Archive for March 3rd, 2013
Steven Brill wrote a phenomenal piece for Time Magazine, which lays bare the horrifying price distortion in our health care system. Jon Stewart sits down to talk to him.
Also Time Magazine has an interview with Steven Brill about his article.
A recent study confirmed that control fraud was endemic among our most elite financial institutions:Asset Quality Misrepresentation by Financial Intermediaries: Evidence from RMBS Market. Tomasz Piskorski, Amit Seru & James Witkin (February 2013) (“PSW 2013″).
The key conclusion of the study is that control fraud was “pervasive.”
[A]lthough there is substantial heterogeneity across underwriters, a significant degree of misrepresentation exists across all underwriters, which includes the most reputable financial institutions.
Finance scholars are not known for their sense of humor, but the irony of calling the world’s largest and most harmful financial control frauds our “most reputable” banks is quite wondrous. The point the financial scholars make is one Edwin Sutherland emphasized from the beginning when he announced the concept of “white-collar” crime. It is the officers who control seemingly legitimate, elite business organizations that pose unique fraud risks because we are so loath to see them as frauds.
The PSW 2013 study confirmed one form of control fraud and provided suggestive evidence of two other forms that I will discuss in a future column. The definitive evidence of control fraud that PSW2013 identifies is by mortgage lenders who made, or purchased, mortgages and then resold them to “private label” (non-Fannie and Freddie) financial firms who were creating mortgage backed securities (MBS). The deceit they documented by the firms selling the mortgage loans consisted of claiming that the loans did not have second liens. The lenders knowingly sold mortgages they knew had second liens under the false representations (reps) and warranties that they did not have second liens. (The authors confirm the point many of us have been making for years — the banks that fraudulently sold fraudulent mortgages did have “skin in the game” because of their reps and warranties. The key is that the officers who control the banks do not have skin in the game — they can loot the banks they can control and walk away wealthy.) The PSW 2013 study documents that the officers controlling the home lenders knew the representations they made to the purchasers as to the lack of a second lien were often false (pp. 2, 5 n. 6), that such deceit was common (p. 3), that the deceit harmed the purchasers by causing them to suffer much higher default rates on loans with undisclosed second liens (pp. 20-21), and that each of the financial institutions they studied — the nation’s “most reputable” — committed substantial amounts of this form of fraud (Figure 4, p. 59).
The most interesting reaction to the PSW 2013 study is that of a fraud denier, The Economist‘s “M.C.K.” In his January 25, 2013 column, (“Just who should we be blaming anyway?”) M.C.K. argued that we should blame the victims of the fraud (“the real wrongdoers were not those who sold risky products at inflated prices but the dupes who bought them….”).
Only three weeks later, in his February 19, 2013 column discussing the PSW 2013 study, M.C.K. admitted that fraud by banks had played a prominent role in the crisis.
BUBBLES are conducive to fraud. Buyers become less careful about doing their due diligence when asset prices are soaring and financing for speculation is plentiful. Unscrupulous sellers exploit this incaution. The victims are none the wiser as long as the bubble continues to inflate.
I will explain in a later column why I believe this passage is badly flawed, but my point here is that the fraud denier and “blame the victim” columnist has recanted.
During America’s housing bubble, mortgage originators were told to do whatever it took to get loans approved, even if that meant deliberately altering data about borrower income and net worth. Many argue that the banks that bundled those loans into securities deliberately and systematically misled investors and private insurers about the risks involved. It is easy to be unsympathetic in the absence of hard evidence. As I argued in a previous post , ‘investors were not forced to take the losing side of so many trades.’While I stand by that view, a new paper by Tomasz Piskorski, Amit Seru, and James Witkin convincingly argues that banks deliberately misrepresented the characteristics of mortgages in securities they pitched to investors and bond insurers. The misrepresented loans defaulted at much higher rates than ones that were not — a result that would not be produced by random errors. Moreover, the share of loans that were misrepresented increased as the bubble inflated. The authors estimate that underwriters may be liable for about $60 billion in representation and warranty damages (emphasis in original).
