March 26, 2012

Robert Barone: Is U.S. housing healing?

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Finance, Foreclosure, government, Housing Market, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, Nevada, recession, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 5:15 PM by Robert Barone

Last Tuesday, a headline in the business media read: “U.S. housing heals as starts near three-year high.”
I scratched my head. The last three years have been the worst in recorded U.S. housing history. The accompanying chart tells the story. It is a real stretch to believe that this data indicates “healing.” Worse, everybody knows that the extremely mild winter has pulled demand forward; this is especially true for housing starts, as contractors don’t pour foundations in freezing weather, but use mild periods in the winter to get a head start for spring sales.
The data shown in this chart is “seasonally adjusted,” a statistical process that attempts to normalize fluctuations in data caused by such things as weather or holiday shopping. The seasonal adjustment process assumes January and February have typical winter weather. So, if the mild winter caused contractors to pour more foundations than they would have in a normal winter, then the seasonal adjustment process overstates what would be a normalized level of housing starts.
There is a similar story for sales of existing homes — the data was released last Wednesday. Because of the weather and other significant issues, I suspect that new starts and sales (where the “seasonal factors” normalize to the downside) will disappoint in the months ahead. Here’s why:
There are 3 important price categories: less than $300,000; $300,000 to $800,000; $800,000 and above.
There are three important buying groups: first-timers; move-ups; retirees. Generally, the first-timers purchase the under $300,000 homes, while the move-ups purchase in the other two categories. Retirees, usually sell from the upper two categories and “downsize.”
Government stimulus programs and record low interest rates have made homes the most affordable in decades (current index = 206; 100 means that a median income family can afford a median income home). First-time buyers can get a low down payment low interest rate loan (what happens if interest rates rise?), but those in the move-up category must rely on traditional bank-type financing, which requires a big down payment.
The home price downdraft since 2007 has taken many of the move-up buyers out of the market. CoreLogic data shows that 50 percent of current U.S. homeowners (the move-ups and the retirees) have less than 20 percent equity in their homes. That means that a significant percentage of move-ups cannot sell their existing home, pay a realtor’s commission (usually 6 percent), and have a 20 percent down payment for the move-up property.
History shows a healthy housing sector is critical to U.S. economic growth, and that when the move-ups are not healthy the sector does poorly.
Retirees are finding their homes are not worth what they thought. Their tendency is to stay put and wait for a better market. In fact, the media hype around “healing” is probably keeping them in their homes, as they now believe that a better market is just ahead! This is called “shadow” inventory, which means that the number of homes officially for sale understates the real supply.
With this view, we would expect the low-priced homes to be doing well but the upper two price brackets to be doing poorly. February data from Dataquick for the Southern California housing market confirms this view. First-time buyer price point sales (under $300,000) are up 9.5 percent from a year earlier, while the other two price point sales are both down (the $300,000 to $800,000 down by .8 percent, and the $800,000 and above down by 12.6 percent).
Nothing in this data, from the seasonal adjustment bias to the health of two of the three buying groups, tells me U.S. housing is healing.
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March 15, 2012

Markets Hooked On Liquidity Drug From Central Bank Pushers

Posted in Banking, Ben Bernanke, CDS, Economy, Europe, Federal Reserve, Finance, Foreign, government, investment banking, investments, ISDA, QE3, recession, sovereign debt, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:04 PM by Robert Barone

From early last October to the end of last month, the S&P 500 rose 25%; amazing for an economy that is struggling to stay out of recession.  Then again, the equity markets are hooked on the liquidity drug.

When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in his recent semi-annual testimony before Congress, did not hint that QE3 was just around the corner, the market sold off.  When the European Central Bank broke its traditional role as lender of last resort and morphed into a gift giver to its member banks (to the tune of more than a trillion dollars), much like our Fed, the equity markets soared.

Money printing can’t go on forever, can it?

