Tag Archives: JPMorgan Chase

Housing Bust Is Over! Not So Fast.

The housing experts, Ben Bernanke, the Obama administration, and the Wall Street Journal all want us to believe that the housing market has turned—at last.

 

The next thing out of his mouth will be Quantitative Easing, Round 3.

Headlines like this are in the news this week: “The U.S. finally has moved beyond attention-grabbing predictions from housing “experts” that housing is bottoming. The numbers are now convincing.”

And this: “Nearly seven years after the housing bubble burst, most indexes of house prices are bending up. “We finally saw some rising home prices,” S&P’s David Blitzer said a few weeks ago as he reported the first monthly increase in the slow-moving S&P/Case-Shiller house-price data after seven months of declines.”

Housing starts rose 6.9 percent to a 760,000 annual pace after a revised 711,000 rate in May that was faster than initially estimated, the Commerce Department reported today in Washington. The median forecast of 79 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News called for a 745,000 rate. Which means they were off by 2%. I don’t think this grounds for celebration.

Nearly 10% more existing homes were sold in May than in the same month a year earlier, many purchased by investors who plan to rent them for now and sell them later, an important sign of an inflection point. In something of a surprise, the inventory of existing homes for sale has fallen close to the normal level of six months’ worth despite all the foreclosed homes that lenders own. The fraction of homes for sale that are vacant is at its lowest level since 2006. Which means nothing since the 2006 number was normal, and banks have been holding on to property that they have foreclosed in order to not flood the market and drive up inventory.

In other words, these numbers are completely manipulated by the banking industry in an attempt to normalize the markets.

“Even with the overall economy slowing,” Wells Fargo Securities economists said, cautiously, in a note to clients, “the budding recovery in the housing market appears to be gradually gaining momentum.”

Housing is still far from healthy despite the Federal Reserve’s efforts to resuscitate it by helping to push mortgage rates to extraordinary lows: 3.62% for a 30-year loan, according to Freddie Mac‘s latest survey. Single-family housing starts, though up, remain 60% below the 2002 pre-bubble pace. And, by the way, try qualifying for a mortgage these days. Ha!

Americans‘ equity in homes is $2 trillion, or 25%, less than it was in 2002 and half what it was at the peak, in 2006. More than one in every four mortgage borrowers still has a loan bigger than the value of the house, though rising home prices are reducing that fraction very slightly.

Still, the upturn in housing is a milestone, a particularly welcome one amid a distressing dearth of jobs. For some time, housing has been one of the biggest causes of economic weakness. It has now—barely—moved to the plus side. “A little tail wind is a lot better than a headwind,” says economist Chip Case, the “Case” in Case-Shiller.

 

From here on, housing is unlikely to be the leading drag on the U.S. economy. It will instead reflect the strength or weakness of the overall economy: The more jobs, the more confident Americans are about keeping their jobs, the more they are willing to buy houses. “Manufacturing had led growth and construction had lagged,” JPMorgan Chase economists said last week. “Now the roles are reversed: Manufacturing growth has slowed as private construction comes to life.”

Unfortunately, as we see fewer jobs, all of the new construction will result in a huge inventory of new homes and further bloat an already bloated market.

The biggest threat is that large shadow inventory of unsold homes, homes which owners won’t put on the market because they are underwater, homes that will be foreclosed eventually and homes owned by lenders. Another threat is the holdback that the banks have been managing around homes already in foreclosure, so as to not flood the market. They have been trickling onto the market, slowed in part by government efforts to delay foreclosures; a flood could reverse the recent rise in prices. Or the still-dysfunctional mortgage market could get even worse. 

Don’t believe what you read, folks. The housing bust is far from over.

 


How Much Trouble Could Big Banks Be In? Lots!

The future of the Euro and the Eurozone is bleak and will likely look like a series of prolonged, rolling crises that slowly evolve to reveal just how critically the financial health of each country is affected by their individual sovereign debt and their failing banks.

The inevitable result will be severe Eurozone-wide stress, emergency liquidity loans from the IMF and the European Central Bank and politicians from all the countries involved increasingly attacking each other  over allegations of blame and corruption. To no good end.

