Posts tagged ‘banks’

OMG: NYT Discovers President's Son-In-Law Using Tax Deductions That ... Every Single Entrepreneur I Know, Including Me, Uses

This New York Times article here could have been a perfectly reasonable thought piece on the (perhaps unintended) effects of several provisions in the tax code.  But in an institutional desire to land a few more blows on Trump, they tried to morph it into a hit piece on Jared Kushner --"Jared Kushner Paid No Federal Income Tax for Years" screams the headline.

Look NYT:  I find Trump distasteful as well.  But you only embarrass yourself presenting as some kind of investigative bombshell that Jared Kushner used perfectly legal deductions to minimize his tax bill.

I recommend this ZeroHedge summary to you as a quick way to get to the meat of the Times article.  As they summarize it, the Kushner tax "maneuver" consists of:

tep 1: The Purchase

Kushner Companies buys a property. The majority of the money for the purchase comes in the form of mortgages and personal loans from banks.

Step 2: The Write-Off

Under the federal tax code, real estate investors can write off the purchase price of the building — excluding the cost of the land — over a period of decades. Although Kushner Companies has spent little or no cash of its own, the firm takes large annual deductions based on the theoretical depreciation of the building.

Step 3: The Loss

The property generates cash for the Kushners. But any earnings, which would be subject to the federal income tax, are swamped by the amount that the company is taking in write-offs for depreciation. The result is that Kushner Companies records a net loss for tax purposes.

Step 4: The Investors

The company passes on that loss to its owners, including Mr. Kushner and his father, Charles.

Step 5: The Offset

The loss can be used to offset the Kushners’ income in the year it is recorded, and it can be carried forward to cancel out future income or to get refunds for taxes they paid in previous years.

Step 6: The Deferral

When Kushner Companies sells a property, it can use the proceeds to finance a new acquisition. If done within the right time frame, the company can indefinitely defer any capital-gains taxes it might owe on the sale of the original property.

So here is my confession.  I did the exact same thing just last year on my taxes.  Take one example:  One of my businesses bought and installed $350,000 of equipment.  I financed 100% of this purchase.  The article says that Kushner depreciated his real estate purchases over decades but the tax code's accelerated depreciation provisions allowed me to depreciate this purchase 100% in the first year.  So I had an immediately $350,000 loss that I netted against other income, grealy reducing my taxes on that income.  In fact, I don't think I was able to use it all due to various tax rules and I carried over a part of it to cover 2018 taxes or beyond.

One could argue about whether the accelerated depreciation provision I took advantage of is too generous, but the tax code is always going to allow depreciation against some formula (or else every business would be substituting crazy rental schemes for capital investment).

Let's take each step from above

  1. The Times wants to make a big deal that somehow the fact that he is using borrowed money to buy assets is a factor in this, but why?  They imply a couple of times that all the debt reduces his ownership, but that is not true.  He still owns 100% of the asset (with the proviso the bank has a lien that is only meaningful in case of default.  His equity is only a fraction of the purchase price, but that is a different thing and says nothing about his ownership
  2. The depreciation provisions are pretty standards as described across all businesses, except to say that they are less generous than the ones I get buying equipment.  Again they seem to think that somehow the fact that he borrowed most of the money is relevant to this -"Mr. Kushner is getting tax-reducing losses for spending someone else’s money" -- but his financing strategy is not the least relevant.  He took on a costly and risky long-term obligation when he borrowed the money.  Is the NYT arguing for requiring cash accounting for taxes??  This is just embarrassingly ignorant.
  3. This is entirely normal
  4. This is entirely normal for s-corporations and LLC's.  These were promoted for small business, and they are fabulous tools for entrepreneurs, but you have to provide these legal tools to all people, even to rich people in families you don't like.
  5. This is entirely normal.  Any other rule would be grossly unfair and a kick in the nuts for entrepreneurs.  I often spend money this year that generates revenues next year.  The tax code recognizes this and agrees that the losses I took this year can be netted against the revenues next year that they helped to facilitate.
  6. This is the only thing that is mildly unique to real estate and his business.  I don't really get the same rights with any of my assets, though my assets mostly depreciate rather than increase in value.  I won't pass judgement on this one, but I suspect that it has a lot of support (homeowners get it, for example, as do owners of second homes).

Nowhere is there even a suggestion of how the tax code might be altered to fix those things the NYT does not like about it.  I would suggest that any step that would alter any of the 6 steps above would be opposed even in a Democratic Congress.  This all reminds me of a piece a few years ago arguing that oil companies got a lot more subsidies than renewables like wind and solar.  Checking it out, the vast, vast majority of the subsidies were ... LIFO inventory accounting and depreciation, both tax rules that are 1) merely about timing of taxes and not total paid and 2) apply to all manufacturing businesses in all industries.

What I Am Wondering About Inflation

Tyler Cowen asks, "Why isn’t inflation higher?"  I have wondered that for a while, but monetary policy and related topics in macro are one of the areas I admit that I simply do not understand so I don't write about it.  So rather than offering any hypotheses to Cowen's question, I will ask my own:

  1. Is it possible that inflation exists but it shows up mainly in financial assets (stocks, bonds, perhaps real estate) that don't really factor into standard inflation metrics?  Every step the Fed has taken, as well as other western central banks, appears to me to be crafted to pump money into securities markets rather than into main street.  Certainly we have seen a huge inflation in the value of financial assets and real estate over the past several years.
  2. Expansion of the economy above the rate of productivity improvement should drive inflation, unless there was a lot of excess capacity to soak up.   That may have been partly the case in the US since 2008, but surely that is gone.  Does the still greatly underutilized Chinese and Indian labor force act as excess capacity that prevents inflation from heating up here?  If so, might Trump's trade restrictions interfere with this going forward?

Open Letter To Walmart: I Have a Business For You

The last few days I have written of my frustration at trying to get local business bank accounts, the sole purpose of which is to accept deposits of cash from my local campgrounds and then transfer that money to my main account.  This is a major hassle as opening a bank account as a corporation is not a simple task and, as I have found out, some banks won't even accept this sort of business.

Here is what I need:  I need a national network of offices, many in rural locations, that will take my cash and ACH (a cheap form of wire transfer) the money to my bank account.  So naturally, I think of Walmart.  Walmart already is used to handling a lot of cash and Walmart is already starting to offer a number of consumer banking services.  One reader told me about the Bluebird service, a joint effort between Amex and Walmart to create a sort of virtual consumer bank.  I love the idea, but it has rules limiting it to consumer accounts.

So here is my business for you Walmart

  • I bring my cash to you at any store.  You zip it through a counter.  We agree on the amount.
  • You wire my main account with the money.  I will give you three days so you can use the cheapest transfer and have time to get the cash into your own account.
  • I will pay you 100 bp (1%) of the cash value for the service

Currently I pay merchant processors 270-300bp for those transactions and I have to wait 3-5 days for the money to hit my accounts.  So 100bp on cash would be fair for me, and I would guess fair for Walmart.

