April 9, 2012

Financial armageddon: Should you worry?

Posted in Armageddon, Banking, crises, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Finance, government, Housing Market, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, IRS, medicare/medicaid, Nevada, payroll tax reductions, recession, social security, taxes tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:37 PM by Robert Barone

You’ve probably seen them in your email, or even on TV — I’m talking about the “approaching financial armageddon” forecasts. People must be responding to them, because they keep on appearing in my email — several per week, and others I know get them too. Should you be concerned?To answer this, we examine data from the six largest categories of Federal expenditures in 2000, 2012, projections for 2016, and their associated compounded annual growth rates (CAGR). Much of this data comes from USdebtclock.org. Caution, the website is not for the faint of heart.Six expense categories (Medicare/Medicaid, social security, income security, federal pensions, interest on debt and defense) account for nearly $3.1 trillion of spending in 2012, represent more than 86 percent of total federal spending and account for 137 percent of taxes collected. These six spending categories are critical when trying to understand the nature and extent of the structural deficit.Growth rates in CAGR show Medicare/Medicaid spending growing to $1,050 billion per year in 2016. The demographics of the U.S. population don’t show us getting younger and baby boomers are just beginning retirement. Social Security will also advance much more quickly than its 5.4 percent growth rate of the past 12 years. All in all, the projection of expenses I’ve shown in the table for 2016 ($3,692 versus $2,265 in 2012) appear quite optimistic. But, let’s go with it.Americans, in general, will tell you they oppose bigger government, at least in the abstract. But in poll after poll, when asked where Congress should make significant cost cuts, almost no specific program eliminations are favored by a majority of Americans. Given this predilection among Americans and assuming that these six categories again account for 86 percent of Federal spending in 2016, then, total Federal spending will be approximately $4.3 trillion.

Some analysts fret about the “fiscal cliff” on Jan. 1, 2013 when the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire along with the 2 percent payroll tax reduction for individual social security contributions.

Those analysts put the impact of these at a 3 to 4 percent GDP reduction. When the Bush tax cuts expire, the Federal government theoretically could collect about $300 billion more in taxes if economic activity were otherwise unchanged (a heroic assumption). In addition, the reinstatement of the 2 percent social security tax on individuals will add about $160 billion to tax revenues (again, assuming no decline). The breakout with this story is an estimate of what the deficit would be and its relationship to 2016 GDP. It assumes the Bush tax cuts have been eliminated, the payroll taxes are reinstated, and economic activity is not negatively impacted, so it is likely to understate the deficit. The tax revenue growth rates (left hand column) begin in 2013, after the “fiscal cliff.”

As you can see from the table, reinstatement of the Bush tax cuts and the payroll tax reductions alone do little to solve the issue, as the deficit remains at $1.54 trillion if no further tax increases occur.

 

OUR ‘FISCAL CLIFF’

If Tax CAGR is: Deficit/GDP will be: Deficit will be ($trills):
0% 9.1% $1.54
5% 6.6% $1.12
7% 5.5% $0.93
8% 4.9% $0.83
10% 3.7% $0.63
16% 0.0% $0.00
 
Such a tax regime will clearly keep the economy in a no growth or recessionary mode. If America resists the tax increases, then deficits will balloon, interest rates will rise as the world spurns the dollar, the Fed will continue to print money and purchase the debt that can’t be placed externally, a nasty inflation will likely set in (it has already begun — look at food and energy prices), and we will find ourselves in a Greek type tragedy. The only way out is to significantly cut the growth of Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, Income Security and Federal Pensions. Which Congress and president will do that?So, should you be concerned about an approaching financial armageddon? Yes.
  

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, Georgetown University) 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.

 
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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.

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.

February 16, 2012

Debunking the Warren Buffett Tax Deception

Posted in Economy, Finance, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, IRS, local banks, taxes tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:10 PM by Robert Barone

It is an election year, so the media makes a big deal out of Warren Buffett’s assertion that the tax system unfairly taxes his supposedly “working class” secretary at 33% (we’ve also seen 34% and 35.8%), while he only pays 13.7% (we’ve also seen 17.4%) on the millions that he makes.

The political implication is that he, and others like him, such as GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, somehow aren’t paying their “fair share” of taxes.

But instead of doing even superficial analysis, the media carries the story at face value. That is naive. Even a slight amount of digging will turn this story upside down.

Let’s start with Buffett’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek. In order to pay a marginal tax rate of 33% (or 34% or 35.8%), she would have to be in Occupy Wall Street’s 1%, not the 99%. Using the 2011 tax tables for individuals, if she were single making a $250,000 adjusted gross income (that’s after deductions!), she would be in the 33% marginal tax bracket and would have a 27% effective tax rate. To get to the 35% marginal tax bracket, her adjusted gross income would have to be more than $379,000. Isn’t a $250,000 income the magic line that [President Barack] Obama has drawn that demarcates those who he is targeting as “rich” and should be paying more taxes? So, let’s not be deluded into thinking that his woman somehow represents America’s working class.

But the bigger deception is Buffett’s claim that he pays a much lower tax rate than he supposedly should. A quick review of business taxation in the US today will show that Buffett pays in excess of 30% of his income in taxes.

