Housing Boom, Bubble and Bust

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 15th, 2013

Economics 101

Building and Furnishing Houses creates Great Economic Activity

Central to any booming economy are healthy home sales.  For home sales unleash great economic activity.  From the first surveys of a new subdivision.  To the new sewers and water systems.  Gas and telephone.  Cable television and broadband Internet.  Concrete for basements, driveways and sidewalks.  Structural steel (that beam in the basement and steel poles holding up the house).  Rough carpentry.  Electrical work and plumbing.  Drywall, windows and roofing.  Painting, flooring, doors and hardware.  Heating and air conditioning.  Lighting and plumbing fixtures.  Brick, siding and landscaping.  Etc.

All of this takes manufacturing to make these construction products.  All these manufacturers need raw materials.  And raw material extraction needs heavy equipment and energy.  At all of these stages of production are jobs.  Extracting raw materials.  Processing raw materials.  Manufacturing products out of these raw materials.  Building this production equipment.  Interconnecting these stages of production is every form of transportation.  Rail, Great Lake freighter, river barge and truck.  Requiring even more jobs to build locomotives, rolling stock, ships and trucks.  And jobs to operate and maintain them.  And build their infrastructure.  Filling all of these jobs are people.  Earning a paycheck that will let them buy a house one day.

Then even more economic activity follows.  As people buy these homes and furnish them.  Washers and dryers.  Refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, food processors and coffee makers.  Furniture and beds.  Light fixtures and ceiling fans.  Rugs, carpeting and vacuum cleaners.  Telephones, televisions, music systems, modems and computers.  Curtains, drapes, blinds and shades.  Shower curtains, bath mats, towels and clothes hampers.  Mops, buckets, cleaning supplies and waste baskets.  Lawnmowers, fertilizers, hoses and sprinklers.  Snow shovels and snow blowers.  Cribs, highchairs, diapers and baby food.  Etc.  All of these require manufacturers.  And all of these manufacturers require raw materials.  As well as transportation to move material and product between the stages of production.  And to our wholesalers and retailers.  More jobs.  More people earning a paycheck.  Who will one day buy their own home.  And create even more economic activity.

Bill Clinton pressured Lenders to Lower their Requirements and Subprime Lending took Off

This is why governments love housing.  And try to do everything within their power to increase home ownership.  Which is why they changed the path to home ownership.  After World War II when the building of subdivisions took off there was the 3-6-3 savings and loan.  Where savings and loan paid 3% interest on savings accounts.  Loaned money to home buyers at 6%.  And were on the golf course by 3 PM.  And the mortgage was the 30-year conventional mortgage with a 20% down payment.

The conventional mortgage was the mortgage of our parents.  Who had no problem putting off their wants to save money for that 20% down payment.  They prioritized.  And planned for the future.  But the conventional mortgage has an obvious drawback.  It limits home ownership to those who can save up a 20% down payment.  Pushing home ownership further out for some.  Or just taking that option away from a large percentage of the population.  So the government stepped in.  To help those who couldn’t save 20% of the house’s price.

Mortgage Qualification Decreasing Down Payment

As we lowered the down payment amount it allowed lower-income people the opportunity of home ownership.  But it didn’t get them a lot of house.  That is, those who could afford a 20% down payment could buy more house for the same monthly payment than those who couldn’t afford it.  And a house in a better neighborhood.  Which some said was unfair.  Some in government even called it discriminatory.  As Bill Clinton did.  Who pressured lenders to lower their lending requirements to qualify the unqualified.  His Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending helped to fix that alleged problem.  And kicked off subprime lending in earnest.  Leading to the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Conventional Wisdom was to Pay the Most you could Possibly Afford when Buying a House

But lowering the down payment wasn’t enough.  Even eliminating it all together.  The people needed something else to help them into home ownership. And to generate all of that economic activity.  And this was something the government could fix, too.  By printing a lot of money.  So banks had a lot of it to lend.  Thus keeping interest rates artificially low.  And we can see the effect this had on home ownership combined with a zero down payment.  It allowed people to buy more house for the same given monthly payment.  Even more than those buying with the 3-6-3 conventional mortgage.

Mortgage Qualification Decreasing Mortgage Rate

Falling interest rates bring in a lot more people into the housing market.  Which is good for sellers.  And good for the economy.  A lot more people than just those who could afford a 20% down payment can now buy your house.  As people bid against each other to buy your house they bid up your price.  Raising home prices everywhere.  Increasing the demand for new housing.  Which builders responded to.  Creating a housing boom.  As builders flood the market with more houses.  At higher prices.  That new homeowners move into.  And max out their credit cards to furnish.  Creating a lot of debt people are servicing at these artificially low interest rates.  But then the economy begins to overheat.  And other prices begin to rise.  Leaving people with less disposable income.  The housing boom turns into a housing bubble.  House prices are overvalued.  Those artificially low interest rates created a lot of artificial demand.  Bringing people into the market who weren’t planning on buying a house.  But decided to buy only to take advantage of those low interest rates.

Conventional wisdom was to pay the most you could possibly afford when buying a house.  For all houses gained value.  You may struggle in the beginning and have to make some sacrifices.  Say cut out steak night each week.  But in time you will earn more money.  That house payment will become more affordable.  And your house will become more valuable.  Which will let you sell it for more at a later date letting you buy an even bigger house in an even nicer neighborhood.  But when it’s cheap interest rates driving all of this activity there is another problem.  For printing money creates inflation.  And inflation raises prices.  Gasoline is more expensive.  Groceries are more expensive.  As prices rise households have less disposable income.  And have to cut out things like vacations.  And any discretionary spending on things they like but don’t need.  Which destroys a lot of economic activity.  The very thing the government was trying to create more of by printing money.  So there is a limit to the good economic times you create by printing money.  And when the bad consequences of printing money start filtering through the rest of economy the government has no choice but to contract the money supply to limit the economic damage.  And steer the economy into what they call a soft landing.  Which means a recession that isn’t that painful or long.

The Price of Artificially Low Interest Rates is Inflationary Booms, Bubbles and Great Recessions

As interest rates rise home buying falls.  Leaving a lot of newly built homes unsold on the market.  And that housing bubble bursts.  Causing home values to fall back down from the stratosphere.  Leaving a lot of people owing more on their mortgage than their houses are now worth.  What we call being ‘underwater’.  And as interest rates rise so do the APRs on their credit cards.  As well as their monthly payments.  And those people who paid the most they could possible afford for a house with an adjustable rate mortgage saw their mortgage interest rates rise.  As well as their monthly payment.  By a lot.  So much that these people could no longer afford to pay their mortgage payment anymore.  As a half-point increase could raise a mortgage payment by about $50.  A full-point could raise it close to $100.  And so on.

Increasing Monthly Payment dur to Increasing Mortgage Rate

With the fall in economic activity unemployment rises.  So a lot of people who have crushing credit card debt and a house payment they can no longer afford lost their job as well.  Causing a rash of mortgage foreclosures.  And the subprime mortgage crisis.  As well as a great many personal bankruptcies.  Causing the banking system to struggle under the weight of all this bad debt.  Add all of this together and you get the Great Recession.

This is the price of artificially low interest rates.  You get inflationary booms.  And bubbles.  That burst into recessions.  That are often deep and long.  Something that didn’t happen during the days of 3-6-3 mortgage lending.  And the primary reason for that was that the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  Which prevented the government from printing money at will.  The inflationary booms and busts that come with printing money.  And Great Recessions.



