The Dukes of Moral Hazard: The Dangers of Quantitative Easing

 

This brilliant and terrifying column was originally published at ProPublica and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. cc

by Jesse Eisinger
ProPublica, Nov. 10, 2010, 2:40 p.m.

sinking_shipAcross the world, there are booms. Chinese Internet companies are flourishing. Energy companies are finding new sources of power. Commercial real estate is coming back.

Unfortunately, this isn’t happening in the real world, which is still crippled by sagging economies, but in the investing one.

If there’s a doggy stock, a dodgy loan or a slice of a complex credit security made to a questionable borrower — hedge funds want it now. Companies with junk bond ratings are flooding the markets with new issuance. If private equity firms bring a money-losing company saddled with debt to market, investors are eager to snap it up.

Thank the Federal Reserve. The central bank has embarked on its program of “quantitative easing,” a second round of experimental monetary policy in which the Fed buys up assets — like longer term government bonds — to bring down interest rates, which is supposed to spur lending and borrowing, thus reigniting the economy.

Nobody knows whether it will work to bring down the intractable rate of unemployment. But it has already worked in one significant way: the speculative juices of the markets are flowing.

What’s going on? As a Fed official explained it in a recent speech, one supposed benefit of the Fed policy is that it will add to “household wealth by keeping asset prices higher than they otherwise would be.”

So it’s levitation-by-decree. When the Fed moves, financial assets receive the opposite of collateral damage: universal blessing, deserved or not. Lower rates may or may not help more people find work. But there’s no doubt that the central bank has already helped the Henry Kravises and Lloyd Blankfeins of the world.

The Russell 2000 stock index, which is made up of smaller companies, has risen about 21 percent since September, when investors started to anticipate that the Fed would intervene in an aggressive fashion. A tiny Chinese Internet stock, China MediaExpress Holdings, is up more than 250 percent since mid-September. The private investors that own Harrah’s, the money-losing casino company, are bringing it public, and investors are going to gamble on it despite a crushing debt load.

Then there are something called B notes, bonds backed by commercial real estate loans. B-note holders are on the hook for the early losses if the loans go bad. They are as hot a commodity as everything else. Never mind that there’s a huge oversupply of commercial real estate in this country. Or that Wall Street just went through a disastrous episode for complex structured financial products of exactly this sort.

Without knowing a thing about finance, here’s how to tell it won’t work out well. Wall Street is the great master of the euphemism. The Street doesn’t call them junk bonds; they are “high yield.” Here, something isn’t just Triple A. It’s “Super Senior Triple A.” So when the best investment bankers can do is to dress something up with a lowly “B,” you know it’s trash.

Leverage, meanwhile, has made a glorious return. Interactive Brokers, a discount brokerage firm, has been running an advertising campaign that displays money spewing from printing presses. The firm will lend (for certain special customers)$566,000 for every $100,000. Ah, borrowing heavily for the purposes of trading in volatile markets. Maybe some Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers bankers can explain the wisdom of this.

All of this is Finance 101. The cheaper money is to borrow, the more it makes sense to take a bigger risk with it.

But that doesn’t make it more palatable. It feels like an ominous replay of recent Federal Reserve emergency actions, which led to bigger and bigger bubbles. The Fed brokered the rescue of Long-Term Capital Management, bailing out the investment banks that had lent to the collapsing hedge fund. The Fed pumped money into the economy to save us from the Y2K computer bug. The Fed tried to rescue the economy from the bursting of the Nasdaq bubble, helping to create the housing bubble.

It’s like the exhausted “Saw” movie franchise; this isn’t just a sequel. It’s more like the third iteration of the second reboot — harder core, baser and for serious liquidity heads only.

Is this the price society has to pay for a better economy? Do we care if some hedge funders get rich as long as unemployment goes down, fewer people get thrown out of their homes and household debts are less crushing?

That would be a worthwhile tradeoff. But it’s far from clear that the Fed can get any real traction with its policies.

Over the past year, I’ve been investigating some of the more egregious conduct that occurred in the bubble years. In this column, I’ll be monitoring the financial markets to hold companies, executives and government officials accountable for their actions.

