Finally, but is it for real?

When Obama swept into office, there was an ongoing, left-over Bush program in place to rescue the financial system which focused on getting banks recapitalized through the Fed.  Despite worsening unemployment and rising bankruptcies, a stimulus that was top heavy in worthless tax cuts was hurried to congress and a program–that was more of a plea to banks than an actual program–was pasted together to focus on refinancing underwater mortgage holders.  The stimulus may have changed the momentum of GDP growth and the FED program definitely stabilized the banking system, but the programs for homeowners and the unemployed were less-than-successful.  The President was itching to put something together on health care to prove that he could do something that hadn’t been achieved by the Clintons.  It looks now like his primary economic advisers were warning him that just feeding tax breaks to choice businesses and and cheap loans to banks was not going to solve a major financial crisis.  Obama’s focus never really appeared to be on things that mattered at the time.  As a result, serious improvement in key areas of the economy  never materialized.

It’s not a surprise to any of us around here that Obama’s handling of the US economy is souring voters.  James Carville’s mantra–it’s the economy stupid–has never been more relevant to the vast majority of Americans who have been made worse off by the policies of the last ten years.

Americans’ views on the economy have dimmed this summer. But so far, the growing pessimism doesn’t seem to be taking a toll on President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects.

More people now believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows, and confidence in Obama’s handling of the economy has slipped from just a few months ago, notably among fellow Democrats.

The survey found that 86 percent of adults see the economy as “poor,” up from 80 percent in June. About half — 49 percent — said it worsened just in the past month. Only 27 percent responded that way in the June survey.

That can’t be good news for a president revving up his re-election campaign.

There’s a good chance that GDP–now growing at a miserably slow rate–may go into negative territories shortly, forcing the NBER to date the start of yet another recession when the recovery from this one has not really taken hold.  There’s indications in the market that another crash could be on the horizon.  After all, businesses can only wring so much profit out of restructuring debt to take advantage of cheap interest rates and cutting costs primarily by dumping workers.  Here’s some really frightening news on reinsurance on banks which is also causing weird stuff in the CDS market.  That’s the same damned market that messed up the economies of Europe and US the last time around which really needs some restructuring, standardization, and reform that has not been done despite Dodd-Frank and similar efforts on the other side of the pond. Bankers have fought new regulation and we’re likely to see the same problems revisit us in a different sector of the same market for the same kinds of vehicles.

Insurance on the debt of several major European banks has now hit historic levels, higher even than those recorded during financial crisis caused by the US financial group’s implosion nearly three years ago.

Credit default swaps on the bonds of Royal Bank of Scotland, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and Intesa Sanpaolo, among others, flashed warning signals on Wednesday. Credit default swaps (CDS) on RBS were trading at 343.54 basis points, meaning the annual cost to insure £10m of the state-backed lender’s bonds against default is now £343,540.

The cost of insuring RBS bonds is now higher than before the taxpayer was forced to step in and rescue the bank in October 2008, and shows the recent dramatic downturn in sentiment among credit investors towards banks.

“The problem is a shortage of liquidity – that is what is causing the problems with the banks. It feels exactly as it felt in 2008,” said one senior London-based bank executive.

“I think we are heading for a market shock in September or October that will match anything we have ever seen before,” said a senior credit banker at a major European bank.

While Obama is on vacation, White House gnomes are pasting together two programs for the poll-beleaguered President to announce when Congress gets back into session. The first is a “jobs” package.  The second is a plan for massive mortgage refinancing.  This is something that should’ve been on the front burner years ago so now I’m actually wondering if it’s going to work in time to stymy the right wing nut jobs coming up through the Republican primary process or it’s actually going to be serious rather than some lame ass attempt at some neoReaganesque policy that will move farther right when Republicans start saying no to clearly Republican policy.

Here’s the “Contours of Obama jobs package” via Reuters.

The president is widely expected to repeat his calls for an extension of a payroll tax cut, push for patent reform and bilateral free trade deals, and suggest an infrastructure bank to upgrade the country’s roads, airports and other facilities.

Retrofitting schools with energy efficient technology would allow the government to directly hire for labor-intensive work and also give a boost to the clean energy sector that Obama has said could be an important U.S. economic motor.

Other measures being considered, according to economists who have advised the White House, include tax credits for firms hiring more workers, funds for local governments to hire teachers, and retraining help for the long-term unemployed. Steps to boost the ailing housing market are also under review.

“What’s going to be included in this plan are some reasonable ideas that could have a tangible impact on improving our economy and creating jobs … the kinds of things that Republicans should be able to support,” Earnest said. “These are bipartisan ideas that the president is going to offer up.”

