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


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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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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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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The Sky already fell?

March 25, 2009

The Commerce Department said sales of newly built U.S. homes rose 4.7 percent to a 337,000 annual pace, the fastest increase since last April, from 322,000 in January.

Despite the increase, February sales were the second lowest ever after the drop in January to the slowest pace in records going back to 1963, the department said. Economists, who had forecast another decline in sales, were still encouraged.

“This completes a trifecta of positive housing reports for February. A sustained increase in housing demand would be the best tonic for the credit crisis and a major sign that the worst of the recession is behind us,” said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Sales of previously owned homes rose 5.1 percent in February, while housing starts soared 22.2 percent that month.

Stabilizing the housing market, the main trigger of the current economic slump, is crucial for the economy’s recovery.

The median sales price in February fell a record 18.1 percent to $200,900 from a year earlier, the department said.

The inventory of homes available for sale in February was at 330,000, the smallest since June 2002. The February sales pace left the supply of homes available for sale at 12.2 month’s worth.

“New and existing home sales have hit their lows for this cycle. We expect housing inventory-to-sales ratios to fall from still-high levels as 2009 unfolds,” said Michael Darda, chief Economist, MKM Partners in Greenwich, Connecticut.

“Home prices should begin to flatten out after inventories fall to 7-8 months, which we expect before the year is up.”

In other good news for the housing market and the economy, applications for home loans jumped last week as interest rates hit record lows after the Federal Reserve announced it would buy longer-term U.S. government debt.


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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Phases of fear and elation in the VIX

March 18, 2009

Here we show a nice relationship between the VIX and the SPX.  While this is a commonly referenced pairing, many still challenge the value of using the VIX as a market indicator.  There are numerous ways too use the VIX and almost everyone has their own tweaks.  This chart shows a very clear inverse relationship with several distinct “phases” discernible in the value of the VIX.  These “phases” correlate well with the action in the SPX.  We have labled these phases “euphoria”, “fear” and “panic”.  We also included the 400 day moving average (equivalent to the 80 week) which we discussed previously in The Significance of the 400 day (80 week) moving average.  This bull/bear market reference point matches up very well with the action in the VIX, as the VIX moves into the “fear phase” just as the 400 day is coming under assault, before eventually breaking.  A final test of the 400 day from below, which we highlighted in late April 2008, was accompanied by one last dip into the “euphoria” zone for the VIX.  That was the “last chance” to get out before the drop gathered steam as the SPX then dropped over 50% in less than 12 months.

We added the notes on Bear Stearns and Citigroup for a consensus of the “expert” opinion at the time.

vixspx031809


Fed to purchase long term Treasuries

March 18, 2009

Release Date: March 18, 2009

For immediate release

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January indicates that the economy continues to contract.  Job losses, declining equity and housing wealth, and tight credit conditions have weighed on consumer sentiment and spending.  Weaker sales prospects and difficulties in obtaining credit have led businesses to cut back on inventories and fixed investment.  U.S. exports have slumped as a number of major trading partners have also fallen into recession.  Although the near-term economic outlook is weak, the Committee anticipates that policy actions to stabilize financial markets and institutions, together with fiscal and monetary stimulus, will contribute to a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth.

In light of increasing economic slack here and abroad, the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued.  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.

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 anticipates that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period.  To provide greater support to mortgage lending and housing markets, the Committee decided today to increase the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet further by purchasing up to an additional $750 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities, bringing its total purchases of these securities to up to $1.25 trillion this year, and to increase its purchases of agency debt this year by up to $100 billion to a total of up to $200 billion.  Moreover, to help improve conditions in private credit markets, the Committee decided to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities over the next six months.  The Federal Reserve has launched the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility to facilitate the extension of credit to households and small businesses and anticipates that the range of eligible collateral for this facility is likely to be expanded to include other financial assets.  The Committee will continue to carefully monitor the size and composition of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet in light of evolving financial and economic developments.

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.


