Thoughts on the Feb. Employment Report

March 10th, 2012

Yesterday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics release its employment report for Feb. 2012. The headline jobs number of +227,000 was hailed by many as more evidence that the U.S. labor market is healing, or even, “strong.” In addition, the January number was revised upwards by 41,000 to 284,000 and the December number was revised upwards by 20,000 to 223,000.

Yet the unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.3%, breaking five months of improvement, as almost half a million workers joined (or more likely, rejoined) the labor force.

My preferred measure of labor-market health, the employment-to-population ratio, edged upwards to 58.6% from 58.5%, which is encouraging, but remains stuck in a range it has not exceeded since August 2009. So don’t break out the champaign just yet.

Moreover, the BLS numbers are at odds with another highly respected survey, one done by the Gallup organization. Gallup, which does not seasonally adjust, reported that the unemployment rate jumped from 8.3% in January to 9.0% in February. While much of this discrepancy may be due to seasonal factors, especially given the unseasonably warm February weather, it may be that the Gallup number has caught a trend that the preliminary BLS number has missed. We will have to wait another month to find out exactly what is really going on in the U.S. labor market.

Thoughts on the January 2012 Jobs Report

February 3rd, 2012

The January Jobs Report is out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and it has the President crowing about the headline numbers of 243,000 new payroll jobs and a 0.2% decline in the unemployment rate to 8.3%. Certainly, this report is welcome news, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The January report is difficult to interpret because of major revisions to the surveys underlying the numbers. The BLS benchmarked the Jan. 2012 household survey, from whence the unemployment numbers come, to new population numbers from the 2010 Census, but did not adjust numbers from prior months. These new population numbers show an increase of 1.51 million, of which only 258,000 are in the labor force, only 216,000 are employed and 42,000 are unemployed. The BLS benchmarked the Jan. 2012 establishment survey to unemployment tax records from March 2011, but the BLS did revise data for prior months. This led to an upward revision of Dec. 2011 employment by 266,000.

In addition, seasonal adjustments are huge in January, as lots of temporary Christmas hires are let go. These seasonal hiring patterns have changed dramatically in recent years with the growth of online shopping. Last month, for example, there were 44,000 new messenger jobs, and it was expected that these jobs would disappear in January; they did not, so now many economists expect to see them disappear from this month’s report, which will come out in early March.

With these caveats in mind, let’s look at the numbers. The U-3 unemployment rate, declined from 8.5% to 8.3% as the number of unemployed fell from 13.1 million to 12.8 million, but the number of workers “out of the labor force” ballooned from 86.7 million to 87.9 million. In other words, the decline was largely attributable to discouraged workers who had given up and left the labor force rather than to unemployed works who found new jobs. The labor force participation rate fell from 64.0% to only 63.7%, which is the lowest level since the mid-1980s.

That said, the number of employed increased from 140.8 million to 141.6 million. Yet the population increased from 240.6 million to 242.3 million, so the employment-to-population ratio, which most economists consider to be a superior measure of labor market health, remained unchanged at 58.5%, where it has hovered for the past year.

In Table A-8, we find more reasons for caution. This table shows the distribution of workers between full-time and part-time jobs, and shows the largest increase in part-time employment ever recorded. Part-time workers grew by396,000 from 26.5 million to 29.9 million.

Finally, without seasonal adjustments, there were 139.9 million payroll jobs in Jan., as compared with the pre-crisis peak of 147.3 million in Jul 2007. To get back to that level at a pace of 250,000 per month would take 29 months. However, the civilian noninstitutional population is growing at about 200,00 per month so that, even at this rate, we would only be reducing unemployment by 50,000 per month so that, in 29 months, the unemployment rate would remain at 7.0%.

Obama’s Failed Housing Policies: Housing Prices Continue to Fall

January 31st, 2012

Today, S&P released the Case-Shiller housing price indices for November 2011; the headline numbers were month-over-month decline of 0.7% and year-over-year decline of 3.7%. Here in Chicago, the news was much worse: down 3.4% month-over-month and down 5.9% year-over-year.