Republicans have made it perfectly clear that their only priority is to make Obama a one term president.  So, in yet another attempt at trying to look above the fray instead of fighting for what is right, we’re going to see another lukewarm policy that won’t have any immediate effect and will undoubtedly be pushed further to the right and further into the ineffective zone.  Plus, it will probably just be offset by other spending cuts in key areas which are likely to have stronger recessionary multiplier effects attached than any positive multiplier effect of the new legislation.  I still can’t figure out what the obsession is with tax cuts for new employees.  The big cost of new employees is health insurance for one and you can avoid that cost by going any where in the developed and developing world BUT the US.  Plus, no  business is going to hire any one when the have no customers.  I feel like a broke record on the number of repeats on that one.  Having spent my life doing strategic planning and budgeting for corporations and having one of my PhD field areas in corporate finance, I can tell you that the US looks like one of those offshore tax havens right now for most major corporations.  Also, more ‘free trade’ deals are likely to have just the opposite effect on unemployment anyway as prices tend to equilibriate in the countries involved and we’re the cheap capital market, not the cheap labor market part of that equation.  (Hence, in our country, incomes to capital go up and incomes to labor go down as the market goes towards price parity for our country.)

So, the second program is no a way for the US to back mortgage refinancing. This is also something that should’ve been done years ago.

One proposal would allow millions of homeowners with government-backed mortgages to refinance them at today’s lower interest rates, about 4 percent, according to two people briefed on the administration’s discussions who asked not to be identified because they were not allowed to talk about the information.

A wave of refinancing could be a strong stimulus to the economy, because it would lower consumers’ mortgage bills right away and allow them to spend elsewhere. But such a sweeping change could face opposition from the regulator who oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and from investors in government-backed mortgage bonds.

Administration officials said on Wednesday that they were weighing a range of proposals, including changes to its previous refinancing programs to increase the number of homeowners taking part. They are also working on a home rental program that would try to shore up housing prices by preventing hundreds of thousands of foreclosed homes from flooding the market. That program is further along — the administration requested ideas for execution from the private sector earlier this month.

But refinancing could have far greater breadth, saving homeowners, by one estimate, $85 billion a year. Despite record low interest rates, many homeowners have been unable to refinance their loans either because they owe more than their houses are now worth or because their credit is tarnished.

I’ve already looked into refinancing my FHA/VA loan from 7% to 4%.  I have good credit and my loan balance is about one half of what my house is worth–even with the recent decrease in home prices–because I’ve owned it for 11 years.  I didn’t follow through because the points charged by Wells Fargo–who processes my mortgage at the moment–were ridiculous.  They’d have to pick up the fees or points to intrigue me, frankly. The people with the worst problems are the ones that are now strategically defaulting because they are underwater.  Interesting enough, I’m set to discuss just that topic this fall in the Denver FMA meetings using this Philadelphia FED working paper.  Their findings suggest that people have the ability to pay these mortgages but they are defaulting anyway because they are underwater. The weird thing is they are defaulting on first mortgages while keeping their second liens current.  This means they are ‘strategically’ defaulting to get rid of the house because it’s a stupid investment for them.  Any plan that doesn’t deal directly with underwater mortgage holders specifically will not work.  Banks really don’t have any incentive to work with them now because they get more fee income from processing defaults than they do from renegotiating the mortgage.  The incentives on both sides of the market are totally warped at this point in time.  Again, quoting from the NYT article, this isn’t in the plan.

A broader criticism of a refinancing expansion is that it would not do enough to address the two main drivers of foreclosures: homes worth less than their mortgages, and a sudden loss of income, like unemployment. American homeowners currently owe some $700 billion more than their homes are worth.

I don’t see how the issues in the housing market are going to be solved until you solve this problem.  Dumping houses on the market is going to continually depress prices and cause this problem to regenerate.

So, this gets back to sort’ve my main point about both these big ideas.  First, they are a little too little and way too late.  The inside and outside lags on these kinds of fiscal policy measures are long and getting them through congress and into fruition is likely to lag-filled. We’re also likely to get a lecture and ransom demand from the austerity demons.  So, is this a real effort or a symbolic effort?  Second, the policy prescriptions are anemic. Neither of them focus on the real problems or the known solutions. So, again, is this a real effort or symbolic effort?  Third, these aren’t very aggressive policies nor or they what you would call traditionally Democratic policies so who are they really aimed at? Again, it seems like a symbolic offering to voters. If you’re getting the impression that I’m not impressed at all with this, you’re right.  I suppose this is all to make the confidence fairy come home to roost.  It still seems to me that she’s on her honey moon with the high priest of voodoo economics. Imaginary beings are symbolic too.