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Without a Bill Clinton the Bursting of the Canadian Housing Bubble will be less Painful than in the US

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 10th, 2012

Week in Review

The subprime mortgage crisis caused the Great Recession.  And bad government policy caused the subprime mortgage policy.  First with artificially low interest rates to encourage everyone to borrow money and take on enormous amounts of debt.  Then the Clinton administration took it up a notch.  By charging lenders with discrimination in their lending practices.  And if they didn’t find a away to qualify the unqualified for mortgages they would soon find themselves out of the mortgage business.  So they came up with subprime lending.  Adjustable rate mortgages (ARM).  No documentation mortgages.  Anything to get the government off of their backs.  And the government was so pleased with what they saw they started to buy (and/or guarantee) those toxic mortgages with their Government Sponsored Enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Clearing those toxic mortgages from the lenders balance sheet by unloading them onto unsuspecting investors.  Clearing the way for even more toxic subprime lending.  The government was pleased.  And the bankers were making money with bad lending practices.  Something they normally would have avoided because it is very risky.  But when the government was transferring that risk to the taxpayer what did they have to lose?

Governments like a hot real estate market.  Because housing sales drives so much economic activity.  Because people put a lot of stuff into those houses.  Which is why governments are always quick to use their monetary authority to lower interest rates.  Which is what they did in the US.  Cheap money to borrow.  Lax lending practices thanks to the Clinton administration.  Creating a housing boom.  And a housing bubble.  It was a perfect storm brewing.  The only thing that it needed was a raise in the interest rates.  Which came.  Causing the subprime mortgage crisis as those ARMS reset at higher interest rates.  Leading to a wave of subprime mortgage defaults.  And the Great Recession.  Which raced around the world thanks to those toxic mortgages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac unloaded on unsuspecting investors.

Canada did not suffer as much from the Great Recession.  Because they did not pressure their lenders to qualify the unqualified like Bill Clinton did in the US.  But they still used their monetary authority to keep interest rates artificially low.  So while they escaped the great damage the Americans suffered in their subprime mortgage they still have a housing bubble.  And it looks like it may be time for it to burst (see Analysis: Canada braces as housing slowdown takes hold by Andrea Hopkins posted 11/10/2012 on Reuters).

Long convinced the country’s housing boom would never end in a crash, Canadians have watched this autumn as a sharp slowdown in real estate spreads across the country, leaving would-be home buyers hopeful and sellers scared…

Signs are everywhere that Canada’s long run-up in house prices is over, hit by a combination of tighter mortgage lending rules and growing consumer reluctance to take on more debt. Sales of existing homes are down steeply, with condo sales hit especially hard, and some long-booming prices have started to fall…

Canadian households hold more debt than American families did before the U.S. housing bubble burst, which has led the government to tighten mortgage lending rules four times in four years…

Tal believes slower sales activity will be followed by falling prices in many cities. But he says Canadian lending standards have been higher, and borrowers more cautious, than in the United States before its crash, which will prevent large-scale mortgage defaults and plunging prices.

Mindful of what happened in the United States, the Canadian government has tightened mortgage rules to prevent home buyers from taking on too much debt. While interest rates are low and expected to stay low into 2013, the fear is that eventual rate hikes will drive borrowers out of their homes or into bankruptcy…

The last round of mortgage rule changes took effect in July, forcing home buyers to cut back on their budget and pushing many prospective first-time buyers out of the market entirely.

The Canadians may escape the damage the US suffered as Bill Clinton was an American and not a Canadian.  So they only have to suffer the effects of bad monetary policy.  Not the effects of government enforced bad lending practices.  So housing prices will fall in Canada.  And there will probably be a recession to correct those inflated real estate prices.  But housing prices probably will not fall as far as they did in the US.  For the Canadians were more responsible with their irresponsible monetary policy than the Americans were.

The lesson here is that when markets determine interest rates housing bubbles are smaller and recessions are less painful.  If you don’t believe that just ask an American with an underwater mortgage.



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Great Depression, Monetary Expansion, Keynesian, Smoot Hawley Tariff, Gold Window, Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 2nd, 2012

History 101

There was Real Economic Activity in the Twenties so the Great Depression should only have been a Recession

The Great Depression began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Which led to a period of record unemployment.  On average the unemployment rate was 13.46% during the Thirties.  Or, if you don’t count all of the make-work government jobs, 18.23%.  So what caused this unemployment?  Was it the expansionary monetary policy of the Twenties?  The Keynesians thought so.  Even the economists from the Austrian school of economics thought so.  The only ones to have predicted the Great Depression.  So were they right?  A little bit.

Yes, there was monetary expansion during the Twenties.  So a recessionary correction was inevitable.  But a depression?  When you look at the economic activity of the Twenties, no.  The Roaring Twenties were a transformative time.  It was when we began to say goodbye to the steam engine.  And said hello to electricity.  We said goodbye to the horse and buggy.  And said hello to the automobile.  We said goodbye to the horse and plow.  And said hello to the tractor.  As well as said hello to radio, motion pictures, air travel, electric lighting and electric appliances in the home, etc.  So there was real economic activity in the Twenties.  It wasn’t all a bubble.  So the Great Depression should have only been a regular recession.  But it wasn’t.  So what happened?

Government.  The government interfered with market forces.  Based on Keynesian advice.  They said the government needed to increase aggregate demand.  As that demand would encourage businesses to expand and hire new workers.  Thus lowering the unemployment rate.  And part of increasing demand was keeping wages from falling.  So people had more money to spend.  Of course, if employers were to continue to pay higher wages that meant that prices could not fall.  Like they normally do during a recession.  So the Keynesian advice was to prevent the market from correcting prices to match supply to demand.  Prolonging the inevitable recession.  But there was more bad government policy.

The Keynesian Cure for Unemployment is Inflation

The stock market was soaring in the late Twenties.  Because of that real economic growth.  So what happened to that economic growth?  Well, in part, the Smoot Hawley Tariff of 1930.  Which was in committee in 1929 before the great crash.  But investors saw it coming.  And they knew tariffs rising as much as 50% were going to cool those hot earnings they’ve been enjoying.  As well as Herbert Hoover’s progressive plans.  Who would go on to double income tax rates.  When Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election the writing was on the wall.  And investors bailed.  Especially when the Smoot Hawley Tariff was moving through committee.  Because raising the cost of doing business does not help business.  So the great earnings ride of the Twenties was ending and the investors sold their stocks to lock in their profits.  Precipitating the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  And the record unemployment that would follow.  And the Great Depression.

So the Keynesians got it wrong during the Thirties.  Their next grand experiment would be in the Seventies.  As government spending took off thanks to the Vietnam War, the Great Society and the Apollo moon program.  There was so much spending that they had to print money to pay for it all.  As they did, though, they devalued the dollar.  Which became a problem.  As the U.S. at the time agreed to exchange gold for dollars at $35/ounce.  So when the Americans made their dollar worth less our trading partners decided to take our gold instead.  Gold flew out of the gold window.  So to stop this gold flow out of the country Nixon did what any Keynesian would do.  No, he didn’t cut back spending.  He decoupled the dollar from gold.  Slamming the gold window shut.  Without any advanced warning to the world.  So we now call this action he took on August 15, 1971 the Nixon Shock.  The Keynesians were thrilled.  Because they now had no restraint in printing new money.

The reason Keynesians were happy to be able to print more money was because that was their cure for unemployment.  Inflation.  When the economy goes into recession it was just a simple matter of expanding the money supply.  Which lowers interest rates.  Which makes businesses who had no intention to expand their businesses borrow money to expand their businesses.  So to pull the economy out of recession they inflated the money supply.  And did it work?  No.  Of course it didn’t.  It just raised prices.  Increasing the cost of business.  As well as leaving consumers with less real income.  So, no, the economy didn’t improve.  It just stagnated.  The average unemployment rate during the Seventies was 6.21%.  While the average inflation rate was 7.08%.  Also, the top marginal tax rate of 70%.  Which didn’t help the anti-business environment.

The Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the Great Recession were Direct Consequences of Bad Monetary Policy

So the Keynesians failed.  Again.  Their inflationary monetary policy only made things worse during the Seventies.  All of that inflation just kept pushing prices ever higher.  Ensuring that the inevitable recession to correct those prices would be long and painful.  Which it was.  In the early Eighties.  Then Paul Volcker rang out all of that inflation.  And Ronald Reagan began bringing the top marginal tax rate down until it was at 28% by the end of the decade.  Making a more favorable business environment.  So business grew.  And began to hire new workers.  Teaching an economic lesson some in government refused to learn.  Keynesian inflationary monetary policies did not work.

