Why I had to stop reading Michael Lewis’ The Big Short

I’m a fan of writer Michael Lewis. Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, Sandra Bullock Wins An Oscar, are all good books. As is The Big Short, his latest. I started reading it yesterday and by bedtime I was half-way through (it’s a short book and I’m a fast reader). When I got up this morning Mrs. CollateralDamage said I was making very unhappy noises in my sleep and I’ve felt on edge all day. I read some more of the book, realized I was getting increasingly agitated and finally put it down. This book is a non-fiction horror story, and one whose end we don’t yet know.

Daily Show gets it right again. The Big Short is about four people who guessed (and bet) right about mortgage-related ponzi scheme which has led to our current economic “downturn”. What is probably upsetting me about the book is that it confirms my most cynical beliefs about the world. Several of the people in the book repeatedly ask questions of bankers, bond raters, bond salesmen and anyone else they can find in hopes that someone can prove to them that all this buying and selling of sub-prime mortgage securities isn’t just a house of cards. They want to know because they are betting that it is and want to find out if they’ve just blown their money. That, my friends, is a motivated investigator. They are either told they don’t understand how this all works (which we quickly realize means the person who should understand doesn’t) or they are met with blank stares. They try to tell regulators, they try to tell other investors, they even try telling the investment bankers who created this train wreck what is about to happen. AND NO ONE WILL LISTEN. They are Cassandra’s writ huge – except that they make a crap load of money, whereas Cassie just had to suffer.

The other terrifying thing about Big Short, is that it confirms my greatest cynical fears: That most of the people in places of power are either corrupt or fools. Now you’d think that after eight years of George W. I would already have had these fears confirmed but there’s something about Lewis stories of smug, arrogant idiots/crooks gaming the system that scared the feces out of me. It doesn’t help that I really don’t see any reason for the economy to improve. The head of our bankrupt government wants to spend more money. His opposition thinks the best way to deal with the government’s being bankrupt is to keep in place a tax cut for the richest people in the nation. The banks are pretending they’re solvent. People keep saying it’s up to consumers to spend our way out of this mess but it’s overspending that got us into the mess in the first place.  And no one but no one is talking about what happened to all the debt created by the mortgage fiasco. Wall St. and the financial press seem to think that as long as the Dow is over 10K all is right in the world – EVEN THOUGH NONE OF THE PROBLEMS THAT GOT US INTO THIS HAVE BEEN ADDRESSED. Meanwhile no one who was responsible for any of this is going to jail and the nation continues to bleed money and people in two wars everyone knows we have no business fighting.

Sorry, Mr. Lewis, I can’t take anymore. I’m going to go read something much more soothing, like World War Z or John Dies At The End. As my old drinking buddy John Milton once told me, “Stare into the abyss long enough and it starts to stare back.” Well, at least St. Peter told me I was the nicest of the damned…

 

HOORAY? Sub-prime mortgages “back to pre-crisis levels”

The Fed says sub-prime mortgages again make up more than 20% of the nation’s outstanding mortgages.

After plummeting in early 2008, the share of borrowers with FICO credit scores lower than 660 has returned to just higher than 20 percent, the same share as when subprime securitization peaked in 2006.

Once upon a time this number was a bad thing because all those loans were held by private institutions many of which basically collapsed when it turned out people couldn’t pay them off.

Today it is a good thing because Government-backed agencies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae "are providing unprecedented support to the housing market — owning or guaranteeing almost 95% of the new residential mortgage lending." So all is jake now that you, me and every other US citizen are guaranteeing these turkeys.

The reason for this rebound is not that due to any increase in the financial stability of people with lousy credit scores. No, it’s because the Federal Housing Authority seems determined to recreate the housing bubble “by providing vital insurance that enables borrowers to qualify for loans with as little as 3.5% down.

The FHA is, of course, a picture of fiscal health. The agency recently admitted that “a soon-to-be-released audit will show that its reserve fund has fallen below the level required by law, meaning it will not be enough to cover 2% of all outstanding FHA mortgages.

One solution proposed to get the agency’s reserves back up to what the law requires:  Raise the minimum down payment on FHA loans to 5%.

But – reports the LA Times — “new FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens said such a move could threaten the nascent housing recovery. A person looking to buy a $300,000 house, for instance, would have to raise an additional $4,500 for the down payment.”

If you can’t afford another $4.5K for the down payment, you probably can’t afford $300K either.

Says who?

