Ilargi: Malcolm Gladwell writes an article in this week's New Yorker, entitled COCKSURE: Banks, battles, and the psychology of overconfidence. The topic is Wall Street bankers in general, and Bear Stearns' Jimmy Cayne in particular. Gladwell quotes a spring 2008 interview by William Cohan just days prior to Bear's fall, in which Cayne says this, talking about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (then head of the New York Fed):
The audacity of that prick in front of the American people announcing he was deciding whether or not a firm of this stature and this whatever was good enough to get a loan. Like he was the determining factor, and it’s like a flea on his back, floating down underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, getting a hard-on, saying, “Raise the bridge.” This guy thinks he’s got a big dick. He’s got nothing, except maybe a boyfriend.
That sets a nice tone. Gladwell continues:
Since the beginning of the financial crisis, there have been two principal explanations for why so many banks made such disastrous decisions. The first is structural. Regulators did not regulate. Institutions failed to function as they should. Rules and guidelines were either inadequate or ignored. The second explanation is that Wall Street was incompetent, that the traders and investors didn’t know enough, that they made extravagant bets without understanding the consequences. But the first wave of postmortems on the crash suggests a third possibility: that the roots of Wall Street’s crisis were not structural or cognitive so much as they were psychological.
Gladwell explains how overconfidence can at times be an asset, but how it also can be lethal. He says Britain lost Gallipoli in 1915 because they knew they were superior, and therefore simply couldn't imagine losing to the Turks.
The British were overconfident at Gallipoli not because Gallipoli didn’t matter but, paradoxically, because it did; it was a high-stakes contest, of daunting complexity, and it is often in those circumstances that overconfidence takes root.
Here's another bit on Jimmy Cayne:
The high-water mark for Bear Stearns was 2003. The dollar was falling. A wave of scandals had just swept through the financial industry. The stock market was in a swoon. But Bear Stearns was an exception. In the first quarter of that year, its earnings jumped fifty-five per cent. Its return on equity was the highest on Wall Street. The firm’s mortgage business was booming. Since Bear Stearns’s founding, in 1923, it had always been a kind of also-ran to its more blue-chip counterparts, like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
But that year Fortune named it the best financial company to work for. “We are hitting on all 99 cylinders," Jimmy Cayne told a reporter for the Times, in the spring of that year, “so you have to ask yourself, What can we do better? And I just can’t decide what that might be." He went on, “Everyone says that when the markets turn around, we will suffer. But let me tell you, we are going to surprise some people this time around. Bear Stearns is a great place to be."
What Malcolm Gladwell means to say is that today's Wall Street leaders have been encouraged by the litany of bail-outs they have received to keep on being as cocksure as Cayne was. The government implicitly says that it won’t let the big financials fail, which provides ample assurance to go out and gamble all the more, not for being more careful.
Goldman Sachs' trading software escapades, combined with their call today for a surge in the S&P 500, which Tyler Durden identifies as just another -albeit cocksure- way to suck the suckers into the market, would seem to make Gladwell's argument a convincing one.
But there's another side to this as well.
President Obama today interestingly made a similar argument. He told PBS television:
"The problem that I've seen, at least, is you don't get a sense that folks on Wall Street feel any remorse for taking all these risks... [..] You don't get a sense that there's been a change of culture and behavior as a consequence of what has happened. And that's why the financial regulatory reform proposals that we put forward are so important.."
Yes, the cocksure culture still exists on Wall Street. But the regulatory reform comes from Obama's economic people, who look no less cocksure, and who also don't seem to have had a change in culture and behavior.
Tomorrow, Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (the SIGTARP office), will report on the Hill that the Treasury should, and easily can, keep much more detailed tabs on where the TARP money has gone and will be going. According to Barofsky the info, which the Treasury has never revealed, is readily available from the banks.
The special inspector general also dropped a huge bombshell by declaring that the total cost of all US bail-out programs may amount to $23.7 trillion. The Chinese, Japanese and Middle East holders of US debt must have been very interested to hear that.
So how does the Treasury Department react to the statements by Barofsky, the man appointed by the President and conformed by the Senate? They act as if he's a complete fool who has no clue what he’s talking about. Which is exactly how Gladwell would have predicted Wall Street CEO's to react, if only because winners know how to bluff.
"Treasury spokesman Andrew Williams said the U.S. has spent less than $2 trillion so far...." "These estimates of potential exposures do not provide a useful framework for evaluating the potential cost of these programs," Williams said. "This estimate includes programs at their hypothetical maximum size, and it was never likely that the programs would be maxed out at the same time."
There are a few options:
- The President and Congress have accidentally appointed absolute nincompoops in Barofsky and Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressinal Oversight Panel for TARP.
- Barofsky and Warren are purposely frustrating the good people at the Treasury by incessantly making unfounded claims about false numbers and a lack of transparency.
- The Treasury on purpose gives these people, appointed by the President and with salaries paid by the American people, incomplete and/or faulty information.
- The Treasury thinks it can get away with anything it says and Congress won't dare act on the reports.
- Congress and Treasury both, and in unison, have elected to ignore the watchdogs and think they can get away with anything in front of the American people
We won't have to wait long to find out. Barofsky is on the Hill tomorrow. He will face tough questions, big words and angry senators, but If that’s all there is, you’ll know who's in on the dealmaking.
As for Obama's regulatory reform, forget about it having any positive effect. Wall Street will never reform itself, and the present crew at the Treasury is a Wall Street crew.Their behavior gives them away. They think they can get away with whatever they do.
U.S. Rescue May Reach $23.7 Trillion, Barofsky Says
U.S. taxpayers may be on the hook for as much as $23.7 trillion to bolster the economy and bail out financial companies, said Neil Barofsky, special inspector general for the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program. The Treasury’s $700 billion bank-investment program represents a fraction of all federal support to resuscitate the U.S. financial system, including $6.8 trillion in aid offered by the Federal Reserve, Barofsky said in a report released today.
"TARP has evolved into a program of unprecedented scope, scale and complexity," Barofsky said in testimony prepared for a hearing tomorrow before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Treasury spokesman Andrew Williams said the U.S. has spent less than $2 trillion so far and that Barofsky’s estimates are flawed because they don’t take into account assets that back those programs or fees charged to recoup some costs shouldered by taxpayers.
"These estimates of potential exposures do not provide a useful framework for evaluating the potential cost of these programs," Williams said. "This estimate includes programs at their hypothetical maximum size, and it was never likely that the programs would be maxed out at the same time." Barofsky’s estimates include $2.3 trillion in programs offered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., $7.4 trillion in TARP and other aid from the Treasury and $7.2 trillion in federal money for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, credit unions, Veterans Affairs and other federal programs.
Williams said the programs include escalating fee structures designed to make them "increasingly unattractive as financial markets normalize." Dependence on these federal programs has begun to decline, as shown by $70 billion in TARP capital investments that has already been repaid, Williams said. Barofsky offered criticism in a separate quarterly report of Treasury’s implementation of TARP, saying the department has "repeatedly failed to adopt recommendations" needed to provide transparency and fulfill the administration’s goal to implement TARP "with the highest degree of accountability." As a result, taxpayers don’t know how TARP recipients are using the money or the value of the investments, he said in the report.
"This administration promised an ‘unprecedented level’ of accountability and oversight, but as this report reveals, they are falling far short of that promise," Representative Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the oversight committee, said in a statement. "The American people deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent." The Treasury has spent $441 billion of TARP funds so far and has allocated $202.1 billion more for other spending, according to Barofsky. In the nine months since Congress authorized TARP, Treasury has created 12 programs involving funds that may reach almost $3 trillion, he said.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner should press banks for more information on how they use the more than $200 billion the government has pumped into U.S. financial institutions, Barofsky said in a separate report. The inspector general surveyed 360 banks that have received TARP capital, including Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. The responses, which the inspector general said it didn’t verify independently, showed that 83 percent of banks used TARP money for lending, while 43 percent used funds to add to their capital cushion and 31 percent made new investments. Barofsky said the TARP inspector general’s office has 35 ongoing criminal and civil investigations that include suspected accounting, securities and mortgage fraud; insider trading; and tax investigations related to the abuse of TARP programs.
The Amazing Expanding Bailout
TARP watchdog Neil Barofsky says the total size of the bailout has now hit $23.7 trillion, when all the guarantees are factored in. Of course, the government doesn't just provide a bailout total, so different parties may come up with different numbers. But one thing's clear: ever since the first bailout, the estimate has grown and grown and grown and grown and grown. Let's hope today's number is as big as it gets.
Bailout Overseer Says Banks Misused TARP Funds
Many of the banks that got federal aid to support increased lending have instead used some of the money to make investments, repay debts or buy other banks, according to a new report from the special inspector general overseeing the government's financial rescue program. The report, which will be published Monday, surveyed 360 banks that got money through the end of January and found that 110 had invested at least some of it, that 52 had repaid debts and that 15 had used funds to buy other banks.
Roughly 80 percent of respondents, or 300 banks, also said at least some of the money had supported new lending. The report by special inspector general Neil Barofsky calls on the Treasury Department to require regular, more detailed information from banks about their use of federal aid provided under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The Treasury has refused to collect such information.
Doing so is "essential to meet Treasury's stated goal of bringing transparency to the TARP program and informing the American people and their representatives in Congress about what is being done with their money," the report said. In a written response, the Treasury again rejected that call. Officials have taken the view that the exact use of the federal aid cannot be tracked because money given to a bank is like water poured into an ocean.
"Although it might be tempting to do so, it is not possible to say that investment of TARP dollars resulted in particular loans, investments or other activities by the recipient," Herbert M. Allison Jr., the assistant Treasury secretary who administers the rescue program, wrote in a letter to Barofsky. The Treasury has required 21 of the nation's largest banks to file public reports each month showing the dollar volume of their new lending.
The government so far has invested more than $200 billion in more than 600 banks under a program that began in October with investments in nine of the largest banks. Some banks have started to repay the aid even as others continue to apply for it. Officials said the program intended to increase the capital reserves of healthy banks, allowing them to make more loans. From the beginning, however, the government invested in troubled banks -- most prominently Citigroup -- that had publicly announced intentions to reduce lending.
The government has also used the money to encourage mergers, such as Bank of America's acquisition of Merrill Lynch and PNC's deal for National City. The report provides the most comprehensive look to date at how banks have used the money, based on voluntary responses to a March survey. Banks were asked to describe how they used the money, but they were not asked to break down the amounts. One response, which the report described as typical, said the money had been used "to make loans to credit worthy customers, and to facilitate resolution of problem assets on our books."
Some bailout firms up lobbying spending in 2Q
Some of the biggest recipients of the government's $700 billion financial bailout, including Bank of America and Morgan Stanley, increased their spending on lobbying in the second quarter as Congress began to look closely at revamping the rule system for financial institutions. Bank of America Corp., which received $45 billion in federal rescue aid, spent $800,000 in the April-June quarter, up from $660,000 in the first quarter. The tally was down from nearly $1.2 million in the year-ago period.
Morgan Stanley's lobbying costs jumped to $830,000 from $540,000 in the first three months of the year, and $690,000 in the second quarter of 2008. "While these companies continue to count their taxpayer cash, they're using their lobbying against critical financial reform," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at Public Interest Research Group. "Anywhere but Washington, you would think this was the Saturday morning cartoons."
Bailed-out automaker General Motors again was one of the biggest spenders, according to the mandatory disclosure reports filed so far with Congress covering the April-June period. GM spent about $2.8 million on lobbying Congress and the federal government, about the same as in the first quarter but down from $3 million in the second quarter of 2008. GM made an unusually swift exit from bankruptcy protection on July 10, with what once was the world's biggest and most powerful automaker leaner and cleansed of massive debt and burdensome contracts that would have sunk it—if not for $50 billion in federal aid. The government holds a 61-percent controlling interest in the automaker.
Failed insurance conglomerate American International Group Inc., which became an lightning rod for public outrage over its payment of millions in bonuses to employees, trimmed its lobbying spending in the second quarter to $950,000 from nearly $1.3 million in the first quarter and about $2.8 million in the year-earlier quarter. Several of the big banks receiving aid last fall under the Troubled Assets Relief Program have repaid the money in recent weeks.
Ilargi: Read Malcolm Gladwell's COCKSURE: Banks, battles, and the psychology of overconfidence here.
How The Bailout Made The Overconfidence Problem Worse
If Malcolm Gladwell is right—and I think he is—that overconfidence played an important role in creating our financial crisis, it’s time to start asking what we should be doing about this. In the first place, we need to recognize the limits of policy. The search for technical fixes to behavior embedded in the flawed characters of men and women in finance is doomed to failure. We’re not going to find some easy way to discount for overconfidence or even reign it in.
But we can adopt a policy of not making the problem worse. Unfortunately, much of what has gone on in what former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson terms the "rescue" of the financial sector has been making the problem of overconfidence worse. In particular, the various guarantees—implicit and explicit—of assets and liabilities of financial firms tends to increase overconfidence. Everyone from Fed chair Ben Bernanke to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has officially announced that the policy of our government is that we will not allow another Lehman Brothers, which means that the government will do whatever it takes to prevent the collapse of a large, complex, systemically important financial institution.
Not many people seem to understand that this policy makes it almost impossible for banks to competently manage their risk. On the surface, the Wall Street banks benefit from lower borrowing costs thanks to the subsidies from both the explicitly guaranteed debt and the broader implicit guarantee against failure. But because this leaves the financial firms without a market check on their activities, it becomes impossible for them to gauge whether they are taking the appropriate risks and the appropriate level of risk.
So, for instance, we see that Goldman Sachs dramatically increased the amount of risk it takes from day to day last quarter. The market doesn’t seem to have penalized them for this additional risk. And why should investors care? They’ve got the government on their side. Which means that Goldman has no market check on its risk, leaving the firm without outside guidance about the wisdom of its investments. In short, the market penalty on overconfidence is destroyed by the guarantees.
Artificially cheap capital also enables Goldman to speculate on trades that would normally be too risky. A kind of phony, government ‘Alpha’ is created by the guarantees—excess gains obtained without internally taking on commensurate levels of risk and its market costs. The folks at Goldman, to pick on them a bit more, are deceived into thinking they are better at this than they are. This is sure to encourage even more overconfidence. Goldman still makes a show about caring about risk management, but the truth is that the firm is basically flying blind. That’s because while traditional risk management isn’t quite useless, but it is nearly so. Even somewhat sophisticated measures such as "Value at Risk" that banks employ don’t really work very well. Goldman itself admits this.
The only real test of risk management is provided by the financial Darwinism of the markets. By reading market signals about products—pricing of assets, pricing of insurance on those prices—banks develop models that can inform them about risk. By reading market signals about their own financial health—their cost of capital, their borrowing cost, the cost to insure their debt, the willingness of customers to enter into trades—risk managers get a view about the risks of their own portfolios and the strength of the business model. Guys and gals whose standard operating procedure is overconfidence, have this trait checked in the markets.