In every historical context, whenever the equity markets have a run up not based on economic fundamentals, eventually, they return to what those fundamentals dictate.  And here are some of the underlying economics:

  • There is no doubt that American manufacturing is undergoing a renaissance.  Labor costs in Asia are on a steep rise while wages here have been stagnant for several years.  Shipping costs, quality control and culture are other factors.  But, manufacturing represents less than 12% of GDP.  It, alone, cannot drive significant economic growth.
  • Gasoline prices are up more than $.60/gallon year to date with talk of $4.50 gas by summer. That cost/gallon is already here in some markets. Every penny increase drains $1.5 billion annually from other consumer discretionary spending.  That’s about $90 billion so far for 2012.  And what happens to gas prices if the Middle East flares up again?
  • While the first quarter is far from over, early data suggest a much softer than expected GDP.  Retail sales have been soft except for automobiles (pent-up demand or just a rush to buy fuel efficient vehicles ?).  Consumers (70% of GDP) have shown no real income growth for many quarters, and incomes are tumbling in Europe.  Inventories appear to be on the high side given the level of demand.  So additional production won’t be forthcoming.
  • Despite a reinstitution of 100% depreciation for capital equipment, much of that demand was pulled into 2011, as the business community was uncertain as to whether or not the tax break was going to be reinstated in 2012.    The state and local government sector is still in contraction, and, given the slowdown evident in the rest of the world, exports aren’t likely to add to GDP.  Of course, the market may like the softer side of GDP, as it likely ensures another dose of the liquidity drug from the money czar, Bernanke, the king of money printing.
  • Europe is sicker than the markets have priced in.  The hoopla around the Greek bailout is just another can kicking.  Because the Greek populace hasn’t accepted the idea that they have lived beyond their means for the past decade, austerity won’t be successful.  Politicians who promise to end the austerity are likely to be elected.  Eventually, Greece will need to have their own currency which can fluctuate in value vis a vis other currencies with commensurate interest rate levels.
  • It is rare that all of Europe is in recession at the same time.  The current market expectation is that Europe’s recession will be mild.  But, don’t forget, Germany’s biggest export clients are other European countries.  In fact, as a general rule, all of Europe’s economies export heavily to each other.  Being in recession together is going to have a large impact on those exports.  In addition, if the Euro remains at its current lofty level (above $1.30), it will be more difficult to export to non-EU countries.
  • The determination by the ISDA (International Swaps and Derivatives Association) that Greece officially defaulted on its debt when it invoked its recent legislatively passed “Collective Action Clause” to force investors to take losses is actually good news for the other so-called troubled European sovereigns (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland) because it assures private sector investors that if they buy the so-called troubled foreign sovereign bonds, hedge them with Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and a Greek style default occurs, they will be paid at or near par value.  If the CDS payout had not been triggered, the private sector investors would view the purchase of such sovereign debt as having significantly more risk, and that would result in a much higher interest cost of that sovereign debt to the issuing countries.  In addition, it would throw the whole CDS concept into confusion, potentially impacting even the higher quality sovereigns like, Germany, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and even the U.S.
  • This is not to say that the world is now safe from financial contagion, as, in the context of world markets, Greece’s default is an expected and well prepared for event. The real worry should be if Spain (debt > $1 trillion) and/or Italy (debt> $2 trillion) default.  In addition, the CDS market is not transparent, and no one knows where the CDS obligations lie.  While a Portuguese and/or Irish default would have about the same individual impact as that of Greece (economies slightly smaller and not as indebted), we should worry that a rolling set of smaller defaults would eventually cause a major CDS insurer to fail due to the cumulative impact of the several defaults.  After all, it is likely that the CDS insurers who dabbled in Greek CDS, are also involved in CDS insurance of the other high debt European countries.  And, if a significant CDS insurer defaults (e.g., an institution similar in size and stature to AIG in 2009), we could, indeed, have contagion.
  • But even ignoring Greece for the short term, the ECB’s LTRO 1 and 2 appear to make Europe’s banks even more vulnerable.  Unlike the Fed, which purchased questionable assets from bank balance sheets and put them on its own, the ECB has not followed suit.  In fact, it stepped in and, by force majeure, inserted itself as senior to other bondholders holding the exact same Greek bonds, thus avoiding any losses in its own portfolio.  That makes losses for the private sector even greater.  Worse, it sours potential investors in European sovereign debt, seeing that they cannot easily quantify their risks as they can’t know how much of the same sovereign debt they own may be owned by the ECB.  This partially reverses the positive impact that the triggering of the CDS default will have on the European sovereign debt market.
  • Finally, the LTROs may make European banks even more insolvent than they are now, as they have been encouraged to take the cheap ECB funding and purchase European sovereigns for the interest spread (by Basle II and III rules, the debt of the European sovereigns is “riskless” and requires no capital backing on a bank’s balance sheet)!  Further sovereign debt crises, e.g., Portugal, Spain, or Italy, will eat away at already scarce European bank capital.  Contagion could very well result.