Housing prices are now back to mid-2003 values, meaning that anyone who has bought a house during the past nine years has lost money, and the vast majority are now “underwater,” owing more on their mortgage than their house is worth. We are now less than 1% away from the post-crisis low of 2009, and heading further downward.

There can be no more of a damning indictment of the Obama administration’s failed housing policies (HAMP, HARP, HAMP2, HARP2, etc. and now the proposed Robo-Signing Settlement); except, of course, for the 2.1 million homeowners currently in the process of foreclosure, the 1.8 million homeowners who are seriously delinquent on their mortgages, and the estimated 3 million former homeowners who have lost their houses to foreclosure since Jan. 2009.

The government came to the aid of the Wall Street bankers with the $700 billion TARP and the $7.7 trillion in Fed loans; is it really asking too much for the government to come to the aid of homeowners with a viable restructuring program that would stanch the economic hemorrhaging from foreclosures. This would require a program similar in magnitude to the TARP, but one that could be structured so that participating homeowners would pay back the government’s investment through shared future appreciation of their properties. Instead, the administration continues to look for yet more ways to funnel even more government aid to the Wall Street bankers, while Main Street borrowers struggle to hang on to their homes.

Why the Proposed Robo-Signing Settlement is a Bad Idea

January 29th, 2012

On Jan. 23rd, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan met in Chicago with several Democratic state Attorneys General in an attempt to strong-arm them into signing on to an Administration-backed agreement to settle the so-called “robo-signing” scandal. The Wall Street banks would pay what sounds like a large fine ($25 billion), and, in exchange, the state AGs would relieve the bankers of all legal liabilities related to the fraudulent mortgage lending practices that directly led to the 2008 financial meltdown and a 30 percent drop in U.S. home prices.

Sadly, this is nothing more than another bail-out of the Wall Street banks, in addition to the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (“TARP”), the $7 trillion in loans to the banks from the Federal Reserve, and the Fed’s zero-interest rate policy, which has allowed banks to borrow from the Fed at zero while investing in U.S. Treasury bonds at four percent.

The fraudulent practices of the mortgage servicers have injected an untold number of forged documents into the legal system, jeopardizing the clean titles to millions of homes around the country. The costs of cleaning up this legal mess will most likely be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, yet this settlement would let the Wall Street settle up with the state AGs for only $25 billion. Worse yet, most of this money would actually come from the pockets of investors who now own the mortgages in the form of mortgage-backed secuities, not from the perpetrators of fraud, and the rest would come out of the pockets of bank shareholders, rather than from the miscreants who perpetrated the fraud.

When a homeowner defaults on his mortgage, let us all agree that someone has the right to foreclose. The question is whom? In order to protect peasants from expropriation of their land by nobles, English Common Law, back in 1677, established the Statute of Frauds, which requires that all legal contracts involving land be in writing with “wet signatures.” Real property law in most states follows the Statute of Frauds in setting forth legal requirements for a lender to establish before the court that it has the legal right to foreclose and take the property of a borrower.

Herein lies the problem. In its rush to securitize poorly underwritten mortgages and foist them upon unsuspecting investors around the world, the Wall Street bankers decided that they did not have to play by the (legal) rules. They did not create and/or keep the original documents needed to prove to the property courts that a lender has the legal right to foreclose. The bankers didn’t care—because they no longer owned the mortgages; they only serviced the mortgages for investors to whom they had sold the mortgage-backed securities (“MBS”). “No-doc” loans became “no-doc” foreclosures because servicers found it much cheaper to foreclose with forged documents than to restructure a mortgage, even when the restructuring is in the best interests of the investor who owns the mortgage. Losses on foreclosed properties go to the investors; the bank servicers get paid no matter how severe the losses.

When a few borrowers challenged “no-doc” foreclosures, the bankers responded by “re-creating” the originals—i.e., by forging and backdating signatures and notarizations; and then by committing perjury about their actions before the property courts. Borrowers (and the media) responded, in turn, by calling attention to the “perjury” and “forgery” problems that Wall Street prefers to peddle as “paperwork” problems.