During the Nineties the Keynesians were back.  Inflating the money supply slowly but surely to continue an economic expansion.  Making money available to borrow.  And borrow it people did.  Creating a long and sustained housing boom that would last for about 2 decades.  That expansionary monetary policy gave us cheap mortgages.  Making it very easy to buy a house.  Housing prices rose.  And continued to rise during those two decades.  Then President Clinton had his Justice Department tell banks to lower their standards for approving mortgages for the unqualified.  So everyone could buy a house.  Even if they couldn’t afford to pay for it.  Ushering in the subprime mortgage industry.  Further increasing the demand for houses.  And further driving up housing prices.  Making the inevitable correction a long and painful one.

Meanwhile, there was something new in the market place in the Nineties.  The Internet.  And new Internet start-ups (dot-coms) flooded the market.  Investors poured money into them.  Even though they didn’t have a product to sell.  And had no earnings.  But investors were exuberant.  And irrational.  Kids flooded into universities to get degrees in computer science.  To staff all of those Internet start-ups.  Companies went public.  Creating a stock market bubble as investors scrambled to buy their stock.  They raised a boatload of money from those IPOs.  And spent it all.  Many without producing anything to sell.  And when that money ran out they went bankrupt.  Bursting that stock market bubble.  And throwing a lot of computer scientists out of a job.  Causing a painful recession in the early 2000s that George Bush helped mitigate with tax cuts.

And low interest rates.  People were back buying houses.  But this time they were buying McMansions.  Because that easy monetary policy gave us cheap mortgage rates.  And subprime, no-documentation, zero down loans, etc., made it easier than ever to buy a house.  Housing prices soared.  And builders flooded the market with more McMansions.  Pushing prices ever higher.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were buying those toxic subprime mortgages from banks to encourage them to approve more toxic subprime mortgages.  Pushing the inevitable correction further and further out.  Running up prices so high that their fall would be a long and painful one.  Which it was when the subprime mortgage crisis hit.  As well as the Great Recession.  Direct consequences of bad monetary policy.  And the government’s interference into market forces.



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Housing Boom, Subprime Lending, ARMs, Housing Bubble, CDOs, Subprime Mortgage Crisis, Housing Inventories & Sales and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 24th, 2012

History 101

Artificially Low Interest Rates and Federal Pressure to Qualify the Unqualified created a Housing Bubble

The federal government loves home sales.  Because they generate a lot of economic activity.  From the washing machines and refrigerators new homeowners buy to furnish them.  To the raw materials extracted from nature to make the concrete, bricks, wood, pipes, wires, shingles, glass, plastic, paints, carpeting, insulation, etc., to build them.  Enormous amounts of economic activity at every level throughout the stages of production.  It reduces down to a simple formula.  Make it easy for people to buy houses.  Enjoy a booming economy.  And how best to do that?  Make mortgages cheap.  By keeping interest rates cheap.  Artificially low.  To stimulate a housing boom.

This is Keynesian economics.  Government intervention into the private market.  By having the Federal Reserve keep interest rates lower than the market would have them.  To encourage more people to buy houses.  Then the Clinton administration took it up a notch with their Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Investor’s Business Daily reported (see Smoking-Gun Document Ties Policy To Housing Crisis by PAUL SPERRY posted 10/31/2011 on Investors.com) that this policy statement forced lenders basically to qualify the unqualified.

At President Clinton’s direction, no fewer than 10 federal agencies issued a chilling ultimatum to banks and mortgage lenders to ease credit for lower-income minorities or face investigations for lending discrimination and suffer the related adverse publicity. They also were threatened with denial of access to the all-important secondary mortgage market and stiff fines, along with other penalties…

“The agencies will not tolerate lending discrimination in any form,” the document warned financial institutions.

The unusual full-court press was predicated on a Boston Fed study showing mortgage lenders rejecting blacks and Hispanics in greater proportion than whites. The author of the 1992 study, hired by the Clinton White House, claimed it was racial “discrimination.” But it was simply good underwriting.

There was no racial discrimination.  Just people who couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  But that didn’t stop the Clinton administration.  So there were artificially low interest rates.  And federal pressure to qualify the unqualified.  To let those who can’t afford to buy a house buy a house.  Enter subprime lending.  A way lenders could approve the unqualified for a mortgage.  With adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs).  Interest only mortgages.  Zero down mortgages.  No documentation loans (say you earn whatever you want and we’ll enter it into the application without documenting it).  Anyone who wanted to have a house could have a house.  And a lot of people bought houses.  Even those with insufficient incomes to pay their mortgage payment if interest rates ever rose.

When the Housing Bubble Burst it Destroyed a lot of Economic Activity and a lot of Jobs

The economy was heating up.  There was a housing boom.  The boom turned into a housing bubble.  Housing prices soared demand was so high.  Builders couldn’t build them fast enough.  And people couldn’t buy a house big enough.  McMansions entered the lexicon.  Houses in excess of 3,000 square feet.  For a family of four.  Or smaller.  But then these artificially low interest rates began to heat up inflation.  And it was the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to keep that from happening.  So they raised interest rates.  Causing the interest rates on those ARMs to reset at a higher rate.  Making a lot of those monthly payments beyond the homeowners’ ability to pay.  Homeowners defaulted in droves.  Causing the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Facilitating this economic carnage was the secondary mortgage market.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Who bought those very risky mortgages from the lenders.  Repackaged them into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).  And sold them to unsuspecting investors.  Who thought they were buying high-yield safe investments.  Because they were backed by historically the safest investment.  A mortgage.  But that was before subprime lending.  For these subprime mortgages weren’t your father’s mortgage.  These mortgages were toxic.

So when the housing bubble burst it not only destroyed a lot of economic activity, and a lot of jobs, it wreaked financial destruction in people’s investment portfolios.  All because of a formula.  Make it easy for people to buy houses.  But when you play with the economy too much you don’t create economic growth.  You created bubbles.  And the bigger the bubble the longer and the more painful the recession will be when that bubble bursts.  As those artificially high house prices fall out of the stratosphere back to real market levels.

The Current Gulf between Housing Inventories and Sales is what made this Recession the Great Recession

If you look at the housing inventories and housing sales for the decade from 2001 to 2011 you can see how bad the recession was.  And will continue to be.  We took housing data from the United States Census Bureau.   Housing inventories from Table 7A.  And housing sales from Houses Sold.  The data shows housing units in inventory and sold.  We used 2001 as a base year, dividing each number by the 2001 base numbers.  Graphing the results shows how inventories and sales trended for this decade.

From 2001 to 2005 housing sales were rising at a greater rate than inventories.  Indicating demand for houses was greater than the supply of houses.  Causing house prices to rise.  Encouraging builders to build more houses.  Heating up the housing market.  Sending prices higher.  Creating the great housing bubble.  Then around 2005 the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates to tamp out inflation.  And those ARMs began to reset at higher rates.  Causing housing sales to fall.  From about 2005 to 2008 inventories continued to rise while sales collapsed.  Leaving the available housing supply far outstripping demand.  Causing house prices to collapse.  Leaving people underwater in their mortgage (owing more than their house is worth).  Or living in paid-off houses that lost up to half their value.  Or more.

The gulf between inventories and sales is what made this recession the Great Recession.  And is why the Great Recession lingers on.  There are just so many more houses than people want to buy.  Killing new housing starts.  And all that economic activity that building a house generates.