Even the optimists now say openly that Europe will only solve its problems when there are no options left and time has run out. Less optimistic analysts increasingly think that the Eurozone will break up because all the proposed solutions are essentially Pollyannaish jokes. Let’s say the realists are right, and Europe starts to dissolve. Markets, investors, regulators and governments can stop worrying about interest-rate and credit risk, and start worrying about dissolution risk.

More importantly, they need to start worrying seriously about what the repricing of risk will do to the world’s thinly capitalized and highly leveraged megabanks. European officials, strangely, appear not to have thought about this at all; the Group of 20 meeting last week seemed to communicate a weird form of complacency and calm.

So, for all of the European officials and the U.S. bankers, here’s what dissolution risk means:  If you have a contract that requires you to be paid in euros and the euro no longer exists, what you will receive is not real clear. See? That’s dissolution risk.

Let’s say you have lent 1 million euros to a German bank, payable three months from now. If the euro suddenly ceases to exist and all countries revert to their original currencies, then you would probably receive payment in deutsche marks. You might be fine with this — and congratulate yourself on not lending to an Italian bank, which is now paying off in lira.

But what would the exchange rate be between new deutsche marks and euros? How would this affect the purchasing power of the loan repayment? More worrisome, what if Germany has gone back on the deutsche mark but the euro still exists — issued by more inflation-inclined countries? Presumably you would be offered payment in the rapidly depreciating euro. If you contested such a repayment, the litigation could drag on for years.

What if you lent to that German bank not in Frankfurt but in London? Would it matter if you lent to a branch (part of the parent) or a subsidiary (more clearly a British legal entity)? How would the British courts assess your claim to be repaid in relatively appreciated deutsche marks, rather than ever-less- appealing euros? With the euro depreciating further, should you wait to see what the courts decide? Or should you settle quickly in hope of recovering half of what you originally expected?

What if you lent to the German bank in New York, but the transaction was run through an offshore subsidiary, for example in the Cayman Islands? Global banks are extremely complex in terms of the legal entities that overlap with business units. Do you really know which legal jurisdiction would cover all aspects of your transaction in the currency formerly known as the euro?

Moving from relatively simple contracts to the complex world of derivatives, what would happen to the huge euro-denominated interest-rate swap market if euro dissolution is a real possibility? Guess what? No one really knows.

But, what I am really talking about here is the balance sheets of the really big banks. For example, in recently released filings with banking regulators, JPMorgan Chase & Co. revealed that $50 billion in losses could hypothetically bring down the bank. JPMorgan’s total balance sheet is valued, under U.S. accounting standards, at about $2.3 trillion. But U.S. rules allow a more generous netting of derivatives — offsetting long with short positions between the same counterparties — than European banks are allowed. HA!

The problem is that the netting effect can be overstated because derivatives contracts often don’t offset each other precisely. Worse, when traders smell trouble at a bank that has taken on too much risk, they tend to close out their derivatives positions quickly, leaving supposedly netted contracts exposed. Remember the final days of Lehman Brothers?

When one bank defaults and its derivatives counterpart does not, the failing bank must pay many contracts at once. The counterpart, however, wouldn’t provide a matching acceleration in its payments, which would be owed under the originally agreed schedule. This discrepancy could cause a “run” on a highly leveraged bank as counterparties attempt to close out positions with suspect banks while they can. The point is that the netting shown on a bank balance sheet can paper over this dynamic. And that means that JPMorgan’s regulatory filings vastly understate the potential danger.

JPMorgan’s balance sheet, using the European method isn’t $2.3 trillion, but closer to $4 trillion. That would make it the largest bank in the world. Holy Moly!

What are the odds that JPMorgan would lose no more than $50 billion on assets of $4 trillion, much of which is complex derivatives, in a euro-area breakup, an event that would easily be the biggest financial crisis in world history? Slim. And, None.

No one on these shores seems to see the storm coming. In an effort to forestall the impending global crisis, the Federal Reserve should be insisting that big U.S. banks increase their capital levels by suspending dividends, and set up emergency liquidity facilities with an emergency and across-the-board suspension of dividend payments, but it won’t. The Fed is convinced that its recent stress tests show U.S. banks have enough capital even though these tests didn’t model serious euro dissolution risk and the effect on global derivatives markets.

The Fed is dead wrong about that, and the pending Euro-crisis is very real. Our mega-banks are in no position to weather even the known storm, let alone the real storm when all the European counter-parties pony up to the bar with their real exposures, and the true sovereign debt gets exposed. Then, what do you think that means for smaller banks? 

