July 9, 2012

Economic issues, good and bad

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Europe, Federal Reserve, Finance, government, greece, Housing Market, International Swaps and Derivatives, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, Italy, recession, sovereign debt, Spain, taxes, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:17 PM by Robert Barone

This is a mid-year overview of the economic and policy issues in the U.S. and worldwide, both positive and negative. I have divided the issues into economic and policy issues. With enough political will, policy issues can be addressed in the short run, while economic issues are longer-term in nature and are clearly influenced by policy.

Positives

• Cheap energy (economics and policy): There is growing recognition that cheap energy is key to economic growth; the next boom will be based on cheap energy.
 
• Manufacturing (economics): After years of decline, American manufacturing is in a renaissance, led by the auto industry.

• Corporate health (economics): Large corporations are extremely healthy with large cash hoards and many have low cost and low levels of debt.

• Politics (policy): Americans are tired of special interests’ ability to pay for political favors.

 
Negatives
 
• Recession in Europe (economics): This has implications for world growth because Europe’s troubled banks are the engines of international lending; Europe’s economy rivals that of the U.S. in size.

• European Monetary Union (policy): A Greek exit from the euro is still probable after recent election and is likely to spread contagion to Portugal, Spain and even Italy. There is also danger here to America’s financial system.

• Brazil, Russia, India, China or the BRIC, Growth Rate (economics): China appears to be in danger of a hard landing, as is Brazil. India is already there. This has serious implications for commodity producers like Canada and Australia.

• Fiscal cliff and policy uncertainties (policy): A significant shock will occur to the U.S. economy if tax policy (Bush tax cut expiration and reinstatement of the 2 percent payroll tax) isn’t changed by Jan. 1, 2013.

• Entitlements (policy): Mediterranean Europe is being crushed under the burden of entitlements; the U.S. is not far behind. This is the most serious of the fiscal issues but the hardest for the political system to deal with.

• Housing (economic & policy): In the U.S., housing appears to have found a bottom, but because of falling prices and underwater homeowners, a significant recovery is still years away. Housing is a huge issue in Europe, especially Spain, and it will emerge as an issue in Australia and Canada if China has a hard landing.

• Energy costs (economics & policy): The current high cost of energy is killing worldwide growth (see “Positives” above).

• U.S. taxmageddon (policy): The U.S. tax system discourages savings and investment (needed for growth), encourages debt and favors specific groups.

• Too Big To Fail (TBTF) (policy): The U.S. financial system is dominated by TBTF institutions that use implicit government backing to take unwarranted risk; TBTF has now been institutionalized by the Dodd-Frank legislation; small institutions that lend to small businesses are overregulated and are disappearing.

• Debt overhang (economics): The federal government, some states and localities and many consumers have too much debt; the de-leveraging that must occur stunts economic growth.

• Inflation (economics & policy): Real inflation is much higher than officially reported. If a true inflation index were used, it is likely that the data would show that the recession still hasn’t ended.

It is clear from the points above and from the latest data reports that worldwide, most major economies are slowing. It is unusual to have them all slowing at the same time and thus, the odds of a worldwide recession are quite high.

In the context of such an event or events, the U.S. will likely fare better than most. But that doesn’t mean good times, just better than its peers. There is also greater potential of destabilizing events (oil and Iran, contagion from Europe, Middle East unrest), which may have negative economic impacts worldwide. Thus, in the short-term it appears that the U.S. economy will continue its lackluster performance with a significant probability of an official recession and vulnerable to shock type events. (Both the fixed income and the equity markets seem to be signaling this.)

 
 
The extension of Operation Twist by the Federal Reserve on June 20 (the Fed will swap $267 billion of short-term Treasury notes for long-term ones through Dec. 31 which holds long-term rates down) was expected, and continues the low interest rate policy that has been in place for the past four years. That means interest rates will continue to remain low for several more years no matter who is elected in November. Robust economic growth will only return when policies regarding the issues outlined in the table are addressed.

Looking back at my blogs over the years, I have always been early in identifying trends. The positive trends are compelling despite the fact that the country must deal with huge short-term issues that will, no doubt, cause economic dislocation.

The only question is when the positives will become dominant economic forces, and that is clearly dependent on when enabling policies are adopted. 1) In the political arena, there is a growing restlessness by America’s taxpayers over Too Big To Fail and political practices where money and lobbyists influence policy and law (e.g., the Taxmageddon code). 2) The large cap corporate sector is healthier now than at any time in modern history. Resources for economic growth and expansion are readily available. Only a catalyst is needed. 3) America is on the “comeback” trail in manufacturing. Over the last decade, Asia’s wages have caught up.

Cultural differences and expensive shipping costs are making it more profitable and more manageable to manufacture at home. 4) Finally, and most important of all, unlike the last 40 years, because of new technology, the U.S. has now identified an abundance of cheaply retrievable energy resources within its own borders. As a result, just a few policy changes could unleash a new era of robust economic growth in the U.S. Let’s hope those changes occur sooner rather than later!