Now we’ve scrambled these signals, and encouraged overconfidence. Shareholders, bondholders, counterparties can become indifferent to risk. Business models can seem more effective than they actually are. In this situation, financial executives cannot appeal to the external market to determine whether they have the right business models, asset portfolios or capital structures. They just have to guessitimate. This calculational chaos is far worse than simple ‘moral hazard.’ It doesn’t matter what regulations are in place, or how closely supervised a firm might be. After all, the regulators and supervisors suffer from the same blindness of the bank executives. The worst kind of overconfidence is encouraged across the broader markets.
It was this calculational chaos that brought down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Even when closely supervised by regulators and with well-intentioned executives in place, the mortgage agencies were unable to properly evaluate the size of their balance sheets, the content and quality of their portfolios or the appropriateness of their business models. And now we’ve reduced Goldman Sachs to Goldie Mac, another flying blind, overconfident financial firm.
Obama hits out at Wall Street banks
President Barack Obama said on Monday that Wall Street banks had failed to show remorse for the "wild risks" that triggered a financial meltdown and helped to push the United States into recession. Obama unveiled a sweeping regulatory overhaul in June aimed at improving government oversight of banks and markets to avert a repeat of the financial crisis. "The problem that I've seen, at least, is you don't get a sense that folks on Wall Street feel any remorse for taking all these risks," Obama said in an interview with PBS television.
"You don't get a sense that there's been a change of culture and behavior as a consequence of what has happened. And that's why the financial regulatory reform proposals that we put forward are so important," he said. Obama said the planned regulatory reforms would prevent Wall Street firms from taking the "wild risks" they had taken before the financial crisis.
Shareholders should also have the right to weigh in on huge bonuses paid to executives, he said. Wall Street paid more than $18 billion of bonuses in 2008, a year in which it needed trillions of dollars of taxpayer support. Asked if he was concerned about the jump in profits reported by banks Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase & Co, Obama said his administration had less leverage over them now that they had repaid government bailout money.
He said the measures put in his place by his government to stabilize the economy were working, despite unemployment projected to rise above 10 percent within months. "I think we've put out the fire. The analogy I use sometimes is, we had this beautiful house. And there was a fire. We came in and we had to hose it down. "The fire is now out, but what we've discovered is, we need some new tuckpointing, the roof's leaking, the boiler's out, oh, and by the way, we're way behind on our mortgage," he said.
Goldman Ups S&P 500 Target for End-Year
Goldman Sachs raised the S&P 500 index's target for the end of the year to 1060 from 940 Monday, but said the risk of "double-dip" recession remains significant. Goldman Sachs made the move to reflect potential price return of about 13 percent from the current levels, Reuters reported. It also raised the S&P 500 operating earnings view to $52 from $40 for this year. Operating earnings view for next year was also raised to $75 from $63.
Goldman's current economic view is for below-trend growth through 2010, and it believes the risk of a "double-dip" recession is still significant. Asian markets rallied, with the Hang Seng index closing more than 3.7 percent up, while European stock indexes were also up, with banks dominating the upturn. Stock markets in the US and Europe are likely to see a significant rally if indexes manage to rise further from current levels, technical analyst Clem Chambers, CEO of ADVFN, also said Monday.
Is Goldman Starting To Offload Prop Positions?
by Tyler Durden
Abby Joseph Cohen must have threatened with retirement and David Kostin is here to pick up Olympic torch. Goldman Sachs just raised its 2009 year end S&P target to 1060, "13% above the current level" meaning Goldman prop positions are full and the great offloading to marginal buyers has begun. The justification: "After trading in a 10% band for the past three months, our "Pop, Stall, & Sustained recovery" framework, sequential improvement in ex-Financials EPS, stabilization in profit margins, and higher forward EPS guidance all point to a rising market through 2009."
More specifically, 85 Broad is raising its 2009 EPS to $52 from $40, and 2010 EPS to a patently absurd $75 from $63, a 45% increase in bottom line earnings. And just so it seems more credible, "measured on a pre-provision and pre-write-down basis our estimates are $69 and $81. S&P 500 trades at 12.5x our 2010 operating and 11.6x our pre-provision EPS." In other words, pure rose-colored glasses halcyon.
As Q1 and Q2 earnings "beats" have demonstrated, all bottom line upside surprises have come from companies trimming the fat and mass firing employees left and right: alas for the most part revenues have been flat if not materially lower to expectations - just look at GE's recent results for a good recap of what is happening wth the economy theme. Arguably, there is no more SG&A extraction available to the vast majority of US corporations, meaning Goldman is expecting an unprecedented pick up in revenues.
And with the US consumer completely tapped out and unable or unwilling to borrow, this implies that foreign countries will have to pick up the pace in bailing out our top line: so look for much more weakness in the dollar to even remotely justify Goldman's prediction. This will put Bernanke's claim of pursuing a strong dollar policy to the biggest test, as well as Europe's resolve to continue playing in this highly rigged version of F/X "game theory."
But back to Goldman - up until this point the firm has been at least slightly sensitive about catching marginal end buyers. Now the guns are blazing, and as all Wall Street professionals tongue-in-cheekly know all too well, a forceful upgrade is when any firm (Goldman most definitely included) starts to sell into a call (in this case its own). So buyers please beware: you are now implicitly buying the shares that Goldman and other brokers have been accumulating over the past 4 months.
Banks Fail to Make Adequate Loan-Loss Provisions, Moody’s Says
Banks have failed to make adequate provision for the losses on loans and securities they face before the end of next year, Moody’s Investors Service said. U.S. banks may incur about $470 billion of losses and writedowns by the end of 2010, which may cause the banks to be unprofitable in the period, the ratings company said in a report published today. "Large loan losses have yet to be recognized in the banking system," Moody’s said. "We expect to see rising provisioning needs well into 2010."
Banks and financial firms worldwide have reported losses and writedowns of $1.5 trillion since the credit crisis began in 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. New York-based Citigroup Inc. has reported $112 billion of writedowns, more than any other firm, the data show.
Any economic recovery is likely to be "weak and bumpy hook-shaped," Moody’s said. Banks will also be challenged in an environment where government support is replaced by tighter regulation, the report said. Higher credit and funding costs may force a re-pricing of credit, Moody’s added. "The fundamentals of financial institutions are still traveling on a downward slope," Moody’s said. "No-one should consider recent improvements as assurance that the current rebound can be sustained."
Commercial Loans Failing at Rapid Pace
U.S. banks have been charging off soured commercial mortgages at the fastest pace in nearly 20 years, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. At that rate, losses on loans used to finance offices, shopping malls, hotels, apartments and other commercial property could reach about $30 billion by the end of 2009. The losses by regional banks on their commercial real-estate loans will be among the most watched details as thousands of banks report second-quarter results over the next two weeks. Many of the most troubled banks have heavy exposure to commercial real estate. So far, 57 banks have failed this year.
The $30 billion estimate is based on financial reports filed by more than 8,000 banks for the first quarter. The trend continued as a handful of major banks reported second-quarter results, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp. Regional banks tend to have higher exposure to commercial real estate than these big financial institutions. The commercial real-estate market, valued at about $6.7 trillion, represents 13% of the U.S.'s gross domestic product. But the recession and scarce credit are pushing more commercial developers and investors into default. Meanwhile, property values continue to decline, and banks are required to record a loss on any troubled real-estate loans where the appraised value falls below the amount owed.
Delinquencies on commercial mortgages held by banks more than doubled to about 4.3% in the second quarter from a year earlier, Foresight Analytics estimates. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.), who heads the House's Joint Economic Committee, said she is working with Treasury Department officials on a plan to try to head off rising defaults on commercial mortgages before they cascade into a crisis. In contrast to home loans, the majority of which were made by about 10 lenders, thousands of U.S. banks, especially regional and community banks, loaded up on commercial-property debt.
Ironically, small banks appear to be much less aggressive in recognizing losses than their bigger brethren. According to the Journal analysis, the largest banks, with assets of more than $100 billion, saw charge-offs roughly quadruple last year, while losses at many medium-size banks grew at a much smaller rate of 120%. One monument to both the excessive froth of the real-estate boom and the morning-after headache setting in for lenders is the landmark Equitable Building, rising 33 stories above downtown Atlanta.
In 2007, San Diego real-estate firm Equastone LLC paid $57 million for the office tower and took out a $51.9 million mortgage from Capmark Bank, a Utah-based unit of Capmark Financial Group Inc. in Horsham, Pa. Equastone planned to expand the tower and attract a tenant with pockets deep enough to rename the building. Shortly after the purchase, the economic slump pushed vacancies higher and rents down. In April, Capmark Bank foreclosed on the building after Equastone defaulted on the debt.
In June, the Equitable Building was sold in a foreclosure auction for $29.5 million, 43% less than the original loan amount. And the buyer? It was 100 Peachtree Street Atlanta, a company formed by Capmark Bank for the purpose of acquiring the building. There were no other bidders. Steven Nielsen, Capmark Bank's chief executive, said the mortgage was written off to the "estimated value" of the building. He wouldn't specify the size of the related charge-off on Capmark's books. Property-tax records show the building was valued at about $44.8 million at foreclosure, which would equal a $7.1 million loss for the bank.
Some bankers say they feel growing pressures from regulators to take losses on commercial real-estate exposure as a way of reducing the possibility of a catastrophic hit later. "We recognize losses as quickly as any bank, partly because bank regulators dictate that," said Ed Garding, chief credit officer at First Interstate Bank, of Billings, Mont. More than 40% of the bank's loans are in commercial real estate, but according to the Journal analysis, annualized charge-offs in 2009 would be just 3% of its nonperforming commercial mortgages as of the end of 2008. That compares with an average of 34% for all U.S. banks.
Mr. Garding said the commercial real-estate market has held up relatively well in First Interstate's markets in Montana and Wyoming. Meanwhile, "we're strongly collateralized so the loan doesn't result in a loss," he added. Among other banks with notably low charge-offs: Based on the Journal study, annualized write-offs this year would be only 9% of all nonperforming commercial mortgages at a Wachovia Corp. unit in Charlotte, N.C. A spokeswoman at Wachovia declined to comment.
At New York Community Bank, a New York State-charted savings bank, that ratio would be a meager 2% in the first quarter. Ilene Angarola, director of investor relations at New York Community Bancorp., the bank holding company, credited the bank's strong underwriting standards. "Even though we have seen a decline in property values, our loan-to-value ratio is conservative enough that we haven't experienced anywhere near the degree of the charge-offs our peers have experienced," Ms. Angarola said.
Some analysts, meanwhile, worry that banks aren't sufficiently recognizing losses on their commercial real-estate loans, thereby exposing themselves to bigger losses later. According to Deutsche Bank AG, since the beginning of last year, the amount of charged-off commercial mortgages as a percentage of such debt outstanding has ranged from a high of 3.2% to as low as 0.3%. "Net charge-offs to date have been highly inadequate," said Richard Parkus, head of commercial mortgage-backed securities research at Deutsche Bank. "This is clearly a problem that is being pushed out into the future." How aggressively regulators respond could help determine how long the commercial-property market remains mired in turmoil. "If banks are allowed to bury problem loans away in their portfolios for years via massive term extensions, this is likely to be a very long process," Mr. Parkus said.
Commercial Real-Estate Prices Fall 7.6% In May
Commercial real-estate prices fell 7.6% in May, according to Moody's Investors Service, as both dollar volume and transaction count reached record lows in the nine-year history of the firm's Commercial Property Price Indices. The indexes are down 29% from a year ago and 35% from their October 2007 peak. The commercial real-estate sector has suffered since mid-2008 as the recession deepened, vacancies increased and new owners have been unable to refinance mortgages. Retail and hotel properties have been hit especially hard in the commercial sector.
"Large commercial real-estate price declines in the last two months suggest that a bottom may be starting to form, although higher transaction volumes would be necessary in order to draw any definite conclusions," Moody's Managing Director Nick Levidy said. Office buildings fared worst, dropping 29% from a year earlier, while industrial buildings were the best performers, down 12%. Apartment buildings in the South suffered a 21% drop, with a 23% slide in Florida, one of the worst-hit states by the housing crisis and global recession.
Ilargi: MyBudget360 is fast becoming a favorite of mine.
Negative Equity Nation for 1 out of 5 Homeowners: The Psychology of the 10 Million American Homeowners with Zero Equity
Recent data suggests that the number one factor for walking away from a home is negative equity. For us to understand this dynamic, it is important to understand why someone would leave a home with a mortgage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau some 51.6 million owner occupied homes have a mortgage. This is data from late 2007 so we should be getting the updated data in the ACS that comes out in September of 2009. Another third of homeowners have paid off their mortgage. But with 26,000,000 unemployed and underemployed Americans, paying the mortgage has become more challenging.
We recently discussed the rise in bankruptcies which comes even with the stricter guidelines put in place in 2005. A recent Freddie Mac report found that 17 percent of the mortgages in their portfolio had negative equity while another 11 percent had equity of 10 percent or less. Now if you think about it, selling costs can be 6 percent so even those with 10 percent or less equity stand to lose money in a home sale. If we put this together, some 28 percent of Freddie Mac loans if they were sold today may yield the borrower zero or will cost them thousands. This is a recipe for disaster.
First let us take a look at the Freddie Mac world:
At the end of 2008 some $11.9 trillion in mortgage debt was outstanding. Between Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a total of $5.3 trillion was in their portfolios. The massive rise in debt followed in line with the multi-decade long housing bubble. Now Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae serve virtually the same role in the mortgage market. They provide so-called liquidity in the secondary arena. What this means is no one else would buy these mortgages now that they know Wall Street virtually turned many loans into casino like instruments. Now, the two giant government agencies are virtually the only game in town. But what is in the report should be of concern. Let us pull out the Freddie Mac data by itself:
Freddie Mac has a mortgage portfolio worth $1.96 trillion. Of this portfolio 13 percent is made up of option ARMs, ARMs, and interest only products. These are toxic loans. This may not seem like much but this is equivalent to $254 billion in toxic loans. Keep in mind those 30-year fixed mortgage are also seeing rises in defaults. Assuming 17 percent of the borrowers are underwater, some $333 billion in mortgages are severely at risk.
Yet the risk is much deeper since the unemployment situation is causing even those with 30-year fixed mortgages to default. The problem with being underwater is that the owner has little motivation to keep paying the mortgage. For most people, they buy homes to live in but also to build up a steady stream of equity. Yet in this decade, we have seen something that hasn’t occurred since the Great Depression. We have seen a nationwide housing market decline. And now, with websites like Zillow and also, local county assessors offices going online many people can check the “value” of their property with very little hassle. So what this creates is an obsessive real estate culture. Let us take a look at what occurred in this decade:
Since the 1980s for nearly 30 years housing prices have been on a tear. Now that the bubble has burst equity levels are now back to 2001. The peak was reached with zany valuation while the debt still exists. That is why on the chart above you’ll notice housing prices declining while mortgage debt levels are still near their peak. It is interesting to note that Freddie Mac assumes booming mortgage debt again:
Yet the losses are going to continue mounting as home prices continue to decline. Freddie Mac figures some 1 out of 5 homeowners with mortgages are underwater. Yet we know that there are still many more Alt-A loans that will have much higher default rates. Freddie Mac is probably as conservative of a portfolio as we will get.
Here is some of the data on walking away:
“(WSJ) The researchers found that homeowners start to default once their negative equity passes 10% of the home’s value. After that, they “walk away massively” after decreases of 15%. About 17% of households would default - even if they could pay the mortgage - when the equity shortfall hits 50% of the house’s value, they found.