How do you think that might affect the U.S. economic recovery? What is gold trading at? $1,575 an ounce?  Hmmmm.


The End of the Euro Nears.

As we watch the growing deterioration of the Greek and Spanish banking systems, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the major U.S. banks’ overseas positions and exposures.

Citigroup has the largest net exposure to non-U.S. sovereign governments, with a little more than €14 billion ($17.5 billion) on their balance sheet.  JPMorgan Chase comes in second, with about €8 billion ($10 billion), while Morgan Stanley is third with €5 billion ($6.2 billion), and Goldman Sachs holding the smallest position of the four big banks with €4 billion ($5 billion) in non-U.S. sovereign debt. Remember how Wall Street reacted when JPMorgan lost $2 billon in derivative exposure a couple of weeks ago? Now, imagine a $39 billion loss. As Senator Everett Dirksen famously declared, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”

This is an important data point because the U.S. banks are completely exposed to the growing European banking disaster. Europe’s entire banking sector has the potential to collapse completely if the contagion catches and runs completely amok. With the current run on Greek and Spanish banks, the possibility is slowly becoming a probability. Without an EU-wide deposit guarantee, depositors will withdraw all of their funds and move them to their mattresses.

In addition, the bigger of the PIIGS, Spain and Italy, have their debt spread out across Europe, putting them in the unenviable position of causing systemic ignition to just such a contagion.  As one example, French banks (Credit Agricole and Societe Generale) hold a substantial portion of their credit portfolio in Italian sovereign debt. Which we know is worthless.

Europe as a whole is in deep trouble as this latest iteration of the never-ending sovereign debt crisis could finally result in at least a partial breakup of the EU.  The actual likelihood is that Greece, then Spain, followed by Portugal, Italy and Ireland will drop out of the EU.

If that happens, Germany’s most rational choice would be to withdraw as well. After all, why should they continue their exposure to more poorly managed countries who will only default on what remains of their sovereign debt?  France, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.K. would be quick to follow in Germany’s footsteps, leaving behind, a handful of countries like Cyprus, Estonia, and Latvia to sort out the remaining arguments for remaining in the Union and supporting a single currency.

It doesn’t take much of a mental stretch to imagine what would happen next.


$2 Billion? Chump Change. Jamie Dimon Has Real Problems Now.

The US Federal Reserve has just released data that shows mind-boggling trade positions that JP Morgan has taken in synthetic credit indices, an extremely haphazard class of derivative, also known as Credit Default Swaps (CDS).

Um, try $100 Billion worth; an increase from a net long notional of $10 Billion at the end of 4Q11, to $84 Billion by the end of 1Q12.

All banks are required to report quarterly on these things and JP Morgan’s position in CDS has jumped eight-fold in under 6 months. This may raise additional concerns about JP Morgan’s investment strategy in synthetic products.

In investment-grade CDS with a maturity of one-year or less, JPMorgan‘s net short position exploded  from $3.6 billion notional at the end of September 2011 to $54 billion at the end of the first quarter.

Over the same period, JPMorgan’s long position in investment grade CDS with a maturity of more than five years leapt five times from $24 billion to $102 billion (see chart). They are either really, really smart, or really, really, stupid. If it’s the latter, guess who bails them out?

“I don’t care how big a bank you are, that’s still a big move,” said one seasoned credit analyst.

JPMorgan’s chief executive Jamie Dimon said his firm began closely examining the CIO’s (Chief Investment Officer) controversial trading strategy in closer detail when large mark-to-market losses – put at $2 billion by Dimon during an analyst call on May 10 – started appearing in the second quarter.

Dimon has since tried to balance his exposures by flipping positions in long, high-yield CDS and short positions in investment-grade CDS, but the crazed selling of these CDS positions is eerily reminiscent of the final hours of Lehman Brothers.

People will question senior JP Morgan management signing off on a trading strategy that vastly increased the banks’ exposure to a worsening credit environment at a time when other banks were battening down the hatches. In dramatic contrast to JPMorgan, the Fed data show ALL other major US banks (GSax, Citi, B of A, Morgan Stanley) maintaining large short positions in investment-grade credit in expectation of a continuation of the rocky credit environment persisting throughout the second half of 2011.