I'm Exhausted With Banks Treating Me Like A Criminal

For 15 years I have been a customer of El Dorado bank in a small town in California, just depositing our weekly revenues in the account and sweeping it out from time to time.  When Bank of America closed a few locations we use in other California small towns, it seemed easier to just add additional El Dorado accounts.  WRONG.  I was told today that because we might possibly maybe make three simultaneous deposits at the three banks that total to more than $10,000 in cash in one day, we suddenly are subject to all sorts of disclosure requirements.  I am used to having my privacy raped as a business owner to set up even a simple banking relationship, but now apparently any employee of mine who might make the weekly deposit is going to have to submit all sorts of personal information, including social security number, to the bank just for the ability to deposit money.  We have been doing the same business with El Dorado for nearly 20 years, and suddenly in the little town of Lone Pine, CA, population 2035, we are now treated as presumptive drug dealers and tax evaders.  It aggravates me that I have to put my employees in this position.

It used to be that it was easier to have fewer banking relationships to manage, but now I am thinking the costs may be running the other way, encouraging more smaller banking relationships that don't trigger whatever limits are set for treating customers as presumptive criminals.

Recent Harvard Business School Grads Hardest Hit

Apparently, European investment banks will have to start charging for research that, apparently, no one reads (emphasis added)

"The global investment research market is on the cusp of major disruption," said Benjamin Quinlan, CEO of Hong Kong-based Quinlan & Associates and author of a report on the challenges facing the research sector.

Forcing the change are new rules, known as Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, or MiFID II, due to take effect in January 2018 aiming to make European securities markets more transparent.

A key aspect of these rules is that investment banks must charge fund managers an explicit fee for research rather than bundling the cost into trading commissions charged to clients, as at present.

...For example, about 40,000 research reports are produced every week by the world's top 15 global investment banks, of which less than 1 percent are actually read by investors, according to Quinlan.

When I was there, an enormous number of Harvard Business School grads got their first post-b-school job as analysts writing just such reports.

Bank of America is Protecting Merchants Who Lose Credit Card Data By Hiding Their Names

My small business has a Visa account with Bank of America so that our managers can have the ability to charge small expenses.  My personal corporate card is part of that account.  At least twice a year, I get the dreaded call from the bank telling me my card number was part of a data breach and I have to get a new card.  And then I have to spend hours and hours updating a zillion online accounts with new numbers, and I face weeks and months of past due notices from accounts I forgot to change.

I am willing to accept Bank of America's explanation that some merchant outside their system caused the breech.  So each time I ask the obvious question, "who was the merchant so I can stop doing business with them?"  And every single time Bank of America refuses to tell me.  For reasons beyond my reckoning, Bank of American and apparently the Visa system have a vow of Omerta in which they protect security-deficient retailers from scrutiny.  It is infuriating.  In a free society, we should not need the government to hold merchants accountable for data privacy, we should be able to do it ourselves as customers.  Apparently I am not the only one who is similarly frustrated by this.

Does anyone know of any Visa issuers that are more transparent about the sources of data breaches?  Is Amex better on this than the Visa/MC system?

Update:  From a Senior Fraud Analyst at Bank of America:

I am responding to an email you sent to us regarding the data compromise situation that keeps happening with your corporate card.

I do understand the frustration you experience.  We are not provided specific details about where the compromise occurred.  The compromise could have happened sometime in the past and it may not be limited to one specific merchant or processing center.  I do understand that  you not wanting to use the card at the site of the compromise, but keep in mind that when a merchant or processing center is compromised they likely took measures to improve their security, the continued compromises could be coming from different processing centers or merchants and not the same place each time.

My email back in response:

This is how banks invite regulation on themselves.  If Visa and the large credit card issuing banks were more transparent with customers about retailers that create data breaches, customers could take their own action to police irresponsible parties by taking their business elsewhere.  Ditto merchant processors -- we businesses could easily shift our merchant processing accounts.  But instead, by creating this sort of rule of Omerta where you protect the irresponsible party from public disclosure, people feel helpless.  It is in that environment that folks like Elizabeth Warren can create so much havoc with regulation.

By the way, please do not tell me to be comfortable that the offending merchants have already tightened up their security.  It has been nearly 18 months after the requirements that merchants accept chip cards to avoid extra liability and half the stores I visit still have the chip card slot on their credit card machines disabled.  No retailer is going to stop being irresponsible until you banks stop protecting the bad ones.  Look what happened at Target - they got a lot of bad publicity from their breach but you can be damn sure they were one of the first that were accepting chip cards.

Leveraging Up The World in Good Times -- The Madness of Modern Central Banking

From the WSJ:

The European Central Bank’s corporate-bond-buying program has stirred so much action in credit markets that some investment banks and companies are creating new debt especially for the central bank to buy.

In two instances, the ECB has bought bonds directly from European companies through so-called private placements, in which debt is sold to a tight circle of buyers without the formality of a wider auction.

It is a startling example of how banks and companies are quickly adapting to the extremes of monetary policy in what is an already unconventional age. In the past decade, wide-scale purchases of government bonds—a bid to lower the cost of borrowing in the economy and persuade investors to take more risk—have become commonplace. Central banks more recently have moved to negative interest rates, flipping on their head the ancient customs of money lending. Now, they are all but inviting private actors to concoct specific things for them to buy so they can continue pumping money into the financial system.

The ECB doesn’t directly instruct companies to create specific bonds. But it makes plain that it is an eager purchaser, and it lays out the specifics of its wish list. And the ECB isn’t alone: The Bank of Japan said late last year it would buy exchange-traded funds comprising shares of companies that spend a growing amount on “physical and human capital,” essentially steering fund managers to make such ETFs available to buy.

Note that none of the criteria for the debt purchases is anything like, "the company has sensible plans for investing the money."  It is merely buying debt for debt's sake.  In the US, private companies are using most of their debt issues to buy back stock, a nearly pointless exercise that channels money from central banks to propping up equity valuations.  I wouldn't be surprised if European companies do the same.

Folks, it may not feel like it, but we are at the top of the economic cycle.   We have negative interest rates and central banks buying up every available debt issues in relatively good times, when these were formerly considered tools for the deepest point in a recession.  I am not a big believer in government stimulus, but these folks are.  What are they counting on in the bad times, when nothing will be left in the tank?

But now, we see central banks going one step further, encouraging private companies to lever up at the top of the business cycle.   Historically, this has been a formula for disaster.  The oil industry has been a preview of this.  Take ExxonMobil (XOM).  XOM, given its size, has never been very good at developing certain sorts of plays (e.g. the shale boom).  What it has done historically is use its size and balance sheet to swoop in during inevitable periods of low oil prices and producer losses to buy up developed fields at good prices.  But this time around, XOM has only had limited ability to do this, because it spent the boom years levering up its balance sheet and buying back stock.  Other large oil companies are in even more dire straights, facing real cash flow crises because, again, they levered up to repurchase stock when they should have been cleaning up their balance sheet.

Huh? Punishment for Taking Out A Loan You Couldn't Afford is... You Don't Have To Pay the Loan Back?

I really was not going to blog this week but this article exceeded by fury threshold, which is pretty hard to do nowadays.

The report, shared with MarketWatch, states that some of Puerto Rico’s debt may have been issued illegally, allowing the government to potentially declare the bonds invalid and courts to then decide that creditors’ claims are unenforceable. The scope of the audit report, issued by the island’s Public Credit Comprehensive Audit Commission, covers the two most recent full-faith-and-credit debt issues of the commonwealth: Puerto Rico’s 2014 $3.5 billion general-obligation bond offering and a $900 million issuance in 2015 of Tax Refund Anticipation Notes to a syndicate of banks led by J.P Morgan

So government officials break the law by taking out a loan they shouldn't have taken out, and the punishment is that they get to keep the money and not pay it back?  This is absolutely absurd.  That means that completely innocent third parties are essentially being fined $4.4 billion for the malfeasance of Puerto Rico's government officials.  Were the creditors truly innocent?  Well, the same report goes on to further criticize the government officials for not telling their creditors that what the government was asking for was illegal

Puerto Rico did not inform bondholders that its constitution forbids it from using debt to finance deficits. That, the commission’s report says suggests “substantive” noncompliance with the letter of the constitution

So in fact, incredibly, the creditors' very innocence is used as part of the proof that the debt was illegal, and thus that creditors should be expropriated.

