their wealth with established brokerages. According to research firm Gartner, 43 percent of individual investors were with full-service brokers last year, compared with 24 percent with online outfits.

And while figures for 2009 are not yet available, the flow of investors in the past 10 months has clearly been in the direction of the online brokerages, according to analysts both at Gartner and research consultancy Celent.

Joining the exodus is Ben Mallah, who says he lost $3 million in a Smith Barney account in St. Petersburg, Florida, as the markets crashed last year.

“I will never again trust anyone who is commission-driven to manage my portfolio,” said Mallah. “If they’re not making money off you, they have no use for you.”

This trend, a product of both the financial crisis and the emergence of a new generation of tech-savvy, cost-conscious young investors, is positioning online outfits as increasingly important in the wealth management field.

The numbers reflect a loss of faith in professional money managers as small investors dress their wounds from the hammering they took over the last year, the Internet brokerages say.

“There has been an awakening,” said Don Montanaro, chief executive of TradeKing, which reported a post-Lehman spike in new accounts of 121 percent. Investors now realize they alone are responsible for their money, he said.

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Private rescue of CIT marks shift in crisis

July 21, 2009

Denied federal bailout, CIT taps $3B private rescue; may be strategy for other troubled banks

By Daniel Wagner and Stevenson Jacobs, AP Business Writers
Tuesday July 21, 2009, 12:44 am EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — With bondholders coming to the rescue of troubled commercial lender CIT Group Inc. (CIT), and not the government, a new reality is setting in for investors.

With federal bailouts drying up and the economy still in distress, many more financial firms could face bankruptcy. When they do, it will be major private lenders that will have to decide whether to rescue the companies or allow them to fail.

It signals a return to the traditional path for financially troubled firms after nearly a year of government aid.

“It wasn’t clear that Treasury wanted this to be a turning point, but that’s the way it’s worked out,” said Simon Johnson, a former chief economist with the International Monetary Fund, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Johnson said the markets took so kindly to CIT’s quest for private-sector cash that the government “would feel pretty comfortable about” threatening bankruptcy for firms with less than $100 billion in assets.

Bondholders’ $3 billion rescue of CIT marks the first time since the banking crisis erupted that private investors have stepped in to save a big financial firm without federal help or oversight.

The lifeline for CIT, whose clients include Dunkin’ Donuts franchises and clothing maker Eddie Bauer, aims to sustain the company long enough for it to rework its heavy debt load, which includes $7.4 billion due in the first quarter of next year. It does not guarantee CIT will avoid bankruptcy.

CIT said late Monday that the rescue includes a $3 billion secured term loan with a 2.5-year maturity, which will ensure that its small and midsized business customers continue to have access to credit. Term loan proceeds of $2 billion are committed and available immediately, with an additional $1 billion expected to be committed and available within 10 days.

The short-term financing comes at a high price — an interest rate of about 10.5 percent, said a person close to the negotiations who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

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How Do I Know You’re Not Bernie Madoff?

June 15, 2009

by Paul Sullivan
The New York Times
Monday, June 15, 2009

Tony Guernsey has been in the wealth management business for four decades. But clients have started asking him a question that at first caught him off guard: How do I know I own what you tell me I own?

This is the existential crisis rippling through wealth management right now, in the wake of the unraveling of Bernard L. Madoff’s long-running Ponzi scheme. Mr. Guernsey, the head of national wealth management at Wilmington Trust, says he understands why investors are asking the question, but it still unnerves him. “They got their statements from Madoff, and now they get their statement from XYZ Corporation. And they say, ‘How do I know they exist?’ ”

When he is asked this, Mr. Guernsey says he walks clients through the checks and balances that a 106-year-old firm like Wilmington has. Still, this is the ultimate reverberation from the Madoff scandal: trust, the foundation between wealth manager and client, has been called into question, if not destroyed.

“It used to be that if you owned I.B.M., you could pull the certificate out of your sock drawer,” said Dan Rauchle, president of Wells Fargo Alternative Asset Management. “Once we moved away from that, we got into this world of trusting others to know what we owned.”

The process of restoring that trust may take time. But in the meantime, investors may be putting their faith in misguided ways of ensuring trust. Mr. Madoff, after all, was not charged after an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission a year before his firm collapsed. Here are some considerations:

CUT THROUGH THE CLUTTER Financial disclosure rules compel money managers to send out statements. The problem is that the statements and trade confirmations arrive so frequently, they fail to help investors understand what they own.

