Econ-Recon: March 2008: Archives

March 19, 2008

Charlie Rose: Paul Volker On Bear Stearns Bailout genre: Econ-Recon & Polispeak

Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volker appeared on the Charlie Rose show last evening to discuss the recent actions to bailout Bear Stearns. Volker points out that the actions were unprecedented and he cautions that doing so may be an argument for greater regulation of investment houses like Stearns.

Volker's remarks were focused on his concern that we are witnessing a transformation in the financial market. As such, he argues that it is time to review the mechanisms we have in place to insure that the economy is being protected from the bad decisions of these newly emerging financial players.

Volker doesn't believe that the Federal Reserve should play a larger part in the regulatory process; rather he contends that they were forced to step into the void with regards to Bear Stearns. Volker suggests that the regulatory process should originate with our elected representatives.

The problem with that equation (even though I agree with Volker) is that the influence of the players in the financial market is daunting...and nothing provides better evidence of this influence than the recent rewriting of bankruptcy laws making it far more difficult for individuals to walk away from debt. Unfortunately, it appears that our government is on the precipice of bailing out the same financial institutions that sought to limit the options for relief by financially strapped citizens.

Yes, the GOP likes to be seen as opposing handouts and welfare...except when it is directed to those corporations that ante up each election cycle. The welfare reform enacted under the Clinton administration was one of the first steps in this shift towards escalating corporate welfare. If this trend continues, be prepared for further financial calamities of greater proportion...with astronomically more acute consequences.

Charlie Rose Interviews Paul Volker

Tagged as: Bailouts, Bankruptcy, Bear Stearns, Charlie Rose, Corporate Welfare, Fannie Mae, Federal Reserve, Freddie Mac, Influence Peddling, Liquidity, Lobbying, Paul Volker, Recession, Solvency

Daniel DiRito | March 19, 2008 | 11:36 AM | link | Comments (0)
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March 18, 2008

Rejecting Racism: Stop Running The Fat Cat's Rat Race genre: Econ-Recon & Polispeak

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Today's speech on race by Senator Barack Obama was noteworthy. The media is abuzz with glowing proclamations. Some have said that the Obama speech was the most important speech on race in the forty years since the death of Martin Luther King.

While pondering the many positive observations, what struck me most was the fact that forty years have passed...but not the racial divide...regardless of the words Dr. King spoke then and despite the words Senator Obama uttered today. That left me wondering what was to be gained by stating the obvious to those who have never been intended to appreciate it or to those who aren't interested in changing it.

Let me attempt an explanation by first asking a question. What is the concept of race? Is it really anything more than a human construct that allows us to identify and isolate others in a classic "we versus they" dynamic? The answer to my question is no. In so noting, the issue of race is a human invention used to either elevate one group or to denigrate another group. It is the means by which many of us can avoid our unique human ability...and the responsibility it brings...to employ informed observations and reasoned judgments.

Our capacity to discern color or country of origin has often been the justification for the wholesale condemnations that frequently precede the waging of wars. It serves as the mechanism by which we dehumanize our enemies and excuse our transgressions. Race has become the means by which we have circumvented our obligation to judge others by what lies within. Instead, it allows us to slay others for that which sits upon the surface.

Today, many of the pundits have argued that we avoid discussions of race because it is a difficult topic. I reject much of that argument. I contend we don't address racism because its elimination requires us to grant our fellow humans a degree of fairness we aren't willing to afford. In this world of limited resources, the concept of equality is apt to be perceived as the brake being applied to the unencumbered pursuit of more than one's share of the spoils.

When pundits speak of forty years of seeming silence, they are simply exposing the swamp wherein still lurks a willingness to inflict more of the same on those who can be easily identified as different. What the passage of time has brought is the goal to do so through subtler methods and without speaking words that could subsequently serve as the evidence that we may still reject equal opportunity and equitable justice. All too often, it is far easier to assert that one's child didn't get into the school of his or her choice as a result of affirmative action than it is to admit our lengthy history of denying equal opportunities to the underprivileged. Perhaps we also seek to avoid an admission that the goal remains the same?