I thought that this couldn't possibly be the law, except that the Supreme Court has already upheld the same outcome in other cases:

The U.S. Supreme Court has said in the Litchfield v. Ballou case and, more recently, in litigation related to Detroit’s bankruptcy that borrowing above a debt ceiling may allow the issuer to declare debt invalid and, therefore, unpayable. Detroit went to court to invalidate $1.45 billion in certificates of participation, debt issued by two shell companies called “service corporations.” The parties settled before the case went to trial, but, while refusing two initial proposed settlements, the judge stated that Detroit’s argument had “substantial merit” and that the suit would have had a “reasonable likelihood of success.”

This is they type of thing that occurs in banana republics.  No honest nation with a strong rule of law operates this way.  And what is to prevent other distressed government bodies with limited ethics (e.g. the State of Illinois) from carefully borrowing money in a way that is subtly illegal and then repudiate it a few years later?

Are You In Control of Electronic Payments from Your Checking Account?

If your business is like mine, a lot of folks to whom I owe money are insisting on the ability to automatically remove the money I owe them each month from our checking account (via an electronic process known as ACH, which is slower but much cheaper and easier to use than the old wire transfer method).  At first, any loan I took out insisted that the lender be able to automatically withdraw my payments.  Then my workers compensation company.  Then certain vendor accounts.  And of course my merchant processing companies are constantly shoving money in and out of my bank accounts.

In retrospect, I was far too sanguine about this situation.  What finally caused me to abandon my sense of security was a libel lawsuit filed by one of my vendors over a bad review I wrote of their product [I won't mention the name here but I am sure anyone can figure it out with a simple search].  Anyway, I realized that this company, who was suing me for untold bazillions of dollars, actually had the right to freely jack whatever they wanted out of my checking account.  What is worse, this same company is being sued by many companies for trying to take an arbitrarily high final payment out of their accounts at contract termination.  Eeek!  And this does not even include the possibility of outright fraud.  I have ACH tools where if I have your bank's name and your account number, I could pull out money from your account without your ever knowing about it until you see it missing.  I presume criminals could do the same thing.

Something had to be done, and it turned out that my bank, Bank of America, has something called ACH positive pay wherein nothing gets ACH'ed out of my accounts without my first approving the payments.   I check a screen each morning and in 60 seconds can do the approvals for the day.  They also have a very easy to use rules system where one can set up rules such that payments to certain vendors or for certain amounts don't need further daily approvals.

I presume most major banks have a similar product.  It cost me some money but I feel way safer and encourage you to look into it if you are in the same situation.

I Would Really Like to Get Elizabeth Warren and Other Progressives On the Record Right Now About Sub-Prime Auto

To me, the sub-prime auto loan market looks exactly like the home mortgage market in about 2006.

Back before 2009, Progressives were pushing like crazy to get banks to write mortgages to low-income borrowers with bad credit.  Banks that refused to do so would face the wrath of the banking regulators and lawsuits over redlining and ever other thing the Left could think of.   Seriously, if you had tried to stop sub-prime lending in 2006 the Progressives would have excoriated you as being racist, hating the poor, etc.  When the whole mess inevitably collapsed, the Progressives suddenly were there blaming this lending to low income people on the banks, accusing them of predatory lending practices.

OK, so now it is 2006 in the consumer credit market, and specifically in auto loans.  Banks are making crap loans to no-credit individuals on cars and getting them off the books by securitization.   So let's get Elizabeth Warren on the record right now.  Should banks stop lending to these no-credit low-income people?  My bet is that she would support this lending, doubly so because the Obama Administration feels on the hook still for their GM and Chrysler bailouts and would rather not see these companies tank (which they would if sub-prime credit suddenly dried up).  So, before she can piously accuse banks of predatory practices 3 years hence when it all collapses, I want to know what Elizabeth Warren thinks of all this right now.

Update:  Well, good news and bad news.  Good news is that Elizabeth Warren has criticized sub-prime auto.  Bad news is she appears to be totally on the wrong track with causes, talking not about the fact the loans should not be written at all but about the fact that she thinks dealers are reaping huge profits marking up the loans.  It would be interesting to see what the Obama Administration would think about a clamp-down on sub-prime auto.  Methinks they might freak out at that, knowing sub-prime loans are all that is keeping US automakers out of a new recession.

Revisiting the Financial Crisis

This video below is pretty good, though it addresses only one of the two major distortions created by government.  In addition to the incentives, even mandates, to issue risky mortgages discussed below, Basel II capital standards created really strong incentives for banks to prefer holding mortgage-backed securities.

Why Exxon Provides a Good Analogy for the Central Banker's Dilemma

This article on Exxon stock seemed to be an allegory for the current problem central bankers face:

Earlier this month, Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) reported Q4 2015 earningswhich, as expected, looked ugly considering the large decline in the price of oil over the last one and a half years. Exxon Mobil has long been one of the largest repurchasers of shares, spending a net of $89.74B on share buybacks during the 2010 through 2015 period. However, during the Q4 earnings release, management stated that share buybacks were being halted, presumably to preserve cash...

Contrast that with the strategy from 2008 when share buybacks were accelerated during the market fallout of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the beginnings of what's now known as the Great Recession. Management reduced shares outstanding by 7.5% in 2008 alone...

Oil prices have sunk to lows not seen in more than a decade. The share price hit a low in the $60s in 2015 which hadn't been seen since late 2010. If you're of the belief that oil prices will rebound, eventually, then now should be the time that Exxon Mobil is ramping up the share buybacks not eliminating them.

This is the problem the author is highlighting:  Exxon ran up tens of billions in debt to stimulate the stock price in good times.  Now that times are bad, at least in the oil patch, the tank is empty (so to speak) and they have had to cease buybacks at the very time they would make the most sense (the same amount of money spent at lower stock prices would have higher impact on EPS).  The tank is empty enough that they might have to cut the dividend, an action with such negative consequences for stock value that it would likely undo all the effects of years of stock purchases.

I am not trying to beat up on Exxon -- I actually admire them as a well-managed company and pretty much every large corporation has gotten caught up in this unproductive Fed-inspired game of borrowing at close to zero and buying back stock (to my mind the financial equivalent of the Keynesian digging of holes and filling them back in).  But I hope you can see the analogy with the position of governments and central bankers.   For the last 5 years, when economic times have been good (alright, maybe just OK) governments have been deficit spending like crazy and central banks have been expanding their balance sheets with programs like QE to keep the economy stimulated.  But just as with the situation at Exxon, when the bad times come, bankers are going to find themselves with far fewer options than they had in 2008.

PS:  This is what Exxon really should have been doing the last 5 years -- hoarding their cash and borrowing reserves to be able to buy assets like crazy on the cheap in the next downturn.  They have always been able to do this in past downturns.  I suspect it may not be possible this time.

Keynesians Have Shot Their Only Bolt -- How Will They Spend Their Way Through The Next Crisis?

