Geithner, Paulson to address meltdown probe

May 6, 2010

Meltdown probe hears from bailout architects Paulson, Geithner on ‘shadow banking’

Daniel Wagner, AP Business Writer, On Thursday May 6, 2010, 12:57 am EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — A special panel investigating the financial crisis is preparing to hear from two key architects of the government’s response: Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Geithner and Paulson will provide their perspectives on the so-called “shadow banking system” — a largely unregulated world of capital and credit markets outside of traditional banks. They will describe their roles in selling Bear Stearns (BSC) to JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) after pressure from “shadow banking” companies made Bear the first major casualty of the crisis.

The pair will testify Thursday morning before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a bipartisan panel established by Congress to probe the roots of the financial crisis. It is the first time the panel has heard from either of the men who called the shots in late 2008 as the global financial system nearly collapsed.

The panel is looking at nonbank financial companies such as PIMCO and GE Capital that provide capital for loans to consumers and small businesses. When rumors spread in 2008 that Bear Stearns was teetering, these companies started what former Bear Stearns executives described Wednesday as a “run on the bank,” drawing so much of its capital that it could not survive.

Then-Treasury Secretary Paulson and Geithner, as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, engineered Bear’s rescue. The New York Fed put up a $29 billion federal backstop to limit JPMorgan’s future losses on Bear Stearns’ bad investments.

Bear Stearns was the first Wall Street bank to blow up. Its demise foreshadowed the cascading financial meltdown in the fall of that year.

The panel is investigating the roots of the crisis that plunged the country into the most severe recession since the 1930s and brought losses of jobs and homes for millions of Americans.

In earlier testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Paulson defended his response to the economic crisis as an imperfect but necessary rescue that spared the U.S. financial market from total collapse.

“Many more Americans would be without their homes, their jobs, their businesses, their savings and their way of life,” he said in testimony prepared for that hearing.

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Gold hits record near $1,150/oz as dollar slips

November 18, 2009

Wed Nov 18, 2009 5:13am EST

By Jan Harvey

LONDON (Reuters) – Gold hit a fresh record high near $1,150 an ounce on Wednesday, boosting precious metals across the board, as a dip in the dollar index added to momentum buying as prices broke through key technical resistance levels.

In non-U.S. dollar terms, gold also climbed, hitting multi-month highs when priced in the euro, sterling and the Australian dollar.

Spot gold hit a high of $1,147.45 and was at $1,146.05 an ounce at 0948 GMT, against $1,141.50 late in New York on Tuesday.

U.S. gold futures for December delivery on the COMEX division of the New York Mercantile Exchange also hit a record $1,148.10 and were later up $7.10 at $1,146.40 an ounce.

“Yesterday the market took a breather and tested below $1,130 very quickly, (but) a few physical related bargain hunters were lined up to grab the dip,” said Afshin Nabavi, head of trading at MKS Finance in Geneva.

The market is being underpinned by fresh interest in gold from the official sector, he said, after a recent major bullion acquisition from India and smaller buys by the central banks of Mauritius and Sri Lanka.

The acquisitions underlined gold’s appeal as a portfolio diversifier, especially in an environment where further dollar weakness was expected, analysts said.

The dollar eased back on Wednesday from its biggest rise in three weeks in the previous session, as traders awaited U.S. inflation data due at 1330 GMT.

The dollar index, which measures the U.S. currency’s performance against a basket of six others, was down 0.37 percent, while the euro/dollar exchange rate firmed.

Other commodities also climbed, with oil rising back toward $80 a barrel and copper to 13-1/3 month highs near $7,000 a tonne. Both are being lifted by the weak dollar.

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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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Greenlight’s Einhorn holds gold, says U.S. policies poor

October 19, 2009

Mon Oct 19, 2009 2:25pm EDT

By Jennifer Ablan and Joseph A. Giannone

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Hedge-fund manager David Einhorn, who warned about Lehman Brothers’ (LEH) precarious finances before it collapsed, said on Monday he’s betting on rising interest rates and holding gold as a hedge for what he described as unsound U.S. policies.

“If monetary and fiscal policies go awry” investors should buy physical gold and gold stocks, Einhorn said at the fifth Annual Value Investing Congress in New York. “Gold does well when monetary and fiscal policies are poor and does poorly when they are sensible.”

Einhorn is president of Greenlight Capital, with more than $5 billion in assets under management.

“Over the last couple of years, we have adopted a policy of private profits and socialized risks — you are transferring many private obligations onto the national ledger,” he said.