These two paragraphs are worth savoring in some detail. The central point we have been arguing for years is now admitted — and treated as a universally known fact: “mortgage originators were told to do whatever it took to get loans approved, even if that meant deliberately altering data about borrower income and net worth.” The crisis was driven by liar’s loans. By 2006, half of all the loans called “subprime” were also liar’s loans — the categories are not mutually exclusive (Credit Suisse 2007). As I have explained on many occasions, we know that it was overwhelmingly lenders and their agents (the loan brokers) who put the lies in liar’s loans.
The incidence of fraud in liar’s loans was 90 percent (MARI 2006). Liar’s loans are a superb “natural experiment” because no entity (and that includes Fannie and Freddie) was ever required to make or purchase liar’s loans. Indeed, the government discouraged liar’s loans (MARI 2006). By 2006, roughly 40% of all U.S. mortgages originated that year were liar’s loans (45% in the U.K.). Liar’s loans produce extreme “adverse selection” in home lending, which produces a “negative expected value” (in plain English — making liar’s home loans will produce severe losses). Only a firm engaged in control fraud would make liar’s loans. The officers who control such a firm will walk away wealthy even as the lender fails. This dynamic was what led George Akerlof and Paul Romer to entitle their famous 1993 article — “Looting: the Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit.” Akerlof and Romer emphasized that accounting control fraud is a “sure thing” guaranteed to transfer wealth from the firm to the controlling officers.
M.C.K. now admits that liar’s loans were endemically fraudulent and that it was lenders and their agents who “deliberately” put the lies in liar’s loans. Given the massive number of liar’s loans and the extraordinary growth of liar’s loans (roughly 500% from 200-2006) it is clear that that they were the “marginal loans” that caused the housing markets to hyper-inflate and created the catastrophic losses (in the form of loans, MBS, and CDOs) that drove the financial crisis. The key fact that must be kept in mind is that once a fraudulent liar’s loan begins with the loan officer or broker inflating the borrower’s income and suborning the appraiser into inflating the home appraisal the subsequent sales of that mortgage (or derivatives “backed” by the mortgage) by private parties will be fraudulent.
The authors of the PSW 2013 study expressly cautioned that their data allowed them to examine only two of the varieties of fraud. Lenders’ frauds in originating and selling liar’s loans were far more common, and far more harmful, than the two forms of fraud the PSW study was able to study. The many forms of mortgage frauds by lenders and their agents, of course, were cumulative and the frauds interact to produce greatly increased defaults.
The greatest importance of the PSW 2013 study is that even the fraud deniers have to admit that our most prestigious banks were the world’s largest and most destructive financial control frauds. Given this confirmation that the banks engaged in one form of control fraud in the sale of fraudulent mortgages (false representations about second liens), there is no reason to believe that their senior officers had moral qualms that prevented them from becoming even wealthier through the endemic frauds of liar’s loans and inflated appraisals. Appraisal fraud is almost invariably induced by lenders and their agents. Given the “pervasive” willingness of the officers controlling our most prestigious banks to enrich themselves personally by lying about the presence of second liens, they certainly cannot have any moral restraints that would have prevented them from creating the perverse incentives that caused loan officers and brokers to put the lies in liar’s loans and to induce appraisers to inflate appraisals — two other control fraud schemes that were far more “pervasive” (and even likelier to produce severe losses) than the two forms of fraud studied by the PSW 2013 authors.