The figures underscore JPMorgan’s failure to act at an earlier stage, given the large concentrations of risk it was accumulating, as well as the inability of regulators to discern abnormal trading patterns among the piles of data banks already reported to them. Shame on the SEC … again.

On the day (May 10th) that the $2 Billion loss story broke, that morning’s The Gartman Letter, market commentator Dennis Gartman wrote:

“The press conference… caught everyone a bit off guard and does raise all sorts of flags and does indeed cause us to remind ourselves that “there is never just one cockroach;”          however, if the losses sustained are held to what was reported yesterday afternoon, then we must remember that this is isolated; that it shall be a loss of only 30 cents/share; that Jamie Dimon’s pristine reputation has been irreparably sullied; that the Left shall use this as an excuse for even more onerous over-sight of the banking/broking businesses of the nation, but the nation is not in jeopardy and we shall all go on.”

IF … “the losses sustained are held to what was reported … .”.

Should be an interesting couple of weeks on Wall Street.


Mad As Hell! And, See You In Court.

That didn’t take long.

Facebook Inc and Morgan Stanley, the lead underwriter of social networking company’s IPO, were sued by shareholders who claimed the defendants hid Facebook’s weakened growth forecasts ahead of its $16 billion initial public offering.

The lawsuit also names underwriters JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs among others, and follows quickly on the heels of Facebook’s May 18 stock market debut, which was plagued by technical glitches.

Facebook shares fell 18.4 percent from their $38 IPO price in the first three trading days. In early afternoon trade today, Facebook shares were up 2.1 percent at $29.51.

Hey, I just lost $2 Billion. Don’t bug me with your problems!

The legal action accused the defendants, including Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, of concealing “a severe and pronounced reduction” in revenue growth forecasts resulting from increased use of Facebook’s app or website through mobile devices.

Facebook was also accused in the lawsuit of telling its bank underwriters to “materially lower” forecasts for the company.

“The main underwriters in the middle of the road show reduced their estimates and didn’t tell everyone,” said Samuel Rudman, a partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, which brought the lawsuit. “I don’t think any investor in Facebook wouldn’t have wanted to know that information.”

Regulators including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, and Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin have begun looking into how the IPO was handled. The U.S. Senate Banking Committee is also reviewing the matter. Busy, busy, busy. Let no self-respecting agency appear as though they aren’t busy looking into things. Problem: Horses are already gone. 

“The SEC has since the 1990s broadly condemned the trickling out of material non-public information, which would include that savvy, well-paid analysts are lowering estimates,” said Elizabeth Nowicki, an associate professor at Tulane University Law School and a former SEC lawyer. Condemned? Or, is it actually against the law?

Syndicate banks “are on the hook in terms of liability by not making accurate, complete disclosure,” she added. “Selective disclosure of analyst outlook changes is not acceptable.” Not acceptable? Or, against the law?

Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman, said: “We believe the lawsuit is without merit and will defend ourselves vigorously.”

Andrew Noyse.

Morgan Stanley had no comment. It said on Tuesday that Facebook IPO procedures complied with all applicable regulations, and were the same as in any initial offering.

The shareholders said the disclosures about Facebook’s business risks were inadequate, and that the company should have told everyone, not just “preferred” investors, that analysts knew those risks and cut their business outlooks accordingly.

Should have? Or, were they bound under the law to disclose to everyone?

 


Thanks, Mr. Dimon.

Jamie Dimon has allowed us to witness an object demonstration of why Wall Street does, in fact, need to be regulated. Thank you, Jamie.

I hate to beat up on Jamie Dimon so badly, especially since I don’t know him personally and I’m sure he is a fine fellow, but as Bill Maher would say, hey, they give you the comedy lines and you just have to take it, right?

Any honest evaluation of the facts would conclude that JPMorgan, to its — and Jamie Dimon’s  — credit, did manage to avoid many of the bad investments that brought other banks to their knees in the 2007-2008 contagion.

His demonstration of sound judgment and careful planning gave Jamie the role of class valedictorian in Wall Street’s war to delay, and/or repeal the righteous pile of financial reform crawling its way through Congress and occasionally spewing watered-down effluence like the Dodd-Frank bill.