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A Skyscraper Boom may be an Early Recession Indicator

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 14th, 2012

Week in Review

It takes a long time to build buildings.  Especially tall ones.  It takes large sums of money.  Environmental impact studies.  Lots of time to design it and produce contract documents.  Then there’s the bidding process.  Contracts.  All of this before they even break ground.  So it’s a very long process.  Then the building starts.  Which can take years.  So that’s a lot of years between financing commitments and occupancy.  This is why the construction industry is typically the last industry to enter a recession.  And the last to emerge from a recession.  So knowing this what can we learn from a skyscraper boom (see Skyscrapers ‘linked with impending financial crashes’ posted 1/10/2012 on BBC News Business)?

There is an “unhealthy correlation” between the building of skyscrapers and subsequent financial crashes, according to Barclays Capital…

“Often the world’s tallest buildings are simply the edifice of a broader skyscraper building boom, reflecting a widespread misallocation of capital and an impending economic correction,” Barclays Capital analysts said…

Investors should be most concerned about China, which is currently building 53% of all the tall buildings in the world, the bank said.

A lending boom following the global financial crisis in 2008 pushed prices higher in the world’s second largest economy.

In a separate report, JPMorgan Chase said that the Chinese property market could drop by as much as 20% in value in the country’s major cities within the next 12 to 18 months.

We get skyscraper booms during good economic times.  When interest rates are low.  And real estate bubbles are beginning to grow.  Cheap money gives us housing booms and high housing prices.  Then the inflation kicks in.  Inflating those real estate bubbles.  As inflation fears build they increase interest rates.  This increases the cost of buying those new homes.  Which, of course, leaves a lot of those new homes unsold.  With more homes for sale that there are buyers looking to buy only one thing can happen.  Prices fall.  Bubbles burst.  And recession sets in to correct prices.

While the economy collapses into recession those skyscrapers limp along.  Too late to stop.  And too costly to cancel.  Instead they’ll complete them.  On the exterior, at least.  And there they’ll stand as monuments to the folly of cheap money.  With thousands of square feet of empty office space.  Or rents slashed to get enough people into them to at least pay for the maintenance of these great buildings.

China has some problems.  Some big ones.  They have a shrinking trade surplus thanks to the weak demand in Europe and America.  Some inflation fears.  And now what looks like a real estate bubble being primed to burst.  Which may very well bring a recession China.  And it will be an economic crash heard round the world.



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LESSONS LEARNED #87: “In a democracy you hold the keys to the treasury. So be careful of what you ask for.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 13th, 2011

Keynesian Spending gave us Double Digit Interests Rates, Double Digit Inflation Rates and Stagflation

LBJ was going to end poverty.  He declared war on it.  His soldiers?  Dollars.  Lots of them.  His battle plan?  The Great Society.  Tactics?  Just throw lots of money at a problem.  Hope that some of it actually hit its target.  And further hope that some of the money that did hit its target actually did something beneficial.  Just hope for the best.

And thus grew the welfare state.  The recipients liked it.  Because they were the recipients.  Government liked it.  Because the recipients liked it.  Who voted for them out of gratitude.  And dependency.  And the Keynesian economists liked it.  Because government spending was stimulus.  And they love stimulus.  These Keynesian economists.  So everybody kept asking for more.  As no one saw the harm in printing money to make people feel good.

The Keynesian said this was proof that a manageable amount of continuous inflation (printing money) would do away with the business cycle.  The boom and bust that had recurring good times.  And recurring recessions.  They said let’s just have a continuous boom.  When real demand fell just create artificial demand by having the government step in.  Let the government stimulate demand by printing money to spend.  And they did.  GDP went up.  Thus proving their theory.  Or so they thought.  Until they realized printing all that money had so weakened the dollar that interests rates soared.  To double digits.  As did prices.  Giving us double digit inflation rates.  And stagflation.  That’s why the economy sucked in the Seventies.  And why Jimmy Carter was a one term president.

Bad Monetary Policy gave us Cheap Money, the Housing Bubble and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

After the dot-com bubble burst the economy went into recession.  So the government went to their patented recession cure-all.  Monetary policy.  Playing with interest rates.  I.e., printing money.  Because housing sales have always been the key to a growing economy.  Because building a house generates a lot of economic activity.  And furnishing a house generates even more economic activity.  So the best way to kick-start the economy was to get more people into houses.  The more the better.  Whether they could afford to or not.  Because no matter what happens, people always pay their mortgage.

So the government kept interest rates low.  Artificially low.  To encourage people to borrow money.  To buy housees.  And they did.  But not enough of them did.  Poor people weren’t buying.  Mortgage bankers were turning them down.  Because they couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  So the government pressured them to approve people even if they didn’t qualify.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed these risky mortgages.  Then bought them.  It worked.  Thanks to ARMs and no-doc mortgages, anyone could walk in off the street and get a cheap mortgage with little down.  The people liked it.  And asked for more.  Thus began the housing boom.

People were buying and selling houses like there was no tomorrow.  Investors were flipping homes.  People were moving up into McMansions.  Bidding the price of houses into the stratosphere.  Paying whatever the price was.  Because the money was so cheap to borrow.  Artificially low.  Which really inflated the price of these houses.  To unsustainable levels.  Until the bubble burst.  And these prices began to correct to reflect reality.  The Fed, waking up the next morning in a stupor, saw what they had done.  And desperately tried to fix things.  To limit the damage.  They raised interest rates.  ARMs reset.  And the great Subprime Mortgage Crisis began.  And thanks to Fannie and Freddie buying those risky mortgages, the contagion spread around the world.  To everyone who bought what they thought were safe investments backed by safe mortgages.  Because people always paid their mortgages.   But were, in fact, backed by the riskiest of all investments.  Defaulting subprime mortgages.

The Social Democracies’ Spending gave European Countries Staggering Debt and a Sovereign Debt Crisis

Karl Marx was a German.  But his theories quickly swept across the Rhine.  Soon there were communists everywhere in the West.    After World II, when communism became the new enemy, Western Europe favored something called social democracies.  Communism-light.  The social welfare state.  Cradle to the grave nanny state.  With generous state benefits.  National health care.  Pensions.  You name it.  And the state gave it.

People liked it.  Asked for more.  And their governments were glad to oblige.  They spent more and more money.  Rather, they spent more and more of the taxpayers’ money.  These social democracies had some of the highest tax rates.  Which was fine with the poor receiving these generous state benefits.  But it explains why anti-capitalists like John Lennon and Bono moved out of the UK.  To escape the high taxes on the wealth they created with free market capitalism.  So there was a capital flight out of these social democracies.  While at the same time their public sectors grew.  More and more people worked for the government.  Received government pay and benefits.  And generous pensions.  The people liked this.  And asked for more.  Except Lennon and Bono, of course.  And the other superrich who fled these social democracies.

As tax rates climb and capital flees, though, economic activity stagnates.  Which forces these countries to borrow.  And borrow some of them did.  Some of the smaller countries in the Eurozone (Greece) are so in debt that they can’t even roll over their existing debt.  They are in such a mess that no one wants to take a chance loaning them money.  Because no one thinks Greece will ever be able to repay whatever they borrow.  Of course, with the common currency (Euro), Greece’s problems are everyone’s problems.  So the richer countries in the Eurozone (Germany) are pouring money into the ECB to try and rescue Greece.  And save the Euro.  What we call the European sovereign debt crisis.  While the world waits with bated breath.  Because if they fail it could very well plunge the world into another severe recession.  Or worse.  Because the world needs the Eurozone.  To buy their exports.  So they can prop up their own sick economies.

Class Warfare pits the Rich against the Poor and Middle Class, the Taxpayers against the Public Sector

Many, if not all, of the great crises countries have…are…going through is because of bad monetary policy.  Using the power of the purse to make happy voters.  Whatever the cost.  For they were always sure they could avoid paying this cost.  That they could always keep pushing this cost off onto a future generation.  But the spending grew too great.  The debt grew too high.  And, before they knew it, that future generation was here.  And it’s us.

