Friday, July 29, 2011

Payback Time for Banks

By John F. Wasik (Reuters)

It’s time for banks to pay back their debt to the rest of us

The deficit dance has been a convenient distraction for big U.S. banks. They’ve not only escaped new taxes for now, but they also are relishing their taxpayer bailout by earning robust profits.

Except for Bank of America, the major U.S. banks are doing just fine, thank you. Yet for all of the abundant generosity and forgiveness of the American people, have banks lent out enough money to Americans to make a difference to the economy at large?

No. Banks are lending less to consumers than they did in 2007, the year before the full-blown financial meltdown, according to recent Federal Reserve Consumer Credit tallies.

Outstanding consumer credit was $2.5 trillion in 2007 compared to $2.4 trillion through May of this year. Revolving credit was down fivemo percent in the first quarter of this year. Total consumer lending was down about $100 billion in 2010 and 2009 alone from 2007 levels.

The net effect was less money flowing to consumers, who are the engine of the U.S. economy. Even if you wanted to build that addition to your home or buy a foreclosed home, good luck getting a large loan from a bank — unless you have perfect credit ratings.

Banks’ bowstring-tight standards for mortgages and home-equity loans triggered the lending squeeze. The Fed’s July 13 Monetary Policy report told the story:

“Mortgage originations trailed off with the end of the refinancing wave that occurred last fall, when interest rates declined … Bank lending through home equity lines also remained extraordinarily weak, reflecting in part tight lending standards amid declines in home prices that cut further into home equity. Both credit card and other consumer loans from banks contracted, on balance, over the first half of the year.”

For taxpayers, the bailout begun in 2008 worked as a mega-banking stimulus unrivaled in history. The largest banks were saved and became bigger. Their trading profits and brokerage operations were protected. Then they were able to pour their taxpayer-enabled profits into lobbying against the needed financial reforms of the Dodd-Frank law. Undaunted, banks are still free to lend out money to credit card holders for 14 percent or more.

In the economy at large, though, layoffs continue, the housing market is still in intensive care and the Federal Reserve’s stimulus plan is a bust.

Despite their soaring profits, megabanks still owe U.S. taxpayers money from the bailout. A new study of released by the Center for Media and Democracy shows that $1.5 trillion of the $4.8 trillion in federal bailout loans are still outstanding.

An even bigger boondoggle is the government’s effective nationalization of the U.S. home mortgage market. Through the purchase of mortgage backed securities and debt from government-seized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Fed has supported the moribund housing market.

The Obama Administration has yet to put forward a plan to resolve its ownership and continued funding of Fannie and Freddie, two fiscal black holes. Meanwhile, homeowners are still getting foreclosed upon with no end in sight.

“The Federal Reserve and the Treasury have spent $1.6 trillion in a bank-shot to save the housing market by using the same financial companies that got us into this mess,” said Conor Kenny, lead author of the Center study. “That’s more than 800 times what they’ve spent directly to keep homeowners in their houses, and the banks have only made money off the whole thing.”

For American taxpayers, the social return on the bailout has been dismal. Bank foreclosures have resumed their rise. So-called “robo-signing” abuses in home purchases where mortgages are fudged to the benefit of banks also continue. And jobless claims are rising.

It’s time for banks to pay back their debt in a profound way. Yet first, an attitude adjustment is in order: Financial speculation in bank profits should be taxed to pay for education and health care. This trading tax will also reduce the federal deficit over time.

A “Robin Hood” tax like this would even the social capitalism balance sheet. Such a plan is afoot in the U.K. and it should be on the table in any larger discussion

Friday, July 22, 2011

Debt Ceiling Sellout

3 more gloomy bargains: How much the debt deal will cost you

By John F. Wasik (Reuters)

No matter what plan Washington concocts to reduce the deficit, it’s going to cost you something. “Shared sacrifice” is in vogue, but your pain will be bigger if you’re unfortunate enough to earn wages or need social benefits.