Einhorn said, “Although our leaders ought to be making some serious choices, they appear too trapped in the short term and special interests to make them.”

According to a joint analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Committee for Economic Development and the Concord Coalition, the projected U.S. budget deficit between 2004 and 2013 could grow from $1.4 trillion to $5 trillion.

Last week when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House economic adviser Larry Summers spoke in interviews and on panel discussions, Einhorn said, “my instinct was to want to short the dollar but then I looked at other major currencies — euro, yen and British pound — and they might be worse.”

Einhorn added, “Picking these currencies is like choosing my favorite dental procedure. And I decided holding gold is better than holding cash, especially now that both offer no yield.”

(Reporting by Jennifer Ablan and Joseph A. Giannone; Editing by Kenneth Barry)


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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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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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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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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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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Maybe the meltdown wasn’t what you think

March 5, 2009

By Peter Brimelow, MarketWatch
Last update: 1:03 a.m. EST Feb. 23, 2009

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Everyone knows the crash of 2008 was caused by financial deregulation except Thomas E. Woods, who blames financial regulation, in the shape of the Federal Reserve.

Wood’s new book, “Meltdown: A Free Market Look At Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse” (Regnery), has just made it to the New York Times best-seller list without the benefit of any major reviews.

That’s par for the course for Woods, a fellow of the Auburn, Ala.-based Ludwig von Mises Institute, advocates of “Austrian economics,” a particularly embattled faction of free market economists — all of whom are pretty embattled, or out of fashion, right now.

The Austrian school argues that business cycles are driven by central banks keeping interest rates too low, expanding credit and encouraging uneconomic investments, creating an unsustainable boom, inevitably followed by a bust.

That’s what happened here, says Woods, most recently with the Fed’s multiple interest rate cuts to stave off the 2000-2002 slowdown.

Certainly debt levels had reached historic highs before the crash.

Woods argues the crash of 2008 was a perfect storm. Other elements included immense government pressure on mortgage lenders to loosen standards and make loans to questionably credit-worthy but politically favored demographic groups; and securitization, which spread the effects of bad mortgage lending around the world.

Recovery from even serious business cycle downturns can be swift, says Woods, citing the almost-forgotten 1920-1921 slump. But that’s because the federal government did not step in. It allowed excesses to correct themselves. In contrast, the federal government did step in after 1929, as Japan’s government did in a similar downturn after 1990. Result, according to Woods: the Great Depression in the U.S.; 18 years of stagnation in Japan.

If Woods is right, public policy is on exactly the wrong course right now in trying to sustain demand and asset prices, just as it was in the early years of the Depression. Ironically, this wrong course is bipartisan. Both Hebert Hoover and George W. Bush, Woods notes, were highly interventionist presidents just like their successors, contrary to myth.

Woods’ cheerful prediction: prolonged stagnation, eventual inflation and an even bigger collapse.

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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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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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Deal struck on economic stimulus package

February 11, 2009

Congressional sources say lawmakers have resolved key differences over school construction spending that had threatened to derail an earlier compromise.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Democratic leadership sources say they have worked out a way around the disagreement between the Senate and House over education funding in the economic stimulus bill.

Details on how they worked it out are not yet available, but a Democratic source said they have come up with an agreement now that everyone – House Democrats and moderate Senate Republicans – can live with.

Senators had slashed direct funding for school construction – a top priority for Democrats – and instead set aside money for governors to use on school modernization and rehabilitation. House Democrats did not believe that would ultimately be targeted enough to school districts in need.

“I want to thank the Democrats and Republicans in Congress who came together around a hard-fought compromise,” said President Barack Obama in a statement.

Obama said the plan will save or create more than 3.5 million jobs and will provide immediate tax relief to families and businesses.

“I’m grateful to the House Democrats for starting this process, and for members in the House and Senate for moving it along with the urgency that this moment demands,” said President Obama.

The deal comes after a drawn-out debate on Capitol Hill that culminated in a last-minute holdup related to the school construction issue.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that a deal had been struck earlier Wednesday afternoon. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not on hand when Reid said that the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill had been resolved.

Aides to both Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reid, D-Nev., told CNN she had given Reid the green light to make the announcement, but she apparently then heard complaints from some rank-and-file Democrats.

After Reid announced the compromise bill, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, a fellow Democrat, said it could be taken up by the two houses as early as Friday, meeting President Barack Obama’s timetable of having the bill on his desk by Presidents Day, which is Monday.

