March 9, 2012

Wall Street gives Hayes the runaround

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

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

February 22, 2012

Dr. Robert Barone Interview with Face the State on KTVN News Ch2

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Business Friendly, Economy, Education, Finance, Foreclosure, Gaming, government, Housing Market, investment advisor, Las Vegas, Nevada, taxes, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:15 PM by Robert Barone

If you missed the televised interview with Robert Barone on February 16th, 2012 with Face the State on Ch.2 News, you can watch the video by clicking the link below.

Dr. Robert Barone Interview with Face the State on KTVN Ch. 2 News

February 16, 2012

Debunking the Warren Buffett Tax Deception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 7, 2011

Severe Europe-Wide Recession Likely for 2012

Posted in Banking, Europe, Finance, Foreign, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, sovereign debt, Stocks, taxes tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:25 PM by Robert Barone

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Given the speed at which markets move, and given the volatility that accompanies the hopes and fears that occur when the key European leaders meet to try to make progress on the European debt crisis, it is somewhat risky to try to describe what will happen to the European Monetary Union (EMU) in 2012. Something that I write today, in early December, could be obsolete as early as next week. So, I will approach this with what I consider to ultimately be the most likely scenario, why it is most likely, and where the remaining dangers lie.

There are two opposing forces in Europe regarding the approach that should be taken to resolve the crisis:

  • Those that want the European Central Bank (ECB) to act just like the U.S. Fed and rapidly expand its balance sheet, either to support a strengthened European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), or directly. The ECB has no mandate in its charter to do this;
  • Those that want the causes of the crisis, overspending and out of control deficits via entitlement and social welfare spending, to be addressed. While these folks appear to be the minority among the political class, their strength lies in the fact that the politicians representing the economically strongest EMU member, Germany, hold this view.

As an aside, some have wondered why the euro has kept its value high vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar. It is precisely because the ECB hasn’t significantly expanded its balance sheet while the U.S. Fed has. In fact, the big worldwide market rally on Nov. 30 due to the “coordinated” central bank policy of insuring liquidity for Europe’s banks, was a “dollar” policy, i.e., dollars, not euros were made available. So far, the ECB appears to have remained faithful to its mandate as the guardian against inflation, and nothing else.

Most Likely Scenario

The U.S. Fed tripled the size of its balance sheet with some apparent success at keeping its financial system from collapsing and, until now, those actions appear to have had no apparent large unintended consequences. There has been some moderate inflation officially reported (and disputed by some), and some believe that the Fed’s balance sheet expansion has been behind the rapid rise in commodity and food prices. But given the apparent success in staving off financial collapse with such policies, the most likely scenario is the first one outlined above, i.e., the use of the ECB or some structure around it (including the EFSF and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)) to directly purchase or partially guarantee the sovereign bonds of the peripheral countries.

>>Saving Euro a Tall Order, Even for Germany

The “bazooka” theory appears to apply here. As long as the market knows that the ECB has a bazooka (the power and authority to print euros), and is willing to use it, it won’t have to. As U.S. Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson found out in 2009 that the “bazooka” theory doesn’t always work. Time and again, the capital markets have demonstrated that they are much more powerful than any central bank or sovereign treasury.

Verifiable Austerity

The most likely scenario, then, is an emerging consensus in Europe as follows: Through a series of bilateral agreements to avoid having to get 17 separate countries to approve changes to the treaties that govern the EMU, a painstakingly long process, the offending peripheral countries (Italy, Portugal, Spain, and perhaps, Ireland) may agree to some level of verifiable austerity with benchmarks and external audits. In return, Germany and its political allies will permit the ECB to expand its balance sheet either by directly purchasing the sovereign debt of the peripheral countries, or by making credit available to the EFSF or whatever structure emerges.

Once again, as an aside, under this scenario, you can expect the value of the euro to fall relative to other currencies. Of course, if the U.S. Fed embarks on QE3, the euro’s relative value to the dollar may well hold.

Recidivism?