Most small-business owners choose the Subchapter-S or LLC format for their businesses. Any profit from their business flows directly to their personal taxes (form 1040). Assume two similar businesses, one owned by X and the other by Y. Both businesses make $450,000 in pretax income. Owner X has chosen the LLC format. Owner X’s company pays no taxes to the IRS, but sends Owner X a K-1 requiring X to declare $450,000 on his form 1040. His marginal tax bracket is 35%.

Owner Y has chosen the C-Corp format. Y’s company also had a pretax income of $450,000, which is taxed at the corporate 35% tax rate. Y has chosen to declare a $50,000 dividend to himself which shows up on his 1040 and is taxed at 15%. Looking only at his 1040, you would think that Y doesn’t pay much in taxes. In fact, Y pays more taxes than X because the dividend is double taxed – that is why most small businesses choose the LLC or Sub-S format.

Now let’s talk about Buffett. He is famous for buying large stakes or even controlling interests in large C-Corps. He is the equivalent to Owner Y.   So, the taxes that Buffett pays go well beyond what is shown on his 1040. Like Owner Y, the 13.7% rate on Buffett’s 1040 shows only the taxes he pays on the dividends and therefore is only part of the story. I looked up Buffett’s 13F SEC filing dated January 30, 2011. That filing shows nine major holdings.

Using the share price of each holding and the number of shares shown on the 13F, I estimated the value of each of those holdings. Then, using the C-Corp’s reported effective tax rate, the pretax income per share, and the dividends per share (taxed at 15%), I calculated Buffett’s effective tax rate on each holding. Finally, using the market value of each holding to form a weighted average, I then calculated that Buffett’s effective tax rate on these nine holdings was more than 32%.

Buffett Holdings from September 30, 2011 13F
Click to enlarge

This should debunk the myth that America’s investor class does not pay its “fair share” and that we should put a minimum of 30% on their 1040 filings.

Finally, some advice for Romney. Should you become the GOP candidate, I would advise that you do an analysis on your income similar to what I did for Buffett in the table above. If you are the GOP candidate, you can take the issue of paying your “fair share” of taxes off of the table.

February 8, 2012

Avoiding The Austerity Death Spiral

Posted in bail out, Banking, Bankruptcy, Ben Bernanke, Big Banks, Economy, Federal Reserve, Finance, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, Senate Banking Committee, taxes, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:19 PM by Robert Barone

Over the past four years, the slow creep of government into the private sector has become a gallop.  Unfortunately, a high level of structural unemployment is the unintended consequence of social engineering, picking winners, over-taxing and over-regulating every aspect of the business process.

The conventional wisdom is that a balanced budget will be a magic solution to the sluggish economy and the employment situation, but if it is done with just austerity and tax hikes but without relief from an overbearing set of governments on the business sector, what we will get is an “austerity death spiral.”  Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said as much to the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday.

Intervention is the Norm

We now live in a world where government intervention in the business process is expected.  When any sort of economic issue arises, government is now expected to fix it.

  • Financial institutions in trouble?  No problem – the taxpayers, via the government are expected to bail them out!
  • Domestic auto companies historically made awful decisions around retiree medical and pension issues and, as a result, can’t compete and are staggering toward bankruptcy.  Again, no problem.  Ask the government to shore them up, even if it means trampling on bondholder contract rights like in the General Motors case.
  • Some homeowners can’t, and others don’t want to make their mortgage payments.  That’s easy.  Ask the government to intervene, stop or slow the foreclosure process, and, perhaps, even require the lenders to reduce principal balances! This deal is in the works now with the government prepared to offer big lenders like Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase money to offset losses on short sales.

The markets now expect intervention.  When the government intervenes in an economic issue, the markets rise.  If the government doesn’t, it falls precipitously. On September 29, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) fell 778 points when Congress failed to pass the initial TARP legislation; From the time QE1 began in November, 2008 until it ended in March, 2010, the DJIA rose 28% or  2,378 points.

QE2 elicited a similar market response, 1,199 points (10.7%) from November, 2010 to June, 2011, even more if you go back to August when Bernanke articulated the strategy in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

In late November, 2011, on the day when the Fed gave unlimited swap lines to the European Central Bank (ECB), the DJIA rose 490 points; it rose 337 points just before Christmas when the ECB opened its lending facility to 540+ European banks.

I suspect we will see similar market reaction if the Fed goes through with its hinted at QE3.

Unintended Consequences

Unfortunately, nearly every government intervention carries with it unintended consequences, and, if such interventions interfere with the free market processes, they have long-term negative implications on economic growth. Recent examples in the U.S. include the Keystone Pipeline and the National Labor Relations Board’s attempt to block Boeing from opening a plant in South Carolina.

Nearly every economic malady that exists today is directly traceable to the unintended consequences of government interference in the economic process or via its attempt at social engineering:

  • Sub-prime and housing crisis:  It is widely recognized that this was caused by three concurrent factors: 1) an extended period of low interest rates engineered by Greenspan’s and Bernanke’s Fed; 2) the social engineering goals of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA); 3) the political and monetary aspirations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives and sponsors;
  • Social Security and Medicare unfunded liabilities: As the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, unfunded liabilities will increase by more than $3.5 trillion each year.  To show how absurd this is, the payroll tax reduction, in effect since January 1, 2011, and currently an issue in the Congress, simply puts the Social Security system ever deeper into debt that cannot be repaid without hugely inflated dollars;
  • Unfunded pension liabilities:  While some private sector corporations have unfunded pension liability issues, the bulk of the problem lies at the local, state and federal levels;
  • High structural unemployment: As alluded to earlier, impediments to business from all levels of government, but especially from the federal government, are a huge issue.  Recent legislation, including Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, and Obamacare, is crushing small business.  In addition, business must be confident that the future environment will be friendly.  So, the notion of a “temporary” tax reduction doesn’t reduce business uncertainty, as businesses invest for the long-term.

