Tag Archives: Financial Crisis

Wikileaks 2.0

http://bankofamericasuck.com/

Adrian Chen at Gawker:

A member of the activist collective Anonymous is claiming to be have emails and documents which prove “fraud” was committed by Bank of America employees, and the group says it’ll release them on Monday. The member, who goes by the Twitter handle OperationLeakS, has already posted an internal email from the formerly Bank of America-owned Balboa Insurance Company

The email is between Balboa Insurance vice president Peggy Johnson and other Balboa employees. (Click right to enlarge.) As far as we can tell, it doesn’t show anything suspicious, but was posted by OperationLeaks as a teaser. He also posted emails he claims are from the disgruntled employee who sent him the material. In one, the employee says he can “send you a copy of the certified letter sent to me by an AVP of BofA’s [HR department] telling me I am banned from stepping foot on BofA property or contacting their employee ever again.”

OperationLeaks, which runs the anti-Bank of America site BankofAmericasuck.com, says the employee contacted the group to blow the whistle on Bank of America’s shady business practices. “I seen some of the emails… I can tell you Grade A Fraud in its purest form…” read one tweet. “He Just told me he have GMAC emails showing BoA order to mix loan numbers to not match it’s Documents.. to foreclose on Americans.. Shame.”

An Anonymous insider told us he believes the leak is real. “From what I know and have been told, it’s legit,” he said. “Should be a round of emails, then some files, possible some more emails to follow that.” The documents should be released Monday on Anonleaks.ch, the same site where Anonymous posted thousands of internal emails from hacked security company HBGary last month. That leak exposed a legally-questionable plot to attack Wikileaks and ultimately led to the resignation of HBGary CEO Aaron Barr.

Katya Wachtel at Clusterstock:

Anonymous said late Sunday evening, however, “this is part 1 of the Emails.” So perhaps more incriminating correspondence is to come. And to be honest, these messages could be incredibly damaging, but we’re not mortgage specialists and don’t know if this is or isn’t common in the field. The beauty is, you can see and decide for yourself at bankofamericasuck.com.

But for those who want a simple explanation, here’s a summary of the content.

The Source

The ex-Balboa employee tells Anonymous that what he/she sends will be enough to,

crack [BofA’s] armor, and put a bad light on a $700 mil cash deal they need to pay back the government while ruining their already strained relationship with GMAC, one of their largest clients. Trust me… it’ll piss them off plenty.

The source then sends over a paystub, an unemployment form, a letter from HR upon dismissal and his/her last paystub and an ID badge.

He/she also describes his/herself:

My name is (Anonymous). For the last 7 years, I worked in the Insurance/Mortgage industry for a company called Balboa Insurance. Many of you do not know who Balboa Insurance Group is, but if you’ve ever had a loan for an automobile, farm equipment, mobile home, or residential or commercial property, we knew you. In fact, we probably charged you money…a lot of money…for insurance you didn’t even need.

Balboa Insurance Group, and it’s largest competitor, the market leader Assurant, is in the business of insurance tracking and Force Placed Insurance…  What this means is that when you sign your name on the dotted line for your loan, the lienholder has certain insurance requirements that must be met for the life of the lien. Your lender (including, amongst others, GMAC… IndyMac… HSBC… Wells Fargo/Wachovia… Bank of America) then outsources the tracking of your loan with them to a company like Balboa Insurance.

The Emails

Next comes the emails that are supposed to be so damaging. The set of emails just released shows conversational exchanges between Balboa employees.

The following codes pertain to the emails, so use as reference:

  1. SOR = System of Record
  2. Rembrandt/Tracksource = Insurance tracking systems
  3. DTN = Document Tracking Number. A number assigned to all incoming/outgoing documents (letters, insurance documents, etc)

The first email asks for a group of GMAC DTN’s to have their “images removed from Tracksource/Rembrandt.” The relevant DTNs are included in the email — there’s between 50-100 of them.

In reply, a Balboa employee says that the DTN’s cannot be removed from the Rembrandt, but that the loan numbers can be removed so “the documents will not show as matched to those loans.” But she adds that she needs upper management approval before she moves forward, since it’s an unusual request.

Then it gets approved. And then, one of the Balboa employees voices their concern. He says,

“I’m just a little concerned about the impact this has on the department and the company. Why are we removing all record of this error? We have told Denise Cahen, and there is always going to be the paper trail when one of these sent documents come back. this to me seems to be a huge red flag for the auditors… when the auditor sees the erroneous letter but no SOR trail or scanned doc on the corrected letter… What am I missing? This just doesn’t seem right to me.