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Elements of overhaul of bailout program

February 10, 2009

Tuesday February 10, 6:58 pm ET

Key elements in Obama administration’s overhaul of $700 billion financial rescue program

Here are the major elements in the Obama administration’s overhaul of the $700 billion financial rescue program:

–Capital injections to bolster banks will continue. This was the core of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s approach; it accounted for $250 billion of the first $350 billion of the program. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner pledged to continue the injections but with more stringent rules on use of the money. Banks with assets of $100 billion or more will face “stress tests” by regulators to see if they’re healthy. The administration didn’t say how much of the second $350 billion would go toward capital injections.

–An expansion of a Treasury-Federal Reserve program to try to unclog lending in such areas as credit card debt, auto loans and student loans. The program will now also back loans involving commercial real estate. The administration will provide up to $100 billion in bailout money, up from an initial $20 billion. It will support up to $1 trillion in Fed lending to bolster consumer and business loan markets. The initial Fed commitment had been for $200 billion in support.

–Creation of a public-private investment fund to back the purchase of banks’ toxic assets. Details on how this program will operate remain unclear. Officials estimated the program could use bailout money to attract up to $500 billion in purchases of toxic assets initially and $1 trillion eventually.

–Mitigation of mortgage foreclosures with use of $50 billion in bailout funds. No details were provided. Officials said the mortgage programs would be unveiled soon, possibly as early as next week.


For a nasty looking market, try UGL why?

February 9, 2009

What shines more than gold in a paper currency print-off?

How about double gold?

A new ETF from Proshares is designed to return twice (200%) the daily performance, before fees and expenses, of gold bullion as measured by the U.S. Dollar fixing price for delivery in London. This ETF is structured as a partnership and it uses a combination of forward and futures contracts.

It just started trading in early December and has already moved from 23 to 33 for a more than 43% gain.

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Also available in silver sporting almost a double.

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Huge stimulus bill passes House

January 28, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a swift victory for President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled House approved a historically huge $819 billion stimulus bill Wednesday night with spending increases and tax cuts at the heart of the young administration’s plan to revive a badly ailing economy.

The vote was 244-188, with Republicans unanimous in opposition despite Obama’s frequent pleas for bipartisan support.

“This recovery plan will save or create more than three million new jobs over the next few years,” the president said in a written statement released moments after the House voted.

The vote sent the bill to the Senate, where debate could begin as early as Monday on a companion measure already taking shape. Democratic leaders have pledged to have legislation ready for Obama’s signature by mid-February.

With unemployment at its highest level in a quarter-century, the banking industry wobbling despite the infusion of staggering sums of bailout money and states struggling with budget crises, Democrats said the legislation was desperately needed.

Republicans said the bill was short on tax cuts and contained too much spending, much of it wasteful, and would fall far short of administration’s predictions of job creation.

On the final vote, the legislation drew the support of all but 11 Democrats, while all Republicans opposed it.

The White House-backed legislation includes an estimated $544 billion in federal spending and $275 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses. The totals remained in flux nearly until the final vote, due to official re-estimates and a last-minute addition of $3 billion for mass transit.

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FDIC May Run ‘Bad Bank’ in Plan to Purge Toxic Assets

January 28, 2009

By Robert Schmidt and Alison Vekshin

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) — The Obama administration is moving closer to setting up a so-called bad bank in its effort to break the back of the credit crisis and may use the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to manage it, two people familiar with the matter said.

U.S. stocks gained, extending a global rally, on optimism the bad-bank plan will help shore up the economy. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index (SPX) rose 3.1 percent to 871.70 at 2:40 p.m. in New York. Bank of America Corp. (BAC), down 54 percent this year before today, rose 84 cents, or 13 percent, to $7.34. Citigroup Inc. (C), which had fallen 47 percent this year, climbed 17 percent.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair is pushing to run the operation, which would buy the toxic assets clogging banks’ balance sheets, one of the people said. Bair is arguing that her agency has expertise and could help finance the effort by issuing bonds guaranteed by the FDIC, a second person said. President Barack Obama’s team may announce the outlines of its financial-rescue plan as early as next week, an administration official said.

“It doesn’t make sense to give the authority to anybody else but the FDIC,” said John Douglas, a former general counsel at the agency who now is a partner in Atlanta at the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. “That’s what the FDIC does, it takes bad assets out of banks and manages and sells them.”