What most Americans don't realize is that the powers that be have little interest in establishing an equitable order. This includes measures like the Bush tax cuts; but there is a better example that also allows me to focus on race. Simply look at the refusal of our government to enforce our existing immigration laws for the last two decades and you will begin to understand how the efforts to amass wealth have been transformed in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery. The current clamor to close our border isn't a sudden admission of exploitation; it is a recognition that the unchecked increase in the number of Mexicans has the potential to skew the political power such that those who have more may not be able to maintain their unchallenged hold on the power that assures more.

Look, the greed of those who govern hasn't suddenly subsided. They have simply recognized that in their rush to expand their enrichment, they may have forgotten to police the portal. Hence we now have the calls for a temporary guest worker program...the modern means by which the underclass can be employed without enslavement...and prevented from circumventing the all-important political status quo.

At the same time, the powers that be prefer that this easily identifiable underclass be pitted against those Americans who are known as the "have-nots". The approach isn't unfamiliar. When the slaves were freed, they were quickly portrayed and perceived as an economic threat to southerners struggling to make ends meet. The same strategy has been embraced with Mexican immigrants.

Both efforts have been relatively successful because the battle for fewer dollars was intensified by an increase in those competing to obtain them. Thus the animosities of austere Americans have been artfully aimed at those who are different (black or brown)...and not at those who look the same but hoard the lion's share of the wealth.

In the end, race is the rail upon which the wizards of wealth have sought to separate one segment of society from another. When they succeed, they incite the insolence they intend.

Barack Obama deserves recognition for revisiting our racial rancor. However, unless and until each individual looks beyond the veil of vitriol that has been designed to divide us, we will forever overlook the power of the present to unite us. We're engaged in the kind of race that can only be won when everyone refuses to participate. Our humanity needn't be a hologram on the horizon. Healing must be achieved in the here and now.

Tagged as: 2008 Election, Affirmative Action, African Americans, Barack Obama, Class Warfare, Have-Nots, Immigration, Martin Luther King, Mexicans, Race, Racism, Slavery, Wealth Distribution

Daniel DiRito | March 18, 2008 | 5:00 PM | link | Comments (0)
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March 14, 2008

GWB: The Cash In The Cradle & The Silver Spoon - I'm Gonna Be Like Him genre: Econ-Recon & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

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I try to avoid making unequivocal assertions...but if my instincts are correct, I'm not taking much of a risk in predicting that the calamity that will define this Bush presidency will not be the Iraq war. As with his father's presidency, it will be the economy. Yes, the Iraq war will be factored into the equation that facilitated one of the worst recessions in modern times, but numerous other missteps will receive far more attention.

With the Savings and Loan scandal of the late 80's as my point of comparison, I expect the magnitude of this recession to be much deeper and far more complex. Frankly, the fact that we survived events like the S & L scandal and the tech bubble have only contributed to the lackadaisical policies that have fostered an air of invincibility. This false confidence has resulted in a deadly conflation of economic poisons that will place a strain on our financial fortitude that hasn't been witnessed since the Great Depression.

For months, the Bush administration has sought to convince the American public that the economy is sound. Unfortunately, the hollowness of those assurances expands exponentially with each new report. Today's news is awash with further warnings of economic uncertainty. The President's remarks, in response to the growing storm clouds, simply highlight the mindset that has typified his inclination to ignore information that doesn't comport with his rose colored rhetoric.

Unfortunately, I fear this president suffers the misconception that he can tackle this systemic economic malaise in the same manner he addressed the many miscalculations that have plagued the prosecution of the Iraq war. Sadly, brute force has little relevance when it comes to the economy. As with the troop surge, the attempts by the Federal Reserve to pump more money into the economy in order to prop up flailing financial institutions fails to address the dire dynamics that underly the debacle.

Let's pause to review the observations of others.