“Our research showed there is a multiplication effect, where the social pressure not to default is weakened when homeowners live in areas of high frequency of foreclosures or know others who defaulted strategically,” Zingales said. “The predisposition to default increases with the number of foreclosures in the same ZIP code.”
And here is another point. If you live in area with high defaults the stigma may not be there for a strategic default. Take a look at the rising losses in certain states:
In California the negative equity rate is much higher. So losses are starting to mount and virtually all Alt-A and option ARM holders in the state are underwater. This is going to increase the walking away phenomenon. Even a map of the U.S. will tell us where most of the foreclosures will occur:
With 1 out of 5 homeowners with negative equity, we have a fleet of 10 million Americans being tempted to walk away from their mortgage. With unemployment rising, the default may occur because of necessity. Keep in mind these are people who are still current on their mortgages and not in a stage of default. Unfortunately housing prices still have a way to go on the downside thus pushing more homeowners underwater.
Why Toxic Assets Are So Hard to Clean Up
Despite trillions of dollars of new government programs, one of the original causes of the financial crisis -- the toxic assets on bank balance sheets -- still persists and remains a serious impediment to economic recovery. Why are these toxic assets so difficult to deal with? We believe their sheer complexity is the core problem and that only increased transparency will unleash the market mechanisms needed to clean them up.
The bulk of toxic assets are based on residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS), in which thousands of mortgages were gathered into mortgage pools. The returns on these pools were then sliced into a hierarchy of "tranches" that were sold to investors as separate classes of securities. The most senior tranches, rated AAA, received the lowest returns, and then they went down the line to lower ratings and finally to the unrated "equity" tranches at the bottom.
But the process didn't stop there. Some of the tranches from one mortgage pool were combined with tranches from other mortgage pools, resulting in Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMO). Other tranches were combined with tranches from completely different types of pools, based on commercial mortgages, auto loans, student loans, credit card receivables, small business loans, and even corporate loans that had been combined into Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLO). The result was a highly heterogeneous mixture of debt securities called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO). The tranches of the CDOs could then be combined with other CDOs, resulting in CDO2.
Each time these tranches were mixed together with other tranches in a new pool, the securities became more complex. Assume a hypothetical CDO2 held 100 CLOs, each holding 250 corporate loans -- then we would need information on 25,000 underlying loans to determine the value of the security. But assume the CDO2 held 100 CDOs each holding 100 RMBS comprising a mere 2,000 mortgages -- the number now rises to 20 million!
Complexity is not the only problem. Many of the underlying mortgages were highly risky, involving little or no down payments and initial rates so low they could never amortize the loan. About 80% of the $2.5 trillion subprime mortgages made since 2000 went into securitization pools. When the housing bubble burst and house prices started declining, borrowers began to default, the lower tranches were hit with losses, and higher tranches became more risky and declined in value.
To better understand the magnitude of the problem and to find solutions, we examined the details of several CDOs using data obtained from SecondMarket, a firm specializing in illiquid assets. One example is a $1 billion CDO2 created by a large bank in 2005. It had 173 investments in tranches issued by other pools: 130 CDOs, and also 43 CLOs each composed of hundreds of corporate loans. It issued $975 million of four AAA tranches, and three subordinate tranches of $55 million. The AAA tranches were bought by banks and the subordinate tranches mostly by hedge funds.
Two of the 173 investments held by this CDO2 were in tranches from another billion-dollar CDO -- created by another bank earlier in 2005 -- which was composed mainly of 155 MBS tranches and 40 CDOs. Two of these 155 MBS tranches were from a $1 billion RMBS pool created in 2004 by a large investment bank, composed of almost 7,000 mortgage loans (90% subprime). That RMBS issued $865 million of AAA notes, about half of which were purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the rest by a variety of banks, insurance companies, pension funds and money managers. About 1,800 of the 7,000 mortgages still remain in the pool, with a current delinquency rate of about 20%.
With so much complexity, and uncertainty about future performance, it is not surprising that the securities are difficult to price and that trading dried up. Without market prices, valuation on the books of banks is suspect and counterparties are reluctant to deal with each other. The policy response to this problem has been circuitous. The Federal Reserve originally saw the problem as a lack of liquidity in the banking system, and beginning in late 2007 flooded the market with liquidity through new lending facilities. It had very limited success, as banks were still disinclined to buy or trade such securities or take them as collateral.
Credit spreads remained higher than normal. In September 2008 credit spreads skyrocketed and credit markets froze. By then it was clear that the problem was not liquidity, but rather the insolvency risks of counterparties with large holdings of toxic assets on their books. The federal government then decided to buy the toxic assets. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was enacted in October 2008 with $700 billion in funding. But that was not how the TARP funds were used. The Treasury concluded that the valuation problem seemed insurmountable, so it attacked the risk issue by bolstering bank capital, buying preferred stock.
But those toxic assets are still there. The latest disposal scheme is the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP). The concept is that private asset managers would create investment funds of half private and half Treasury (TARP) capital, which would bid on packages of toxic assets that banks offered for sale. The responsibility for valuation is thus shifted to the private sector. But the pricing difficulty remains and this program too may amount to little.
The fundamental problem has remained untouched: insufficient information to permit estimated prices that both buyers and sellers find credible. Why is the information so hard to obtain? While the original MBS pools were often Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) registered public offerings with considerable detail, CDOs were sold in private placements with confidentiality agreements. Moreover, the nature of the securitization process has made it extremely difficult to determine and follow losses and increasing risk from one tranche and pool to another, and to reach the information about the original borrowers that is needed to estimate future cash flows and price.
This account makes it clear why transparency is so important. To deal with the problem, issuers of asset-backed securities should provide extensive detail in a uniform format about the composition of the original pools and their subsequent structure and performance, whether they were sold as SEC-registered offerings or private placements. By creating a centralized database with this information, the pricing process for the toxic assets becomes possible. Making such a database a reality will restart private securitization markets and will do more for the recovery of the economy than yet another redesign of administrative agency structures. If issuers are not forthcoming, then they should be required to file the information publicly with the SEC.
Subprime Brokers Resurface as Dubious Loan Fixers
From the ninth floor of a downtown office building on Wilshire Boulevard, Jack Soussana delivered staggering numbers of mortgages to homeowners during the real estate boom, amassing a fortune. By Mr. Soussana’s own account, his customers fared less happily. He specialized in the exotic mortgages that have proved most prone to sliding into foreclosure, leaving many now scrambling to save their homes.
Yet the dangers assailing Mr. Soussana’s clients have yielded fresh business for him: Late last year, he and his team — ensconced in the same office where they used to broker mortgages — began working for a loan modification company. For fees reaching $3,495, with most of the money collected upfront, they promised to negotiate with lenders to lower payments on the now-delinquent mortgages they and their counterparts had sprinkled liberally across Southern California.
"We just changed the script and changed the product we were selling," said Mr. Soussana, who ran the Los Angeles sales office of Federal Loan Modification Law Center. The new script: You got a raw deal, and "Now, we’re able to help you out because we understand your lender." Mr. Soussana’s partners at FedMod, as the company is known, were also products of the formerly lucrative world of high-risk lending. The managing partner, Nabile Anz, known as Bill, previously co-owned Mortgage Link, a California subprime lender, now defunct, that once sold $30 million worth of loans a month.
Jeffrey Broughton, one of FedMod’s initial partners, served as director of business development at Pacific First Mortgage, a lender that extended so-called Alt-A mortgages for borrowers with tarnished credit for Countrywide Financial, which lost billions of dollars on bad mortgages before being rescued in an acquisition. FedMod is but one example of how many of the same people who dispensed risky mortgages during the real estate bubble have reconstituted themselves into a new industry focused on selling loan modifications.
Despite making promises of relief to homeowners desperate to keep their homes, FedMod and other profit making loan modification firms often fail to deliver, according to a New York Times investigation based on interviews with scores of former employees and customers, more than 650 complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau, and documents filed by the Federal Trade Commission in a lawsuit against the company.
The suit, filed in California federal court, asserts that FedMod frequently exaggerated its rates of success, advised clients to stop making their mortgage payments, did little or nothing to modify loans and failed to promptly refund fees. The suit seeks an end to FedMod’s practices, and compensation for customers. "Our job was to get the money in and then we’re done," said Paul Pejman, a former sales agent who worked out of FedMod’s two-story headquarters in Irvine, Calif. He recounted his experience, he said, because "I really feel bad."
"I had people calling me crying, and we were telling them, ‘You can pay me or you can lose your house,’ " Mr. Pejman said. "People were giving me every dime they had, opening credit cards. But I never saw one client come out of it with a successful loan modification." Mr. Anz, who is challenging the F.T.C. lawsuit, acknowledged that FedMod’s business went "horribly wrong," but he maintains the company made genuine efforts to help delinquent borrowers. He said FedMod has refunded fees to 3,000 dissatisfied customers, while modifying 1,500 mortgages.
FedMod is among dozens of similar companies that have been accused by state and federal authorities of fraudulent business practices. On the same day in April that the F.T.C. sued FedMod, it brought action against four similar companies and sent letters of warning to 71 others. Last week, the commission brought lawsuits against four more loan modification companies, advancing an enforcement campaign involving 23 states.
Many of the companies formerly operated as mortgage brokers, The Times found. Since October, the California Department of Real Estate has ordered 210 businesses and individuals to stop offering loan modification or foreclosure prevention services, because they lacked a real estate license, as required by the state. In fact, nearly half the people have roots in the mortgage industry or other areas of real estate, according to public records.
Debt Barter Inc. is among them. A loan modification company based in Irvine that was cited by the state in January for collecting upfront fees without a license, it is owned by Sean R. Roberts, who formerly headed Instafi, a mortgage broker that closed $2 billion worth of loans a year at its peak. Since February, customers have filed 17 complaints against Debt Barter with the Better Business Bureau. Most accused the company of charging upfront fees, then failing to lower their payments. "We can’t please everyone all the time," said Mr. Roberts, who added that the company had modified loans for nearly 300 of its roughly 500 clients.
In Aliso Viejo, Calif., the Citywide Mortgage Corporation, which previously brokered Alt-A and subprime loans, last year became a loan modification company, USMAC. The company has not received a cease and desist order, but complaints on numerous consumer Web sites assert that it fails to deliver. "I’m saving homes," said the company’s president, Scott Gimbel, who claimed a success rate above 70 percent.
Chris Mozilo, nephew of Angelo R. Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide Financial — a name synonymous with the subprime disaster — recently started a new business, eModifyMyLoan. It sells software that homeowners can use to apply for loan modifications. Chris Mozilo worked at Countrywide for 16 years. "I’m very proud of my career in mortgage lending," he said. "We helped millions of people achieve the goal of homeownership."
From its inception in the middle of 2008, FedMod aimed to dominate the loan modification industry, growing swiftly with the aid of a national advertising campaign. Mr. Broughton, 49, had worked in the mortgage industry since the mid-1980s. As the market ground to a halt in 2008, he founded FedMod with two Los Angeles entrepreneurs, Steven Oscherowitz and Boaz Minitzer. Mr. Broughton sought to distinguish his company from the unscrupulous ventures that dominate the industry. "You had a lot of these modification companies that were subprime guys," he said. "All they cared about was making quick dollars."
But the partners behind FedMod had their own questionable backgrounds. In the mid-1990s, Mr. Oscherowitz settled an F.T.C. lawsuit that accused his company, Universal Merchants, of falsely marketing the weight-loss benefits of a dietary supplement. The partners entrusted Mr. Soussana with FedMod’s Los Angeles sales office precisely because he had proved adept at selling the sorts of loans that now required modification. In 2006, Mr. Soussana, then 30, was listed as the nation’s sixth most prolific mortgage broker by Mortgage Originator, a trade magazine, brokering $318 million worth of loans. The same year, he paid $1.8 million for a house near Beverly Hills.
"He was one of the biggest guys in subprime mortgages," Mr. Minitzer said. "He basically wanted to get back to his old days of 50, 60, 70 guys in his office, and we could help because we were basically taking over the market." The three original partners brought in Mr. Anz to gain a crucial asset: his law license. Having a lawyer in charge enabled them to market their venture as a law firm and thus collect upfront payments under California rules. "Jeff asked me how I could, for lack of a better word, legitimize it," Mr. Anz said.
The California Department of Real Estate warns consumers that many dubious loan modification companies have organized themselves as law firms solely to allow them to collect upfront fees, even though the lawyers have little, if anything, to do with the services provided. The department cautions consumers against hiring such companies. In its lawsuit against FedMod, the F.T.C. contends that the company’s advertisements implied it had the backing of the federal government. "If you’re like the millions of Americans out there who are struggling to pay a mortgage, you may be eligible for the Federal Loan Modification Program," radio ads beckoned.
Aggressive marketing ensured that Mr. Pejman, 22, never lacked for calls when he started at the Irvine sales office in January. He had worked at three wholesale mortgage brokerages. Now, a trainer emphasized he was at a law center. "Our big sales pitch was that an attorney could do a better job with your loan modification," Mr. Pejman said. "If you told them these were basically washed-up people from the mortgage industry, or just people sending in paperwork, they would say, ‘Well, why bother? I might as well do this myself.’ " He went on: "It was misleading to the client. Attorneys never touched those files."
Among the 700-plus full-time employees who worked for FedMod this spring, only nine were lawyers, Mr. Anz said, though the company retained a lawyer in every state. Mr. Pejman and his fellow agents urged homeowners to send FedMod $3,495; the agents were promised a 30 percent commission for fees they took in. Most clients could not come up with more than $1,000 and agreed to a payment schedule for the rest. Assurances of relief from a homeowner’s loan terms were typically extravagant, Mr. Pejman said.
"A big grabber was that your loan will be reduced to 2.5 percent to 5 percent on a 30-year fixed rate loan," he said. "They’d print out all these mythical success stories for us to read over the phone."
Under FedMod’s policies, agents were prohibited from making false claims, counseling clients not to pay their mortgages or providing success rates, Mr. Anz said. New clients received follow-up compliance calls to ensure they understood nothing was guaranteed. But sales agents were told of such policies with a wink, Mr. Pejman said.
"They basically told us, ‘Do whatever you need to do,’ " he said. " ‘It’s a sales floor. You’re here to sell.’ People would quote success rates and just pull them out of thin air. People would say 60 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent. To the average Joe in Kansas, that sounded great. But the reality is that 50 percent were immediately declined by the lender." What shocked Mr. Pejman was how readily customers handed over their credit card numbers. Sales agents tapped into a deep vein of anxiety. "I’d hear people say, ‘Would you pay $1,000 to save your home? To save your marriage? Your kids’ education?’ " he recalled. "I’d hear people say, ‘Yeah, we’re the federal government.’ There were a lot of corrupt people working there."
In Charlotte, N.C., Joshua Garland telephoned FedMod in March after seeing one of its television commercials. Mr. Garland’s wife had been laid off from her hospital job. He had lost his job as a chef and was now bartending. Their monthly income had plunged from $3,200 to less than $1,000. They were already three months behind on their mortgage. A FedMod agent confidently described how his company could cut their monthly payments from $1,200 to $532, Mr. Garland recalled. But first, he had to pay a $995 "retainer fee." This was nearly as much as Mr. Garland earned in two weeks. Dental bills were piling up for his three children. He was behind on his utilities.