Governments have spent so much, to so little effect, to try to stimulate the current economy, I wonder where they will find the resources to spend more the next time?  Because you can be sure that despite the fact that we are likely near the top of a weak cycle, no one is paying back what was spent in the last recession or proposing to reduce central bank balance sheets.

This is a couple of years old, but tells the story pretty well:

The financial crisis that began in late 2007, with its mix of liquidity crunch, decreased tax revenues, huge economic stimulus programs, recapitalizations of banks and so on and so forth, led to a dramatic increase in the public debt for most advanced economies. Public debt as a percent of GDP in OECD countries as a whole went from hovering around 70% throughout the 1990s to almost 110% in 2012. It is now projected to grow to 112.5% of GDP by 2014, possibly rising even higher in the following years. This trend is visible not only in countries with a history of debt problems - such as Japan, Italy, Belgium and Greece - but also in countries where it was relatively low before the crisis - such as the US, UK, France, Portugal and Ireland.

So over a third of the debt that has been built up in all of history by Western nations was added in just a few years from 2007-2012.  At the same time, the central banks of these countries were adding to their balance sheets like crazy, essentially printing money in addition to this deficit spending.  In the US, the Fed's balance sheet as a percent of GDP hovered around 6% until the second half of 2008.   That had tripled to over 18% in 2012 (source).  At the same time, European central bank assets grew from about 7% to over 16% of GDP.

James Taranto has a regular feature named after a reporter named Fox Butterfield.  The feature takes statements such as "Despite Mary getting a PhD in Peruvian gender studies from Harvard, she has struggled to find a job" and argues that the "despite" should be replaced by "because".

This is certainly true of the statement that "despite record stimulus and Fed balance sheet expansion, the economy has remained sluggish".  That "despite" should be "because of".  The government continues to distort the allocation of capital and wonders why investment is sluggish and tends towards bubbles in certain assets.  Japan has stimulated for 25 years to absurd levels of debt and has gotten 25 years of sluggishness in return.

All this reminds me of a story in one of my favorite business books, "Barbarians at the Gate."  Back in the day, tobacco companies had a practice of jamming inventory into the channel just ahead of the semi-annual price increase.   They called this "loading."  The channel liked it because they got cheap product to sell at the new higher prices.  The tobacco companies liked it because it boosted quarterly revenues at the end of the quarter.  But that boost only happens once.  To show growth the next quarter, one must load even more.  Over time, they were jamming huge amounts of inventory into the channel.  I have never been a smoker, but apparently freshness is an issue with cigarettes and they can go stale.  Eventually, the company was loading so much their sales started to drop because everyone was buying stale cigarettes.

In find this a powerful metaphor for government interventions in the economy today.

Postscript:  I will give another example.  In Arizona, we are on a July-June fiscal year.  Years ago, some government yahoo had the bright idea to close a budget hole by passing a law that all businesses had to pre-pay their estimate of sales taxes due in July a month earlier in June.  For that one glorious year, politicians had 13 months of revenue to spend rather than 12.

But to set things aright the next year, they would have to live with just 11 months of revenue.  No way they were going to do that!  So they did the pull-forward thing again to get a full 12 months.  And they have done it every year since.  It has become an institution.  All this costs a ton of money to process, as the state must essentially process a 13th return each year, presumably paying overtime and temp costs to do it.  All for the benefit of one year where they got the use of one month of revenue early, we have been stuck with higher state operating costs forever.

If We Are Using Every Stimulus Tool in the Book at the Top of the Cycle, What Are We Going To Do In The Next Downturn?

From the Telegraph

The world will be unable to fight the next global financial crash as central banks have used up their ammunition trying to tackle the last crises, the Bank for International Settlements has warned.

The so-called central bank of central banks launched a scatching critique of global monetary policy in its annual report. The BIS claimed that central banks have backed themselves into a corner after repeatedly cutting interest rates to shore up their economies.

These low interest rates have in turn fuelled economic booms, encouraging excessive risk taking. Booms have then turned to busts, which policymakers have responded to with even lower rates....

“Rather than just reflecting the current weakness, [lower rates] may in part have contributed to it by fuelling costly financial booms and busts and delaying adjustment. The result is too much debt, too little growth and too low interest rates.

"In short, low rates beget lower rates."

The BIS warned that interest rates have now been so low for so long that central banks are unequipped to fight the next crises.

I Have Been Wondering This Same Thing

In an article on an incipient bank run in Greece, Zero Hedge wonders, "What is perhaps more shocking is that anyone still had money in Greek banks at all..."  I agree.  With talk for weeks of capital controls and the example of raids on depositor funds (even supposedly insured deposits) in Cyprus, my money would have been long gone.  Even in the US in 2008-2010, I took our corporate funds out of the main Bank of America account and spread them all over.  It was a pain in the butt to manage but even facing much smaller risks than in Greece, I thought it was worth it.

Obama Thinks The Free Market Killed Neighborhood Diversity. In Fact, It Was the New Deal

Here is a very telling paragraph from the HUD's new proposed fair housing rule

Despite the existing obligation to AFFH, in too many communities, the Fair Housing Act has not had the impact it intended — housing choices continue to be constrained through housing discrimination, the operation of housing markets, investment choices by holders of capital, the history and geography of regions, and patterns of development and the built environment.

So, they list "discrimination" as a problem, but then look at the other four items they list as problems.  These can all be summarized as "the normal operation of free markets, property rights, and individual choice."

Oddly missing from this list of causes is what many historians consider to be the #1 cause of lack of neighborhood diversity and ghetto-ization:  The Federal Government and the New Deal.  New Deal rules essentially forced the concentration of blacks into just a few neighborhoods.   The biggest unmixing of races in New York can be seen between 1930 and 1950.   Blacks in Brooklyn went from fairly evenly mixed to concentrated in Bed-Stuy, all directly attributable to New Deal rules.   Basically, ever since then, we have just been living with the consequences.  Via NPR in an interview with Richard Rothstein

On how the New Deal's Public Works Administration led to the creation of segregated ghettos

Its policy was that public housing could be used only to house people of the same race as the neighborhood in which it was located, but, in fact, most of the public housing that was built in the early years was built in integrated neighborhoods, which they razed and then built segregated public housing in those neighborhoods. So public housing created racial segregation where none existed before. That was one of the chief policies.

On the Federal Housing Administration's overtly racist policies in the 1930s, '40s and '50s

The second policy, which was probably even more effective in segregating metropolitan areas, was the Federal Housing Administration, which financed mass production builders of subdivisions starting in the '30s and then going on to the '40s and '50s in which those mass production builders, places like Levittown [New York] for example, and Nassau County in New York and in every metropolitan area in the country, the Federal Housing Administration gave builders like Levitt concessionary loans through banks because they guaranteed loans at lower interest rates for banks that the developers could use to build these subdivisions on the condition that no homes in those subdivisions be sold to African-Americans.

Postscript:  Here is how the Ken Burns New York documentary series explained it, though the source page is no longer available:

Government policies began in the 1930s with the New Deal's Federal Mortgage and Loans Program. The government, along with banks and insurance programs, undertook a policy to lower the value of urban housing in order to create a market for the single-family residences they built outside the city.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation, a federal government initiative established during the early years of the New Deal went into Brooklyn and mapped the population of all 66 neighborhoods in the Borough, block by block, noting on their maps the location of the residence of every black, Latino, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Polish family they could find. Then they assigned ratings to each neighborhood based on its ethnic makeup. They distributed the demographic maps to banks and held the banks to a certain standard when loaning money for homes and rental. If the ratings went down, the value of housing property went down.