From The Wall Street Journal:

It is a very logical progression. Peloton, Carlyle, Focus -- hedge funds and other non-deposit-taking financial institutions (NDFIs) are now being hit by the credit crunch, which had so far been mainly confined to mortgage lenders and the banks.

The Federal Reserve has reacted. Its Term Securities Lending Facility aims to encourage investment banks and prime brokers to lend to NDFIs and so relieve those parts of the credit market it cannot reach with its rate cuts and loans to banks.

So far its liquidity injections have got no further than the banks. Now it hopes to reach higher. Unfortunately, it won't work.

The Fed is like King Canute with a difference -- it is trying to halt an ebbing tide rather than a rising one. Its liquidity injection seems huge at $200 billion (with perhaps more to follow), but it is still only equivalent to one-third of the expected losses in the NDFI sector.

Moreover, the Fed's readiness to accept almost any asset at just below face value as collateral will prevent price discovery. That means the U.S. financial system will remain burdened with uncleansed balance sheets that penalize future lending and economic growth.

Creating a lot of liquidity does not resolve an issue of solvency, which is now the driver of credit contraction. All the Fed will achieve is a dollar that will be further debased and inflation that will be higher. It cannot stop the process of deleveraging and asset price decline.

The credit crisis is unfolding as we expected, but more slowly than anticipated, because of the actions taken by central banks (mainly the Fed) and the U.S. government to allay its effects. The wholesale socialization of credit has meant that government and central bank measures account for 70% of new credit since last summer.

But these policy measures will not prevent asset-price deflation or credit contraction, which are functions of risk appetite and general readiness to maintain current levels of gearing throughout the economy. The non-bank sector has the potential to inflict more damage on the system than banks, because it has a much smaller capital cushion for a much more volatile and risky balance sheet.

Credit contraction translates through the financial system into a reduction in available credit for the non-financial corporate sector, and thus into reduced investment and growth in the real economy. The size of that contraction can be estimated from the leverage ratios of the financial sector and their impact on real GDP growth.

We estimate that nonfinancial corporate debt ultimately will have to shrink by 11%-12%. This will generate a decline of five percentage points of real U.S. GDP growth and push the U.S. into recession. Europe's real GDP growth will contract by two percentage points.

Essentially, the point being made by the author is that the Federal Reserve's efforts to lower interest rates is inadequate to address the fundamental problem - the value of the assets that underly much of the existing debt is in a period of contraction...largely as a result of the collapsing housing industry.

As such, the ability of lenders to lend is limited. They lack the capital needed to make loans; let alone the capital required to support declining equity positions and the increasing default risks that are associated with these loans. Hence, the Fed's efforts to infuse the economy with the capital needed to spur growth isn't going to be sufficient. Even worse, should this contraction lead to lender insolvency, the likelihood of the need for a huge government bail out advances. If this happens, I believe it will be far larger than the one witnessed during the S & L scandal.

From The New York Times:

The Fed's economic power rests on the fact that it's the only institution with the right to add to the "monetary base": pieces of green paper bearing portraits of dead presidents, plus deposits that private banks hold at the Fed and can convert into green paper at will.

When the Fed is worried about the state of the economy, it basically responds by printing more of that green paper, and using it to buy bonds from banks. The banks then use the green paper to make more loans, which causes businesses and households to spend more, and the economy expands.

This process can be almost magical in its effects: a committee in Washington gives some technical instructions to a trading desk in New York, and just like that, the economy creates millions of jobs.

But sometimes the magic doesn't work. And this is one of those times.

Instead of following its usual practice of buying only safe U.S. government debt, the Fed announced this week that it would put $400 billion -- almost half its available funds -- into other stuff, including bonds backed by, yes, home mortgages. The hope is that this will stabilize markets and end the panic.

Officially, the Fed won't be buying mortgage-backed securities outright: it's only accepting them as collateral in return for loans. But it's definitely taking on some mortgage risk. Is this, to some extent, a bailout for banks? Yes.