To mitigate this, many wealth management firms have developed their own systems to track and present client assets. HSBC Private Bank has had WealthTrack for nearly five years, while Barclays Wealth is introducing Wealth Management Reporting. But there are many more, including a popular one from Advent Software.

These systems consolidate the values of securities, partnerships and, in some cases, assets like homes and jewelry. HSBC’s program takes into account the different ways firms value assets by finding a common trading date. It also breaks out the impact of currency fluctuation..

These systems have limits, though. “Our reporting is only as good as the data we receive,” said Mary Duke, head of global wealth solutions for the Americas at HSBC Private Bank. “A hedge fund’s value depends on when the hedge fund reports — if it reports a month-end value, but we get it a month late.”

In other words, no consolidation program is foolproof.

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U.S. clears 10 big banks to repay bailout funds

June 9, 2009

Tue Jun 9, 2009 6:09pm EDT
By Glenn Somerville

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – JPMorgan (JPM), Goldman Sachs (GS) and eight other top U.S. banks won clearance on Tuesday to repay $68 billion in taxpayer money given to them during the credit crisis, a step that may help them escape government curbs on executive pay.

Many banks had chafed at restrictions on pay that accompanied the capital injections. The U.S. Treasury Department’s announcement that some will be permitted to repay funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, begins to separate the stronger banks from weaker ones as the financial sector heals.

Treasury didn’t name the banks, but all quickly stepped forward to say they were cleared to return money the government had pumped into them to try to ensure the banking system was well capitalized

Stock prices gained initially after the Treasury announcement but later shed most of the gains on concern the money could be better used for lending to boost the economy rather than paying it back to Treasury.

“If they were more concerned about the public, they would keep the cash and start loaning out money,” said Carl Birkelbach, chairman and chief executive of Birkelbach Investment Securities in Chicago.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told reporters the repayments were an encouraging sign of financial repair but said the United States and other key Group of Eight economies had to stay focused on instituting measures to boost recovery.

MUST KEEP LENDING

Earlier this year U.S. regulators put the 19 largest U.S. banks through “stress tests” to determine how much capital they might need to withstand a worsening recession. Ten of those banks were told to raise more capital, and regulators waited for their plans to do so before approving any bailout repayments.

As a condition of being allowed to repay, banks had to show they could raise money on their own from the private sector both by selling stock and by issuing debt without the help of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp guarantees. The Federal Reserve also had to agree that their capital levels were adequate to support continued lending.

American Express Co (AXP), Bank of New York Mellon Corp (BK), BB&T Corp (BBT), Capital One Financial Corp (COF), Goldman Sachs Group Inc, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Morgan Stanley (MS), Northern Trust Corp (NTRS), State Street Corp (STT) and U.S. Bancorp (USB) all said they had won approval to repay the bailout funds.

In contrast, neither Bank of America Corp (BAC) or Citigroup Inc (C), which each took $45 billion from the government, received a green light to pay back bailout money.

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Countrywide’s Mozilo charged with fraud

June 4, 2009

Thu Jun 4, 2009 7:41pm EDT

By Gina Keating and Rachelle Younglai

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Angelo Mozilo, who built the largest U.S. mortgage lender, was charged with securities fraud and insider trading on Thursday, making him the most prominent defendant so far in investigations into the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis and housing bust.

Mozilo, 70, co-founder of Countrywide Financial Corp (CFC), was accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission with making more than $139 million in profits in 2006 and 2007 from exercising 5.1 million stock options and selling the underlying shares.

The sales were under four prearranged stock trading plans Mozilo prepared during the time period, the SEC said.

The accusations were made in a civil lawsuit filed by the SEC in Los Angeles on Thursday.

The SEC said that in one instance, the day before he set up a stock trading plan on September 25, 2006, Mozilo sent an email to two Countrywide executives that said: “We are flying blind on how these loans will perform in a stressed environment of higher unemployment, reduced values and slowing home sales.”

Those executives, then Countrywide President David Sambol, 49, and Chief Financial Officer Eric Sieracki, 52, were charged by the SEC with knowingly writing “riskier and riskier” subprime loans that they had a limited ability to sell on the secondary mortgage market.

The SEC said that all three executives failed to tell investors how dependent Countrywide had become on its ability to sell subprime mortgages on the secondary market. All three were accused of hiding from investors the risks they took to win market share.

At one stage, Countrywide was writing almost 1 in 6 of American mortgages. The lawsuit said that by September 2006, Countrywide estimated that it had a 15.7 percent share of the market, up from 11.4 percent at the end of 2003.