Why does this matter so much? Because of what economists call “externalities;” what happens to the homeowner who is going into foreclosure affects each and every one of us. If there is one foreclosure in your neighborhood, the value of your house will fall by one percent; if there are five foreclosures in your neighborhood, the value of your house will fall not by five percent but by ten percent; and if there are ten foreclosures in your neighborhood, you might not be able sell your house at any price. Why? When a delinquent homeowner vacates a house, it is more often than not, immediately vandalized by criminals who steal anything that can be sold for value, such as aluminum siding, copper pipes, and appliances such as heat pumps. This makes it impossible for the lender to sell the foreclosed house without investing tens of thousands in repairs, which they often are unwilling to do. Hence, the property becomes a haven for criminals in search of a private place to do their business.

Therefore, it is critically important that the state AGs, and property courts around the country, maintain the Rule of Law. If a bank has the legal right to foreclose, then it must follow the law by producing in court the legal documents required to back its claim. If the bank cannot produce these documents, then it must take the expensive legal steps to re-establish its legal rights; it cannot be allowed to simply forge copies of the original documents that it failed to maintain. Such forgeries have clouded the titles to the almost ten-million foreclosed properties seized since 2007, and will cloud the titles to the four-million properties that currently are headed into foreclosure. The costs of cleaning up the millions of titles to foreclosed homes, by themselves, will far exceed the proposed $25 billion settlement—by as much as an order of magnitude.

Instead of giving a free pass to the Wall Street banker who created the housing crisis, the state AGs should instead prosecute every instance of fraud, forgery and perjury within their jurisdiction. Flip the little fish into testifying against the big fish; then hit the big fish with jail time. Don’t leave bank shareholders holding the bag for the criminality of the Wall Street bankers who created the financial crisis. Now is the time for accountability, not for another big-bank bailout.

Note: An edited version of this entry appeared as an Op-Ed in The Washington Times on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012.

Thoughts on the December Jobs Report

January 8th, 2012

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the jobs report, more formally known as “The Employment Situation,” for December 2011. The headline numbers were 200,000 new jobs and a decline in the unemployment rate to 8.5% from 8.6% in November.

Now, the trend for each headline number is clearly in the right directly: more jobs and fewer unemployed. However, when we look more closely at the report, there are a lot of causes for continuing worry about the health of the U.S. labor market.

First, and most importantly, the size of the labor force continued to decline, down 50,000 workers, even though the population of potential workers rose by 143,000. This caused the number of potential workers “not in the labor force” to rise by 194,000, which is almost equal to the 226,000 decline in the number of unemployed workers. In other words, more and more Americans are simply giving up on trying to even find a job. Until we see the size of the
labor force rising on a consistent basis, we will know that the labor market is still is trouble.

Second, 42,200 of the new jobs in December were for “Couriers and Messengers,” as online shopping continued to grow, creating temporary demand for these workers to deliver Christmas presents. This same phenomenon was observed during December in both 2009 and 2010, and was followed by an almost equal decline in the number of “courier and messenger” jobs during January. Look for a loss of more than 40,000 “courier and messenger jobs during
January 2012, as well.

Third, 27,900 of the new jobs were in “Retail Trade,” with 13,000 in general merchandise stores, 11,100 in clothing stores, and 8,200 in “food and beverage” stores. Were these also temporary Christmas jobs? It certainly seems likely. January’s jobs report will let us know for sure. In any case, these certainly are not the sort of high-paying jobs on which one can raise a family; more likely, these are minimum-wage, or slightly above, jobs.

Fourth, 22,600 new jobs were in “Health Care.” While these could be doctors, nurses and administrators, it is more likely that they are low-paying, and temporary, positions as nurses assistants and home care workers.  Still, a bad job is better than no job.

For all of these reasons, we should not consider the U.S. jobs market to really be on the mend and out of the woods, but at least the trend is in our favor.