Of course, once the crisis atmosphere passes and things settle down, under this most likely scenario, the peripheral countries may not feel the pressure to continue with their promised austerity. Don’t forget, politics plays a large role and austerity often leads to political defeat for those politicians who negotiated it. Already we have seen political changes in Greece, Italy and Spain as a result of this crisis.

Perhaps these countries will follow Greece’s lead and hire Goldman Sachs to help them issue off the books debt so that they have the appearance of complying with their austerity promises. That could very well buy several years, as it did for Greece. (Ireland appears to be an exception. After their bailout, they appear to have abided by their austerity promises and have made great progress in addressing their fiscal and economic issues. Then, again, none of Ireland’s shores touch the Mediterranean Sea.)

Issues Remain

So, as we enter 2012, the stage is set for some calming over Europe’s sovereign debt and the solvency of Europe’s banks. Mind you, it may be a rocky road over the near term to get there including setbacks and lots of uncertainty and market volatility. The biggest issues will likely revolve around the magnitude of the guarantees and the capacity of the guaranteeing entities. Nevertheless, the most likely scenario is coming into clearer focus.

Unfortunately, this scenario, or any other one that emerges, means recession in Europe, most likely severe recession. This has implications for markets worldwide, as Europe’s economy matches or exceeds the size of the U.S., depending on which countries you include. Once again, the recession, coupled with the austerity measures, may change the political backdrop such that the populations of some of the peripheral countries may well want to exit the EMU.

While 2012 may bring calmer conditions, even if the most likely scenario is executed, the future of the euro and the EMU is still not assured. It rests on the effectiveness of the fiscal controls. If EMU members retain sovereignty over their fiscal policies, then there has to be some mechanism to expel fiscal offenders from the EMU in an orderly manner. Without this, we may well see a replay of this crisis within the decade. Let’s hope there is enough political courage to include such measures.

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.

 

November 23, 2011

Super Committee Could Hurt Dollar’s Reserve Currency Status

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 4:30 PM by Robert Barone

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — The decisions of the Super Committee are likely to have more far-reaching implications than are currently envisioned, as the deliberations have been cast only in political terms by the media. There are, however, significant long-term economic implications.
As we have seen over the past couple of weeks in Europe, contagion can spread like wildfire. The bond yield spreads to U.S. Treasuries or German Bunds on all European peripheral country debt, and even on the debt of AAA rated (at this writing) France, have widened significantly and are displaying huge volatility depending on the day’s headlines.
>>Debt Super Committee Could Spoil the Holidays
Luckily for the U.S., the dollar is still the world’s reserve currency and, in a world of fiat currencies, shows up as the least risky because of its worldwide liquidity and its unabashed penchant to use its money printing press in a financial crisis. So, despite the imbalances clearly present in the U.S. today (see U.S. Debt Crisis: What’s the End Game? ), there still exists a “flight to the lowest perceived risk” (formerly known as “flight to quality”), when crisis and uncertainty rear their ugly heads.

Benefits of Reserve Currency Status

The rapid spread of the contagion in Europe should be a wake-up call to U.S. policy makers, especially the Super Committee. Any stumble or failure to propose something significant in the form of deficit reduction could further jeopardize the dollar’s reserve currency status and bring the day of reckoning perilously closer. The Nov. 14 edition of Barron’s (Enter the Yuan) set forth five benefits of reserve currency status:
  • Investor willingness to hold your currency and paper;
  • The ability to print money to purchase foreign assets — without paying any interest;
  • Easy issuance of debt and worldwide acceptance;
  • Deeper financial markets ultimately benefiting your financial institutions;
  • Conducting trade in your currency which avoids exchange rate risk and benefits your exporters.
Think of what could happen to the U.S. without reserve currency status. Like what has already happened in the European periphery countries, interest rates would rise. This will occur even if the U.S. shares reserve currency status, which is the most likely initial scenario. I (see Wow-II! That’s A Lot of Interest!) and other prominent economists have estimated the cost of debt in the U.S. if rates rise. Some possible scenarios are truly frightening in that the cost of the debt relative to the federal budget and GDP could put the U.S.’s debt burden on par with or higher than that of Greece, Italy and the other countries involved in Europe’s debt crisis. 
For sure, as I opined in the above referenced blog on Dec. 1, 2010, “[g]iven the structural nature of the deficit and the difficulty of slowing or reversing defense costs or the costs of ‘social’ categories, even small upward changes in interest rates … will exacerbate the deficit and economic growth issues.” Thus, preserving reserve currency status, just for the lower interest rates that accompany it, is critical.