Still, that's not what has me worried. I'm more concerned that despite the extraordinary scale of Mr. Bernanke's action -- to my knowledge, no advanced-country's central bank has ever exposed itself to this much market risk -- the Fed still won't manage to get a grip on the economy. You see, $400 billion sounds like a lot, but it's still small compared with the problem.

Krugman offers a look into the risks being taken by the Federal Reserve to avert the looming collapse of financial institutions. The fact that the government is taking unprecedented risk signals the seriousness of the situation. The fact that the government has committed half of its available funds to this risk intensive effort suggests that the ultimate solution will require the government to appropriate additional funds...hence the bailout begins. The price tag of the S & L scandal would likely pale in comparison.

The impact to the overall economy could be mind-boggling since it would be apt to affect consumer spending. Falling home values would strip millions of Americans of the bulk of their accumulated wealth which would no doubt restrict their ability and willingness to spend money. The direct correlation of this intertwined cause and effect spiral could have disastrous consequences.

We haven't even factored in the disproportionate numbers of baby boomers moving towards retirement. A worst case scenario could place the financial stability of many of these individuals in jeopardy at a time when the safety net of Social Security is also approaching insolvency.

From CNBC:

The United States has entered a recession that could be "substantially more severe" than recent ones, former National Bureau of Economic Research President Martin Feldstein said Friday.

"The situation is very bad, the situation is getting worse, and the risks are that it could get very bad," Feldstein said in a speech at the Futures Industry Association meeting in Boca Raton, Florida.

"There isn't much traction in monetary policy these days, I'm afraid, because of a lack of liquidity in the credit markets," he said.

The Fed's new credit facility, announced on Tuesday, "can help in a rather small way ... but the underlying risks will remain with the institutions that borrow from the Fed, and this does nothing to change their capital," Feldstein noted.

I simply don't see the mechanism by which this strained liquidity can be alleviated in the near term. Pumping more cash into the system could have short term benefits but the risk to the already tenuous value of the dollar would likely outweigh them. Relying upon the standard bearers...the consumer...to spend us out of this mess seems unlikely. Rarely have prior recessionary periods been accompanied by such significant declines in home values.

Were we to see the emergence of sustained inflation, the picture becomes even more disconcerting. Many of the measures designed to address the liquidity crunch have the potential to do just that. Toss in our trade imbalance, the amount of debt held by the Chinese, and an international shift away from the dollar as the preferred reserve currency and one begins to see the growing alignment of negatives.

The fact that the American image has been tarnished during the current administration makes it difficult to imagine the kind of international cooperation we might have otherwise received during such a slowdown. In fact, don't be surprised if a number of nations stand idly by as the perceived bully endures its comeuppance.

Returning to the Bush legacy, I recall the deteriorating situation faced by his father prior to the 1992 election. When the senior Bush expressed his amazement with the scanning technology found in grocery stores, his appeal and his connection with the average American is thought to have suffered. When the Clinton campaign added, "It's the economy, stupid", the stain became permanent.

The fact that the current president expressed surprise when a member of the press mentioned the prospects of $4.00 per gallon gas seems eerily similar to the last days of his father's presidency...and it may also assist in cementing the economy as his legacy's leading albatross.

George W. Bush's seeming shortage of empathy for the plight of the average American shone through in his mishandling of Katrina, his passage of tax cuts for the wealthiest, his inept energy policy, and his willingness to sink trillions of dollars into the execution of a virtual vendetta in Iraq. These events will forever be tethered to his tenure and his successors are apt to spend years trying to repair the damage done.

They say the writing of one's legacy is rarely finished since the past undoubtedly shapes the future. In the case of George Bush, I suspect he'd be best to hope that his influence on the future be less indelible than his unabashed attempts to color the present.

Gertrude Stein stated that a "rose is a rose is a rose". Ernest Hemmingway responded with "a rose is a rose is an onion". In thinking of the Bush legacy, I'm inclined to argue that a silver spoon may beget rose colored rhetoric...but a silver spoon full of rose petals rarely helps us swallow the thorns. When the bow breaks, the Bush legacy will fall.