How To Fix America’s Broken Banking System

September 21st, 2011

Last week, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan announced that he had decided to give up the distinction of being the largest banking company in America by reducing the firm’s size from $2.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion in assets. What makes this story so amazing is that Moynihan’s two predecessors, Ken Lewis and Hugh McColl, had spent the past two decades growing what was then known as Nationsbank (and even earlier as North Carolina National Bank) from a southern regional bank into the title of America’s largest bank.

McColl and Lewis, however, were not alone. The CEOs of most large banks had pursued the same title over the past 20 years. In 1991, the largest banking company in the U.S. was Citicorp, with about $220 billion in assets; today it is Bank of America, with about $2.5 trillion in assets. This pursuit of size also has resulted in an industry dominated by four trillion-dollar firms: BofA, Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Together, these four companies control about half of the industry’s assets, whereas twenty years ago, the four largest banks controlled less than ten percent of industry assets. Today there are about 7,000 banks; in 1991, there were almost twice that number. Most of the difference is the result of mergers, as the biggest banks gobbled up their smaller rivals and increased their size by an order of magnitude.

This raises two related questions: Why do banking CEOs prize size so highly; and why is Moynihan taking BofA in the other direction? The answer to the first question requires us to examine the governance structure of the modern American corporation; the answer to the second requires us to see what makes BofA different from its competitors.

In corporate America, a company’s leader is its CEO. The CEO, after consulting her board of directors, makes the most important strategic decisions, such as in which assets to invest and how to finance those assets. The board of directors, whose members are elected by and represent the company’s shareholders, have the job of hiring, compensating, monitoring, and, if necessary, firing the CEO.

Many observers of corporate America, including this professor, would argue that this system of governance is broken, in that the board of directors has been co-opted by the CEO, who typically also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors, a position that enables her to set the agenda of board meetings. The CEO also often chairs the board’s nominating committee, which selects prospective new board members. In conjunction with her management team, known as “inside” board members, the CEO typically has more votes than independent, or “outside,” board members. Hence, the CEO is able to control the board rather than the board controlling the CEO. This includes such critical duties as setting compensation, which provides the CEO with incentives to invest in certain assets and finance those investments with certain types of funds.

What has happened in most industries, including banking, is that boards have turned to consultants for guidance on setting compensation. Those consultants typically recommend tying a CEO’s compensation to what is paid by other companies in the same industry and of comparable size, where size is typically measured by annual revenues. Hence, we see CEOs pursuing growth of revenues above all else and often without regard to levels of risk.

A national franchise also means national political clout. Bank of America has branches in almost every Congressional district, giving it access to virtually every single member of the U.S. Congress.

In banking, there is yet a third reason to grow so large. When the solvency of a bank threatens the entire financial system, it is said to be “too big to fail,” or TBTF. Once a bank becomes TBTF, it can pursue reckless high-risk investment strategies, knowing that it can privatize any gains, but will be able to socialize the losses through a taxpayer bailout. This is exactly what happened back in 2008 when Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson asked for $800 billion to bail out the TBTF banks.

So what makes BofA different from its competitors, who continue to grow? The answer can be summarized in one word: Countrywide. In his quest for the title of the “biggest,” Ken Lewis entered into what will most probably be known as the most disastrous acquisition in the history of corporate America. Countrywide was ground zero of the subprime-mortgage debacle, lending more than a trillion dollars to just about anyone with a pulse, and then selling most (but not all) of these mortgages to investors with promises that they were triple-A investments. We now know that these promises were false; a huge percentage of these mortgages have gone into default, resulting in tens, if not hundreds, of billions in losses. BofA inherited most of its bad loans from Countrywide and most of the investors now suing BofA for fraud suffered losses from mortgages originated by Countrywide.

While not much can be done to save BofA, we can make changes to reduce the likelihood of another financial meltdown like 2008. The first of these reforms would be to limit banking companies to banking activities, forcing them to divest their investment banking activities. This was a depression-era reform known as the Glass-Steagall Act, one that was abandoned during the late 1990s. This reform alone would cut the size of the largest banks by almost half. That said, half of 2 trillion is still too big. The only way to eliminate TBTF is to limit the size of banks. There is no reason why banks need to be larger than was Citicorp back in 1991 at $220 billion; such a limit is eminently reasonable and would limit future taxpayer losses.

