15 March, 2008

How SUBPRIME works

Here's how it worked: The Grinning Family, with US average household income, gets a $200,000 mortgage at 4% for two years. Their $955 a month payment is 25% of their income. No problem. Their banker promises them a new mortgage, again at the cheap rate, in two years. But in two years, the promise ain't worth a can of spam and the Grinnings are told to scram - because their house is now worth less than the mortgage. Now, the mortgage hits 9% or $1,609 plus fees to recover the "discount" they had for two years. Suddenly, payments equal 42% to 50% of pre-tax income. Grinnings move into their Toyota.Here's how it worked: The Grinning Family, with US average household income, gets a $200,000 mortgage at 4% for two years. Their $955 a month payment is 25% of their income. No problem. Their banker promises them a new mortgage, again at the cheap rate, in two years. But in two years, the promise ain't worth a can of spam and the Grinnings are told to scram - because their house is now worth less than the mortgage. Now, the mortgage hits 9% or $1,609 plus fees to recover the "discount" they had for two years. Suddenly, payments equal 42% to 50% of pre-tax income. Grinnings move into their Toyota.

The $200 billion bail-out for predator banks and Spitzer charges are intimately linked

by Greg Palast


Global Research, March 14, 2008

While New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was paying an "escort" $4,300 in a hotel room in Washington, just down the road, George Bush's new Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Ben Bernanke, was secretly handing over $200 billion in a tryst with mortgage bank industry speculators.

Both acts were wanton, wicked and lewd. But there's a BIG difference. The Governor was using his own checkbook. Bush's man Bernanke was using ours.

This week, Bernanke's Fed, for the first time in its history, loaned a selected coterie of banks one-fifth of a trillion dollars to guarantee these banks' mortgage-backed junk bonds. The deluge of public loot was an eye-popping windfall to the very banking predators who have brought two million families to the brink of foreclosure.

Up until Wednesday, there was one single, lonely politician who stood in the way of this creepy little assignation at the bankers' bordello: Eliot Spitzer.

Who are they kidding? Spitzer's lynching and the bankers' enriching are intimately tied.

How? Follow the money.

The press has swallowed Wall Street's line that millions of US families are about to lose their homes because they bought homes they couldn't afford or took loans too big for their wallets. Ba-LON-ey. That's blaming the victim.

Here's what happened. Since the Bush regime came to power, a new species of loan became the norm, the "sub-prime" mortgage and it's variants including loans with teeny "introductory" interest rates. From out of nowhere, a company called "Countrywide" became America's top mortgage lender, accounting for one in five home loans, a large chuck of these "sub-prime."

Here's how it worked: The Grinning Family, with US average household income, gets a $200,000 mortgage at 4% for two years. Their $955 a month payment is 25% of their income. No problem. Their banker promises them a new mortgage, again at the cheap rate, in two years. But in two years, the promise ain't worth a can of spam and the Grinnings are told to scram - because their house is now worth less than the mortgage. Now, the mortgage hits 9% or $1,609 plus fees to recover the "discount" they had for two years. Suddenly, payments equal 42% to 50% of pre-tax income. Grinnings move into their Toyota.

Now, what kind of American is "sub-prime." Guess. No peeking. Here's a hint: 73% of HIGH INCOME Black and Hispanic borrowers were given sub-prime loans versus 17% of similar-income Whites. Dark-skinned borrowers aren't stupid - they had no choice. They were "steered" as it's called in the mortgage sharking business.

"Steering," sub-prime loans with usurious kickers, fake inducements to over-borrow, called "fraudulent conveyance" or "predatory lending" under US law, were almost completely forbidden in the olden days (Clinton Administration and earlier) by federal regulators and state laws as nothing more than fancy loan-sharking.

But when the Bush regime took over, Countrywide and its banking brethren were told to party hardy - it was OK now to steer'm, fake'm, charge'm and take'm.

But there was this annoying party-pooper. The Attorney General of New York, Eliot Spitzer, who sued these guys to a fare-thee-well. Or tried to.

Instead of regulating the banks that had run amok, Bush's regulators went on the warpath against Spitzer and states attempting to stop predatory practices. Making an unprecedented use of the legal power of "federal pre-emption," Bush-bots ordered the states to NOT enforce their consumer protection laws.

Indeed, the feds actually filed a lawsuit to block Spitzer's investigation of ugly racial mortgage steering. Bush's banking buddies were especially steamed that Spitzer hammered bank practices across the nation using New York State laws.

Spitzer not only took on Countrywide, he took on their predatory enablers in the investment banking community. Behind Countrywide was the Mother Shark, its funder and now owner, Bank of America. Others joined the sharkfest: Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Citigroup's Citibank made mortgage usury their major profit centers. They did this through a bit of financial legerdemain called "securitization."