Mr. Dimon has been particularly open in his opposition to the so-called Volcker Rule, which would prevent banks with government-guaranteed deposits from engaging in “proprietary trading,” (basically speculating with depositors’ money). Why? Because everything at JP Morgan Chase is under control and we don’t need no stinking badges, thank you very much.

Until last week maybe. A minor screw-up. $2 Billion in trading losses. Well, there are really no excuses as Jamie said, but hey, they’re human. They make mistakes too. Still, no reason to lose our minds and start regulating like crazy; after all, it WAS their money, right? Well, not exactly. It turns out that the bank’s “money” is in fact money backed by taxpayer’s guarantees.

We know from history that banking has always been subject to  destructive panics, that occasionally threaten to bring down the entire financial system. In spite of arm-chair economists like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and perhaps especially our buddy, Paul Ryan, bad banking is not always the result of government intervention or the meddling liberal fools in Congress.

In the golden ages of American Capitalism, between 1700 and 1840, or between 1890 and 1929, we had minimal government and no Fed (to speak of) and yet, we still managed a financial panic roughly once every six years. Some of them real beauts.

After the greatest depression in our history, our Congressional leaders arrived at a reasonable solution that seemed to work really well for the next 60 years or so. We implemented systems of guarantees and oversight that protected both the citizen depositors and the government who guaranteed those deposits. Deposits were insured, so that panic resulting from the perception of a failing bank was limited, and banks were prevented from gambling and abusing the privilege they enjoyed from those insured deposits, guaranteed by taxpayers.

The significance of those regulations prevented banks, holding government-guaranteed deposits, from engaging in high-risk market speculation. Speculation in investment products like CMOs and CDO tranches and Knock Out Straddles.

What? You didn’t have any Knock Out Straddles? Lehman Bothers did.

But, I guess we really didn’t like financial stability. Or, we all saw a movie in 1987 called Wall Street and decided that being Master of the Universe would be pretty cool. Jamie Dimon certainly thought so. He was 31 when that movie came out. Not surprisingly, all of these new forms of banking without government guarantees became the rage, while 50 years of banking regulation was over-turned (by a Democrat by the way) and banks were allowed to take on increasing risks. We, the people, got exactly what we deserved.

It is mind-blowing to me that we have to debate and argue about whether we should restore the safeguards that brought us 50 years without a major banking panic. We, the people who got shafted by the bankers, their lobbyists and the politicians they bankroll, have to cajole our Congressmen to re-instate the Glass-Steagall act of 1933? After we allowed those very same bankers to be bailed out by our own tax dollars? Why?

We are the same people, at least 48-50% of us, who want to cast a vote for a guy who has promised to repeal Dodd-Frank and any other banking regulations that come down the pipe? Really?

We can thank Jamie and JP Morgan for shining a spotlight on the reasons we need to tighten regulations on banks, but it really won’t do any good as long as we continue to pretend that none of this matters. Or, that we can’t make a difference. Or, that it’s all too weird and hard to understand and the banks won’t really do anything that stupid again, would they?

You may not be able to fix it, but with one vote, you could make it worse.


The Arrogance of Wall Street.

Here’s the actual headline: “This Gorgeous Model Is A Finance Wiz Who Turned Down A Job At JP Morgan!

Xenia Tchoumitcheva - Girls

This headline was in one of our nation’s leading business news dailies yesterday (Friday), and it says all you need to know about the arrogance of Wall Street bankers. It might as well have said: This Dopey Broad Turned Down A Job At JP Morgan. Can you imagine That?

Swiss model Xenia Tchoumitcheva, who interned at JPMorgan London offices last summer, stopped by (this news daily) to talk about her experience working in finance and to fill them in on why she could possibly turn down such an offer. I mean, she was just an intern and the amazing house of Morgan was ready to make her a Wall Street Master of the Universe.

“I have to say it was a very positive experience for me — better than any other industry in the world — I would say, or whatever else I tried — because there was a huge respect for my skills and what I was able to do …”.

Despite receiving an employment offer from JPMorgan, Xenia decided to pursue her own business interests.  Since her internship, the 2006 Miss Switzerland pageant first runner-up (at 17) has been hosting beauty contests and last month she started hosting her own business TV show in Italy called “L’Italia Che Funziona.” (Italy That Works.) She graduated college in 2010 after having achieved a 3-year Bachelor Degree in economics. She speaks five languages (Italian, Russian, German, French and English). Six, if you include economics, having interned in 2011 at Merrill Lynch.