 
Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value
Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, a 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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May 24, 2012

Too Big to Fail: Four Years Later, Things Are Riskier Than Ever

Posted in Banking, Ben Bernanke, Big Banks, Europe, Federal Reserve, Finance, greece, investment banking, investments tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:58 PM by Robert Barone

The turmoil in Europe, trading losses at JPMorgan (JPM), and recent revelations about naked short-selling by Goldman Sachs (GS) and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC) should be giving every American and every policy maker heartburn because each and every one of these issues has potential to cause systemic financial shocks. It all ultimately comes down to the continuing saga of “Too Big to Fail,” or TBTF. TBTF nearly brought the financial system down in ’08 and ’09. It was supposed to be fixed by the Dodd-Frank legislation. But today, the TBTF institutions are even bigger than they were in ’08.

European Worries

On a daily basis, reports indicate that instability is growing in the European Monetary Union’s (or EMU) banking system. There have been outright runs on Greek institutions and rumored runs on Spanish banks. In Greece, it’s been reported that some businesses will not accept euro notes (i.e., the paper currency) issued by the Greek central bank for fear that if Greece leaves the EMU, those notes will be turned into new drachmas, which will be worth only a fraction of what real euros are worth.

In the US, the paper currency is issued by a Federal Reserve Bank. There is a number on each bill (1 to 12) that shows which Federal Reserve Bank was the issuer. Like the US, each participating central bank in the EMU can issue currency; the first letter of the serial number is coded to indicate which bank issued it. Currency issued by the Greek central bank is coded with a “Y.” Some Greeks are demanding currency coded with an “X” ( i.e., Germany).

There are growing worries about European bank solvency, and Moody’s recently downgraded a significant number of the larger Spanish and Italian banks. If Greece leaves the EMU, contagion could result. If funding markets for European banks freeze (causing one or several institutions to be unable to meet their daily liquidity requirements), there is a high probability that any contagion would spread to US financial institutions.

At the very least, the interrelationships between large US and European institutions will cause significant issues if a fat tail event occurs on the continent.

In fact, on March 21, Fed Chairman Bernanke warned Congress that the risks of impacts from such events on US banks and money market funds appeared to be significant.

Lack of Internal Controls at TBTF Institutions

On May 11, Jamie Dimon announced that JPMorgan had lost $2 billion or more in a failed “hedge” trade. Since then, the estimates of the loss have escalated; some think it could be as much as $5 billion – $7 billion. This shows that even the best-of-breed bankers, like Mr. Dimon, are unable to place sufficient internal controls over the riskiest of operations.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen such trading blow-ups at several of the TBTF institutions. The so-called “Volcker Rule,” a portion of the Dodd-Frank legislation that is supposedly effective this fall, should prevent “proprietary trading” at the TBTF institutions. But many think that such rules will be easy to get around; Mr. Dimon has indicated that this huge loss was due to a failed “hedge,” and not proprietary trading. JPMorgan had $182 billion in capital according to their March 31 filings, so the loss of a few billion isn’t going to put this institution in any danger or require any taxpayer assistance.

However, on the Monday after the JPMorgan announcement (May 14), President Obama appeared on ABC’s The View and commented that it was a good thing that JPMorgan had plenty of capital, noting that had this happened at a weaker bank, “[W]e could have had to step in.”

Think about this statement. The first reaction to stress in the financial system is for the government to step in! Compare that to the first Chrysler bailout in 1979. At that time, Lee Iacocca, Chrysler’s Chairman and CEO, had to beg Congress for nearly four months for a loan guarantee (not a direct loan) of $1.5 billion.

In fact, the day before Mr. Dimon announced JPMorgan’s large loss problem, the FDIC’s acting Chairman, Martin Gruenberg, announced plans and procedures for the FDIC to seize large financial institutions “when the next crisis brings a major financial firm to its knees.” Instead of getting rid of TBTF, it is now institutionalized. The FDIC’s announced plans are simply in accordance with Dodd-Frank.

During the week of May 14, the lawyers representing Goldman Sachs and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in a lawsuit filed by Overstock.com filed an unredacted set of documents with the court (i.e., the whole document was submitted instead of only certain parts), thus putting them into the public domain.

Those documents revealed that these TBTF institutions knowingly ignored the laws and regulations against “naked” short-selling. When one sells “short,” one must first borrow the stock, or else there is nothing to prevent someone shorting (i.e., selling) so many shares as to significantly and negatively impact the market price for the stock (which is what a short-seller hopes for). “Naked” short-selling occurs when the stock is sold without borrowing it from another owner, and three business days later, the seller “fails” to deliver the stock.

Because of their size and power, the TBTF banks could depress the stock price of any company they choose. If one of their units puts a “sell” recommendation out and the trading department “naked” short-sells, then the “sell” recommendation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, in fact, is what Overstock.com’s lawsuit has been about.

So let’s review:

1. Bernanke worries that European bank insolvencies or liquidity issues may have significant systemic impacts on US financial institutions – if anyone knows, he should know.2. JPMorgan’s losses elicited a response from the US president about the immediate active role of government with regard to issues at the TBTF banks.3. The FDIC announced its policies, plans, and procedures to seize TBTF institutions when the next financial crisis occurs.