From the perspective of a white city dweller, nothing that you had done personally had altered the value of your home, and your neighborhood had not changed either. The decline in your property's value came simply because, unless the people who wanted to move to your neighborhood were black, the banks would no longer lend people the money needed to move there. And, because of this government initiative, the more black people moved into your neighborhood, the more the value of your property fell.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation finished their work in the 1940s. In the 1930s when it started, black Brooklynites were the least physically segregated group in the borough. By 1950 they were the most segregated group; all were concentrated in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, which became the largest black ghetto in the United States. After the Home Owners Loan Corp began working with local banks in Brooklyn, it worked with them in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.

The state also got involved in redlining. (Initially, redlining literally meant the physical process of drawing on maps red lines through neighborhoods that were to be refused loans and insurance policies based on income or race. Redlining has come to mean, more generally, refusing to serve a particular neighborhood because of income or race.) State officials created their own map of Brooklyn. They too mapped out the city block by block. But this time they looked for only black and Latino individuals.

This site has some redlining maps, including one of Brooklyn, prepared by the Feds.  Remember, this is not some evil Conservative business CABAL, these are Roosevelt Democrats making these maps.  This site adds:

While the HOLC was a fairly short-lived New Deal agency, the influence of its security maps lived on in the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the GI Bill dispensing Veteran’s Administration (VA). Both of these government organizations, which set the standard that private lenders followed, refused to back bank mortgages that did not adhere to HOLC’s security maps. On the one hand FHA and VA backed loans were an enormous boon to those who qualified for them. Millions of Americans received mortgages that they otherwise would not have qualified for. But FHA-backed mortgages were not available to all. Racial minorities could not get loans for property improvements in their own neighborhoods—seen as credit risks—and were denied mortgages to purchase property in other areas for fear that their presence would extend the red line into a new community. Levittown, the poster-child of the new suburban America, only allowed whites to purchase homes. Thus HOLC policies and private developers increased home ownership and stability for white Americans while simultaneously creating and enforcing racial segregation.

The exclusionary structures of the postwar economy pushed African Americans and other minorities to protest. Over time the federal government attempted to rectify the racial segregation created, or at least facilitated, in part by its own policies. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer struck down explicitly racial neighborhood housing covenants, making it illegal to explicitly consider race when selling a house. It would be years, however, until housing acts passed in the 1960s could provide some federal muscle to complement grassroots attempts to ensure equal access.

 

What I Think is Going on With Greece

I want to offer a perspective on the Greek financial mess.

I am not confused about the Greek desire to get out from under their debt load - past governments have built up intolerable levels of debt which is costs a huge portion of Greek GDP to pay off.

At one time in my life I would have been confused by folks, often on the Left, who argue that the answer to Greek debt problems is ... deficit spending.  This might have seen inexplicable to me earlier in life as a wondered how the same behavior of fiscal irresponsibility that led them into debt would get them out.  But I have learned that there is no limit to the optimism Keynesians hold for the effects of government spending.  The last trillion of debt may have not done anything measurable but the next trillion is always going to be the one that turns us around.  Sort of like Cubs fans.

No, what confuses me today is the fact that other institutions and countries are still willing to buy Greek debt and even entertain some sort of debt swap where they end up with even more Greek debt.  I have heard it said by many experts that it is unrealistic to expect that lenders will get even a fraction of their principle back from these loans.  So why loan more?

The key for me in understanding this is the book "Engineering the Financial Crisis".  In that book, the authors presented the theory that the Basel capital accords, which set capital requirements for banks, had a lot to do with the last financial crisis.  Specifically, the rules allowed bank investments in two types of securities to be counted at 100% towards their capital levels.  Any other type of investment was severely discounted, so there were enormous incentives in the regulations to focus bank investments on these two types of securities.  What were they?  Sovereign debt and mortgages (and mortgage-backed securities).

In the authors' view, which I find persuasive, a lot of the last financial crisis was caused by these rules creating a huge artificial demand by banks for mortgage securities.  This created a sort of monoculture that was susceptible to small contagions spreading rapidly.  As this demand for mortgage backed securities inevitably drove down their returns, it also created a demand for higher-yielding, riskier mortgage investments that might still "count" as mortgage securities under the capital requirements.

Anyway, for the Greek crisis, we need to look at the other piece of these capital requirements that give 100% capital credit:  sovereign debt.  Now, I may have this wrong, but for Euro denominated credit, it all counts as 100% whether its German or Greek, which is a bit like saying a mortgage to Bill Gates and a mortgage to Clark Griswold's country cousins count the same, but those are the rules.

So here is the problem as I understand it:  Greek debt, because of its risk, paid higher returns than other sovereign debt but still counted the same against capital requirements.   So European banks loaded up on it.  Now that the debt is clearly bad, I am sure they would love to get paid for it.  But what they want even more is to continue to get credit for it on their balance sheets against capital requirements.  So what the banks need more than getting paid is for the debt to still exist and to (nominally) be current so that they can still count it on their balance sheets.  Otherwise, if the debt gets written off, that means banks need to run out and raise hundreds of billions in new capital to replace it.

Yes, I know this seems insane.  If everyone knows that the debt is virtually worthless, isn't it a sham to keep taking expensive steps (like issuing even more new debt) just to make sure the debt still appears on the books at 100%?  Yes, of course it is.  This is a problem with just about every system ever tried on bank capital requirements.  Such requirements make sense (even to this libertarian) in a world of deposit insurance and too big to fail, but they can and do create expensive unintended consequences.

Quantitative Easing and the Left's Relationship to the Rich and to Large Corporations

The Left spends a lot of time railing against the rich and large corporations.  But in practice, they seem hell-bent on lining the pockets of exactly these groups.  Today the ECB announces a one trillion plus euro government buyback of public and private securities.

Between Japan, the US, and now Europe, the world's central banks are printing money like crazy to inflate securities values around the world -- debt securities directly by buying them but indirectly a lot of the money spills over into stocks as well.  This has been a huge windfall for people whose income mostly comes from capital gains (i.e. rich people) and institutions that have access to bond and equity markets (i.e. large corporations).  You can see the effects in the skyrocketing income inequality numbers over the last 6 years.  On the other end, as a small business person, you sure can't see any difference in my access or cost of capital.  It is still just as impossible to get a cash flow loan as it always was.

Explaining the Financial Crisis: Government Creation of a Financial Investment Mono-culture

Arnold Kling on the recent financial crisis:

1. The facts are that one can just as easily blame the financial crash on an attempted tightening of regulation. That is, in the process of trying to rein in bank risk-taking by adopting risk-based capital regulations, regulators gave preference to highly-rated mortgage-backed securities, which in turn led to the manufacturing of such securities out of sub-prime loans.

2. The global imbalances that many of us thought were a bigger risk factor than the housing bubble did not in fact blow up the way that we thought that they would. The housing bubble blew up instead.

What he is referring to is a redefinition by governments in the Basel accords of how capital levels at banks should be calculated when determining capital sufficiency.  I will oversimplify here, but basically it categorized some assets as "safe" and some as "risky".  Those that were risky had their value cut in half for purposes of capital calculations, while those that were "safe" had their value counted at 100%.  So if a bank invested a million dollars in safe assets, that would count as a million dollar towards its capital requirements, but would count only $500,000 towards those requirements if it were invested in risky assets.  As a result, a bank that needed a billion dollars in capital would need a billion of safe assets or two billion of risky assets.