Looking at the GDP of Europe relative to China, if one includes all of the European Union countries and those closely related, Europe’s economy is about twice the size of China.  If China’s GDP growth went from 9% to 3%, the equity markets would certainly have a huge sell off.  But, it is likely that Europe’s GDP will fall from about 1.5% in 2011 to -1.5% in 2012, maybe even more than that.  Do the math!  This is equivalent to a Chinese hard landing.  As the European recession unfolds, the equity markets are likely to wake up.

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Speaking of China, a slowdown is clearly developing.  They actually ran a trade deficit for the first two months of 2012 signaling a real slowdown in exports.  Retail sales have been softer than expected and the real estate bubble there appears to be in the process of popping as property sales and prices are plunging.  No wonder the government recently lowered its official growth forecast from 8% to 7.5%.  This is not to say that China, itself, is entering a recession, but a slower growth rate there (2nd largest economy) in combination with growth issues in the US (largest economy), Japan (3rd largest), and a significant recession in Europe bodes ill for worldwide growth and will eventually play out in the equity markets.

The profit implications for multinational corporations of the severe recession in Europe, and a slowdown in China and elsewhere are significant.  Analysts have continued to forecast rapid earnings growth and high profit margins even in the face of rising energy and food costs and stagnant U.S. and falling European incomes.  Using such rosy profit forecasts makes the market look undervalued.  However, a 15% – 20% profit decline is normal for a recessionary world.  If you plug that in, the equity markets look overvalued today.

Wasn’t it somewhere around this time last year that the equity markets were also priced for perfection?  Didn’t we hear that the economy had achieved “escape” velocity and that the recovery was about to accelerate?  And, didn’t the market sink when the economy fizzled and needed the QE2 liquidity drug injection?  In fact, the S&P 500 ended 2011 at exactly the point where it began, with a lot of volatility in between.  So far, 2012 appears to be following 2011′s path.

Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.

Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value  Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.

Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United   States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.

Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, GeorgetownUniversity) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA),Reno,NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.  Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee. 

Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy.  A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at:9222 Prototype Dr.,Reno,NV 89521.  Ph: (775) 284-7778.

 

March 13, 2012

Greece Default Declaration Stabilizes CDS Markets

Posted in Banking, Bankruptcy, Big Banks, Bonds, credit default swap, debt, derivatives, Economy, Europe, Finance, Foreign, government, International Swaps and Derivatives, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, ISDA, Nevada, sovereign debt tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:10 PM by Robert Barone

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — The determination by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association that Greece officially defaulted on its debt when it invoked its recent legislatively passed “Collective Action Clause” to force investors to take losses is actually good news for the other so-called troubled European sovereigns like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland.

The ISDA determination assures private sector investors that if they buy the so-called troubled foreign sovereign bonds, hedge them with credit default swaps and a Greek style default occurs, they will be paid at or near par value.

If the CDS payout had not been triggered, the private sector investors would view the purchase of such sovereign debt as having significantly more risk, and that would result in a much higher interest cost of that sovereign debt to the issuing countries. In addition, it would throw the whole CDS concept into confusion, potentially impacting even the higher quality sovereigns like, Germany, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and even the U.S.

According to the ISDA, about $3.16 billion of Greek debt is covered by the CDS (4,323 swap contracts). On March 19, an auction will be held which will set the “recovery” value on the Greek bonds. The difference between that recovery value and par will be the payout of the CDS.