This last item is particularly poignant.  In a three part op-ed series published by Bloomberg in mid-January, Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club, bemoans America’s loss of manufacturing jobs.  “It’s not the wages, stupid!”, he says.  If wages were key, how is it that Germany, where wages are higher and unions stronger, enjoys a growing manufacturing base?

For the auto industry, which in 1998 had over 70% of the U.S. domestic auto market but now has 44%, it was the health care and pension costs of its retirees that caused the industry’s economic crisis, he says.  Since the turn of the century, America’s manufacturing base has shrunk by one-third, not because of wages, which are similar to wages paid in the rest of the world, but the lack of support or even outright hostility on the part of government.  (When even the Sierra Club recognizes that government is choking free enterprise, the issue must be terribly obvious!)

November 9, 2011

Euro End Game: All Roads Lead to Monetary Breakup

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Bonds, Capital, community banks, crises, derivatives, Finance, Forward thinking, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, local banks, municipal bonds, San Francisco, Stocks, taxes tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 6:39 PM by Robert Barone

— Three major issues must be resolved to save the European Monetary Union (EMU): The value of sovereign debt; the European bank capital issues; and the fiscal capacity or will to provide the needed financing. Unfortunately, no feasible solutions exist. The politicians have done everything they could to keep the market on the edge while, at the same time, continuing to kick the can down the road. The farther the can is kicked, the more painful and costly the ultimate resolution — the breakup of the EMU.

The Value of Sovereign Debt

As of this writing, the haircut on Greek sovereign debt currently on the table is 50%. The French want as small a discount as possible (it was originally set to 21% in the July agreement which was just ratified by the EMU countries a couple of weeks ago) because French banks hold volumes of Greek sovereign debt.

Germany, the other major player in the drama, wants a larger discount to force the private sector to contribute to the resolution, and because they know that they, and they alone, are the ultimate guarantor. The 50% haircut, however, is really not 50% because the EFSF and ECB, which hold 55% of all Greek debt, are exempt from the
haircut. So, at the max, Greece will be relieved of 22.5% of its debt.

However, in order to give Greece a half a chance to survive within the euro circle, the discount should be 80%, not 22.5%%. Even at an 80% discount, Greece’s Debt/GDP ratio will still be greater than 90%. At a 22.5% haircut, their Debt/GDP ratio will be so high, and interest payments to outside debt holders so onerous that it will require too much austerity. As we have just witnessed, Greece cannot meet the current required austerity measures imposed by outsiders. If the haircut on the Greek debt is too small and austerity is too severe, which it will be under the current set of principles being discussed, social unrest will continue. 

Ultimately, the Greek people will elect politicians who vow to remove the imposed austerity. The rise of Hitler was partly the result of imposed “reparations” from the previous war and the hyperinflation that resulted. If still inside the EMU, the problem of the value of the Greek sovereign debt re-emerges under the scenario now on the table. So, it is vital that the Greek debt haircut be large enough to give Greece at least a chance to succeed within the EMU. Of course, that assumes that there is a shift within Greece away from the entitlement mentality
that pervades the culture and that, given a second chance, they will adhere to a fiscal discipline. History indicates low odds of this.

But there are more issues that arise in the scenario in which Greece is given a second chance and kept inside the EMU. The slippery slope is that if the bond haircut is high, then Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy see that Greece has been given a second chance with much of its debt forgiven, they will want the same treatment. After
all, why should these countries institute austerity to pay the private sector and often foreign debt holders when Greece doesn’t have to.

In order to avoid the contagion that the others will want the same deal as Greece, there will have to be a consequence that dissuades them. The only consequence I can think of that is serious enough to dissuade them is expulsion from the EMU. Therefore, in order to avoid contagion under a scenario of an 80% bond haircut, it is
essential that Greece leave the monetary union, and that the EU set up and strictly enforce expulsion criteria.

Ultimately, though, because the four problem countries all have the same entitlement mentality, they will never be able to maintain the required fiscal discipline, and will ultimately be expelled. Apparently, the European politicians recognize this.  So, the 22.5% haircut deal currently on the table simply kicks the can further
down the road. The deal on the table cannot ultimately work.

European Bank Capital Issues

No matter how it is sliced or diced, Europe’s major banks are undercapitalized, and that is being kind. If
the sovereign debt they hold is marked to market, they are all insolvent. As we know from America’s S&L crisis in the ’80s and from the recent ’09 meltdown experience, a financial institution can operate in an insolvent condition for years, as long as it can get liquidity. In fact, there may still be such zombies in the U.S.

Enter the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). It’s function will be to support (i.e., buy) the underwater sovereign debt held on the books of Europe’s financial institutions at prices significantly above market, thus transferring the ultimate losses from the private sector to the taxpayer. The Fed did this in ’09, purchasing billions of mortgage-backed securities at above market prices from U.S. financial institutions. In effect, this is equivalent to the taxpayer making a capital contribution to the banks without receiving any ownership
interest. This is just a gift from taxpayers to stock and bond holders.

