Tag Archives: economy

Begging the Banks

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson today called on the banks that the federal government has just given $250 billion dollars to make that money available to others in the economy.

“We must restore confidence in our financial system,” Paulson said. “The needs of our economy require that our financial institutions not take this new capital to hoard it, but to deploy it.”

The “needs of our economy” might require that the banks not hoard the money that the government has given them, but the Bush administration isn’t requiring much of anything.

I agree with Paulson that the economy will not begin to recover until there is liquidity in the credit markets.  That, indeed, was the rationale behind the government’s massive and unprecedented bailout of the financial industry.

Why, then, is Paulson asking the banks to do the only thing that justified giving them those billions of taxpayer dollars?

If, as is apparent to just about everyone, the economy will not recover until liquidity is restored to financial markets, why doesn’t the federal government require that the banks not hoard the billions that the government is giving them?

The answer is that, despite the acuteness of the financial crisis, and despite the government’s belated decision to take large scale action, the basic approach of the Bush administration has not changed.

In fact, for the past year, the Bush administration has taken a consistent, and faulty, two pronged approach to dealing with the expanding economic crisis, and this approach has not changed with the latest bailout.

This two pronged approach is

  • (1) make capital available at extremely low rates to banks and financial institutions with the goal of restoring liquidity, and then
  • (2) beg and plead with these same banks and financial institutions to move this capital into the economy.

As the housing and mortgage crisis worsened, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced a series of cuts in interest rates.  Each time, Bernanke repeated his call for lenders to voluntarily reduce the principal on delinquent loans to adjust them for the drop in home prices, rejecting the far more more forceful action proposed by Democrats favoring legislation that would require the refinancing of hundreds of thousands of mortgages.

Of course, the banks did not voluntarily do what Bernanke requested.

Now Treasury Secretary Paulson is following the same dead end path in asking the banks to voluntarily take the actions that are needed for the restoration of the market.

The Bush adminstration’s beg and plead approach did not work in the past, and it will not work now.

Of course, no one, except the apocalypticals of the far Left and Right, and Libertarians driven crazy by ideology or alcoholism, want to see the global economy collapse.  Sane people don’t want to see bread lines or live with their guns at the ready in a bunker in the woods.

But we can now longer expect that capitalists, driven by personal gain, will voluntarily act to save the system that sustains them.

What is needed is a comprehensive and mandatory overhaul of the entire banking and financial system and the credit markets on the order of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.

And for that, we’ll have to wait at least until a new Congress, a new administration, and a new political and economic philosophy take over in January 2009.

I hope we last that long.

Morals, Money and the Bailout

We’ve heard lots of moralism about the economy recently from both ends of the political spectrum.  Wall Street is guilty of greed and homeowners in trouble are guilty of irresponsibility. Instead of offering a cogent systemic analysis of how we got into this financial mess, and the best way to change our economic and financial system in order to fix it, both parties seem to prefer preaching about the wages of sin. 

But while wagging a self-righteous finger while invoking the Seven Deadly Sins (in particular Greed, Envy, Sloth, and Pride, but we could also make a case for Gluttony and Lust) makes for good politics, it is a terrible way to approach the current crisis. 

We should not expect capitalists not to be greedy.  And we should not expect consumers to want fewer or less expensive goods, including fewer and less expensive homes and cars.

The desire for more, for bigger, and for better is not the enemy of capitalism. 

Unregulated capitalism is the enemy of capitalism.

What we should expect, and what we need, is for the economic and financial system to be structured by law and regulation to channel the desires of both capitalists and consumers for more, for bigger, and for better into productive, sustainable economic growth.

Moralism won’t get us there, and will distract us from seeing the problem for what it is: a matter of systemic, not moral or individual, failure.

McCain’s Economic Plan: Blame Minorities

Fox News’ Neil Cavuto made news of his own this week by suggesting that the credit crisis was caused by loans made to minorities

On Fox’s “Your World” on September 18, Cavuto asked Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), “[W]hen you and many of your colleagues were pushing for more minority lending and more expanded lending to folks who heretofore couldn’t get mortgages, when you were pushing homeownership … Are you totally without culpability here? Are you totally blameless? Are you totally irresponsible of anything that happened?” Cavuto also said, “I’m just saying, I don’t remember a clarion call that said, ‘Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster.’” 
 