Well, this obviously created a strong incentive for banks to invest in assets deemed by the government as "safe".  Which of course was the whole point -- if we are going to have taxpayer-backed deposit insurance and bank bailouts, the prices of that is getting into banks' shorts about the risks they are taking with their investments.  This is the attempted tightening of regulation to which Kling refers.  Regulators were trying for tougher, not weaker standards.

But any libertarian could tell you the problem that is coming here -- the regulatory effort was substituting the risk judgement of thousands or millions of people (individual bank and financial investors) for the risk judgement of a few regulators.  There is no guarantee, in fact no reason to believe, the judgement of these regulators is any better than the judgement of the banks.  Their incentives might be different, but there is also not any guarantee the regulators' incentives are better (the notion they are driven by the "public good" is a cozy myth that never actually occurs in reality).

Anyway, what assets did the regulators choose as "safe"?  Again, we will simplify, but basically sovereign debt and mortgages (including the least risky tranches of mortgage-backed debt).  So you are a bank president in this new regime.  You only have enough capital to meet government requirements if you get 100% credit for your investments, so it must be invested in "safe" assets.  What do you tell your investment staff?  You tell them to go invest the money in the "safe" asset that has the highest return.

And for most banks, this was mortgage-backed securities.  So, using the word Brad DeLong applied to deregulation, there was an "orgy" of buying of mortgage-backed securities.  There was simply enormous demand.  You hear stories about fraud and people cooking up all kinds of crazy mortgage products and trying to shove as many people as possible into mortgages, and here is one reason -- banks needed these things.  For the average investor, most of us stayed out.   In the 1980's, mortgage-backed securities were a pretty good investment for individuals looking for a bit more yield, but these changing regulations meant that banks needed these things, so the prices got bid up (and thus yields bid down) until they only made sense for the financial institutions that had to have them.

It was like suddenly passing a law saying that the only food people on government assistance could buy with their food stamps was oranges and orange derivatives (e.g. orange juice).  Grocery stores would instantly be out of oranges and orange juice.  People around the world would be scrambling to find ways to get more oranges to market.  Fortunes would be made by clever people who could find more oranges.  Fraud would likely occur as people watered down their orange derivatives or slipped in some Tang.  Those of us not on government assistance would stay away from oranges and eat other things, since oranges were now incredibly expensive and would only be bought at their current prices by folks forced to do so.  Eventually, things would settle down as everyone who could do so started to grow oranges. And all would be fine again, that is until there was a bad freeze and the orange crop failed.

Government regulation -- completely well-intentioned -- had created a mono-culture.  The diversity of investment choices that might be present when every bank was making its own asset risk decisions was replaced by a regime where just a few regulators picked and chose the assets.  And like any biological mono-culture, the ecosystem might be stronger for a while if those choices were good ones, but it made the whole system vulnerable to anything that might undermine mortgages.  When the housing market got sick (and as Kling says government regulation had some blame there as well), the system was suddenly incredibly vulnerable because it was over-invested in this one type of asset.  The US banking industry was a mono-culture through which a new disease ravaged the population.

Postscript:  So with this experience in hand, banks moved out of mortage-backed securities and into the last "safe" asset, sovereign debt.  And again, bank presidents told their folks to get the best possible yield in "safe" assets.  So banks loaded up on sovereign debt, in particular increasing the demand for higher-yield debt from places like, say, Greece.  Which helps to explain why the market still keeps buying up PIIGS debt when any rational person would consider these countries close to default.  So these countries continue their deficit spending without any market check, because financial institutions keep buying this stuff because it is all they can buy.  Which is where we are today, with a new monoculture of government debt, which government officials swear is the last "safe" asset.  Stay tuned....

Postscript #2:  Every failure and crisis does not have to be due to fraud and/or gross negligence.  Certainly we had fraud and gross negligence, both by private and public parties.  But I am reminded of a quote which I use all the time but to this day I still do not know if it is real.  In the great mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", the actor playing astronaut Frank Borman says to a Congressional investigation, vis a vis the fatal Apollo 1 fire, that it was "a failure of imagination."  Engineers hadn't even considered the possibility of this kind of failure on the ground.

In the same way, for all the regulatory and private foibles associated with the 2008/9 financial crisis, there was also a failure of imagination.  There were people who thought housing was a bubble.  There were people who thought financial institutions were taking too much risk.  There were people who thought mortgage lending standards were too lax.  But with few exceptions, nobody from progressive Marxists to libertarian anarcho-capitalists, from regulators to bank risk managers, really believed there was substantial risk in the AAA tranches of mortgage securities.  Hopefully we know better now but I doubt it.

Update#1:  The LA Times attributes "failure of imagination" as a real quote from Borman.  Good, I love that quote.  When I was an engineer investigating actual failures of various sorts (in an oil refinery), the vast majority were human errors in procedure or the result of doing things unsafely that we really knew in advance to be unsafe.  But the biggest fire we had when I was there was truly a failure of imagination.  I won't go into it, but it resulted from a metallurgical failure that in turn resulted form a set of conditions that we never dreamed could have existed.

By the way, this is really off topic, but the current state of tort law has really killed quality safety discussion in companies of just this sort of thing.  Every company should be asking itself all the time, "is this unsafe?"  or "under what conditions might this be unsafe" or "what might happen if..."   Unfortunately, honest discussions of possible safety issues often end up as plaintiff's evidence in trials.  The attorney will say "the company KNEW it was unsafe and didn't do anything about it", often distorting what are honest and healthy internal discussions on safety that we should want occurring into evidence of evil malfeasance.  So companies now show employees videos like one I remember called, I kid you not, "don't write it down."

Apparently, Corporations Are Not Investing Because They Are Not "Socially Engaged"

Paul Roberts has an editorial in the LA Times that sortof, kindof mirrors my post the other day that observed that corporate stock buybacks (and investments to reduce tax rates) were likely signs of a bad investment climate.  Until he starts talking about solutions

Roberts begins in a similar manner

Here's a depressing statistic: Last year, U.S. companies spent a whopping $598 billion — not to develop new technologies, open new markets or to hire new workers but to buy up their own shares. By removing shares from circulation, companies made remaining shares pricier, thus creating the impression of a healthier business without the risks of actual business activity.

Share buybacks aren't illegal, and, to be fair, they make sense when companies truly don't have something better to reinvest their profits in. But U.S. companies do have something better: They could be reinvesting in the U.S. economy in ways that spur growth and generate jobs. The fact that they're not explains a lot about the weakness of the job market and the sliding prospects of the American middle class.

I suppose I would dispute him in his implication that there is something unseemly about buybacks.  They are actually a great mechanism for economic efficiency.  If companies do not have good investment prospects, we WANT them returning the cash to their shareholders, rather than doing things like the boneheaded diversification of the 1960's and 1970's (that made investment bankers so rich unwinding in the 1980's).  That way, individuals can redeploy capital in more promising places.  The lack of investment opportunities and return of capital to shareholders is a bad sign for investment prospects of large companies, but it is not at all a bad sign for the ethics of corporate management.   I would argue this is the most ethical possible thing for corporations to do if they honestly do not feel they have a productive use for their cash.