The people grew fat and lazy on these generous benefits.  And they never worried about the cost.  Because the cost was always someone else’s problem.  Until now.  Not only are they losing some of these generous benefits.  But they now have to pay for some of them.  The cost being so great that everyone has to pay their ‘fair’ share.  Which was fair when ‘everyone’ didn’t include them.  But it now includes them.  And they don’t like it one bit.  So they’ve taken to the streets throughout Europe.  Rioting here.  Protesting there.  And demanding that the rich (anyone who is not them) pay more in taxes so they can continue to live the good life.  All funded courtesy of the taxpayers.  Who aren’t.  Living the good life.

So class warfare escalates.  Pitting the rich against the poor and middle class.  And the taxpayers against the public sector.  Placing these countries on the brink of anarchy.  All because the people learned that they could vote themselves money.  And did.  They got everything they asked for.  Including something they didn’t bargain for.  The destruction of their countries.



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Keynesian Governments play with Interest Rates giving us Asset Bubbles and Crises

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 5th, 2011

Subprime Mortgage Lending – Qualifying the Unqualified

Housing has led the economy since World War II.  Home ownership.  The magical elixir.  So the government policy has been to put as many people into homes as possible.

They pushed mortgage lenders to approve mortgages.  And threatened them when they didn’t.  Especially to minorities in depressed inner cities.  Worse, activists were protesting.  Accusing them of redlining.  All this pressure forced the lenders to come up with ways to qualify the unqualified.  And the vehicle of choice was the subprime mortgage.

Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  Interest only mortgagesNo-documentation mortgages.  Etc.  These were putting people into houses like never before.  Even if they couldn’t afford a house.  They got in at low interest rates.  Kept low by easy monetary policy.  To get as many people approved for these dirt-cheap mortgages as possible.

Bad Government Policy caused a Housing Boom, a Housing Bubble and a Crisis

But that’s not all the government did.  Via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they guaranteed these subprime mortgages.  And bought them from the mortgage lenders.  Removing these highly risky mortgages from their balance sheets.  Removing all risk from the lender.  And passing it on to the taxpayer.  And as you would guess such a policy would do, the lenders approved more of these risky subprime mortgages.  And why not?  They made money.  And were insulated from all risk. 

Then Fannie and Freddie chopped and diced these risky subprime mortgages.  Created mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  And collateralized debt obligations (CDO).  And sold them on Wall Street.  They were high yield.  But super safe.  Because they were backed by historically the safest of all debt.  Mortgages.  Only these weren’t safe mortgages.  They were very risky subprime mortgages.  And why were they so risky?  Because when interest rates go up, so do their monthly payments.  Likely more than the home owner can pay.  And when those interest-only mortgages had to be refinanced, the new higher interest rates made the new mortgages more costly than the old.  More than a subprime borrower could afford.  Which meant one thing.  Default.

So all this bad government policy (to put as many people into homes as possible) caused a housing boom.  And a housing bubble.  The economy was overheating.  So the Federal Reserve tapped the monetary brakes.  By raising interest rates.  And all hell broke loose.

Government enabled Risky Subprime Mortgage Lending

The government’s housing policy gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  And spread this contagion around the globe.  Thanks to Fannie and Freddie.  Enabling all that bad mortgage lending.  Giving us the Great Recession.  That appears more depression-like than recession.  Now the go-to government policy of boosting economic activity won’t work.  Because the housing market is in shambles.  And it will get worse before it gets better (see Uncle Sam is a reluctant landlord of foreclosed homes by Lorraine Woellert and Clea Benson, Bloomberg Businessweek, posted 9/5/2011 on MSNBC).

For sale or rent by distressed owner: 248,000 homes. That’s how many residential properties the U.S. government now has in its possession, the result of record numbers of people defaulting on government-backed mortgages. Washington is sitting on nearly a third of the nation’s 800,000 repossessed houses, making the U.S. taxpayer the largest owner of foreclosed properties. With even more homes moving toward default, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration are looking for a way to unload them without swamping the already depressed real estate market.

The U.S. taxpayer is the largest owner of foreclosed properties.  Because government enabled risky subprime mortgage lending.  They guaranteed or bought risky mortgages.  So risky that no mortgage lender would have approved them if they had to carry the risk on their own balance sheets.  Which makes the government incompetent.  Or devious.

The government caused this problem.  By putting as many people as possible into homes.  Whether they could afford it or not.  And now they have a big problem on their hands.  Or, rather, the taxpayers do.  For government’s problem is ultimately the taxpayers’ problem.  It is our money after all that they are playing with.

Since the 2008 financial collapse, the government has spent billions of dollars trying to extricate borrowers from high-cost loans, aid delinquent homeowners and stabilize neighborhoods. The results have been disappointing. The Obama Administration’s signature loan-modification program has helped about 657,000 homeowners — far short of its goal of 3 to 4 million. The program was a victim of its complexity and its inability to cope with overwhelming demand.

Yes, they’re good at creating BIG problems.  But not very good at fixing them.  To put it mildly.  And yet we keep turning to government for help.  Go figure.

Selling High-Risk Securities Masquerading as Safe High-Yield Investments 

And it’s not only the U.S that made a mess of their mortgage market.  Europe has her own subprime problems.  On top of their sovereign debt crisis.  As if they didn’t have enough to worry about already (see Europe banks slide to 29-month low on multiple headwinds by Simon Jessop, Reuters, posted 9/5/2011 on Yahoo! Finance).

European bank shares slid to a 29-month low on Monday, leading the broader market down on fresh sub-prime mortgage woes, fears of recession and yet more evidence of political disunity that could hamper efforts to solve the region’s debt crisis…

“The chances of a near-term recovery remain slim as euro zone debt concerns, structural reform and a lawsuit for allegedly mis-selling mortgage debt all weigh heavy on the sector,” Manoj Ladwa, senior trader at ETX Capital said.

Subprime mortgage woes.  And a debt crisis.  All caused by activist Keynesian governments.  Playing with interest rates.  To stimulate the economy with an artificial demand.  Which always ends the same way.  Asset bubbles.  And crises.  In Europe.  The U.S.  And everywhere where activist governments think they can outsmart the free market.

Royal Bank of Scotland…

… is among the worst-placed of European lenders facing a multi-billion-dollar U.S. regulatory lawsuit accusing them of misrepresenting the checks they made on mortgages before securitising them.

So Europe, too, has been dabbling in mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  And collateralized debt obligations (CDO).  Doesn’t look like things ended any better for the Europeans.  They sold high-risk securities masquerading as safe high-yield investments.  Because of those ‘safe’ mortgages underlying these investments.  That were anything but safe.

“The banks’ cost of funding goes up in tandem with the country’s cost of funding, and eventually they get denied access to the credit market.”

That relationship was once again thrown into focus on Monday as both Italian and Spanish 10-year yields rose to near 1-month highs. Peripheral euro zone sovereign CDS yields also rose, with French yields at a record high.

The financial crisis is not only hurting investors, it’s hurting countries.  By raising borrowing costs.  Which is a BIG problem for countries that like to spend beyond their means.  Because they have to borrow to pay today’s bills.  As well as borrow to pay yesterday’s bills. 

As bonds come due they have to borrow money to redeem them.  And all this new borrowing is at higher and higher interest rates.  So high that governments even have to borrow to pay the interest on the money they’ve borrowed.  And the interest on their debt becomes an ever growing line item on their budgets.  Which makes it harder to pay retirement benefits.  Health care benefits.  Education benefits (i.e., free college tuition).  Etc.  Eventually requiring budget cuts.  And austerity.  Which the people often respond to with riots.

Adding to growing concern over a return to recession in the developed world, data showed euro zone services sector growth eased for the fifth consecutive month in August.

Recent data showed a world economy growing at “near stall speed,” analysts at Societe Generale (Paris: FR0000130809 – news) said in a note, although they did not believe the world would return to recession as it needed a trigger, “which we believe will remain absent.”

“Taming burgeoning public debts on both sides of the Atlantic (Stuttgart: A0J3C9 – news) will take time and we forecast a prolonged period of low growth for both the US and Europe,” they add.