The FHA itself. That’s because – just like in the last housing bubble – the lenders don’t really have a clue as to how much the borrowers can repay. We know this because the FHA has admitted it really hasn’t done much to screen the lenders for things like basic competence.

According to a report by the FHA inspector general: “The agency approved nearly 3,300 lender applications in fiscal 2008, more than triple the year before. But the number of workers evaluating applications remained the same. In a review of 22 approved applications, the audit found that only one contained all the necessary documents.

History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce, someone once said. Unfortunately the farce doesn’t leave you any better off than the tragedy.

By the time this is all done the economy will look like it’s been hit by a typhoon of monkeys.

BON TON ROULEZ!!!

Cut the bull and call it a Depression already

More of my happy thoughts from over at BlownMortgage:

Two weeks ago the National Bureau of Economic Research officially confirmed what we already knew: We have been in a recession for the past year. This begs the question, how long until we declare World Depression II?

The (disputed) technical definitions of Recession and Depression make them lagging economic nomenclature. Economists debate whether we are in a swamp while everyone else worries about the ever-increasing number of alligators. The lack of an official declaration of recession mostly just gives the chattering classes something to do while avoiding taking action.

“Is it a crisis?”

“There is no crisis!”

“Is there a large, green creature eating my leg?”

“There is no large, green creature eating your leg!”

Allow me to go out on a very, very sturdy limb and declare a Depression. The economy isn’t going to recover by the end of next year. There is a only a dim possibility it will recover the year after that. But no one in an “official” position is willing to be the bearer of that piece of bad news.

Doubt that it is (or soon will fit the technical definition of) a Depression? Look at the actual numbers…

Treasury thinks maybe foreclosures actually are a problem

My latest from over at BlownMortgage.com:

Latest news has it that the Treasury Dept. is thinking really, really hard about maybe using some of the $700 billion from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) to do something about home foreclosures.

Neel Kashkari, who has to administer the Troubled Assets Relief Program, told Senators, “We continue to aggressively examine strategies to mitigate foreclosures and maximize loan modifications.” It is well worth noting Kashkari offered no actual details as to what this might mean.

This doesn’t seem to indicate any change in Henry Paulson’s willingness to consider an FDIC plan to help homeowners. “Under the FDIC proposal, the government would seek to encourage lenders to modify loans by offering to share the cost of any defaults. The FDIC has said its proposal could prevent about 1.5 million foreclosures.” Paulson has said that use of TARP money for this would be a misuse of the funds. This is odd given his willingness to spend the money on just about anything except homeowners.

On the bright side: He’s only got 47 more days on the job.

There’s more (including a long quote from CollateralDamage Sr.) here.

Nothing happens until the new prez takes over. Good or bad?

My latest from BlownMortgage:

In a time of economic crisis, where every moment brings more bad/alarming news, what does it mean that the government is essentially in a holding pattern for the next two months?

Many people are concerned this will mean a continuation of the Paulson strategy of throwing good money after bad. (”Am I the only one worried that by the time Obama is sworn in on January 20th, the Paulson Treasury will have run through almost a trillion dollars to little or no effect?“) Currently there are attempts to qualify GM as a bank so it can get a cut of the bailout money (LOL!!!). A similar request by GE makes more sense to me because GE is a well-run company. Several large cities are also making requests for funds. Personally, I’d give funds to Wasilla before I’d hand a dime to GM.

Still others think that Paulson and the Congress will take this moment to do nothing — and that’s a good thing. Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe thinks this is such a good thing that he wants to legislate a freeze on the remaining bailout cash. (Inhofe’s willingness to rip Paulson a new one is a great indicator of how the Bushies are closer to dead-duck instead of merely being lame: Senator Inhofe suggests Paulson “may have given the [bailout] money to his friends.”)

There’s more where that came from…

How to get a piece of the government bailout

My latest from BlownMortgage:

At this point in the economic down-turn there’s really only one question on most of our minds: How can I become a commercial bank or an automaker?

Old friend Helen Kennedy put it succinctly in The New York Daily News: “Two more pillars of the American economy are coming to Washington hat in hand: American Express and Detroit’s Big Three. The struggling New York-based credit giant reportedly wants a $3.5 billion bailout. American Express got permission to become a bank holding company this week, making it eligible for a piece of the $700 billion bailout.

The Federal Reserve gets to make the decision about who gets to be a bank. Since the Fed has already decided to leave us all holding the bag for bank companies, it seems only fitting that we should also get a chance at being a bank holding company as well.