The second of these reforms would be a series of changes to corporate governance. To limit the ability of the CEO to co-opt her Board of Directors, we should prohibit a CEO from simultaneously serving as Chairman of the Board; and from simultaneously chairing any board committee, especially the nominating committee. To limit the aggregate board control of insiders, we should require that a majority of all boards be composed of so-called “outside” directors, i.e., directors who don’t also serve as members of the management teams. Finally, tying CEO compensation more closely to long-term performance, especially long-run stock returns, instead of to annual revenues, would reduce incentives for pursuing high-risk investments.

With these two sets of reforms, we could fundamentally change the governance of U.S. corporations in ways that reduce the separation of ownership from control, restoring control to the shareholders that actually “own” the firm; and limit the potential taxpayer liabilities from the next financial crisis, which, under the current system, always seems to be just around the corner.

NOTE: An edited version of this blog appeared Sep. 20 in the Washington Post’s new “OnLeadership” blog.

20% Unemployment . . . in the United State?!!!

September 3rd, 2011

Yesterday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly employment report for August. The surprising headline number was zero, as is zero new payroll jobs. Not positive. Not negative. Exactly zero. Difficult to believe, eh? No worries: the BLS revised downward the reported payroll jobs numbers for June and July by about 50,000, so next month, expect the August number to be revised into a negative loss in the tens of thousands. Thus, a “double-dip” recession almost surely begins, as we already have seen quarterly GDP growth slowing to almost zero, and also seeing downward revisions each month.

As if this isn’t bad enough, looking deeper at the BS in the BLS numbers, we find that BLS staff included in the Aug. payroll numbers 87,000 workers “invented” by the BLS “birth-death” model, which is designed to account for job changes at firms not covered by the establishment survey. Thus far this year, the “birth-death” model has added 800,000 “new jobs” to the payroll statistics that almost certainly don’t really exist. During each of the past three years, the BLS had had to “walk back” these monthly estimates in January, when it benchmarks the establishment data with actual unemployment insurance records. Of course, it doesn’t consider these as “lost” jobs, nor does it go back and revise the monthly numbers. So don’t put too much credence in the meager employment “growth” reported since 2009; it’s all smoke and mirrors, or, as I like to say, BLS “BS”.

More bad news is found in Table A-8 of the BLS report, which provides details on part-time vs. full-time employment. The number of workers working part time for economic reasons, i.e., who wanted a full-time job but couldn’t find one, rose by a staggering 430,000. In other words, we actually lost 430,000 full-time jobs, which were replaced by part-time jobs, in order to keep the aggregate payroll number at “zero.”

From the household survey, we actually got some positive news: employment increased by 331,000 as 165,000 discouraged workers came back into the labor force and, with population growth, the labor force increased by 366,000. Many economists, including me, think that the household survey gives a better idea of when the jobs market changes direction, so this is indeed a “green shoot” in an otherwise very brown landscape.

The unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.1% as measured by the U-3 metric, which only includes workers who actively looked for a new job during the previous four weeks. The broader U-6 measure, which includes discouraged workers and part-timers who wanted full-time work, rose from 16.1% to 16.2%. If we add in the 6 million discouraged workers that the BLS does not consider part of the labor force, we arrive at a unemployment rate of more than 20%; in other words, one in five U.S. workers who wants a full-time job can’t find one.

A “Free Lunch”for Small Business

August 26th, 2011

With more than 14 million unemployed American workers and an unemployment rate stubbornly above 9 percent, perhaps the most vexing economic issue of our day is how to create new jobs. If we can put these Americans back to work, they will once again be paying taxes instead of collecting unemployment benefits, with the nail care that it bunnies. which will largely take care of our budget-deficit problem, check it out. But how can we create new jobs without spending additional hundreds of billions of dollars, on top of the $787 billion spent on the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus plan, which has failed so spectacularly? What if I told you that there is a “free lunch” with respect to job creation, if only we were to change some simple, yet onerous, employment regulations on small businesses?