What that means is that they took a bunch of junk mortgages, like the Grinnings, loans about to go down the toilet and re-packaged them into "tranches" of bonds which were stamped "AAA" - top grade - by bond rating agencies. These gold-painted turds were sold as sparkling safe investments to US school district pension funds and town governments in Finland (really).

When the housing bubble burst and the paint flaked off, investors were left with the poop and the bankers were left with bonuses. Countrywide's top man, Angelo Mozilo, will "earn" a $77 million buy-out bonus this year on top of the $656 million - over half a billion dollars - he pulled in from 1998 through 2007.

But there were rumblings that the party would soon be over. Angry regulators, burned investors and the weight of millions of homes about to be boarded up were causing the sharks to sink. Countrywide's stock was down 50%, and Citigroup was off 38%, not pleasing to the Gulf sheiks who now control its biggest share blocks.

Then, on Wednesday of this week, the unthinkable happened. Carlyle Capital went bankrupt. Who? That's Carlyle as in Carlyle Group. James Baker, Senior Counsel. Notable partners, former and past: George Bush, the Bin Laden family and more dictators, potentates, pirates and presidents than you can count.

The Fed had to act. Bernanke opened the vault and dumped $200 billion on the poor little suffering bankers. They got the public treasure - and got to keep the Grinning's house. There was no "quid" of a foreclosure moratorium for the "pro quo" of public bail-out. Not one family was saved - but not one banker was left behind.

Every mortgage sharking operation shot up in value. Mozilo's Countrywide stock rose 17% in one day. The Citi sheiks saw their company's stock rise $10 billion in an afternoon.

And that very same day the bail-out was decided - what a coinkydink! - the man called, "The Sheriff of Wall Street" was cuffed. Spitzer was silenced.

Do I believe the banks called Justice and said, "Take him down today!" Naw, that's not how the system works. But the big players knew that unless Spitzer was taken out, he would create enough ruckus to spoil the party. Headlines in the financial press - one was "Wall Street Declares War on Spitzer" - made clear to Bush's enforcers at Justice who their number one target should be. And it wasn't Bin Laden.

It was the night of February 13 when Spitzer made the bone-headed choice to order take-out in his Washington Hotel room. He had just finished signing these words for the Washington Post about predatory loans:

"Not only did the Bush administration do nothing to protect consumers, it embarked on an aggressive and unprecedented campaign to prevent states from protecting their residents from the very problems to which he federal government was turning a blind eye."

Bush, said Spitzer right in the headline, was the "Predator Lenders" Partner in Crime." The President, said Spitzer, was a fugitive from justice. And Spitzer was in Washington to launch a campaign to take on the Bush regime and the biggest financial powers on the planet.

Spitzer wrote, "When history tells the story of the subprime lending crisis and recounts its devastating effects on the lives of so many innocent homeowners the Bush administration will not be judged favorably."

But now, the Administration can rest assured that this love story - of Bush and his bankers - will not be told by history at all - now that the Sheriff of Wall Street has fallen on his own gun.

A note on "Prosecutorial Indiscretion."

Back in the day when I was an investigator of racketeers for government, the federal prosecutor I was assisting was deciding whether to launch a case based on his negotiations for airtime with 60 Minutes. I'm not allowed to tell you the prosecutor's name, but I want to mention he was recently seen shouting, "Florida is Rudi country! Florida is Rudi country!"

Not all crimes lead to federal bust or even public exposure. It's up to something called "prosecutorial discretion."

Funny thing, this "discretion." For example, Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, paid Washington DC prostitutes to put him diapers (ewww!), yet the Senator was not exposed by the US prosecutors busting the pimp-ring that pampered him.

Naming and shaming and ruining Spitzer - rarely done in these cases - was made at the "discretion" of Bush's Justice Department.

Or maybe we should say, 'indiscretion.'

Greg Palast, former investigator of financial fraud, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Armed Madhouse and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. 


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This big rescue may be just the beginning

LOS ANGELES TIMES

By Tom Petruno, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 15, 2008

Throughout Wall Street's history, major financial system upheavals often have culminated with the spectacular failure of a marquee name.

That was the case in December 1994, when Orange County filed for bankruptcy protection after getting caught on the wrong side of a sharp jump in interest rates.
In September 1998, the Federal Reserve helped arrange a bailout of the giant investment fund Long-Term Capital Management after it neared collapse from bad bets in wildly swinging markets.

In those and similar instances the big-name debacles marked the peak of the financial system crises, not the start of something worse.

But this time around, with Friday's surprise announcement that the Fed would temporarily inject its own money into tottering brokerage giant Bear Stearns Cos., many Wall Street pros say they have little confidence that the move is a prelude to better times for beleaguered markets and the economy.

Indeed, some experts say Bear Stearns' woes warn of potentially larger calamities that will severely test the Fed, the economy and, ultimately, taxpayers as the government gets more deeply involved in fixing the markets' troubles.