Once the fraud deniers have to admit that one form of control fraud involving mortgages was “pervasive” among our most prestigious banks, it becomes untenable to ignore the already compelling evidence that other forms of control fraud involved in the fraudulent origination and sale of mortgages and mortgage derivatives were even more pervasive at hundreds of financial institutions. The PSW 2013 study destroyed the myth of the Virgin Crisis. It also exposes the falsity of the ridiculous “definition” of mortgage fraud that the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) foisted on the FBI and the Department of Justice that implicitly defines control fraud out of existence for mortgage lenders. Attorney General Holder and President Obama have no excuse for their faith in the Virgin Crisis, conceived without fraud and should repudiate the MBA definition immediately and train the regulators and agents to spot and prosecute the epidemic of control frauds that drove this crisis (and the S&L debacle and Enron-era frauds).
Huffington Post – William K. Black
The latest report on personal incomes and outlays showed the expected collapse in personal incomes post the pre-fiscal cliff surge. However, the reversion was more than expected. Today’s charts of the day present the effects of both the reversion in incomes, post the special yearend payouts to avoid the impact of higher taxes, and the impact of the payroll tax increase.
The first chart shows real (inflation adjusted) personal incomes. The effect of the surge in payrolls due to concerns over the “fiscal cliff” is clearly shown, as well as, the subsequent reversal in January as real incomes slid by a whopping 3.6% or $437 billion.
The next chart shows the breakdown of those contributions to incomes. Not surprisingly, the largest factor was in “special dividends”that were paid out at a 15% tax rate on fears that taxes on dividends would rise to as much as 40%. However, these “special dividends”were primarily paid to those evil “one percenters” which are primarily businesses owners who extracted capital from the businesses.
Not surprisingly, real personal consumption tracks real incomes, and with the sharp drop in income in January, higher payroll taxes, and a sharp rise in gasoline prices, it is very likely that real personal consumption will show a larger than expected decline in February.
The reality, as we discussed recently, is that consumers really are not deleveraging their balance sheets much at all. Outside of mortgage debt which has fallen due to foreclosures, write downs, forgiveness, bankruptcies and refinancing – revolving credit has continued to rise. The problem with this is that revolving credit comes at much higher interest rates and the debt service payments continue to erode living standards due to stagnant incomes.
This is clearly seen in the declining trends of personal consumption expenditures. The annualized percentage change in PCE has now fallen to levels that have normally been seen during recessionary periods. Despite trillions of dollars of injections, supports and bailouts personal consumption clearly peaked in 2011, and like the majority of all most every economic indicator, has been waning since.
If we put all of this together we can see a picture of the average American. The chart below shows the annual change in personal incomes combined with the annual change in personal expenditures. What is clear is that consumption has been supported by rising transfer receipts (welfare) and a drop in the personal savings rate which is now at the lowest level since just prior to the last recession. The consumer is clearly struggling to maintain their current standard of living and all indications are that they are going to lose this battle.
While the chart above is a bit cluttered what is important to understand is that the world changed in 1980. Deregulation of the finance industry, combined with continually falling interest rates, allowed for easier, more pervasive, use of credit. This allowed for a higher standard of living, an explosion of investment and a massive surge in productivity due to the technological revolution. However, the shift from manufacturing and production, high economic multipliers, to a finance and service, low multipliers, based economy led to a steady decline in the rate of increase in incomes. The illusion of wealth, spawned by lower interest rates and easy access to credit, which allowed for excess consumption through leverage drained the average American’s ability to save.
It is crucially important to understand the impact of low savings rates on economic growth. The reason, that despite all of the government’s best attempts, that economic growth and employment remains weak can be directly attributed to still high leverage ratios for consumers and low savings rates.
It is only when debt levels fall to sustainable levels, and savings rates rise, that the economy can begin to function normally again. The Federal Reserve’s continued endeavors at the flooding the system with liquidity to induce employment continue to fail because such programs do not positively impact the ability of the end consumer to create increases in aggregate end demand. Ultimately, it is only production and employment that can achieve that goal.
So, while “QE to Infinity” will likely continue to push asset prices higher, at least until the next financial bubble pops, higher asset prices only benefit a small portion of the overall economy. For the rest of America the struggle to maintain their declining standard of living continues as the impact of continued weak economic growth and high levels of real unemployment continue to take their toll.
