Why Isn’t The Unemployment Crisis a National Emergency?, Economist’s View Blog


Even though the president has pivoted “from deficit reduction to job creation,” and even though job creation was the theme of the weekly address Obama gave today, I can’t say I’m any more encouraged about the prospects for a significant job creation package than I was when I wrote this.]

Labor markets are in terrible shape. Fourteen million people are unemployed, long-term unemployment remains near record highs, the ratio of job seekers to job openings is 4.3 to 1, and the employment to population ratio has dropped precipitously. Even if the economy grows at a robust average of 3.5% beginning in 2013, labor markets won’t fully recover until 2017. And if average growth is only 3.0% – well within the range of possibility – it will take until 2020. In short, labor markets are in crisis and the longer the crisis persists, the more permanent and growth-inhibiting the damage becomes.

So it was welcome news to see President Obama pivot from deficit reduction to job creation in his widely anticipated speech last week. The president proposed a combination of spending and tax reduction policies, and he surprised many people with the boldness of his proposals and his passion and commitment to the issue. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to do much to help with the unemployment problem.

There plenty of time to provide help, the dismal prospects for recovery detailed above make that clear. So the time it takes to implement job creation policies – the objection that there are not enough shovel ready projects – is not the issue. And while concerns over the deficit are valid for the long-run, they shouldn’t prevent us from doing more to help the jobless. The long-run debt problem is predominantly a health care cost problem, and whether or not we help the jobless doesn’t much change the magnitude of the long-run problem we face.

The problem is the political atmosphere. Republicans may go along with doing just enough to look cooperative rather than obstructionist, but no more than that and the policies that emerge are unlikely to be enough to make a substantial difference in the unemployment problem. It won’t be anywhere near the $445 billion program the president has called for, which itself is short of what is needed to really make a difference.

I don’t expect we’ll get much more help from the Fed either. There is quite a bit of disagreement among monetary policymakers over whether further easing would do more harm than good, and inflation hawks are standing in the way of those who want to aggressively attack the unemployment problem. As with Congress, the Fed is likely to adopt a compromise position and do the minimum it can while still looking as though it is trying to meet its obligation to promote full employment.

Thus, despite the President’s newfound interest in job creation, and the call from some at the Fed to treat the unemployment problem the same way they would treat elevated inflation – as though “their hair was on fire” – the actual policies that come out of Congress and the Fed are unlikely to be sufficient to make much of a dent in the problem.

It’s time for this to change. The loss of 8.75 million payroll jobs since the recession began should be a national emergency. But it’s not, and the question is why. Why has deficit reduction taken precedence over job creation? Why is our political system broken to the extent that a whole segment of the population is not being adequately represented in Congress?

That brings me to an important difference between the response to this recession and the policies that followed the Great Depression. Many of the policies that were enacted during and after the Great Depression not only addressed economic problems, they also directly or indirectly reduced the ability of special interests to capture the political process. Polices that imposed regulations on the financial sector, broke up monopolies, reduced inequality through highly progressive taxes, accorded new powers to unions, and so on shifted the balance of power toward the typical household.

But since the 1970s many of these changes have been reversed. Inequality has reverted to levels unseen since the Gilded Age, monopoly power has increased, financial regulation has waned, union power has been lost, and much of the disgust with the political process revolves around the feeling that politicians have lost touch with the interests of the working class. And it would be hard to disagree with that sentiment.

We need a serious discussion of this issue, followed by changes that shift political power toward the working class, but who will start the conversation? Congress has no interest in doing so, things are quite lucrative as they are. Unions used to have a voice, but they have been all but eliminated as a political force. The press could serve as the gatekeeper, but too many outlets are controlled by the very interests that the press needs to take on and this gives them the ability to cloud most any issue. Presidential leadership could make a difference, and Obama’s election brought hope for change, but this president does not seem inclined to take a strong stand on behalf of the working class despite the surprising boldness of his job creation speech.

Another option is that the working class itself will say enough is enough and demand change. There was a time when I would have scoffed at the idea of a mass revolt against entrenched political interests and the incivility that comes with it. We aren’t there yet – there’s still time for change – but the signs of unrest are growing and if we continue along a two-tiered path that ignores the needs of such a large proportion of society, it can no longer be ruled out.

