Increase in foreclosure rate could mean banks knew they were seizing properties they didn’t actually own

In the 3rd quarter of this year banks repossessed a total of 288,345 properties – by far the largest quarterly total since the meltdown began. The 4th quarter of this year is likely to have the fewest repossessions of the meltdown because of “the decision by several of the largest lenders to halt filings after it was discovered that paperwork for many loans is missing or incorrect.” The increase is a sharp spike in the total number of repossessions. The 4th quarter numbers were a 7% increase over the previous quarter and a 22% increase over the same period of 2009. According to RealtyTrac: “A record total of 102,134 bank repossessions were reported in September, the first time bank repossessions have surpassed the 100,000 mark in a single month.

So, did the banks know what was coming and try to get as many properties safely in to their possession as they could before the hammer came down? If this is not the case then why the increase?

Now I am not a real estate lawyer – to put it mildly – so I don’t know the answer to the following: Is it legal for banks to foreclose if they know that they cannot substantiate ownership? My guess is no. I hope the 50 state attorneys general now looking into this hunt around for any signs of foreknowledge by the banks. If the banks were doing something they knew to be illegal – as opposed to just making more mistakes – then it raises the question of whether or not there was a conspiracy to commit fraud. Were any of this to be true it would worsen the already dubious condition of many banks’ balance sheets.

What makes this even more interesting that it was just yesterday that analysts were cooing over the better-than-expected earnings J.P. Morgan. This was one of the reasons the press gave for explaining the very odd fact that the Dow closed at or over 11,000 for a fourth straight day. It is worth noting that the Dow has risen more than 1,300 points since July 2, presumably on the basis of all the good economic news of late. Could someone please remind what that news was? Anyone? Bueller?

As long-time readers know I view the stock market as much more of a leading psychological indicator than an economic one. I am still hoping for evidence that will convince me otherwise.

THEN AGAIN IT COULD JUST BE A COINCIDENCE: Bill McBride, who writes Calculated Risk, says: The banks are still catching up on the earlier foreclosure moratoriums – and extended periods for trial modifications.  This surge in repossessions was expected and I think unrelated to “foreclosure-gate”

 

A guide for the perplexed to the economic mess

The problem with the economy is clear, but it’s been obfuscated out of most people’s minds. So, to put it simply: Financial institutions loaned out a huge amount of money against assets that are now worth far less and whose value is still falling. Somehow, someway, the difference between these two numbers has to reconciled. Simply put, money loaned (X) – current value of assets (Y) = amount of debt to be accounted for (Z). Solve the equation and you know exactly how solvent our economy is.

This week we have found out that Y equals even less of X than previously thought – and the previously thought numbers were already pretty bad. That is because banks screwed up the paperwork so badly they are having major problems proving they do indeed have a legal right to the homes they gave mortgages on. Short form: The banks effectively gave that money away. So the debit side of their ledgers just got a whole lot redder and Z just got a whole lot larger.

Bank_Failure_700_Billion Now Z was bad before this latest fiasco was discovered. How bad? Bad enough the banks and the government have gone out of their way to make to figure out what Z is worth. My theory is they believe – perhaps reasonably – disclosing Z will cause the world’s economy to go into freefall. Unfortunately Z is not going away. So because these groups cannot change the value of X and the value of Y keeps getting smaller, they have resorted to fiddling with the – and the =.

First, the government tried to purchase mortgage debt(X) from the banks. The problem with this is that selling X would mean declaring its value, i.e. providing a real number for Y. This would mean admitting what everyone knows – that a number of banks have debts well in excess of their assets.

Because this didn’t work, the government tried to alter the equation’s minus sign by giving banks enough funds to be able to withstand solving for Y. Under this plan we get X + $100s of billion – Y = Z. Given how hesitant banks were to take toxic asset relief payments (or whatever they’re calling it now) it is reasonable to conclude that Y = way more than hundreds of billions.

But wait, you say! Many of these financial institutions have already repaid the bailout money! Yes, that is true. However keep in mind, they repaid it with money borrowed from the government. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul as imagined by M.C. Escher. Those staircases are never going to meet up but it allows both the banks and the government to say that they do while hoping that no one reads the fine print.