"I told him, ‘We have $1,200 left to make our mortgage payment, and if we give that money to you, we’re going to get further behind,’ " Mr. Garland recalled. "He said, ‘Go ahead and make the $995 payment, because once you’re under our plan, the bank can’t foreclose on you.’ " After several follow-up calls from the agent, Mr. Garland paid. Then, months passed with no contact from FedMod, he said. He left countless messages seeking updates, demanding a refund. His lender foreclosed on his house, scheduling a sale for Aug. 26.
"This guy hounds me for the $1,000, and then as soon as I pay him he disappears," Mr. Garland said. "I usually don’t fall for stuff like this. I can usually tell if it’s a scam. But this guy, I mean he came with his guns loaded." FedMod was drowning in cases. The pipeline swelled by 8,000 clients from December to March, according to Mr. Anz. Once sales agents took in applications, they passed files on to the processing department, where case managers were supposed to assemble documents and submit them to lenders. But their offices were hopelessly underequipped.
"The owners didn’t want to invest in software, so everything was tracked manually," said Rachelle Cochems, who took over as operations manager on Jan. 19 and left the company in May after FedMod stopped paying her. "We couldn’t handle the volume we were taking in. The system was broken." Each case manager was responsible for as many as 200 files at a time, Ms. Cochems said, making it impossible to keep in regular touch with customers. Some files floated in limbo, because sales agent did not bother handing them over.
"You’re paying the sales agent upfront," Ms. Cochems said. "So what motivation does he have to get it closed?" In February, Mr. Anz shut the Los Angeles sales office, uncomfortable with reports that Mr. Soussana had filled it with "unsavory types" from the mortgage industry, he said. "I’m not a shady person," Mr. Soussana said. By March, sales agents were inundated by calls from furious clients who had paid long ago, but not heard from anyone. Some called from motels, their belongings piled in boxes, weeping as they recounted losing their homes.
The agents let most calls go to voicemail, playing the most dramatic messages over speakerphones for communal amusement, Mr. Pejman said. "Guys would sit there and laugh," he said. " ‘This lady’s going crazy,’ that sort of thing." The next month, Mr. Anz took full control of the company, banishing his partners and blaming them for "a train wreck." He ceased marketing, he said, and concentrated on processing the backlog of files.
In April, the F.T.C. filed its lawsuit, prompting credit card companies to freeze their accounts with FedMod. The court imposed a temporary restraining order, barring FedMod from acquiring new customers. By the time Rana Hajjar began working there on April 13 as a client representative, she found the company utterly chaotic. "They just handed me 70 files and told me to call these people because they’re very upset," Ms. Hajjar recalled. "The majority of them had paid three or four months earlier and had never heard from anyone. I was yelled at from today until tomorrow."
Several times a week, clients called to report that the police were at their door, ordering them out for foreclosure sales, Ms. Hajjar said. When she alerted negotiators, they sometimes called banks and postponed sales, but usually they ignored her messages, she said. When Ms. Hajjar cashed her first paycheck, it bounced, she said. Over the next three weeks, she never received payment. On Monday, May 11, her manager told her and dozens of other employees to take the rest of the week off because the company had no money for payroll.
She was never called back, later adding her name to a file of more than 120 wage disputes leveled against FedMod with the California Labor Commissioner. Today, FedMod has only 40 employees, said Mr. Anz, pledging to plow through the company’s 4,200 remaining files. "We’re doing what we can," he said. "I’m the bad boy of loan mods." Yet as television advertisements attest, many other companies remain aggressive in what amounts to perhaps the last growth industry left in American real estate.
What's Wrong With Spending Stimulus Cash On Mozzarella Cheese?
As only he can do, Matt Drudge set off a mini scandal today, pointing to some questionable stimulus expenditures, like $1.5 million for mozzarella cheese and $16.8 million for canned pork. Drudge's little hyperlinks made such big waves this morning, that the Agriculture Secretary put out a press release explaining what the money went to. Anyone who pays even the slightest attention to government spending and stimulus efforts won't be particularly surprised by any of this, and the money isn't even that much.
Plus, as liberal political pundit Peter Feld points out, the point is just to get cash "into the economy," and it doesn't matter how it gets there. Unfortunately, this is flat-out wrong, and it exposes a deep flaw in the orthodox Keynesian idea that the job of the government is to just get "demand" higher when it goes into a lull. Fostering a healthy economy is not about stuffing it up with cash like a Christmas turkey, or just getting people to buy "stuff." It's about facilitating actually productive trade.
So for example, we doubt that Feld would think it'd be a good idea to spend money on shoddy houses in the middle of California's inland empire, even though technically this would constitute getting money into the economy. And we think many would agree that we don't need new, gigantic highway projects stretching deep into the exurbs, and that rail projects would be better. Both would get money into the economy, but one might be good for the economy, and the other might keep us mired deep in the weeds. The stuff we spend our money on actually matters.
Remember, it's easy enough to get cash into people's hands. You can just print it, or repeal the payroll tax or extend unemployment benefits or whatever you want. If only cash=wealth, it'd be super simple. But the actual challenge is in making sure you have a scenario in which people can create real wealth for themselves, and you're not going to get there if you insist that "demand" is this big pile of gloop (or mozzarella cheese) that you sometimes just need to make more of.
Financial Invention vs. Consumer Protection
by Robert J. Shiller
James Watt, who invented the first practical steam engine in 1765, worried that high-pressure steam could lead to major explosions. So he avoided high pressure and ended up with an inefficient engine. It wasn’t until 1799 that Richard Trevithick, who apprenticed with an associate of Watt, created a high-pressure engine that opened a new age of steam-powered factories, railways and ships.
That is how innovation often proceeds — by learning from errors and hazards and gradually conquering problems through devices of increasing complexity and sophistication. Our financial system has essentially exploded, with financial innovations like collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps and subprime mortgages giving rise in the past few years to abuses that culminated in disasters in many sectors of the economy.
We need to invent our way out of these hazards, and, eventually, we will. That invention will proceed mostly in the private sector. Yet government must play a role, because civil society demands that people’s lives and welfare be respected and protected from overzealous innovators who might disregard public safety and take improper advantage of nascent technology. The Obama administration has proposed a number of new regulations and agencies, notably including a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would be charged with safeguarding consumers against things like abusive mortgage, auto loan or credit card contracts.
The new agency is to encourage "plain vanilla" products that are simpler and easier to understand. But representatives of the financial services industry have criticized the proposal as a threat to innovations that could improve consumers’ welfare. As the story of the steam engine shows, innovation often entails tension between safety and power. We need to foster inventions that better human welfare while incorporating safety mechanisms that protect the public. Could the proposed agency accomplish this task?
The subprime mortgage is an example of a recent invention that offered benefits and risks. These mortgages permitted people with bad credit histories to buy homes, without relying on guaranties from government agencies like the Federal Housing Administration. Compared with conventional mortgages, the subprime variety typically involved higher interest rates and stiff prepayment penalties. To many critics, these features were proof of evil intent among lenders. But the higher rates compensated lenders for higher default rates. And the prepayment penalties made sure that people whose credit improved couldn’t just refinance somewhere else at a lower rate, thus leaving the lenders stuck with the rest, including those whose credit had worsened.
This made basic sense as financial engineering — an unsentimental effort to work around risks, selection biases, moral hazards and human foibles that could lead to disaster. This might have represented financial progress if it weren’t for some problems that the designers evidently didn’t anticipate. As subprime mortgages were introduced, a housing bubble developed. This was fed in part by demand from new, subprime borrowers who now could enter the housing market. The bursting of the bubble had results that are now all too familiar — and taxpayers, among others, are still paying for it all.
This raises a question: If a consumer agency had been set up 20 years ago, would the subprime mortgage crisis have been prevented? We don’t know, but it seems improbable.
Such an agency would most likely have slowed some abusive practices, like offering low teaser rates on adjustable-rate mortgages and hiding information about future rate increases in fine print that most people do not read. That kind of regulatory intervention would have reduced the severity of the crisis, and that is no small thing. On the other hand, unless these regulators were extremely vanilla in approach and just said no to any innovation, or unless they had an unusually deep understanding of speculative bubbles, I think they would have allowed most of those subprime mortgages.
And they probably wouldn’t have had the detailed knowledge they would have needed to halt the decline of lending standards on prime mortgages in a timely way. In all likelihood, we would still be in this financial crisis.
In short, the new agency seems a good idea, and, if it is created, it should be chartered to support innovation and should be staffed by people who know finance and its intricacies, including some who appreciate that human behavior must be understood and factored into financial design. But that leaves us with the deeper quandary: Our society needs financial innovation, and still seems vulnerable to changing animal spirits and speculative bubbles that create truly big problems. Even if they can be mitigated, periodic crises may not be preventable, at least not by banning abusive credit cards or even by throwing the bad guys in jail.
We need consumer products that people can use properly, and if this is what "plain vanilla" means, that’s a good thing. But we also need financial innovation that responds to central problems. The effectiveness of our free enterprise system depends on allowing business people to manage the myriad risks — including the risk of asset bubbles — that impinge on their operations in the long term. And this process needs constant change and improvement.
Complexity is not in itself a bad thing. It is, in fact, a hallmark of modern civilization. A laptop computer is an immensely complex instrument, with trillions of electronic components, and almost none of us can explain what goes on inside it. Yet it can be designed well so that it seems plain vanilla to the ultimate user. And as for steam engines, the modern turbine high-pressure versions are not plain vanilla in any sense. They are sophisticated triumphs of engineering. They help generate most of our electric power with very few accidents.
Shiller tries to defend subprime mortgages
by Felix Salmon
Robert Shiller thinks that creating a Consumer Financial Protection Agency "seems a good idea", but is also a fan of financial innovation:Our financial system has essentially exploded, with financial innovations like collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps and subprime mortgages giving rise in the past few years to abuses that culminated in disasters in many sectors of the economy. We need to invent our way out of these hazards…
The subprime mortgage is an example of a recent invention that offered benefits and risks… the higher rates compensated lenders for higher default rates. And the prepayment penalties made sure that people whose credit improved couldn’t just refinance somewhere else at a lower rate, thus leaving the lenders stuck with the rest, including those whose credit had worsened.
We need consumer products that people can use properly, and if this is what "plain vanilla" means, that’s a good thing. But we also need financial innovation.
This is the point at which I want to do my Jon-Stewart-rubbing-his-eyes act: Shiller really has just written a column defending "financial innovation" and using, as his sole example of a good financial innovation, the subprime mortgage. Shiller seems to think that the best response to harmful financial innovations like CDOs is even more financial innovation, to reverse the damage initially caused. Wouldn’t it be better just to scale back the amount of financial innovation we had in the first place? Net-net, financial innovation is a bad thing: the downside, during times of crisis, is higher than the upside in more normal years.
And Shiller’s defense of subprime mortgages is unbelievably weak. He never comes close to addressing the point that a huge proportion of subprime mortgages were sold to people who could have qualified for a prime mortgage; and his attempted defense of prepayment penalties is utterly bonkers. People prepaid subprime mortgages for three main reasons: (a) because their house had gone up in value and they wanted to do a cash-out refinance; (b) because they were selling their house; and (c) because interest rates had fallen since they took out their mortgage. The number of people who wanted to prepay a subprime mortgage because their credit had improved was negligible.
In fact, as Shiller knows but won’t admit, prepayment penalties were a profit center for subprime lenders — a way of squeezing money out of borrowers at the end of the relationship as well as at the beginning. If this is financial innovation, I want much less of it, thanks for asking. And while I agree that the CFPA "should be staffed by people who know finance and its intricacies". I just don’t think they should start from the assumption that financial innovation is a good thing.
Geithner Has Tough Task In Marketing US Debt
Timothy Geithner, architect of bank, auto and economic rescue plans, has another high-stakes job these days: traveling bond salesman. The recession, financial crisis and two wars have pushed the federal deficit above $1 trillion, a record level that makes the Treasury secretary's role as chief marketer of U.S. debt tougher than any of his recent predecessors'. Geithner, who traveled last week to the Middle East and Europe, has to convince foreign investors to keep buying Treasury bills, notes and bonds; they hold nearly half of the government's roughly $7 trillion in publicly traded debt.
"He's a smart guy but it's a very, very big task," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning Washington think tank. If foreign demand for U.S. debt sags, that could drive up interest rates and spell big trouble for an economy hobbled by 9.5 percent unemployment. Higher rates would make it more expensive for consumers to buy homes and cars, and for businesses to finance their operations. In the worst case scenario, a rush by foreigners to sell their U.S. debt could send the dollar crashing and inflation soaring. Because that would also hurt the value of their remaining holdings and the U.S. economy – a key market for their exports – private analysts believe such a scenario is not likely to occur.
With the risks in mind, Geithner last week visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose vast oil wealth gets recycled into Treasury holdings. Last month, he visited China, the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries. That trip was marked by an extra dose of drama. In March, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said his country was concerned about the "safety" of the large amounts of money it had lent to the United States. Throughout these trips, Geithner very much stuck to his sales script, at least in his public pronouncements. He said the Obama administration was committed to guarding the value of the dollar and, once the economy improves, shrinking the deficit.
The deficit has been driven higher in part by the $787 billion economic stimulus package and $700 billion financial system bailout approved by Congress over the past year. The deficit-cutting proposals the administration has so far revealed would fall far short of what is needed. "If the Obama administration has a credible plan to bring the deficits down, they are keeping it a deep secret at the moment," said Michael Mussa, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.
With nearly three months left in the budget year, the Obama administration forecasts that this year's deficit will total $1.84 trillion, more than four times the size of last year's record tally. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the annual deficits under the administration's spending plans will never drop below $633 billion over the next decade. And it forecasts an additional $9.1 trillion added to the debt held by the public – the amount that Geithner has to finance with bond sales.
During a stopover in Paris on Thursday, Geithner acknowledged in an online chat sponsored by the French newspaper Les Echos that "the dollar's role in the international financial system places special responsibilities on the United States." The foreigners Geithner meets with have a keen sense of the pressure he faces. When Geithner told a packed auditorium at Peking University that Chinese investments in the U.S. were safe, his comment was greeted by laughter. The students appeared to be laughing more at the quickness with which Geithner had responded to a question, not at what he said. Still, the reaction did highlight underlying skepticism.
Officials in the Middle East last week gave no public hint of nervousness. UAE crown prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who met with Geithner last Wednesday, stressed the strength of his country's relationship with the U.S. in comments carried by state news agency WAM. "The UAE attaches great significance to further promoting cooperation with the friendly United States in all areas, and in banking, finance, trade, investment and education in particular," Sheik Mohammed said.