4. It has come to light that some TBTF institutions have skirted laws and regulations.

If there were no TBTF institutions in the US, then little of the above would be of concern. Instead:

1. While the European contagion would still be a worry, it wouldn’t be as much of a worry regarding its risk to our entire financial system because no one institution alone would be a systemic risk.2. The government shouldn’t ever have to “step in” if a bank failed. Sure, there would be market reaction and shareholders and bondholders would have consequences, but as long as the failed institution couldn’t cause systemic issues, there would be no need for government (taxpayer) involvement.3. The expensive and extensive policies and processes now being set up at FDIC would be unnecessary.

4. Without the power that comes with being TBTF, the “naked” short-selling and other abuses would be much less effective or profitable.

5. The TBTF institutions are so complex that even the likes of a Jamie Dimon can’t provide effective internal controls and risk management. Smaller institutions that have such issues won’t cause systemic risk.

The lessons of the ’08-’09 near systemic meltdown were clear: TBTF is a huge policy issue. Unfortunately, after Dodd-Frank, not only are TBTF institutions bigger and systemically more risky, but we now have a government all too willing, and maybe even eager, to “step in.”

 

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.

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.

 

September 14, 2011

Proper Policy and Economic Growth

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 10:52 PM by Robert Barone

As indicated in a previous blog post entitled “Why the U.S. Can’t Grow Its Way Out Of Its Budget Jam”, http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2011/09/06/why-the-u-s-cant-grow-its-way-out-of-its-budget-jam/2/ , if GDP growth is as slow as PIMCO’s “new normal” would indicate, then even if the Congress could muster the ‘political courage’ to fix the budget and entitlement issues, lack of growth will trump that effort.  The first issue is that we have a government that doesn’t understand why the economy isn’t growing, and, in fact, promotes policies that inhibit such growth, such as overregulation, interference, and the promotion of more debt as the answer.  The second issue is the structural inability of the economy to grow.  The two issues are closely related.

Policy Gimmicks

Since the Great Recession began (and some believe that it still has not ended) policy makers have used various gimmicks to try to kick start the economic engine.  On the fiscal side, we have seen programs like cash for clunkers or first time homebuyer tax credits that simply have pulled demand forward rather than stimulating new demand.  On the monetary side, Bernanke and the Fed, deathly afraid of “deflation” (we can’t understand why falling prices are worse than rising prices – falling prices make incomes go further, rising prices do the opposite!) have managed, through their policies, to significantly raise the dollar prices of food, energy and related commodities.  Meanwhile, those policies have not halted the significant deflation in housing and its surrounding industries.  From a consumer point of view, the things that they own continue to fall in value, while the things that they need to purchase have risen in cost.  How are they better off after QE1, QE2, and most likely, QE3?

The Key To Growth

One critical issue centers around the level of debt of the American consumer, especially relative to income.  Most of America’s larger corporations have already lowered this ratio and have lots of cash to spend.  Thus, we have witnessed the relatively good performance of the share prices for most of these non-financial entities since 2009.  But the U.S. consumer, without job opportunities, is in a different class.  Demand cannot grow without a healthy consumer.  And, without rising demand, the economy simply stagnates. Some who say they have studied the Great Depression and some commentators today, believe that World War II was the primary factor that pulled America out of depression (see Paul Krugman, “Oh! What a Lovely War!”, New York Times, August 15, 2011).  But think about this: after World War II ended, why would there be an increase in demand?  What had changed? (Yes, there was demand from war torn Europe and Japan.  But I don’t think rational folks would advocate that we destroy assets, our own or those owned by foreigners, so that we can rebuild them.  Don’t forget, when an asset is destroyed, a loss to someone has occurred. If insured, the owners of the insurance company pay; if not, the owners of the property pay.)

Why the Great Depression Ended

The build-up of debt over the 16 years ended in 2008 is similar to the same phenomenon of that occurred in the 1920s.  During World War II, there was rationing and forced saving.  People of that generation often talked about the fact that they couldn’t buy a car, or tires, and that gasoline was rationed. Rationing forced the populace to save and pay down their debt, so that, by the end of the War, the consumers’ debt/income ratios were once again healthy and there was the capacity to increase consumption.  Of course, the rationing caused a huge build-up of pent-up demand.

Table 1 shows consumer debt outstanding for selected years prior to and in the aftermath of the Great Depression.  Table 2 shows a similar growth path in consumer debt and debt as a percentage of GDP from 1992 to 2008.

Table 1 – Consumer Debt, Its Growth Rate, and Its Relationship to GDP

The Great Depression

Year

Consumer Debt

(Billions $)

Periodic

CAGR

Consumer Debt/

GDP

1920

2.964

3.4%

1929

7.116

+10.2%

6.9%

1933

3.885

-14.0%

6.9%

1941

9.172

+11.3%

7.2%

1944

5.500

-15.7%

2.5%

Table 2 – Consumer Debt, Its Growth Rate, and Its Relationship to GDP

The Great Recession

Year

Consumer Debt

(Billions $)

Periodic

CAGR

Consumer Debt/

GDP

1992

799.8

12.6%

2008

2563.7

+7.6%

17.9%

2010

2411.6

-3.0%

16.6%

Note the rapid rise in consumer debt in the 1920s followed by rapid contraction during the initial years of the Great Depression.  Then, debt grew rapidly again until 1941, at which point it contracted rapidly during the war effort due to rationing and the unavailability of consumer goods.  Note that the ratio of consumer debt/GDP was lower in 1944 than it was in 1920.  What had changed during the War was a significant reduction in the indebtedness of the American consumer.