The ultimate capital contribution to the European banks will be in the trillion euro range, and it is likely that the EFSF will attempt to use leverage. But, because the capital contributions to the EFSF already being discussed (and I expect they aren’t as large as they need to be) are large relative to Europe’s GDP, there are likely to be ratings downgrades, causing interest costs to rise and making austerity in the EU even harder to bear. Under existing discussions, France, one of the two major characters in the whole crisis, is expected to make a contribution to the EFSF that is equal to 8% of its GDP. This alone will surely result in a ratings downgrade, as its Debt/GDP ratio has risen nearly 20 percentage points this year alone.

How long will the public endure the resulting austerity? Only long enough for the political process to elect leaders who promise to get rid of it. And, how do they do that? Exit the EMU.

Fiscal Capacity

It is clear that Germany and France are the key players (who are expected to be saviors) in this European drama. As explained above, as the drama unfolds, it is likely to put a tremendous strain on France’s fiscal capacity making it impossible for France to contribute further resources to the crisis (they are already on the hook for a significant contribution to resolve the Dexia issues). That leaves Germany as the last bastion of the euro. Think of the irony. The German people, by a large majority, never wanted to join the EMU. Their politicians brought them in kicking and screaming. Now, they are going to be asked to pay for all the entitlement and profligacy of their European neighbors. This just isn’t going to fly. When it gets to this point, and it will, Germany will simply say no, and that will be the end of the EMU.

Conclusion

It is already too late. The euro cannot be saved without the adoption of the U.S. federal model where the countries become the equivalent of U.S. states with one monetary and fiscal policy, ultimately run by Germany. Because of culture and history, the odds of this happening are about 0%.

The financial ministers can meet. There can be weekly, or even daily summits between the prime ministers. They can dream up debt Ponzi schemes with the EFSF, and can transfer losses from the private sector to the taxpayer. And, they are likely to do all of the above. But, ultimately, it is too late.

The EMU did not enforce its original rules, and now there is way too much debt. Like the S&Ls in the U.S. in the ’80s, it can be propped up for awhile. But, all of the actions that add debt or transfer it from the private sector to the taxpayer only make the final resolution more gut wrenching, difficult, and expensive. All roads lead to the breakup of the EMU. Better to do it now, in a controlled and orderly way, rather than let the happenstance of random events cause it to happen in the midst of a market crash.

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

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.

October 18, 2011

Seven Reasons Bank Stocks May Keep Falling

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Bonds, Capital, community banks, crises, derivatives, Finance, Forward thinking, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, local banks, municipal bonds, San Francisco, Stocks, taxes, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:22 PM by Robert Barone

  • Occupy Wall Street – while not a cohesive movement, at least part of its birth can be traced to outsized Wall Street salaries and bonuses, especially since the taxpayer saved most of the TBTF banks.  Bank Transfer Day (11/5), the day on which Americans are supposed to transfer their deposits to community banks, is more symbolic than real, as the “Too Big To Fail” (TBTF) banks core consumer deposits are only a small portion of their liabilities and can easily be replaced with no or low cost funding from the Fed or elsewhere.  Nevertheless, Bank Transfer Day is a PR issue for the large banks;
  • Margin squeeze – TBTF have used the arbitrage spread between borrowing costs (near 0%) and Treasury yields (2%+) to profit.  And, the purchase of Treasury securities requires no capital under the capital regulations, as Treasuries are “risk free.”   The Fed’s new policy of “Operation Twist” targets  longer term interest rates and squeezes this arbitrage spread;
  • Volcker Rule – this has recently been put out for comment by the FDIC.  It severely limits trading profits made for the bank’s own account and is likely to have a big impact on TBTF trading profits going forward;
  • Debit card monthly fees – although such fees are a direct consequence of the limitation on debit swipe fees by the Fed under Dodd-Frank, and it was common knowledge that the TBTF banks would find a way to increase fees elsewhere to make up for their losses on the swipe fees, the timing has turned out to be lousy and the TBTF banks are taking a PR hit from the press, and even from the sponsors of Dodd-Frank who clearly knew that there would be unintended consequences;
  • Exposure to Europe – According to Michelle Bachmann, the U.S. TBTF Banks have a $700 billion exposure to European Banks.  So, a freezing up of liquidity flows to those institutions may have an impact on the value of such holdings.  It is clear that the Fed and the European Central Bank will intervene with massive liquidity injections if such events unfold.  Nevertheless, the risk of such a freeze up exists.  Furthermore, if contagion spreads because of a Greek default, there is no doubt that the TBTF equities will be negatively impacted.  So far, we have seen the equity prices of these behemoths ebb and flow with the news (or hope) out of Europe regarding their evolving “rescue” plan;
  • Mortgages & Foreclosures
    • Foreclosures at the TBTF institutions are rising because moratoriums have expired and “robo” issues have been addressed.  In addition, so called “Prime” loans in portfolios (usually “Jumbo” loans – those that are larger than the FNMA limits) are becoming a big issue as there is a clear trend toward rising “strategic” foreclosures.  In fact, Fitch recently downgraded many of these “prime” mortgage pools.  This calls into question the quality of what may be on the TBTF balance sheets in the form of such jumbo loans.  Furthermore, the fact that FNMA and FHLMC reduced their loan maximums on October 1st is destined to have a huge negative impact in states like CA and FL, where the prices of higher end properties will fall due to the unavailability of financing.  So, expect “strategic” defaults to rise rapidly in these states;
  • Lawsuits
    • Half of America’s mortgages are on MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System), but, in many states, MERS has no standing in foreclosure.  Theoretically every owner of a securitized pool should sign off on each foreclosure in the pool.  There could be hundreds, if not thousands, of owners in these pools.  In addition, many jurisdictions require that title transfers be recorded in county recorder offices.  Since that did not occur, lawsuits are now being developed against the major TBTF players for lost recording/title transfer fees.  The Dallas DA recently sued MERS and BAC for $100 million of such fees.  According to Mark Hanson, since MERS has been operating since 1995, there could be billions of dollars of such thwarted fees.   Because nearly every local governmental entity is hungry for funds, this could catch on like wildfire;
    • Bank of America’s (BAC) $8.6 billion global servicer settlement is in trouble, as NY’s AG Schneiderman says it should be closer to $25 billion, and he is getting support from other states, like CA.  The rumor mill has circulated the theory that if lawsuit settlements become outsized, BAC appears to have the option of bankrupting the old Countrywide unit, which it has kept as a separate legal entity since its purchase in 2008.  Imagine, though, the market reaction to such a move!
    • Lawsuits on mortgage trustees are just starting.  According to Bloomberg, US Bank, Bank of NY Mellon, Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, HSBC, BAC and Citibank (C) are the major mortgage trustees.  Bloomberg speculates that since these institutions didn’t underwrite, sell, securitize, service, or ship loans according to regulations, the odds are low that the trust departments got it right.  So far, NY’s Schnedierman has requested documents from Deutsche Bank and Bank of NY Mellon.
    • In early September the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the receiver for FNMA and FHLMC, sued BAC, C, JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Barclays, HSBC, Credit Suisse, and Noruma Holdings demanding refunds from these institutions for loans sold to FNMA and FHLMC that were based on false or missing information about the borrowers or the properties.  The FHFA said that the two mortgage giants purchased $6 billion from BAC, $24.8 billion from Merrill Lynch which is now owned by BAC, and $3.5 billion from C.
    • Lawsuits and foreclosure issues are making the TBTF banks sorry they are in the mortgage business.  JPM’s Dimon announced that they are going to be leaving the mortgage business, and BAC announced last week that by year’s end they will stop buying mortgages from correspondents.

