W(h)ither Geithner and his TALF

timmy-beavisNeil Irwin of WAPO reported today that the TALF is not having the results trumpeted by the Obama administration. This is leading, again, to speculation about the relevancy of most of these plans and, of course, job security of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

In its first two months, the government’s signature initiative to support consumer lending has fallen well short of expectations, deploying only a fraction of the amount officials had hoped to extend to stimulate auto loans, student loans and credit card lending.

The slow rollout of the program has frustrated staff at government agencies working on the effort and diminished hopes that they could engineer a rapid return to healthy lending levels, according to interviews with government and industry sources. The initiative also serves as a window into the complexities of designing a giant rescue of the financial system.

The TALF is the private-public partnership that couples the funds of private investors, like hedge funds, and the FED.  The hedge funds invest small amounts that are matched by much larger amounts that would presumably come from the Treasury and Tax Payers if they wind up being nonprofitable.   The combined funds  will supposedly purchase non-toxic, virgin, high rated rated securities to fund everything from student loans and car loans to inventory and capital loans for business. As of yet, they really have failed to do so.

Officials envisioned TALF supporting tens of billions of dollars a month in new lending, saying it could eventually total $1 trillion. But in March, when it was launched, it backed only $4.7 billion in auto loans and credit cards. For April, it logged only $1.7 billion.

Sources involved in the program said private investors have been reluctant to work with the government, which they view as an unreliable business partner. Separately, the brokerage houses that are crucial intermediaries are being exceptionally cautious in the contracts they draw up with participants in the program, in part out of wariness that any mistakes could draw the ire of Congress or the media.

In congressional testimony on Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said that overall progress is “pretty good” for a program in its early days. Still, he acknowledged that participation was “lower than expected” because of “concern about the conditions that come with the assistance in the program . . . and uncertainty about whether they may change in the future.”

Meanwhile, on the bank front, stupid accounting tricks abound!    Which begs the question is any one stupid enough to believe the numbers?  Every large financial institution appears to be jumping on the band wagon of conveniently forgetting the month of December.  What does this say about the state of public accounting today and Wall Street’s gulliblity?

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Irrational numbers

maskI’ve sat in two doctoral level investment classes for my degree. It’s not one of my fields because I just don’t want to take the derivatives seminar.  I actually have a lot of disdain for the field now that I’ve done the proofs on the major models.  My ex husband worked 20 years for an insurance company in their investment department doing the real thing.  It was one of the reasons I actually left him.  I find the entire field pretty insufferable.  Unfortunately, it’s also one of the highest paying fields you can have as an academic.  It’s much easier to get big publications in Finance than Economics. That’s basically because there really isn’t an awful lot of theory in finance.  It’s mostly data mining looking for some kind of theory.   As you can  probably tell by now, I’m not really popular with the Investment professors.  They don’t understand me primarily because I’m not out to make money. (Well, that and I refuse to call Eugene Fama God)  My research is always based on contrariness about the current asset pricing models we teach.  I especially disdain the ones that we teach to MBAs and Finance majors.

A lot of Finance is based on two assumptions that I can’t buy. One is that the market follows a random walk.  (This is Fama’s big contribution for which he expects to get a Nobel, but hasn’t managed to date.)  A lot of time is spent looking at the equity markets saying you can’t beat the market or really forecast it because it’s a completely random series.  The second is that the investor is a rational being.  Most of the field total ignores the old Keynesian idea of ‘animal spirits’.  That’s the idea that the market can get a herd mentality and spook at various events and move like a bunch of scared cows.

There’s a field in Finance that’s beginning to get a little bit of respect but still is considered a little out there. That’s probably, why it’s the only parts of Finance and Investment theory that intrigues me.  It’s called Behavioral Finance.  It looks for anomalies in the market and tries to find the reasons for them based more on human psychology rather than trying to just call them odd events.  That’s why I was happy to read this account,  Irrational everything,  written by Guy Rolnik on  Prof. Daniel Kahneman.  Kahneman’s a collector of stories of irrational behavior when it comes to people and finance decisions.  His voice would really add some flavor to the current collapse of modern finance.  Here’s a non finance example that just tickles me every time I read it.

But the story Kahneman recalls when asked about the economic models at the root of the current financial crisis is actually taken from history, not an experiment. It concerns a group of Swiss soldiers who set out on a long navigation exercise in the Alps. The weather was severe and they got lost. After several days, with their desperation mounting, one of the men suddenly realized he had a map of the region.