Most conservative deficit-reduction plans shred the social safety net and cherished personal write-offs in unprecedented ways. The core elements of each proposal will pare middle-class tax breaks, Medicare and Social Security.

As Yogi Berra once said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” The $3.7 trillion Senate “Gang of Six” plan and related iterations bear a striking resemblance to a “Moment of Truth” deficit commission report issued, and mostly ignored, late last year and pieces of a Heritage Foundation plan ironically entitled “Saving the American Dream.”

No plan will preserve or protect the American Dream as we’ve come to know it. And the powers that be don’t seem to be rattled by the potential chaos if an agreement on raising the federal debt ceiling by Aug. 2 doesn’t happen. Markets may collapse, benefits will be delayed and salaries won’t get paid if the U.S. can’t issue more debt, but the Beltway bickering goes on.

Instead, we have this power play in the form of Byzantine musical chairs. One sure loser is already ordained, though: Middle America. Let’s look at where the deficit commission, Senate and Heritage plans intersect:

“Broaden the tax base”
This is one of the most Orwellian prevarications since the coining of the “death tax.” (Have you ever met a dead person who paid a tax?) When conservative policymakers say this, they don’t mean raising taxes, they mean lowering tax rates and eliminating “tax expenditures,” like deductions for individuals.

The Senate “Gang” plan proposes three tax brackets ranging from eight to 29 percent. Currently the highest personal tax rate is 35 percent. The Senate plan would also cut the hated $1.7 trillion alternative minimum tax. At first blush, both moves will reduce revenue flowing into the Treasury and balloon the deficit. How would the Senate make up the shortfall, considering that it also cuts corporate tax rates from 35 percent to as low as 23 percent? They say: “Reform, not eliminate, tax expenditures for health, charitable giving and homeownership.” Bottom line: Your after-tax cost for healthcare and mortgages may be higher. Although limiting the mortgage interest deduction to one home and capping it isn’t a bad idea, this is not a “broadening” of the tax base. Middle class workers will pay more — unless the cost of healthcare and homeownership mysteriously drop.

“Enacting a $500 billion down payment … ”
One of the key elements of this Senate concept carves up Social Security. Instead of the current formula for cost-of-living adjustments, the Senate (and deficit commission) would substitute a “chained” Consumer Price Index. Through economic legerdemain, this new index would shave an estimated 0.25 percent annually from the current cost-of-living payments. That means a lower Social Security payment!

What about bringing more government workers into the system, immigration reform or simply raising the cap on earnings subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes? None of this is mentioned. After all, to “broaden” the tax base — at least in this perverse definition — “reformers” will reduce benefits. Note: There was no COLA paid in January due to low inflation, even though for millions of retired folks the cost of medicine, food and energy rose. The takeaway here is that “entitlement reform” means cutting benefits and raising your out-of-pocket costs for Medicare and Social Security.

“Repeal the CLASS Act”
The Senate document doesn’t even bother to explain what this is, but I will. The CLASS Act was one of the better ideas to emerge from Washington in recent years. It would have given workers the option to buy lower-cost long-term care insurance through their workplace. If you’ve seen a nursing home bill lately, you know that decent care costs more than $70,000 a year. It’s estimated that 70 percent of Americans over 65 will need long-term care at some point. Right now, either families or the Medicaid program absorbs these exorbitant costs — and Medicaid funding has one of the biggest bulls eyes on it. So middle-class and lower-class families will pay more.

There is some good news in all of this. If you’re a hedge fund, private equity manager, bank, corporate treasurer or securities investor, you’ll be just fine. No one has suggested raising taxes on capital gains, trading profits, derivatives, dividends or “carried interest.” Apparently not everyone will be asked to sacrifice when the tax base is broadened.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Can Your Protect Your Savings in the Event of a US Debt Default?

Debt ceiling & dumber: No safe haven for your money?

By John F. Wasik (Reuters)

Washington is now acting out a scene from Tennessee Williams’ classic play Glass Menagerie. The ever-fragile players are about to shatter .