All this government spending is paid for (in part) with high taxes.  As the borrowing costs grow governments turn to raising tax rates.  Which puts the brakes on economic activity.  Which, in turn, reduces the amount of tax dollars collected by the government.  Making a bad problem worse.

You Never Want a Serious Crisis to go to Waste

This is Keynesian economics.  Keep interest rates low.  Depreciate your currency.  And keep on spending.  Their rationale is that governments can do anything they want.  For it’s their fiat money.  They can always print more.  And the resulting inflation will make yesterday’s debt easier to pay tomorrow.  We call it screwing our creditors.  I mean, monetizing the debt.

But debt has consequences.  The European sovereign debt crisis is a crisis because they can’t borrow any more money to continue their excessive government spending.  Standard and Poor’s just downgraded U.S. bonds because of excessive debt.  The tax and spend Keynesians say poppycock.  Keep spending.  And raise taxes.

But the responsible people say, “Wait a minute.”  For they see these crises as debt crises.  And they think ‘what if’ there wasn’t excessive debt.  Would there be a crisis then?  And the answer is, of course, no.  So they understand that too much debt is a bad thing.  And if it’s a bad thing, adding more of it will only make it more of a bad thing.  And unless you think a crisis is a good thing, you don’t want more of one.

But if you think a crisis is a good thing.  That “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  Then you probably want more of a bad thing.  And you’re probably a Big Government Keynesian liberal Democrat.  Using that crisis to advance an agenda you couldn’t through the normal legislative process.



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Keynesian Economics gave us the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, but the Government blames S&P

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 20th, 2011

We call it the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, not the Mortgage-Backed Securities Crisis 

When responsible for a problem you can accept blame.  Or you can blame the messenger.  Or better yet, you can attack the messenger (see Criticism of Standard & Poor’s over U.S. credit rating compounds its troubles in Washington by Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times, posted 8/18/2011 on WGNtv).

The backlash against Standard & Poor’s for downgrading the U.S. credit rating adds to the company’s problems in the nation’s capital, where it faces investigations for its role in fueling the financial crisis with faulty assessments of mortgage-backed securities.

S&P and the other credit-rating firms are widely believed to have enabled the near market meltdown by giving AAA ratings to many securities backed by risky subprime mortgages.

So the credit-rating firms enabled the subprime mortgage crisis.  Interesting.  Because the bad subprime mortgages already existed by the time those mortgage-backed securities came to them for review.  And it was those preexisting mortgages that people defaulted on and caused the near market meltdown.  So I don’t think you can blame this all on S&P.  And remember, we call it the subprime mortgage crisis.  Not the mortgage-backed securities crisis.  Ergo, the cause was the subprime mortgages.  And S&P didn’t write those mortgages.

Subprime Mortgages:  Creative Financing to Qualify the Unqualified

Once upon a time you saved up 20% for the down payment on a new house.  Then you went to a savings and loan to get a mortgage.  Or a bank.  In those days, people saved their money.  They deposited it into their savings accounts and earned 3% interest.  The banks and savings and loans then loaned it at 6%.  And the bankers were on the golf course by 3 PM.  Hence the joke about the 3-6-3 industry.  It wasn’t very sexy.  But it was reliable.  Few defaulted.  Because a new home owner had a lot to lose from day 1 thanks to that 20% down payment.

But there was a problem with this.  Home ownership was restricted to only those people who could afford to buy houses.  Those who could put down a 20% down payment.  And who had a job with sufficient income to qualify for a mortgage.  Well, you can see the problem with this.  What about the poor people who couldn’t come up with the 20% down payment nor had a job with sufficient income to qualify for a mortgage?

After World War II home ownership became a national goal.  Home ownership equaled economic growth.  It became the American dream (no longer was it the liberty that the Founding Fathers gave us).  As the years went by some saw that the poor were being left out.  Included in that long list of those who could not qualify for a mortgage were a lot of blacks.  Activists claimed that banks were redlining.  Disapproving a larger percentage of black applicants than white.  There were protests.  Investigations.  Banks had to figure out a way to qualify the unqualified and fast.  To prove that they weren’t being racist.

And the subprime mortgage was born.   Adjustable Interest Rate (ARM).  No documentation.  Zero down.  Interest only.  All kinds of creative financing to qualify the unqualified for mortgages.  And it was a hit.  Poor people liked them.  But banks were still reluctant to issue many of them.  Because they were far more risky than a conventional mortgage.  And it was dangerous to have too many of them on their books.  But then federal government solved that problem.

Fannie and Freddie enabled the Mortgage Lenders to Approve Risky Mortgages

Enter Fannie Mae and Freddie MacGovernment Sponsored Enterprises.  They would buy (or guarantee) those risky mortgages from the banks.  The banks breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Then started selling the crap out of subprime mortgages.  Because they were exposed to no risk thanks to Fannie and Freddie.  And the housing market took off.  The government urged Fannie and Freddie to lower their standards and buy even more risky mortgages.  To keep the housing boom alive.  And they did.  Not only were home owners snatching them up.  But speculators, too.  And the term ‘house flipping‘ entered the American lexicon.

Fannie and Freddie then repackaged the subprime mortgages they bought and resold them.  Into so-called ‘safe’ investments.  Thanks to being tied to a mortgage, historically one of the safest investments in America.  Well, they were when people were putting 20% down, at least.  So these mortgage back securities were created.  Reviewed by the credit-rating agencies.  And sold to investors, mutual funds, pension funds, 401(k)s, etc.  Who bought them with abandon.  Because they were rated AAA.  Long after those risky mortgages were written.

They were time bombs just waiting to go off.  Not because of the credit rating agencies.  But because of Fannie and Freddie.  Who enabled the mortgage lenders to approve risky mortgages with no risk to themselves.  And a long standing government policy to put as many people as possible into homes.  Because economic growth all came from home ownership.  And then it happened.  There was a housing bubble thanks to easy monetary policy.  The economy was heating up.  Worried about inflation, the Fed tapped the brakes.  Raised interest rates.  And all of those ARMs reset at higher rates.  People couldn’t afford the new higher monthly payments.  The higher interest rates left the speculators with lots of houses.  That they bought with no money down.  That no one was buying.  And, well, the rest you know.

The Greatest Threat to American Fiscal Solvency is the Government’s growing Health Care Tab 

So S&P didn’t cause the subprime mortgage crisis.  Whether they gave those securities AAA ratings or not those subprime mortgage holders were going to default anyway.  The origins of the subprime mortgage crisis reach a lot further back than S&P.  But their credibility did take a hit.  So they’re trying to be a little more cautious these days.  And if anyone paid attention during the debt ceiling debates, they know the country’s long-term finances are in some serious trouble.

Jeffrey Miron wrote a paper about the health of the U.S. states.  He starts in the introduction by going over the state of affairs in the federal government (see The Fiscal Health of U.S. States by Jeffrey Miron posted 8/15/2011 on Mercatus Center).

As the worldwide financial crisis has eased, economic policy debates have shifted from the short-term issue of stabilization to the log-term issue of fiscal imbalance.  Current projections suggests that the U.S. federal government faces an exploding ratio of debt to GDP, driven in large part by spending on health insurance1.  If this trend continues, the United States will soon find itself unable to roll over its debt and be force to default, generating a fiscal crisis.


1  U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “CBO’s 2011 Long-Term Budget Outlook” (Washington, DC: CBO, June 2011)

Perhaps this is why S&P downgraded U.S. debt.  Because that debt ceiling deal did nothing to address the greatest threat to American fiscal solvency.  The government’s growing health care tab.  The nation indeed may be seeing some difficult times.  As will the states.

