Florida Skips Offshore Oil Binge but Still Pays

June 12, 2010

By DAMIEN CAVE

KEY LARGO, Fla. — When rigs first started drilling for oil off Louisiana’s coast in the 1940s, Floridians scanned their shoreline, with its resorts and talcum-white beaches, and said, No thanks. Go ahead and drill, they told other Gulf Coast states; we’ll stick with tourism.

Now that invisible wall separating Florida from its neighbors has been breached. The spreading BP oil spill has already reached the Panhandle, and if it rides currents to the renowned reefs and fishing holes on both Florida coasts, the Sunshine State could become a vacation destination with the rules of a museum: Look, but don’t touch.

All because other states decided to rely on oil and gas, angry Floridians say; all because, in the water, there are no borders — only currents that can carry catastrophes hundreds of miles.

“There’s nothing we can do,” said Mike McLaughlin, 42, while stretching tanned shark skin on a dock here in the Keys. “We’re just sitting here, waiting for it all to disappear.”

Many Floridians, of course, say they are heartbroken for Louisiana, and they still reserve their most caustic criticism for BP and government regulators.

But with oil continuing to gush from a well off Louisiana, Florida has grown angrier at its oil-friendly neighbors. Gov. Charlie Crist said in an interview last week that “there’s a certain level of frustration” with the fact that Florida gets little if any financial benefit from offshore drilling, even though it shares the environmental risks.

On docks and beaches, many Floridians are less measured, and compare Louisiana to a neighbor with a bonfire that has set their block ablaze.

To some extent, it is a conflict set up by history. Louisiana and Florida may share the Gulf of Mexico, but they are essentially oil opposites.

Ever since World War II, when tar balls washed ashore across the gulf after German U-boats sank Allied oil tankers, Florida officials have held drilling at bay with state laws and lobbying in Washington to protect their state’s bustling tourism industry.

Louisiana, meanwhile, is an oil state through and through that discovered its first commercial deposits in 1901 and started drilling offshore in 1947.

State officials have never looked back, and the resulting divide between the two states is now economic as well as cultural: oil and gas contribute about $65 billion a year to the Louisiana economy, according to the state’s oil and gas association, while in Florida, tourism accounts for about $60 billion.

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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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Freddie Mac: 30-yr mortgage average still falling

October 8, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Freddie Mac (FRE) said Thursday that the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage average declined further to 4.87% with an average 0.7 point for the week ending Oct. 8 from 4.94% last week. The last time the average was this low was May 21, when the average was 4.82%. The average was 5.94% a year ago. “Such low rates are spurring mortgage demand,” said Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac chief economist, in a statement. “Mortgage applications surged to a 19-week high over the week ending on October 2nd, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Moreover, applications for home purchases were at the strongest pace since the beginning of this year.”


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)


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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FOMC Statement – “economic activity is leveling out”

August 12, 2009

Release Date: August 12, 2009

For immediate release

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June suggests that economic activity is leveling out. Conditions in financial markets have improved further in recent weeks. Household spending has continued to show signs of stabilizing but remains constrained by ongoing job losses, sluggish income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit. Businesses are still cutting back on fixed investment and staffing but are making progress in bringing inventory stocks into better alignment with sales. Although economic activity is likely to remain weak for a time, the Committee continues to anticipate that policy actions to stabilize financial markets and institutions, fiscal and monetary stimulus, and market forces will contribute to a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth in a context of price stability.

The prices of energy and other commodities have risen of late. However, substantial resource slack is likely to dampen cost pressures, and the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued for some time.

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 continues to anticipate that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period. As previously announced, to provide support to mortgage lending and housing markets and to improve overall conditions in private credit markets, the Federal Reserve will purchase a total of up to $1.25 trillion of agency mortgage-backed securities and up to $200 billion of agency debt by the end of the year. In addition, the Federal Reserve is in the process of buying $300 billion of Treasury securities. To promote a smooth transition in markets as these purchases of Treasury securities are completed, the Committee has decided to gradually slow the pace of these transactions and anticipates that the full amount will be purchased by the end of October. The Committee will continue to evaluate the timing and overall amounts of its purchases of securities in light of the evolving economic outlook and conditions in financial markets. The Federal Reserve is monitoring the size and composition of its balance sheet and will make adjustments to its credit and liquidity programs as warranted.

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.

2009 Monetary Policy Releases


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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