Recession Implications, QEs and the Financial System

While recent data suggest that a U.S. recession is not imminent, some leading edge economists and even the San Francisco Fed believe that the inevitable recession in Europe in 2012, a slowing growth rate in Asia and China, and fiscal austerity at the state and local levels could tip the U.S. into recession. The San Francisco Fed says this probability is above 50%. A renewed recession will certainly cause the Fed to embark upon additional QEs, and the Administration and Congress will react by increasing the deficit (after all, it is an election year!). This will further erode the world’s confidence in the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
The U.S. financial system was not “fixed” by TARP or Dodd-Frank. MF Global has shown that some of these institutions still have insanely high levels of leverage and are more than willing to make “all in” bets. An implosion in European financial institutions may negatively impact both the mid-sized and the Too Big to Fail institutions and cause further credit tightening. Under such circumstances, I can envision another TARP-like response from the Treasury and Fed with more money printing and secret lending further eroding the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.
One has to wonder why China hasn’t come to Europe’s aid given that China exports as much or more to Europe as it does to the U.S. The answer could be that China has a long-term plan to vault the Renminbi (RMB or Yuan) toward reserve currency status. The benefits are numerous as outlined above. Already McDonalds, Caterpillar, Unilever, UBS, Volkswagen and the World Bank have issued bonds denominated in RMB in the Hong Kong market. It is no secret that China wants its emerging market trading partners to settle merchandise trades in RMB and wants a financial center on par with New York and London on its mainland. So, a flailing Euro and QEs in the U.S. advance the RMB as a potential reserve currency.
The importance of the Super Committee recommendations for the dollar’s status in the world and the special privileges, liquidity, and low borrowing rates that accompany that status cannot be overemphasized. Failure to make significant progress will only hasten the day when there won’t be a “King Dollar.” The end result will be higher borrowing rates, lower economic growth, a continuation of depressed economic conditions, and a further lowering of the U.S.’s standard of living.
TheStreet
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.

November 18, 2011

U.S. Debt Crisis: What’s the End Game?

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 11:52 PM by Robert Barone

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — It is pretty much settled that the European Monetary Union, as it is now constituted, cannot survive. It is just a matter of whether the course of events will be disruptive, or will be coordinated by the European leaders. Given what we have observed over the past year-and-a-half regarding their unfolding debt crisis, I suspect the former. We may even see bank runs, frozen credit markets, plunging equity values and other ugly stuff if the political forces there don’t get their acts together real soon.

But, let’s not be so naïve as to think that we, in America, are immune from a similar scenario. No, the dollar isn’t going to break down into a set of regional currencies, although I do suspect that the coming QEs (3, 4, 5…) will significantly lower its value. What I am talking about is the inability of the U.S. political system to effectively deal with the economic imbalances that have developed in America, mostly in this century. By always kicking the can down the road, as only the skilled politicians in Europe and America can do, they assume the risk that the inevitable changes that must come to restore balance will be disruptive, even violent, rather than controlled and coordinated.

Nov. 23, 2001 — that is the next critical date for the financialmarkets, as they hang on the pronouncements of politicians, in this case, a subset of the U.S. Congress dubbed the deficit super committee. We have recently witnessed the skill with which Europe’s political leaders manipulated market sentiment each week as they continually showed their mastery of the art of can kicking.