Mortgage woes no longer just a “subprime thing”

March 5, 2009

Thursday March 5, 6:37 pm ET
By J.W. Elphinstone, AP Real Estate Writer

Delinquencies, foreclosures climb to almost 12 percent of US home loans in 4th quarter

NEW YORK (AP) — Foreclosures are spreading by epidemic proportions, expanding beyond a handful of problem states and now affecting almost 1 in every 8 American homeowners.

It’s an economic role-reversal: The economy, driven down by the collapse of the housing bubble, is causing the housing crisis to spread.

Figures released Thursday show that nearly 12 percent of all Americans with a mortgage — a record 5.4 million homeowners — were at least one month late or in foreclosure at the end of last year.

That’s up from 10 percent at the end of the third quarter, and up from 8 percent at the end of 2007. In addition, the numbers now include many once-qualified borrowers who took out fixed-rate loans.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association also showed that a stunning 48 percent of homeowners who have subprime, adjustable-rate mortgages are behind on their payments or in foreclosure.

The reckless lending and borrowing practices in states like Florida, California and Nevada that were the epicenter of the problem are no longer driving up the nation’s delinquency rate.

Instead, foreclosures are being fueled by a spike in defaults in places such as Louisiana, New York, Georgia and Texas, where the economy is rapidly deteriorating and unemployment is climbing.

“It’s jobs. People are losing their jobs left and right,” said Houston real estate agent Michael Weaster.

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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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How About a Stimulus for Financial Advice?

February 26, 2009

By ROBERT J. SHILLER
Published: January 17, 2009

In evaluating the causes of the financial crisis, don’t forget the countless fundamental mistakes made by millions of people who were caught up in the excitement of the real estate bubble, taking on debt they could ill afford.

Many errors in personal finance can be prevented. But first, people need to understand what they ought to do. The government’s various bailout plans need to take this into account — by starting a major program to subsidize personal financial advice for everyone.

A number of government agencies already have begun small-scale financial literacy programs. For example, the Treasury announced the creation of an Office of Financial Education in 2002, and President Bush started an Advisory Council on Financial Literacy a year ago. These initiatives are involved in outreach to schools with suggested curriculums, and online financial tips. But a much more ambitious effort is needed.

The government programs that are already under way are akin to distributing computer manuals. But when something goes wrong with a computer, most people need to talk to a real person who can zero in on the problem. They need an expert to guide them through the repair process, in a way that conveys patience and confidence that the problem can be solved. The same is certainly true for issues of personal finance.

The significance of this was clear at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association this month in San Francisco, where several new research papers showed the seriousness of consumer financial errors and the exploitation of them by sophisticated financial service providers.

A paper by Kris Gerardi of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Lorenz Goette of the University of Geneva and Stephan Meier of Columbia University asked a battery of simple financial literacy questions of recent homebuyers. Many of the respondents could not correctly answer even simple questions, like this one: What will a $300 item cost after it goes on a “50 percent off” sale? (The answer is $150.) They found that people who scored poorly on the financial literacy test also tended to make serious investment mistakes, like borrowing too much, and failing to collect information and shop for a mortgage.

A paper by Liran Einav and Jonathan Levin, both of Stanford, reporting on work with William Adams of Citigroup, shows how sophisticated automobile lenders can be in their loan technology. They use complicated statistical models not only to approve people for credit, but also to fine-tune the down payment and even to suggest what kind of car individuals can buy. This suggests to me that many borrowers can’t match the expertise of lenders.

And another paper, by Paige Marta Skiba of Vanderbilt University and Jeremy Tobacman of the University of Pennsylvania, showed that payday loans — advanced to people who run out of cash before their next paycheck — exploit people’s overoptimism and typically succeed in charging annual rates of interest that may amount to more than 7,000 percent.

One wishes that all this financial cleverness could be focused a bit more on improving the customers’ welfare!

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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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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.


Low rates defuse ‘exploding’ ARMs

February 6, 2009

Thanks to low interest rates, resetting ARMs are no longer posing the dire threat to homeowners that many thought they would.