U.S. may require more mortgage insurance Obama, FHFA outline possible help for underwater borrowers, by Ronald D. Orol, MarketWatch


WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — The regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on Monday said the agency may force more borrowers to obtain private mortgage insurance as he also laid out further details about ideas he is considering to expand an Obama administration mortgage refinance program.

At issue is the extent to which Freddie and Fannie require private mortgage insurance for loans the firms guarantee. The two companies, which were seized by the government during the height of the financial crisis, typically require borrowers to obtain some form of private mortgage insurance if they make downpayments that are less than 20% of the value of the home they are buying.

For example, a borrower that makes a $10,000 downpayment — 5% down on a $200,000 home — must currently obtain mortgage insurance, while a borrower who puts $40,000 down on the same house doesn’t.

Federal Housing Finance Agency acting chief Edward DeMarco said in a speech at the American Mortgage Conference in Raleigh, N.C. that the agency will be considering a number of alternatives, such as hiking private mortgage insurance,to limit costs to taxpayers from Fannie and Freddie. Already the two firms have cost taxpayers some $130 billion.

DeMarco’s comments come as President Barack Obama discussed limiting costs to taxpayers from Fannie and Freddie as part of a broader deficit reduction plan released Monday. In his plan, Obama reiterated the government’s goal of gradually hiking the fees that Fannie and Freddie charge for guaranteeing home loans sold to investors. Obama said that this fee hike will help reimburse taxpayers for their assistance. The goal is also to drive investors to once again buy private-label residential mortgage-backed securities.

In his speech, DeMarco said the guarantee fee hike “will not happen immediately but should be expected in 2012, with some prior announcement.”

In addition, DeMarco discussed ways the agency could expand an expand an existing program that seeks to refinance mortgages. Obama also outlined the White House effort in this area as part of his deficit reduction proposal, following up on comments he made on Sept. 8 as part of a broader speech on the economy and jobs. Read about Obama’s deficit reduction plan

At issue is the White House’s Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, which seeks to provide refinancing options to millions of underwater borrowers who have no equity in their homes as long as their mortgage is backed by Fannie and Freddie. The program has only helped roughly 838,000 borrowers as of June 30, with millions more underwater.

DeMarco said the agency is considering a number of options to encourage more borrower and lender participation, including the possibility of limiting or eliminating risk fees that Fannie and Freddie charge on HARP refinancings.

These fees are also known as “loan level price adjustments” and have been charged to offset losses Fannie and Freddie accumulate in cases when HARP loans go into default. The fees are typically passed on to borrowers in the form of slightly higher interest rates on their loans.

“Loan level price adjustments, representations and warranties… and portability of mortgage insurance coverage are among the matters being considered,” he said.

By saying the agency is consider “representation and warranties,” DeMarco indicated that the agency could seek to try and encourage more lender participation in HARP by offering to indemnify or limit banks’ “reps and warranties” risk when it comes to loans refinanced in the program.

Also known as put-back risk, in this context, is the possibility that the loan originator will have to repurchase the loan from Fannie and Freddie because the underwriting violated the two mortgage giants’ guidelines.

Observers contend that this kind of “put-back” relief would encourage lenders to invest in more underwater refinancings but critics argue that it also have the potential to pile up losses on Fannie and Freddie and taxpayers.

DeMarco also said the agency is looking at whether they can allow the borrower refinancing their loan to keep the same private mortgage insurance they had before the re-fi. Currently, the borrower must obtain new private mortgage insurance when they refinance the loan, at an additional cost.

DeMarco said the agency is also considering allowing for even more heavily underwater borrowers, those not currently eligible for the program, to participate. As it stands now, HARP only allows borrowers to refinance at current low interest rates into a mortgage that is at most 25% more than their home’s current value. The FHFA said Sept. 9 that it was considering such a move. However, DeMarco said there were several challenges with such an expansion and that the outcome of this review is “uncertain.” Read about how a quarter of U.S. mortgages could get help

A J.P. Morgan report Monday predicted the FHFA’s first focus to expand HARP will be to assist this class of super-underwater borrowers.

“Given this focus on high [loan-to-value] borrowers, we believe the first wave of changes will include lifting the 125 LTV limit,” the report said.