No such rapid consumer debt reductions are evident in the Great Recession, at least not through 2010.  There has been some reduction as shown in Table 2.  But, we believe this is due more to mortgage defaults than to actual consumer debt repayments.  Note the rapid declines in debt in both the 1929-33 and 1941-44 periods.  Reductions of that magnitude are not present in the current economic climate, and some government policies (cash for clunkers, and foreclosure moratoria) discourage debt reduction.  Given what was necessary in the debt area for the consumer to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, it appears that we have quite a long way to go in the current environment.

What Policy Can Accomplish

The key to economic growth is rising demand.  This doesn’t happen when existing roads are repaved or unemployment benefits are extended because demand falls back as soon as the road project is finished or the unemployment benefits run out. And, if the funds came from Washington, all we’ve done is raise the level of debt for the sake of current consumption.  If fiscal policy is to be used to stimulate demand, there are several directions it should take.  Today, America suffers from high and rising real costs of energy at a time when real incomes have been stagnant and debt to income ratios have strangled consumption growth.  A fiscal policy that promotes the development of cheap energy now would 1) create jobs, 2) put cash back to America’s consumers via lower gasoline and energy bills, 3) improve America’s balance of trade, and 4) provide less cash to middle-east oil nations and impede their ability to finance terrorism.  We do believe in alternative energy sources when they make sense.  But, the U.S. has an abundance of oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear technology know how.  Those are the areas that will immediately help the real economy, and, perhaps, reduce the need to send our young people to fight on foreign soil.  Ask yourself why the unemployment rate in North Dakota is 3.3%.  The answer: oil and agriculture.  From 1976 to 2010, Canada’s unemployment rate averaged 8.5%.  In July, it stood at 7.2%.  The reason: Canada has become a major exporter of oil (to the U.S.!) and natural resources.  Consumer confidence there is much higher than similar measures in the U.S.  And its deficit/GDP is half.

Policy Interference

The second way fiscal policy can positively impact U.S. economic growth is to reduce government interference in business.  This isn’t only a federal issue, as state and local governments do their part to harass small business.  But, let’s face facts: the banking system is nearly nationalized with “Too Big To Fail” (now codified in Dodd-Frank as SIFIs -Systemically Important Financial Institutions) allowing the giants to take excessive risk while government regulators strangle the entrepreneurial spirit of most community banks.  For sure, the government is the only real player in the mortgage market through the bankrupt FNMA and FHLMC entities which control 90% of the market (while losing billions of dollars every month).  Additional regulation via Dodd-Frank and the encouragement of and participation in lawsuits against those private companies still in the mortgage business has already, or will soon, reduce private sector participation in mortgages just when the economy needs a recovering housing sector.

Housing Leads

Housing has always led the economy into recession.  But, it has always led it out.  Not this time.  The mortgage pendulum has swung from one extreme (breathing qualified one for a 125% LTV mortgage) to the other (huge down payments, high income/payment ratios, and a near universal requirement to qualify for sale to FNMA or FHLMC, which, as of October 1 will have lower maximum loan acceptance levels).  The promotion of a universal mortgage refinance idea being bandied around Washington may stimulate some demand as consumers who get lower rates and payments may have more monthly disposable income, but what has been forgotten, or conveniently not discussed, is the loss of that cash flow to the investors who own the mortgage instruments.  In other words, this is just an income redistribution scheme which may not produce many jobs because the owners of the now lower yielding mortgage paper are more than likely the job creating entrepreneurs.  The real issue here is the continued downward spiral of home prices.  The policies followed in Washington have simply prolonged the pain.

Tax Code Gibberish

The personal income of one of the authors is derived from wages and consulting income.  Yet, his tax return is more than an inch thick, costs $1,500 to produce, and is a maze of incomprehensible gibberish.  This is symptomatic of the unnecessary and burdensome set of rules that the federal government has imposed on its citizenry.  Because Dodd-Frank and the Obamacare legislation have yet to be fully implemented, we can expect higher costs and more job killing rules and regulations.

The Private Sector Creates jobs

The real creation of jobs occurs in the private sector, by the private sector, not in government or by government.  Policy can encourage or discourage such job creation.  More than any other era in our lifetimes, government policy has discouraged private sector job creation.  Today, like in the 1930s, consumers need to reduce their debt burdens.  Policy cannot do this directly.  The gimmicks used thus far have pulled demand forward, have taken from one set of citizens and given to another, have increased the debt which will reduce future consumption, or have inflated food and energy prices via money creation.

However, proper policies can encourage economic growth.  Unfortunately, there is no “instant” cure.  Equally unfortunate, a Presidential election is but 14 months away, and that “instant” cure is what is being sought.  What America needs are policies that encourage and promote cheap energy, reduce government regulation, a complete reformation of the tax code, and the encouragement of debt reduction all while addressing spending and entitlements.  The track record in Washington to accomplish this is nil.  It’s no wonder that the price of gold continues its ever upward path.

