Saturday, August 29, 2009

Same as it Ever Was Pt. II

William Cohan over at The Atlantic (I am really starting to like that magazine) has a nice article, entitled "An Offer He Couldn't Refuse" (but the online version is entitled "The Final Days of Merrill Lynch"), describing the events leading up to and during the purchase of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America; a transaction which was, for all intents and purposes, forced upon BofA by the thuggery of Bernanke and Paulson and, by extension, the Fed and U. S. Government (and, by extension, the U.S. citizenry -- you and me). I won't excerpt out the juicy bits for you, but this quote is central to the real issues of the legality and Constitutionality of what Bernanke and Paulson did:
" also sounds an awful lot like what happens in a banana republic or in Putin's Russia, when the captains of industry did favors for the government in exchange for economic subsidies. How do you stop from going down the slippery slope and becoming like Putin's Russia?"
There is decent discussion about the vast amount of "moral hazard" wrought by Bernanke and Paulson (not just with regard to the Merrill deal, but also the GM bail out, TARP, etc.), the sanctity of contracts, and how the markets can function properly if the rules can change whenever the Fed or government decides to change them or if big risk-takers can bet on being bailed-out.

PS - The graphic in the online version of the article is just part of the full graphic in the print version. The full graphic is priceless as it shows Lewis being forced into eating from a bowl of bubbling, green, malignant, toxic sludge.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Same as it Ever Was

One thing that has angered me so much about the housing bubble was how something as basic and necessary as a home was now treated like an investment and a cash machine. This change in attitude towards such a basic need was, of course, all just one small part of an unfortunate transition towards a society where jobs are transitory, where people likely face having more than one "career", lost pension plans, layoffs, outsourcing, bankrupt social security and Medicare, and all the rest. In response we became a nation of self-proclaimed investors and traders. We allowed ourselves to be convinced that 401Ks, IRAs, ROTHs, stocks, bonds, REITs, etc. and, oh of course, houses were viable proxies for retirement savings. There was (almost) no risk because we were so willing to believe what we wanted to believe: it was "different this time", it was a "new era", stock market valuations no longer mattered, debt no longer mattered, the development of "wealth creation technology", "almost all if not all of those gains are here to stay", "Fifteen percent is pretty much in the bag", "buy now or be priced out [of the housing market] forever", etc, etc, etc. And it had the added benefit (some might say delusion) that we could "live it up" and spend 100% of our earnings since our houses and Wall Street were saving for us.

I have absolutely no problem with people who choose to invest or trade. But I think there are some things that are just too important to people, our communities, and society to risk being treated as an investment (and therefore prone to becoming a bubble or speculative mania) and housing is definately one of them.

You see, the problem with investing is that sometimes you lose. It has to be so; there are always two sides of a trade; someone wins and someone loses. We seem to have forgotten that inconvenient fact or, rather, we no longer take personal responsibility for that fact -- we are entitled to a profit don'tchyaknow. We seem to have allowed ourselves to believe all the hype and garbage that bankers, realtors, Wall Streeters, Fedsters, and everyone else with a vested interest, would like us to believe... that we can all be winners if only we bring "a bucket of money and a box of stupid" to the bargaining table. And what's worse is that The System has become so dependent on debt and investment dollars, the transition from a nation that produces to one that consumes has been so complete, that losses can no longer be tolerated and certain businesses are believed to be "too big to fail". Hence, massive bailouts of the very people and institutions that got us in to the current economic mess and a recession that has been called the "worst since [the] Great Depression".

Which (finally) leads me to my point (if I even have one): you would think that now, finally, we would understand the folly of our ways and, you know, try and fix things at least as far as housing is concerned. But you would be wrong. You see, the debt-based consumption economy in combination with the "too big to fail"/bailout mentality means that reckless risk-taking is officially encouraged by even the highest echelon of government. We are content to just pretend that everything is now fixed, everything is ok, and while no one is looking, conduct business as usual but just disguise it a bit and pretend it is a fix because, after all, if it blows up we can just bailout the system with taxpayer dollars and burden future generations with more of our debt... they won't mind:
Much to their dismay, Americans learned last year that they “owned” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Well, meet their cousin, Ginnie Mae or the Government National Mortgage Association, which will soon join them as a trillion-dollar packager of subprime mortgages. American taxpayers own Ginnie too...

Herein lies the problem. The FHA’s standard insurance program today is notoriously lax. It backs low downpayment loans, to buyers who often have below-average to poor credit ratings, and with almost no oversight to protect against fraud. Sound familiar? This is called subprime lending—the same financial roulette that busted Fannie, Freddie and large mortgage houses like Countrywide Financial...

On June 18, HUD’s Inspector General issued a scathing report on the FHA’s lax insurance practices... The FHA’s reserve fund was found to have fallen in half, to 3% from 6.4% in 2007—meaning it now has a 33 to 1 leverage ratio, which is into Bear Stearns territory. The IG says the FHA may need a “Congressional appropriation intervention to make up the shortfall.” the FHA, the [mortgage] down payment requirement remains a mere 3.5%. Other policies—such as allowing the buyer to finance closing costs and use the homebuyer tax credit to cover costs—can drive the down payment to below 2%.

Then there is the booming refinancing program that Congress has approved to move into the FHA hundreds of thousands of borrowers who can’t pay their mortgage, including many with subprime and other exotic loans...This program is intended to reduce foreclosures, but someone has to pick up the multibillion-dollar cost of the 30% loan forgiveness. That will be taxpayers.

In some cases, these owners are so overdue in their payments, and housing prices have fallen so dramatically, that the borrowers have a negative 25% equity in the home and they are still eligible for an FHA refi.

A few weeks ago a House committee approved legislation to keep the FHA’s loan limit in high-income states like California at $729,750. We wonder how many first-time home buyers purchase a $725,000 home. The Members must have missed the IG’s warning that higher loan limits may mean “much greater losses by FHA” and will make fraudsters “much more attracted to the product.”

...Is anyone on Capitol Hill or the White House paying attention? Evidently not, because on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue policy makers are busy giving the FHA even more business while easing its already loosy-goosy underwriting standards.

When does We the People get fed up? Or are we just a nation of hypocrites who will tolerate any wrong as long as we think we can profit by it?
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