 

The New Homestead Act: Update, by Dr. Ed’s Blog


President Barack Obama recently promised that he has a plan to create jobs, which will be disclosed in September, after he takes 10 days off in Martha’s Vineyard. I certainly hope he comes up with a good plan. If he needs one, how about the one that Carl Goldsmith and I proposed at the beginning of August? [1] I met with my congressman, Gary Ackerman, last Tuesday to pitch the plan. He liked it well enough to issue a press release on Wednesday of this week endorsing it and promising to introduce the “Homestead: Act 2” when Congress returns from its August recess.[2]

The Act aims to reduce the huge overhang of unsold homes by offering a matching down payment subsidy of up to $20,000 for homebuyers, who do not currently own a home, and exempting newly acquired rental properties from taxation for 10 years. The cost of these incentives would be offset by the tax revenues collected by lowering the corporate tax rate on repatriated earnings to 10%. 

Congressman Gary Ackerman is presently serving his fifteenth term in the US House of Representatives. He represents the Fifth Congressional District of New York, which encompasses parts of the New York City Borough of Queens and the North Shore of Long Island, including west and northeast Queens and northern Nassau County. Ackerman serves on the powerful Financial Services Committee, where he sits on two Subcommittees: Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit as well as Capital Markets and Government-Sponsored Enterprises (of which he is the former Vice Chairman). The stock market rose sharply after March 12, 2009, when Mr. Ackerman, during a congressional hearing, leaned on Robert Herz, the head of FASB, to suspend the mark-to-market rule. FASB did so on April 2. I had brought this issue to the congressman’s attention in a meeting we had during November 2008.

 

Dr. Ed’s Blog
http://blog.yardeni.com/

 

 

Obama Considers Foreclosure Ban, by Carrie Bay, Dsnews.com


Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

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President Obama and his administration are floating an idea to prohibit lenders from foreclosing on a home unless the borrower has been considered for the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP).

The proposal would require servicers to initiate contact with all borrowers who are 60 or more days behind on their mortgage payments and offer them access to the federal modification program. Only after the homeowner has been screened under the HAMP guidelines and it is determined that the loan cannot be saved, could foreclosure proceedings commence. The proposal would also halt any foreclosures already in process once a borrower has been accepted into the trial phase of the program.

The proposal was reviewed by lenders last week on a White House conference call and “prohibits referral to foreclosure until borrower is evaluated and found ineligible for HAMPor reasonable contact efforts have failed,” Bloomberg Newsreported, citing a Treasury Department document outlining the plan.

Some lenders have been voluntarily suspending foreclosure proceedings while they evaluate a homeowner’s eligibility for HAMP, but under the program’s current guidelines there is no requirement to do so, and a number of homeowner advocacy groups have submitted complaints to the administration that even borrowers who are making their trial payments are being hit with foreclosure litigation.

A Treasury spokesperson confirmed that a foreclosure ban is under consideration, but stressed that it is one of many ideas on the table and has not been approved yet.

Laurie Goodman, a senior managing director at the Amherst Securities Group who has been highly critical of the government’s modification program, told the New York Times that even if the proposal came to pass, it would.

not be “a major change. We think there is a large public relations element to this,” she said.

As the Times noted, the government could use some favorable public relations for its modification program. Lawmakers have begun to openly express their disappointment with the program. On Thursday, members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said matter-of-factly in a report, that by every practical measure, “HAMP has failed.”

Reps. Darrell Issa (R-California) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) called the program a misuse of taxpayer money, theWashington Post said. The program has been allocated $75 billion to pay incentives to servicers, investors, and borrowers for loan restructurings, but the paper says that so far only $15 million has been spent.

As of the end of January, 116,297 troubled mortgages had been permanently modified under HAMP. About 830,000 more were in the trial phase of the program. The administration’s goal is to help three to four million borrowers save their homes through the program by the end of 2012.

News of a draft document by the Treasury outlining additional changes to HAMP also circulated this week. Besides the proposed ban on foreclosures until after aHAMP review, the administration is also considering implementing a mandatory 30-day appeal period for borrowers that are denied a federal modification. Servicers would not be allowed to proceed with a foreclosure sale during this time.

