Wednesday, June 25, 2008

California v. Countrywide

Let the fun begin! I found this link to the draft complaint filed by California against Countrywide and its executives for deceptive practices in the mortgage market. California charges that Countrywide AND some of its executives knowingly used deceptive practices to lure customers into taking on riskier mortgages than they needed or could afford in order to increase the profit Countrywide made selling these mortgages into the securitization market. The complaint makes for interesting reading (to nerds like me). I like the fact that it provides examples of some of the loan payments and how the negative amortization features work.

By the way, flying through Congress is a plan to authorize FHA to guarantee refinancing of $300 billion of mostly subprime loans. Of course, the taxpayers stand behind FHA guarantees, so get ready to dig into your pocket to pay off the banks and investors who own the kind of bad loans described in the complaint. According to this Washington Post Report portions of this plan were submitted by Bank of America. Bank of America is set to purchase Countrywide and reportedly has the largest portfolio of mortgage securities of any of the major banks (call me a conspiracy theorist). I don’t always agree with WSJ Editorials, but if you take the political finger pointing out of this one it pretty much hits the mark. Here’s more from tomorrow’s WSJ. I reviewed this legislation last month and wrote a more detailed analysis here.

So far the Federal Reserve has advanced some $400-450 billion to banks and investment banks secured by mortgage securities (we believe but can't verify), FHA is already well into refinancing many bad loans and looks to be getting authorization for an additional $300 billion, and the Federal Home Loan Banks (funded through taxpayer guaranteed bonds) have advanced over $250 billion to banks for mortgages, all since this broke out last year. That’s $1 trillion, and that’s without counting any possible exposure to the largest mortgage companies we have, the government sponsored entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or the impact of negative real interest rates from the Federal Reserve (again). To put the $1 trillion into perspective, it is about 7% of our GDP and about 11% of our entire national debt. It’s a lot of money.

I hope the summer is treating you well!

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Sheriff John Green

I was reading this article in today’s Wall Street Journal, Online Edition and was struck by some of the conflicting messages it highlights for many. I am a student of financial markets and to some extend the Federal Reserve (the “Fed”), so I have a certain perspective on the whole subprime mortgage debacle that is no secret to anyone reading my column. I object to bailouts, whether it be for homeowners or Wall Street, and I have been writing that opinion since last October when I first started publishing my blog. But this article got me thinking about these Philadelphia residents who are being evicted from their homes because they can’t pay their mortgages. Circumstances have now changed, and they have changed because the Fed, no doubt with the blessing of Treasury, has bailed out Wall Street. (For more on this there is another article in today’s Wall Street Journal Online expressing one Federal Reserve Bank President’s concerns about the Fed’s recent actions and the market distortions that can be expected as a result.)

Admittedly bailing out Wall Street is good, in some ways, for everyone as it lessens the risk of a major economic blowup. But tell that to a resident in Philadelphia being evicted from their home who can understandably be thinking “they can bail out those Wall Street executives and their customers but they can’t help me?” Enter the Sheriff, John Green:

Sheriff John Green has spent 37 years in law enforcement. But these days he's best known around town for the law he won't enforce.

With the economy soft and thousands of Philadelphians delinquent on their mortgages, Sheriff Green this spring refused to hold a court-ordered foreclosure auction. His move raised eyebrows on the bench and dropped jaws among lenders and their attorneys, who accuse him of shirking his duty to enforce legal contracts….

Mortgage lenders, servicers and their attorneys thought Mr. Green was acting more Robin Hood than sheriff. "It's not his job to postpone things in favor of certain people," says Michael VanBuskirk, a Philadelphia attorney, who describes the city as a "legal free-fire zone." The city, he says, is "less attractive to business if you can't be certain that the sheriff won't invalidate a contract."

Fed policies to help rescue Wall Street firms have created distortions that have hurt many innocent bystanders in this debacle as savings rates plummet and inflation increases. In fact, the inflation in food and energy prices caused in large measure by negative real interest rates is likely a direct cause of many of the foreclosures as those consumers most at risk can no longer afford to pay all of their bills. So in keeping real interest rates negative to rescue the financial industry Fed policies are hurting many of those who would be hurt in a larger financial collapse anyway and the impact is falling disproportionately to the most vulnerable among us. To hear mortgage lenders now object to the Sheriff’s actions because they favor one group over another is, in my opinion, entertaining at best. In my view, looking to the public policy issues behind this story presents a very different picture than a simple issue of contract law.

I believe we are witnessing the spread of the bailout mentality that has been established by the Fed (and sanctioned by the Administration) in favor of Wall Street. Regardless of the ultimate consequences of allowing major Wall Street firms to fail, the general public will understandably view these actions as favoring those on Wall Street as opposed to them. Let’s do a thought experiment. The first part is to ask: “Why is it good for the Fed to bail out these Wall Street firms by providing credit at taxpayer risk?” The answer, of course, is that to do so will help avoid an economic collapse that would hurt everyone. The second part is to ask: “Why should the Sheriff refuse to sell foreclosed homes at auction?” The answer, of course, is that doing so helps avoid an economic collapse of the neighborhoods involved that would hurt everyone. So, is the Sheriff acting like Robin Hood or following the example set by the Fed? In the eyes of those on the ground I think taking the latter view is easily comprehensible.

The distortions caused by the Fed’s bailout of years of negligent lending activities by Wall Street and all of its subsidiary tentacles has set the stage for redistribution fights such as this one, and I don’t know how you put this genie back in the bottle. So at the end of this piece I have an unanswered question: Is the creativity demonstrated by Mr. Bernanke, with the certain blessings of Mr. Paulson, good for our society in the long run or just another example of how being too creative (ever heard of a CDO squared?) can really mess things up?

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Oil and Wall Street

I am in Seoul, South Korea on a teaching assignment. I have been here for a week and will be here for another. I haven’t had time to write anything useful, even though there is so much going on. Seoul is a great city and the people I meet here are very warm and kind. I also admire their willingness to stand up in protest as tens of thousands did last weekend in objection to the lifting of the import ban on US beef (which has now been delayed).

Although I don’t have time to write an analysis I wanted to publish a couple of links regarding the impact of speculation in the commodity markets on oil prices. There have been several hearings going on, and some hedge fund managers and others seem to be speaking out against certain trading strategies and deregulation dating back to Enron that could be causing significant upward pressure on energy prices. Here is a link to Michael Greenberger’s Congressional Testimony from this morning that I found stunning. He appeared today before the Senate Commerce Committee together with the well known hedge fund manager George Soros and others. It is not the easiest testimony to read but if you have 10 minutes I highly recommend you give it a go. You don’t need to follow all of the statutory references or read the entire document to get the drift of what he is saying so you can skip a lot of the detail and still get the message. Here is another link to some Congressional testimony by Michael Masters, a hedge fund manager, from May 20, 2008 that I think is also worth a read.

In a nutshell, some informed people believe that a large portion of the run-up in oil prices is a Wall Street phenomenon and federal regulators are simply looking the other way as US consumers are being separated from their savings. If Mr. Greenberger is correct then I believe this is an outrage of gigantic proportions and another monumental regulatory failure by our government. I hope our elected officials get to the bottom of this one quickly either way because the thought of paying $5.00 a gallon for heating oil next winter is bad enough, but to pay that much so that some investors can earn a nice return really twists my insides.

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