Tagged as: Ben Bernanke, Economy, Federal Reserve, GDP, George Bush, Housing Bubble, Interest Rates, Iraq War, Katrina, Liquidity, Monetary Policy, Recession, Savings and Loan Scandal, Subprime Lending, Tax Cuts

Daniel DiRito | March 14, 2008 | 11:44 AM | link | Comments (0)
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March 7, 2008

All About The Onion: 63,000 Jobs & An Economy Without A Core genre: Econ-Recon & Nouveau Thoughts & Six Degrees of Speculation

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It's difficult to find anything to smile about in the latest jobs report. Despite the assurances from the Bush administration that the economy remains strong, each new report brings evidence that we're in a recession. It looks like the administration is either in denial or simply employing the same "head in the sand" mindset that spent the last five years telling Americans that the situation in Iraq is improving. Despite the president's rosy rhetoric, I choose to believe that the data doesn't lie.

The current economic uncertainty reminds me of a metaphor shared by a friend many years ago. While discussing borderline personality disorder, a psychological condition prone to sociopathic behaviors, she described it as being akin to comparing an apple to an onion. The normal personality is like an apple, in that it has a core; whereas with the onion, you peel away layer after layer to find that no core exists.

It's not a perfect analogy, but it underscores my belief that this latest period of economic expansion has lacked the essential fundamentals to insure economic stability. When one strips away the facade of inflated home values...driven by artificially low interest rates...all that remains is a tenuous economy in the throes of adjusting to the instability and uncertainty of globalization.

The economy shed 63,000 jobs in February, the government said on Friday, the fastest falloff in five years and the strongest evidence yet that the nation is headed toward -- or may already be in -- a recession.

"I haven't seen a job report this recessionary since the last recession," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "This is a picture of a labor market becoming clearly infected by the contagion from the rest of the economy."

The loss in February was the second consecutive monthly decline in the labor market; economists had predicted a slight increase. The government also revised down its estimate for January to a loss of 22,000 jobs -- the first decline in four years -- and cut in half its estimate for job growth in December.

Wages stayed stagnant in February, further depressing the outlook for consumer spending over the next few months. Among rank-and-file workers -- more than 80 percent of the work force -- average pay grew just 0.3 percent to $17.20 an hour. Wages are effectively running flat when adjusted for inflation.

These job losses are only one segment of the current economic downturn. Truth be told, the housing crisis and its impact on financial markets looks to be an unprecedented debacle that has yet to fully unfold. The efforts of the Federal Reserve to reduce interest rates and make huge amounts of capital available to struggling financial institutions is a testament to the severity and complexity of this crisis.

I suspect the powers that be are hesitant to offer a candid assessment for fear it will trigger even more caution on the part of consumers. To a degree, that is prudent. Unfortunately, this snowball is already rolling and I see little reason to offer false assurances that it won't continue to expand. I look for the government to make added admissions in much the same manner found in a criminal investigation...as more evidence is unearthed, the administration will find itself unable to continue with the denials.

Look no further than a comparison to the Saving & Loan scandal of the late 80's to understand how the government will attempt to downplay the gravity of the situation. Sadly, I'm concerned this fiasco may be far more pervasive. While the S&L scandal was primarily isolated to commercial real estate, the current crisis involves residential real estate and millions of homeowners. That alone suggests a greater magnitude; one that will strike a blow to a core source of economic growth...consumer confidence and spending.

I don't want to be an alarmist, but I see a unique and troubling confluence of conditions that have the potential to challenge our existing economic constructs. The growth of multi-national corporations with GDP's that rival those of many nations serves to undermine the assumption that all Americans share similar economic objectives with consistent measures of success. It simply isn't true in this day and age of global investments and the outsourcing it facilitates in order to increase the bottom line. When the goals of a huge corporation no longer comport with the goals of their nation of origin, the established economic models have become outdated and virtually irrelevant.