This wasn’t the first time that Cavuto blamed loans to minorities for the credit crisis.  In an exchange with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) on September 16, Cavuto said “[Y]ou wanted to encourage minority lending — obviously, a lot of Republicans did as well. There was a lot of — expand lending to those to get a home,” Cavuto then rhetorically asked, “Do you think, intrinsically, it was a mistake, on both parties’ part, to push — to push for homeownership for everybody?”  Unlike Becerra, Hoyer either didn’t understand what Cavuto was saying or simply rolled over. “I think clearly what happened,” Hoyer replied, “ is Fannie and Freddie got caught up in trying to do what the Congress wanted done.”

This is not just a generic attack on minorities.

What is going on here is an attempt by Republicans to deflect public outrage from the credit industry, the investment banks and their Republican deregulators and to place the blame for the crisis credit on the government and the Democrats. 

That’s why John McCain and his Republican apologists have focused their ire on the quasi-governmental institutions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rather than on the wholly private companies and individuals behind the credit meltdown.

Every time McCain or one of the Republican talking-pointers blasts Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the message is: “These are government institutions, run by Democrats. They caused the credit crisis by pushing the Democratic Party agenda, including homeownership for minorities who could not afford to buy homes and should have been content to be renters. Blame them, not us.”

But are they right?  How big a problem are loans to minorities?  And should any future regulation of the credit and mortgage industry eliminate the mortgages that allowed so many minorities to become homeowners?

The answer is No.

The facts show that there has been tremendous racial disparity in lending is growing, and that the subprime mortgage crisis has disproportionately affected minority borrowers. Banks such as JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Countrywide issued high-cost subprime loans to minorities more than twice as often as to whites and, at some institutions, the number of high-cost subprime loans issued increased even amid a growing credit liquidity crisis.

Citigroup in 2007 made higher-cost subprime loans 2.33 times more frequently to blacks than to whites. During the same period, JP Morgan Chase made higher-cost subprime loans 2.44 times more frequently to blacks and 1.6 times more frequently to Hispanics than to whites. Bank of America extended to blacks higher-cost loans 1.88 times more frequently, and Country Financial extended to blacks higher-cost loans 1.95 times more frequently than to whites. A study released in 2006 found that blacks and Hispanics were often two or three times more likely to receive high-cost subprime mortgages than were white borrowers.

So, yes, minorities were very much more likely to receive high-cost subprime loans than whites. Yet as Robert J. Shiller of Yale University and Austan D. Goolsbee of the University of Chicago have pointed out, although minorities have been hit hard by the subprime bust, the overall affect of the subprime mortgage boom for minorities was mostly positive.

Both Shiller and Goolsbee think that minorities benefited tremendously by financial innovations created by the mortgage and banking industries, and they have cautioned against reacting to the subprime crisis by restricting innovative mortgage practices that allowed minorities greater access to the American Dream of home ownership than ever before.

In testimony before Congress in September 2007, Robert J. Shiller, professor of economics at Yale, author of the bestseller Irrational Exuberance and co-developer of the Case-Shiller National Home Price Index, put the issue in context.  As the news of the study findings hits the media, Shiller’s nuanced Congressional testimony is worth recalling:

“The promotion of homeownership in this country among the poor and disadvantaged, as well as our veterans, has been a worthy cause. The Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and Rural Housing Services have helped many people buy homes who otherwise could not afford them. Minorities have particularly benefited.”

“Home ownership promotes a sense of belonging and participation in our country. I strongly believe that these past efforts, which have raised homeownership, have contributed to the feeling of harmony and good will that we treasure in America.”

“But most of the gains in homeownership that we have seen in the last decade are not attributable primarily due to these government institutions. On the plus side, they have been due to financial innovations driven by the private sector. These innovations delivered benefits, including lower mortgage interest rates for U.S. homebuyers, and new institutions to distribute the related credit and collateral risks around the globe.”

The same point was made by University of Chicago economics professor and Barack Obama economic advisor Austan D. Goolsbee in his essay in the New York Times entitled “‘Irresponsible Mortgages’ Have Opened Doors to Many of the Excluded.”

Goolsbee cautioned against the “very old vein of suspicion against innovations in the mortgage market.”  He cited a study conducted by Kristopher Gerardi and Paul S. Willen from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton, “Do Households Benefit from Financial Deregulation and Innovation? The Case of the Mortgage Market,” showing that the three decades from 1970 to 2000 witnessed an incredible flowering of new types of home loans.” “These innovations,” Goolsbee observed, “mainly served to give people power to make their own decisions about housing, and they ended up being quite sensible with their newfound access to capital.”