But such easygoing relations could fray if the U.S. isn't careful about its spending, some economists warned. That goal is even more urgent with China, Russia and some other countries grumbling that there should be alternatives to having the U.S. dollar serve as the world's reserve currency. Publicly traded U.S. debt – which excludes deficits the government owes to itself in Social Security and other trust funds – stood at 41 percent of the total economy in 2008. It is projected to climb to 82 percent of the entire economy by 2019. "If these trends are not reversed, the world will stop buying our debt and the economy will break," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
Credit Card Companies Dealt A Major Blow
That was fast! Last week the Minnesota attorney general sued the National Arbitration Forum alleging credit card companies were too closely tied to the creditors in the arbitrations the NAF conducted between consumers and credit card companies. This weekend, a settlement was reached and the NAF - one of the biggest players in the credit card arbitration game, according the WSJ Law Blog - will no longer be a forum for consumer-related arbitrations.
This suit is going to get a lot of attention when Obama's proposed Consumer Protection Agency gets rolling. From Business Week:The settlement with the National Arbitration Forum comes after the Minnesota AG sued the firm on July 14 for consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, and false advertising. The civil suit, filed in state district court in Minneapolis, alleged conflicting ties between the NAF and debt-collection law firms that represented major credit-card companies. The suit also alleged that New York hedge fund Accretive LLC owned stakes in such collection law firms and the NAF, sending arbitration business between the two.
Under the terms of the consent decree, dated July 17 and signed by the AG and NAF officials, the arbitration firm by the end of this week will stop accepting new consumer arbitrations of any sort. These include arbitrations over disputed credit-card debt as well as new lines of business the NAF has moved into, such as arbitrating consumer debts in healthcare, telecommunications, utilities, mortgages, and consumer leases. The only business NAF can now be involved with is in arbitrating Internet domain disputes, a business it has long been in.
The settlement throws in turmoil an increasingly favored venue for credit-card companies to collect disputed debts from card holders. Since the beginning of the decade, most card companies have included mandatory arbitration clauses in credit-card contracts, forcing consumers to arbitrate rather than use the courts. The Minnesota suit said that Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Discover Card, and American Express use NAF, which is based in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Attorney General Swanson will testify this week before Congress and will ask that mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer contracts be prohibited, according to the Minnesota Star-Tribune. As we mentioned earlier, one of the powers of the proposed Consumer Protection Agency is to review and potentially ban mandatory arbitration clauses in certain contracts, although no one really knows which ones yet. With AG Swanson already asking industry heavyweight the American Arbitration Association to voluntarily end its own credit card-related arbitrations, a major shake-up in the industry could be on its way.
If mandatory arbitration clauses are prohibited, when a customer dispute arises or the card company needs to enforce a debt and more informal collections fail, the company will have to either bring the case in court or request the cardholder submit to mediation or arbitration. It is important to point out that nothing has been said about ending voluntary arbitrations. The parties can still agree to arbitrate either once a dispute arises or when they enter into a mutually negotiated contract.
But if credit card and other consumer companies can no longer insist disputes be kept out of court, the flood of lawsuits tort reformers always threaten - according to the suit, the NAF handled more than 200,000 collection claims in 2006 - could actually occur. Complete destruction of mandatory arbitration clauses is unlikely - the lobbyists for the related industries are sure to see to that. But the back-and-forth could result in a few compromises that give consumers more power in choosing the location and forum for the arbitration, as well as increased abilities to appeal the arbitration decision.
Some argue there could be a flip side to that increase in consumer power. Credit card companies clearly believe arbitration is the cheaper option, and any increase they see in costs to fight court battles will likely be passed on to consumers through higher fees, higher rates and less credit availability. There's no such thing as a free lunch, even if you put it on your credit card. The intricacies of arbitration clauses are no doubt tiresome (which is why none of us ever read them!), but the fight over them could be huge.
When, Oh When, Will HELP Be WANTED?
The nation’s economists are cautiously crawling out of their bunkers. The guns of recession are quieter now, and in the relative calm, there is talk of recovery — vague talk so far, particularly on the subject of hiring, lots of hiring. Recessions have their milestones. There is the start, of course, in this case December 2007; the worst months, the winter and spring of this year; the gradual return to economic expansion, late this year maybe; and, finally, adding jobs.
That last one is a tough call, because this recession in some very important ways is not only deeper than any we’ve had since the 1930s but is particularly hard on family income and savings. And without family income and savings, consumption — and the jobs it produces — are put off. Most Americans don’t consider a recession really over until work is once again plentiful, and the unemployment rate — which is now at 9.5 percent — finally starts going down. Ask economists when that will occur this time and they hesitate. No sooner than next summer, nearly all of them say. And that’s a guess, verging on wishful thinking.
"It is going to take a while for manufacturing and construction to stop losing jobs, and it will take time for businesses to be confident enough to go out and hire," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, who says the necessary confidence won’t return before next summer. When it does, the hiring is likely to be spotty and cautious. Health care and education, for example, have added workers throughout the recession and as that steady hiring continues in post-recession America, the overall job numbers will finally begin to rise — not from a surge in the hiring of health care workers and teachers, but because fewer and fewer jobs will be disappearing in other sectors.
"You are combining a very deep recession with what at this point looks like a sluggish recovery," said Jan Hatzius, chief domestic economist at Goldman Sachs. Steep recessions — and few in American history have been steeper than this one — are usually followed by vigorous, steep recoveries that include job growth, particularly in manufacturing and retailing, as people make purchases they had put off. The result is a chain reaction in which stores reorder, factories hum and workers are hired. Satisfying pent-up demand, this process is called.
But this time is clearly different. The pent-up demand is not present — not with 6.46 million jobs gone in just 18 months and hundreds of billions of dollars in wages extinguished. Credit is harder than ever to get for those who might want to spend again, and there are fewer and fewer spenders. People who do have jobs are saving (not spending) more of their incomes than they have in years, trying to replenish wealth lost in the stock market and in the declining value of their homes.
And, perhaps most important, millions of workers on short schedules will very likely get their hours back before their bosses hire new people. "We are talking the equivalent of adding back four to five million jobs just by restoring hours lost in this recession," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research. "That process of adding back hours won’t start before next June," he says, "and I’m not confident it will begin even that soon."
So much for a surge in hiring or spending. If there is what seems like a job surge next April and May, that will be because the Census Bureau is hiring 1.2 million census takers in those months for the 2010 census. The work is part time, but it will bolster the national employment rolls — only to be subtracted once the work is done in July. Coming out of steep recessions in the past, home building, like manufacturing, flourished and the hiring of construction workers surged. Nearly half a million construction jobs returned after the steep 1981-1982 recession. Not this time. Too many homes were built during the bubble years before 2008, and too many office buildings. The glut has to be worked off before there is much new construction, or hiring.
The recovery, then, given the circumstances, is likely to come not with job growth, but "a diminution in job loss," as Mr. Hatzius put it. Like some other forecasters, he expects the economy to start growing by the end of the year. Maybe that is already happening. But it is growth without jobs — yet another jobless recovery, like the last two, this time on a giant scale. We came out of the 2001 recession into a recovery in which fewer than 60,000 jobs were lost each month, on average, not the hundreds of thousands a month very likely to disappear in the recovery to come.
That is a political problem, of course, particularly if the nation is not yet adding jobs as the Congressional election approaches next year. Mr. Zandi estimates that the stimulus package is likely to generate 2.5 million jobs. The president’s Council of Economic Advisers put the number at 3.5 million by the end of next year. Either way, that is not much of an offset for an economy that has already lost nearly two million jobs since the stimulus was enacted in February.
Such numbers suggest that if the goal is a job surge coming out of the current recession, then another stimulus package is needed, and a big one, perhaps as much as $1 trillion packed into a single year of spending, some economists say. Consumer spending and business investment provided such a kick coming out of steep recessions in the past. In their absence this time, job growth will inevitably resume as the recession gradually ends, but at a trickle, not a torrent. Health care and education seem certain to lead the way, with isolated help from the oil industry, pipeline construction companies, utilities, computer design firms and the federal government.
Mr. Zandi projects that once the employment rolls begin to grow again, in the second half of next year, nearly half the hiring will come from public schools, hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient care centers and physicians’ offices. Not that the numbers will be so great — on the order of 100,000 jobs a month, or less, for all these categories together. That increase is needed to care for aging baby boomers and a bulge in the population of young people.
Hotels and restaurants are also likely to expand their staffs as people relax a bit. And retailers, too, are expected to add workers cautiously, after downsizing hugely during the recession. There might even be a surprise, adds Robert Barbera, chief economist for the Investment Technology Group. "Some new and exciting area of job growth may emerge," he said, "although I can’t guess where that might be."
Bank 'walkaways' from foreclosed homes are a growing, troubling trend
Renetta Atterberry thought she had lost her East 102nd Street house. So she was shocked to learn in January -- five years after her mortgage company filed for foreclosure -- that it was still in her name. Worse, the long-vacant rental home had been vandalized and she faced a raft of housing code violations. Since then, she has been saddled with debts of about $12,000 to pay for demolition and back taxes. "I thought I had nothing else to do with that home," said Atterberry. "I was so embarrassed and humiliated by this."
Her mortgage company didn't buy the house and never took it to sheriff's sale to see if somebody else would, leaving Atterberry the legal owner, responsible for upkeep and taxes. These so-called "bank walkaways" are another troubling development in the foreclosure crisis, particularly in cities like Cleveland with weaker housing markets, say housing advocates and government officials. Lenders or mortgage companies decide they don't want homes they have already foreclosed on, sometimes because the value has plummeted or they believe the homes could become costly liabilities if they are socked with housing code violations.
But without that sale, the property can languish abandoned and ripe for vandalism. As liens and liabilities mount -- creating a so-called "toxic title" -- it becomes even harder to transfer the property. Neighborhoods and local governments are left to deal with the mess. "It's a growing issue. It's all over the state. It's not just Cleveland," said State Rep. Mike Foley. "That kind of lack of respect for communities that banks have made a ton of money off of in the past is infuriating."
Joseph Schilling, associate director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech and an expert on abandoned property, said the issue of bank walkaways is increasing. Lenders may decide that given low prices and their mounting inventory of foreclosed property, it makes sense to walk away. "But as a result, it leaves the property in this type of legal limbo and it leaves the community and local government really holding the bag," Schilling said. The problem has gotten the attention of government officials who are trying to fill a void in Ohio law and force companies that foreclose on property to act.
State Rep. Dennis Murray of Sandusky is drafting a bill he hopes to introduce in the next two months that would require lenders or mortgage service companies to take foreclosed properties to sheriff sale within a certain time -- or see their mortgage lien erased. The lender wouldn't be required to buy the property -- only to take it to sale. More time could be given to lenders working to keep people in their homes by restructuring the mortgage. Under Murray's plan, property that doesn't sell could go to a local land bank.
"We're saying fish or cut bait," Murray said. "You can either take it to sheriff's sale . . . or if you're going to walk away from the property, do it now so the land bank process and the reclamation can get started." Separately, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Nancy Margaret Russo recently began ordering those granted a foreclosure decree in her courtroom to file the paperwork for a sheriff's sale in about 30 days -- or face being ordered to court for a contempt hearing. "I think it's a big problem," Russo said. "It's creating more abandoned homes with nobody responsible for taking care of them."
It's not clear whether she has the jurisdiction to issue such orders. But Russo -- who was not aware of Murray's initiative when she began hers -- believed it was time to start a discussion. Beachwood lawyer James Sassano, who represents mortgage servicing companies in foreclosure cases, said he doesn't believe Russo has the jurisdiction but understands that she wants to get properties into the hands of people who would be responsible for them. And while he hasn't seen Murray's draft legislation, he questions whether it would be constitutional to erase the mortgage holders' lien.
Frank S. Alexander, a professor at Emory University School of Law, said he's not aware of any state with a remedy similar to what Murray is proposing. "I happen to like it," said Alexander, after being told about Murray's plans. "And it would require lenders to act more cautiously in foreclosing." And he noted that many states are looking to tighten their foreclosure laws. "I think Ohio because of the magnitude of the problem -- particularly in Cuyahoga County -- and the longevity of the problem, is out in front on trying to come up with creative solutions."
How often these walkaways happen isn't clear, and there are mortgage companies that work to hasten sales. But researchers at the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University are studying the issue after noticing that foreclosure filings in Cuyahoga County remained about the same in 2007 and 2008 but that sheriff's sales were down last year. Researcher Michael Schramm said they also began hearing from people in various cities and neighborhoods about homes languishing in foreclosure without being sold.
Schramm said that Cuyahoga County saw more than 14,000 foreclosure filings both in 2007 and in 2008. In 2007 there were nearly 10,000 sheriff's sales, but the number dropped in 2008 to about 8,000. Lenders or mortgage service companies may decide not to seek a sheriff's sale because they're working to restructure a mortgage or the homeowner has gone into bankruptcy. But there's no doubt they've also walked away from homes when it's in their financial interest to do so. "In the old days when values were much higher, it made a lot more sense to press the foreclosure sale," said Dave Sarver, whose Cleveland Heights-based Sarver Realty specializes in selling properties taken back by banks at sheriff's sales.
But now, he says, when a growing number of properties are worth only a few thousand dollars, it doesn't make sense for mortgage companies to take title to properties with little value and the potential for costly city code violations.
In Cuyahoga County, foreclosed homes that lenders or mortgage companies bought at sheriff's sales have recently sold for as little as 30 percent of the home's previously appraised value, according to the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development. In the city of Cleveland the numbers are even worse -- with lenders selling foreclosed homes for just 15 percent of their former value.
Another slice of the dismal pie: In Cleveland more than 60 percent of the foreclosed homes sold by mortgage companies went for $10,000 or less. Some lenders also lose interest during the foreclosure process. "The property becomes abandoned while the foreclosure is pending and it becomes stripped, vandalized, damaged or deteriorated to the point where it just doesn't make sense to spend money to have it offered at sheriff's sale," said Larry Rothenberg, a lawyer with Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, a large creditors-rights firm based in Cleveland.
But those business decisions don't sit well with those left to deal with them. "They have a responsibility," said Cleveland City Councilman Tony Brancatelli. He said that if lenders or mortgage companies start a foreclosure, they should finish it. Or they should take off the mortgage lien so that the title can be cleaned up and the property transferred into responsible hands.
Some of the fallout that results when properties languish vacant and abandoned shows up in Cleveland Housing Judge Raymond Pianka's courtroom. "I see shocked people every single week," Pianka said. "They thought the burden was lifted because they filed bankruptcy or because somebody somewhere told them they're no longer responsible, and then they're pulled back in facing criminal code violations." His court also has worked with such owners on moving the property into the hands of another owner such as a nonprofit agency, the city land bank or the next door neighbor. But trying to transfer a problem to somebody else can become a thorny and protracted process if the long-gone owner can't be found or the foreclosed house is saddled with so many financial obligations that it is too expensive to touch.
Some transfers have been helped along when lenders remove the lien or agree to what's called a short sale and accept less than what's owned on the mortgage. Shawn Martin doesn't know what will happen to his property on Reno Avenue in Cleveland, where a foreclosure was filed on the two-family rental house in 2006. The sheriff sale had been scheduled, and Martin figured his lender took possession after he drove by and saw the windows boarded up and a tarp on the roof. But nobody bought it -- not even his mortgage company. "They backed out on it and just left it without even telling me," Martin said. "It just sat there and decayed without me even knowing about it." The house has been demolished and Martin is worried about being stuck with the bill. "This is a nightmare," he said.
