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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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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CFTC moves to rein in small ETF investors: report

August 22, 2009

Sat Aug 22, 2009 12:18pm EDT

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Exchange-traded funds or ETFs have become a top target in U.S. regulators’ efforts to rein in excessive speculation in oil and other commodity markets, The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday.

Commodity ETFs, which came into existence in 2003, offer one of the few avenues for small investors to gain direct exposure to commodity markets. The funds pool money from investors to make one-way bets, usually on rising prices.

Some say this causes excessive buying that artificially inflates prices for oil, natural gas and gold.

Commodity ETFs have ballooned to hold $59.3 billion in assets as of July, according to the National Stock Exchange, which tracks ETF data.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has said it seeks to protect end users of commodities, and that cutting out individual investors is not the goal.

“The Commission has never said, ‘You aren’t tall enough to ride,'” CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton was quoted as saying in the WSJ article. “I don’t want to limit liquidity, but above all else, I want to ensure that prices for consumers are fair and that there is no manipulation — intentional or otherwise.”

Limiting the size of ETFs will result in higher costs for investors, the WSJ reported, because legal and operational costs have to be spread out over a fewer number of shares. Investors range from individuals to banks and hedge funds with multimillion-dollar positions.

The CFTC is currently considering a host of measures to curb excessive speculation, including position limits in U.S. futures markets. Many U.S. lawmakers called for greater regulation of some commodity markets after a price surge last year sent crude oil to a record high of $147 a barrel in July 2008.

(Reporting by Matthew Lewis; Editing by Toni Reinhold)


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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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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ETFs: A Better Bet in a Bear Market

February 26, 2009

Amid the financial crisis, tax advantages are but one benefit of exchange-traded funds. Their transparency, liquidity, and lower fees also appeal to investors

By David Bogoslaw
BusinessWeek.com

Imagine having invested in the DWS Commodity Securities A Fund (SKNRX) in 2008. The mutual fund had an annual return of -45.9% and also distributed nearly two-thirds of its net asset value as capital gains, incurring a substantial tax bill for investors on top of the losses they suffered. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only mutual fund to do so: More than three dozen funds with negative returns of at least 21% paid out over 30% of their net asset value as capital gains last year, according to Morningstar (MORN). Ouch and double ouch.

Making capital gains even higher than usual was the fact that most traditional mutual funds were forced to sell legacy holdings that had dramatically appreciated in value since being purchased in order to fund redemptions as nervous investors fled the market.

That may have prompted more people to switch to the mutual funds’ chief rival for the affections of diversification-minded retail investors, exchange-traded funds. Unlike mutual funds, ETFs incur zero capital gains until an investor actually sells his shares. While turnover in an ETF’s holdings can be high, it is done through in-kind exchanges of one security for another rather than through selling and buying.

But since the deepening of the financial crisis last September, the tax advantages of ETFs are just the icing on the cake.
Transparency, Liquidity, Lower Fees

The primary reason ETFs are more popular than ever is they give financial advisers the ability to better control their clients’ investment portfolios. First, there’s the transparency of knowing exactly what’s in an ETF on any given day, which matches advisers’ need for real-time management of investments in order to minimize wealth destruction. In this regard, ETFs have a clear advantage over mutual funds, which are required to disclose their holdings only four times a year. Of course, there are plenty of traditional index funds that are just as transparent as ETFs by virtue of the ability to see the contents of the underlying index on any chosen day, says Russ Kinnel, director of fund research at Morningstar.

ETFs’ inherent liquidity is also more valuable than ever in view of the continuing high volatility in stock and bond markets. Then there are the lower fees typically charged by ETF sponsors, which make a big difference in the current environment, where returns are mostly underwater.

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