Left Behind

The Great Recession of 2007-2008 took out some one in every sector of the economy.  Worst hit, however, was the housing sector where the financial contagion was hatched by folks betting on the forever upward trend in real estate prices.  Prices and sales of homes have plummeted. However, the government focused clearly on reviving the same group of people that were most responsible for the damage.  Both the Bush and Obama administrations have raptured Wall Street while leaving US families behind.  Granted, many homeowners jumped into loans they could not afford and bought houses at price levels that should’ve sent them clear warning symbols.  But remember, even the most sophisticated investors–like AIG and Lehman Brothers–got sucked into the mortgage and housing madness.  You can’t exactly expect every home owner to read through the fine print and look for trends in underlying home values using the Case-Shiller Index. Buying a home is an emotional process.  Investing is supposed to be the cautious practice.

So, what’s really different between this housing crisis and the two previous, similar crises that happened during the Great Depression and Savings & Loan crisis is that there is no vehicle to redress homeowners’ wiped-out balance sheets and foreclosure problems.  There has been largess all over the place for banks and other financial institutions.  During the 2008 elections, then-candidate Hillary Clinton emphasized the important role of the HOLC during the Great Depression and argued that something akin to it should be considered today.  The purpose of the HOLC was to renegotiate mortgages so that people could stay in their homes.  The HOLC was dismantled in 1951 when the last of its assets–dating from as late as 1935–were liquidated.

There were some efforts by the Obama administration that accompanied the Bush 43 TARP program to try to get private financial institutions to renegotiate loans in lieu of foreclosure, but those programs have failed miserably.  At least the SEC is beginning to look into possible criminality leading to the financial crisis like the role of rater Standard & Poor’s in overrating toxic mortgage-backed securities. Still, the victims of these practices have had little to no relief.  The NYT reminds us today that many homeowners need help. We should be further reminded that the overall economy will not improve until the housing market stabilizes.

Tens of millions of Americans are being crushed by the overhang of mortgage debt. And Congress and the White House have yet to figure out that the economy will not recover until housing recovers — and that won’t happen without a robust effort to curb foreclosures by modifying troubled mortgage loans.

Instead of pushing the banks to do what is needed, the Obama administration has basically urged them to do their best to help, mainly by reducing interest rates for troubled borrowers. The banks haven’t done nearly enough. In many instances, they can make more from fees and charges on defaulted loans than on modifications.

The administration needs better ideas. It can start by working with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-run mortgage companies, to aggressively reduce the principal balances on underwater loans and to make refinancing easier for underwater borrowers. If the president championed aggressive action, and Fannie and Freddie, which back most new mortgages, also made it clear to banks that they expect principal reductions, the banks would feel considerable pressure to go along.

The housing numbers are chilling. Sales of existing homes fell in July by 3.5 percent, while prices were down 4.4 percent in July from a year earlier. In all, prices have declined 33 percent since the peak of the market five years ago, for a total loss of home equity of $6.6 trillion.

There’s no letup in sight. Currently, 14.6 million homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, and nearly half of them are underwater by more than 30 percent. At present, 3.5 million homes are in some stage of foreclosure. Nearly six million borrowers have already lost their homes in the bust.

There are 10 states where basically no one is buying a house. That’s a pretty good indicator of a still sick market. What’s most appalling is that on top of these statistics comes the story about how much money the creators of both the housing bubble and the housing crash were bailed out by both the FED and the Federal Government.  The FED’s main purpose is to stabilize the financial system and thet basically did what they had to do under the charter they were given, but the numbers are beyond astounding.   None of these institutions were punished for their bad decisions or fined.  The SEC and the FED seem toothless in the face of such perfidy.

Citigroup Inc. (C) and Bank of America Corp. (BAC) were the reigning champions of finance in 2006 as home prices peaked, leading the 10 biggest U.S. banks and brokerage firms to their best year ever with $104 billion of profits.

By 2008, the housing market’s collapse forced those companies to take more than six times as much, $669 billion, in emergency loans from the U.S. Federal Reserve. The loans dwarfed the $160 billion in public bailouts the top 10 got from the U.S. Treasury, yet until now the full amounts have remained secret.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s unprecedented effort to keep the economy from plunging into depression included lending banks and other companies as much as $1.2 trillion of public money, about the same amount U.S. homeowners currently owe on 6.5 million delinquent and foreclosed mortgages. The largest borrower, Morgan Stanley (MS), got as much as $107.3 billion, while Citigroup took $99.5 billion and Bank of America $91.4 billion, according to a Bloomberg News compilation of data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, months of litigation and an act of Congress.