I am a small-business owner, but I am also a pointy-headed academic – a professor of finance – who has studied small businesses for almost two decades, so I have a unique perspective on how to create new jobs. My small business needs to hire its first employee. Why is this important? Because new research indicates that almost all new jobs are created by young and small businesses hiring their first employees. That said, I will not be hiring my first employee. Why? Because it is just too expensive. Let’s look at the costs and benefits. If you are also business owner you may know that to make your business grow you need to have a good marketing for your business, and in nowadays you can get this by the recent success of TikTok, you can brings those positive impacts from Tik Tok to your business.

If I am to pay my new employee $20 per hour, or $40,000 per year, how much will it actually cost me to hire this worker? Let’s assume my pay is $125 per hour, or $250,000 per year, which puts me into the bottom of President Obama’s “millionaires and billionaires” earnings bracket that includes so many entrepreneurs. Each quarter, I will have to file IRS Form 941 – Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return. The government estimates it will take me 15.7 hours in recordkeeping and preparing the form each quarter, for a total of 63 hours per year. Each year, I also will have to file IRS Form 940 – Employer’s Annual Federal Unemployment Tax Return. The government estimates that it will take me 12 hours in recordkeeping and preparing the form each year. At my assumed $125 hourly rate of pay, just these five forms will cost me 75 hours at $125 per hour for a total cost of $9,375 per year.

I also will have to pay half of my employee’s Social Security and Medicare taxes, or another $3,000 plus unemployment tax equal to 6 percent of the first $7,000 in wages, or $420. So, to pay my employee $40,000, it will cost me $43,420 out of pocket, plus an opportunity cost of $9,375, for a total of $52,795, or 32 percent more than the $40,000 I had hoped to pay my first employee. Moreover, there are serious monetary penalties should I miscalculate the withholding taxes, not to mention the additional time required to file amended forms. And there are undoubtedly other regulatory-compliance costs that I have overlooked. Now I decide that I will not hire a new employee. California labor law posters display certain notices advising employees of their rights in the workplace.

What if we change the rules of the game for the smallest of small businesses? What if we allow small businesses to hire their first one (or two or three) employees as independent contractors, doing away with all of these regulatory burdens? (Currently, this would violate Federal and state employment laws; see IRS Publication 15-A.) The huge fixed costs of hiring a first employee disappear immediately. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 20 million zero-employee firms in the United States with almost a trillion dollars in annual sales. How do these companies generate such gigantic numbers in sales? One can certainly never gainsay that the company’s shipping software isn’t at play, because technology has always been beneficial. And if only a fraction of these firms decide to hire their first employee, this could be a game-changer, boosting employment by millions.

What is the downside? Zero. This can be a revenue-neutral deal. My employee would still pay Social Security and Medicare taxes but as an independent contractor, he would be responsible for the full 15 percent rather than only the half that salaried employees pay. I would be willing to pay the employee an additional 7.5 percent to cover these taxes; I would be paying that amount anyway under current rules. The big savings come from the elimination of the reporting burden that frees me up to do productive work for my clients, rather than do unproductive paperwork for Uncle Sam.

NOTE: This entry appeared as an op-ed in the Aug. 26, 2011 edition of the  Washington Times.

Available online at:

Deja Vu: 2008 All Over Again . . . ?

August 20th, 2011

After a five-trading-day respite, the Dow-Jones Industrials returned to a 500-point intraday price swing on Thursday, ending down almost 420 points; on Friday, the volatility was lower but the market lost another 170 points to finish at 10,817, a loss of 4% for the week and 15% from the May high. Similar changes were seen in the broader indices, such as the S&P500, which finished at 1,124, down 5% for the week and 16% from the May high. What is responsible for this collapse in the stock market? Was it those pesky tea-partiers, who “held the government hostage” while demanding serious action on reducing the ever-ballooning national debt? That is what you will hear from pundits on the left.