This paper offers five conclusions. First, state government finances are not on a stable path; if spending patterns continue to follow those of recent decades, the ratio of state debt to output will increase without bound. Second, the key driver of increasing state and local expenditures is health-care costs, especially Medicaid and subsidies for health-insurance exchanges under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009. Third, states have large implicit debts for unfunded pension liabilities, making their net debt positions substantially worse than official debt statistics indicate. Fourth, if spending trends continue and tax revenues remain near their historical levels relative to output, most states will reach dangerous ratios of debt to GDP within 20 to 30 years. Fifth, states differ in their degrees of fiscal imbalance, but the overriding fact is that all states face fiscal meltdown in the foreseeable future.

Not a pretty picture.  This whole European Socialism model is pushing both the states and the country to default.  Like it is currently pushing European nations toward default in the Eurozone.  Whose financial crisis is worst than America’s.  So far.

Keynesian Economics stimulated the Housing Market into the Granddaddy of all Housing Bubbles 

Social engineering.  Tax and spend liberalism.  Keynesian economics.   These are what gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  Putting people into houses who couldn’t afford them.  And keeping interest rates artificially low to stimulate the housing market into the granddaddy of all housing bubbles.  The subprime mortgage crisis.  And more of the same will only push us further down the Eurozone road.  Sadly, a road often taken throughout history.  As once great nations fell, littering this road.  The Road to Serfdom.



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LESSONS LEARNED #24: “You cannot lobby a politician unless he or she is for sale.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 29th, 2010

BUILDING A RAILROAD ain’t cheap.  It needs dump trucks of money.  Especially if it’s transcontinental.  And that’s what the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were building.  Starting during the Civil War in 1863 (the year Vicksburg fell and Lee retreated from Gettysburg).  The Union Pacific was building west from Iowa.  And the Central pacific was building east from California. 

For the most part, Protestant, English-speaking Americans settled Texas.  Mexico had encouraged the American colonists to settle this region.  Because few Mexicans were moving north to do so.   The deal was that the colonists conduct official business in Spanish and convert to Catholicism.  They didn’t.  These and other issues soured relations between Mexico and the American Texans.  The Republic of Texas proclaimed their independence from Mexico.  America annexed Texas.  Mexico tried to get it back.  The Mexican-American War followed.  America won.  Texas became a state in 1845.  And that other Spanish/Mexican territory that America was especially interested in, California, became a state in 1850.  Hence the desire for a transcontinental railroad.

The U.S. government was very eager to connect the new state of California to the rest of America.  So they acted aggressively.  They would provide the dump trucks of money.  As America expanded, the U.S. government became the owner of more and more public land.  The sale of new lands provided a large amount of revenue for the federal government.  (Other forms of taxation (income taxes, excise taxes, etc.) grew as the amount of public lands to sell decreased.)  Land is valuable.  So they would grant the railroad companies some 44 million acres of land (i.e., land grants) for their use.  The railroad companies, then, would sell the land to raise the capital to build their railroads.  The government also provided some $60 million in federal loans.

But it didn’t end there.  The federal government came up with incentives to speed things up.  They based the amount of loans upon the miles of track laid.  The more difficult the ground, the more cash.  So, what you got from these incentives was the wrong incentive.  To lay as much track as possible on the most difficult ground they could find.  And then there were mineral rights.  The railroad would own the property they built on.  And any minerals located underneath.  So the tracks wandered and meandered to maximize these benefits.  And speed was key.  Not longevity.  Wherever possible they used wood instead of masonry.  The used the cheapest iron for track.  They even laid track on ice.   (They had to rebuild large chunks of the line before any trains would roll.)  And when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met, they kept building, parallel to each other.  To lay more miles of track.  And get more cash from the government.

PAR FOR THE COURSE.  When government gets involved they can really mess things up.  But it gets worse.  Not only was government throwing dump trucks of American money down the toilet, they were also profiting from this hemorrhaging of public money.  As shareholders in Crédit Mobilier.

Thomas Durant of Union Pacific concocted the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  As part of the government requirements to build the transcontinental railroad, Union Pacific had to sell stock at $100 per share.  Problem was, few believed the railroad could be built.  So there were few takers to buy the stock at $100 per share.  So he created Crédit Mobilier to buy that stock.  Once they did, they then resold the stock on the open market at prevailing market prices.  Which were well below $100 per share.  Union Pacific met the government requirements thanks to the willingness of Crédit Mobilier to buy their stock.  The only thing was, both companies had the same stockholders.  Crédit Mobilier was a sham company.  Union Pacific WAS Crédit Mobilier.  And it gets worse.

Union Pacific chose Crédit Mobilier to build their railroad.  Crédit Mobilier submitted highly inflated bills to Union Pacific who promptly paid them.  They then submitted the bills to the federal government (plus a small administration fee) for reimbursement.  Which the federal government promptly paid.  Crédit Mobilier proved to be highly profitable.  This pleased their shareholders.  Which included members of Congress who approved the overbillings as wells as additional funding for cost overruns.  No doubt Union Pacific/Crédit Mobilier had very good friends in Washington.  Including members of the Grant administration.  Until the party ended.  The press exposed the scandal during the 1872 presidential campaign.  Outraged, the federal government conducted an investigation.  But when you investigate yourself for wrongdoing you can guess the outcome.  Oh, there were some slaps on the wrists, but government came out relatively unscathed.  But the public money was gone.  As is usually the case with political graft.  Politicians get rich while the public pays the bill.

(Incidentally, the investigation did not implicate Ulysses Grant.  However, because members of his administration were implicated, this scandal tarnished his presidency.  Grant, though, was not corrupt.  He was a great general.  But not a shrewd politician.  Where there was a code of honor in the military, he found no such code in politics.  Friends used his political naivety for personal profit.  If you read Grant’s personal memoirs you can get a sense of Grant’s character.  Many consider his memoirs among the finest ever written.  He was honest and humble.  A man of integrity.  An expert horseman, he was reduced to riding in a horse and buggy in his later years.  Once, while president, he was stopped for speeding through the streets of Washington.  When the young policeman saw who he had pulled over, he apologized profusely to the president and let him go.  Grant told the young man to write him the ticket.  Because it was his job.  And the right thing to do.  For no man, even the president, was above the law.)

THE FINANCIAL WORLD fell apart in 2007.  And this happened because someone changed the definition of the American Dream from individual liberty to owning a house.  Even if you couldn’t afford to buy one.  Even if you couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  Even, if you should get a mortgage, you had no chance in hell of making your payments.

Home ownership would be the key to American prosperity.  Per the American government.  Build homes and grow the economy.   That was the official mantra.  So Washington designed American policy accordingly.  Lenders came up with clever financing schemes to put ever more people into new homes.  And they were clever.  But left out were the poorest of the poor.  Even a small down payment on the most modest of homes was out of their range.  Proponents of these poor said this was discriminatory.  Many of the inner city poor in the biggest of cities were minority.  People cried racism in mortgage lending.  Government heard.  They pressured lenders to lend to these poor people.  Or else.  Lenders were reluctant.  With no money for down payments and questionable employment to service these mortgages, they saw great financial risk.  So the government said not to worry.  We’ll take that risk.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would guarantee certain ‘risky’ loans as long as they met minimum criteria.  And they would also buy risky mortgages and get them off their books.  Well, with no risk, the lenders would lend to anyone.  They made NINJA loans (loans to people with No Income, No Job, and no Assets).  And why not?  If any loan was likely to default it was a NINJA loan.  But if Freddie or Fannie bought before the default, what did a lender care?  And even they defaulted before, Fannie and Freddie guaranteed the loan.  How could a lender lose?

Once upon a time, there was no safer loan than a home mortgage.  Why?  Because it would take someone’s lifesavings to pay for the down payment (20% of the home price in the common conventional mortgage).  And people lived in these houses.  In other words, these new home owners had a vested interested to service those mortgages.  Someone who doesn’t put up that 20% down payment with their own money, though, has less incentive to service that mortgage.  They can walk away with little financial loss.

