Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Economics 26/05/2009: US Confidence, NAMA-pack lunacy

I am back from the fabled Russian 'dacha' - the world so close to Moscow, yet so far away that no email can reach you there (assuming you have O2 for your I-phone service provider charging monopoly rip-off rates for data roaming). Sunny last two days and lovely 21 degrees weather. Good fishing. Missing Luca and his Mama, though.

I spotted few stories worth mentioning. First - from the US, then - about NAMA (scroll to the end of the post to read this one)

First, the US Consumer Confidence pick up from 40.8 in April to 54.9 in May - a fourth largest jump in the series in history. Basically, the drivers of expectations rise are business conditions, labour market and personal income, which means the rise is broadly defined. This is good news, as this time around we have a combination of twin factors underpinning the improvement: not only Consumer Confidence rose itself, but the 'Misery Index' components, short of house markets (see Case-Shiller latest data analysis here), are also stabilising. But, should we read to far into the 'resurgent consumer' story or is the US consumer simply catching the same fever as the US (and other countries') politicians who are all too eager to sound the bells of an impeding recovery?

There is a rising sense of denial of the fact that the crisis is far from being over in the US Administration. So much so, that the Tim Geithner managed to simply forget the causes of the current US Housing crisis (see here) in his interview with Washington Post:

Washington Post: "...When you look at the collapse of the housing market, who do you think bears the greatest responsibility? Is it the banks for pushing these loans? Is it the consumer for borrowing over their means? The regulators?"
Geithner: "For something this big and damaging to happen it takes a lot of mistakes over time. ...Interest rate here and around the world were kept too low for too long. Investors ...took a bunch of risks without understanding the risks. ...Rating agencies failed to rate these products adequately. Supervisors failed to underwrite loans with sufficiently conservative standards. So those basic checks and balances failed. And people borrowed too much."

So no regulators faults? No Billy Clinton 'empowering the poor to homeownership' policies fault? No financial services authorities overseeing securities and financial markets (and thus securitization, wholesale lending, etc) fault? Given this state of denial coming from the Treasury top man in office, what can one expect from the poor Fannie & Freddie - late last week, Federal Housing Agency (FHA), the primary tool for Bill Clinton's ill-fated attempt to financialise subprime borrowers has noted that Fannie Mae's HomeSaverAdvance (HSA) programme, launched in February 2008 in an attempt to provide aid to the homeowners who fell behind on their mortgage repayments has produced an increase in re-defaults. FHA director James Lockhart said in a Congressional report last week that “Performance on the February through April [HSA] offerings shows a redefault rate of almost 70%.” Well, I bet. You give bloated mortgages to those who can never repay them, then the proverbial S***T hits the fan and they default. You, thus, give them another unsecured loan to delay the inevitable foreclosure and, guess what, once the dosh runs out, they default again...

Of course, Geithner can take solace that there are plenty of even less enlightened political leaders and regulators out there. I mean Brian 'The Saviour' Cowen (here and here) is simply in such a deep denial, that Geithner's statements read like a sign of lucidity.

And Brian is not alone: NAMA-own Peter 'The Wise' Bacon and Brendan 'The Sleeping-Pill' McDonagh appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance & Public Service (note the irony of putting together Finance and Public Service) today. Per Irish Times and RTE reports:

Mr McDonagh: “We believe the Government is basically interested in keeping banks listed and relies on Nama to trigger a change of market sentiment”.

This clearly indicates that the Government is planning to overpay for the assets transferred to NAMA in order to avoid a much more transparent recapitalization call from the banks post-NAMA. In response, JPMorgan Chase analysts wrote that he sees "sizeable chances of a smaller haircut to avoid further capital needs”. Well, DOUGH, as Homer would reply. The beef here is that the taxpayers are now being set up by the Government to take the fall instead of the banks and developers. Again, all of you know I have nothing against either the banks or the developers, but I am adamantly against my bank account and income being raided by Lenihan to rescue his cronies. And, when the state overpays for assets to avoid future re-capitalisation the taxpayers do not get shares in the banks we re-float.

RTE: "The details of loans furnished to NAMA yesterday from the six covered institutions will show for the first time the exposure of individual developers. Mr McDonagh said a number of borrowers had loans of more than €1bn across all the institutions. Up to a 1,000 borrowers have loans greater than €10mln."

That is a sign of a heavily concentrated market. Which means that foreclosing on some of these 'systemic' borrowers will not be a problem for the country - take a straight hit on assets side and see no ripple effect. But no,

McDonagh said (also per RTE) "NAMA was not in the business of liquidation, but developers who did not comply with NAMA would face the full legal consequences. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan told the committee some liquidations, receiverships and bankruptcies would have to take place."

Now, here are few things to consider:
  1. If NAMA will not be liquidating non-performing assets, how big is the downside it will accept? If downside were to be limited, how can foreclosures, liquidations or receiverships (flr) be avoided?
  2. What 'full legal consequences' does Mr McDonagh have in mind if not flr?
  3. What does Mr McDonagh mean by complying with NAMA?
  4. If NAMA were to have fixed life span, how will NAMA deal with assets that are not performing at the end of such period? Just pretend they do not exist?
  5. What is the difference between NAMA and a Japanese-styled hyper-zombie bank if NAMA cannot liquidate assets?

Mr McDonagh said that claw back levy to address losses from NAMA will not be decided "until the agency completed its work in 10 years' time and the amount realised by assets was clear". Hold on a minute -

  • we now have a date: 10 years. Given that the life-span of NAMA has been cut from 15 years to 10 years, questions 1-5 above just became so much more important as in effect the zombie bank will have to be wound up sooner, rather than later;
  • how does Mr McDonagh see the claw back uncertainty impacting banks operations over the next 10 years? How does he see it impacting risk pricing for NAMA bonds? Does Mr McDonagh actually have a clue what he is talking about? It appears not, for he sees no problem with any of the above issues.

Per RTE: "Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said the levy could not be included in the NAMA legislation for legal reasons but it could be added to a future Finance Act. But he said it would be made clear when NAMA was set up that the levy could be applied in the future."

This is truly amazing. Lenihan also does not understand issues of risk pricing for banks, investors, bond holders, state bond buyers and the Exchequer. Furthermore, I fail to comprehend how will the legal reasons that prevent the Irish Government today from publishing details of the clawback vanish in the future? By some magic FF wand?

Dr Peter Bacon, said (per RTE) "it was important to take all development loans into the agency, including performing loans, in order to give certainty to investors. He said it did not matter whether the loans resided in the banks, overseen by NAMA, or whether they transferred fully to NAMA. The critical point is that NAMA provides the strategic direction, he said".

What 'certainty to investors' does he have in mind? Investors in the banks? Investors in development project? Investors in state bonds? Certainty of return? Certainty in a specific level of return? Certainty that NAMA is not a pure zombie bank? Certainty that the banks will not be saddled with the full NAMA bill in the future?

Perhaps the most astounding feature of the entire reported discourse between Mr Bacon, Mr McDonagh and Brian Lenihan on NAMA is that not a single one of them is concerned with the taxpayers' money significantly enough to discuss the risks of losses to the ordinary people from NAMA operations. Given that, you can't tell me that NAMA is not a pure rescue scheme for the cronies of our political elites...

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