Carol Zung's two-family rental property on Adams Avenue in Cleveland is still standing -- and that presents its own set of problems. A few months ago she got a call from police that the empty house had been ransacked, a call that reached her in Savannah, Ga., where Zung moved to find work after a cascade of financial troubles. The house had been foreclosed on and set for sheriff's sale in November 2007. Whether it even went to sale can't be gleaned from the court docket, which Zung has been checking in the hopes that this incredibly frustrating burden will be transferred off her 69-year-old shoulders.
Now there's another wrinkle. During a recent check, Zung learned her mortgage holder had gotten the foreclosure decree vacated and the case dismissed. But the property is still in her name and she owes around $37,000 on the mortgage. Zung has been through bankruptcy and said she has no money. "What do I do now?" she said. "There's part of my mind that's given up. Let other people figure out this mess." It is not just the homeowners who are affected when the property languishes. Neighbors can be left to suffer with vandalism and diminished property values, and taxpayers may be left with the costs of removing nuisance and blighted conditions.
"Those are the people who are picking up the tab for the business practices of calculated abandonment, " said Kermit Lind, a clinical professor at Cleveland State University's Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and an expert on foreclosures. Sarah Butler knows the fear of living next door to a foreclosed and vacant house. From her home on Reno she watched as vandals and trespassers descended on Martin's two-family after the renters moved out. She saw looters strip the house of everything from gutters to the refrigerator. Once, one of her back windows was broken. And sometimes people would pull into the driveway at 3 a.m. and wake her up with all their noise. "You've got to leave, nobody lives here," she'd shout from her window.
Homeowners, too, sometimes walk away -- for their own financial reasons or because they feel eviction from their foreclosed homes is inevitable. Once they're gone they may be hard to track down. But others, like Renetta Atterberry, abandon a house in the belief that it's no longer theirs. She doesn't know why she didn't get notices about what happened. It's not clear how her housing nightmare will end. She said she's on a payment plan with the county treasurer's office for the back taxes and would like to donate the property to a land bank -- but said she was told that can't happen as long as the $48,000 mortgage lien remains on the now-vacant property. "I was totally devastated with all of this being dumped on me," she said.
As Spain’s Economy Falters, Bank Robberies Rise
The 52-year-old contractor was desperate to save his business. Unable to pay his workers and facing bankruptcy, Ausencio C. G., as Spanish police identify him, went to the bank — but not for a loan. Covering his fingertips with surgical tape and wearing a ski mask and a reflective jacket to blur his image on security cameras, the contractor reportedly stole 80,000 euros from four banks before getting caught as he tried his fifth stickup near Barcelona in February.
That is a total of about $115,000 — half of which came from his first heist, and was used to pay his workers, according to what he told the police. Now in prison awaiting trial, the contractor, who is from Lleida, a town about 150 kilometers west of here, is reported to be part of one group that is busier than ever in this recession-battered country: bank robbers. Indeed, with unemployment approaching 20 percent, the highest in Europe, and the overall economy expected to shrink by 4.2 percent this year, bank robberies in 2009 are running 20 percent ahead of 2007’s pace, according to the Spanish Banking Association.
"In recent months, it has become apparent that Spain is suffering from an increase in bank robberies," said Francisco Pérez Abellán, head of the criminology department at the University of Camilo José Cela in Madrid. "We are seeing people committing offenses through necessity, first-time offenders who can no longer continue to maintain their lifestyle and so turn to crime." In the Barcelona area, only 7 percent of bank robbers were first-time offenders in 2008, according to José Luis Trapero, the chief of investigations for the regional police squad. That figure has jumped to 20 percent so far this year.
Though bank executives argue that there is no proven link between the falling economy and the rise in bank robberies, many Spaniards say they think the trends are more than coincidental — including the union that represents bank workers. It recently persuaded the Spanish government to classify bank robbery as an occupational hazard. "There’s unemployment, there’s hunger and there’s money in the banks, and the three factors combine," said José Manuel Murcia, head of health in the workplace for the financial sector of one of Spain’s largest trade unions, the CC.OO (Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras). "Banks are denying credit, so companies are having problems, which creates more unemployment."
He added, "People can’t pay their mortgages. So it’s more logical to rob a bank than a pharmacy." Despite the increase in novice offenders like the contractor, bank executives play down the spike in robberies, and dispute any comparisons with Depression-era America, when John Dillinger and other criminals captured the public imagination. "It’s an urban myth," said Eduardo Zamora, director of security for Banco Sabadell, Spain’s fourth-largest bank. "It’s possible it does have an effect on other parts of society but I’m convinced the economic crisis doesn’t have any effect on holdups."
Besides, Mr. Zamora added, bank robberies were much more common in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As long as the total number of bank robberies does not exceed 500 a year, Mr. Zamora said, "it’s stable and controlled." All told, there were 165 holdups in the first four months of 2009, according to the Spanish Banking Association. But Mr. Murcia said he believed the actual number of bank robberies was higher than the figures disclosed by the banking association. In addition, he said his workers were at particular risk because of increasing automation and the proliferation of branches with just one or two employees and time-lock safes that require a 30-minute wait before they can be opened.
In fact, Ausencio C. G. stuck to banks with only one employee, usually female, and carefully watched his victim’s movements as well as the bank’s premises before he struck. According to his statement to the Spanish police, Ausencio C. G.’s first hit was his most successful, netting 50,000 euros that he used to pay his employees. (Spanish police have not disclosed his full name because he is still awaiting trial.) The booty from subsequent heists was earmarked for his suppliers, as well as for family expenses, including his daughter’s studies in London, according to the police.
While the typical bank robber is a Spanish-born male over the age of 35 who acts alone and strikes not far from home, according to Mr. Pérez Abellán, the Madrid criminology professor, a new wave of bandits is also emerging. These are criminals drawn from among the millions of low-skilled workers who came here from Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere before Spain’s long construction boom went bust. "A kind of common market has arisen, formed by people from different countries who bring new criminal skills designed to increase the level of violence and the speed of the bank robbery," said Mr. Pérez Abellán.
For example, a four-man crew of painters from South America turned to bank robbery in March, kidnapping a bank manager and his family near Barcelona and holding them overnight before forcing the manager to open the bank vault and hand over more than 150,000 euros, nearly $215,000. The gang of painters, who had no criminal record in Spain, originally came from Brazil and Argentina. They were caught last month, still dressed in their painters’ uniforms and carrying a paint bucket along with shotguns, shells and pistols in the back seat of their car as they tried one final robbery before heading back to South America with their loot.
Because they lack a criminal record, apprehending reported perpetrators like Ausencio C. G. or the South American painters is trickier, Mr. Trapero said. In 2007, 87 percent of bank robberies were solved, compared with 72 percent last year. So far in 2009, just under half have resulted in an arrest. But Mr. Trapero, an intensely focused 19-year veteran of the force, is patient as he tracks his prey. "It often takes months or even years to solve some cases," he said. "There are some very clever robbers out there who take care of almost every detail but they always slip up in the end."
Iceland in key step to restructure banks
Iceland will announce on Monday a €1.5bn ($2.1bn, £1.3bn) recapitalisation of its banking sector and unveil a deal to hand control of two of the country’s healthy new banks to foreign creditors. The steps mark an important milestone in efforts to rebuild Iceland’s shattered banks and reintegrate the north Atlantic island nation into the international financial system. The government will issue bonds worth IKr270bn ($2.1bn) next month to three new banks set up last year after the country’s three main banks fell victim to the global credit crunch.
Creditors to the failed banks, will be offered equity stakes in two of the new banks as compensation for healthy assets that were salvaged from the ruins last October. A provisional agreement was reached on Friday after weeks of difficult negotiations, clearing the way for the long-awaited recapitalisation, according to people involved in negotiations. The deal is the latest in a series of steps aimed at restoring trust in Iceland’s financial system and stabilising its broader economy.
Last week, the Icelandic parliament voted to start negotiations to join the European Union. In another breakthrough, the government last month agreed a deal to reimburse billions of pounds and euros lost by British and Dutch savers in Icelandic bank accounts. Restructuring its banks, repaying creditors and stabilising its currency were all conditions of the $10bn rescue package granted to Iceland by the International Monetary Fund and European countries last year. The capital injection to be announced by the government on Monday would increase the core tier one capital ratios of the new banks to about 12 per cent – in line with international standards. Under the provisional deal, creditors to the failed banks will be offered controlling stakes in New Kaupthing Bank and Islandsbanki, which inherited the healthy assets of the failed Kaupthing and Glitnir banks, respectively.
The agreement was struck with the "resolution committees" set up by the government to unravel the failed banks but creditors were closely involved and are expected to give approval. The deal would compensate creditors only for the assets transferred to the new banks, which represent just a fraction of the $60bn owed to foreign lenders. But it clears a crucial hurdle towards building a new bank system and starting the process of cleaning up bad assets in the failed banks. "It was important that we reached an agreement with creditors rather than it ending up in litigation," said an Icelandic official.
A formal deal has not yet been struck concerning assets taken from Landsbanki, the third failed bank, because its foreign entanglements – including heavy liabilities to the UK and Dutch governments – are the most complex. People familiar with negotiations said an outline deal was in place and would be finalised by the end of July. Negotiations were led by Hawkpoint, a British financial advisory firm, appointed by the Icelandic government to oversee the process.
Warning to UK and France on derivatives
Rivalry between Paris and London could jeopardise Europe’s competitiveness in the vast "over-the-counter" derivatives markets, France’s stock market regulator has warned. Jean-Pierre Jouyet, chairman of the Autorité des Marchés Financiers, the French regulator, told the FT that disagreement between the two countries over how to regulate trading in these complex products could hinder a European solution and drive business to the US.
"In the US they have seen the threat. They are creating centralised clearing houses. But in Europe we are not there because there is disagreement between Paris, London and Frankfurt," he said. London had "to accept that Paris has a role" in clearing trades in euro-denominated derivatives, while Frankfurt was more neutral in the debate. "If Europe cannot agree and falls behind, trading will be done with the clearing system of the US. Because they have the technology, they have the savoir faire, and they will have the regulation. Europe has to know what it wants."
This month the European Commission called for more standardisation in the OTC markets and increased use of clearing houses, which is under way in the US. A clearing house steps in when a party to a trade defaults, ensuring that a transaction is completed. Most OTC trades are not cleared, exposing firms – and the financial system – to so-called "counterparty risk" such as default. Europe wants to establish clearing for OTC credit derivatives, with Eurex Clearing, owned by Deutsche Börse, and Ice, the US futures exchange, nearing launch by a July 30 deadline set by the EC.
Recession forces a million Brits to work part-time
Almost a million people are being forced to work part-time because they cannot get a full-time job, according to official figures that shed light on the hidden cost of the recession for thousands of families. In the past year more than 250,000 extra people who would like to be in full-time employment have found themselves working four days a week or fewer, according to the Office for National Statistics. This is an increase of more than a third on the previous year, and illustrates the extent to which companies are trying to cope with the downturn by reducing staff hours, rather than just laying them off.
Several major employers have offered staff reduced hours or extended holidays in an attempt to cut costs. Earlier this month, The Daily Telegraph disclosed that BT had offered tens of thousands of its staff the right to take a holiday of up to a year if they took a 75 per cent pay cut. British Airways has asked many of its staff to work part-time or for free. When Britain’s biggest accountancy firm KPMG offered employees the opportunity to move to a four-day week, 86 per cent of staff signed up. Many of the City’s biggest law firms, including Norton Rose, are staffed by some part-time workers.
Manufacturers including Ford, Honda and JCB have also asked staff to work reduced hours. The latest statistics indicate that, between March and May this year, a record 927,000 individuals were working fewer than 30 hours a week because they could not find a full-time job, a rise of 38 per cent on last year. The figures include new employees who have been hired on a part-time basis and existing staff who have been offered reduced hours. Separate figures released last week showed that unemployment had jumped to 2.38?million, with economists predicting it was inevitable that the total would exceed three million, matching the job crises of the early-1990s and 1980s.
This time round, however, the rise in unemployment has been accompanied by more dramatic changes in the labour market, with hundreds of thousands cutting their hours and pay in an attempt to hold on to their jobs. Others are working well beyond retirement age because their pension pots have suffered from dramatic falls in the stock market. Economists said that many more businesses were looking to restructure their workforce in similar ways, and expect further announcements later this year.
Corin Taylor, the head of policy at the Institute of Directors, said: "This recession has been marked by employers being very flexible. They are very keen to hold on to good people, even if that means freezing or cutting pay. And that has to be a good thing. "But it does suggest that we are in a far more severe employment downturn than the headline jobless figures suggest." Benjamin Williamson, of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, said: "Employers have learnt from previous recessions not to get rid of people with adequate skills because otherwise they will be left short when the recovery comes."
He added: "A reduction in salary is never great as people tend to make their purchasing decisions based on the future. While it is all well and good for young people with savings, it is particularly hard for those with large mortgages and families." While many young workers have been happy to take a break from the workplace on reduced pay, the ONS figures make clear that there is a growing body of people who have been forced to slash their hours against their wishes. The overall figures indicate that there were 595,000 fewer full-time workers than a year ago, taking the total to 21.47 million, and 51,000 more part-time workers, taking the total to 7.53 million.
However, while the number of part-time workers increased, 927,000 of those working part time did so "because they could not find a full-time job", the ONS calculated. Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, said: "This is the hidden impact of the recession. These people won’t be showing up in the spiralling unemployment figures but the economic slowdown and their subsequent move into part time work will have forced many of these families to rein in their spending dramatically."
The ONS employment figures, which have been collected since 1992, also suggest that far more pensioners are working than a year ago, as thousands of people are forced to defer their retirement because their pension pots have been hit by the falls in the stock market. In the three months to May there were 1.36?million people of pensionable age working, an increase of 45,000 on last year. More than half of Britain’s workers spend between 31 and 45 hours at work per week, according to the ONS figures.
The remainder are almost equally divided between those working between 16 and 30 hours a week and those working more than 45 hours a week. John Philpott, of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: "The 255,000 extra people who are now working part-time because they cannot find a full-time job is a big increase on last year." But he added: "It is a temporary phenomenon relating to the recession and once the labour market is in better health, there will be a shift among part-time workers back into full time work."
Even as police investigate £80m Ponzi scheme, some 'victims' can't believe it
Fraud squad detectives have embarked upon a unique attempt to break the stranglehold that a group of suspected fraudsters holds over hundreds of investors. Clients of Business Consulting International (BCI), a Knightsbridge-based investment firm accused of running an £80 million Ponzi scheme, are being invited to public meetings by City of London Police to be told how their money was lost. Yet some of those investors appear not to believe they have been victims of a crime at all.
Three investment consultants have been arrested over the alleged bogus scheme, which allegedly operated in a similar way to that run by Bernard Madoff, the jailed American financier, by paying high returns from money invested by new clients. Police are seeking to recover money invested by the men around the world — including accounts in Dubai and the Cayman Islands — and last week seized eight high-performance cars leased by the suspects. The vehicles included two Ferraris — a 612 Scaglietti and F430 Spider — two Bentleys, a Lamborghini, a Rolls-Royce and a Maserati.
