Tag Archives: insurance industry

Proof We’re in a Recession

Here’s proof that we’re in a recession: Starbucks is closing 600 stores.

According to the New York Times, “Starbucks said Tuesday that it planned to close another 500 underperforming stores and eliminate as many as 12,000 full- and part-time positions. The company, which now plans to close a total of 600 underperforming stores, will take related charges totaling more than $325 million. Most of the stores, which are company owned, will be closed by the end of the first half of its fiscal year, which ends September 2009, the company said. Starbucks estimated that total pretax charges associated with the closures, including costs associated with severance, would be $328 million to $348 million. The nation’s largest coffee chain said 70 percent of the stores targeted for closure have been open since the beginning of fiscal 2006. The job losses would represent about 7 percent of the company’s global work force.”

These closings are clearly fallout from the housing bust.  As the Times noted, Starbucks had “aggressively opened stores in areas like California and Florida, which have been hardest hit by the housing downturn. ”

The next time economists get together to discuss whether we’re really in a recession, they may have to meet somewhere other than the local Starbucks. 

It might be closed.

 

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Obama and McCain Discover that Ties to Countrywide and Banking Industry are Political Kryptonite

Given its central role in the subprime mortgage debacle, it is no surprise that Countrywide Financial has become politically radioactive.

The most recent evidence for the politically deadly consequences of an association with Countrywide or its corporate officers is the sudden and ungraceful exit of businessman James A. Johnson, a long time Washington insider and lobbyist, from Barack Obama’s vice-presidential selection team.

Johnson was chosen by Obama to lead the group, which also includes Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Eric Holder, that would help him select a running mate. The appointment seemed obvious, if uninspired, since Johnson is an old Democratic Party insider who played a similar role in selecting the vice presidential choices for both Walter Mondale and John Kerry.

But last week, Johnson came under withering fire for his association and possible sweetheart deals with former Countrywide chairman Angelo Mozilo. Specifically, Johnson was charged with having profited from special sweetheart deals on three home loans, with usually preferential mortgage terms, approved by Mozilo as the head of the Countrywide only for his close friends.

Bloomberg.com reports that “Angelo Mozilo, the chief executive officer of Countrywide, the biggest U.S. home lender, may have given Johnson and other friends good deals on mortgages, the Wall Street Journal reported on June 7, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter. The newspaper didn’t provide any specifics on whether favors were granted. Since then, Johnson’s position on the search committee has drawn criticism from Republicans who noted that Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, repeatedly denounced Countrywide for its role in the subprime-mortgage crisis.”

It was soon discovered that Johnson had other political liabilities, including criticism for his role as chairman and chief executive officer of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) from 1991 to 1999, and also faced questions about his role on corporate compensation committees that awarded large payouts to corporate executives.

As New York Times columnist Gail Collins pointed out, “Johnson is the former head of Fannie Mae, which under his direction, according to regulators, engaged in accounting practices that were, at best, sloppy. At the same time, he sat on the boards of five different corporations, where he appeared to serve as cheerleader for the theory that corporate executives deserve to be paid obscene amounts of money. How does someone go up to Barack Obama, who once sponsored a bill to curb excessive executive compensation, and say — ‘You know the vice-presidential search committee? For chairman, how about Jim Johnson? Remember, the guy who tried to give the head of United Health Group $1.4 billion in stock options?'”

Although Republicans are pleased with Johnson’s departure — or at least with the embarrassment to Barack Obama caused by the Johnson episode — John McCain has his own toxic subprime-association worries.

Former Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas), now serving as John McCain’s chief economic advisor, has been called “the father of the mortgage meltdown and financial crisis.”

Gramm spearheaded sweeping changes in federal banking law, including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, which repealed previous rules separating banking, insurance and brokerage activities, and which some analysts blame for creating the legal framework for the current mortgage meltdown and credit crisis.