Not all of this appears to be priced in the market, so there may be continued downward pressure on the prices of financial stocks, especially TBTF, as events unfold, especially the potentially disruptive forces that Europe may unleash, or the conclusion that the foreclosure and mortgage lawsuits are larger and more significant than currently believed.

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

October 12, 2011

Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources.  Ancora West Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.Ancora West 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 the Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 8630 Technology Way, Suite A, Reno, NV 89511, Phone (775) 284-7778

October 10, 2011

Buy and Hope

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Bonds, Capital, community banks, crises, derivatives, Finance, Forward thinking, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, local banks, municipal bonds, San Francisco, Stocks, taxes, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:10 PM by Robert Barone

Despite a preponderance of evidence, the markets continue to rely on the “hope” that Europe will solve its enormous financial issues, that the U.S. will somehow miraculously begin to grow at or above GDP potential, and that the emerging markets will continue to grow by exporting to the developed world.  There are those on Wall Street still pushing “buy and hold” indicating to clients that, based on forward earnings forecasts, the equity markets look cheap, as if those forward forecasts aren’t subject to downward revisions.  Thus, the “buy and hold” is really “buy and hope.”  There are no quick fixes to any of the economic problems so evident in a world awash in debt.

Europe

  • Europe is clearly entering a recession, and is likely to be in it for an extended period.
  • The value of the sovereign debt of the European periphery countries is a huge issue.  Greece can afford to pay “normal” interest rates on about 20%-30% of its current debt.  Therefore, when its inevitable default occurs (looks like soon), the haircut on its external debt may be as high as 80%.  Once the default is announced, the markets will pounce on the next weakest – at this time, that looks like Italy, although Portugal and Spain are also in the race..  To keep Italy from defaulting, the Troika (the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)) may have to finance Italy’s deficit and purchase its debt rollover for as many as 3 years.  The rollover of central government debt alone is €705 billion. The regional debt is also significant. The risk is that Germany or one of the other 17 European Monetary Union (EMU) members balk.
  • The real issue revolves around the European financial system.  There isn’t enough capital in it to mark the sovereign debt they hold on their books to market values.  The haircuts given to the peripheral sovereign debt when a Greek default occurs will cause an ugly reaction in the financial markets.  Huge liquidity infusions from the ECB (and likely the Fed) will be required.  Morgan Stanley says that €140 billion in new capital is needed, but I have seen estimates as high as €800 billion.
  • Discussions among Europe’s finance ministers about using the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) as a Special Purpose Vehicle to provide liquidity or to provide capital to the banking system (the discussion seems to change on a daily basis) have caused the financial markets to rise on such hope.  As far as I can tell, the €780 billion of capital that is being voted upon by the 17 EMU members (14 have approved so far) could be used as capital to lever up to higher levels and use the resulting funding for either or  both liquidity and capital.
  • This is all still in discussion stage.  Somehow, Greece miraculously found funds to keep itself solvent until mid-November, so the European finance ministers have kicked the can down the road for another month.  The real risk here is whether or not the Europeans can agree.  History is not on their side.  Unlike the U.S., the EMU requires unanimous consent and monetary contributions from each of its 17 members to cope with unusual circumstances not envisioned in the EMU treaties.  Malta and Cyprus have the same veto power as Germany.  It should be noted that, as of this writing, the Slovakia vote on an expanded EFSF is not a sure thing, and that Finland received special guarantees for its approval vote.  Imagine the chaos if every small member demanded special treatment – it could look like the earmark system used in the U.S. Congress.
  • Italy was recently downgraded 3 notches by Moody’s, from Aa2 to A2 with a negative outlook.  The Credit Default Swap (CDS) market believes Italy is still significantly overrated, as is most of the rest of Europe.  CDS may not be the best indicator of financial stability, but it appears that there are enough skeptics on European sovereign debt to make investors wary.  If much of Europe eventually gets downgraded, what kind of rating will the EFSF’s debt have?
  • In its current form, the EFSF must wait for a support request from a member country, and then must get unanimous consent from the 17 finance ministers.  (I smell gamesmanship in the form of holdout for special concessions – just like Finalnd!)