Bank Management

The bad-bank initiative may allow the government to rewrite some of the mortgages that underpin banks’ bad debt, in the hopes of stemming a crisis that has stripped more than 1.3 million Americans of their homes. Some lenders may be taken over by regulators and some management teams could be ousted as the government seeks to provide a shield to taxpayers.

Bank seizures are “going to happen,” Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said in an interview after a meeting between Obama and Republican lawmakers in Washington yesterday. “I know it. They know it. The banks know it.”

Laura Tyson, an adviser to Obama during his campaign, said banks need to be recapitalized “with different management” so they start lending again. “You find some new sophisticated management unlike the failed management of the past,” Tyson, a University of California, Berkeley, professor, said today at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Still, nationalization of a swath of the banking industry is unlikely. House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank said yesterday “the government should not take over all the banks.” Bair said earlier this month she would be “very surprised if that happened.”

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FOMC statement – January 28, 2009

January 28, 2009

Release Date: January 28, 2009

For immediate release

The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee continues to anticipate that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for some time.

Information received since the Committee met in December suggests that the economy has weakened further. Industrial production, housing starts, and employment have continued to decline steeply, as consumers and businesses have cut back spending. Furthermore, global demand appears to be slowing significantly. Conditions in some financial markets have improved, in part reflecting government efforts to provide liquidity and strengthen financial institutions; nevertheless, credit conditions for households and firms remain extremely tight. The Committee anticipates that a gradual recovery in economic activity will begin later this year, but the downside risks to that outlook are significant.

In light of the declines in the prices of energy and other commodities in recent months and the prospects for considerable economic slack, the Committee expects that inflation pressures will remain subdued in coming quarters. 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.

The Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote the resumption of sustainable economic growth and to preserve price stability. The focus of the Committee’s policy is to support the functioning of financial markets and stimulate the economy through open market operations and other measures that are likely to keep the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet at a high level. The Federal Reserve continues to purchase large quantities of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities to provide support to the mortgage and housing markets, and it stands ready to expand the quantity of such purchases and the duration of the purchase program as conditions warrant. The Committee also is prepared to purchase longer-term Treasury securities if evolving circumstances indicate that such transactions would be particularly effective in improving conditions in private credit markets. The Federal Reserve will be implementing the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility to facilitate the extension of credit to households and small businesses. The Committee will continue to monitor carefully the size and composition of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet in light of evolving financial market developments and to assess whether expansions of or modifications to lending facilities would serve to further support credit markets and economic activity and help to preserve price stability.

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; Dennis P. Lockhart; Kevin M. Warsh; and Janet L. Yellen.  Voting against was Jeffrey M. Lacker, who preferred to expand the monetary base at this time by purchasing U.S. Treasury securities rather than through targeted credit programs.


Merrill paid bonuses early as BofA deal closed: report

January 21, 2009

Wed Jan 21, 2009 10:43pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Merrill Lynch (MER) paid billions of dollars of bonuses to its employees, three days before completing its life-saving sale to Bank of America Corp (BAC), the Financial Times reported on its website on Wednesday.

The money was paid as Merrill’s losses were mounting, forcing Bank of America Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis last month to seek additional government support for the deal. Merrill’s compensation committee agreed to pay bonuses on December 29, at least one month earlier than usual, the paper said.

Yet within days of that committee meeting, the FT said, BofA officials became aware Merrill’s fourth-quarter losses would be much greater than expected.

Bank of America, in a statement, told the paper, “Merrill Lynch was an independent company until Jan 1. (Merrill CEO) John Thain decided to pay year-end incentives in December as opposed to their normal date in January. BofA was informed of his decision.”

Last week, Bank of America said it would receive $20 billion in U.S. Treasury investment on top of $25 billion earmarked last fall for a combined BofA-Merrill.

Bank of America said Merrill had a $21.5 billion operating loss in the fourth quarter.

Despite the massive losses, Merrill set aside $15 billion for 2008 compensation, 6 percent lower than a year earlier.

A person familiar with the matter told the FT about $3 billion to $4 billion of that compensation were annual bonuses. The bulk is comprised by salaries and benefits.

(Reporting by Joseph A. Giannone; Editing by Anshuman Daga)


Obama Plans to Keep Estate Tax

January 13, 2009

by Jonathan Weisman
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Democrats Want to Freeze Levy at Current Levels Instead of Letting It Expire Next Year

President-elect Barack Obama and congressional leaders plan to move soon to block the estate tax from disappearing in 2010, suggesting the levy might outlive the “Death Tax Repeal” movement that has tried mightily to kill it.