A main focus will be the spectacle of returning speculation. It’s commonplace to lament Wall Street’s lack of a historical memory. But there is something different at work. Professional investors have learned the lessons of the financial markets’ serial bubbles and learned them well.

The lesson is: When the next one comes, I’m going to get mine. I’ll just get out early this time.

You can contact Jesse Eisinger at jesse@propublica.org

Today’s non-news: Millionaires optimistic while the rest of us worry about paying the mortgage

First from the Wall Street Journal:

Millionaire Optimism Hits 3-Year High

Now, the Washington Post:

Most Americans worry about ability to pay mortgage or rent, poll finds

Well now. I feel much better informed.

palm slap

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?

Who could possibly have seen the banking disaster coming?

What was the theory behind the Glass-Steagall Act? Foremost, it was meant to restore a certain sobriety to American finance. In the 1920s, the banker had gone from a person of sober rectitude to a huckster who encouraged people to gamble on risky stocks and bonds. As [chief congressional counsel Ferdinand] Pecora noted, small investors identified banks with security, so that National City salesmen “came to them clothed with all the authority and prestige of the magic name ‘National City.’” It was also argued that the union of deposit and securities banking created potential conflicts of interest. Banks could take bad loans, repackage them as bonds, and fob them off on investors as National City had done with Latin American loans. They could even lend the investors money to buy the bonds. A final problem with the banks’ brokerage affiliates was that they forced the Federal Reserve System to stand behind both depositors and speculators. If a securities bank failed, the Fed might need to rescue it to protect the parent bank. In other words, the government might have to protect speculators to save depositors.

Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan, 1990, pg. 375. (Emphasis added)

 

The repeal of Glass-Steagall was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1999.

The arguments made to repeal the act were primarily

  1. Depository institutions will now operate in “deregulated” financial markets in which distinctions between loans, securities, and deposits are not well drawn. They are losing market shares to securities firms that are not so strictly regulated, and to foreign financial institutions operating without much restriction from the Act.
  2. Conflicts of interest can be prevented by enforcing legislation against them, and by separating the lending and credit functions through forming distinctly separate subsidiaries of financial firms.
  3. The securities activities that depository institutions are seeking are both low-risk by their very nature, and would reduce the total risk of organizations offering them – by diversification.
  4. In much of the rest of the world, depository institutions operate simultaneously and successfully in both banking and securities markets. Lessons learned from their experience can be applied to our national financial structure and regulation

Emphasis added

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!!!

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)

Why I don’t believe in this recovery

What’s the opposite of cherry picking? Prune picking? This may be an exercise in that but this “recovery” looks like smoke without mirrors. Here’s a reader of items that explain my thinking.

First, the decrease in the rate of unemployment as positive sign is pure spin and doesn’t reflect the actual situation at all.

The Spin: Sept. 17 (Bloomberg) — The number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless benefits fell unexpectedly last week, a sign the labor market is deteriorating at a slower pace as the economy pulls out of the recession.

A: NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Five states posted jobless rates above 12% in August, according to federal data released Friday. California, Nevada and Rhode Island each hit record-high rates, the Labor Department said. Michigan led the nation in unemployment, with a rate of 15.2%, while Nevada was next at 13.2% and Rhode Island was third at 12.8%. California and Oregon were tied for the fourth spot, each with unemployment at 12.2%.

B: After reviewing the various unemployment calculations maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I have come to the conclusion that the U6 calculation (Unemployed, discouraged and underemployed workers) is the most relevant, which increased 0.5 percentage points in August to a whopping 16.8 percent, representing a total of roughly 20 million people in the U.S. And remember, this is “less bad”.  I like that the U6 number includes underemployed workers, because these are people that have jobs but aren’t making as much money as they are accustomed; they have been forced into part time work. This can impact payments to ARM companies.

Second, housing starts are at a nine month high! Great, just when a huge amount of housing stock is about to be dumped on the market, aka, more foreclosures.

The Spin: Sept. 17 (Bloomberg) — Housing starts in the U.S. rose to the highest level in nine months … adding to evidence an economic recovery is taking hold.

A: WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The federal government and states are girding themselves for the next foreclosure crisis in the country’s housing downturn: payment option adjustable rate mortgages that are beginning to reset. "Payment option ARMs are about to explode," Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said after a Thursday meeting with members of President Barack Obama’s administration to discuss ways to combat mortgage scams.

