Tag Archives: short term interest rates

Has the Credit Market Thawed? Is it Freezing Up Again? And Are You Still Out in the Cold?

We’ve written before about the failure of the Fed’s policy of cutting short-term interest rates — seven times since September 2007 — to spur liquidity in the credit market. 

The good news today is that there is “significant improvement in the credit markets since late March,” according to the Wall St. Journal.

The bad news, also reported by the Wall St. Journal, is that this recent thaw in the credit market is not expected to last:

“‘Most of us are anticipating two steps forward, one step back and carefully watching where the markets can handle deals,’ said Tyler Dickson, who oversees capital raising at Citigroup.”

“‘There’s no question the tone in the market is getting better,’ says Jim Casey, co-head of leveraged finance at J.P. Morgan Chase.  He adds, however, that ‘there is some concern that this might be a short-term window of opportunity for issuers, since investors are still very focused on default rates and the potential severity of a recession.'”

“‘Risk tolerance is still pretty low,’ says Daniel Toscano, a managing director of leveraged and acquisition finance at HSBC Securities in New York.”

“Banks and debt investors are treading carefully,” the article said. “Investment banks, which incurred big losses after selling a lot of buyout debt at heavily discounted prices, are committing only to deals they can underwrite at a profit. And investors don’t want to be caught wrong-footed if corporate defaults spike.”

We think that the report of a credit thaw is premature.  For most businesses and individuals, the credit market is still frozen solid. 

Blackstone Group LP President Tony James appears to agree with us.  James told Bloomberg News that banks are mistaken if they think credit markets have begun a sustained recovery. 

Rather than a real break in the dismal credit forecast, James said that this little patch of sunshine may be “the eye of the hurricane.”

There is clearly no de-icing of the credit market that would significantly impact the housing crisis or allow Fed Chair Ben Bernanke to sleep without getting the chills at night.

 

 

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Who is Still Against Federal Foreclosure Legislation?

As the Congress comes closer to passing legislation to help homeowners facing foreclosure, it is worth taking a look at the opposition to federal foreclosure aid.

Of course, there are those who strictly oppose nearly all forms of government intervention in the economy.  Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul and his free market libertarian supporters would be among this group.

Then are those who are opposed to market interventions in general, but will support some government interventions when the stability of the market is at stake.  Most Republicans fit into this group — including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.

That’s why it was significant that it was Bernanke who last week made the most convincing argument from a free market perspective for federal aid to homeowners facing foreclosure.

As we noted in an earlier post, Bernanke told an audience at the Columbia Business School that the foreclosure crisis posed the clear and present danger of wreaking economic havoc far beyond the housing market. “High rates of delinquency and foreclosure,” Bernanke said, “can have substantial spillover effects on the housing market, the financial markets, and the broader economy.”

What is at stake, according to Bernanke, is not merely the homes and financial well-being of hundreds of thousands of borrowers, but “the stability of the financial system.”  In this extreme circumstance, even staunch free market advocates, such as Bernanke himself, recognize the need for the government to intervene in the market.

We think, then, that the overwhelming vote in the House of Representives in favor of government intervention to stop the rising tide of foreclosures — legislation that now has the support of many free market Republicans — was rooted at least as much in the economic reality of averting catastrophe as the political expediency of government largess in an election year.

Who then is still opposed to foreclosure aid?

The answer is the apartment owners.

Behind any legislative process is a power struggle of conflicting interests, and very often these interests are economic.  In the case of foreclosure aid, there this now a growing consensus that the foreclosure crisis threatens not merely the borrowers and the lenders, but the economy as a whole and hence the economic interests of almost every sector of the economy.

Except apartment owners.

The National Multi-Housing Council (NMHC) and the National Apartment Association (NAA) have consistently argued that the blame for the foreclosure crisis is what they have called the “misguided” national policy of “home ownership at any cost” and that “People were enticed into houses they could not afford and the rarely spoken truth that there is such a thing as too much homeownership was forgotten.”

The fact is that in sharp contrast to other sectors of the real estate market, the apartment industry has not suffered as a result of the current housing crisis.  Rather, as we’ve noted before, the real estate crisis is forcing the lower end of the single-family housing market back into multi-family rental apartments.  People have to live somewhere — if they can’t afford to live in a house that they own, they will be forced to live in a house that someone else owns, such as multi-family apartment units. As homeowners suffer, apartment owners benefit.

The apartment industry has some very powerful supporters in Congress, including Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.   Senator Shelby,  who has opposed federal intervention to stop foreclosures, has made millions as a landlord and is the owner of a 124-unit apartment complex in Tuscaloosa called the Yorktown Commons. 

“I want the market to work if it can, and most of the time it will, but not without some pain,”  Senator Shelby has said.

This time, the pain appears to be too great, too wide-spread, and too dangerous, for most other members of Congress, as well as most important players in the economy, to allow it to continue unabated.

Indeed, Shelby has already signaled that he would support a version of the legislation — and that the White House would sign the bill into law.

“I think if we reach a compromise,” Shelby said, “it would be acceptable to the White House because, as a Republican and former chairman of the committee, I’m going to do everything I can, work with the administration, to make sure that the program works for those it’s intended to do and make sure we can afford it as a nation.”