By Les Christie, CNNMoney.com staff writer
Last Updated: February 6, 2009: 4:28 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — A wave of resetting adjustable rate mortgages had been poised to add to the flood of foreclosures as their rates jumped.

Some 420,000 hybrid ARMs are scheduled to reset in 2009, according to the Treasury Department. A year or so ago, it seemed that many of these loans were going to see their interest rates reset to as high as 12% or more.

But then interest rates started falling, hitting lows they hadn’t seen in 37 years.

“Many people are actually seeing their adjustable rates fall,” said Barry Glassman, a financial adviser with Cassady & Company. “Some loans are resetting even lower than some fixed-rate loans.”

A ticking time bomb. Adjustable rate mortgages start out with a two or three year period of low introductory rates, sometimes called “teaser rates.” After that, the interest rates start to adjust according to a set schedule – sometimes as often as monthly or as little as once a year – until the mortgage is paid off.

For the most part, this was a recipe for disaster. Many homeowners took out ARMs because they couldn’t afford the monthly payments that came with a 30 year fixed-rate loan. They were counting on having the value of their homes appreciate and then refinancing. Instead, home prices have plunged a record 18.2% according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index.

But as the economy soured, interest rates dipped.

“We thought that the 8% interest loans would reset to about 12%,” said Alan White, a law professor at Valparaiso University who has studied the lending industry’s mortgage modification efforts, “but they only went to 9% or less.”

The adjustments are calculated by adding what’s called a margin, which is a number of percentage points agreed to when the mortgage is first issued, to an index.

The index that most hybrid ARMs are tied to is the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor). So, homeowners whose loans are resetting will get new interest rates equal to their margins, which range from about three percentage points for the lowest risk borrowers to six percentage points for those who at higher risk, plus the current Libor rate.

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The Kondratieff Cycle

February 2, 2009

kondratieff-cycle

Graphic compliments of The Long Wave Analyst.

Professor Nickolai Kondratieff (pronounced “Kon-DRA-tee-eff”)

Shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he helped develop the first Soviet Five-Year Plan, for which he analyzed factors that would stimulate Soviet economic growth.  In 1926, Kondratieff published his findings in a report entitled, “Long Waves in Economic Life”.  Based upon Kondratieff’s conclusions, his report was viewed as a criticism of Joseph Stalin’s stated intentions for the total collectivization of agriculture.  Soon after, he was dismissed from his post as director of the Institute for the Study of Business Activity in 1928.  He was arrested in 1930 and sentenced to the Russian Gulag (prison); his sentence was reviewed in 1938, and he received the death penalty, which it is speculated was carried out that same year.  Kondratieff’s major premise was that capitalist economies displayed long wave cycles of boom and bust ranging between 40-60 years in duration.  Kondratieff’s study covered the period 1789 to 1926 and was centered on prices and interest rates.

Kondratiev waves — also called Supercycles, surges, long waves or K-waves — are described as regular, sinusoidal cycles in the modern (capitalist) world economy.  Averaging fifty and ranging from approximately forty to sixty years in length, the cycles consist of alternating periods between high sectoral growth and periods of slower growth.  The Kondratieff wave cycle goes through four distinct phases of beneficial inflation (spring), stagflation (summer), beneficial deflation (autumn), and deflation (winter).

The phases of Kondratieff’s waves also carry with them social shifts and changes in the public mood.  The first stage of expansion and growth, the “Spring” stage, encompasses a social shift in which the wealth, accumulation, and innovation that are present in this first period of the cycle create upheavals and displacements in society.  The economic changes result in redefining work and the role of participants in society.  In the next phase, the “Summer” stagflation, there is a mood of affluence from the previous growth stage that changes the attitude towards work in society, creating inefficiencies.  After this stage comes the season of deflationary growth, or the plateau period. The popular mood changes during this period as well.  It shifts toward stability, normalcy, and isolationism after the policies and economics during unpopular excesses of war.  Finally, the “Winter” stage, that of severe depression, includes the integration of previous social shifts and changes into the social fabric of society, supported by the shifts in innovation and technology.


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.


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