“While Countrywide boasted to investors that its market share was increasing, company executives did not disclose that its market share increase came at the expense of prudent underwriting guidelines,” the lawsuit said

Bank of America Corp (BAC) bought Countrywide last July 1 for $2.5 billion, less than a tenth of what it had been worth in early 2007.

“TWO COMPANIES”, EARLY WARNING SIGNS

“This is a tale of two companies,” the SEC’s director of enforcement, Robert Khuzami, told reporters. “One that investors from the outside saw. It was allegedly characterized by prudent business practices and tightly controlled risk.”

“But the real Countrywide, which could only be seen from the inside, was one buckling under the weight of deteriorating mortgages, lax underwriting, and an increasingly suspect business model,” Khuzami said.

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GM and C removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average

June 1, 2009

GM replaced in the S&P 500 by DeVry Inc.

Following the bankruptcy filing, Dow Jones Indexes said GM will be removed from the Dow Jones industrial average and will be replaced by Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO). Embattled financial company Citigroup Inc (C) will also be deleted from the Dow average and Travelers Cos Inc (TRV) will take its place.

Cisco, a maker of networking equipment, provided one of the biggest boosts to the Nasdaq, rising 5.4 percent to $19.50, while Travelers gained 3.1 percent to $41.91 on the New York Stock Exchange.

GM shares ended unchanged at 75 cents, a day before their suspension by the NYSE, while Citigroup slipped 0.8 percent to $3.69.

On Tuesday, GM’s stock is expected to start trading on the Pink Sheets under a new ticker symbol.

Standard & Poor’s said GM will be removed from the S&P 500 after the close of trading on Tuesday, June 2nd. It will be replaced by education company DeVry Inc (DV), whose stock jumped 4.1 percent to $46.20 after the bell.


Stress test results lift cloud of uncertainty

May 8, 2009

Results show 10 big banks need $75 billion in new capital; hope rises for economy’s recovery

Daniel Wagner and Jeannine Aversa, AP Business Writers
Friday May 8, 2009, 1:09 am EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Government exams of the biggest U.S. banks have helped lift a cloud of uncertainty that has hung over the economy.

The so-called stress tests — a key Obama administration effort to boost confidence in the financial system — showed nine of the 19 biggest banks have enough capital to withstand a deeper recession. Ten must raise a total of $75 billion in new capital to withstand possible future losses.

“The publication of the stress tests simply cleared the air of uncertainty,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics. “The results were not scary at all.”

He said it will take a long time for the banks to resume normal lending. But the test results didn’t alter his prediction that economy is headed for a recovery in October or November.

A key indicator of economic health will be released Friday morning, when the government announces how many more jobs were lost in April and how high the unemployment rate rose.

The stress tests have been criticized as a confidence-building exercise whose relatively rosy outcome was inevitable. But the information, which leaked out all week, was enough to cheer investors. They pushed bank stocks higher Wednesday, and rallied again in after-hours trading late Thursday once the results had been released.

Among the 10 banks that need to raise more capital, Bank of America Corp. (BAC) needs by far the most — $33.9 billion. Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) needs $13.7 billion, GMAC LLC $11.5 billion, Citigroup Inc. (C) $5.5 billion and Morgan Stanley (MS) $1.8 billion.

The five other firms found to need more of a capital cushion are all regional banks — Regions Financial Corp. (RF) of Birmingham, Alabama; SunTrust Banks Inc. (STI) of Atlanta; KeyCorp (KEY) of Cleveland; Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB) of Cincinnati; and PNC Financial Services Group Inc. (PNC) of Pittsburgh.

The banks will have until June 8 to develop a plan and have it approved by their regulators. If they can’t raise the money on their own, the government said it’s prepared to dip further into its bailout fund.

The stress tests are a big part of the Obama administration’s plan to fortify the financial system. As home prices fell and foreclosures increased, banks took huge hits on mortgages and mortgage-related securities they were holding.

The government hopes the stress tests will restore investors’ confidence that not all banks are weak, and that even those that are can be strengthened. They have said none of the banks will be allowed to fail.

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The Fight Over Who Will Guard Your Nest Egg

March 28, 2009

By JASON ZWEIG
wsj.com

A power struggle in Washington will shape how investors get the advice they need.

On one side are stockbrokers and other securities salespeople who work for Wall Street firms, banks and insurance companies. On the other are financial planners or investment advisers who often work for themselves or smaller firms.