Use the following checklist to see if you qualify:

  • Do you need to cut borrowing costs?
  • Are your main sources of funding in danger of going away?
  • Do you need access to government money?
  • Has your inability to get credit endangered your fiscal health?
  • Would the ability to issue government-backed bonds keep you solvent?
  • Are you willing to take deposits from both consumers and companies?
  • Is your current role in the financial system mostly watching your investments lose money?

If you answered yes to all these questions then CONGRATULATIONS!!! You clearly meet all the essential qualifications needed to be a bank holding company.

Not sure of all that it takes to become an American car company but I do know I can fulfill one of the basic obligations: I guarantee no one will want to buy a car I build.

Is it just me or does the plan to throw more money at the car companies give new meaning to the phrase “Grand Theft Auto”?

Obama carried all the “really” red states

My latest from BlownMortgage (with charts and facts and everything!):

Popular opinion has it that Barack Obama won because he took some red states away from John McCain. Nonsense. Obama won all the red states. And McCain won all the black states. But this has nothing to do with that stupid red state/blue state dichotomy. This is about the much more tangible difference between red (ink) states vs. black (ink) states.

As this chart from the Wall Street Journal shows, Obama carried 18 of the 20 states where housing prices have dipped into the red – according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight house price index for the second quarter. Those two that went for McCain? Arizona and Alaska – which makes their anomalous standing understandable.

Alan Greenspan, ingenue

Another one from BlownMortgage:

Alan Greenspan attempted to mimic Michael “Heckuva Job, Brownie” Brown during his testimony before congress yesterday. Mr. Greenspan attempted to place blame squarely on anyone except himself. Mr. Brown’s performance in the same role was slightly more credible because he was utterly unqualified for the job he held, a claim Mr. Greenspan cannot make.

Mr. Greenspan claims to have been overtaken by events so rare that no one could have seen them coming. He called it a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami” and that it was impossible for anyone to have been prepared for it. Mr. Brown made the same claims about hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans with every bit as little justification. The record of warnings about both disasters is substantial and undeniable.

And there’s more where that came from…

Would you buy a used economic commentary from this man?

My latest over at BlownMortgage:

The Fed has announced it will now buy commercial paper from money market mutual funds and endorsed the idea of another economic stimulus package. Far be it from me to turn up my nose at free money. I could use a handout … I mean stimulus check as much if not more than most of Wall Street. But I am disturbed that these efforts continue are in keeping with previous Bush Administration policy to never have a clue how something – like a war or a however many bailouts there will be – will be paid for.

Click for more of this and my paen to William Proxmire.

Once there was a law that could have prevented all this …

By me, over at BlownMortgage.com:

Once upon a time the US actually had a law in place that would have at least hindered the current mess. Not surprisingly, that legislation – the Glass-Steagall Act – came out of the Great Depression. Just as unsurprisingly it was repealed in 1999 at a time when lawmakers and business no longer thought that “what goes up must come down” still applied to the economy.

Simply put, Glass-Steagall prevented the mingling of investment and commercial bank activities. If you did one, you couldn’t do the other. This happened because way back then it was thought that commercial banks were way too speculative – both with where they were investing their assets and also because they were buying stocks for resale to the public.

“Credit Crunch” candy and other bright spots from the crisis

Going out of business doesn’t slow WaMu marketing

This showed up in the mail this weekend:

Actually, the offer expired before then.

Actually, the offer expired before then.

Can I get that 0% APR on transfers if I put $700 billion on my card?

What happens if I fill out the application? Might be worth it as an experiment.

Speaking of unintentionally ironic marketing … BusinessPundit has a great post about a Treasury Dept. campaign that launched earlier this month that encourages young adults aged 18 to 24 to make responsible choices re: debt and finances.

Key to the campaign is the concept of to think twice before spontaneously spending. This, says the Treasury is key to building a solid financial future.

I love the tagline: “Don’t let your credit put you in a bad place.”

File under “Do As I Say, Not As I Do.”

Here are the key housing bailout questions no one is asking

Another one from BlownMortgage.com:

Here’s a heretical notion: How much CEOs get from the bailout doesn’t matter. It’s a smokescreen, red meat being tossed to the public to make it seem as though the bad guys won’t get away scott-free.

While limits on pay packages for executives whose firms seek assistance from the government will be part of the whatever settlement gets reached, it will have no real impact on the bailout. But it will give the politicians something to beat their chests about and say that they have stood up to Big Business.

Click on the link to read the rest.