Is “discretionary income” rapidly becoming a thing of the past for most American families? Right now, there are a lot of signs that we are on the verge of a nightmarish consumer spending drought. Incomes are down, taxes are up, many large retail chains are deeply struggling because of the lack of customers, and at this point nearly a quarter of all Americans have more credit card debt than money in the bank. Considering the fact that consumer spending is such a large percentage of the U.S. economy, that is very bad news. How will we ever have a sustained economic recovery if consumers don’t have much money to spend? Well, the truth is that we aren’t ever going to have a sustained economic recovery. In fact, this debt-fueled bubble of false hope that we are experiencing right now is as good as things are going to get. Things are going to go downhill from here, and if you think that consumer spending is bad now, just wait until you see what happens over the next several years.
Even though the Dow is surging toward a record high right now, everyone knows that things are not good for the middle class. A recent quote from CPA Howard Dvorkin kind of summarizes our current state of affairs very nicely…
“The fact of the matter is that America is broke — whether it’s mortgages, student loans or credit cards, we are broke. The old rule of thumb is that people should have six months’ of savings,” Dvorkin says.”If you talk to people, most don’t have two pennies.”
These days most Americans are living from paycheck to paycheck, and thanks to rising prices and rising taxes, those paychecks are getting squeezed tighter and tighter. Many families have had to cut back on unnecessary expenses, and some families no longer have any discretionary income at all.
The following are 16 signs that the middle class is rapidly running out of money…
#1 According to one brand new survey, 24 percent of all Americans have more credit card debt than money in the bank.
#2 J.C. Penney was once an unstoppable retail powerhouse, but now J.C. Penney has just posted its lowest annual retail sales in more than 20 years…
J.C. Penney Co. (JCP) slid the most in more than three decades after the department-store chain lost $4.3 billion in sales in the first year of Chief Executive Officer Ron Johnson’s turnaround plan.
The shares fell 18 percent to $17.40 at 11:28 a.m. in New York after earlier declining 22 percent, the biggest intraday drop since at least 1980, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. J.C. Penney yesterday said its net loss in the quarter ended Feb. 2 widened to $552 million from $87 million a year earlier. The Plano, Texas-based retailer’s annual revenue slid 25 percent to $13 billion, the lowest since at least 1987.
How much worse can things get? At this point the decline has become so steep for J.C. Penney that Jim Cramer of CNBC is declaring that they are in “a true tailspin“.
#3 In the United States today, a new car has become out of reach for most middle class Americans according to the 2013 Car Affordability Study…
Looking to buy a new car, truck or crossover? You may find it more difficult to stretch the household budget than you expected, according to a new study that finds median-income families in only one major U.S. city actually can afford the typical new vehicle.
The typical new vehicle is now more expensive than ever, averaging $30,500 in 2012, according to TrueCar.com data, and heading up again as makers curb the incentives that helped make their products more affordable during the recession when they were desperate for sales. According to the 2013 Car Affordability Study by Interest.com, only in Washington could the typical household swing the payments, the median income there running $86,680 a year.
#4 The founder of Subway Restaurants, Fred Deluca, says that the recent tax increases are having a noticeable impact on his business…
“The payroll tax is affecting sales. It’s causing sales declines,” he said, estimating a decline of about 2 percentage points off sales at his restaurants. “There are a lot of pressures on consumers,” Deluca said, adding “I think this is on the permanent side, but I think business will adjust to it.”
#5 Many other large restaurant chains are also struggling in this tough economic environment…
Darden Restaurants, which owns the casual dining chains Oliver Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster, said blended same-store sales at its three eateries would be 4.5 percent lower during its fiscal third quarter.
Clarence Otis, Darden’s chairman and chief executive, said that “while results midway through the third quarter were encouraging, there were difficult macro-economic headwinds during the last month of the quarter.”