In reality, it is just an end to the “irrational exuberance” that took the stock market up more than 25% from last summer. What was the reason for this bubble? Apparently, investors were betting on an economic recovery in the U.S. Unfortunately for us all, they have been disappointed by a reality check.

Unemployment remains stubbornly above 9%. As of July 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 140.38 million Americans were working, which was only 204,000 more than July 2010, even though the U.S. population had increased by 1.8 million. The unemployment rate would be even worse had not almost a half-million workers given up and left the labor force. Clearly, the labor market is no healthier today than it was a year ago; in fact, it is worse and likely to deteriorate further as recently announced corporate layoffs take place in coming months.

The housing market is faring no better than the labor market. Residential mortgages are the “original sin,” the true underlying toxic assets that led to the Oct. 2008 market meltdown; yet the Obama administration has done nothing (outside of the hideous HAMP, which “duped into default” more homeowners than it helped) to stabilize the housing market. Fortunately, sanity has returned to the underwriting of residential mortgages after 2007 so that the bad vintages of 2004-2007 are slowly working their way out of the market. According to Lender Processing Systems, the number of non-current mortgages (30+ days delinquent or in the process of foreclosure) has dropped from a peak of 8.1 million in Jan. 2010 to only 6.5 million as of Jun. 2011, largely the result of about 1.5 million completed foreclosures during those 18 months. Yet, 2.2 million mortgages remain in the process of foreclosure and another 1.9 million remain seriously delinquent (90 days or more). Even if not one more current mortgage went into default, we would be looking at about four years to work through this inventory at the recent pace of about 1 million completed foreclosures per year. However, the robo-signing and forgery scandals associated with the practices of mortgage servicers seeking to foreclose on delinquent borrowers has drastically slowed down the pace of foreclosures, at least in states that require the courts to sanction foreclosure. In addition, the lousy economy is still leading to more than 500,000 newly delinquent mortgages each month so that more bad loans are going into the pipeline than are coming out the other end as completed foreclosures.

This puts downward pressure on housing prices, further eroding the home equity of more than 100 million homeowners. Core Logic already estimates that about 30% of the 50 million homeowners with a mortgage are “underwater,” owing more than their home is worth. A new study by John Y. Campbell, Stefano Giglio and Parag Pathak in Volume 101 (5) of the American Economic Review indicates that each foreclosure within 1/20th of a mile reduces the value of your home by one percent. In other words, there are important spillover effects of foreclosures that impact the home values of neighboring homeowners. In order to put a floor on housing prices, we must first stanch the flow of foreclosures. Yet the Obama administration has failed miserably in its policies to address this critical problem.

The latest problem is European Sovereign Debt, but this problem really is no different than the residential-mortgage problem of 2008. Ultimately, big banks around the world lent too much money to unqualified borrowers—this time the governments of the PIIGS countries. Once markets realize that the banks are not going to get paid back by those borrowers, they refuse to lend to the big banks. This causes liquidity problems for the big banks, whose business model is to borrow short-term and lend long-term. They become unable to “roll over” short-term funding, leading to a liquidity squeeze that can force them to sell good assets at firesale prices and render them insolvent. This, in turn, pushes down their stock prices and pushes up the price of credit insurance against default by those banks, leading more and more lenders to refuse to lend to the big banks. Eventually, no one will know who is and who is not solvent, so that the short-term credit markets will freeze up entirely, just as they did in 2008. Look for the Fed to once again ride to the rescue with trillions in resurrected lending facilities from 2008 – 2009.

Is this 2008 all over again? We’re not there yet, but the signs of a repeat are ominous. What can be done to prevent a repeat? Governments in Europe (and the U.S.) need to move swiftly to force banks to recognize their losses on sovereign debt (and other toxic assets), and seize those that are insolvent. Then these trillion-dollar casinos need to be broken up into smaller pieces and sold off to the private sector. Only when we eliminate these too-big-to-fail institutions will we be free from the specter of yet another financial meltdown.

A $2 Trillion Math Error ?!!!