Good for you, Xenia … good for you!


Flood Of Foreclosures On The Way.

The golden age for foreclosure squatters may soon be coming to an end now that the $26 billion mortgage settlement has been approved.

The settlement, agreed to by the nation’s five largest mortgage lenders, is expected to speed up the foreclosure process by providing stricter guidelines for the banks to follow when repossessing homes.

The banks involved include Bank of America (BACFortune 500), JPMorgan Chase (JPMFortune 500), Citibank (CFortune 500), Wells Fargo (WFCFortune 500) and Ally Financial.

Most foreclosures have been in limbo since fall 2010 following the so-called robo-signing scandal, when banks allowed employees to sign off on thousands of foreclosure documents a month with little verification. Lenders hit the pause button on foreclosures because they “were afraid that anything they did would be under a microscope,” said Eric Higgins, a professor of business at Kansas State University.

As a result, borrowers who were seriously delinquent on their loans have been able to stay in their homes for months, or even years without making a single payment. Nationwide, the average time it takes to foreclose on a home — from the first missed payment to the final bank repossession — stretched to 370 days during the first quarter, almost twice as long as it took five years ago, according to Daren Blomquist, the marketing director at RealtyTrac.

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Reporter Helps to Bring Down Steven J. Baum Foreclosure Mill the New York Times Susan Chana Lask Steven J Baum Joe Nocera Halloween party  real estate related mortgage related debt articles
I know who these ladies are. Don’t bother writing.

In some states, delinquent borrowers have been squatting in their homes much longer. In Florida, the average time was 861 days, and in New York it was 1,056 days — close to three years. “Perhaps a million foreclosures could have been pursued last year but weren’t,” said Rick Sharga, executive vice president for real estate investment company, Carrington Holdings.

But that’s all about to change, he said. “We’re going to see an increase in the speed of foreclosures and a higher number of foreclosure starts.” In fact, there are indications that the pace of foreclosures are already starting to pick up.

While overall foreclosure activity was down during the first quarter, filings were up 10% in the 26 states where foreclosures must undergo court scrutiny, according to RealtyTrac. It was in these judicial states that the processing of foreclosures slowed the most following news of the robo-signing scandal, said Blomquist. Many banks in these states stopped filing foreclosures unless they were extremely confident it would pass muster in the court. (In non-judicial states, foreclosures are reviewed by a trustee, which is a third party such as a title company and less likely to parse every legal document).

But now lenders can move more confidently, said Brandon Moore, RealtyTrac’s CEO.

In the judicial state of Indiana, for example, foreclosure filings were up 45% year-over year. And in Florida, they were up by almost 26%, according to RealtyTrac.

“The dam may not burst in the next 30 to 45 days, but it will eventually burst, and everyone downstream should be prepared for that to happen — both in terms of new foreclosure activity and new short sale activity,” Moore said in a statement.

The resulting flood could bring home prices down even further — yet another impetus for the banks to clear out their foreclosure pipeline as quickly as possible, said Kansas State’s Higgins.

Then, industry thinking is, the housing market would be able to get back to normal and home prices could eventually find their true value. Some industry analysts, such as the chief economist for listing site Zillow, Stan Humphries, are predicting that could happen as soon as the end of the year. Zillow estimates that home values nationwide will fall another 3.7% by the end of 2012, and that price will likely bottom out by early 2013. But, don’t hold your breath. We’re talking about 3 million homes in foreclosure, about to be in foreclosure or about to be bank-owned. I suspect this rush of inventory overhang will knock another 15% off the market, and the bottom won’t be seen until 2014. This is in keeping with Merrill-Lynch‘s earlier forecast just prior to the $26B banking free ride deal. So, if anything it could be 2015 before we hit true bottom. Hold onto those checkbooks, folks, there’s much more to come. 


Don’t Believe What You Read In The Papers.

There was a big front page article in the New York Times today trumpeting the banks’ return to extending credit, now that they have written down all of their junked up sub-prime debt and have recovered from the losses on loans made to troubled borrowers. The article points out that some of the largest lenders to the less than creditworthy, including Capital One and GM Financial, are trying to woo them back, while HSBC and JPMorgan Chase are among those tiptoeing again into subprime lending.

