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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