The proposal would also require servicers to prove that they have made multiple attempts to contact delinquent borrowers both by phone and via written notices, and would require them to consider HAMP applications from homeowners that have already filed for bankruptcy.

Lenders have expressed concern that the proposed requirements would prolong foreclosure delays beyond the current 12 month timeline that it typically takes to resolve the loans that don’t qualify for a modification.

Earlier this month at the American Securitization Forum’s annual meeting, Seth Wheeler, a senior advisor at the Treasury Department, told mortgage bond investors and lenders that the administration is also considering revising HAMP’s net present value (NPV) model in order to incorporate more principal writedowns into the equation. The NPV test is applied to determine if the mortgage owner can recoup more money by restructuring the loan or by foreclosing.

Christopher Whalen: Freddie and Fannie Helped to Create Epidemic of Mortgage Fraud, by Zerohedge.com


Chris Whalen (co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics [1]) knows a thing or two about banking and mortgages. Whalen has been hailed by Nouriel Roubini as one of the leading independent analysts of the U.S. banking system, and there are few people who know more about mortgage fraud.

Whalen points out [2] in a must-read article that Fannie and Freddie helped create the epidemic of mortgage fraud:

By summer of 2007 most of the bulk GSE pools underwritten by the MIs [mortgage insurers] started to experience extremely high levels of delinquencies. But rather than curtail MI operations and shore up underwriting, the MIs made a big push and increased subpirme production insuring large amounts of subprime product (lots of 220s) all the way into first quarter 2008.

The MIs tripled down and did so in hopes of making enough fee income to (1) meet plan and (2) shore up capital that had started to bleed. This push, which was not always reported honestly to share and bond holders, signed the respective death warrants for Fannie and Freddie. But the zombie dance party rocks on.

So today the MIs are still operating, though they are not providing insurance because they can’t. Observers in the operational trenches tell The IRA that virtually no MI claims are being paid – even if the claim is legitimate. The MIs are very undercapitalized and still bleeding heavily. But they get continued business because the GSEs demand MI on high LTV loans. Lenders are forced to use the MIs and consumers are made to pay the premium. Thus the auditors of the GSE continue to respect the cover from the MIs, even though the entire industry is arguably insolvent.

Thus we go back to the low-income borrower, who is forced by the GSEs to pay for private mortgage insurance that will never pay out. The relationship between the GSEs and the MIs is identical to the “side letter” insurance transactions between AIG andGen Re, and come to think of it, the AIG credit default swaps trades with Goldman Sachs (GS) and various other Wall Street dealers. In each case the substance of the transaction is to falsify the financial statements of the participants. And in each case, the acts are arguably criminal fraud.

Whalen blasts the cowards in Washington for failing to unwind the mortgage fraud:

The invidious cowards who inhabit Washington are unwilling to restructure the largest banks and GSEs. The reluctance comes partly from what truths restructuring will reveal. As a result, these same large zombie banks and the U.S. economy will continue to shrink under the weight of bad debt, public and private. Remember that the Dodd-Frank legislation was not so much about financial reform as protecting the housing GSEs.

Because President Barack Obama and the leaders of both political parties are unwilling to address the housing crisis and the wasting effects on the largest banks, there will be no growth and no net job creation in the U.S. for the next several years. And because the Obama White House is content to ignore the crisis facing millions of American homeowners, who are deep underwater and will eventually default on their loans, the efforts by the Fed to reflate the U.S. economy and particularly consumer spending will be futile. As Alan Meltzer noted to Tom Keene on Bloomberg Radio earlier this year: “This is not a monetary problem.”

***

The policy of the Fed and Treasury with respect to the large banks is state socialism writ large, without even the pretense of a greater public good.

***

The fraud and obfuscation now underway in Washinton to protect the TBTF banks and GSEs totals into the trillions of dollars and rises to the level of treason.

***

And in the case of the zombie banks, the GSEs and the MIs, the fraud is being actively concealed by Congress, the White House and agencies of the U.S. government led by the Federal Reserve Board. Is this not tyranny?

BofA Extends Freeze on Foreclosures to All 50 States, by Michael J. Moore, Lorraine Woellert and Dakin Campbell, Bloomberg.com


 

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Bank of America Corp., the biggest U.S. lender, extended a freeze on foreclosures to all 50 states as concern spread among federal and local officials that homes are being seized based on false data.