As you can see, the machinery is quite cumbersome and very slow to act.  Things must go flawlessly for Europe to avoid significant calamity over the next few quarters.  The excitement recently seen in the equity markets appears to be based on hope – not a very reliable investment strategy.

Japan and the Emerging Markets

  • Japan has too much debt coupled with deteriorating demographic trends.  Since the 1990s, they have not addressed the issues on their banks’ balance sheets, and real estate prices (land) have continued to decline for those two “lost” decades.  Their August industrial production numbers were weaker than expected.  Don’t look for Japan to lead. Their two decaded economic malaise may, in fact, be what is in store for Europe and the U.S.
  • There are also troubling signs in China and the emerging markets (BRICS).  HSBC’s PMI index for China has been below 50 for three consecutive months (below 50 implies contraction).  Whatever the case, growth is clearly cooling, most likely indicating some success in China’s fight against rising inflation, especially in real estate where prices are now flat to falling.  This, of course, is having a significant impact on natural resource and commodity prices.
  • It is unlikely that China, which still has positive, but slower, growth, will repeat the stimulus package they unleashed in ’09.  That helped the rest of the world climb out of recession.  The rapidly falling prices of industrial commodities (e.g., copper) is symptomatic of the slower pace of growth in the emerging world.
  • Some emerging markets, like Brazil, which have been fighting the inflation caused by the influx of capital from the developed world, are now seeing declining growth rates, most likely due to the slowing growth in the developed world which has a huge impact on emerging world exports and prices.

United States Housing Market

  • Housing normally leads the U.S. economy into recession, and then leads it out.  Not so this time.  Housing issues are getting worse, not better.  Prices, especially those of higher end homes, continue to fall, even with mortgage rates at historic lows (below 4% for 30 year fixed).  Qualifying is now extremely difficult and requires a large down payment.  On October 1, FNMA and FHLMC lowered the maximum amounts they will lend.  Since they purchase over 90% of all new loans made, this will significantly lower sales volumes, and eventually prices, in high priced areas like California.
  • Foreclosure trends are on the rise, both because the financial institutions have worked their way through the “robo” signing issues, and because most foreclosure moratoriums have expired.  Given the sorry state of housing, more and more underwater homeowners are simply giving up on ever seeing positive equity again.  “Strategic” defaults are on the rise.  These occur when a homeowner who can afford the payments walks away because the mortgage balance is significantly higher than the home’s value, and the owner believes it will be years, if ever, before he breaks even.  As a result, Fitch has recently lowered the ratings on what used to be called “prime” mortgage loans causing some dislocations in mutual and hedge funds that specialize in holding such non-agency paper, especially the ones that also use leverage.
  • Lawsuits are proliferating around mortgage issues.  The Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), a private corporation with about 50 employees, claims to hold title to about half of the mortgages in the U.S.  They have filed foreclosure actions on behalf of the mortgage “owners” (there could be several hundred or even thousands of owners of a securitized pool).  Many jurisdictions require the “owner” to file the foreclosure.  Imagine having to get signatures of everyone that owns a share of a securitized mortgage pool each time one of the mortgages in the pool goes into default.  In addition, many jurisdictions require that title transfers be recorded in county recorder offices.  Since that did not occur, lawsuits are now being filed against major private sector mortgage purveyors (like JPM, or WF) for lost recording/title transfer fees.  The Dallas DA recently sued MERS and BAC for $100 million.  According to Mark Hanson, since MERS has been operating since 1995, there could be billions of dollars of such thwarted fees.
  • Mortgage trustees are also not immune from lawsuits.  According to Bloomberg, US Bank, Bank of NY Mellon, Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, HSBC, Bank of America, and Citibank are the major mortgage trustees.  Bloomberg speculates that since these institutions didn’t underwrite, sell, securitize, service, or ship loans according to regulations, the odds are low that the trust departments got it right.  So far, NY AG Schneiderman has requested documents from Deutsche bank and Bank of NY Mellon.
  • The $8.6 billion mortgage servicer settlement that Bank of America thought was a done deal has now fallen apart.  NY’s AG, Schneiderman thinks that the settlement should be closer to $25 billion.
  • With all of the lawsuits and the state of housing, the large mortgage originators are sorry they are even in the business.  Jamie Dimon recently announced that JPMorganChase may be leaving the business.  In early October, Bank of America announced they would stop their correspondent mortgage business by year’s end, which means that they won’t be buying mortgages originated by others.  One more nail in housing’s coffin.