The Democratic stance on the estate tax contrasts with Mr. Obama’s reluctance to press forward with his campaign pledge to raise income-tax rates on top earners, which he worries could have an adverse economic impact during a recession.

But Democrats are determined to act quickly to prevent the estate tax’s scheduled repeal. Elimination of the levy on big inheritances was approved by Congress under President George W. Bush in 2001, with rollbacks phased in slowly and its full elimination slated to take effect next year.

The Senate Finance Committee will move within weeks on legislation to reverse that law, and Mr. Obama is expected to detail his estate-tax preservation proposal in his budget next month, congressional tax writers said.

Under the Obama plan detailed during the campaign, the estate tax would be locked in permanently at the rate and exemption levels that took effect this year. That would exempt estates of $3.5 million — $7 million for couples — from any taxation. The value of estates above that would be taxed at 45%. If the tax were returned to Clinton-era levels, it would exclude $1 million from taxation with the rest taxed at 55%.

In making their case for the restoration, Democrats contend that such a large additional tax break for the rich shouldn’t go into force halfway through Mr. Obama’s proposed economic-recovery package. They argue that the deficit is already in record territory, while their plan wouldn’t have any impact on the economy since it would merely keep the estate-tax rate at its current level. Mr. Obama and his party also say that the affluent already have benefited handsomely from the Bush tax cuts.

They also reason that if they don’t act now, it will be politically harder to go ahead with their plan to resurrect the estate tax once it has disappeared.

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U.S. budget deficit seen topping $1 trillion in 2009

January 6, 2009

Tue Jan 6, 2009 6:13pm EST

By Jeremy Pelofsky and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Politicians want American consumers to resume spending to pull the economy out of its tailspin, and the U.S. government is leading by example with a potential $1 trillion deficit in 2009 — even before a massive stimulus plan.

The Congressional Budget Office is set to release its projections on Wednesday for the fiscal 2009 budget deficit and experts believe it will not just set a new record beyond the $455 billion set in 2008, but could hit $1 trillion as the economic recession saps federal revenues.

While that figure likely includes some of the impact of a $700 billion bailout package for the financial industry and U.S. automakers, it does not include any of economic stimulus measures Congress hopes to pass, which could cost another $775 billion over two years.

President-elect Barack Obama is contemplating large tax cuts to the tune of about $300 billion and potentially as much if not more in infrastructure projects and other spending to try to jolt the economy out of recession.

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said that a $1 trillion deficit was not just a possibility for 2009, but that an average of $1 trillion could be added to the national debt annually over the next decade.

“We’re on an unsustainable course,” he said in an interview with Reuters, adding that he had not yet seen the CBO figures.

“It’s obvious we have to have a recovery package,” the North Dakota Democrat noted, but Congress must also address longer-term issues, such as the costs of the Medicare health care program and Social Security retirement system.

TOUGH CHOICES AHEAD

Obama said on Tuesday he expects to inherit a deficit approaching $1 trillion and his administration would have to make tough budget choices. But economists agree now is not the time for the country to tighten its belt.

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Treasuries seen at risk of “bubble” trouble

December 8, 2008

Fri Dec 5, 2008 3:29pm EST

By John Parry and Jennifer Ablan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. government debt, long considered the safest investment in the world, looks like it too has been hit by “bubble” fever.

Prices of U.S. Treasury bonds appear dangerously overstretched after a soaring rally, another sign of how financial markets have been turned on their head.

“Treasuries are the riskiest securities on the planet,” said Tom Sowanick, chief investment officer for $22 billion in assets at Clearbrook Financial LLC in Princeton, New Jersey.

While few fear that the U.S. government will fail to honor its debts, many see a risk that bond prices may plunge just as spectacularly as house, commodity and stock prices have in recent months.

“It looks like the Treasury market is in bubble territory,” said William Larkin, fixed-income portfolio manager with Cabot Money Management, in Salem, Massachusetts.

The rally in the nearly $5 trillion U.S. government bond market picked up speed this week when the Federal Reserve hinted it may buy longer maturity government bonds.

Fears of a bubble in Treasuries underscore how far investors have fled from risk since ballooning house price valuations popped in 2007, causing huge losses in markets across the board and sparking a global economic crisis.

Yields on long-maturing bonds are below 3 percent and only 1-2 basis points on three-month T-bills, the lowest in decades.

After buying billions of dollars worth of government debt, U.S. institutional investors and foreigners including Asian central banks could incur enormous capital losses.

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