“We just want to clear the air,” Bank of America Chief Executive Officer Brian T. Moynihan said today in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington.

Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Ally Financial Inc. already froze foreclosures in 23 states where courts supervise home seizures amid allegations that employees used unverified or false data to speed the process. Bank of America’s new policy extends its moratorium to the entire nation, and the announcement spurred more demands from public officials and community groups for other banks to follow suit.

“All mortgage providers should follow the example of Bank of America and review their practices to ensure that they are not unfairly targeting homeowners in Nevada and across the nation,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said today in a statement.

PNC Financial Services Group Inc. halted sales of foreclosed homes for a month to review documents in its mortgage servicing procedures, according to an Oct. 4 memo the Pittsburgh-based bank sent to lawyers handling the lender’s foreclosures.

Bank of America fell 13 cents, or 1 percent, to $13.18 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The shares have lost 12 percent this year.

States Investigating

“We will stop foreclosure sales until our assessment has been satisfactorily completed,” the Charlotte, North Carolina- based company said today in a statement. “Our ongoing assessment shows the basis for foreclosure decisions is accurate.”

At least seven states are investigating claims that home lenders and loan servicers took shortcuts to speed foreclosures. Attorneys general in Ohio and Connecticut have said some of the practices used by banks to take away homes may amount to fraud. Acting Comptroller of the CurrencyJohn Walsh last week asked the nation’s seven biggest lenders to review foreclosures for defective documents, spokesman Bryan Hubbard said.

“Bank of America has done the right thing by stopping foreclosures in all 50 states,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said today in a statement. “Other banks that have questionable procedures should do the same while the investigation continues.”

President Barack Obama’s administration didn’t pressure the bank to enact the freeze, Moynihan said.

Record Foreclosures

Lenders took possession of a record 95,364 homes in August and issued foreclosure filings to 338,836 homeowners, or one of every 381 U.S. households, according to RealtyTrac Inc., an Irvine, California-based data vendor.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Vickee Adams said the lender is still processing foreclosures and referred to a statement the bank put out earlier this week, saying “our affidavit procedures and daily auditing demonstrate that our foreclosure affidavits are accurate.”

Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for New York-based JPMorgan, and Gina Proia, spokeswoman for Detroit-based Ally, declined to comment.

“Bank of America has made the right choice given the circumstances of this scandal,” said Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition in San Francisco. “The primary concern for all of these banks should be to figure out where they are handling foreclosures illegally before they erroneously and unfairly take another family’s home.”

Lawmakers React

In Washington, dozens of lawmakers in Congress have called for a freeze on foreclosures and are seeking investigations. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ChairmanEdolphus Towns yesterday demanded a moratorium and asked New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to investigate allegations of fraud. Towns, a New York Democrat, led hearings last year into Bank of America’s federal bailouts.

“The implications of ignoring the foreclosure problems are far too great to be ignored,” Towns said in a statement. “Bank of America did the right thing today and I expect to see every other responsible banking institution follow their lead.”

On Wednesday, two members of the House Financial Services Committee, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Dennis Moore of Kansas, asked the Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program to investigate foreclosure practices.

‘Unwarranted Foreclosures’

“There is already enough evidence of unwarranted foreclosures and irregularities by lenders and servicers to warrant full investigations into the practices of these financial institutions,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter.

A coalition of community organizer groups and labor unions, including the National People’s Action and the Service Employees International Union, called for a national freeze on foreclosures.

“It is unconscionable that Wall Street banks continue to use a corrupt and fraudulent procedure to flood the housing market with illegal foreclosures that are throwing millions of American families out of their homes,” the groups said in a statement today. “It’s the latest example of a predatory industry.”

To contact the reporters on this story:
Michael J. Moore in New York at
mmoore55@bloomberg.net;
Lorraine Woellert in Washington at
lwoellert@bloomberg.net;
Dakin Campbell in San Francisco at
dcampbell27@bloomberg.net.To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Alec D.B. McCabe in New York at
amccabe@bloomberg.net;
Rick Green in New York at
rgreen18@bloomberg.net.