The kind of forward thinking people we want working on this problem

“These two entities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — are not facing any kind of financial crisis. The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing.” —  Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, September, 2003. Frank is now the chair of House Financial Services Committee.

Frank spoke against a Bush administration plan to create an agency to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The proposed agency would have had the authority “to set one of the two capital-reserve requirements for the companies. It would exercise authority over any new lines of business. And it would determine whether the two are adequately managing the risks of their ballooning portfolios.”

Shanty towns and bank runs: recession may be the optimist’s outcome

Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill
And while we still
Have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance

Last March, the BBC ran a story about shanty towns springing up in the US.

At the time BoingBoing and those few others who saw it asked why we were learning about this from the UK media and not from the US media. Now, a scant six months later, the US press has paused from parsing porcine lipstick and noticed.

The relatively tony city of Santa Barbara has given over a parking lot to people who sleep in cars and vans. The city of Fresno, Calif., is trying to manage several proliferating tent cities, including an encampment where people have made shelters out of scrap wood. In Portland, Ore., and Seattle, homeless advocacy groups have paired with nonprofits or faith-based groups to manage tent cities as outdoor shelters. Other cities where tent cities have either appeared or expanded include include Chattanooga, Tenn., San Diego, and Columbus, Ohio.

We’ve already had a bank run in the classic sense and one updated for today’s world: Yesterday’s announcement that Putnam was liquidating a “$12bn prime money market fund because of a spike in redemption requests from clients.” Just because they have the money to cover this — as it appears they eventually will — doesn’t make it any less of a run.

Today the early headlines say Stocks soar at opening after gov’t rescue plan. Forgive me for thinking the markets are indulging in some irrational exuberance. We’ve seen this sort of response before. This is from the Wall Street Journal on March 19:

Stocks and commodities plummeted on Wednesday as the euphoria that carried equity markets to massive gains a day earlier gave way to nervousness that the broader U.S. economy hasn’t yet escaped the dangers of the credit crisis.

At some point we are going to see a huge impact from the Fed’s determination to once again deal with another issue by printing more money. Some commentators say this will simply mean an explosion in the size of the national debt. I wish that was all. The current crisis was created by pumping increasing amounts of money and credit into the economy, it is beyond me to understand why doing more of this will help fix it.  You know what they call it when you keep repeating the same behavior and expect different results, right?

I am not smart enough to determine if we are about to hit a period of inflation or deflation but I know something is going to happen and will keep happening until all the difference between the amount loaned and the actual value of assets comes into balance. (If you’re a debtor start rooting for deflation — it means any money you do use to pay off a debt will be worth less than the money you originally borrowed. A net gain, if not a happy one.)

As the year has gone along, I’ve tagged a number of items under Recession? What Recession? I can’t say they make for happy reading:

In March, when the BBC ran that shanty town story, it still seemed possible to have a reasonable disagreement over whether or not we were in a recession. Now the D word is in play. Soon we will be hearing that we are not in a depression and that we are trying to avert one. That is becoming the economic equivalent of promising to have the troops home by Christmas. As soon as you hear it, you know it’s a lot worse than anyone is willing to say.

The leading indicator of the “we are not in a Depression” meme came last week when Alan Greenspan — who is mostly responsible for the crisis — tried to put lipstick on this pig by saying, “First of all, let’s recognize that this is a once-in-a-half-century, probably once-in-a-century type of event.” Given that the Mississippi river keeps getting hit by floods that were once described as “once in a century” events, this is not a heartening phrase. Another troubling indicator is that the folks who decided what’s in the Dow Jones Industrial Average have replaced the now defunct AIG with Kraft. I suspect the real problem with leaving AIG is that it would have made the Dow actually reflect the economy.

Someone once asked Tom Lehrer why he stopped writing those wonderful, witty songs about the news. Having turned out anthems on topics from pollution to nuclear proliferation, Lehrer said he had begun to feel like a citizen of Pompeii being asked to say funny things about lava. Without having matched Mr. Lehrer’s accomplishments, I can certainly empathize. I have been saying for the last seven years that the real problem with the Bush administration is that it took all the fun out of being able to say “I told you so.” Unlike Mr. L, I refuse to leave the scene — especially when we are in such a target rich environment.

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight and music
And love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance

While many people have recorded this song — but not Roxxy Music, for some reason — I still prefer the original by Fred Astaire. It’s on the soundtrack to Follow The Fleet. A happy little musical by Irving Berlin that was made into a movie in 1936.