I realize I'm painting a gloomy picture. At the same time, I'm convinced that the American public must demand an honest assessment and an open dialogue with regard to these dramatic developments. If we allow our politicians to plot the course...in conjunction with their corporate benefactors...we may find ourselves in a conflict with the United Empire of ExxonMobil...a conflict that we can neither overcome or endure.

On that dark note, I think the following video from The Onion captures much of the essence of this shifting economic construct. It made me laugh...but as with all comedy...it also underscores an undeniable truth that requires our consideration.

The Onion: Outsourcing Child Care Overseas

Tagged as: Comedy, Economics, ExxonMobil, Federal Reserve, Foreclosures, GDP, Housing Bubble, Humor, Interest Rates, Jobs, Multi-national Corporations, Recession, Savings & Loan Scandal, The Onion, Unemployment, Wages

Daniel DiRito | March 7, 2008 | 11:22 AM | link | Comments (0)
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March 6, 2008

Pearls Of Wisdom: The World Is No Longer Our Economic Oyster genre: Econ-Recon

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Economists attempt to measure the health of the economy in a variety of ways. I'm of the opinion that two news reports (here and here) shed some ominous light on its status and may well signal the need to sound the alarm bells. For many years real estate, and in particular home ownership, has been the single greatest source of wealth accumulation for the average American. As such, it has served as the foundation for much of our confidence to spend money.

Having the safety and security of growing home equity has given consumers confidence to make purchases they might otherwise forego. It has also been the source of the capital needed to make large ticket purchases that wages may not always enable. The buying, selling, and refinancing of homes has pumped countless dollars into our economy and in recent years it has helped to offset the shifting dynamics of growth.

Following the recessionary period at the beginning of this decade, much of the growth we've experienced hasn't translated to better jobs or higher wages. In fact, for a large majority of Americans, the latest period of economic growth has been accompanied by a decline in the standard of living for those in the top tier of incomes.

Here's where the housing bubble comes into play. In this same period of time, we've seen an unprecedented increase in home values and therefore some means for consumers to offset the lack of measurable benefits from this latest period of economic expansion. Unfortunately, that offset appears headed towards a screeching stop...and likely a virtual reversal of fortune.

Let's first look at the foreclosure picture since the bubble has already burst for these individuals.

WASHINGTON - Home foreclosures soared to an all-time high in the final quarter of last year and are likely to keep on rising, underscoring the suffering of distressed homeowners and the growing danger the housing meltdown poses for the economy.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, in a quarterly snapshot of the mortgage market released Thursday, said the proportion of all mortgages nationwide that fell into foreclosure shot up to a record high of 0.83 percent in the October-to-December quarter. That surpassed the previous high of 0.78 percent set in the prior quarter.

More homeowners -- at the same time -- fell behind on their monthly payments.

The delinquency rate for all mortgages climbed to 5.82 percent in the fourth quarter. That was up from the 5.59 percent in the third quarter and was the highest since 1985. Payments are considered delinquent if they are 30 or more days past due.

The percentage of subprime adjustable-rate mortgages that entered the foreclosure process soared to a record of 5.29 percent in the fourth quarter. That was up from 4.72 percent in the prior quarter, which had marked the previous high. Late payments skyrocketed to a record high of 20.02 percent in the fourth quarter, up from 18.81 percent -- the previous high -- in the third quarter.

Take note of four key numbers. One, we're approaching the point at which one percent of all mortgages are in foreclosure. Two, over five percent of ALL mortgages were considered delinquent. Three, over five percent of all subprime adjustable rate mortgages are in foreclosure. Four, over twenty percent of the remaining subprime loans are delinquent.

It doesn't take a math wizard to realize that we're on the front end of this crisis and it's clearly going to get worse before it gets better. Why? Two reasons. First, the interest rates on more loans are going to adjust upward. Second, home values are going to continue to decline which will mean more borrowers will be unable to refinance. So what does this mean? It means there is currently nothing on the horizon that will blunt the increase in foreclosures...or the increase in borrowers who won't be able to refinance out of unfavorable loans.