For example, if the auction results in a recovery value of 20%, then the CDS payment will be 80%, or about $2.5 billion. This is not a large amount in the context of world markets, and it would be a surprise if any viable CDS issuer will be greatly impacted, although it does appear that Austria’s KA Finanz, the “bad” bank that was created in 2008 when Kommunalkredit Austria AG was nationalized and given all of the “distressed” assets, will be stuck with CDS losses in excess of $550 billion which will require the Austrian government to step up with a significant capital injection.

The “non-eventness” of the CDS payouts is a result of the fact that there has been a long lead time for the issuers to adjust their risk portfolios to deal with the likelihood of a Greek default. Over the past year, the amount of Greek debt covered by the CDS has halved. Compare this to the Lehman default of $5.2 billion where there was almost no lead time between the emergence of the Lehman issue and its bankruptcy filing.

It was the lack of such a lead time that caught CDS issuers, like American International Group(AIG), with no time to adjust their risk portfolios, and required government intervention to prevent a domino default effect. With Greece, no such domino effect is expected although there is always the possibility (albeit low) of a surprise. We will know that soon after the March 19 auction when settlement must occur.

This is not to say that the world is now safe from financial contagion, as, in the context of world markets, Greece’s default is an expected and well prepared for event. The real worry should be if Spain, with a debt of about $1 trillion and/or Italy with a debt of about $2 trillion default.

In addition, the CDS market is not transparent, and no one knows where the CDS obligations lie. While a Portuguese and/or Irish default would have about the same individual impact as that of Greece (economies slightly smaller and not as indebted), we should worry that a rolling set of smaller defaults would eventually cause a major CDS insurer to fail due to the cumulative impact of the several defaults.

After all, it is likely that the CDS insurers who dabbled in Greek CDS, are also involved in CDS insurance of the other high debt European countries. And, if a significant CDS insurer defaults (e.g., an institution similar in size and stature to AIG in 2009), we could, indeed, have contagion.

March 9, 2012

Wall Street gives Hayes the runaround

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Business Friendly, community banks, Economy, Finance, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, local banks, Nevada, Stocks, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:08 PM by Robert Barone