So, let’s review: 1) Home prices continue to fall; 2) FNMA and FHLMC lowered their loan maximums; 3) Foreclosures are rising; 4) Lawsuits are proliferating on private sector lenders; 5) large private sector lenders are either leaving the business or curtailing it.  So, how is it that housing can lead the way out of the economic funk?

Other U.S. Indicators

  •  70% of GDP in the U.S. is from consumption.  The fact that real consumer income (after inflation) has fallen for three months in a row and is no higher than it was in 1997 is a very troubling sign because credit can no longer be used to consume.  In the months in which we actually see consumption rising, we see the savings rate fall.  Increasing consumption in an economy with falling consumer income can only last as long as there is savings.  So, it can only be a short-run phenomenon.
  • Washington, D.C. finds it impossible to come to terms with their overspending.  Nothing they have done, including the $1.5 trillion “Supercommittee” mandate will make a dent in the entitlement spending increases coming at us like a speeding train.  We know no changes in the entitlement rules will occur before 2013, at the earliest.
  • What is occurring at the Federal, State and Local levels is significant belt tightening.  President Obama’s Jobs Bill was DOA in Congress.  Because of the tax increases proposed, the Democrats even had a difficult time in finding a sponsor to introduce the bill.  With the funds provided in the ’09 stimulus package now gone, with a Congress not interested in more tax and spend, and with the Fed now out of real ammunition, there isn’t going to be much government help for a weakening economy.
  • Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, EPA pronouncements, other regulatory burdens, the uncertainty surrounding taxes and tax rates etc. has led to an environment of business uncertainty.  Under such conditions, there is virtually no chance that labor markets will pick up anytime soon.  As a result, consumer confidence continues to bounce along well below traditional recessionary levels.

 

Conclusion

The preponderance of the evidence makes it clear that the risks in the equity markets are to the downside.  There are no quick fixes to any of the European or U.S. problems.  Europe’s financial issues can easily morph into a worldwide financial panic.  The U.S.’s housing, deficit, and employment issues will linger without a new approach, one that we won’t see until at least 2013.  Safety is clearly a better investment strategy than hope.

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

October 10, 2011

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

Ancora West 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 the Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 8630 Technology Way, Suite A, Reno, NV 89511, Phone (775) 284-7778.

 

October 3, 2011

Kicking the Can: The Issue of Bank Capital

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Bonds, Capital, community banks, crises, derivatives, Finance, Forward thinking, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, local banks, municipal bonds, San Francisco, Stocks, taxes, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:36 PM by Robert Barone

In the last quarter century, each and every time politicians have “kicked the can down the road” in order to buy time to protect their banks (with the false hope that there will be a “Deus ex Machina,” i.e., a miracle), the resulting pain is much worse than if the problem had been addressed head on and resolved, even if painful at the time.  You can look at this in many ways, including the deficit and entitlement issues in the U.S.  But, I am going to limit myself to the financial realm in this particular essay.

Kick the Can: The S&Ls

In 1984, I gave a presentation to a group of senior citizens regarding what I saw as the insolvency of the S&L industry.  In social conversations, my wife often recalls the reactions of many of those seniors, many of whom had Certificates of Deposit at S&Ls (back then, interest rates were significantly higher than today’s paltry rates).  I suspect that the local heart specialists were busier than usual the next day.

The S&L can was kicked down the road for five more years.  It wasn’t until a new President (Bush #1) was inaugurated that the problem was addressed – that was 1989.  By then, the problem was significantly larger than it was in 1984 when even I could recognize the issue.  Because the can was kicked for five years, America went through an unnecessary and grueling recession in the early ‘90s, in which the financial system teetered and required government intervention.  Truth be told, however, the allowance of the S&Ls to abuse deposit insurance (or at least not appropriately pay for the risk they were layering onto the insurance system) and lack of oversight by the regulators (sound familiar?) should take much of the blame.  However, by ’89 the crisis was addressed, S&Ls were closed, and the bad loans on their books were dealt with.  Because the bad loans were written off, the financial system stabilized and enabled the economy to grow and prosper for much of the rest of the decade.

Kick the Can: Japan’s Banks

At about the same time (1989) Japan’s bubble burst.  In 2002, then Fed Governor Bernanke, criticized the Japanese approach to their banking issues in a famous speech about how the Fed would not let a Japan style deflation happen in the U.S.  Beginning in 1989, the Japanese regulatory agencies did not, and to this day, have not required Japan’s banks to recognize the losses on their underwater real estate loans.  When banks get into a position of knowing they have problem assets, they become quite reluctant to expand their loan portfolios and take on new risk.  Oftentimes, the regulators, recognizing that they have dropped the ball in the first place, become overbearing and shackle the banking system.  More than two lost decades later, Japan’s real estate (land) prices are still falling, and economic growth remains sluggish, intermixed with frequent bouts of recession.