In this crisis, even Senator Shelby has other, larger, and more important economic interests at stake than helping the apartment industry.

 

 

Fed Chair Bernanke Warns Foreclosures Could Sink US Economy — Is He Threatening Lenders?

In a speech today at the Columbia Business School, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke issued his strongest warning to date about the danger of the rising tide of home foreclosures sinking the US economy.

“High rates of delinquency and foreclosure,” Bernanke said, “can have substantial spillover effects on the housing market, the financial markets, and the broader economy.”

Bernanke began by detailing some of the nasty numbers of the foreclosure crisis:

  • About one quarter of subprime adjustable-rate mortgages are currently 90 days or more delinquent or in foreclosure.
  • Foreclosure proceedings were initiated on some 1.5 million U.S. homes during 2007, up 53 percent from 2006.
  • The rate of foreclosure starts is likely to be even higher in 2008.
  • Delinquency rates have increased in the prime and near-prime segments of the mortgage market.

He then warned that the catastrophic effects of these millions of foreclosure proceedings will extend far beyond the parties to the mortgage:

“It is important to recognize,” Bernanke said, “that the costs of foreclosure may extend well beyond those borne directly by the borrower and the lender.  Clusters of foreclosures can destabilize communities, reduce the property values of nearby homes, and lower municipal tax revenues.  At both the local and national levels, foreclosures add to the stock of homes for sale, increasing downward pressure on home prices in general.” 

“In the current environment, more-rapid declines in house prices may have an adverse impact on the broader economy and, through their effects on the valuation of mortgage-related assets, on the stability of the financial system.”

The real threat that the foreclosure crisis posed to the overall economy, Bernanke said, was “the declines in home values, which reduce homeowners’ equity and may consequently affect their ability or incentive to make the financial sacrifices necessary to stay in their homes.”

The responses to the foreclosure crisis specifically endorsed by Bernanke were nothing new —  working with community groups trying to acquire and restore vacant properties; encouraging lenders and mortgage servicers to work with at-risk borrowers; developing new lending standards to prevent abusive lending practices; working with the Bush administration’s Hope Now Alliance; expanding the use of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to address problems in mortgage markets.

But we think that the tone and perspective of his speech signaled that he was far more ready than the current administration to endorse a wide-ranging federal program to aid homeowners who are in default.

Bernanke came close to saying as much:  “Realistic public and private-sector policies must take into account the fact that traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies may not always work well in the current environment.”

We think by “traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies” Bernanke meant voluntary procedures undertaken by the financial market itself; the “non-traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies” that Bernanke suggested might be necessary would then be mandatory procedures imposed on the market.

We therefore think that Bernanke’s speech contained a threat to the very financial institutions that the Fed has been so generous toward for the past six months.

So far, lenders have been asked to voluntarily help stem the foreclosure crisis by working with homeowners.  Now it appears that Bernanke may be close to supporting mandatory restraints on foreclosures.

We think Bernanke may have been saying this to the lenders and the leaders of the financial market: “We’ve made billions of cheap dollars available to you, so that you could stay afloat and so that you could make this money available for new borrowing and refinancing to prevent foreclosures.  You have not kept your end of the bargain.  If you don’t move much further along this path soon,  it is in the interest of the US economy overall to force you to do so.”

The lenders and financial institutions haven’t listened to threats from Congressional Democrats like Barney Frank or taken the voluntary actions requested by the Bush administration.

Maybe they’ll listen to today’s warning by Ben Bernanke.

We think they’d better.

 

 

The Fed Nears the End of the Rate-Cutting Line — Now its the Banks’ Move

After the Federal Reserve cut short-term interest rates on Wednesday for the seventh time since September 2007 — lowering the federal funds rate to 2 percent, from 2.25 percent, the lowest level since November 2004 — most analysts observed that the Fed’s move showed that it was more concerned with preventing recession than halting inflation.

We’re not so sure that it is a question of recession verses inflation that’s driving the Fed.

We think that the Fed’s real concern right now is neither inflation nor recession, at least not directly, but the lack of liquidity in the financial markets and the lack of funds that financial institutions are making available to borrowers.

So far, the Fed has pumped more than $400 billion into major U.S. financial institutions in the hope that these institutions would make this money available to borrowers. 

And, so far, they haven’t done so, and liquidity conditions in the credit markets have continued to deteriorate. 

Despite the Fed’s inceasing generosity for the past six months, it has been harder, not easier, for businesses (and individuals) to borrow money.

The Fed is nearing the end of its rate-cutting line.  If the financial spigot does not loosen for borrowers based on the latest cuts, there may be no more that the Fed can do, especially since, with rising fuel and food prices, fears of inflation are already starting to overtake fears of recession, in America’s living rooms as well as its Board rooms.

Two members of the Fed’s Open Market Commitee  — Richard W. Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, and Charles I. Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed — which is charged under federal law with overseeing national monetary policy — voted against lowering the rates this time.  And the criticism of the Fed’s policy of lowering interest rates and providing cheap money for the banks is getting broader, louder and more influential.

The banks and major lending institutions have been waiting for the Fed to cut interest rates as far as it possibly would before they start lending.

That moment has probably arrived.

Now it’s the financial market’s turn to make a move.