The S&P 500 closed at 1,342 on Feb 10. It was at that level in May 2008, January 2001 and June 1999. For nearly 13 years, investors in America’s largest companies have essentially made little return on their investments.
But think about all the multi-millionaires and billionaires Wall Street has created f rom within its own ranks in that time span! It’s almost as if the game is rigged against the small investor.
Unfortunately, it is.
M.F. Global, for example, pledged and lost its clients’ assets in a bet on Italian bonds. Had the bet paid off, the firm and its management stood to benefit, not the clients. Yet the clients were on the hook when the bet went sour. In 2009, the government used taxpayer dollars to save the “Too Big To Fail” banks (which have since grown by more than 25 percent), or those in trouble because they had grossly over-levered their balance sheets. As if nothing had happened, in 2010 these institutions paid their management record bonuses ($1 million is chump change).
There is story after story in the investment world of small investors being bilked out of their hard-earned assets. It’s largely due
to a system that always puts the clients last. Here are some examples:
Outside Managers: Oftentimes, broker/dealers and/or supposed investment firms send client assets to outside managers. The client has to pay double fees – one set to the investment firm and another set to the outside manager. The outside managers often rebate part of their fees and expenses to the investment firm. Worse, the outside managers direct their discretionary purchases and sales, especially in bonds, back to the introducing firm’s trading desk. That desk, knowing full well there will be no competitive bid from other trading desks, adds a significant mark up or down from the true market price.
Shelf Space: In order to be available to clients, the large broker/dealers require smaller mutual funds to pay a monthly fee. In addition, all of the funds must rebate to the broker/dealer all or part of the 12b-1 fee that they charge as part of their expenses where these are split between the firm and the account rep.
In today’s world, there is absolutely no reason to pay a front end or back end “load” for a mutual fund. Yet many clients of the large broker/dealers pay loads as high as 5 percent, much of which is retained by the broker/dealer. If you are being charged a “load” when you buy mutual funds, ask yourself if your interests are being put first. Vanguard funds are widely known for having no loads (or 12b- 1 fees) and their expense ratios are among the lowest in the industry. Ask your account rep if you can buy Vanguard funds in your account. If the answer is no, consider whose interests are being put first.
Inappropriate Investments: This is really the biggest issue for small investors. Because of the cost of litigation, most small investors who have lost significant sums due to inappropriate investments cannot afford to fight a legal battle to recoup losses. Most of the time, inappropriate investments occur because the fee to the selling agent or institution is so significant that the clients’ best interests are put behind those of the firm or the account rep. A good practice is to ask your account rep the amount of commission associated with any particular trade.
The accompanying news story about Bobby Hayes of Incline Village, his local attorney, Thomas Bradley, and his broker/dealer Merrill Lynch (now Banc of America Securities) illustrates many of these points:
• In July 2007, Mr. Hayes told his account rep he didn’t want to take any risk with $883,122. His account rep put him into a high risk tranche of a collateralized mortgage obligation. If the value of the assets in the tranche fell by as little as 0.5 percent, Mr. Hayes’ investment would be wiped out. (During the last decade, Wall Street’s financial “rocket scientists” divided up the cash flows from mortgages such that some tranches were quite secure while others were quite risky. Guess which one Mr. Hayes got?) Did his account rep have any idea about the risk inherent in this investment? If the account rep did, he/she clearly violated his/her fiduciary duty to the client, as minimal due diligence (i.e., a call to the New York desk) would have uncovered the risk. Most likely, the account rep was blinded by the large ($37,000) fee associated with the sale of the tranche.
• As it turns out, the loans Merrill Lynch placed into the tranche had already fallen in value by 5 percent before the investment was sold to Mr. Hayes. The investment was worthless at inception. Worse, it looks like the folks at Merrill Lynch who issued the paper knew it.
• After more than five years, arbitrators awarded Mr. Hayes $218,000 in attorney fees. In addition, Hayes had to shell out $23,500 in other costs and was potentially liable for $8,400 in hearing fees.
• Hayes won the return of his investment, interest on it, attorney fees and the other costs, or about $1.38 million, because it was clear, even to the arbitrators, that the paper sold to him was worthless before it was purchased on his behalf and that Merrill Lynch most likely knew it. Yet despite the apparent fraud and Merrill Lynch’s shunning of its fiduciary duties to the client, no punitive damages were awarded. This speaks to the inherent bias against the investor and for the broker/dealer, which appears to permeate the system when it comes to Wall Street.
• It is interesting to note there were two such tranches, one for U.S. clients and another for foreign clients. Mr. Hayes purchased the entire U.S. tranche. The foreign investors, who purchased the other tranche, also sued and settled for an undisclosed amount. Of further interest in this case is that the Massachusetts Secretary of State has subpoenaed the same or similar records to see if Merrill Lynch knowingly overvalued assets it put into investment pools (“Galvin demands B of A records on mortgages,” www. BostonHerald.com on Feb. 11).
• Mr. Hayes’ attorney, Reno’s Thomas Bradley, has written about other inappropriate investments being foisted on unsuspecting small investors, usually because the commissions on the sales of such instruments are high (see http://blog. stockmarketattorney.com/many-investors- mislead-by-brokerage-firms-to- purchase-unlisted-reits.html).
From a lack of any real return to unconscionable fees and costs to an unaffordable and often unjust litigation process, the Wall Street system is rigged against the small investor. Just think of how many small investors were put into similar investments by Wall Street’s major broker/dealers. Few of them have the assets or stamina to fight Wall Street like Mr. Hayes did.
Most, if they actually do pursue legal action, settle for pennies on the dollar because of the costs, effort, and additional potential loss should the arbitrators rule against them.
Despite these abuses, the government continues to come to Wall Street’s aid. No one yet has gone to prison over the sub- prime fiasco. No one is likely to go to prison in the M.F. Global scam. Despite the obvious fraud, no punitive damages were assessed in the Hayes case.
U.S. households have $700 billion in negative equity in their homes, and the government (who had its own fingers in the mortgage fiasco) last week settled with the biggest perpetrators for 3.5 cents on the dollar. With only slaps on the wrist and minor fines or penalties for fraudulent behavior and the shirking of fiduciary obligations, what will incent Wall Street to alter its behavior?
Conclusion: Little is going to change for small investors in America unless and until the Wall Street playing field is leveled.
Robert Barone, Ph.D.