Monday, August 4, 2014

Monday, August 04, 2014 - Giving Up the Ghost

Giving Up the Ghost
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 75 = 16,569
SPX + 13 = 1938
NAS + 31 = 4383
10 YR YLD - .01 = 2.49%
OIL + .09 = 98.38
GOLD – 6.00 = 1289.20
SILV - .17 = 20.23

Let’s start with economic data; on Friday we had the monthly jobs report: 209,000 jobs and the unemployment rate ticked up to 6.2%. It was a decent jobs report but came in a little under expectations. Still the economy has been adding jobs at a strong clip this year. Early in 2014, the Conference Board’s employment trends index pointed to stronger job creation even though the economy temporarily contracted, and that’s exactly what happened. Hiring accelerated, the economy snapped back in the second quarter, and over the past six months the economy has added jobs at the fastest clip since 2006.

The Employment Trends Index increased in July to a reading of 120.31, up from 119.91; this represents a 6.6% increase from a year ago. The 6 month growth rate in the index is the strongest in over 2 years, and suggests solid job growth is likely to continue in the coming months. Job openings keep hitting post-recession highs. There were 4.64 million job openings in May, near an all-time high; and layoffs are extremely low, even compared to the prerecession period.

While there are some signs of strength in the jobs market, wages have been stagnant. Worker pay was a smaller piece of the US income pie than earlier estimated as some Americans collected significantly more in interest and dividend payments over the past two years.  According to revised data from the Commerce Department, employee compensation, including wages and benefits, was lower for each year from 2011 to 2013 than previously calculated. With the revisions, employee compensation was reduced by $9.5 billion in 2011, $5.1 billion in 2012 and $14.6 billion last year. It accounted for 52% of gross domestic income in the last quarter of 2013, down from a prior estimate of 52.2%.

More rank-and-file workers are participating in the recovery as companies report record profits and boost hiring. Compensation has accelerated this year, rising $134 billion after a $153 billion surge in the first quarter. It marked the biggest back-to-back gains since the six months ended in the first quarter of 2007. That’s because companies are hiring again and more people are returning to the workforce, not necessarily because paychecks are getting fatter. We’ve added millions of people to the payroll since the low point of the economy, but we haven’t added at all to the payouts that workers are receiving. Little has flowed to workers except as an increase in their employment rate.

The latest data on consumer credit is due out Thursday. It’s likely to show non-revolving debt like auto and student debt is continuing to grow rapidly. But credit-card debt has barely budged. Auto loans made up a big part of the growth in second quarter GDP. In the second quarter, motor vehicle and parts spending grew an annual 17.5% rate. Put another way, cars made up 3.7% of all consumer spending, the highest rate since the first quarter of 2008. Growth in subprime auto loans has climbed more than 130% in the past five years.

The New York Times recently reported that many subprime auto lenders are loosening credit standards and focusing on the riskiest borrowers, and then many of the subprime auto loans are bundled into complex bonds and sold as securities by banks to insurance companies, mutual funds and public pension funds, a process that creates ever-greater demand for loans. Subprime loans make up about a third of new car-sales and two-thirds of used cars; with many subprime loans carrying interest rates of 23% or more; the loans were typically at least twice the size of the value of the used cars purchased.

Now maybe you are thinking that there were financial reforms put in place following the downturn; reforms that would prevent subprime lending practices. The Dodd-Frank Act did create the CFPB, the Consumer Financial Protection Board, and you might imagine this would protect consumers from less- than scrupulous lenders. Auto loans were stripped out of the CFPB's jurisdiction by an amendment proposed by Representative John Campbell (R-CA), a former used car dealer. Ripping off poor people has become an art form, and one of the requirements is that the companies engaging in this performance art keep themselves outside regulation as much as possible.

General Motors Financial said today it was served with a subpoena from the Department of Justice directing it to turn over documents related to underwriting criteria on subprime auto loans. The Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, allows the Justice Department to sue over fraud affecting a federally insured financial institution.

A Federal Reserve survey of 75 domestic and 23 foreign banks shows that banks are seeing solid demand for loans, but the banks aren’t making it easy for borrowers. Banks reported stronger demand for prime residential mortgages for the first time since last summer and for home equity lines for the first time since October 2013. Credit standards on prime mortgage loans have eased somewhat, but mortgage standards still remain tighter than in 2005. The July survey also shows that new qualified mortgage rules has reduced approval rates on applications for prime jumbo home-purchase loans and nontraditional mortgages but have not impacted prime mortgages. Banks were somewhat more willing to make consumer-installment loans than they were in the April survey.

New research from the Federal Reserve and Northwestern University finds that expanding unemployment insurance benefits reduces the likelihood of mortgage delinquency. About 5 million foreclosures were completed between 2008 and 2012, but it could have been much worse. The survey says unemployment benefits prevented about 1.4 million foreclosures between 2008 and 2012.  

The researchers discovered there were other side benefits from jobless benefits. Banks who saw a lower default risk expanded credit access. Mortgage investors lost less than they otherwise would have. Local governments took a smaller hit. Also, more owners hanging onto their properties meant that homes stood a better chance of not falling into disrepair, which in turn would have sunk property values in their neighborhoods. And here’s one key finding for housing-policy wonks: Fewer troubled properties cut the government’s costs for expanding jobless benefits by narrowing the number of bad loans that would have been covered by federally controlled mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Savings related to Fannie and Freddie decreased net costs for the federal government’s jobless-benefits expansion by about one-fifth.

Today’s bank failure comes from Portugal, and it was a big one. Banco Espirito Santo gave up the ghost; the bank will be shut down, and its healthy businesses transferred to a new bank. Portuguese officials were unable to find private investors to prop up the bank, and so the government will use 4.9 billion euro, or about $6.6 billion of its own funds to bail out the bank, or at least part of it. The bank will be spit in two, with the healthy part going to Novo Bank; the healthy part will include deposits and viable assets; so for now, the depositors and senior bondholders are safe.
Regulators are investigating possible accounting fraud and abuse of privileged information by the Espírito Santo family. Toxic loans, mainly to the Espirito Santo corporate parent and various subsidiaries, will be quarantined in a separate bad bank, which will be owned by shareholders and junior bondholders. Eventually, the new bank, or Novo Bank, will be sold in an attempt to recover the taxpayer loan. It is not clear whether even a sanitized version of Banco Espírito Santo will be worth enough to repay the loan.

Banco Espírito Santo provides something of a preview of what may happen in October when the European Central Bank discloses the results of an exhaustive review of bank holdings in the eurozone. The review is intended to uncover precisely the kind of hidden problems that have undone Banco Espírito Santo.

The central bank review is expected to expose an unknown number of other banks with problem loans or other woes that they have failed to disclose to regulators or shareholders. There has been concern that the central bank’s findings could destabilize the eurozone financial system. The European Union still lacks a comprehensive system for dealing with troubled banks, meaning countries must finance their own bailouts.

There is a new study taking a look at the state of banks in the US, the limits of Dodd-Frank reform, and what should be done with banks that are too big to manage. The study was requested by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican Senator David Vitter, and the study finds that some institutions remain too complex and interconnected to be unwound quickly and efficiently if they get into trouble. That means that banks still would be able to force a taxpayer bailout in some form, and the banks are essentially receiving value in that implied guarantee. And the new study had the Government Accounting Office look at the value of that implied bailout. Turns out it was a tough calculation as the value of the implied guarantee varies, skyrocketing with economic stress (such as in 2008) and settling back down in periods of calm. If we were to return to panic mode, the value of the implied taxpayer backing would rocket. In other words, the threat of high-cost taxpayer bailouts remains very much with us.

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