Detectives have also seized jewellery, watches and cash, but their inquiry is being hampered by the refusal of a large number of BCI’s 600 investors to accept that they may have been victims of a fraud. Some of the firm’s clients, who include a 1960s pop star and a number of sports personalities, believe that they can still recover their investments. They have been told that BCI loaned money to "distressed" companies in need of cash and that their investments would be recouped.
Detective Superintendent Bob Wishart, of City of London Police, said that many alleged victims could not accept that people they trust may have cheated them. "Some of the victims point-blank refuse to believe that they may have been victims of a crime," he said. "They think these people are their friends and they have placed complete trust and have given over a lot of ... information and it is very difficult to break that link of trust. "Consequently, we get this situation where we find they do not believe us. Even though they have been arrested and we have searched their homes and offices and closed them down, the victims still do not believe anything is wrong."
Police say that the alleged Ponzi scheme ran between 2007-08 and was marketed by word of mouth between friends and relatives, who were told that they could earn returns of 6 per cent and 13 per cent annually. Several investors are said to have lost their homes, others have been declared bankrupt and some have attempted suicide. Two families lost large sums of money that they had saved to help to pay for the long-term care of disabled children. At the meetings, held at a City police station, many investors reacted with disbelief as police explained that most of their money could not be traced and they were unlikely to see it again. Some people angrily turned on officers and accused them of provoking the collapse of the fund by freezing assets and making arrests.
One woman, aged in her late twenties and from North London, asked: "How can £80 million just disappear?" Another woman said that she had lost £50,000 saved from benefit payments that was being put aside for the care of her son, who has cerebral palsy. The woman, 48, said: "We had been saving for about 13 years; it was going to be a deposit for a flat or for an annexe to our house. The worst thing is the abuse of trust. We invested the money in stages from March last year onwards. Because we got some back we then invested more." Three men have been arrested and questioned on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud, money laundering and fraud by misrepresentation. Kautilya Nandan Pruthi, 38, Kenneth Peacock, 40, and John Anderson, 43, were released on police bail.
As Boom Times Sour in Vegas, Upward Mobility Goes Bust
Drew Johnson and his wife, Tina had the life many Americans only dream of: A big house in a swanky suburb, a backyard hot tub, and a $100,000 deposit on a new condo with views of the Las Vegas Strip and 24-hour concierge service. They did it all on the salaries of a construction-equipment salesman and a cocktail waitress who brought in $1,000 a week in tips alone. But the recession has slashed their incomes by nearly half, and financing for the condo might not come through. "It's Vegas," says Mr. Johnson, who fears he could lose most of his deposit. "We gambled."
During the boom years, Las Vegas wasn't just a place where gamblers could hit the jackpot, but where hard-working hotel maids and cocktail waitresses could, too. The city offered something almost no other place in America did: upward mobility for the working class. Now, that is evaporating. The recession has jolted Las Vegas in a fundamental way. Like other job-creating cities in the Sunbelt, Las Vegas saw its population, income levels and housing prices surge over the past decade. And like those cities -- including Phoenix, Orlando and San Diego -- it's been battered in the bust.
But by many measures, Las Vegas's rise and fall has been more dramatic than most. Last year, Clark County's population declined for the first time in more than two decades. More than 10,000 people left Las Vegas between July 2007 and July 2008, according to Keith Schwer, director for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The unemployment rate in the metropolitan area tripled from 4% in May 2007 to just over 12.3% in June 2009, higher than the national rate of 9.5%. And after the median price of existing homes rose by 122% in sales between 2000 and 2006 -- more than double the national rise of 49% -- sale prices fell by 30% between last year and this year.
The big bet that fueled Las Vegas's growth for so long is the same one that's now going bad: tourism. Vegas expanded into the lucrative market for business meetings and conventions, building massive exhibition halls and new hotels and casinos. Construction jobs multiplied and the housing market bubbled over. Now that tourism and business travel have collapsed, Vegas has little else to cushion the blow. Even some long-time Vegas stalwarts now believe the era of astounding growth is over.
"I don't see any opportunities for any development in Las Vegas," said Las Vegas Sands chief executive Sheldon Adelson in an interview. Mr. Adelson, who in 1999 opened the Venetian, a Vegas-style replica of Venice complete with indoor canals, rattled off a list of U.S. states he has his eye on now: Massachusetts, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas. All along the Las Vegas Strip, massive, half-finished edifices may never see a grand opening. Last month, the $3.5 billion Fontainebleau Las Vegas hotel and casino declared bankruptcy, and 3,500 construction workers lost their jobs. Other projects, such as the $5 billion Echelon resort, a hotel tower at Caesar's Palace and a luxury condo tower at the Palazzo, also halted construction.
"There won't be another [casino] property built in Las Vegas for a decade," says Jim Murren, chief executive of MGM Mirage, Nevada's largest employer. Mr. Murren's company plans to move forward with the opening of City Center, the $8.4 billion resort and residential project that the Johnsons bought into. When it's completed later this year, City Center is expected to employ 12,000 workers, a bright spot for Las Vegas employment. But many casino operators are worried the nearly 5,000 new hotel rooms will flood the market with new supply while demand is down. That could further depress prices at a time when visitors are already spending less on food, gambling and spa services, say casino executives.
Much in the way jobs on Detroit's assembly lines allowed poor Southern blacks a route out of poverty two generations ago, Las Vegas provided a shot at the middle class for workers fleeing dying industrial centers, or for immigrants arriving from Latin America and Asia. While average wages stagnated throughout much of the country over the past decade, pay in Nevada skyrocketed. Wages in the state grew at nearly double the national rate between 2000 and 2008, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
Union workers -- who account for the bulk of employment along the Las Vegas Strip -- saw their pay grow by 12.6% between 2000 and 2008, while union workers nationwide saw an increase of 2.9%, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Nevada's non-union pay increased by 5.4% in the same period, while wages for all workers in the U.S. increased by 1.6%. The union made upward mobility part of the Vegas allure. In Vegas, the union-negotiated salary for a hotel maid is still $14.25 an hour. In contrast, the median wage for the same worker in Orlando is $8.84 an hour; in Phoenix, it's $9.25, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While the union sent casino workers' salaries and benefits up, tips were often what helped push ordinary workers into the world of posh condos and sports cars. Tips could triple the base pay of casino workers who dealt directly with guests. Gamblers who hit it big on the tables; young visitors who spent thousands for bottle service at night clubs; and businessmen treating clients to lavish dinners, were all free and easy with gratuities, say current and former casino workers. Valet attendants could take home an average of $500 a week in tips, while room-service waiters at swankier properties could earn $600 a week in tips, often outstripping their weekly base salaries. Such excess turned Las Vegas into one of America's biggest boomtowns. From 2000 through 2006, Clark County -- home to the Strip and three quarters of the state's population -- was the fastest-growing county in the U.S.
The number of people employed by the casinos crammed along the four-mile Strip shot to 109,000 in 2007 from 40,000 in 1985. Retirees, drawn by low taxes and affordable housing, poured into the area, too. Many of those who found steady work in casinos or on construction sites were able to harness another engine of prosperity: the area's bubbling housing market. Fashionable new suburbs sprang up. The flurry of new housing starts created even more jobs.
Meanwhile, the casino companies listed on Wall Street had acquired other properties until the Strip was dominated by just a few major players: Harrah's Entertainment, Inc., MGM Mirage, Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Wynn Resorts Ltd. They began competing with each other and took on billions in debt to build ever-more-lavish gambling palaces. During the mid-2000s, hotel occupancy on the Strip was typically above 95%; room rates soared. Then, early in 2008, as the mortgage crisis swept the country, the number of visits began to slow. The number of visitors continued to drop every month on record this year, just as casino companies were preparing to unleash thousands of new luxury hotel rooms onto the market. The share prices of the casino companies tumbled, and many sought emergency financing. Even some of the titans, such as MGM Mirage, had begun to sell assets in order to meet debt obligations.
Mr. Schwer, of UNLV, says when he charts the region's economic history, the lines rise then decline so severely, "we call these cliff-diving charts." During good times, the pull of Las Vegas was so strong that it sometimes drew entire communities. The Bias family -- about 150 aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters -- moved to Las Vegas from Tallulah, La., over three decades as economic conditions in the mill town deteriorated. More than 43% of Tallulah's 9,000 residents live below the poverty line, according to the latest census. In Las Vegas, the Bias family found steady, well-paying jobs. The men went to work as cooks in the casinos and the women worked in housekeeping. Sometimes, it seemed that all of Tallulah had relocated to Las Vegas, says Josh Bias, 31. "It got to the point where I'd meet someone here from Louisiana and I'd say, 'Don't tell me, you're from Tallulah,' " Mr. Bias says.
Mr. Bias, the eldest of 10 siblings, was able to go to college. To help pay for school, he found work as a cook, alongside his father and uncles. He took to the profession, and landed a job as a fry cook at a casino. He says he made $17.35 an hour, received full medical benefits, a 401(k) plan, and free training through a union and casino-backed program to upgrade his skills. His wife was able to stay home and raise their two young children. There was a Chevy Malibu, a spacious apartment, and new clothes and toys. His eight-year-old daughter talked about "going into the family business" and becoming a pastry chef. But in 2008, business on the Las Vegas Strip was stalling. In early December, Mr. Bias was laid off from his job. His family moved into a cheaper apartment in a sketchier part of town. He negotiated with his car lender to put off payments for a few months.
Mr. Bias recently landed a new job at the M Resort, where he works from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. as a cook. Even though it's a non-union job and pays less, he's grateful he got it. "I was told I beat 10,000 other people who applied for this position," he says. Mr. Bias said the family is helping each other, with working relatives taking in laid-off ones. Las Vegas has experienced ups and downs before. Business dropped off in the 1970s, during years of stagflation. And casinos were hurting for business in the months after Sept. 11, 2001. The city emerged from these downturns when Americans felt confident and wealthy enough to travel as the larger economy grew. But analysts and observers say now, unlike then, Vegas has billions in debt that will make a recovery much harder.
Harvey Perkins, a gambling consultant with Spectrum Gaming, believes the industry can no longer depend on regular Americans to behave like high rollers. "I think people have fundamentally changed in their spending patterns." The casino business model, he says, will have to be "re-engineered." Vegas, Mr. Perkins and others believe, will have to return to the days of being a bargain destination. That's already starting to happen, with hotels throwing in coupons for spa services, and high-end restaurants offering cheaper options. Others predict that the current downturn will prove to be a momentary hiccup, and that the good times, along with social mobility, will again return to Las Vegas, just as they have in the past.
"I think we'll be like a phoenix," says D. Taylor, the secretary-treasurer for Culinary Union Local 226, which represents 55,000 hotel and casino workers. The union recently agreed to delay a negotiated 34-cent-an-hour pay increase for one year. But Mr. Taylor still expects a turnaround. "People like to kick us around, but we'll come back bigger and stronger and more exciting and vibrant." That's Raymond Wadsworth's hope, too. For a time, Mr. Wadsworth thought he might be condemned to the underclass. With a high-school education, he bounced from one menial to job to another in Los Angeles. Then he landed in prison on a drug conviction.
In 2003, he moved to Las Vegas on the advice of a relative, and his luck changed. He got a union job in a casino kitchen that paid nearly $17 an hour, and included full medical benefits. He bought a used Toyota Camry, and later, a $191,000 four-bedroom house with his girlfriend. Then, late last year, the casino cut his hours and eventually laid him off. He hasn't worked since New Year's Eve, and his unemployment benefits are nearly drained. For now, his girlfriend's salary is keeping them afloat. "I know times are tough everywhere," says Mr. Wadsworth, who has applied for jobs all over the area, including at the airport and City Center. "I guess we just aren't used to this in Vegas."
Pension Calculus Draws New Scrutiny
A California dustup over large pension payments is shining a spotlight on the practice of spiking -- increasing a salary just before retirement and boosting the lifelong payout. Pete Nowicki had been making $186,000 shortly before he retired in January as chief for a fire department shared by the municipalities of Orinda and Moraga in Northern California. Three days before Mr. Nowicki announced he was hanging up his hat, department trustees agreed to increase his salary largely by enabling him to sell unused vacation days and holidays. That helped boost his annual pension to $241,000.
The boost was legal, and Mr. Nowicki said he is receiving a permissible pension. "People point to me as a poster child for pension spiking, but I did not negotiate these rules," he said. The fire district's board agrees. "Chief Nowicki abided by existing rules and guidelines for optimizing his retirement pay," said Frank Sperling, the board's vice president. "I don't fault him. The system itself is broken. We need to change the system." Mr. Nowicki's situation isn't unique. Contracts that permit a jump in salary just before retirement -- boosting the pension payout -- have been around for years. But as tough times are putting more scrutiny on public pensions, Mr. Nowicki's case has sparked particular anger from colleagues and local residents. Some recently demanded an explanation from the department trustees and others have lobbied the Orinda council to divert funds away from the fire department.
"These guys may have priced themselves out of job," said Steve Cohn, a financial analyst in Orinda. The practice is getting more attention amid growing concerns about the sustainability of guaranteed pension payouts for public employees after brutal market losses last year in public pension funds. In California, which has taken to issuing IOUs to hoard cash, a private interest group has launched a campaign to publicize the names of government retirees with pensions of $100,000 or more to promote its view that steep pensions threaten to bankrupt states and municipalities. Mr. Nowicki's payout was brought to light in the spring in a Contra Costa Times column.
While it happens nationwide, pension spiking has been especially prevalent in California, which some attribute to favorable terms negotiated by powerful unions. The Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based conservative think tank, estimates that pension spiking costs California taxpayers $100 million a year for the additional pension payments. "It's only a minority of workers who engage in pension spiking," said Lawrence McQuillan, a director at the institute. "But it adds up to real money."
Critics of pension spiking maintain the practice is unfair because employees or employers contribute toward pensions based on salaries. When a salary is significantly boosted around the time of retirement, it creates a shortfall between what a pension system has collected for an employee and what it must pay out. Union representatives say that over time the system has suffered some abuses. "The rules have been in place historically for a number of reasons, some of them good reasons. But times have changed rather dramatically now," said Rich Ferlauto, head of corporate governance and pension investment at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "We support changes in the rules to prevent spiking and other similar abuses."
Mr. Nowicki recently turned 51 years old. If he lives another 25 years, his pension payments will cost the fire district an estimated additional $1 million or more over what he would have received had he retired at a salary of $186,000, not including cost of living adjustments, a fire board representative said. In addition to drawing his pension, Mr. Nowicki currently is working for the fire department as a consultant at an annual salary of $176,400 while the department searches for his replacement.
Some peers aren't pleased. "We want him out," said Mark DeWeese, a firefighter who along with three other union members recently demanded an explanation for the spike from the fire district's board. Mr. DeWeese said firefighters are agreeing in current contract talks to forgo raises because of the poor economy. The board said it had no choice but to honor the chief's requests. Mr. Sperling, the board's vice president, said directors spent months trying to decipher a 300-page document that details the pension law passed in 1937.
Mr. Nowicki said he began talking with the board in spring of 2008 about changes to his employment contract that would affect his pension. On Dec. 10, the board approved amendments to his contract requested by Mr. Nowicki, which enabled him to sell back unused vacation and holidays. On Dec. 13, he announced his retirement.