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

Matt Marcewicz

September 12, 2011

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 registration document, Form ADV, Part II.  A copy of this form may be received by contacting the company at: 8630 Technology Way, Suite A, Reno, NV 89511, Phone (775) 284-7778

 

September 13, 2011

The “New Normal” May Trump Political Courage

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 10:23 PM by Robert Barone

There are two huge issues facing the American economy today.  The first is a government that doesn’t understand why the economy isn’t growing, and, in fact, promotes policies that inhibit such growth, such as overregulation, interference, and the deployment of more debt as the answer.  The second issue is that inability to grow.  The two issues are closely related.

Despite Promises, Federal Spending is Out of Control

In looking at the trends in the Federal budgets, especially over the last decade, one word comes to mind – gold!  Despite all of the hand wringing and promises about spending cuts, it just doesn’t happen.  According to the Wall Street Journal (August 24), CBO projects that total Federal spending for fiscal year 2011 (which ends at the end of this month), will be $141 billion higher than 2010, and even higher than that of 2009 which was supposed to be the temporary spending peak.  The growth in Federal spending just for 2011 will be 4% higher than that of 2010.  Furthermore, exactly one month after the brouhaha over the debt ceiling in which a “temporary” debt ceiling cap some $400 billion higher was enacted, we find that the total debt has again exceeded the ceiling (Zerohedge, Déjà vu All Over Again…, 9/2/11).  Growth in Federal spending over the 50 years ending in 2010 has been at a compounded annual rate (CAGR) of 6.5%, while the growth rate of GDP during that same span was 5.7%.  Everyone knows that continual growth in Federal spending that exceeds the growth in the economy is simply unsustainable.  This, of course, has all come to a head because in the last 10 years, Federal spending grew at a CAGR of 7.1% compared to a CAGR of GDP of 3.9%.

Growth Rate of Entitlements

It isn’t a secret that the biggest issue in Federal spending is the so-called “entitlement” issue (although some object to the characterization of some aspects of “entitlements”, having contributed to Social Security and Medicare for all of their working lives).  Defining “entitlements” as “transfer payments” from the government to individuals, and going back to 1960, we find that such “transfers” were 26% of Federal tax collections.  Since then, those “transfers” have grown at a CAGR of 7.8%, while tax receipts and the economy have grown substantially more slowly, 5.6% and 5.7% respectively.  Thus, in 2010, “entitlement” payments were over 92% of Federal tax receipts.  That percentage was 64% as late as 2007, and has grown because of the demographics of Social Security and Medicare, but more so because of a massive jump in “Income Security” payments (defined by USDebtClock.org as Supplemental Security Income, Earned Income Credits, Unemployment Compensation, Nutrition Assistance, Family Support, Child Nutrition, Foster Care, and Making Work Pay).

Current Trends Mean Exploding Debt Ratios

Table 1 extrapolates current budget, tax and demographic trends using the underlying assumptions shown, most of which are drawn from CBO estimates for 2015 and then extrapolated further.

Table 1: GDP Growth = 3% CAGR

Entitlements/

GDP

Entitlements/

Fed Budget

Entitlements/

Tax Receipts

Deficit/GDP

Debt/GDP

2011

14.4%

60.7%

95.3%

8.6%

97.9%

2015

14.1%

54.4%

78.3%

7.9%

118.2%

2025

15.9%

61.5%

88.6%

7.9%

157.4%

2035

17.6%

68.1%

97.9%

7.9%

186.6%

Assumptions:
1) Social Security and Medicare expenditures per capita are from CBO 2015 estimates of approximately 1.6%.  The same CBO expenditures per capita are extrapolated to 2035.
2) CBO estimates that the 65+ age cohorts, as a percentage of total population, will increase from 21% in 2011 to 36% in 2035.
3) Population growth extrapolates the .94% CAGR for the decade ending in 2010 throughout the forecast period.
4) “Entitlements” in the model are defined as Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, Income Security, and Federal Pensions per the definitions found at USDebtClock.org.
5) Federal Pensions are projected by CBO to grow at a CAGR of 2.5% through 2015.  The table above extrapolates that CAGR throughout the forecast period.
6) Taxes/GDP rise from 15.1% in 2011 to 18.0% (near the 50 year mean of 18.3%) and remain at 18% for the forecast period.
7) The Federal budget grows at a 5.3% CAGR (per CBO) to 2015 after which its level is fixed as a percentage of GDP at that 2015 level.
8) The “Income Security” portion of “entitlements” shrink under CBO assumptions as “Unemployment Compensation” is assumed to fall.  After 2015, the Table assumes this category to grow at a CAGR of 1%.
9) Defense budget growth is 1.7% annually.

Because CBO assumed that the spike in “Income Security” that has occurred since ’07 would largely dissipate by 2015, the “entitlement” ratios shown in Table 1 all shrink until 2015.  However, despite the low (optimistic) 1.6% growth in per capital Social Security and Medicare expenditures of CBO, the “entitlement” ratios rise rapidly after 2015.  Worse, even under this extremely rosy set of assumptions, including the return of the tax take to 18% of GDP by 2015, the deficit as a percentage of GDP remains unsustainable, and the Debt/GDP ratio rises inexorably.

