Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bombing the Black 'Burbs

Credit itself is valuable and not parasitic, but huge returns in banking service areas like mortgage lending ARE parasitic. Obviously fat profit margins raise the cost of any product to consumers, though this basic idea seems to be lost on the dumb bunnies that line the streets throwing confetti on the CEOs that pocket tens of millions a year in personal income to run the U.S economy into the ground. The human toll is huge (see this New Haven story as one small example, or today's LA Times on California state workers pushed out of their houses by furloughs), U.S. bank's subprime policies have done all the marxist work any critic could ever want, and Friday's Democracy Now had several particularly good segments on their greedy dumbass antics that have pushed big chunks of the black and brown middle classes back into poverty.

The short version is that folks got tired of waiting around for the raises they hadn't had since 1973, jumped into miracle loan products that were invented so they could be packaged and sold to pension funds and other huge buyers as mortgage-based securities, and were assured that their house value could only go up so that they could always refinance before their balloon payment or interest rate reset bankrupted them. And here we are with housing prices down over 50% in centers of black home buying like Las Vegas, and the bottom 1/3 of the market still falling at about a 25% annual rate.

DN has one segment on how the feds' Making Home Affordable program is giving $21 billion to 25 banks to get them to restructure troubled mortgages - 21 of which were major subprime lenders to begin with. See the report by John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity - the biggest chunk, over $5 B, going to B of A's infamous, recently-purchased unit Countrywide.

There's a segment with Wells Fargo subprime whistleblower Elizabeth Jacobson. Some highlights:
  • Wells Fargo had a separate subprime loan division. Commissions there were 3-4 times higher than in the prime loan division. Interest rates could go from 6% to 12% in two years, had extra origination points, etc. raising customer cost along with commission. Additional revenues were built in by structuring the product to induce a new loan every two years.
  • "As a company, Wells Fargo pushed the subprime loans, because it was their goal to have the subprime division pay for the fixed costs of the whole company. So there were [subprime] quotas to be met."
  • deception at the top: "I happened to see a news report with the CFO of Wells Fargo, and he was questioned about the subprime division and denied at that point that Wells Fargo even had a subprime division. So here he is, the chief financial officer, where the subprime loans were supposed to be paying for the fixed costs of the company, and he’s denying that Wells Fargo even did subprime loans."
  • targeting minority communities: bank management "would encourage the loan officers, the subprime loan officers, to go into Baltimore city and target the churches, the African American churches, to get a relationship going with the minister or the reverend at the church and try to get that person to schedule some sort of meeting. They would call it a “wealth-building seminar” to get the parishioners of the church to attend. And any loan that was funded by Wells Fargo, whether a purchase or a refinance, $350 would then be donated to the church. And so, that was the incentive for the church to want to have these seminars there."
One small silver lining is that Elizabeth Jacobson is now defending victims of foreclosures in Maryland state proceedings. But meanwhile, watching the big dogs that are still in charge, the little dogs keep feeding - on themselves.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Two Economies

It's not so nice to see that the crash that was driven by finance is now being covered up by a recovery that is limited entirely to . . finance. There's the "two economies" problem nicely explained by Max Fraad Wolff. One of my Capitalist Pals discusses the continuing wave of bank failures around the country, eclipsed by stories about Goldman Sachs's profits. Finance has managed to create multiple tiers even within itself, with the local banks dying along with the job base that top-tier banks have long invested in destroying. A slice of Mr. Gilani:
But now the originators of the leveraged-buyout business model want to control taxpayer-backed banks, to apply another round of leverage to already crippled banks in order to squeeze out all the profits possible. Although this comes at a cost to duped and already drained taxpayers, regulators, legislators and the American public would be foolish to expect anything else from the private equity crowd. If the FDIC thinks it has a problem now, wait until the next implosion of leveraged banks happens.
Absolute continuity with what got us here.

Kennedy against The Dumbness

Although I wasn't a huge fan of Ted Kennedy, I was quite moved by the two extraordinary clips that Amy Goodman has found of his comments on health care. The first reads in part:
The President’s program, as announced today as a national health partnership program, I believe is really a partnership program that will provide billions of dollars to the health insurance companies. It’s really a partnership between the administration and the insurance companies. It’s not a partnership between the patients and the doctors in this nation.