August 10th, 2011

Following S&P’s decision to downgrade long-term U.S. Treasuries one notch from AAA to AA+, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner screamed to the media that S&P had made a “$2 trillion math error” and the media repeated this charge ad nauseum. Now, you and I think of  “2 + 2 = 5” as a math error, but not Secretary Geithner.

We now have learned that the “math error” was nothing of the kind; the $2 trillion was the difference in using “alternative assumptions” about the growth in discretionary spending by the U.S. Government over the next ten years: S&P had used a 5% growth rate, which is substantially lower than the 7.5% growth rate over recent years, while CBO had “done as it was told” by Congress, as it must by law, and used a growth rate of 2.5%. You make the call as to which is more believable.

Why are we using the CBO’s 10-year budget forecast as a policy tool in the first place?

If we go back ten years to 2001 and look at CBO’s forecast for 2011, we can get a good idea of just  how accurate is the CBO as a forecaster.

Nominal GDP: $17.1 Trillion. Actual (Projected): $15.2 Trillion. Error: $1.9 Trillion or 12%.

Unemployment: 5.2%. Actual: 9.1%. Error: 3.9 percentage points or 43%

10-Year Treasury Rate: 5.8%. Actual: 2.1%. Error: 3.7 percentage points or 176%

2011 Budget:

Receipts: $3.4 Trillion. Actual (Projected): $2.2 Trillion. Error: $1.2 Trillion or 54%

Expenditures: $2.6 Trillion. Actual (Projected): $3.7 Trillion. Error: $1.1 Trillion or 30%.

Surplus/Deficit: $0.8 Trillion Surplus. Actual (Projected): $1.5 Trillion Deficit. Error: $2.3 Trillion or 153%.

In fact, the CBO was projecting that the national debt would have been paid off and in a $2 trillion surplus, whereas today we find that our national debt has ballooned to $14.5 Trillion. In other words, the CBO was off by more than $16 trillion.

Why should we think this year’s ten-year forecast is any more accurate? We shouldn’t. Could the CBO foresee 9-11 and the 2008 market meltdown? No. But neither can it today foresee the big financial event that will occur during the next ten years and render this forecast as meaningless as the 2001 forecast for 2011.

What we really should be focusing on is the projected budget for NEXT year and the year after. Currently, the CBO forecasts that 2012 outlays will fall to $3.66 Trillion from $3.71 Trillion in 2011. This is laughable. From 2000 – 2009, outlays increased by an average of 7.5% per year, yet somehow CBO thinks that spending, two-thirds of which is autopilot increases for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, will decline by 1.3% as its “baseline” scenario. Far more likely is that spending will again increase by 7.5% to $3.99 Trillion, in which case the 2012 deficit will not be $1.1 Trillion, rather it will be $1.4 Trillion. Moreover, this higher 2012 spending will propagate throughout the next nine years to the point where the CBO’s estimate of the 2021 National Debt will be off by trillions, just as it was in 2001 for 2011.

One other little tidbit to cover here: When comparing the national debt to GDP, the CBO and others only count “debt held by the public,” which excludes the $4+ Trillion that the government has looted from the Social Security and other government Trust Funds. We know that the National Debt is around $14.5 Trillion, which is about 96% of GDP, yet the CBO reports the debt-to-GDP ratio as only 69%. Why? Because “debt held by the public” is only $9.8 Trillion. Just one more example of “smoke and mirrors” by the politicians to obscure from taxpayers just how bad our fiscal situation really is.

In closing, let me alert you to the fact that CBO will be updating its rosy economic forecast in coming months to reflect a much lower rate of economic growth. For 2011, the current CBO forecast has GDP growth at 2.7%. Thus far, Q1 growth rate was 0.4% and Q2 (Preliminary) was 0.9%, and likely to be revised downward to a negative number. CBO states that a 0.1% decline in annual growth rate would increase the 2021 national debt by $310 billion. In other words, a 1.0% difference, which looks almost certain, implies another $3.1 Trillion in 2021 debt.

Now who made the “math error?”