Archive for May, 2010

Regulation By Populist Know Nothings

Regulation By Populist Know Nothings                                  

It is very unnerving to see people like Al Frankin –professional clown, and Ron Paul, a certified lunatic,  getting traction for amendments to the financial regulation bill. Neither of these guys has a clue what a financial market is, how it functions, nor the critical role of the Fed. Then we see all sorts of other add-ons like debit card fee issues, and other things. Blanche Lincoln is trying to single handedly wreck the corporate derivatives market so she can try to look like she is against us fat cats.  This is truly the lunatics now running the asylum. While some parts of the legislation makes sense, and regulatory reform is needed, it is very clear Congress has no idea what really needs to be done and that there is a good chance now that they will end up doing more damage than good.

This is what happens when the president only knows how to extract campaign contributions from the financial community, but then harks back to his community activist mindset. In March of 2009, the top bankers met with Obama and told him he was doing serious damage by bad mouthing Wall St and for a short time he backed off. Now that it is clear his popularity has collapsed and unemployment is not improving materially, he does what he always does, blame everyone else. Carl Levin and Barney Frank then hold made for TV unreality shows, with their band of clowns and the public goes away more misinformed than ever. The media, not really any better informed than Congress, jumps on the band wagon and just reports how Wall St professionals are all crooks and bad guys and then the populist rhetoric is ramped up to a frenzy. Then the real trouble starts when the politicians start to try to pass new laws with absolutely no idea what is really going on. It is all about the sound bite on the evening news and a spot on CNN or Fox.

There is no question we need reform. Unbridled greed and stupidity by residential mortgage brokers, subprime lenders, and issuers of CDO’s, which then led to commercial mortgages following the same path, is something that needs reform. However, the right answer is to not reward originators for volume, but for quality. All the incentives were set up wrong, just as they have always been with lenders. Lending officers should be rewarded for fewest delinquencies over 3 years, and not how much volume they closed for the next pool. There should be no reward for creating the next most complex derivative program. I am for a 5% holdback of capital for a securitized pool to become the bonus pool for the originators over a 3 or 5 year period. The whole idea of CDO’s to me just invites what happened. They are really just dumping grounds for what cannot otherwise be sold off- they are the ultimate garbage dump of excess junk.

While I don’t think Goldman broke the law, and the whole thing is a White House scheme to get regulation passed, there is an issue with creating a security that has no inherent identifiable underlying value, which nobody can truly value and is only a trading vehicle. It is this uncontrolled race to create the next more complex security with no regard to underlying real estate value, which is the metaphor for many of the other things that happened and caused the crisis.  

When Congress, the White House and the media get done, there will be serious damage done to the financial markets and the price will be paid by the general economy.

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Fannie and Barney-The Great Cover Up

Fannie and Barney –The Great Cover Up

In 2002 John Snow, then Secretary of Treasury, appeared before Barney and his band of clowns and tried to get the committee to adopt major changes to the functioning of Fannie. Barney blew him off in a successful effort to cover up for the accounting fraud perpetrated by Franklin Raines and his cohorts.  Raines got a bonus and we got a financial crisis. Barney would not allow Fannie to be touched and insisted that we needed more home ownership, especially by people who could not afford to be owners. So began the subprime disaster.

Today there is no effort to change things at Fannie. There is a major effort to change banking and Wall St, which is needed, but Fannie goes on losing $20 billion of taxpayer hard earned money every month. 46% of all loan modifications by Fannie are going into default again. The cost when all done will be close to $400 billion of taxpayer money vs TARP which all of the large banks repaid with an 8% profit to the taxpayers. Yet who gets called names. Who gets hauled before TV cameras and accused of misdeeds. Who does the media make to look like criminals. Not Franklin Raines or Fannie executives of the past.

Fannie and Freddie and FHA are perpetuating the problems in the housing market, all in the name of the Obama administration wanting to make people believe they are solving the foreclosure problem.  While the Fannie Freddie entities do currently provide all the mortgage funds, that is not how it should be. This is simply more government control of a vital part of the economy. It is subject to the political whims of Congress and the administration, and not the market place. There is no on book budget item for Fannie losses. They just get swept away under the rug and no hearings ever occur to ask where all the money has gone.  

We are building up a huge unrecoupable debt that Treasury will have to continue to fund with your tax dollars. The HAMP program was made to sound good but it was a bad idea that never took reality into account. As one who had attempted to buy defaulted mortgages and rehabilitate them, I have a first hand understanding of the problem. Most homeowners in trouble have no possible way out other than to sell or send jingle mail. They are way in over their heads and no modification is going to ever work. There is a 355 portion of the population that cannot, should not own a home. Many defaulters know they can just stop paying while HAMP games delay the inevitable. Meantime they live rent free in the house. They do not provide income data because they know they fail any test of ownership because they never had the income. The game is delay, delay and obfuscate until finally there is no choice but to foreclose or short sale. As of today only 17% of HAMP modification efforts result in actual mods, and these likely could have been done without all the money spent making believe there is a program. The only way the housing problem is going to get solved is mass foreclosures and quick short sales to clear the market. All the government is doing is to force the banks to drag out the problem for years and not solve it.