They followed the map and managed to reach a town. When they returned to base and their commanding officer asked how they had made their way back, they replied, “We suddenly found a map.” The officer looked at the map and said, “You found a map, all right, but it’s not of the Alps, it’s of the Pyrenees.”

According to Kahneman, the moral of the story is that some of our economic models, perhaps those of the investment world, are worthless. But individual investors need security – maps of the Pyrenees – even if they are, in effect, worthless.

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And the rich just keep getting richer …

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This graph from the Congressional Budget Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows the most recent date on U.S. Income Inequality. This includes new data from 2006. This is pretty astounding. It shows just exactly how much of the country’s income has gone to the richest and poorest Americans and of course the middle classes.

Let’s assume that all U.S. incomes had all increased at the same rate as the lowest quintile.

lowest fifth: $1,639
second fifth: $3,000 to $33,000
middle fifth: $5,000 to $48,000
fourth fifth : $6,000 to $62,000
fifth fifth: $11,000 to $110,000
top fifth: $37,000 to $374,000

Now let’s see what it would look like if we’d all experienced the same increase as the top 1%.

lowest fifth: $38,000 increase to $53,000
2nd fifth: $77,000 increase to $107,156
3rd fifth: $110,000 increase to $152,000
4th fifth: $144,000 increase to $200,00
5th fifth: $253,000 increase to $352,000
Top fifth: $862,000 increase to 1.2m total

This basically makes the income inequality in this country the widest on record. The Center’s release also included this:

Taken together with prior research, the new data suggest greater income concentration at the top than at any time since 1929

If you want to check out how our US income inequality compares to the rest of the world, check out the GINI Index here in the CIA World Fact Book. The GINI index is a measure of income/wealth distribution. The lower the coefficient, the more equal the wealth distribution. So zero would mean perfect equality where everyone has the exact same income. One means there is perfect inequality or one person has all the income and the rest of the folks have none.

logo-mr-monopolyIn 2007, the US had a GINI coefficient of 45. Denmark had a 24 in 2005. UK had 34 in 2005. Needless to say, we are up there with most of the world’s tin pot dictatorships on income equality. Uganda and Venezuela have ratings similar to ours.

In view of these numbers, I would say the populist rage overtaking the country isn’t about taxes. It may not even be about government spending. It is probably about the fact that most Americans are losing ground. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but not only are the majority of us losing ground, a select few are gaining hugely. It is also undeniable that this gain has come the political class who becomes wealthy themselves enabling policy that widens the inequality gap.


PUMA forward

puma-paw2You think it’s too late to plan some kind of commemorative/commiserative event for the 5.31 rules committee meeting that led to the birth of PUMA? Maybe make it net/blog based? Any interest?

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Bernanke Rules

atlant-fed-eagleIs The Fed under Chairman Ben Bernanke  finally beginning to adopt the tougher lending regulations and rules that would’ve prevented much of the havoc of the last two years?  In a speech on April 17, Bernanke stated that damage done to the economy was not likely to be undone any time soon.  This gives more credence to the idea that we may see an L-shaped recovery.  In other words, be prepared to scuttle across the bottom for a very long time. But did the speech deliver the assurances we need that necessary steps and regulations w lending practices and financial innovations are in the works?  I don’t think so.

Here’s some interesting analysis by Craig Torres at Bloomberg.com.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the collapse of U.S. lending will probably cause “long-lasting” damage to home prices, household wealth and borrowers’ good credit score.

“One would be forgiven for concluding that the assumed benefits of financial innovation are not all they were cracked up to be,” the Fed chairman said today in a speech at the central bank’s community affairs conference in Washington. “The damage from this turn in the credit cycle — in terms of lost wealth, lost homes, and blemished credit histories — is likely to be long-lasting.”

The U.S. central bank has cut the benchmark lending rate to as low as zero and taken unprecedented steps to stem the credit crisis through direct support of consumer finance and mortgage lending. The Fed plans to purchase as much as $1.25 trillion in agency mortgage-backed securities this year to support the housing market and is providing financing for securities backed by loans to consumers and small businesses.

Bernanke and the Federal Reserve Board approved rules last July to toughen restrictions on mortgages, banning high-cost loans to borrowers with no verified income or assets and curbing penalties for repaying a loan early. The action came after members of Congress and other regulators urged the Fed to use its authority to prevent abusive lending.

This suggests Bernanke does not see home values going back up any time soon.  It also suggests that the lending markets are not likely to return to their heyday.  Does this mean, however, that we’re finally going to see the regulation and enforcement of prudent underwriting standards and no more hide the trash in a bundle and pass it to the next sucker?

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