ARE YOU GETTING the picture?  With this easy lending there was a housing boom.  Then a bubble.  With such easy money, housing demand went up.  As did prices.  So housing values soared.  Some poor people were buying these homes with creative financing (used to make the unqualified qualify for a mortgage).  We call these subprime mortgages.  They include Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  These have adjustable interest rates.  This removes the risk of inflation.  So they have lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages.  If there is inflation (and interest rates go up), they adjust the interest rate on the mortgage up.  Other clever financing included interest only mortgages.  These include a balloon payment at the end of a set term of the full principal.  These and other clever instruments put people into houses who could only afford the smallest of monthly payments.  The idea was that they would refinance after an ‘introductory’ period.  And it would work as long as interest rates did not go up.  But they went up.  And house prices fell.  The bubble burst.  Mortgages went underwater (people owed more than the houses were worth).  Some people struggled to make their payments and simply couldn’t.  Others with little of their own money invested simply walked away.  The subprime industry imploded.  So what happened, then, to all those subprime mortgages?

Fannie and Freddie bought these risky mortgages.  And securitized them.  They chopped and diced them and created investment devices called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).  These are fancy bonds backed by those ‘safe’ home mortgages.  Especially safe with those Fannie and Freddie guarantees.  They were as safe as government bonds but more profitable.  As long as people kept making their mortgage payments.

But risk is a funny thing.  You can manage it.  But you can’t get rid of it.  Interest rates went up.  The ARMs reset their interest rates.  People defaulted.  The value of the subprime mortgages that backed those CDOs collapsed, making the value of the CDOs collapse.  And everyone who bought those CDOs took a hit.  Investors around the globe shared those losses. 

Those subprime loans were very risky.  Lenders would not make the loans unless someone else took that risk.  The government took that risk in the guise of Fannie and Freddie.  Who passed on that risk to the investors buying what they thought were safe investments.  Who saw large chunks of their investment portfolios go ‘puff’ into thin air.

SO WHAT ARE Freddie and Fannie exactly?  They are government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).  They key word here is government.  Once again, you put huge piles of money and government together and the results are predictable.  In an effort to extend the ‘American Dream’ to as many Americans as possible, the federal oversight body for Freddie and Fannie lowered the minimum criteria for making those risky loans.  Even excluding an applicant’s credit worthiness from the application process (so called ‘no-doc’ loans were loans made without any documentation to prove the credit worthiness of the applicant.)  To encourage further reckless lending.  Ultimately causing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

And, of course, members of Congress did well during the good times of the subprime boom.  They got large campaign contributions.  Some sweetheart mortgagee deals.  A grateful voting bloc.  And other largess from the profitable subprime industry.  Government did well.  Just as they did during the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  And the American taxpayer gets to pay the bill.  Some things never change.  Government created both of these scandals.  As government is wont to do whenever around huge piles of money.  For when it comes to stealing from the government, someone in the government has to let it happen.  For it takes a nod and a wink from someone in power to let such massive fraud to take place. 



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LESSONS LEARNED #8: “Of course Social Security will fail; that’s what Ponzi Schemes do.” –Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 8th, 2010

IT’S ONE OF the oldest scams in the book.  The Ponzi scheme.  It takes some creative lying.  Or a cold heart that can stab trusted friends in the back.  Like Bernie Madoff did.

When it comes to investing large sums of money, people would rather do so with someone they know and trust.  And so it is in the Jewish community.  Madoff’s investment funds were very profitable.  And hard to get into.  So when he worked his Jewish circles, the response was favorable.  Everyone wanted in.

Madoff targeted Jewish charities.  Not for the philanthropy in his heart, but for something characteristic about charities who invest.  Charities work on the interest earned on the principal of their investments.  The principal is parked and rarely withdrawn.  And this is ideal for a Ponzi scheme. 

With all that ‘parked’ money it was easy to sustain the lie.  It was easy to write small checks; the payouts for the returns on investment were only a fraction of the total fund.  When an individual wanted to withdraw his money, it was easy to write that check, too.  Those big investments could sustain the fraud for years without worry.  Madoff was happy.  The investors were happy.

MADOFF CONFOUNDED ANALYSTS who could not understand how he could be so consistently profitable, even when other investment funds were showing losses in bad economic times.  Of course, when you have nothing invested, it is easy to avoid market fluctuations.  As long as your pile of money doesn’t run out.

But with the financial crisis kicked off by the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008, that pile of money did run out.  Madoff’s investors were losing money elsewhere and needed to withdraw their money from his fund to cover those losses.  And when people start withdrawing their principal from a Ponzi scheme the house of cards comes crashing down.

And that’s what happened.  Madoff went to jail.  This is usually how a Ponzi scheme ends.  In case you’re thinking about trying this.  First crash.  Then jail.  It’s just a matter of time.  Eventually people start pulling out their principal.  For whatever reason.  Even if you got about as perfect a group of investors as possible.  As in Madoff’s case.  If you don’t believe me, you can ask Bernie.  During visiting hours.

AND SPEAKING OF the subprime mortgage crisis, there were elements in that crisis that were very Ponzie-like.  At the heart of this crisis was affordable housing for people with sh*tty credit. 

HUD was pressuring lenders to loan to people who could not qualify for loans.  Advocacy groups representing various ethnic groups and nationalities sued.  But no advocacy representing those who had no chance in hell of repaying a loan sued.  Funny, for the banks did discriminate against these people.

Anyway, new laws and regulatory pressure as well as lawsuits (and threats of lawsuits) eventually forced lenders to lend to the unqualified.  Then Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought the risky, subprime loans.  Problem solved.  All of them.  Right?

Wrong.  They used some creative financing to approve the unqualified.  The one thing to really come back and bite us in the ass was the Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM).  You can’t afford to make recurring mortgage payments?  Okay, no problem.  We’ll just make those payments smaller.  We’ll use an ARM which gives you a lower interest rate as well as a lower payment.  You just refinance later when rates go up.  After you’ve built up some equity in your home.

I’m approved?!?  Great!  Thank you!  Refinance?  What?

They may not have understood that part but they signed on the dotted line.  Interest rates at the time were very low.  As were their monthly payment.  They could just squeak by.  Everything was cool.  Until the interest rates went up.

ALL THIS PRESSURE to loan money to the unqualified and the low interest rates caused a housing boom.  The boom became a bubble.  Then the bubble burst.  House values fell.  Interest rates went up.  Then the interest rate on AMRs went up. 

With a lower house value, a new mortgage would have lower collateral (i.e., the house).  So even if they could qualify, they couldn’t borrow enough to pay off the original mortgage.  So they were stuck with a mortgage payment they could no longer afford.  And they couldn’t refinance.  Their only choice was to default.  And default they did.  Lots of them.  Perhaps most of them.  And the subprime mortgage industry imploded.

Why is this like a Ponzi scheme?  Well, looking back at it with hindsight, there was no other possible outcome of these governmental policies.  When you force institutions to loan money to people who don’t qualify for a loan chances are that they will default.  If two people ask you for a loan and one had good credit and the other did not, who are you going to loan your money too?  If it’s your money you’re going to be very careful.  If it’s not your money, you going to do what is politically expedient and give the money to people who will vote for you.

THE SUBPRIME MORTGAGE crisis resulted from governmental policies in place to raise political capital.  The unqualified got the houses so government got the political capital.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were buying those subprime mortgages, repackaging them and reselling them.  They were making money and could make political contributions.  Everybody was getting something.  Before the house of cards fell, that is.

And all of this was based on the lie that people who couldn’t qualify to buy a house could somehow buy a house.  In other words, it was a fraudulent investment.  Like a Ponzi scheme, it would work as long as there was a net cash flow into the system.  A rising interest rate, though, changed all that. 

SWINDLERS OFTEN GET tripped up by things beyond their control.  The subprime mortgage crisis was the undoing of Bernie Madoff.  A rising interest rate was the undoing of the subprime mortgage scheme.  And a declining population growth rate will be the undoing of Social Security.  In time.  Because, in time, all Ponzi schemes fail.



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