Amazingly, Kennedy was saying this about Richard Nixon, in 1971.

If we are exactly where we were nearly 40 years ago, are we too dumb to live? It's still my primal question about the current state of things.

Edward Kennedy, R.I.P.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Same as it ever was

I spent a lot of this August sitting there and looking at that. I did the same thing in August 2008 and August 2007: thank you Susan and Claude!

What I see is an agricultural landscape that France takes care of, and Charolais cows in the afternoon. What I see is the possibility of not destroying everything and not finding new ways to decline. I see from the chair the past, I see the future.

Above I see no Internet. I get none of the hallucinatory "we're on the mend" central banker crapola as in my Google news. I get no CEPR reality in the form of a continuing crunch. But do read this reality (and this). It fits with what I hear from folks like my commercial real estate developer Uncle Russ about enormous debt hangovers, lack of spending power, and other structural issues that will keep the economy from looking like 2006-07 for years to come.

Could we try something else now? Start with the picture.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Dumb Enough Yet?

Bill Mahler has been working the theme that this is a dumb country. This obscure blog can hardly disagree.
And before I go about demonstrating how, sadly, easy it is to prove the dumbness dragging down our country, let me just say that ignorance has life and death consequences. On the eve of the Iraq War, 69% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. Four years later, 34% still did. Or take the health care debate we're presently having: members of Congress have recessed now so they can go home and "listen to their constituents." An urge they should resist because their constituents don't know anything. At a recent town-hall meeting in South Carolina, a man stood up and told his Congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare," which is kind of like driving cross country to protest highways.
I'm the bad guy for saying it's a stupid country, yet polls show that a majority of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, or explain what the Bill of Rights is. 24% could not name the country America fought in the Revolutionary War. More than two-thirds of Americans don't know what's in Roe v. Wade. Two-thirds don't know what the Food and Drug Administration does. Some of this stuff you should be able to pick up simply by being alive.
Against this kind of evidence, I'm one of those odd people who thinks that humans are naturally smart, not dumb, and naturally goo - well not good exactly but not naturally evil. I have 20 years of students to prove limited and localized non-dumbness - smartness is possible!

But my optimism is being sorely tested by the United States of America as a whole. Of course this isn't the first time, but I was thinking that during the first summer that we have Obama rather than Bush, that the big picture might start being a little less dumb. No such luck. We're back at the level where US politics consists of Republicans making up some really dumb shit, and the media broadcasting it everywhere as a real story. Like Sarah Palin's claim that Obama health reform will mean a "death panel" that might have killed her Downs' Syndrome baby. Say anything - the dumber the better.

None of the bloviating against socialism etc was ever smart enough to defend ideas that actually worked. Floyd Norris produced some data last Friday showing that the private sector added virtually no new jobs between 1999 and 2009. The growth areas? Lawyers, accountants, and managers, who worked tirelessly to make the economy good for them. You can see how it worked out for the other 90%.

Friday, August 07, 2009

England, Take a Permanent Vacation

Vacation was so great - same place as last year, and the year before - the Shire, version fran├žaise, meaning the Morvan, and our friends Susan and Claude's old house in the village of Montarin. More of that later. I have to catch up with hundreds of emails on the university blog, but had to link to this story about the British Council replacing workers with Indian subsitutes that first follow the workers that they are going to replace around on the job.

As I said two years ago in the link above, France has it's problems - like its stupid banking laws that the big bonus-getters haven't fixed enough so that I can draw a check in one branch of HSBC-France from an account I opened in another branch. But France will not be voluntarily ripping up and destroying itself like those wankers to the north.

Think about it. Britain has a government council to promote its culture abroad decides to use that council to showcase the practice of outsourcing the jobs that promote that culture, and does this by creating international ties between the workers it fires and the workers who are replacing them. It gives me a real bad feeling: This country doesn't have any REAL self-respect, and it doesn't have a future. Unlike the Morvan!