B: While this index (and single family starts) are well above the massively depressed levels recorded late last year and early this year, this has in all likelihood been a rebound from unsustainably weak results that was reinforced by a temporary boost to demand from the $8000 first time homebuyer tax incentive that applies to purchases that close before December 1. Gains from here on will probably be much more difficult to achieve, as poor labor market conditions, tight credit, overly leveraged household balance sheets, and still considerable inventory of new and existing homes all exert downside pressures. –Joshua Shapiro, MFR Inc.

And who is relying on all those mortgages to keep it out of bankruptcy? No, not the banks but the US government.

 The Fed’s balance sheet expanded again in the latest week, rising to $2.125 trillion from $2.072 trillion, but the increase came primarily from purchases of mortgage-backed securities, Treasurys and agency debt. Holdings of mortgage-backed securities alone jumped by nearly $60 billion, and now make up nearly a third of the overall balance sheet. The Fed started a program in March to ramp up such acquisitions in order to keep long-term interest rates low. Nearly all of the programs set up as emergency facilities to prop up the financial system posted declines. Direct-bank lending remains at its the lowest level since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and central-bank liquidity fell again. The commercial paper and money market facilities also dropped and are at their lowest levels since inception. Companies lately have decided to take their funds out and tap investors directly as sentiment in the market improves. The only emergency facility posting gains was the TALF program aimed at spurring consumer lending.

Take note of which parts of the government are being particularly hurt:

WASHINGTON – The Federal Housing Administration said Friday its cash cushion will dip below mandated levels for the first time, but officials insist it won’t need a taxpayer rescue. The agency, a growing source of funds for first-time homebuyers, faces mounting concerns that it will soon need a taxpayer bailout. As of this summer, about 17 percent of FHA borrowers were at least one payment behind or in foreclosure, compared with 13 percent for all loans, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. bank regulators will meet at the end of the month to explore options, possibly including some that are not well-known, to replenish the dwindling fund that safeguards bank deposits, the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp said on Friday.

By December 2010 the state expects its unemployment trust fund, which is being tapped $31.7 million per month, will run out. The fund, which contained $430 million at the end of 2008, could dip to $118.5 million by year’s end. … Hawaii is not alone; at least 14 other states are insolvent, and four more are on their way. (Emphasis added)

But the stock market broke 9800 yesterday, so happy days are here again.

Welcome to the boomtown
Pick a habit
We got plenty to go around
Welcome, welcome to the boomtown
All that money makes such a succulent sound
Welcome to the boomtown

David & David, Welcome to the Boomtown

The stock market is an idiot

Yesterday the NYSE broke 9,000 and huzzahs and hosannas rang through the land. Redemption was at hand and all was right with the world. This was a sure sign the economy was recovering.

"What I like about the rally that we’ve seen so far is the breadth of it. It’s not really confined to a single sector. It’s broadly spread. That gives me confidence," said John Coyne, president of Philadelphia-based Brinker Capital, with $8 billion under management. "It’s been a wonderful run-up here. It’s certainly helping to restore investor confidence, given the trauma that people went through."

This all came about because of better earnings by Goldman Sachs, Ford and and the great good news that sales of previously owned homes rose 3.6 percent in June, the third consecutive monthly improvement! Never mind that Goldman’s money is based on accounting tricks and a fixed game or that the sale of homes is up because the price of homes is falling faster than Alan Greenspan’s reputation. It’s all good.

(Also never mind that UPS reported disappointing second-quarter earnings and doesn’t expect business to pick up over the next few months. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a reliable economic indicator.)

PAY ATTENTION:

THE STOCK MARKET AT 9,000
IS NO SMARTER THAN IT WAS AT 13,000.

There is a continuing and unfounded belief that stock markets somehow reflect reality. They don’t. They reflect the psychology of investors – whether individual or institutional. It is not a picture of what is but of what investors think will be. The Dow at 13,000 reflected nothing but the fact that too many people believed US housing prices could only move in one direction. Conversely, The Dow at 6,450 reflected people’s belief that our banking system was dead in the water.