So being unable to either 1) increase X enough to do any good or 2) stop the actual value of Y from declining, the government tried letting financial institutions play lets pretend with the book value of Y. Recent changes in accounting rules let institutions can the value of a property at what they think it would go for in an “orderly” sale, as opposed to a forced or distressed one. Or, to quote the head of the central bank of Wonderland: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

What all those measures did was to allow the economy to continue to operate because we all pretended the problem would somehow go away. This is an attempt to put off the day of reconciliation until some time in the far distant future when someone will have figured out a solution that won’t hurt. However, this is impossible. The solution will hurt, and it will hurt a lot.

All talk of growing our way out of the recession is absurd. It is based on the belief that we can continue to increase the size of the economy as was done earlier in this decade. Let’s make one thing clear: The last decade’s worth of growth was funded by loans against assets that were never worth those loans in the first place. Trying to go back to that means continuing to believe in the fiction that it was ever sustainable in the first place.

The healthy economy of our future won’t resemble this in anyway. We will have to accept far more modest growth and lower our expectations about always having the newest stuff. We may have to pay our farm workers enough that those jobs, and others like them, because financially appealing to American citizens. That will mean paying a lot more for food and other things.The US has to become home to manufacturing again. This will mean enacting things – like tariffs – that a lot of powerful corporations don’t want. NAFTA and other free trade agreements are going to have to change drastically.

Of course, we don’t have to do these things. Regardless of what we do, though, the economic equation will be resolved and that debt will somehow be accounted for.

But hey, the Dow’s over 11K so no worries, right?

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…

 

Farewell – hopefully – to American Apparel

americanapparelAmerican Apparel’s brand promise was a unique mix of “clothes made in the USA” and porn. The company alleged it manufactured things in a responsible way. (Mass layoffs earlier this year of the illegal workers who made their product in the USA did away with that one.) AmAp’s approach to marketing is best described as an NC17 version of “nothing comes between me and my Calvin’s.”

For most businesses this would have just been another horrid example of sex sells. For AmAp it seems to have been a reflection of CEO Dov Charney’s “issues.” Charney, who took most of the pictures of company employees used in the ads, was the defendant in so many sex-harassment law suits that you couldn’t keep track of them.The wonderful practices didn’t stop there – no surprise. AmAp was also accused of firing employees who weren’t attractive enough and, Gawker reported that,

Charney "made store managers across the country take group photos of their employees so that he could personally judge people based on looks. He is tightening the AA ‘aesthetic,’ and anyone that he deems not good-looking enough to work there, is encouraged to be fired."

Happily Charney’s management style seems to have come back and bitten him in the ass. Today the Times reported that the company’s woes continued as it raised "substantial" doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern and warned it could breach a loan covenant, sending its shares down 22 percent to a lifetime low. This follows a Federal inquiry into AmAp finances which was spurred when the company’s auditor quit after warning of problems with the company’s financial reporting and the reliability of the company’s financial statement for ‘09.

BTW, Charney is the company’s largest shareholder. Huzzah. Justice, oddly enough, is served.

Bank fails after taking “Jesus saves” literally

JC savesRiverview Community Bank of Ostego, MN, whose founder said God told him that He “would take care of the bottom line,” was closed by the FDIC last Friday.

Chuck Ripka, one of the bank’s founders, once told the Star Tribune that God spoke to him and said, "Chuck, if you pastor the bank, I’ll take care of the bottom line." Ripka and his staff would pray with customers in the bank’s Otsego branch and even at the drive-up window. (A story I once heard about not mixing money lenders and temples suddenly comes to mind.)

Seems the Good Lord didn’t tip Mr. Ripka to the fact that home prices do not always head toward Heaven. The bank was an aggressive real estate lender and at one point had the fourth-highest concentration of real estate loans-to-capital of any community bank in the Minnesota. Riverview’s mistakes weren’t limited to bad loans it seems. Earlier this month it had reached an agreement with the Fed to cease paying dividends and correct violations of law spelled out in a May letter from the Fed. The order didn’t identify what laws were broken.