What Political Courage Means

Given this base case scenario, what do the Washington politicians have to do to fix the situation.  Table 2 uses the same model as Table 1 with the following changes:

  • The Social Security and Medicare growth rates are reduced from 1.6% to 1.0% over the forecast horizon;
  • The CAGR of the “Income Security” category is reduced from 1.0% after 2015 to 0.5%;
  • The CAGR of Defense spending is reduced from 1.7% to 1.0%;
  • The CAGR of Federal Pensions is reduced from 2.5% to 0.5%;
  • Total Federal spending only grows at a CAGR of 0.5% over the forecast horizon;
  • The tax take as a percent of GDP rises to 19%;
  • GDP growth remains at a CAGR of 3% over the forecast horizon.

Table 2: GDP Growth = 3% CAGR

Entitlements/

GDP

Entitlements/

Fed Budget

Entitlements/

Tax Receipts

Deficit/GDP

Debt/GDP

2011

14.4%

60.7%

95.3%

8.6%

97.9%

2015

13.7%

63.6%

72.0%

2.5%

105.1%

2025

14.5%

67.3%

76.2%

2.5%

100.4%

2035

15.0%

69.9%

79.2%

2.5%

96.8%

As is evident from the table, if the Washington politicians can find the courage to make hard decisions around the growth rate of “entitlements” and put itself on a no growth (0.5% – likely less than the rate of inflation) budget (still giving Washington 21.5% of America’s GDP, an historically high number), all of the critical ratios either slow their climb or reverse course.  Yet, even under such a politically unlikely scenario, many would say that even the outcome shown in Table 2 is not acceptable.

The “New Normal” May Trump Political Courage

Critical to this analysis is the growth rate of the GDP.  Clearly, a faster rate than the 3% shown above would have better results.  But a faster growth of GDP implies higher rates of inflation, and it is unlikely that the spending assumptions for Table 2 could be accomplished in an environment with significant inflation.  In real terms, the CAGR of GDP has been 3.1% over the 50 year period ended in 2010, but only 1.6% since 2000.  Recently, PIMCO’s Bill Gross stated that he believes that the U.S. has structurally changed such that nominal GDP growth will average between 0% and 2%.  Literally, this is more of the same anemic growth that we have seen in the U.S. since ’07.

Table 3 embodies the same assumptions as Table 2 except the CAGR of the GDP is reduced to 1%, per PIMCO’s view.

Table 3: GDP Growth = 1% CAGR

Entitlements/

GDP

Entitlements/

Fed Budget

Entitlements/

Tax Receipts

Deficit/GDP

Debt/GDP

2011

14.7%

60.7%

95.3%

8.8%

99.9%

2015

15.1%

63.6%

79.4%

4.7%

121.0%

2025

19.4%

81.9%

102.3%

4.7%

154.9%

2035

24.6%

103.4%

129.2%

4.7%

185.5%

Thus, even if the Washington politicians can summon the courage to do what they have never been able to accomplish in the past and slow the growth of “entitlements” and its own profligate spending, the debt and deficit levels remain unacceptable if the economy grows in nominal terms at PIMCO’s “new normal.”  This threatens the U.S.’s status in the world, and certainly the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.

Conclusion

It is imperative that U.S. economic growth return to its historic path of 3%.  And even then, the economic results depend on the level of political courage from the Washington pols.  To accomplish a return to economic health, fiscal and monetary policies must first return to balance.  Fiscal policy must refrain from the gimmicks used in the recent past, like cash for clunkers or homeowner tax credits, which have simply pulled demand forward, and monetary policy must stop monetizing the deficit.  Rather, the encouragement of investment through a rational and sane tax policy (e.g. flat tax or national sales tax), a reduction in government interference in the private sector (e.g., Dodd-Frank, the EPA, and Obamacare), and the use of policy to encourage the development of the nation’s natural resources (e.g., cheap energy) would be a good start to revive the nation’s economy.  But, as an election year approaches, doesn’t the word “gold” ring true?

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

Matt Marcewicz

September 6, 2011

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 registration document, Form ADV, Part II.  A copy of this form may be received by contacting the company at: 8630 Technology Way, Suite A, Reno, NV 89511, Phone (775) 284-7778

 

August 19, 2011

The Mortgage Market – An Impediment to Economic Growth

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 9:54 PM by Robert Barone

The lack of clarity surrounding U.S. and worldwide economic growth certainly played a big role in the recent Wall Street sell off.  In part, it was precipitated by the “debt ceiling” prank that was played upon the country and the world, especially after the market dissected the deal and found that, through the use of smoke and mirrors, economic growth (and therefore tax revenues) was assumed to be 4%, a growth rate that is hard to fathom, at least for the U.S. and Europe, given the financial landscapes in these two major consuming regions.

Housing & GDP

Housing is a case in point.  The direct contribution of Residential Fixed Investment to GDP was 4.8% in 1990, 5.2% in 2000, and 6.1% during the housing boom of 2005.  In this year’s first half, it registered 2.2%, the lowest level since records have been kept.  This measure of housing’s impact on GDP significantly understates its importance.  Ancillary to housing are such things as furniture and furnishings, appliances, demand for utilities, demand for other services such as landscape and repair, etc.  Then there is the multiplier impact of the earnings of construction workers as they spend those incomes in the course of everyday living.  It can be said with a high degree of certainty that U.S. economic growth will be weak until housing returns to some semblance of health.  Historically, changes in housing construction have contributed significantly to the business cycle, both to pushing the economy into recession, and to lifting it out.   In most post-WWII recessions, a housing turnaround usually starts before the recession ends.  Given the state of housing today, is it any wonder why the U.S. economy is at stall speed?