I believe the current market numbers reflect mass denial. Denial that the US is populated by zombie banks, denial that unemployment is in double digits, denial that these profits have come because of slashed expenses – which is hardly sustainable. The rise in the Dow and other markets is more a reflection of wishful thinking and short-term profit-grabbing than it is anything else.

It could be that the above paragraph is wrong. Maybe recovery is upon us and the billions of dollars lost by banks and people in the meltdown do not need to be accounted for. Even if I am wrong about my assumptions and outlook I am right about this: The markets are no better at augury than the Romans were who relied on the flight of birds or examining the livers of sheep. If they were then we would never have crashes.

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"?

New accounting rules let bankers set the value of their own toxic assets

My latest from over at BlownMortgage:

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) has approved a new set of rules allowing financial firms to fiddle with how big their real-estate losses are.

The change is in mark-to-market accounting rules, which say companies must value assets at prices reflecting current market conditions. But now the phrase “current market conditions” will have a big asterisk next to them. Now the assets will be valued at what they would go for in an “orderly” sale, as opposed to a forced or distressed sale. Smoke-and-mirrors has nothing on ink-and-paper.

The changes … allow companies to use ’significant’ judgment when gauging the price of some investments on their books, including mortgage-backed securities.

Or, as Lewis Carrol put it in the aptly titled Through The Looking Glass:

“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.”
“The question is”‘ said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Those in favor of the rule change include Citigroup, Wells Fargo, members of The House and the American Bankers Association. (What a list! It is difficult to think of a group more dedicated to playing “let’s pretend” when it comes to accounting.) They argue forcing banks to mark assets to firesale prices when the markets have gone dormant has fueled the financial crisis through the writedowns, big earnings hits, damage to capital ratios, and a reduced ability to lend. In other words, if you don’t like the reality of the situation just ignore it. Ah, there’s nothing like seeing capitalism in action — the invisible hand of the marketplace being chopped off before it can distribute goods and services at the prices they would actually sell for.

Why is it that we needed strict accounting measures when these assets were inflating the banks’ balance sheets but now that they are deflating those same numbers it is time to change them?

FDIC head Sheila “The Voice of Reason” Bair seems to have her doubts as well: “Banks need to have flexibility” in valuing assets but the fair market rule shouldn’t be scrapped, [she] told a gathering of bank executives Wednesday. “There needs to be integrity in those bank balance sheets.” Wasn’t theeir lack of integrity how this all started?

Here’s my favorite line in the AP story: “Critics say the rule mandates onerous write-downs and saps investor confidence in banks.” There is no confidence left to sap, guys. Coming up with new ways to officially approve your guestimates just proves how justified the lack of confidence is.

While I am unimpressed by the FASB’s lack of a spinal cord, the true blame lies elsewhere for this one:

At a hearing last month, a House panel wrung a pledge from FASB Chairman Robert Herz to try to issue guidelines in three weeks that would relax the mark-to-market rule. The head of the House Financial Services subcommittee, Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., had held out the threat of legislation to pressure the standard-setting board to take the steps.

The inmates are now officially in charge of the asylum.

Extreme Makeover home hit by extreme mortgage woes

The AP reports that the Vardons, a hearing-imparied couple with an autistic son, are facing foreclosure. After more then 20 million viewers watched their Oak Park, MI home be remodeled on November 6, 2006, the familiy’s property tax burden increased significantly. Compounding the financial burden, they refinanced their existing mortgage, in part to help pay down the debt incurred by their son’s medical bills, which are not covered by insurance. The situation has become dire now that Larry Vardon’s employer, Chrysler LLC’s Sterling Heights stamping plant, is also on the brink of failure putting his job in potential jeopardy.

They are not the first winners of an Extreme Makeover home to face foreclosure. This summer, the Harper family faced a similar fate, according to the Washington Post. The Harpers used their new home as collateral on a $450,000 loan they used to start a construction company in the Atlanta, GA area. The construction company failed, as so many have as the real estate market has ground almost to a halt. Interestingly, an earlier editorial by Washington Post Staff Writer Hank Stuever indicates that the Harpers also recieved “enough money to pay taxes on it [their new home] for decades”.

No comment.

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.

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.

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.”