Bob Chapman
The International Forecaster
October 19, 2009

Some of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s closest aides, none of whom faced Senate confirmation, earned millions of dollars a year working for Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Citigroup Inc. and other Wall Street firms, according to financial disclosure forms.

Gene Sperling is part of Geithner’s kitchen cabinet. The advisers include Gene Sperling, who last year took in $887,727 from Goldman Sachs and $158,000 for speeches mostly to financial companies, including the firm run by accused Ponzi scheme mastermind R. Allen Stanford. Another top aide, Lee Sachs, reported more than $3 million in salary and partnership income from Mariner Investment Group, a New York hedge fund.

As part of Geithner’s kitchen cabinet, Sperling and Sachs wield influence behind the scenes at the Treasury Department, where they help oversee the $700 billion banking rescue and craft executive pay rules and the revamp of financial regulations. Yet they haven’t faced the public scrutiny given to Senate-confirmed appointees, nor are they compelled to testify in Congress to defend or explain the Treasury’s policies.

These people are incredibly smart, they’re incredibly talented and they bring knowledge, said Bill Brown, a visiting professor at Duke University School of Law and former managing director at Morgan Stanley. The risk is they will further exacerbate the problem of our regulators identifying with Wall Street.

While it isn’t unusual for Treasury officials to come from the financial industry, President Barack Obama has been critical of Wall Street, blaming its high-risk, high-pay culture for helping cause the financial-market meltdown.

Import Price Index rises 0.1% MoM in September, -12% YoY

Mortgage applications fell a seasonally adjusted 1.8% last week, compared with the week before, as mortgage rates rose, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported Wednesday. This week-to-week drop follows a 16.4% week-to-week gain for the week ended Oct. 2. The MBA survey covers about half of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

Applications to refinance an existing mortgage were down an unadjusted 0.1%, compared with the week ended Oct. 9, according to the MBA’s weekly survey. Home purchase applications fell a seasonally adjusted 5%.

The four-week moving average for all mortgages was up 5.6% last week.

Refinance mortgage applications made up a 67.4% share of all applications last week, up from 66.3% the week before. Adjustable-rate mortgage applications made up a 6.2% share of all applications, up from 6.1%.

Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 5.02% last week, up from 4.89% the previous week. The average rate on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages was 4.44%, up from 4.32%. And rates on 1-year ARMs averaged 6.71%, up from 6.56%.

To obtain the rates, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage required payment of an average 1.11 points, the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage required payment of an average 1.04 points and the 1-year ARM required an average 0.32 point. A point is 1% of the mortgage amount, charged as prepaid interes.

The economy may be poised for a rebound but for a lot of people times are very tough. According to a new report, the number of homeless people sleeping in New York City shelters has reached an all time high at 39,000 — many of them are children.

Using New York City’s own data, a homeless group claims a record number of people are in city shelters, particularly children, despite years of programs that were supposed to bring homeless numbers down. But perhaps the best way to understand this is to listen to a woman trying to hold her family together.

Most of us walk through the streets of the city thinking about our own problems. Hopefully, that does not include where we’re going to sleep tonight. But for more and more New Yorkers, that’s not the case, especially for children.

Mary Brosnahan, longtime executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless used the city’s own data, and says homelessness has been increasing each of the last five years, and currently is at an all-time high. At the end of September, 10,494 homeless families lived in shelters, including 16,615 homeless children.

What does that mean for those children, and their future? That they will spend a substantial amount of their childhood, in a homeless shelter? asked Bill de Blasio, the chairman of the City Council General Welfare Committee.

Bank of America Corp. said Tuesday it will charge a limited number of its credit card customers annual fees ranging from $29 to $99 starting next year.

“We’re testing this to see what the feedback is. In terms of any plans going forward, we haven’t made any decisions,” said Betty Riess, a spokeswoman for Bank of America. She said the fee is being “tested” on 1 percent of its credit card accounts globally, but declined to give specific numbers.

Bank of America, based in Charlotte, N.C., had 80.2 million credit cards in circulation last year, making it the third-largest issuer of cards, according to Chase was first with 119.4 million cards, while Citi had 92 million.