Greece Is The Canary In The Coal Mine

Greece Is The Canary In The Coal Mine

The massive Euro TARP program just announced is simply a bailout of the PIIGS who way over spent and under taxed for all these years. In Greece few pay taxes and most who pay do not pay what they really owe. All of Europe has social safety nets programs that keep the voters happy so long as the string does not break, which it now has. The willingness of governments to just spend and raise pensions, raise healthcare benefits paid by the government, raise other benefits, and not pay for them is the root cause of this crisis. We were within hours of October 2008 all over again. The media and the administration can rant all they want about wall St, but the exact same irresponsible behavior was going on at all levels all over the world. Greece, California, New York, Spain, and now the US Congress and administration.

All the EU did this weekend is kick the can down the road again. It is highly unlikely that the austerity programs now being put in place will last long as the cost to the EU economy will be very painful and unions and the politicians will likely not endure this pain. At some point soon the Euro has to be devalued in whatever way this plays out. That is the only real solution and then a lot of pain has o be suffered as a result. We are just at the start of this phase of the crisis and there is nobody in Europe who is a true leader like Maggie or Churchill in the moment of need. Merkel should have stepped in but she completely blew it.

We all need to pay close attention to what is happening. Greece is California, New York and Illinois. The teachers union here is like the unions in Greece. Give me, give me. Tax the rich. In the US it is getting like Greece. Only 52% of Americans pay tax. If the Democrats have their way that number will drop to under 50%. Less than half of voters will have any skin in the game so they will not mind higher taxes on those of us who employ the rest and who create the capital which is the milk of economic growth.  The new healthcare bill subsidizes even the middle class making the successful pay for all. Business owners are now being charged much higher taxes and capital gains tax is about to rise. They are taking away the incentive to create capital and to create jobs.

The next crisis is states and cities in the US going bankrupt. Many are, they have just not declared it yet. We live on more and more debt, delayed pension funding, and other gimmicks. When the states and cities go under it will have the be Washington to the rescue and that means more borrowing, more taxes and more deficits.

While it may seem the economy is healing and the good times are ahead, be very careful. Long term is going to be ugly. In seven or ten years things will be in serious problems unless there is a complete reversal of direction and Washington and the states and cities take the lessons of Greece and recognize that the canary died this weekend and we better change our ways fast or we will get crushed.

The Consequences Of Making Real Estate A Commodity

The Consequences Of Making Real Estate A Commodity

While I found the Goldman hearings to be a travesty, and a rerun of the Army McCarthy hearings of 1954, the underlying issue is the Street tried to make real estate into a commodity that can be traded and hedged like a commodity. Instead of trying to understand any of what was really happening, Levin and McCaskill and the other clearly uninformed senators simply wanted to have political theater and denigrate Goldman.

Real estate is not a commodity. It is an asset which does not trade or physically move. It’s value does not shift hourly. There is not a liquid constant world market for a building or for a mortgage. It is not oil, scrap, or corn. Therein lies the real underlying problem. Each building is unique. It is different by many measures form the one even next door. Commodities are exactly the same. Oil is oil. Gold is gold. There may be differences by type of oil, but Brent North Sea is essentially all the same. Just because a building has a mortgage on it does not make that mortgage the same as other mortgages.

When we created the initial hotel mortgage CMBS programs in 1993, we were very clear in our underwriting that a Ramada was not a Ritz Carlton. A 25 year old exterior corridor hotel is not a new Courtyard. A hotel is not just a hotel and it is clearly not a retail center, nor a package of home mortgages.

When you mix subprime residential with B pieces on hotel mortgages, with derivatives of indexes and whatever, all you have is a pile of stuff. The real underlying values cannot ever be discerned. It is just a package of disparate paper. Then you use more indexes and then derivatives of the indexes and you get a security that has no value and no meaning other than an imaginary value that has no underlying basis. It is simply a directional bet as was the case in Abacus. There residential real estate was supposedly converted to securities to be used to take one or the other side of market directional bets. There was nothing illegal about any of what Goldman did, it was just stupid. The Street was creating more and more esoteric paper that had nothing at all to do with the underlying assets. In fact, at some point in this there were not really any underlying assets. Just pieces of paper.

If we are to fix the problem we need to make the clear distinction between real estate assets being unique hard assets with very individual characteristics, and securities or commodities, which real estate is not. As one of the securitization pioneers, at least in the hotel space, I think I understand securitization fairly well. There was very good reason to create it for residential in the eighties so that there was a capital market to fund residential growth when the S&L’s collapsed, which they did by being allowed to make commercial loans. When the concept of securitization was brought to commercial real estate it opened the door to inevitable abuse. It created massive amounts of capital looking for a place to go and that led to the over lending. That got compounded by the inevitable use of derivatives, and the loss of any connection between the real asset and the security.

If we are to avoid the next crash, then we need to go back to tying real estate mortgages  directly to the underlying hard asset and valuing the paper by properly underwriting the asset. If you cannot walk over to the asset and touch it then you have no way to properly value it. Securitization has a place, but we need clear and well considered rules to avoid the runaway insanity we just lived through where children with high powered math degrees, and no understanding of real estate, are allowed to create securities that had no connection to any assets and were simply complex trading vehicles with no reason to have been created in the first place.