“These are all whopping numbers,” said Robert Litan, a former Justice Department official who in the 1990s served on a commission probing the causes of the savings and loan crisis. “You’re talking about the aristocracy of American finance going down the tubes without the federal money.”

The FED is mandated with stabilizing the financial system.  It’s sole connection to borrowers is to ensure truth in lending laws are applied which still leaves borrowers stuck reading the fine print.  The  Federal Government, however, has a completely different mandate.  There’s a lot of fuzziness surrounding the idea of  promoting the general welfare.  I’m pretty sure that letting business put a market on steroids then helping them recover while letting home owners swing in the wind isn’t promoting any one’s general welfare.   However, the government has chosen to stabilize mortgage investors while still leaving the actual market for houses in a declining state.  Then, they wonder why the economy is so bad.  Folks with declining incomes and wealth do not go on spending sprees.  They retreat.

There is so much unfinished business left over from the 2007-2008 financial crisis it’s hard to know where to start the complaints.   It’s one of the major reasons for budget shortfalls all over the country.  But, you wouldn’t know that if you listen to political rhetoric.  Again, undoing the damage that caused the problems from the start would be a lot more judicious than creating additional ones. We don’t need deficit commissions.  We need to deal with the root causes of the current deficit.  That would be too many wars, too many tax cuts, and way too many people who don’t have jobs and homes because Wall Street broke the economy.

The Uncertainty Blues

There are several headlines today that you really don’t want to see if you’re hoping for an economic recovery.  This one is especially chilling:  ‘Home prices fall 4.1%, near 2009 lows’. There are good reasons this doesn’t bode well.  The first is that the construction sector is a large economic generator in our economy and it also is a job generator. The second is that when people feel less wealthy, they spend less.  Both tend to have recessionary effects.  It doesn’t look like things will improve either.

And things may get a lot worse, said Robert Shiller, a Yale economist and half of the Case-Shiller team, in a web conference after the report’s release.

“There’s a substantial risk of home prices falling another 15%, 20% or 25% more,” he said.

Shiller cited a few reasons for his bearish stance. The government is expected to reduce the presence of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the housing market. These agencies currently provide loan guarantees for about two-thirds of mortgages. If they fade away, private mortgage money will have to fill the gap and the cost of mortgage borrowing will surely rise. That will hurt home prices.

There’s also talk of possibly ending the mortgage interest tax deduction for many homeowners. Meanwhile, the weak economic recovery may be threatened by higher oil prices as a result of turmoil in the Mideast.

At the web conference, Shiller’s index partner Karl Case wasn’t much more optimistic.

“I see [the market] bouncing along the bottom with a slight negative trend,” said Case, an economics professor emeritus at Wellesley College.

Unrest in Libya and Bahrain are also driving up oil prices. Both of these countries are oil producers.  This also drove stock market prices lower.  This is also not good as stock market decreases also make people feel poorer so they spend less.  Additionally, higher gas prices forces people to readjust their budgets.

U.S. investors returned from the long holiday weekend in a selling mode amid increased concern about developments in North Africa and the Middle East.

Global financial markets recoiled overnight as Libya appeared on the verge of civil war and continuing protests in Bahrain sent crude prices surging. After Brent crude futures approached $110 per barrel in London, benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) surged above $91 per barrel in New York trading midday Tuesday.

Higher energy prices threaten the global economic recovery, on which much of the two-year rally in stocks has been based. Heading into this week, the S&P was up 100% from its March 2009 low, meaning both that continued growth is “priced into” stocks and there a lot of paper profits waiting to be booked.

In recent trading, the S&P was down 1.6% while the Dow was off 1.1% and the Nasdaq by more than 2%.

On top of this, we still have high unemployment coupled with increasing threats of lay offs for state and local workers.  Any lay offs or decreases in wages and benefits has the same effect: it makes people feel poor and makes them re-arrange their budgets.   Unions have been largely responsible for benefits and salary levels enjoyed by all workers. Any attempts to further erode collective bargaining is sure to suppress wages and benefits in all sectors.  Several polls today seem to indicate that most people are aware of this and oppose weakening unions.  Here’s one such poll from USA Today.

Americans strongly oppose laws taking away the collective bargaining power of public employee unions, according to a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. The poll found 61% would oppose a law in their state similar to such a proposal in Wisconsin, compared with 33% who would favor such a law.