Brokers are largely regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is funded by the brokerage business itself and inspects firms every one or two years. Under Finra’s rules, brokers must recommend only investments that are “suitable” for clients.

Advisers are regulated by the states or the Securities and Exchange Commission, which examines firms every six to 10 years on average. Advisers act out of “fiduciary duty,” or the obligation to put their clients’ interests first.

Most investors don’t understand this key distinction. A report by Rand Corp. last year found that 63% of investors think brokers are legally required to act in the best interest of the client; 70% believe that brokers must disclose any conflicts of interest. Advisers always have those duties, but brokers often don’t. The confusion is understandable, because a lot of stock brokers these days call themselves financial planners.

Brokers can sell you any investment they have “reasonable grounds for believing” is suitable for you. Only since 1990 have they been required to base that suitability judgment on your risk tolerance, investing objectives, tax status and financial position.

A key factor still is missing from Finra’s suitability requirements: cost. Let’s say you tell your broker that you want to simplify your stock portfolio into an index fund. He then tells you that his firm manages an S&P-500 Index fund that is “suitable’ for you. He is under no obligation to tell you that the annual expenses that his firm charges on the fund are 10 times higher than an essentially identical fund from Vanguard. An adviser acting under fiduciary duty would have to disclose the conflict of interest and tell you that cheaper alternatives are available.

If brokers had to take cost and conflicts of interest into account in order to honor a fiduciary duty to their clients, their firms might hesitate before producing the kind of garbage that has blighted the portfolios of investors over the years.

Richard G. Ketchum, chairman of Finra, has begun openly using the F-word: fiduciary. “It’s time to get to one standard, a fiduciary standard that works for both broker-dealers and advisers,” he told me. “Both should have a fundamental first responsibility to their customers.”

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The Sky already fell?

March 25, 2009

The Commerce Department said sales of newly built U.S. homes rose 4.7 percent to a 337,000 annual pace, the fastest increase since last April, from 322,000 in January.

Despite the increase, February sales were the second lowest ever after the drop in January to the slowest pace in records going back to 1963, the department said. Economists, who had forecast another decline in sales, were still encouraged.

“This completes a trifecta of positive housing reports for February. A sustained increase in housing demand would be the best tonic for the credit crisis and a major sign that the worst of the recession is behind us,” said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Sales of previously owned homes rose 5.1 percent in February, while housing starts soared 22.2 percent that month.

Stabilizing the housing market, the main trigger of the current economic slump, is crucial for the economy’s recovery.

The median sales price in February fell a record 18.1 percent to $200,900 from a year earlier, the department said.

The inventory of homes available for sale in February was at 330,000, the smallest since June 2002. The February sales pace left the supply of homes available for sale at 12.2 month’s worth.

“New and existing home sales have hit their lows for this cycle. We expect housing inventory-to-sales ratios to fall from still-high levels as 2009 unfolds,” said Michael Darda, chief Economist, MKM Partners in Greenwich, Connecticut.

“Home prices should begin to flatten out after inventories fall to 7-8 months, which we expect before the year is up.”

In other good news for the housing market and the economy, applications for home loans jumped last week as interest rates hit record lows after the Federal Reserve announced it would buy longer-term U.S. government debt.


The Feds use a backhoe for a gravedigger

March 25, 2009

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”
– Yogi Berra

In mid-December, after the Fed lowered rates to 0 to .25%, we noted:

Aggressive action by the Federal Reserve today pushed most markets above their respective simple 50 day moving averages for the first time since September.  We have highlighted the 50 day as resistance level number one in prior notes and have shown it to be critical resistance along with the 200 day and 80 week.  This is a primary step to recovery and opens the door to a potential challenge of the 200 day near the beginning of 2009.

That rally was short lived, eventually failing after a more sustained move above the 50 day near the beginning of the year.  What is interesting is that we may be seeing a similar sequence of events again.

After a brief dip below the 2002 lows, the SPX has rallied back significantly on the back of announcements from the Treasury and Federal Reserve.  The combination of these announcements (along with better economic reports) has again pushed most major market averages over their simple 50 day moving averages.  Unfortunately, volume has not expanded with this push, even though volume levels are higher than earlier in the year.

The market managed about 7 days above the 50 day in early January.  So far, we have 3 days on this trip.  To avoid a repeat of action earlier in the year, it is critical that the SPX remain above the 50 day and the 2002 lows.  The Feds can do all of the grandstanding and wagon circling they want, but the market will not be forced higher.  We need to see organic buying build on this foundation for the bears to truly remain buried below the 2002 lows.  Ideally, a high volume rally will spring from support at the 50 day to challenge the Feb highs in the area of 875.  If this occurs, the 50 day and 800 will serve as very solid support going forward as we move toward the Jan highs around 940.