In addition, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observed that “According to federal lobbying disclosure records, Gramm lobbied Congress, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department about banking and mortgage issues in 2005 and 2006. During those years, the mortgage industry pressed Congress to roll back strong state rules that sought to stem the rise of predatory tactics used by lenders and brokers to place homeowners in high-cost mortgages.”

Gramm is also under fire for his connection with Swiss investment banking giant UBS, which is the subject of a federal investigation into whether it helped wealthy clients to use offshore accounts to hide as much as $20 billion in assets from the Internal Revenue Service and dodging at least $300 million in federal taxes. Gramm is vice-chair of UBS Securities, UBS’s investment arm.

The New York Times reports that “The case could turn into an embarrassment for Marcel Rohner, the chief executive of UBS and the former head of its private bank, as well as for Phil Gramm, the former Republican senator from Texas who is now the vice chairman of UBS Securities, the Swiss bank’s investment banking arm.”

So far, McCain has rejected calls to remove Gramm from his inner circle. But our guess is that, fairly soon, Gramm will join Jim Johnson in the growing Class of 2008 Ex-Presidential Candidate Advisors Club.

UPDATE:

For more on Phil Gramm, John McCain, and UBS, click here.

Financial Sector Blamed by U.S. Report as Primary Cause of Nation’s Economic Decline

While there is still disagreement among economists over whether the U.S. is in a classically defined recession, there can’t be any doubt that the economy is in serious trouble and has been for quite some time, and that the primary culprit is the nation’s financial sector.

The dismal economic growth figures announced this week by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis underscore just how bad our national economy is, and which regions of the country and sectors of the economy have been hit the hardest.

The new estimates released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) show that economic growth slowed in most states and regions of the U.S. in 2007. Real GDP growth slowed in 36 states, with declines in construction and finance and insurance the leading factor in most state’s economic losses.

Nationally, real economic growth slowed from 3.1 percent in 2006 to 2.0 percent in 2007, one percentage point below the average growth of 3.0 percent for 2002–2006.

According to the BEA report, “The deceleration in growth in 2007 was most pronounced in Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada. Each of these states had experienced faster real growth than the nation since 2003, but slowed dramatically between 2006 and 2007, to rates below the national average (chart 2). In 2006, Arizona and Nevada were in the highest growth quintile, and California and Florida were in the second–highest quintile. But in 2007, Arizona dropped to the third quintile; California dropped to the second–lowest quintile; and Florida and Nevada dropped to the lowest quintile. In Arizona, Florida, and Nevada, construction subtracted more than one percentage point from real GDP growth. In California, construction and finance and insurance combined subtracted one percentage point from real growth.”

Forty-nine states saw losses in the construction industry 2007.  The sole exception was Wyoming with a 6.0 percent increase in construction. Nationwide, the combined drop in construction was 11.0 percent.

The largest drop in construction in dollar terms was in California, down $10.8 billion, which accounted for 1-in-6 of the $67 billion lost in construction work nationwide between 2006 and 2007.

In terms of percentage of construction work losses, the hardest hit states were:

New Hampshire -18.70%
Michigan -16.74%
Delaware -16.34%
Florida -15.96%
Arizona -15.53%
Maine -13.82%
Iowa -13.77%
Virginia -13.55%
Vermont -13.47%
California -13.46%

The BEA clearly identifies the credit crisis, and its domino effect on related industries such as real estate and construction, as the primary cause of the nation’s economic woes. 

BEA noted that “A downturn in the finance and insurance industry group accounted for nearly half of the slowdown in economic growth in 2007.”

“Construction’s value added declined 12.1 percent in 2007 after falling 6.0 percent in 2006. Real estate and rental and leasing value added growth slowed to 2.1 percent in 2007 from 3.4 percent in 2006.”

Four industry groups — finance and insurance, construction, mining, and real estate — “accounted for about one quarter of GDP in 2007. However, they accounted for nearly 80 percent of the slowdown in economic growth.”

These figures support what we’ve been saying for a long time: the real estate market (and related industries like construction) will not recover until the financial markets are stablized.