Now let's look another key piece of the problem...the decline in homeowner equity.

NEW YORK - Americans' percentage of equity in their homes fell below 50 percent for the first time on record since 1945, the Federal Reserve said Thursday.

Homeowners' portion of equity slipped to downwardly revised 49.6 percent in the second quarter of 2007, the central bank reported in its quarterly U.S. Flow of Funds Accounts, and declined further to 47.9 percent in the fourth quarter -- the third straight quarter it was under 50 percent.

That marks the first time homeowners' debt on their houses exceeds their equity since the Fed started tracking the data in 1945.

The total value of equity also fell for the third straight quarter to $9.65 trillion from a downwardly revised $9.93 trillion in the third quarter.

Home equity, which is equal to the percentage of a home's market value minus mortgage-related debt, has steadily decreased even as home prices jumped earlier this decade due to a surge in cash-out refinances, home equity loans and lines of credit and an increase in 100 percent or more home financing.

Economists expect this figure to drop even further as declining home prices eat into the value of most Americans' single largest asset.

Moody's Economy.com estimates that 8.8 million homeowners, or about 10.3 percent of homes, will have zero or negative equity by the end of the month. Even more disturbing, about 13.8 million households, or 15.9 percent, will be "upside down" if prices fall 20 percent from their peak.

The latest Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index showed U.S. home prices plunging 8.9 percent in the final quarter of 2007 compared with a year ago, the steepest decline in the 20-year history of the index.

I would argue that this data may be even more troubling than the rising foreclosure and delinquency rates because it undoubtedly predicts more declines in consumer confidence and spending and thus growing recessionary pressure.

Take particular note of the connection between the housing bubble and the latest economic expansion. When home values soared at the beginning of this decade, homeowners borrowed more money. They did so because the economic growth didn't translate into better jobs and higher wages. Hence, more Americans dipped into rising home equity to keep apace with rising costs....and we haven't even touched on rising credit card debt.

What this tells us is that the latest expansionary period was primarily manufactured through the implementation of artificially low interest rates which enabled homeowners to bolster spending through debt. Lower interest rates meant people could afford more expensive homes. Once this rollover process began, it set in motion rising home prices that were unsustainable. Even worse, it gave homeowners and borrowers a false sense of security. People began to believe their home values would continue to rise and they became less averse to pulling out and spending a higher percentage of their paper equity.

While one can fault these individuals for taking greater risk, one must also consider the incompetence of those who enabled this housing bubble...complete with shoddy monetary policy, suspect lending practices, and inadequate oversight. Not since the Savings & Loan scandal of the late 80's have we seen such shortsighted and lax practices...complete with the now infamous non-qualifying assumption loans.

Well, just over twenty years later, we've done it again. I have two favorite examples of the current debacle. First, the 125% loan...a loan that simply allowed homeowners to borrow 25% more than a home was worth. Second, what the industry initially called "stated income" loans (NINA's - no income, no asset verifications), which are now being called "liar loans". Essentially, the borrower was allowed to state an annual income and place a value on assets held without the requirement of any substantiation.

What remains to be seen is how long it will take our government to fully embrace the magnitude of the current crisis. Sadly, the hope that reducing interest rates or rolling out programs like "Project Lifeline" will solve this problem is more of the same. A quick look at the value of the dollar informs us of the consequences that accompany these efforts to avoid the inevitable.

Harsh as this may sound, I find myself in general agreement with the following thoughts of Robert Samuelson from a recent Washington Post column.

Gloom. Doom. Calamity. Home prices are tumbling. We're bombarded by somber reports. But wait. This is actually good news, because lower home prices are the only real solution to the housing collapse. The sooner prices fall, the better. The longer the adjustment takes, the longer the housing slump (weak sales, low construction, high numbers of unsold homes) will last.