“Two of the most prominent were increased payroll taxes and rising gasoline prices, which together put meaningful pressure on the discretionary purchasing power of our guests,” he added.
#6 The CFO of Family Dollar recently admitted to CNBC that this is a “challenging time” because of reduced consumer spending…
At Family Dollar where the average customer makes less than $40,000 a year, the combination of a two-percent hike in the payroll tax, rising gas prices and delayed tax refunds has created a “challenging time and an uncertain time for the consumer right now,” said Mary Winston, the company’s chief financial officer.
“In our case, anything that takes money out of our customer’s wallet gives them less money to spend in our stores,” she told CNBC. “So I think all of those things create nervousness for the consumer, and I think there are sometimes political dynamics going on that they might not even fully understand the details, but they know it’s not good.”
Evelin Cruz, a department manager at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Pico Rivera, California, said Simon’s comments from the officers’ meeting were “dead on.”
“There are gaps where merchandise is missing,” Cruz said in a telephone interview. “We are not talking about a couple of empty shelves. This is throughout the store in every store. Some places look like they’re going out of business.”
This all comes on the heels of an internal Wal-Mart memo that was leaked to the press earlier this month that described February sales as a “total disaster”.
#8 Electronics retailer Best Buy continues to struggle mightily. Best Buy just announced that it will be eliminating 400 jobs at its headquarters in Richfield, Minnesota.
#9 It is being projected that many of the largest retail chains in America, including Best Buy, will close down hundreds of stores during 2013. The following is a list of projected store closings for 2013 that I included in a previous article…
Forecast store closings: 200 to 250
Sears Holding Corp.
Forecast store closings: Kmart 175 to 225, Sears 100 to 125
Forecast store closings: 300 to 350
Forecast store closings: 125 to 150
Barnes & Noble
Forecast store closings: 190 to 240, per company comments
Forecast store closings: 500 to 600
Forecast store closings: 150 to 175
Forecast store closings: 450 to 550
#10 Another sign that consumer spending is slowing down is the fact that less stuff is being moved around in our economy. As I have mentioned previously, freight shipment volumes have hit their lowest level in two years, and freight expenditures have gone negative for the first time since the last recession.
#11 Many young adults have no discretionary income to spend because they are absolutely drowning in student loan debt. According to the New York Federal Reserve, student loan debt nearly tripled between 2004 and 2012.
#12 The student loan delinquency rate in the United States is now at an all-time high. It is only a matter of time before the student loan debt bubble bursts.
#13 Due to a lack of jobs and high levels of debt, poverty among young adults in America is absolutely exploding. Today, U.S. families that have a head of household that is under the age of 30 have a poverty rate of 37 percent.
#14 According to one recent survey, 62 percent of all middle class Americans say that they have had to reduce household spending over the past year.
#15 Median household income in the United States has fallen for four consecutive years. Overall, it has declined by more than $4000 during that time span.
#16 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the middle class is currently taking home a smaller share of the overall income pie than has ever been recorded before.
Are you starting to get the picture?
Retailers are desperate for sales, but you can’t squeeze blood out of a rock.
For much more on how the middle class is absolutely drowning in debt, please see this article: “Money Is A Form Of Social Control And Most Americans Are Debt Slaves“.
But if you listen to the mainstream media, they would have you believe that happy days are here again.
Right now, everyone seems to be quite giddy about the fact that the Dow is marching toward an all-time high. And I actually do believe that the Dow will blow right past it. In fact, it is even possible that we could see the Dow hit 15,000 before everything starts falling apart.
But at some point, the financial markets will catch up with economic reality. It is just a matter of time.
In the meanwhile, those that are wise are taking advantage of these times of plenty to prepare for the great economic drought that is coming.
Don’t be caught living paycheck to paycheck and totally unprepared when the next wave of the economic collapse strikes. Anyone that believes that this debt-fueled bubble of false hope can last indefinitely is just being delusional.