If the market again fails after a quick Fed induced burst over the 50 day, we look at 741 as the first support level below the 2002 lows.  A significant break at 741 would argue for at least a retest of the lows at 667.  With other indicators showing improvement, including some leaders exhibiting notable relative strength, it is our assumption at this point that the lows at 667 will not be broken.

spxtesting800032509


How will U.S. asset cleanup plan work?

March 23, 2009

Mon Mar 23, 2009 4:04pm EDT

WASHINGTON, March 23 (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Tuesday unveiled his long-awaited plan to cleanse toxic assets from bank balance sheets.

Here are some questions and answers about the plan.

Q: What is the problem the Treasury is trying to solve?

A: The bursting of the U.S. housing bubble caused mortgage failures to skyrocket and triggered massive losses for banks on complex mortgage-related securities. The excessive discounts now embedded on these hard-to-trade assets is weighing down bank balance sheets, choking off lending and worsening an already deep recession.

Q: What is the objective of the Treasury’s plan?

A: The plan aims to bring in private investors to help jump-start the markets for these assets. By providing attractive government financing, the Treasury hopes private investment firms can afford to pay prices for the assets at levels at which banks are willing to sell. With these assets off their books, banks would have capacity to resume lending again, and will be better able to attract private capital. Fears over their potential losses would be greatly reduced.

Q. How much will this cost the government?

A: The Treasury will initially contribute $75 billion to $100 billion from the $700 billion financial bailout fund approved by Congress last fall. It will be able to stretch these funds by combining them with private capital and leveraging them with loans from the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Losses for taxpayers could be much larger than the amount the Treasury is using to seed the program, since the FDIC and Fed are extending loans. The Treasury estimates that $500 billion of assets can be bought through the plan, and this could grow to up to $1 trillion. Geithner said he is not ready to decide whether to ask Congress for more bailout money.

Q. How is the plan structured?

A. There are three basic programs. The largest one will enable investors, partnered with the government, to buy whole loans from banks with FDIC financing in an auction process run by the banking regulator. The second would expand a securities loan program run by the Fed to enable firms holding certain mortgage- and asset-backed securities to pledge them as collateral for new loans to invest in these markets. In the third part, the Treasury would hire at least five asset managers to raise capital to buy distressed mortgage- and asset-backed securities. The Treasury would then match the private capital dollar-for-dollar and provide additional debt financing to boost buying power. The funds would compete in the open market to buy legacy securities.

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Phases of fear and elation in the VIX

March 18, 2009

Here we show a nice relationship between the VIX and the SPX.  While this is a commonly referenced pairing, many still challenge the value of using the VIX as a market indicator.  There are numerous ways too use the VIX and almost everyone has their own tweaks.  This chart shows a very clear inverse relationship with several distinct “phases” discernible in the value of the VIX.  These “phases” correlate well with the action in the SPX.  We have labled these phases “euphoria”, “fear” and “panic”.  We also included the 400 day moving average (equivalent to the 80 week) which we discussed previously in The Significance of the 400 day (80 week) moving average.  This bull/bear market reference point matches up very well with the action in the VIX, as the VIX moves into the “fear phase” just as the 400 day is coming under assault, before eventually breaking.  A final test of the 400 day from below, which we highlighted in late April 2008, was accompanied by one last dip into the “euphoria” zone for the VIX.  That was the “last chance” to get out before the drop gathered steam as the SPX then dropped over 50% in less than 12 months.

We added the notes on Bear Stearns and Citigroup for a consensus of the “expert” opinion at the time.

vixspx031809


Fed to purchase long term Treasuries

March 18, 2009

Release Date: March 18, 2009

For immediate release

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January indicates that the economy continues to contract.  Job losses, declining equity and housing wealth, and tight credit conditions have weighed on consumer sentiment and spending.  Weaker sales prospects and difficulties in obtaining credit have led businesses to cut back on inventories and fixed investment.  U.S. exports have slumped as a number of major trading partners have also fallen into recession.  Although the near-term economic outlook is weak, the Committee anticipates that policy actions to stabilize financial markets and institutions, together with fiscal and monetary stimulus, will contribute to a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth.

In light of increasing economic slack here and abroad, the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued.  Moreover, the Committee sees some risk that inflation could persist for a time below rates that best foster economic growth and price stability in the longer term.