Samuelson isn't keen on aggressive measures to assist those who are in foreclosure or upside down; arguing that it only postpones the necessary adjustment. While this may sound heartless, the point he's making is that we must cease our efforts to bolster a weakened and changing economic structure by creating artificial housing prices. The sooner we strip away this facade, the sooner we can begin to address the deficiencies of our underlying economy.

The longer we tinker with the primary means of accumulating wealth (homeownership), the more likely it won't be available to more and more Americans. In this time of job loss to globalization, we can ill-afford to damage one of the last bastions of the American Dream...especially for an increasingly challenged middle class.

We must demand that our politicians implement the measures necessary to insure a sound and sustainable economy without resorting to politically expedient manipulations meant to mask the manifestations of a world economy. While the world used to be our oyster, I suspect our share of the pearls is destined to decline. Knowing this, I would suggest our leaders start by setting a better example with regards to fiscal responsibility. Lest we be buried by the shifting tides, it's time for a sea-change.

Tagged as: Debt, Economics, Federal Reserve, Foreclosures, Home Equity, Interest Rates, Jobs, Liar Loans, Mortgage Delinquencies, Recession, S & L Scandal, Standard of Living, Subprime Lending, Wages

Daniel DiRito | March 6, 2008 | 11:38 AM | link | Comments (0)
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March 3, 2008

Stimulus Checks: Building A Bridge To Nowhere? genre: Econ-Recon & Polispeak

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If you want to understand the degree to which politicians make shortsighted decisions intended to win favor with the voters at home, look no further than the passage of the $168 billion dollar economic stimulus package.

If you want to see how ill-advised such decisions may be, take a moment to look at a new report by Pew Research. The report grades each of the states on the management and maintenance of their infrastructure...and the results aren't encouraging.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Almost half of the states in the United States are falling behind in their infrastructure maintenance and fiscal systems, according to a report released Monday by the Pew Center on the States and Governing Magazine.

The groups gave 23 states grades for infrastructure that were below the national average in their study called "Grading the States." Using a scale similar to those found in U.S. schools, where an A is excellent and an F failure, they decided 23 states had grades below C+.

In the money category, which encompassed budget balancing, contracting, and other fiscal categories, 20 states received C+ and below, while 19 states garnered grades of B and above. The average among 50 states was B-.

It's clear that our infrastructure has been in need of a capital infusion for a number of years. It's also clear that our economy has been kept afloat by a housing bubble driven by artificially low interest rates rather than by sustainable economic growth that creates a stable increase in jobs and the kind of expansion that is cumulative in nature.

Politicians and voters have become accustomed to stop gap measures designed to dispel consumer doubt and forestall recessionary pressures. Unfortunately, while such measures may provide a temporary economic boost, they also promote a boom and bust mindset and the hills and valleys that accompany it.

In truth, it's a form of bait and switch. Politicians choose to offer voters a few hundred dollars, and thus the ability to buy a new television set, rather than making the difficult decisions to enact measures that would provide long term stability. In our consumption is king construct, we've adopted the pathology that comes with the need for instant gratification.

The political calculations that flow from our short election cycles simply promote more of the same. We're not only raiding the cookie jar; our elected officials are handing out cookies without considering the need to manage and maintain the bakery.

Prior to the millennium, numerous politicians mouthed the metaphor of building a bridge to the 21st century. As it turns out, we not only refuse to fund the bridges needed to take us there, we've taken a shine to building bridges to nowhere.

I struggle to find the silver lining in rolling out billions of dollars in refund checks while the wheels are falling off the wagon. Then again, perhaps our politicians want to be sure we can watch the news coverage of the next bridge collapse...on our shiny new high definition televisions.

Tagged as: Bridge Collapse, Economics, Election Cycles, Infrastructure, Pew Research, Recession, Refund Checks, Stimulus Package, Tax Rebates

Daniel DiRito | March 3, 2008 | 3:09 PM | link | Comments (1)
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