>>Super Committee: Failure Isn’t an Option

In the U.S., progress on its own debt crisis should be much easier to achieve than in Europe, as only two sides have to agree, as opposed to 17 disparate and culturally diverse entities that form the European Monetary Union. But, because we are only 12 months from major U.S. elections, real progress on deficit reduction is unlikely. The U.S. debt crisis will surely be kicked further down the road.

Even in the unlikely event that the deficit super committee finds the $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion that they are looking for (there appears to be a bipartisan subgroup within the super committee pushing for such a result), such cuts will be placed in the out years, only to be recast, manipulated, or simply forgotten or ignored by the next generation of the political elite occupying the halls of Congress in 2021. Further, in reality, $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion is only a drop in the bucket of the spending problem in Washington, D.C., and, even if agreed to, won’t make much of a difference except to instill some hope in the equity markets, perhaps enough for 300 or 400 Dow points on or before Nov. 23.

In reality, the underlying social and economic issues in the U.S. are not really different from those of Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain or Ireland. They revolve around overpromised entitlements and a rapidly developing entitlement mentality, overpaid government workers, an elite class of wealthy, a broken financial system, a business climate stifled by government regulations, a dwindling middle class, and an over-indebted consumer with a shrinking real income. We all recognize these as underlying causes for Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, but each and every one of these is a huge issue in America, none of which are likely to be addressed by the super committee, or, for that matter, by any committee until at least 2013.

Ultimately, failure to address these issues will cause a social backlash. It may well be through the regular political process, but the more the can is kicked down the road, the more likely it is that the social unrest will demonstrate itself through another process altogether. The Occupy Wall Street movement is but a canary in the coal mine.

The following imbalances are well documented:

  • Overpromised entitlements — these include more than $100 trillion of Social Security and Medicare benefits, food stamps for 45 million Americans, 99 weeks of unemployment benefits (while you are only counted as unemployed for 52 of those 99 weeks), underfunded state and local government pension plans, and overpaid government workers relative to the private sector;
  • A corrupt financial system in cahoots with whichever political party is in power that is encouraged to take excessive risks, reap outsized rewards, and is protected from their blunders by a powerful central bank with access to the only money printing press. Interestingly, the investing public has not made a significant return on their investible assets in this century while Wall Street bankers have become uber-wealthy;
  • The middle class in America is rapidly disappearing and the disparity between rich and poor widens every day:

– The cost of a college education (or even sometimes a decent high school one) is out of reach for huge segments of the population. A student loan bubble has developed. Guaranteed student loans are the only loan segment in U.S. banks that have grown since ’07, but given job prospects in a slow growth economy and liberalized rules for repayment, much of the $1 trillion of such outstanding loans are unlikely to be repaid, once again placing the burden of the financing on an unsuspecting taxpayer; – A housing crisis that has significantly impaired the savings and equity of most of America’s middle class, a crisis caused by the easy money policies of the central bank, the ill conceived ideas of a few in Congress regarding housing, and a quasi-government agency with a lust for power and greed on the part of its management;

  • An interventionist government that picks the winners and the losers (Too Big To Fail banks, GM, Solyndra, wind and solar energy) with its army of rule makers, attorneys, and income redistributionists rather than allowing the free market, which gave America its greatness, to choose.

So far, the Washington, D.C. elites have relied on traditional Keynesian means of deficit spending or interest rate manipulation to address some of these issues. But those measures simply do not work. Total debt is already too large, and creating more of it doesn’t help. And, the Fed is now impotent. As Bill Gross recently observed, lowering interest rates will not make U.S. manufacturing more competitive, doesn’t change the dynamics of a retail trade industry impacted by internet shopping, and actually hurts seniors and retirees trying to live off of investment income.

Like in Europe, the ultimate end game in the U.S. will be rebalance. The resolution of the above-mentioned issues can still be addressed within the existing political framework in a peaceful, well thought out, and coordinated way. But, if the can kickers in Washington, D.C. refuse to tackle those issues, they will be taking the risk that the inevitable rebalancing will occur through a disruptive and/or violent process.

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 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.

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