 

(And speaking of banks in need of divine intercession, check out: Citigroup’s "Hail Mary Pass": How To Know Citigroup Is In Serious Trouble)

Even with funny money banks refuse to take California IOUs

The name of Disney’s California Adventure park seems to have taken on ironic overtones of late. The WSJ reports:

iou A group of the biggest U.S. banks said they would stop accepting California’s IOUs on Friday … if California continues to issue the IOUs, creditors will be forced to hold on to them until they mature on Oct. 2, or find other banks to honor them. … The group of banks included Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., among others.

(Hat tip to the fine blog CalculatedRisk)

C’mon guys! It’s not like you’d be putting up your own cash. BofA, Citi and Wells Fargo have received $65 billion in fed funds. (JPMorgan has already paid back it’s $25B. It was either that or cut its CEO’s pay.)

You know things are bad when the banks won’t use their free money to buy something.

Here’s a fund raising idea: Maybe California should hold the mother of all Michael Jackson memorials and charge admission?

Why is Citi still in business?

Last week saw some quite impressive accomplishments, even by Citi’s august standards. In just a few days it tried to come up with a new way to overpay its investment bankers and traders, then it had to remind its staff NOT to accept undocumented mortgages and finally its Japan operations were shut down because of money laundering.

Woot!

Last Tuesday, Citigroup walked into a feces storm entirely of its own making by announcing it would raise salaries by 50% to offset cuts in bonuses.

To be fair to Citi, they are taking (well-deserved) crap for the entire industry on the salary issue. BofA, Morgan Stanley, UBS and others are also trying to dodge the bad PR when huge bonuses are awarded following huge losses. So now instead of bonuses for bad performance execs will just get a huge salary for bad performance. It’s all about retention – or so Citi would like us to believe. Quote from the NYT: “Citigroup executives are so eager to keep employees from fleeing, that in some cases, they are offering them guaranteed pay contracts.” Well, given that those contracts are being paid for with $45 billion of US taxpayer debt who can blame them. Citi is once again free to play with someone else’s money and are being just as responsible as they were the last time. BTW, the idea that these raises are going to the rank-and-file is absolute hogwash. As Alphaville notes, “the biggest increases will go to investment bankers and traders.”

Also on Tuesday, Citi temporarily stopped buying new loans after “discovering” it was missing property appraisals and documents showing borrowers’ incomes.

The discovery came in Citi’s correspondent division, which buys loans from banks and independent mortgage firms, and was responsible for about half of the bank’s $115 billion in mortgages last year. Two great quotes about this:

“There remain key areas that fall short of our quality- control process. We ask you to review your processes and join us in this effort to collectively address these areas of concern.”  — Brad Brunts, a managing director at the bank’s CitiMortgage division.

And this from an analyst

“It is better to pull people off the line, and have a thorough re-education of what goes into a loan, so they can come back and do this the right way.”

Not a good sign when you have to re-train people processing mortgages on the most basic elements of how to do their jobs. Are these some of the folks being offered those guaranteed contracts?

This really takes the idea of not verifying income to a new level.

RealityFrame’s comment about the raises could really be applied to pretty much everything the bank touches: Anybody want to dispute that those banksters aren’t indeed the "best and the brightest"?

GM bankruptcy ad is a symphony of weasel words

In the face of the greatest single corporate collapse in the history of the world, GM rolled out an ad that inadvertently explains the company’s failure.

It is a veritable symphony of weasel words.

Let’s be completely honest, no company wants to go through this.

By the end of that first sentence it is clear this ad has no intention whatsoever of living up to that initial clause. You can tell because the final pronoun is never made specific. That “this” covers billions of sins. It implies we all know what has happened without saying what that was. It is everything to everyone and thus means nothing. Is “this” an utter failure of leadership? Or is it an inability to have even the vaguest understanding of the needs of the marketplace? Sadly, I suspect “this” is “an economic calamity no one could have foreseen” – the preferred phrase of everyone from Alan Greenspan to, well, the Detroit-based car makers. There is no taking responsibility anywhere in this ad just as there has been no taking responsibility at GM for decades.