The Bank of America accounts that will be charged fees were selected based on “risk and profitability,” Riess said. That means customers in good standing who never carried a balance – and never incurred interest charges or late fees – could be among those getting notices.

The volume of delinquent commercial mortgages jumped sevenfold last month as borrowers who got loans with lax terms fail to make debt payments amid sinking real estate values, according to Credit Suisse Group AG.

In September, installments on $22.4 billion of mortgages were at least 60 days late, up from $3.2 billion a year earlier, Credit Suisse analysts wrote in a report. The delinquency rate rose 33 basis points to 3.34 percent, according to the New York- based analysts led by Gail Lee. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

Commercial-property owners are struggling to repay debt as data from Moody’s Investors Service show prices have plummeted 38.7 percent from October 2007 peaks. Defaults on shopping malls, skyscrapers and hotel loans are increasing as borrowers that took out mortgages expecting rents and occupancies to rise miss payments, according to the analysts.

“As the credit crunch intensified over the past year, the poor underwriting on recent vintage loans has resulted in early defaults,” the Credit Suisse analysts said.

JPM CEO Jamie Dimon: Credit costs remain high and are expected to stay elevated for the foreseeable future in the consumer lending and card services loan portfolios.

JPMorgan’s loss provision to cover current and future home loan defaults rose to $3.99 billion, while its provision for credit card losses surged to $4.97 billion.

Credit card defaults and mortgage losses are likely to continue to creep higher and lag an overall economic recovery. Losses on credit cards typically mirror unemployment, which rose to 9.8% in September.

JP Morgan’s losses on credit cards have already passed 10%. The bank said the percentage of credit card loans it wrote off as not being repayable in the third quarter reached 10.3%.

Loan losses were also pushed higher by weakness in the portfolios JPMorgan acquired when it purchased the failed bank Washington Mutual a year ago.

Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo, who is leading an overhaul of the Fed’s bank examinations, plans to tell a Senate subcommittee today that U.S. banks face the risk of further “sizable” credit losses.

“While there have been some positive signals of late, the financial system remains fragile and key trouble spots remain,” Tarullo, 56, said in remarks prepared for a hearing in Washington. He added that it will be some time before the banking industry will “fully recover and serve as a source of strength for the real economy.”

Just because Goldman is recommending this to its clients, however, doesn’t mean Goldman is putting its own money behind the new bull market in mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, it is just as likely that Goldman is preparing to short the very takeover stocks it is touting to the public, just as it did in the late stages of the real estate and mortgage bubble. It’s all perfectly legal. And it is perfectly in keeping with what we know about Wall Street’s most successful firms, which is that if they stumble on a profitable trading strategy, the last person they are likely to share it with is you.

What we’re witnessing here is pretty simple: another bubble in financial assets. All that “liquidity” created by the Federal Reserve and other central banks has accomplished its task and prevented a global financial meltdown.

Prior to the depression of the 1920s, there was a mortgage loan product used by many of the American people, known as the interest only loan. Why did this long disappear? And why has it suddenly reappeared? Let’s take a moment to answer each question, and hopefully provide some food for thought.

During the 1920s and into the early 30s, many of the citizenry of this country chose to live above their means. They chose the interest only loan because it allowed them to purchase a larger home for less money. What happened when the stock market crashed and jobs were scarce, and there was no income? Many of these people were left without homes; as they had chosen to simply pay the interest on their mortgage there was no equity built into their homeownership. When no equity builds, and the income ceases, the bank forecloses and residents or forced from their homes.

Letter to NY Times, September 5, 2005: In the 1920’s, when there was a great residential real estate boom not unlike today’s, most residential mortgages were interest-only — referred to then as nonamortizable. And they came due at a time when the bubble had burst. Consequently, the value of the collateral (the home) was less than the balance of the mortgage, the owners could not refinance the mortgage and they lost their homes.

It is an inexact parallel, but an informative and chilling one nonetheless, especially because the adjustable-rate feature of today’s mortgages makes the risk of default even greater.