Yet this is not the time to turn a farce into a tragedy. A default on U.S. debt will make the 2008 debacle look like a Simpson’s episode. Interest rates will soar through the roof. Everything from mortgage rates to adjustable credit card financing will skyrocket. Payrolls may be imperiled along with Social Security and Medicare payments. Think economic crash and burn — in a big way.

If the credit rating of U.S. debt is downgraded from AAA, that will automatically signal to the global bond market that investors should demand higher yields for taking more risk. Standard & Poor’s has put the U.S. on its ominous “CreditWatch” status and will downgrade unless a debt deal is struck soon.

Money moves exponentially faster than politics these days. If bond managers get even a whiff of actual default, they will move their funds out of U.S. Treasuries at the speed of light. That tsunami may devalue anything measured in dollars, including U.S. stocks; corporations would then fire even more people and halt capital investment. Unemployment would hit Depression-era levels. Americans would wistfully recall the days of nine percent joblessness.

More importantly, a debt default will be a smack-down to the credibility of the U.S. as an issuer of the highest-quality bonds. It will also clobber the liquidity of anyone who holds U.S. paper, from Chinese banks to Europeans hoping to escape debt debacles in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Trillions could flow out of Treasuries into countries perceived as fiscally sound.

Here’s PIMCO’s Bill Gross, the biggest bond fund manager by assets, writing in the Washington Post: “Global investment managers have global choices these days, and a solvent Germany or Canada is just a wire transfer away for trillions of potential investment dollars looking for a safer haven.”

Gross said several weeks ago that he sold U.S. Treasuries from his PIMCO portfolio. “The debt ceiling must be raised and not be held hostage by budget negotiations,” Gross concludes. “Don’t mess with the debt ceiling, Washington. Bond and currency vigilantes will make you pay.”

Both parties have now entered the “break it, you own it” phase of their bickering. Who do you pay first in the event of a default? The military? Air-traffic controllers? Who gets burned? Social Security recipients? National Park visitors?

How do you avoid getting walloped? If the White House and Republicans can’t agree on a plan to avoid default, it would be silly to retreat into gold or other precious metals. You can’t use bullion to buy food, medicine or pay utilities.

Worst-case scenario: To protect yourself against interest rates ballooning, you could short Treasury bonds. This is incredibly speculative — and risky.

One approach is to buy leveraged exchange-traded funds such as the ProShares Ultrashort 20+ US Treasury ETF. This fund promises a return 200 percent of the inverse performance of a 20-year U.S. Treasury-bond index. So if interest rates soar, you can make a lot of money, or just offset the losses in every other part of your portfolio.

Of course, this is a money-loser if politicos come to their senses and interest rates don’t climb dramatically. A lower-risk approach may be to hold onto a high-quality money-market fund that mostly holds corporate debt. Cash would be king — as long as it didn’t involve defaulted U.S. debt. In truth, though, no one really knows what will happen or what the safe havens will be.

There are other ways of defusing this mindless political kabuki: Take Social Security and Medicare off the table for now. Discuss them separately in a series of expert town hall forums over the next year. Besides, these programs should never have been held hostage in the perfunctory debt-ceiling passage. They are largely self-funded by payroll taxes and merit separate treatment.

The American people, who overwhelmingly support social insurance benefits, deserve an intelligent dialogue on whether all or part of these programs should be cut or privatized under the Republican template. When I talked to a packed room of fiscally conservative older Americans Wednesday night on whether they wanted to see Medicare or Social Security privatized, not one raised a hand.

Wiser heads may prevail, although it’s ironic that shorting Treasuries is not only an uber-cautionary strategy, but a portfolio position held by a key player in the debt talks — Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Majority Leader, at least in his 2010 financial disclosure statement.

Is Cantor merely trying to speculate on inflation returning, which countless pundits have been forecasting for years? Or maybe, since he’s at the center of this maelstrom, he’s cynically hedging his bets.

We’re not playing checkers here. The pieces can break in a disastrous way.