All of this uncertainty is sure to impact the economic outlook.  Many of these are indicative further weakening. Remember, tax cuts for businesses work only if they have revenues.  They won’t have increased revenues without customers.  Higher oil prices–as well as higher prices for other commodities like food–are likely to transfer dollars away from discretionary spending.  We could see further weakening in the demand for consumer durables like cars and big appliances.  I’ve noticed some rather spectacular sales this weekend for these items.  We’ll see in a few months if those commercials today are acts of desperation to unload inventory.

It appears that many in government are purposefully trying to shrink not only the government but also the economy. I’m not sure why every one has decided to go to faith based tax cuts rather than rely on economic theory.  It’s as if years of experience and evidence have been thrown out the window.  Many Republican governors are doing the same thing that created budget problems for Wisconsin.  They are creating deficits by passing tax cuts benefiting the rich and passing the sacrifice to the poor and middle class. The poor and middle class are the consumers that really matter in an economic crunch.  They spend most of their money and they do it on goods that generate local jobs. Remember, this just happened at the national level too. We’ve seen tax cuts go predominantly to the wealthy while talk of benefit cuts are rampant.

State budgets across the country are in disarray as a weak economy, the end of tens of billions in Recovery Act funds, and a GOP-led House that is pushing for deep cuts to many programs that benefit state and local governments set the stage for massive in shortfalls over the next two years. Instead of making the tough choices necessary to help their states weather the current crisis with some semblance of the social safety net and basic government services intact, Republican governors are instead using it as an opportunity to advance several longtime GOP projects: union busting, draconian cuts to social programs, and massive corporate tax breaks. These misplaced priorities mean that the poor and middle class will shoulder the burden of fiscal austerity, even as the rich and corporations are asked to contribute even less.

Follow that Think Progress link to find some of the worst states with worst abuses.  Arizona tops the list.

Now, however, Governor Jan Brewer is proposing to kick some 280,000 Arizonans, mostly childless adults, off the state’s Medicaid rolls. Brewer claims such a move is the only way to get the state’s fiscal house in order, as it would save $541.5 million in general funding spending. Brewer also wants to save $79.8 million by dropping 5,200 “seriously mentally ill” people from the state’s Medicaid program. Instead of balancing out these draconian cuts with additional revenue increases or simply not making the cuts in the first place, Brewer instead signed $538 million in corporate tax cuts into law two weeks ago.

Other states to watch out for are New Jersey, Texas, Michigan, Ohio and of, course, Wisconsin.  Here’s an example from Florida.

Scott’s radical budget proposal, unveiled at a tea party event, includes $4.6 billion in spending cuts that would result in the direct loss of more than 8,000 jobs. It would also privatize large areas of state services, including juvenile justice facilities, Medicaid, and some hospitals. Education spending would be cut by more than $3 billion and teachers and other public employees would see their pensions under threat. Such deep cuts in essential programs and services are necessary to offset Scott’s proposal to cut corporate and property taxes by at least $4 billion.

If these things occur, you can look forward to a return to the Depression Years.  I guarantee it.

Party like it’s 1929!

The economy may be in recession, but the Champagne flowed freely at Tuesday’s celebrations of the banker-piginauguration of Barack Obama — thanks in large part to donations from some movers and shakers on Wall Street.

Those figures don’t include the $124 million that federal, state and local governments are providing to pay for security and the official swearing-in ceremony.

The finance, insurance and real-estate industries have been at the center of the recent economic storm, but even so, people who work in those industries contributed at least $7.1 million to help fund the dozens of events and parties celebrating Mr. Obama’s official move into the White House, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington nonprofit group that studies money and politics.

That is more that a quarter of the $27 million of donations that have been disclosed so far by the Presidential Inauguration Committee, which estimates the festivities will cost about $45 million. That would make it the most expensive inauguration ever.

hooverbuttonThe market is below 8000 and the list of huge layoffs happening in industries around the country continues.  But hey, we got the nation’s most expensive party ever according to today’s New York Times where the headline read:  A Wounded Wall St. Helps Pay for Inauguration Bash.  I’m beginning to sense the fall of the Roman empire with Nero in charge of the chaos.  Of course, the top of the donor list included the the Uber Lord of the Under World, George Soros whose combined family donations came to $250,000.  Given an average family of four in the US doesn’t even live off of $50,000 a year and the total is about the average price of an average home, I’d have to say there are a lot of people being shunted towards Obamaville and other tent cities that would really appreciate a donation of that size for something other than a big party in their honor.

Let’s just highlight reality a moment and forget about the cost of designer ballroom dresses that would feed entire families for months.

Read the rest of this entry »