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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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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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


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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