"We will lose, in some form, several major financial institutions before this is over," said veteran economist Allen Sinai of Decision Economics Inc. in New York.

The heart of the problem is that the nation is living through an unwinding of a 25-year-long, consumer-led borrowing binge. Bear Stearns was a key player in financing that binge, most notably in high-risk mortgages.

Wall Street in recent years designed ever more creative ways to transform loans into bonds and sell them to investors who were hungry for interest income. That alchemy reached its zenith with sub-prime mortgages -- loans to people with dubious credit.

Even as investors poured hundreds of billions of dollars into sub-prime-mortgage bonds from 2003 to 2006, there were ample warnings that many borrowers were vastly overstretched.

But it wasn't until housing prices began to implode last year, and mortgage defaults rocketed, that banks, brokerages and investors came to realize they had gone too far.

Now, with the U.S. financial system already overburdened with debt, many investors simply don't want to take a chance on owning more of it -- unless it's the direct obligation of the U.S. Treasury.

In market parlance, debt is leverage.

"We have far too much leverage in the system, and we're now in the process of de-leveraging," said Tom Atteberry, a money manager at investment firm First Pacific Advisors in Los Angeles. "We think there's a lot more to go."

That mentality is widespread, and it is feeding on itself: Investors don't want to pay current market prices for mortgage-backed bonds and other debt because they worry that more borrowers will have trouble making payments. That further shuts down lending, making credit tighter and squeezing more borrowers.

Banks and brokerages already have written down the value of many of the mortgage securities they hold, to account for rising delinquencies. But there still is no sense that the housing market has reached a bottom, so there is no way for investors to know how much worse delinquencies will get.

"The only true solution would be to get home prices up," said Jeffrey Gundlach, chief investment officer of Los Angeles-based money manager TCW Group. "But the fundamentals are moving in the opposite direction."

At times like this the focus for Wall Street firms primarily is on surviving. No bank or brokerage will lend to a peer, even in routine daily transactions, if there is any doubt at all that the borrower can repay. Failure then can become assured once rumors start about a firm.

In January, after rumors swirled that it was running out of capital, Countrywide Financial Corp., the largest U.S. mortgage lender, quickly struck a deal to sell itself to Bank of America Corp.

Wall Street's propensity to abandon its own has sunk all sorts of financial institutions over the last century. In 1984 the government had to rescue Continental Illinois, then the seventh-largest bank, once creditors pulled the plug. Brokerage Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. failed in 1990 after its funding lines were cut.

But the current crisis is far larger in scope than those. Because so many banks, brokerages and investors were involved in financing the recent real estate boom -- the biggest housing bubble ever, by many accounts -- the growing problem of mortgage defaults infects nearly every corner of the financial system.

By shaking markets' confidence to the core, the housing bust also has made investors skittish about debt securities that have no direct connection to housing. In recent weeks, for example, demand has evaporated for certain kinds of municipal bonds.

What's more, financial institutions are tied to one another in ways that didn't exist 20 years ago. Using so-called derivative securities, banks, brokerages and investors in effect make bets with one another about each other's solvency. Those particular contracts, known as credit-default swaps, often are used as insurance policies against market turmoil.

"These institutions all are linked by a derivatives market that none of us could map out on a piece of paper," said Charles Geisst, a finance professor at Manhattan College and a Wall Street historian.

One ever-present risk is that the inability of one party in a credit-default swap to pay another could trigger a domino effect throughout the financial system.

Still, the primary concern at the moment remains the withering value of mortgage-backed bonds.

Gundlach, whose firm manages tens of billions of dollars in mortgage securities, estimates that losses on mortgage bonds across the economy might total $1 trillion by the time the delinquency wave has crested and lenders write down loans to levels borrowers can afford.

Although the Fed is almost certain to continue cutting short-term interest rates, that won't fix the markets' problems, Gundlach asserts. It might even make things worse: As the Fed's cuts lower rates on adjustable-rate mortgages, he says, investors become less interested in buying bonds backed by those loans.

"So the bonds' prices drop more," Gundlach says, "because investors analyze the risk to be even higher."

To be sure, some investors believe the extreme level of fear on Wall Street means there is tremendous long-term potential in lower-valued bonds and stocks.

"There are plenty of attractively priced opportunities" in markets, said Russell Read, chief investment officer at the $235-billion-asset California Public Employees' Retirement System. "We're not on the sidelines at all. We're buying."

But many other investors clearly are in no hurry to step up. And that raises the potential for more declines in markets and deeper troubles for financial institutions.

Across Wall Street, there is a widespread belief that the Fed's use of its own capital to shore up Bear Stearns is just the first step toward an eventual government bailout of the housing market.

"The history of major financial crises is that the government is going to come in at some point," said Richard Sylla, a professor of financial history at New York University.

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posted by u2r2h at Saturday, March 15, 2008

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