A Treasury rule on loan modifications riles the securities market. One reason the MBS market blossomed in the first place is because investors who bought a mortgage security believed that first mortgages were senior to second liens. In the event of a foreclosure, second liens would be extinguished first and holders of the first mortgage would get what was left because that’s what the contract said.

This changed in April when Treasury announced that instead of foreclosing on delinquent borrowers and wiping out second liens, mortgage servicers (mainly the biggest banks) would be given incentives to modify both loans, thereby spreading the losses. In mid-August, Treasury announced the details of its “Second Lien Modification Program,” or 2MP.

Treasury’s other political goal, as Mr. Fink [Blackrock CEO] points out, is to help the banks avoid more losses. U.S. financial institutions hold almost $1.1 trillion in second liens, also known as home equity loans or “helocs.” Some 42% of all helocs are held by four banks—Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Citibank and Wells Fargo. Since in a traditional mortgage foreclosure the second loan is usually wiped out, these big four banks have an exposure in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Mortgage-finance consultant Edward Pinto points out that these same lenders have about $800 billion of first mortgage loans on their books, representing 8% of the total outstanding first mortgage loans in the U.S. But they also act as the servicers on almost 60% of total first mortgages, which means they handle negotiations on loan modifications. Thus when a home owner asks one of the big four banks to redo a loan, the banker may have a greater interest in saving the home-equity loan than in protecting the creditors of the first mortgage… [Once again Congress and solons are bailing out the big banks.] The mid-Atlantic manufacturing sector continued to show signs of recovery in October.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said its index of general business conditions moved to 11.5 in October from 14.1 in September and from 4.2 the month before. The index has now remained positive for three consecutive months.

Positive readings indicate growth, although October’s reading fell below economists’ expectations for a 12.0 reading.

Manufacturing executives reported marginal growth this month, said Michael Trebing, economist with the Philadelphia Fed.

The Philadelphia Fed report comes as the nation’s factory sector continues to improve. In September, activity in the overall U.S. manufacturing sector expanded for the second consecutive month, a hopeful sign the economy is getting back on its feet.

In the report, the bank found largely positive developments.

The October new orders index was 6.2 from 3.3 the month before, while the shipments index was 3.3 after September’s 8.2. Hiring remained weak, though there are signs that widespread declines have moderated considerably. The employment index was at -6.8 from September’s reading of -14.3 and after a -12.9 in August.

Inflation heated up, with the prices paid index hitting 21.3 from 14.9 in September. The October prices received index was -4.3 from -10.6 in the prior month.

Inventories continued to fall, with that reading coming in at -31.8 from -18.1 in September. Meantime, the future general activity index remained positive for the 10th consecutive month but decreased from 47.8 in September to 39.8, its lowest reading since April. “Firms are still optimistic, but many are still cautious,” Trebing said.

The Philadelphia report came on the heels of a much stronger than expected report earlier Thursday on manufacturing in the New York area. The New York Fed’s Empire State business conditions index jumped almost 16 points in October to 34.57 from 18.88. The survey’s employment index rose to 10.39 from -8.33 in September.

The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for jobless benefits decreased last week to the lowest in nine months, a hopeful sign for a lousy job market.

Total claims also fell.

Initial claims dropped by 10,000 to 514,000 in the week ended Oct. 10, the U.S. Labor Department said in its weekly report Thursday.

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had expected a level of 515,000 new claims for the week of Oct. 10

The last time initial claims were as low as 514,000 was the week ending Jan. 3, 2009, when 488,000 new claims for benefits were made.

The Labor Department revised down the number of new claims filed the previous week, ending Oct. 3, to 524,000 from 521,000.

The four-week moving average of new claims tumbled by 9,000 to 531,500 last week, down from the previous week’s revised figure of 540,500.

New claims have gone down three times in the past four weeks, which is a good sign for a weak labor market that is threatening the economy as it pulls out of the longest and deepest recession since World War II. Since the slump began in December 2007, the U.S. has lost 7.2 million jobs, including 263,000 last month. Most economists believe a recovery has begun and that gross domestic product grew in the second half of the year. But fears about unemployment among consumers aren’t helping the economy. Their spending makes up 70% of gross domestic product.