Federal Reserve sees slightly better 2010 economy

May 19, 2010

Fed’s new economic forecast paints brighter picture of growth and employment for rest of year

Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writer, On Wednesday May 19, 2010, 3:08 pm EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve officials have a slightly brighter view of the economy than they did at the start of the year.

Fed officials say in an updated forecast that they think the economy can grow between 3.2 percent and 3.7 percent this year. That’s an upward revision from a growth range of 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent in their January forecast.

The Fed’s latest forecast sees the unemployment rate, now at 9.9 percent, dipping to between 9.1 percent and 9.5 percent by year’s end. In the January forecast, the Fed didn’t think unemployment would dip below 9.5 percent this year. The Fed prepared the latest forecast for its late-April meeting.

The Fed predicts an inflation gauge tied to consumer spending — excluding volatile food and energy costs — will rise just 0.9 percent to 1.2 percent this year. In January, the officials forecast an increase in prices of 1.1 percent to 1.7 percent.

The Fed’s updated outlook was prepared at its last meeting, April 27-28, and released Wednesday. It’s roughly in line with an Associated Press survey of leading economists done about a month earlier. According to the AP’s survey, the economy will grow 3 percent this year, and the unemployment rate will inch down to 9.3 percent by year’s end.

The Fed’s new outlook represents the middle range of forecasts of officials on the Federal Open Market Committee. That’s the group of Fed board members and central bank presidents who meet eight times a year to set interest rates.

At four of those meetings, including the April session, the central bank updates its economic outlook.

The Fed left its forecasts for next year and 2011 and the longer-run expectations mainly unchanged from January.

The Fed described the changes in economic growth in 2010 as a “modest” upward revision. The minutes said the figures available for the April meeting on consumer spending and business outlays were “broadly consistent with a moderate pace of economic recovery.”

But the Fed stressed that the economic recovery is expected to remain moderate, with the unemployment rate falling only gradually.

“Participants continued to expect the pace of the economic recovery to be restrained by household and business uncertainty, only gradual improvement in labor market conditions and slow easing of credit conditions in the banking sector,” the Fed minutes said.

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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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Autumn Deluge Destroys More Than $1 Billion Of Delta Crops

October 30, 2009

Weeks of almost-continuous, torrential rains have destroyed over a billion dollars worth of what was originally expected to be a bumper fall crop in the U.S. Delta.

ARKANSAS: “It’s a serious problem right now. At this stage, yield/quality losses for Arkansas ‘ major row crops could easily exceed $650 million,” said Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach Thursday.

The state has received measurable rainfall every day for the past seven consecutive weeks, preventing fields from drying out, and overripe crops from being harvested. Arkansas farmers still have 85% of their cotton, 61% of all soybeans, 10% of their corn and 5% of all grain sorghum remaining to harvest; at a time when picking is usually of most commodities is already complete.

“We’re going to try to do as much as we can as quickly as we can, but assessing the damage—and what the damage is— does require some time,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I wouldn’t be surprised if all 75 counties in this state are declared a disaster,” thus making producers eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency loans.

On average, all areas of Arkansas have received 17 inches more rain than normal during 2009. Even with two months left to go, 2009 is already the 11th-wettest year on record in Little Rock , which has been flooded with 62.57 inches of rain. That total will only increase, as the National Weather Service was predicting another 2 of rain for portions of Arkansas, by nightfall Friday.

MISSISSIPPI: Non-stop rains have also taken $371 million from the pockets of Mississippi producers this autumn, according to calculations made this week by the Mississippi State University .

“Total losses for row crops are expected to be around 23% of the potential value of the crop,” said MSU agricultural economist John Michael Riley. With nearly 40% of all fields still standing, soybeans have suffered the worst hit in cash-value hit, losing 30.2% of their expected value, or $212 million in all.

“Half of the crop left in the field is very poor, to possibly a complete loss,” said MSU extension soybean specialist Trey Koger. “Damage estimates for the portion of the soybean crop we last harvested nearly two weeks ago, averaged 8%-15%. Final damage to the state’s soybean crop may reach levels as high as 50%.”

Earlier this month the USDA forecast the Mississippi fall grain harvest at 92.3 million bushels of corn, nearly 83.5 million bushels of soybeans, 16.184 million hundredweight of rice, and 888,000 bushels of sorghum. Economic losses have been measured at $91 million for cotton/cottonseed, representing about 47% of that crop’s original prospective value.

“Environmental conditions in 2009 have proven to be the most difficult that many growers have ever experienced,” said Darrin Dodds, MSU cotton specialist.

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Fall Downpours Causing Major Damage To Unharvested US Grain Crop

October 27, 2009

Guide Rock farmer Jim Richardson says the quality of the 2009 corn crop in the Republican River Valley of Nebraska has now deteriorated to the point where the top 3 inches of unharvested ears are simply rotting off and falling to the ground.

“My neighbor say it’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen…they pull into the field with the combine and see all these half-ears laying all over,” he said. “It seems to be connected to variety…and all this rain.”

The variety of moisture-loving pathogens reportedly affecting unpicked U.S. row crops reads like the nutrition label of a Halloween witches brew: mycotoxins, mold, mildew, fungus, and other diseases.

Most sections of the U.S. grain belt have received more than twice as much precipitation as normal this month, causing unprecedented delays in the harvest of the nation’s two-most important cash-crops. The resulting quality degradation is so bad that some producers are harvesting their remaining acreage with a plow, instead of a combine.

“We’ve had 28 inches of rain here since Oct. 1,” southwestern Arkansas grower Jim Caswell told Dow Jones Newswires Monday. “There is a big farmer down here who’s disking under 7,000 acres of corn, because it’s got such bad mold that the elevator won’t take it anymore…and it’d been yielding 185 (bushels an acre).”

Overripe grain in the Delta is under the greatest threat of deterioration, with many fields standing exposed to weeks of nearly continuous rain.

“The longer it’s out in the field, the more likely it will develop grain quality problems, weak stalks or seed quality damage,” said Jim Herbek, grain crops specialist with the University of Kentucky.

Harvest figures released by USDA Monday said half of the nation’s top-producing corn states still had more than 80-90% of their corn and half of their soybeans standing in the field, at a time when some are nearing completion.

“You can’t find a year in USDA’s data (which goes back to 1972) on corn harvest activity that is as slow as this year [20% complete]. Period. That underscores just how tough this fall has been,” said Roger Bernard of Pro Farmer. “In soybeans, the 44% complete on harvest is the slowest pace since 1985 and 1986.”

Harvest season rains have robbed southern soybean growers of what was expected to be a bumper crop.

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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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