The bigger story here is what might be called the Great Narrowing of the Corporate Mind: the growing willingness by business to pursue an agenda separate from, and even entirely at odds with, the broader goals of society. We saw this before the 2008 crash, when top U.S. banks used dodgy financial tools to score quick profits while shoving the risk onto taxpayers. We're seeing it again as U.S. companies reincorporate overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes. This narrow mind-set is also evident in the way companies slash spending, not just on staffing but also on socially essential activities, such as long-term research or maintenance, to hit earnings targets and to keep share prices up....

It wasn't always like this. From the 1920s to the early 1970s, American business was far more in step with the larger social enterprise. Corporations were just as hungry for profits, but more of those profits were reinvested in new plants, new technologies and new, better-trained workers — "assets" whose returns benefited not only corporations but the broader society.

Yes, much of that corporate oblige was coerced: After the excesses of the Roaring '20s, regulators kept a rein on business, even as powerful unions exploited tight labor markets to win concessions. But companies also saw that investing in workers, communities and other stakeholders was key to sustainable profits. That such enlightened corporate self-interest corresponds with the long postwar period of broadly based prosperity is hardly a coincidence....

Without a more socially engaged corporate culture, the U.S. economy will continue to lose the capacity to generate long-term prosperity, compete globally or solve complicated economic challenges, such as climate change. We need to restore a broader sense of the corporation as a social citizen — no less focused on profit but far more cognizant of the fact that, in an interconnected economic world, there is no such thing as narrow self-interest.

There is so much crap here it is hard to know where to start.  Since I work for a living rather than write editorials, I will just pound out some quick thoughts

  • As is so typical with Leftist nostalgia for the 1950's, his view is entirely focused on large corporations.  But the innovation model has changed in a lot of industries.  Small companies and entrepreneurs are doing innovation, then get bought by large corporations with access to markets and capital needed to expanded (the drug industry increasingly works this way).  Corporate buybacks return capital to the hands of individuals and potential entrepreneurs and funding angels.
  • But the Left is working hard to kill innovation and entrepreneurship and solidify the position of large corporations.  Large corporations increasingly have the scale to manage regulatory compliance that chokes smaller companies.  And for areas that Mr. Roberts mentions, like climate and green energy, the government manages that whole sector as a crony enterprise, giving capital to political donors and people who can afford lobbyists and ignoring everyone else.  "Socially engaged" investing is nearly always managed like this, as cronyism where the politician you held a fundraiser for is more important than your technology or business plan.  *cough* Solyndra *cough*
  • One enormous reason that companies are buying back their own stock is the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing program, which I would bet anything Mr. Roberts fully supports.  This program concentrates capital in the hands of a few large banks and corporations, and encourages low-risk financial investments of capital over operational investments
  • All those "Social engagement" folks on the Left seem to spend more time stopping investment rather than encouraging it.  They fight tooth and nail the single most productive investment area in the US right now (fracking), they fight new construction in many places (e.g. most all places in California), they fight for workers in entrenched competitors against new business models like Lyft and Uber, they fight every urban Wal-Mart that attempts to get built.  I would argue one large reason for the lack of operational investment is that the Left blocks and/or makes more expensive the investments corporations want to make, offering for alternatives only crap like green energy which doesn't work as an investment unless it is subsidized and you can't count on the subsidies unless you held an Obama fundraiser lately.
  • If corporations make bad investments and tick off their workers and do all the things he suggests, they get run out of business.  And incredibly, he even acknowledges this:  "And here is the paradox. Companies are so obsessed with short-term performance that they are undermining their long-term self-interest. Employees have been demoralized by constant cutbacks. Investment in equipment upgrades, worker training and research — all essential to long-term profitability and competitiveness — is falling."  So fine, the problem corrects itself over time.  
  • He even acknowledges that corporations that are following his preferred investment strategy exist and are prospering -- he points to Google.   Google is a great example of exactly what he is missing. Search engines and Internet functionality that Google thrives on were not developed in corporate R&D departments.  I don't get how he can write so fondly about Google and simultaneously write that he wishes, say, US Steel, were investing more in R&D.  I would think having dinosaur corporations eschew trying to invest in these new areas, and having them return the money to their shareholders, and then having those individuals invest the money in startups like Google would be a good thing.  But like many Leftists he just can't get around the 1950's model.  At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is too chaotic -- the Left wants large corporations that it can easily see and control.

When Regulation Makes Things Worse -- Banking Edition

One of the factors in the financial crisis of 2007-2009 that is mentioned too infrequently is the role of banking capital sufficiency standards and exactly how they were written.   Folks have said that capital requirements were somehow deregulated or reduced.  But in fact the intention had been to tighten them with the Basil II standards and US equivalents.  The problem was not some notional deregulation, but in exactly how the regulation was written.

In effect, capital sufficiency standards declared that mortgage-backed securities and government bonds were "risk-free" in the sense that they were counted 100% of their book value in assessing capital sufficiency.  Most other sorts of financial instruments and assets had to be discounted in making these calculations.  This created a land rush by banks for mortgage-backed securities, since they tended to have better returns than government bonds and still counted as 100% safe.

Without the regulation, one might imagine  banks to have a risk-reward tradeoff in a portfolio of more and less risky assets.  But the capital standards created a new decision rule:  find the highest returning assets that could still count for 100%.  They also helped create what in biology we might call a mono-culture.  One might expect banks to have varied investment choices and favorites, such that a problem in one class of asset would affect some but not all banks.  Regulations helped create a mono-culture where all banks had essentially the same portfolio stuffed with the same one or two types of assets.  When just one class of asset sank, the whole industry went into the tank,

Well, we found out that mortgage-backed securities were not in fact risk-free, and many banks and other financial institutions found they had a huge hole blown in their capital.  So, not surprisingly, banks then rushed into government bonds as the last "risk-free" investment that counted 100% towards their capital sufficiency.  But again the standard was flawed, since every government bond, whether from Crete or the US, were considered risk-free.  So banks rushed into bonds of some of the more marginal countries, again since these paid a higher return than the bigger country bonds.  And yet again we got a disaster, as Greek bonds imploded and the value of many other countries' bonds (Spain, Portugal, Italy) were questioned.

So now banking regulators may finally be coming to the conclusion that a) there is no such thing as a risk free asset and b) it is impossible to give a blanket risk grade to an entire class of assets.  Regulators are pushing to discount at least some government securities in capital calculations.

This will be a most interesting discussion, and I doubt that these rules will ever pass.  Why?  Because the governments involved have a conflict of interest here.  No government is going to quietly accept a designation that its bonds are risky while its neighbor's are healthy.  In addition, many governments (Spain is a good example) absolutely rely on their country's banks as the main buyer of their bonds.  Without Spanish bank buying, the Spanish government would be in a world of hurt placing its debt.  There is no way it can countenance rules that might in any way shift bank asset purchases away from its government bonds.

Another Reason for Declining Business Formation

I often criticize others for attributing 100% of any bad trend to their personal pet peeve.  To some extent I am guilty of that in my last post, where I blamed declining business formation on increasingly complex regulation and licensing.  I think there are good reasons for doing so -- I have spent the last 6 months passing up on business growth opportunities because I was too consumed with catching up on regulatory compliance minutia, particularly in California.  And I have watched as many of my smaller competitors who have fewer resources to dedicate to such compliance issues have left the business, telling me they could no longer keep up with all the requirements.

But there is seldom just one single cause for any trend in a complex, chaotic system (e.g. climate, but economics as well).  One other reason business formation may have dropped is the crash of the housing market and specifically in the equity many have in their homes.