Goolsbee wrote that these economists “followed thousands of people over their lives and examined the evidence for whether mortgage markets have become more efficient over time. Lost in the current discussion about borrowers’ income levels in the subprime market is the fact that someone with a low income now but who stands to earn much more in the future would, in a perfect market, be able to borrow from a bank to buy a house. That is how economists view the efficiency of a capital market: people’s decisions unrestricted by the amount of money they have right now.”

In regard to racism in mortgage lending, Goolsbee noted that “Since 1995, for example, the number of African-American households has risen by about 20 percent, but the number of African-American homeowners has risen almost twice that rate, by about 35 percent. For Hispanics, the number of households is up about 45 percent and the number of homeowning households is up by almost 70 percent.”

He concluded that “When contemplating ways to prevent excessive mortgages for the 13 percent of subprime borrowers whose loans go sour, regulators must be careful that they do not wreck the ability of the other 87 percent to obtain mortgages.”

In the search for villains in the credit crisis, Congress should be careful not to  eliminate the mortgages that have opened doors for many who have historically been excluded from homeownership and the American Dream.

It is also important to recognize that it was the Bush adminstration that pushed for greater access to homeownership for minorities, and specifically tasked Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae with expanding home loans to minorities.

As CNN reported on June 17, 2002:

“President Bush touted his goal Monday of boosting minority home ownership by 5.5 million before the end of the decade through grants to low-income families and credits to developers. ‘Too many American families, too many minorities, do not own a home. There is a home ownership gap in America. The difference between African-American and Hispanic home ownership is too big,” Bush told a crowd at St. Paul AME Church in Atlanta. Citing data he used Saturday in his weekly radio address, Bush said that while nearly three-quarters of white Americans own their homes, less than half of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are homeowners. He urged Congress to expand the American Dream Down-Payment Fund, which would provide $200 million in grants over five years to low-income families who are first-time home buyers. The money would be used for down payments, one of the major obstacles to home ownership, Bush said. … Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the federal Home Loan Banks — the government-sponsored corporations that handle home mortgages — will increase their commitment to minority markets by more than $440 billion, Bush said. Under one of the initiatives launched by Freddie Mac, consumers with poor credit will be able to obtain mortgages with interest rates that automatically decline after a period of consistent payments, he added.”

In the political battle over blame for the credit crisis, Democrats need to be careful both to counter claims that the crisis was caused by loans to minorities and also not to allow conservatives and Republicans to use the crisis as a pretext to scuttle these programs.

Catastrophe Worsens for Housing Market — Home Prices and Home Sales Fall Again

As Congress meets to bailout the financial industry and George Bush vies with Freddie Krueger for the nation’s archetypal face of visceral terror, the latest report from the Census Bureau shows that the housing catastrophe continues to get worse. 

Here’s the summary of the bad news:

  • New homes sales in August dropped to the lowest level since January 1991.
  • Home prices hit a four-year low. 
  • Inventory continues to rise, creating more downward pressure for home prices.

And here are some of the ugly new numbers:

  • New home sales had a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 460,000, down 11.5 percent from a revised 520,000 in July and down 24.5 percent from a year ago.
  • Only 39,000 new homes were sold in July, the lowest level since December 1991.
  • Prices for new homes were at their lowest level since September 2004.
  • The median price of a new home sold in August was $221,900, down 5.5 percent from $234,900 in July and down 6.2 percent from $236,500 a year ago.
  • 166,000 new homes came on the market in August, bringing total inventory to a seasonally adjusted 408,000, equal to 10.9-month supply, up from a 10.3 month supply in July.
  • New home sales fell 31.9 percent in the Northeast, 2.1 percent in the South and 36.1 percent in the West. Only the Midwest showed an increase in new home sales, up 7.2 percent.
  • Three out of four builders reported having to pay buyers’ closing costs or offer other incentives such as expensive features for free in order to maintain sales.

The housing market is so bad that the main cheerleader for an I-can-see-the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel approach to the real estate crisis – the National Association of Realtors (NAR) – has finally admitted, albeit with NAR’s typical understatement of the obvious, that “the pendulum in the mortgage market has swung too far.”

But if you’re looking for a bright side to the nation’s residential real estate fire sale, NAR’s number one Pollyanna-in-Chief, economist Lawrence Yun, still has a bromide to offer.