Kick the Can: Too Big To Fail

The financial crisis in the U.S. in ’09 was also met with can kicking.  The “Too Big To Fail” (TBTF) banks that were allowed too much leverage in the period leading up to the crisis were all saved with taxpayer dollars. This time, however, the problems were not met head on as they were in ’89.  In fact, Dodd-Frank has now codified TBTF – those institutions are now called SIFIs, Systemically Important Financial Institutions.  And, America’s banks are back to playing the leverage game, this time with complicity from Washington, which depends on them to purchase newly issued debt.  By the way, that debt requires no underlying capital, an issue we will see later in this essay that has come to the forefront in Europe.  In the ’09 crisis, the shadow banking system (non-deposit taking lenders) was destroyed, and because the remaining small business lenders, America’s community banks, still have major asset issues, small business lending has dried up.  Today, as in Japan, economic growth is sluggish and the economy continuously flirts with recession. (I can’t blame all of the sluggishness in small business lending on the supply side because clearly the demand for small business loans is down due to the uncertain economic outlook that pervades America today.)

Kick the Can: Save the Bondholders

One major mistake of Japan, and of the so-called solution to the ’09 financial crisis, is that bondholders of most of these failing institutions, who took the risk of their investments, have not been asked to take the losses.  Except for FNMA and FHLMC, even the preferred shareholders of the failed megabanks (Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Merrill Lynch) were saved.  Why was it so important to save these stakeholders?  Did we really fall for the concept that if their bondholders lost money, then the economy would totally collapse?

Kick the Can: European Bank Stress Tests

Today, Europe’s banks are teetering on the edge.  This past Spring’s round of “stress tests” were a joke meant only to assuage the markets.  The sovereign foreign holdings of Greek, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian debt were all counted at par with zero capital required against these assets.  It is clear that the European banks are in desperate need of capital, and the shutting down of calls for such capital from knowledgeable and respected individuals doesn’t really fool anyone.  So, why are the Europeans about to throw good money after bad in a futile attempt to keep Greece from defaulting, and, once again, kicking the can down the road?

By forcing further “austerity” on the Greek economy in order to give them enough aid to pay the upcoming round of bond maturities at par, and therefore “saving” those particular bondholders, they are just prolonging the whole issue.  Even more austerity will further undermine the Greek economy causing ever widening deficits.  So, why are the bondholders so sacred?  The answer, of course, is that the European banks hold huge positions in the sovereign debt of Greece and the other high debt European Monetary Union (EMU) nations.

Kick the Can: Liquefy European Banks

With huge volumes of such debt on their books, each financial institution has become leery of its brethren, and interbank lending has begun to dry up.  As a result, The Fed, the European Central Bank (ECB), the Swiss national Bank, the Bank of England, and the Bank of Japan, in a coordinated effort in mid-September, began making dollar swap lines available to the European banks.  It appears that the Fed is involved because of Bernanke’s view of the Fed as the world’s central bank, and because of the fact that the vast majority of America’s money market funds hold large amounts of European bank commercial paper or other debt as assets.  Thus, instability of the European banking system could potentially touch off another credit market freeze in the U.S. and worldwide.  Yet, despite these interventions, within a week those very same liquidity strains have begun to re-emerge.

Kick the Can: Greek Default Inevitable

In the end, a Greek default is inevitable.  The math on this is too compelling.  Even if Greece could balance their budget pre-debt service, the debt service cost alone, even at reasonable interest rates, doom them to years of depression.  For Greece, default is really the best road.

Default is also better for the rest of the EMU.  Better to use the funds that are now going to pay off bondholders of Greek debt at par to help recapitalize Europe’s banks.  In the long run, this is cheaper and it addresses the underlying issue, European bank capital.

As for Greece, they, and even the other weaker EMU countries, can go back to their own currencies, and, if they so choose, peg them to the Euro.  If they run large fiscal deficits, the pegs can always be adjusted.

Dealing with Greek Default

A Greek default, of course, risks a financial panic in the markets.  To deal with such contagion, the ECB or the EFSF (European Financial Stability Fund) or some pan-European or international entity with credibility, should specify which countries are Tier I EMU countries, which are Tier II (Italy and Spain),and which are Tier III (Greece, Portugal, Ireland).  Tier III countries should be planning an imminent, but orderly, exit from the EMU with ECB and EFSF support of their bonds at some price well below par.   Tier II countries should be given some time and support (in the form of an ECB or the EFSF bond purchase program at par) to get their fiscal houses in order.

The inevitable Greek default is going to have a worldwide impact even if done in an orderly, thoughtful, and coordinated way. (If not planned properly, expect very high volatility in the financial markets.)  And financial institutions in the U.S. will not be spared the effects of such a default.  If the European banks appear in danger, U.S. money market funds, and very likely some of the SIFIs with loans to European banks, will be hard hit by market action.  We have already seen the beginnings of this.

More Capital – the Reason for Basle III

It should be obvious by now that many of the largest worldwide banks need more capital.  Yes, even those in America.  (Consider the recent BAC denial of its need only to obtain capital within a week of the denial!)  The need for capital is why we have Basle III.  Unfortunately, the Basle III timeline is too lengthy, as the capital is needed now.  Without new capital, much of the developed world will suffer the fate that Japan has suffered over the past two decades and now present in the U.S., with banks too worried about capital levels to want to take on additional risk in the form of business loans.  Well-capitalized banks at least remove the constraint of loan availability when conditions are right for economic growth.

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

September 26, 2011

Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources.  Ancora West Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.Ancora West 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 the Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 8630 Technology Way, Suite A, Reno, NV 89511, Phone (775) 284-7778.

 

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