Home equity has historically been an important source of capital for small business formation.  My first large investment in my company was funded with a loan that was secured by the equity in my home.  What outsiders may not realize about small business banking nowadays is that it is nothing like how banking is taught in high school civics.  In that model, the small business person goes to her local banker and presents a business plan, which the banker may fund if they think it is a good risk.

In the real world, trying to get such an unsecured loan from a bank as a small business will at best result in laughter.  My company is no longer what many would call "small" -- we will do millions in revenue this year.  But there is no way in the world that my banker of over 10 years will lend to my business unsecured -- they will demand some asset they can put a lien on.  So we can get financing of equipment purchases (as a capital lease on the equipment) and on factored receivables and inventory.  But without any of that stuff, a new business that just needs cash for startup cash flow is out of luck -- unless the owner has a personal asset, typically a house, on which the banker can place a lien.

So, without home equity, one of the two top sources of capital for small business formation disappears (the other top source is loans from friends and family, which one might also expect to dry up in a tough economy).

Postscript:  Banks will make cash flow loans if guaranteed by the SBA.  This is another whole can of worms, which I will not discuss today.  SBA loans are expensive and difficult to get, and the SBA has a tendency to turn the money spigot on and off at random times.  I have often wondered if the SBA helped to kill cash flow lending by banks.  First, why make risky small unsecured loans when you can get a government guarantee?  And second, with more formulaic lending criteria, SBA lending eliminated the need for loan officers who were good at evaluating business risks.  I can say from personal experience that the folks who can intelligently discuss a business plan and its risks are all gone from banks now (at least in the small business market).

Window Dressing

Fed's reverse repo activity in Treasuries with major banks.  When I was on the corporate staff of a large conglomerate, we eventually busted one of our divisions for pushing inventory out the door on the last day of the quarter, only to have most of it returned a few days later, all as a way to boost quarterly revenues.  This appears to be the bankers' equivalent of such channel-stuffing.

 

Are the Feds really fooled by artificial quarter-end liquidity that is provided by the Feds themselves?  The stress-tests remind me of the story about FDR declaring a bank holiday, and claiming to have allowed only the strong banks to reopen the next day.  How did they know which were strong and weak?  They didn't, really.  The whole exercise was a PR ploy to boost consumer confidence in the banking industry.

Update:  Yep, there it all goes back where it came from

Passwords

I am registered at a LOT of sites - blogs, hosting accounts, stores, message boards, etc.  A few years ago I started using the Lastpass Chrome add-in to track and remember all these passwords.

One problem though: like most people I was using the same few passwords over and over.  I had fixed, mostly, the most egregious mistakes, such as using the same password for low-trust sites like bulletin boards as for critical sites like banks.  But Lastpass showed me was that I still had a lot of password duplication.

The Adobe security breach finally got me off my butt.  My user name and password were among those that Adobe lost (which was particularly irritating because Adobe was one of those software companies that demanded a registration even when one should not have been necessary).  There was nothing at Adobe of mine they could screw up -- the registration was obviously to try to sell me more stuff but I never bought anything.  But there were possibly other sites using the same password they could screw up.

So I began a mission to change my passwords to 12-digit randomly generated strings of letters and numbers.  Having Fastpass helped a ton, as I would never have remembered all the sites with which I had registrations.  There were hundreds.

This was a real slog, a task so boring it was equaled only by the month when I ripped all my CD's to my hard drive and surpassed only by the 3 months when I ripped all my DVD's to hard drives.  The problem was that every web site was essentially a little portal-like adventure puzzle, trying to figure out where the hell the options for password change could be found.  I challenge those of you who have registered at WhiteHouse.gov to sign a survey to find the place to change your password.  At JetBlue, there is no such option in the user accounts -- you have to log off and click "forgot my password" at the logon screen and then click on the option to reset the password, but the reset email never shows up.  At two or three sites I had to email the site web manager to send me a link to the password change page.

Anyway, it's finally done now.  There are a couple of sites I use from my iPad for which I had to create unique memorable passwords because iOS does not have very good support mechanisms for such services as Lastpass, though as Chrome for iOS gets better, I expect that to make the problem easier to manage.  I had forgotten how many of these passwords (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) were plugged into things like my Roku.  It was irritating with the crappy remote to enter these random strings of characters as new passwords.

Of course security of the Lastpass account becomes a problem.  I guess I have to trust them.  My password for them is unique and never has been used anywhere else and contains no real English words.  I use 2-step verification at all times to log into it, so hopefully I am moderately well-protected.

Single-Minded Obsession on Home Ownership

This article from the LA Times confused me greatly:

Advocates for borrowers took such comments to mean that the banks would prioritize debt write-downs on first mortgages, which banks resisted before the [$25 billion] settlement. Now, with nearly all the promised relief handed out, it is clear that the banks had other ideas.

The vast majority of the aid to borrowers, it turns out, came in the form of short sales and forgiveness of second mortgages. Just 20% of the aid doled out under the national settlement went to forgiveness of first-mortgage principal, the kind of help most likely to keep troubled borrowers in their homes. In terms of borrowers helped, just 15% of the total received first-mortgage forgiveness.

The five banks collectively delivered twice as much aid using short sales, in which owners sell their homes for less than the amount owed and move out, with the shortfall forgiven.

In all, the lenders sought credit for nearly $21 billion related to short sales and $15 billion related to second mortgages. That compares with $10.4 billion in write-downs on first mortgages.

Critics on the Left (example) are calling this a failure of the program, that most of the relief went to short-sales and 2nd mortgage forgiveness rather than first mortgage forgiveness.  The original article has this quote:

"It just shows you that the banks are running the government," Marks said. "There's virtually no benefit to borrowers, and yet you give the banks credit for short sales and getting second liens wiped out — something they were going to have to do anyway."

Hmm, well I am not the biggest fan of bankers in the world, but short sales and second lien forgiveness are principle forgiveness as well, just of a different form.  If they wanted a settlement that was first-lien forgiveness only, they should have specified that.

In fact, both short sales and second lien forgiveness have tremendous value to individuals if one considers individual well-being one's goal rather than just this obsessive fixation on home ownership.  

For many people, the worst part of their negative equity is that it created a barrier to their moving.  Perhaps they could find a job in another part of the state or country, or they wanted to move into a home or apartment with less expensive payments but were stuck in their current home because they could not afford to bring tens of thousands of dollars to closing.  In such cases, a short sale is exactly what the homeowner needs and facilitating and expediting this likely helped a ton of people  (It is also an example of just how unique our mortgage rules are in the US -- in almost any other country in the world, the amount of the negative equity in a short sale would get hung on the seller as a lien that must be paid off over time.  Only in the US do buyers routinely walk away clean from such situations).  Given that first mortgage loan forgiveness more often than not does not save the loan (ie it eventually ends in foreclosure anyway), short sales are the one approach that lets lenders get away clean for a fresh start.

As for second mortgages, I can tell you from personal experience that it is virtually impossible in the current environment to restructure or refinance a first mortgage with a second lien on the house -- even in my case where everything is performing and the underlying home value is well above the total of the two liens.  Seriously, what is the point in reducing principle in the first mortgage if there is a second mortgage there, particularly when the second mortgage is likely far more expensive?  For people with a second mortgage, forgiveness of that is probably the first and best gift they could get.  They may end up still losing their home, but they can't even begin to discuss a restructure or refinance without that other mortgage going away.