“August sales reflect higher interest rates before the government takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and the sudden drop in mortgage interest rates over the past couple weeks is improving housing affordability,” Yun said. “With higher loan limits and a beefing up of the FHA program, all the mechanisms have been falling into place to increase mortgage availability.”

Yeah.  Right.

Fire Sale Continues for American Homes

The fire sale of American homes continues unabated, according to the latest report of the Standard & Poors’ Case-Shiller Index.

All 20 cities measured by the Case-Shiller Index reported annual declines in June, with seven cities showing price drops of more than 20 percent.

The worst losses, both for the year and for the past month, were in the former boom regions in the West and Florida.

Las Vegas lead the nation with the most severe annual decline, with values dropping 28.6 percent in the past year. Prices in Miami fell 28.3 percent, values in Phoenix dropped 27.9 percent, and in Los Angeles prices fell 25.3 percent.

The cities with the least annual declines in home value were Charlotte (-1.0 percent), Dallas (-3.2 percent), Denver (-4.7 percent), and Portland (-5.3 percent).

San Francisco led the nation with the greatest loss from May 2008 to June 2008.  The cities with the biggest drop in the past month were San Francisco (-1.8 percent), Miami (-1.7 percent), Las Vegas (-1.6 percent), San Diego (-1.5 percent), and Los Angeles (-1.4 percent).

Cities showing the greatest price increases for the past month were Denver (1.5 percent), Boston (1.2 percent), Minneapolis (1.0 percent), Dallas (0.7 percent), and Cleveland (0.7 percent).

Given these catastrophic figures, we can take some small comfort in the belief that home prices must eventually stop falling.

After all, American homes can’t be worth zero.

Can they?

“What You Get for…$1.00” — The Housing Crisis Gets Crazy

The New York Times has a weekly real estate feature called “Property Values” that shows “What You Get for…” a certain a mount of money. 

This week the Times shows you “What You Get for…$10 Million” and it pictures palatial estates in Newport, Rhode Island, Kauari, Hawaii, and Whitefish, Montana.

But this week’s most interesting — and relevant — “What You Get for…” story wasn’t published in the Times, and the property isn’t situated in an up-scale locale.

The story was published in the Detroit News.

And the property — a cozy two story — is located in the foreclosure-ravaged Motor City.

It recently sold for $1.00 — after being on the market for for 19 days.

After reading the story, we tried an experiment. 

We went to realtor.com and looked up houses in Detroit.  For the minimum amount would put $0 and for the maximum amount we put $1000. 

The result was four more houses for $1, eight more for $100 or less, and a total of 172 properties at or under $1000.

Then we tried Cleveland, Ohio. 

The result was 10 properties available for $1 and five more for $1000 or less.

You can try the same experiment with other cities.  We think you’ll find similar results.

We noticed, too, that this example of America’s housing misery was providing aid and comfort to an old — and perhaps renewed — enemy.

The online edition of Pravda — which used to be the official newspaper of the Soviet Union and is now the official newspaper of Russia’s new bosses — put the Detroit Press story on the front page of its English language edition, just below the news about its shooting war in Georgia and South Ossetia.

Home Prices Fall Again — Down 15.8% From Last Year

According to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller Index, which measures the sale price of existing single family homes in 20 major metropolitan areas, prices fell another 0.9 percent in May 2008,  and were down 15.8 percent from May 2007.

File this information under “Tell Us Something We Didn’t Know.”

Actually, we knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.

The Standard and Poors Report states that “For the second straight month, all 20 MSAs posted annual declines, nine of which are posting record lows and 10 of which are in double-digits. Both the 10-City Composite and the 20-City Composite are reporting record low annual declines.”

“Since August 2006, there has not been one month where we have seen overall price increases . . . For the month of May, markets that experienced large gains in the recent real estate boom continue to be the biggest decliners. Miami and Las Vegas were the worst performers returning -3.6% and -2.9%, respectively. On a brighter note, Charlotte and Dallas have recorded three consecutive months of positive returns. These two markets are also showing the smallest annual declines, with Charlotte own 0.2% and Dallas down 3.1% versus May of 2007. From a longer-term perspective, since January 2000, the best performing markets are Washington, Los Angeles, New York and Miami. The value of housing in Detroit is lower than it was in January 2000. Over the month, no region reported gains in excess of 1%. But for those that reported monthly declines, three were in excess of 2%.”

And with the credit market frozen, there is no end in sight to falling home prices and the housing crisis, now rapidly becoming the housing disaster.