Mr. Nowicki said he asked to have this vacation provision included in his contract because he rarely had time to take vacations. Since he had recently volunteered to forgo a raise, he felt he was entitled to other compensation, he said. If vacation days are sold during the last year of employment, they count as income for the purposes of calculating a pension, Mr. Sperling said. Because the chief didn't retire until January, he was able to sell back vacation days for both 2008 and 2009.
House climate bill was flooded with last-minute changes
Many provisions were narrowly focused to help certain industries. Expect more of the same in the Senate.
Less than 24 hours before the House approved its landmark energy and climate bill last month, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) got several paragraphs added to the 1,200-page measure -- additions expected to be worth millions of dollars to companies that install solar panels. About the same time, Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) took the lead in adding another little-noticed provision to the legislation -- a section designed to prevent regulatory action she said could shut down the multitrillion-dollar market for over-the-counter derivatives, a complex type of financial instrument.
These narrowly focused amendments were part of a torrent written into the bill during the wheeling and dealing that took place as Democratic leaders rounded up the votes needed to squeak out a victory. There were about 300 pages of last-minute amendments, many designed to make money for industries and constituencies important to fence-sitting lawmakers. The bill that passed the House included sweeteners for developing natural-gas-powered cars and energy-efficient mobile homes, plus financial rewards for early participants in the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America's first trading center for greenhouse gas emissions.
Surprisingly for a climate bill, there was also a provision making it harder to develop the vast wind-power potential of states like North Dakota -- a key element in President Obama's strategy to fight global warming. Some of the provisions could be tweaked or killed in the Senate. But more likely, analysts said, more will sprout as Democratic leaders and the White House strive to build a majority on that side of Capitol Hill. Making deals to get votes is a time-honored part of the legislative game, but the enormous scale of the climate bill and the pressure to act quickly in a time of economic crisis put the process on steroids.
"We started hearing about deal-making before the bill came to the House for debate, but then it blossomed," said Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the energy and commerce committee and a critic of the legislation. Obama indicated he would accept the grab bag of added provisions so long as they did not undermine the bill's core goals of curbing global warming, spurring renewable energy production and efficiency, and creating "clean energy" jobs. "There are going to be provisions in the House bill and in the Senate bill which I question, in terms of their effectiveness," Obama told a group of energy reporters in the Oval Office after the legislation passed. "I'm not going to have a line-item veto, so ultimately, you know, I'll take a look at the final product."
The centerpiece of the climate bill is establishing specific limits on heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions from major pollution sources such as power plants and factories. To comply with the limits, which would tighten over time, emitters would be required to obtain permits or pay to offset their emissions by funding tree-planting or other means of soaking up carbon dioxide. The system, called cap and trade, would impose new costs on some parts of the economy but open profit opportunities for others. For example, a recent analysis by the investment group Goldman Sachs projects that the U.S. emissions trading market could generate as much as $400 million a year in trading fees.
Perlmutter, the Colorado Democrat, used his seat on the rules committee to insert loan guarantees and a variety of other incentives for home energy efficiency and so-called distributed power generation -- in-home sources of electricity such as solar panels. He also added language to prevent homeowners associations and real estate covenants from banning construction of solar panels on the roofs of houses. John Berger, chief executive of Houston-based Standard Renewable Energy, one of the nation's largest installers of solar panels, predicted the homeowners association language would generate millions of dollars in new sales to his company alone.
Perlmutter said it was a matter of national security. "To have a distributed and diverse energy grid just makes us that much stronger of a country," he said in an interview. One of the congressman's biggest campaign contributors is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which is betting that the expansion of solar power will provide new jobs for its members. In the case of wind power, the key to realizing its potential is the construction of transmission grids to carry electricity from the windy Great Plains states to urban centers.
The climate bill gave the federal government the power to overcome local delays and speed up construction of the power lines. But East Coast representatives, worried that jobs would migrate to Chicago and other cities closer to the sources of wind power, changed the bill to take away that expediting power anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains.
Bean, a member of the House Financial Services Committee who is helping design a regulatory framework for the financial industry, said the climate legislation could kill trade in over-the-counter derivatives, which are touted for reducing investor risks but blamed for helping to bring on the worldwide recession. Bean, who has long received campaign contributions from the financial services industry, made it clear to party leaders that she would oppose the bill unless the language was changed. Two days before the vote, the change was made. Bean voted yes.
The Most Misunderstood Man in America
Joseph Stiglitz predicted the global financial meltdown. So why can't he get any respect here at home?
Anya Stiglitz was in the middle of a Pilates class in Central Park on an April morning when her cell phone rang. Glancing down, she saw "202" pop up—no number attached—and knew it was the White House. An aide to Larry Summers was on the line, looking for her husband, the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Anya said she'd pass on the message to Joe—then went back to work on her abs. No big deal, she thought. People often call her when they want to talk to Joe, because even though he's spent four decades figuring out how the global economy works, he hasn't quite gotten the hang of voice mail. "He doesn't listen to his messages, so if you want to talk to him, keep calling," Anya says on his cell-phone recording.
Anya figured Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser, was probably just calling to gripe about Joe's latest op-ed in The New York Times. Joe Stiglitz and Larry Summers, two towering intellects with egos to match, are not each other's favorite economist. "They respect each other, but they hate each other like poison," says Bruce Greenwald, Stiglitz's friend and academic collaborator at Columbia. ("I've got huge admiration for Joe as an economic thinker," Summers told NEWSWEEK.) Stiglitz had been hammering at Obama's economic team for its handling of the financial crisis. He wrote that the stimulus program was too small to be effective—a criticism that has since swelled into a chorus, though Obama says he's not adding more money. Stiglitz also had called the administration's bailout plan a giveaway to Wall Street, an "ersatz capitalism" that would save the banks' investors and creditors and screw the taxpayers. "I thought, Larry—he's just going to yell at Joe," Anya recalls.
But Summers's aide soon called back, and this time he said it was urgent: could Professor Stiglitz come to Washington for a dinner hosted by the president—that same night? Anya patched him through to Joe's office at Columbia University; Stiglitz accepted, and jumped on an early train. He was a little miffed: the other eminent economists attending the dinner, like Princeton's Alan Blinder and Harvard's Kenneth Rogoff, had been invited the week before. Stiglitz, a former chairman of Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, had supported Barack Obama as a candidate as early as 2007. But until that day, four months into the administration, he had heard barely a word from the White House. Even now, when the president was making an effort to hear a range of economic voices, Stiglitz seemed to be an afterthought. (A White House spokesman said only that the president wished to include Stiglitz.)
Such is the lot of Joe Stiglitz. Even in the contentious world of economics, he is considered somewhat prickly. And while he may be a Nobel laureate, in Washington he's seen as just another economic critic—and not always a welcome one. Few Americans recognize his name, and fewer still would recognize the man, who is short and stocky and bears a faint resemblance to Mel Brooks. Yet Stiglitz's work is cited by more economists than anyone else's in the world, according to data compiled by the University of Connecticut. And when he goes abroad—to Europe, Asia, and Latin America—he is received like a superstar, a modern-day oracle. "In Asia they treat him like a god," says Robert Johnson, a former chief economist for the Senate banking committee who has traveled with him. "People walk up to him on the streets."
Stiglitz has won fans in China and other emerging G20 nations by arguing that the global economic system is stacked against poor nations, and by standing up to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. He is also the most prominent American economist to propose a long-term solution to the imbalances in capital flows that have wreaked havoc, from the Asian contagion of the late '90s to the subprime-investment craze. Beijing has more or less endorsed Stiglitz's idea for a new global reserve system to replace the U.S. dollar as the world currency. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has been influenced by Stiglitz's work, especially when "he talks about the economics of poor people," says Fang Xinghai, the head of Shanghai's financial-services office.
But his stature is huge in Europe as well: French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently featured him at a conference on rethinking globalization. And earlier this month, while traveling to Europe and South Africa, Stiglitz received a call from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office: could he return through London and help the P.M. get ready for the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh?
Stiglitz is perhaps best known for his unrelenting assault on an idea that has dominated the global landscape since Ronald Reagan: that markets work well on their own and governments should stay out of the way. Since the days of Adam Smith, classical economic theory has held that free markets are always efficient, with rare exceptions. Stiglitz is the leader of a school of economics that, for the past 30 years, has developed complex mathematical models to disprove that idea. The subprime-mortgage disaster was almost tailor-made evidence that financial markets often fail without rigorous government supervision, Stiglitz and his allies say. The work that won Stiglitz the Nobel in 2001 showed how "imperfect" information that is unequally shared by participants in a transaction can make markets go haywire, giving unfair advantage to one party.
The subprime scandal was all about people who knew a lot—like mortgage lenders and Wall Street derivatives traders—exploiting people who had less information, like global investors who bought up subprime- mortgage-backed securities. As Stiglitz puts it: "Globalization opened up opportunities to find new people to exploit their ignorance. And we found them." Stiglitz's empathy for the little guy—and economically backward nations—comes to him naturally. The son of a schoolteacher and an insurance salesman, he grew up in one of America's grittiest industrial cities—Gary, Ind.—and was shaped by the social inequalities and labor strife he observed there. Stiglitz remembers realizing as a small boy that something was wrong with our system. The Stiglitzes, like many middle-class families, had an African-American maid. She was from the South and had little education. "I remember thinking, why do we still have people in America who have a sixth-grade education?" he says.
Those early experiences in Gary gave Stiglitz a social conscience—as a college student, he attended Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech—and led him to probe the reasons why markets failed. While studying at MIT, he says he realized that if Smith's "invisible hand" always guided behavior correctly, the kind of unemployment and poverty he had witnessed in Gary shouldn't exist. "I was struck by the incongruity between the models that I was taught and the world that I had seen growing up," Stiglitz said in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2001. In the same speech he declared that the invisible hand "might not exist at all." The solution, Stiglitz says, is to move beyond ideology and to develop a balance between market-driven economies—which he favors—and government oversight.
Stiglitz has warned for years that pro-market zeal would cause a global financial meltdown very much like the one that gripped the world last year. In the early '90s, as a member of Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, Stiglitz argued (unsuccessfully) against opening up capital flows too rapidly to developing countries, saying those markets weren't ready to handle "hot money" from Wall Street. Later in the decade, he spoke out (without results) against repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, which regulated financial institutions and separated commercial from investment banking. Since at least 1990, Stiglitz has talked about the risks of securitizing mortgages, questioning whether markets and authorities would grow careless "about the importance of screening loan applicants." Malaysian economist Andrew Sheng says, "I think Stiglitz is the nearest thing there is to Keynes in this crisis."
That would be John Maynard Keynes, the great 20th-century economist who rocketed to international renown in late 1919 when he published The Economic Consequences of the Peace. In his book, Keynes warned that the draconian penalties imposed on Germany after World War I would lead to political disaster. No one listened. The disaster he predicted turned out to be World War II. Like Stiglitz, Keynes was not a favorite at the White House. Keynes also believed that markets were imperfect: he invented modern macroeconomics—which calls for major government intervention to help ailing economies—in response to the Great Depression. But after meeting Keynes for the first time in 1934, FDR dismissed him as too abstract and intellectual, according to Robert Skidelsky, Keynes's biographer. Keynes himself fretted that Roosevelt was not spending enough.
To his critics—and there are many—Stiglitz is a self-aggrandizing rock-thrower. Even some of his intellectual allies note that while Stiglitz is often right on the substance of issues, he tends to leap to the conclusion that government can make things better. Harvard economist Rogoff has called him intolerably arrogant—though he added that Stiglitz is a "towering genius." In a letter to -Stiglitz published in 2002, Rogoff recalled a moment when the two of them were teaching at Princeton and former Fed chairman Paul Volcker's name came up for tenure. "You turned to me and said, 'Ken, you used to work for Volcker at the Fed. Tell me, is he really smart?' I responded something to the effect of 'Well, he was arguably the greatest Federal Reserve chairman of the 20th century.' To which you replied, 'But is he smart like us?'" (Stiglitz says he can't remember the comment, but adds that he might have been referring to whether Volcker was an abstract thinker.)
Stiglitz's defenders say one possible explanation for his outsider status in Washington is his ongoing rivalry with Summers. While they are both devotees of Keynes, Summers often has supported deregulation of financial markets—or at least he did before last year—while Stiglitz has made a career of mistrusting markets. Since the early '90s, when Summers was a senior Treasury official and Stiglitz was on the Council of Economic Advisers, the two have engaged in fierce policy debates. The first fight was over the Clinton admin-is-tration's efforts to pry open emerging financial markets, such as South Korea's. Stiglitz argued there wasn't good evidence that liberalizing poorly regulated Third World markets would make any one more prosperous; Summers wanted them open to U.S. firms.
The differences between them grew bitter in the late 1990s, when Stiglitz was chief economist for the World Bank and took issue with the way Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Summers, who was then deputy secretary, were handling the Asian "contagion" financial collapse. After World Bank president James Wolfensohn declined to reappoint him in 1999, Stiglitz became convinced that Summers was behind the slight. Summers denies this, and maintains that no rivalry exists between them. Summers's deputy Jason Furman says that Summers now "talks to [Stiglitz] a lot." "A lot" is an exaggeration, Stiglitz responds. "We've talked one or two times," he says.
Despite the Obama team's occasional efforts to reach out to him, Stiglitz remains deeply unhappy about the administration's approach to the financial crisis. Rather than breaking up or restructuring the big banks that failed, "the Obama administration has actually expanded the notion of 'too big to fail,' " he says. In a veiled poke at his dubious standing in Washington, Stiglitz adds: "In Britain there is a more open discussion of these issues." A senior White House official, responding to this critique, says that the Obama administration is most often criticized these days for intervening too much in the economy, not too little.
In other respects, Obama is embracing some of Stiglitz's views, suggests Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget—and a former Stiglitz protégé (he worked for Stiglitz during the Clinton administration). One example: Obama's new idea for reforming health care by creating a government-run program to compete with private-sector insurers. "There is an intellectual paradigm in health care that says you should move to purely private markets," says Orszag. "Joe's perspective would suggest major difficulties [with that]. That led to the thought that we need a mix: there is an important government role."
Today, settled as a professor at Columbia, Stiglitz occasionally finds himself welcomed in the nation's capital, though usually at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, to testify before Congress. While he had no great desire to go back into government, friends say he was deeply disappointed when an offer didn't come from Obama last fall. Not surprisingly, Stiglitz believes his old rival was behind it, though Summers denies this. As for the invitation to dinner at the White House, there were a few theories kicked around the spacious Stiglitz household on Manhattan's Upper West Side as to why it came at the last minute: one was that Obama, in an interview posted online that week by The New York Times, had cited Stiglitz as one of the critics he listens to, so it would have seemed strange if he hadn't been invited to the dinner.
While Stiglitz was flattered by the discussion over a dinner of roast beef and Michelle Obama's homegrown lettuce, he can't stop himself from complaining that an occasional meal with dissidents is not the best way for the president to formulate policy. "Some of the most difficult debates and judgments can't really be hammered out in an hour-and-a-half meeting covering lots of topics," he says. Stiglitz may a prophet without much honor in Washington, but he seems to be determined to keep the prophecies coming.