I think the truth about this report is that the banks’ media relations folks got together with the NYT‘s editorial folks and everyone decided it would be nice to have a little media party and give regular folks a glimmer of hope about the credit markets and the banks a glimmer of “really not such bad guys after all” patina on their hopeless public images. 

They, of course rolled out their stat machines and pointed out that credit card lenders gave out 1.1 million new cards to borrowers with damaged credit in December, up 12.3 percent from the same month a year earlier, according to Equifax’s credit trends report released in March. These borrowers accounted for 23 percent of new auto loans in the fourth quarter of 2011, up from 17 percent in the same period of 2009, Experian, a credit scoring firm, said. Of course, Experian is in on the deal as well, as positive lending news benefits them immensely. It is similar to the housing report by our HUD secretary today (covered in the Yes, This Really Happened. post later) which makes everyone in charge including of course, the current administration look better.

The banks, for their part, are looking to make up the billions in fee income wiped out by regulations enacted after the financial crisis by focusing on two parts of their business — the high and the low ends — industry consultants say. Subprime borrowers typically pay high interest rates, up to 29 percent, and often rack up fees for late payments.

Consumer advocates and lawyers worry that the financial institutions are again preying on the most vulnerable and least financially sophisticated borrowers, who are often willing to take out credit at any cost. “These people are addicted to credit, and banks are pushing it,” said Charles Juntikka, a bankruptcy lawyer in Manhattan. Some former banking regulators said they worried that this kind of lending, even in its early stages, signaled a potentially dangerous return to the same risky lending that helped fuel the credit crisis. No. You think? 

“It’s clear that we are returning to business as usual,” said Mark T. Williams, a former Federal Reserve bank examiner. Ah, lighten up Mark, this is just banking.

The lenders argue that they have learned their lesson and are distinguishing between chronic deadbeats and what some in the industry call “fallen angels,” those who had good payment histories before falling behind as the economy foundered. A spokesman for Chase, Steve O’Halloran, said the bank “seeks to be a careful, responsible lender,” adding that it “is constantly evaluating the risks and costs of funding loans.”

Regulators with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees the nation’s largest banks, said that as long as lenders adhered to strict underwriting standards and monitored risk, there was nothing inherently dangerous about extending credit to a wider swath of people. Snicker, snicker. 

In fact, an increase in lending is a sign that the economy is improving, economists say. While unemployment remains high, consumers have been reducing their debts. Delinquencies on credit card accounts and auto loans are down sharply from their heights in the crisis. “This is a natural loosening of credit standards because the banks feel they can expand again,” said Michael Binz, a managing director at Standard & Poor’s. And lenders miss many potential customers if they focus just on people with perfect credit. WOW! Really?

“You can’t simply ignore this segment anymore,” said Deron Weston, a principal in Deloitte’s banking practice.

The definition of subprime borrowers varies, but is generally considered those with credit scores of 660 and below, which is interestingly a “FAIR” credit score according to the Experian web site. So, again the message is mixed, and I suspect you will find that if you applied for a credit card with a credit score of 695, you will be rejected. 

The banks, regardless of what they are “saying”, will treat you in much the same way as the two leading peer-to-peer lenders do; that is, if you don’t have a FICO credit score above 700, you will be rejected. So, beware of what you read in the press and consider the source and the underlining motivations of these lending behemoths. They didn’t get too big to fail by being nice to your loan applications. 

Not unlike Capital One, the one lender that has been courting borrowers with damaged credit, even those who have just emerged from bankruptcy, with pitches like, “We want to win you back as a customer.”, these banks all have their own self-interest at heart. Notice Capital One said “even those who have just emerged from bankruptcy” but they didn’t say “even those who have just emerged from foreclosure”. They love bankrupted borrowers, because they can’t erase their future debts in bankruptcy again for many years. Not so much foreclosed borrowers. If they believe you won’t repay your debt, you won’t get a loan.

Pam Girardo, a spokeswoman for Capital One, said, “Our strategy is to provide reasonable access to credit with appropriate guardrails in place to ensure consumers stay on track as they rebuild their credit.”

Pam, that is absolute nonsense. Have you no shame, and what’s in your wallet?