The Swinging Pendulum

In 2005 and 2006, if you could breathe, you could get a mortgage loan with little or nothing down and just your word on whether or not you could afford the payments.  But today, just when the economy needs a growing housing sector, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme.  Not only have most mortgage companies disappeared, but the criteria to qualify for those that are still in business are the strictest they have ever been.  In addition, Congress and the states have now placed many obstacles into the mortgage lenders’ paths including the promotion of legal actions against the largest mortgage lenders (or their successors) and the provision of legal aid, in the form of obstacles to the foreclosure process, to underwater homeowners who have quit making payments.

  • Bank of America (BAC) has tried to extract themselves from the litigation cesspool resulting from their acquisition of Countrywide with an $8.5 billion global settlement, which still has to be approved by the court. (Just think – BAC purchased this garbage heap without any government assistance – does this say something about BAC management?)  But, NY State’s Attorney General has decided that $8.5 billion is completely inadequate, indicating that the settlement should be in the $22 to $27.5 billion range.  At the same time, AIG is planning to sue BAC for $10 billion on the grounds that the mortgages it purchased from Countrywide were misrepresented (whatever happened to due diligence or buyer beware, especially for “sophisticated” investors?).
  • With all this going on, it isn’t any wonder that Jamie Dimon has decided to remove JPMorganChase (JPM) entirely from the mortgage business.  Dimon has proven over the years that he is an industry leader, so, his withdrawal from the mortgage business may be an omen of things to come.
  • Meanwhile, states are passing legislation aimed at “helping” consumers, but with vast unintended consequences for the mortgage markets.  Don’t misunderstand – I am not arguing in favor of the mega banks and Wall Street who have significant responsibility for the current state of housing in the U.S.  But, litigation and legislation could have the unintended consequence of further slowing and postponing any housing rebound:
  • According to Mark Hanson of M Hanson Research, California recently passed legislation prohibiting second lien holders from filing deficiency judgments in short sales.  Immediately JPM pulled all of their short sale second lien buyout acceptances, which forgive significant second lien deficiencies for a price of $3,000 to $5,000, and is now asking for 50% of the note amount.  This will nullify the short sale and force the first lienholder to foreclose, now giving JPM the right to a deficiency judgment.  Such legislation may have an adverse and unintended consequence of scuttling the short sale market in California, just when real progress was being made.
  • Nevada leads the nation in underwater mortgages.  Zillow reports those numbers are as high as 80% in Las Vegas and 70% in Reno.  To deal with this, the last Nevada legislature passed legislation which prohibits a first lienholder from collecting a deficiency judgment on a primary residence short sale.  This means that everyone underwater can walk away without significant consequences and presages even more short sales and foreclosures.  In addition, another law prohibits note holders who purchased mortgage notes at a discount from collecting more than they paid for the note in a foreclosure process.  The consequences of such interference can potentially be disastrous for the secondary mortgage market.  Taken to its logical conclusion, no one would be willing to purchase troubled loans at a discount because the best return possible is just a return of capital.

Bank Capital

Another drag on the mortgage market, and, in fact on the market for all non-government guaranteed private sector loans, is the push on the part of regulators to drive bank capital levels higher.  Too much leverage along with the repeal of Glass-Steagall certainly played a large role in the global financial crisis, whose second act is currently on stage in Europe.  Bank capital and liquidity ratios are now under close scrutiny, and the Basle III accords will require banks to hold significantly more capital and in purer form.  To “preserve” their capital and meet the stricter requirements, banks will prefer to invest in items exempt from the capital requirements (like government guaranteed paper) rather than placing assets in areas requiring high capital retention.  (The spenders in Washington appear to be quite comfortable with this!)  The unintended consequence here will be fewer “risky” loans, and those that are made will be at much higher interest rates to compensate for the additional capital required.

Qualified Residential Mortgage (QRM) and Qualified Mortgage (QM)

The Dodd-Frank legislation is also in the process of imposing significant restrictions on mortgage lenders.  One Washington lawyer, Laurence Platt, recently remarked that “the natural consequence of QM and QRM is that only the most privileged borrowers in our country will be able to get mortgage loans…”

QRM requires lenders to meet strict underwriting standards, which will be written into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines.  Failing that, the lender must retain 5% of the credit risk if the loan is sold or securitized.  QRM requires a minimum 20% down payment and very low debt to income ratios.  The FDIC has indicated that approximately $8.5 trillion of currently outstanding mortgage loans would not have qualified under these guidelines.  Lenders have testified that any non-QRM loan would be very expensive for consumers.

More scary is the QM standard which prohibits such things as negative amortization loans, loans with balloon payments, or loans with terms exceeding 30 years.  But the kicker to QM, as proposed, is that there are severe legal and monetary penalties to lenders if it is determined that the borrower did not have the “ability to repay” at the time the loan was originated.  Even “unintentional” violations can be fined at $5,000/day.  Imagine what the legal profession is going to do to this “ability to pay” standard.  I suspect that the fact that the home went into foreclosure will be a strike against the lender under QM.

Clearly, both the QM and QRM compliance nightmares discourage the reappearance of the small mortgage companies that dotted our landscape just a short 5 years ago.  Only the large institutions can afford the compliance here, and, as discussed above, they have other significant impediments to being in the mortgage business.