But we’re not witnessing the end of the American car,

We’re witnessing the rebirth of the American car.

The conflation of America and GM is offered as an explanation as to why the US citizen is now on the hook for $50+ billion dollars. GM = American car and of course we need to save American car. This neatly sidesteps two key facts: 1) Ford has somehow managed to avoid contributing to the financial debacle that is the US government; and 2) Honda, Toyota and all those other companies who build and sell cars in the US are just as “American” as GM. Actually by the very fact they haven’t required our tax dollars to pay for them to go out of business they are, in my eyes, far more patriotic than GM. They are providing jobs and generating funds for the nation and its citizens.

General Motors needs to start over in order to get stronger.

You can’t argue with the need to start over. It is a safe, bland phrase which appeals to the charitable side in everyone. After all, who hasn’t had problems and who doesn’t believe in a second chance? And we are offered no option but the opinion that GM will get stronger. This is an emotional appeal specifically aimed at diverting attention from the fact that this is a business, not your neighbor or nephew. Any discussion of capitalism and free markets is shunted aside. This isn’t about dollars or stock price or the rich getting richer, no this is about helping someone who is down on his luck.

And lest we forget how dazzling and brilliant that friend once was:

There was a time when eight different brands made sense, not anymore.

There was a time when our cost structure could compete world-wide, not anymore.

Note the use of the phrase “There was a time.” The rhetoric seeks to use past successes as another way of avoiding responsibility. This is nothing more than a badly bloated rewriting of “Mistakes were made.” This is followed up quickly by a blizzard of meaningless business jargon and words that imply much but mean nothing.

Reinvention is the only way we can fix this and fix it, we will.

So here’s what the new GM is going to be:

Fewer, stronger brands.

Fewer, stronger models.

Greater efficiencies.

Better fuel economy.

And new technologies.

Leaner, greener, faster, smarter.

Reinvention! Yes that’s the ticket!

Well, actually what GM needs is the corporate equivalent of putting senior management up against the wall. To actually re-invent the company everyone associated with the ancient regime would need to be replaced. The successor executives are about as likely to break from past failed policies as Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner. Since I am paying for this fiasco can I make a suggestion: Jim Stengel’s stepping down from P&G, can we put him in charge? If not Stengel – and I would not wish this job on anyone – then how about someone else who has experience running a successful business?

Having invoked the empty but pretty idea of re-invention the ad descends into a staccato barrage of lovely sounding words and phrases signifying nothing: Fewer, stronger, greater, better, leaner, greener, faster, smarter!

The ad ends with triumphal horn blast

This is not about going out of business, this is about getting down to business.

Because the only chapter we’re focused on is Chapter 1.

The first sentence is straight from the handbook of Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen who penned all those pretty reversible quotes like “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It is a call to action that requires no action. A promise without commitment. The final words are a smug wink and a nudge, an effort to let you know how clever they – or the ad writers – still are. Note the unspoken play on Chapter 11.

At a time when what the company and all three of its remaining customers need are a few simple declarative sentences we get more of the usual: Pretty smoke and brilliant mirrors. GM still wants us to believe its management knows what is best for the company. I didn’t mind that claim nearly as much when they weren’t using my money to make it.

I am clearly not the only person to feel this way. Here is the version of the GM ad I would have made if I had the video skills I clearly don’t.

Obama tries to revive hopeless “Hope for Homeowners” plan

Last fall the Administration unveiled its "Hope for Homeowners" program in the hopes it would allow some 400,000 troubled homeowners to swap risky loans for traditional 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with lower rates.

Instead only a handful of borrowers have been able to qualify, and as of earlier this spring only one loan had completed the program. It was launched by the government last fall but has so far has been a failure, proving unattractive to banks required to absorb large losses.”

Having failed to come up with a program that makes sense, Treasury will now give $2,500 bribes to “to entice [banks] to participate.”

How much should someone be paid to bankrupt a company? A shopper’s guide

“It’s in the best interests of taxpayers to have Jamie Dimon running J.P. Morgan. They should want to have the best people out there running these banks, and I’m not sure capping pay is the way to do that.” – Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, on President Barack Obama’s proposal to cap pay for executives.