In these circumstances, the Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote economic recovery and to preserve price stability.  The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and anticipates that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period.  To provide greater support to mortgage lending and housing markets, the Committee decided today to increase the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet further by purchasing up to an additional $750 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities, bringing its total purchases of these securities to up to $1.25 trillion this year, and to increase its purchases of agency debt this year by up to $100 billion to a total of up to $200 billion.  Moreover, to help improve conditions in private credit markets, the Committee decided to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities over the next six months.  The Federal Reserve has launched the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility to facilitate the extension of credit to households and small businesses and anticipates that the range of eligible collateral for this facility is likely to be expanded to include other financial assets.  The Committee will continue to carefully monitor the size and composition of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet in light of evolving financial and economic developments.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Elizabeth A. Duke; Charles L. Evans; Donald L. Kohn; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Daniel K. Tarullo; Kevin M. Warsh; and Janet L. Yellen.


Everybody hurts…sometimes

March 11, 2009

The World’s Billionaires

03.11.09, 06:00 PM EDT
Luisa Kroll, Matthew Miller and Tatiana Serafin
Forbes.com

It’s been a tough year for the richest people in the world. Last year there were 1,125 billionaires. This year there are just 793 people rich enough to make our list.

The world has become a wealth wasteland. Like the rest of us, the richest people in the world have endured a financial disaster over the past year. Today there are 793 people on our list of the World’s Billionaires, a 30% decline from a year ago.

Of the 1,125 billionaires who made last year’s ranking, 373 fell off the list–355 from declining fortunes and 18 who died. There are 38 newcomers, plus three moguls who returned to the list after regaining their 10-figure fortunes. It is the first time since 2003 that the world has had a net loss in the number of billionaires.

The world’s richest are also a lot poorer. Their collective net worth is $2.4 trillion, down $2 trillion from a year ago. Their average net worth fell 23% to $3 billion. The last time the average was that low was in 2003.

Bill Gates lost $18 billion but regained his title as the world’s richest man. Warren Buffett, last year’s No. 1, saw his fortune decline $25 billion as shares of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) fell nearly 50% in 12 months, but he still managed to slip just one spot to No. 2. Mexican telecom titan Carlos Slim Helú also lost $25 billion and dropped one spot to No. 3.

It was hard to avoid the carnage, whether you were in stocks, commodities, real estate or technology. Even people running profitable businesses were hammered by frozen credit markets, weak consumer spending or declining currencies.

The biggest loser in the world this year, by dollars, was last year’s biggest gainer. India’s Anil Ambani lost $32 billion–76% of his fortune–as shares of his Reliance Communications, Reliance Power and Reliance Capital all collapsed.

Ambani is one of 24 Indian billionaires, all but one of whom are poorer than a year ago. Another 29 Indians lost their billionaire status entirely as India’s stock market tumbled 44% in the past year and the Indian rupee depreciated 18% against the dollar. It is no longer the top spot in Asia for billionaires, ceding that title to China, which has 28.

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Mortgage woes no longer just a “subprime thing”

March 5, 2009

Thursday March 5, 6:37 pm ET
By J.W. Elphinstone, AP Real Estate Writer

Delinquencies, foreclosures climb to almost 12 percent of US home loans in 4th quarter

NEW YORK (AP) — Foreclosures are spreading by epidemic proportions, expanding beyond a handful of problem states and now affecting almost 1 in every 8 American homeowners.

It’s an economic role-reversal: The economy, driven down by the collapse of the housing bubble, is causing the housing crisis to spread.

Figures released Thursday show that nearly 12 percent of all Americans with a mortgage — a record 5.4 million homeowners — were at least one month late or in foreclosure at the end of last year.

That’s up from 10 percent at the end of the third quarter, and up from 8 percent at the end of 2007. In addition, the numbers now include many once-qualified borrowers who took out fixed-rate loans.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association also showed that a stunning 48 percent of homeowners who have subprime, adjustable-rate mortgages are behind on their payments or in foreclosure.

The reckless lending and borrowing practices in states like Florida, California and Nevada that were the epicenter of the problem are no longer driving up the nation’s delinquency rate.

Instead, foreclosures are being fueled by a spike in defaults in places such as Louisiana, New York, Georgia and Texas, where the economy is rapidly deteriorating and unemployment is climbing.

“It’s jobs. People are losing their jobs left and right,” said Houston real estate agent Michael Weaster.

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