Fannie and Freddie Cutbacks

The bankrupt Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which currently purchase more than 90% of mortgages made today, are significantly reducing their loan maximums effective October 1.  This can’t be anything but negative for the mortgage markets.  As these two behemoths continue to cost taxpayers billions of dollars every month, sooner or later (certainly not until after the 2012 elections) their losses will have to be addressed.  Fannie and Freddie alone, in the current environment, cannot support a growing mortgage market with reasonably priced mortgages, a requirement for the U.S. economy to prosper.

Where are the Cash Down Payments?

According to Zillow, 26% of mortgages in the U.S. are underwater with some markets significantly higher.  Mark Hanson has made the point several times that when short sales or foreclosures occur, the former homeowner generally has no cash or resources to use as a down payment on another home.  (No wonder apartment REITs are booming!)  This alone culls the pool of potential home buyers.

Conclusion

In the end, the impediments to the mortgage market appear significant: litigation, new consumer “friendly” legislation, higher bank capital requirements, QM and QRM compliance issues, and lower maximum loan amounts from the bankrupt Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac entities are all coming together at once.  The reduction of the availability of mortgage money is a certainty.  In addition, a large swath of consumers with underwater mortgages and those with excessive credit debt burdens simply have no funds for the down payments that will now be required under the Dodd-Frank legislation.  Under such conditions, it is likely that home prices will continue their downward spiral and new home construction will continue at record low levels.

As stated at the beginning of this piece, housing has historically led the economy out of recessions.  Not this time!  Without a healthy housing sector, economic growth is significantly constrained.  Under these circumstances, the idea of 4%, or even 3%, economic growth reappearing in the U.S. anytime soon is a dream only Washington politicians can harbor.  The reality is that without a healthy housing sector, even 2% long term growth seems like a stretch, and the economy will remain vulnerable to outside shocks.

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

August 15, 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 obtained by contacting the company at: 8630 Technology Way, Suite A, Reno, NV 89511, Phone (775) 284-7778

July 13, 2011

Gold – Is it a Bubble?

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 9:23 PM by Robert Barone

Is the price of gold too high?  Too low?  Is it in bubble territory, ready to drop rapidly?  Think about what bubbles are – you know there is a bubble when everyone is trying to participate.  For example, during the dot.com bubble, my tennis pro was buying and selling options several times per day!  I knew we were in a bubble.  I even told him so.  And, during the housing bubble, all of the chatter at cocktail parties was about flipping houses as a side business.  I knew we were in a bubble (just didn’t know how frothy it really was!)  People say to me all of the time when I talk about gold: “I would love to own gold, but its price is just too high.”  Hmm!  Too high relative to what?

The price of gold certainly can be fickle.  After all, unlike other commodities that are essential inputs into some vital process (e.g. the production of energy or food), besides some very minor industrial applications, gold really has few practical uses (jewelry and art excepted).  There is nothing intrinsic in gold to give it value.  There is no cash dividend or earnings.  It goes up and down in value at the whims of investor demand.

Gold does have three characteristics that make it unique: 1) it is rare and hard to find (all the world’s gold is estimated to fit into two Olympic sized swimming pools); 2) it doesn’t change form – all of the gold ever mined is still with us as gold; 3) it cannot be “produced” via the combination of other materials.  Thus, its supply is well defined and increases very slowly and at great expense.  Thus, it is perfect as a medium of exchange or a store of value.

We all know what makes the demand for gold go up – distrust in fiat currencies, and government deficits resulting in paper money printing.  And that, of course, is why gold is rising in value today.  As long as that goes on, the price of gold will keep on rising. So, what could happen to make it fall in value?  I have listed several things below which could happen – I will let you be the judge of their likelihood:

  • The U.S. and the rest of the developed world (Europe) stop running fiscal deficits and stop printing money.  There is an immediate opportunity for this to begin in the U.S. if the GOP and Obama Administration can agree on significant spending cutbacks.  This means entitlement reform.
  • The U.S. economy magically finds its feet and its growth rate increases such that the unemployment rate begins to rapidly fall without additional monetary or fiscal stimulus.  Interest rates would be rising too.
  • As a subset of the above, housing prices find their bottom and begin to rise with home sales and new home construction picking up.
  • The dollar reverses is slide as the premier world reserve currency and becomes demanded because of its intrinsic strength, not just because it is better than all of the other bad alternative currencies (e.g., the Euro). (This requires fiscal and monetary discipline and a reduction in both public and private debt loads.)

As long as gold is viewed as the ultimate monetary unit, its value will increase (decrease) with the debasement (strength) of the fiat currencies.

Robert Barone, Ph.D.

July 13, 2011

Robert Barone is a Principal and an Investment Advisor Representative of Ancora West Advisors LLC, Reno, NV, a SEC Registered Investment Advisor.The mention of gold, commodities, or similar investments in this article should not be considered a recommendation to sell or purchase any commodity or similar investments mentioned.  Please consult an investment professional on how the purchase or sale of such investments can be implemented to meet your particular investment objective or goals.   Investments in gold, commodities, and/or similar investments are subject to risks.  It is important to obtain information about and understand these risks prior to investing.

 

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