Hard to know what the CEO of a company that has lost 2/3rds of its share value in 12 months means by “best people.” Certainly Dimon looks good in comparison to Immelt. JPMorgan is down slightly less than half over the same period. Still I think it is in the taxpayers best interest to pay as little as possible for incompetence of this magnitude. George Bush, after all, was paid a mere $200,000 a year.

pay-chart

Compensation numbers can be found here.

During the pet-food-poisoning scandal it was revealed the only difference between many top-shelf brands and their down-market competitors was the labels. I believe the same principle can be applied here.

How about this for a sign: “Will wreck your business for food.”

Staples goes vulture: “Will Office Depot closings affect you?”

The next hot trend is upon us: Vulture marketing. As in: to feed on the carcass of your now bankrupt competition in hopes that the same doesn’t happen to you. Witness today’s email from Staples:

staplesemail3

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. It is just far from comforting.

The estimable Shaun Abrahamson points out that UPS went one better than Staples and put up a whole website for former DHL customers. Any other examples?

GM argument against bankruptcy is a car wreck

The astoundingly badly run car maker says it won’t declare chapter 11 because “people won’t buy cars from a bankrupt company.” Given that GM’s sales have dropped 45 percent over the last year, how would this be any different from the current situation?

Not surprisingly the “it’s not our fault” argument is echoed by UAW President Ron Gettelfinger: “We’re here not because of what the auto industry has done. We’re here because of what has happened to the economy.”

This would be more believable if GM had been doing well before the credit markets went to hell. Let’s remember that we’re talking about GM here and what it’s track record is like. This is a company that even when it gets a good idea goes out of its way to kill it.

Quoth this great article from the WSJ:

This situation doesn’t stem from the recent meltdown in banking and the markets. GM, Ford and Chrysler have been losing billions since 2005, when the U.S. economy was still healthy. The financial crisis does, however, greatly exacerbate Detroit’s woes. As car sales plunge — both in the U.S. and in Detroit’s once-booming overseas markets — it’s becoming nearly impossible for the companies to cut costs fast enough to keep pace with the evaporation of their revenue.

In all this lies a tale of hubris, missed opportunities, disastrous decisions and flawed leadership of almost biblical proportions. In fact, for the last 30 years Detroit has gone astray, repented, gone astray and repented again in a cycle not unlike the Israelites in the Book of Exodus.

Remember Saturn? GM started an authentically different company that attained a beloved cult-like status and then all but killed it by not letting it put out new models. Don’t even get me started about the electric car and where the company would be today if they’d kept developing that program they killed after putting $1 billion into it. And then there’s the decades of lobbying against improving mileage standards that — had they been in effect — would have also saved their asses.

GM is also arguing that it’s basically under new management and that the guys who made all those stupid decisions have been replaced. Even if this is true, then let’s hold them accountable for the stupidity just since Rick Waggoner became CEO. For the last seven years their strategy has been, “we’re going to bet it all on the short-term profits to be made from SUVs.” Thus they launched Hummer et al. I’m supposed to trust a bunch of guys who couldn’t figure out that the price of gas fluctuates? Who couldn’t figure out that there was a difference between short-term profits and long-term viability?

Let’s make one thing clear — the term “US automakers” is a misnomer. When someone says they want to “bailout the US automakers” they really mean GM. Ford has said repeatedly that they have enough credit to get through and Chrysler is no more or less a US company than Honda or Toyota. The Big Three is in fact the Incompetent One.

Wait, I will bow to the Journal on this one: they’re going with “The Detroit Three” and that works for me.

Coming soon to an ad near you: “Our gift cards insured by the FDIC”

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the entity that guarantees bank deposits, has issued an opinion stating that funds on gift cards and other stored value cards qualify as deposits and will be covered under FDIC insurance if those funds have been placed at an insured depository institution.

bankrupt-wheelI’d love to file this under “You know it’s gotten bad when …” but we’re too far past that. Wonder who will be the first retailer to plug this into its ads? “The latest in worry-free shopping: You can put up to $250K on a gift card! Guaranteed by the FDIC even if we bite the dust!”

Oy.

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.”