We suspect this is the type of email that Anonymous believes shows BofA fraud:

leak one

Image: Anonymous

Click here to see why these emails prove nothing interesting, and to see what what Bank of America says about the emails >

Chris V. Nicholson at Dealbook at NYT:

A Bank of America spokesman told Reuters on Sunday that the documents had been stolen by a former Balboa employee, and were not tied to foreclosures. “We are confident that his extravagant assertions are untrue,” the spokesman said.

The e-mails dating from November 2010 concern correspondence among Balboa employees in which they discuss taking steps to alter the record about certain documents “that went out in error.” The documents were related to loans by GMAC, a Bank of America client, according to the e-mails.

“The following GMAC DTN’s need to have the images removed from Tracksource/Rembrandt,” an operations team manager at Balboa wrote. DTN refers to document tracking number, and Tracksource/Rembrandt is an insurance tracking system.

The response he receives: “I have spoken to my developer and she stated that we cannot remove the DTNs from Rembrandt, but she can remove the loan numbers, so the documents will not show as matched to those loans.”

According to the e-mails, approval was given to remove the loan numbers from the documents.

A member of Anonymous told DealBook on Monday that the purpose of his Web site was to bring attention to the wrongdoing of banks. “The way the system is, it’s made to cheat the average person,” he said.

He had set up a Web site to post bank data that WikiLeaks has said it would release, and was subsequently contacted this month by the former Balboa employee. It has been speculated that the documents, which have yet to be released, would focus on Bank of America. The spokesman for Anonymous said he had no direct ties to WikiLeaks, which is run by Julian Assange.

Nitasha Tiku at New York Magazine:

WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, has threatened to leak damning documents on Bank of America since 2009. And Anonymous has backed WikiLeaks’ mission as far as the free flow of information. But these e-mails date from November 2010. Plus, they don’t exactly amount to a smoking gun. Whether or not the e-mails prove real, it’s clear Bank of America should have expanded its negative-domain-name shopping spree beyond BrianMoynihanSucks.com.

Naked Capitalism:

The charge made in this Anonymous release (via BankofAmericaSuck) is that Bank of America, through its wholly-owned subsidiary Balboa Insurance and the help of cooperating servicers, engaged in a mortgage borrower abuse called “force placed insurance”. This is absolutely 100% not kosher. Famed subprime servicer miscreant Fairbanks in 2003 signed a consent decree with the FTC and HUD over abuses that included forced placed insurance. The industry is well aware that this sort of thing is not permissible. (Note Balboa is due to be sold to QBE of Australia; I see that the definitive agreement was entered into on February 3 but do not see a press release saying that the sale has closed)

While the focus of ire may be Bank of America, let me stress that this sort of insurance really amounts to a scheme to fatten servicer margins. If this leak is accurate, the servicers at a minimum cooperated. If they got kickbacks, um, commissions, they are culpable and thus liable.

As we have stated repeatedly, servicers lose tons of money on portfolios with a high level of delinquencies and defaults. The example of Fairbanks, a standalone servicer who subprime portfolio got in trouble in 2002, is that servicers who are losing money start abusing customers and investors to restore profits. Fairbanks charged customers for force placed insurance and as part of its consent decree, paid large fines and fired its CEO (who was also fined).

Regardless, this release lends credence a notion too obvious to borrowers yet the banks and its co-conspirators, meaning the regulators, have long denied, that mortgage servicing and foreclosures are rife with abuses and criminality. Here’s some background courtesy Barry Ritholtz:

When a homeowner fails to keep up their insurance premiums on a mortgaged residence, their loan servicer has the option/obligation to step in to buy a comparable insurance policy on the loan holder’s behalf, to ensure the mortgaged property remains fully insured….

Consider one case found by [American Banker’s Jeff] Horwitz. A homeowner’s $4,000 insurance policy, was paid by the loan servicer, Everbank via escrow. But Everbank purposely let that insurance policy lapse, and then replaced it with a different policy – one that cost more than $33,000. To add insult to injury, the insurer, a subsidiary of Assurant, paid Everbank a $7,100 kickback for giving it such a lucrative policy — and, writes Horwitz, “left the door open to further compensation” down the road.

That $33,000 policy — including the $7,100 kickback – is an enormous amount of money for any loan servicer to make on a single property. The average loan servicer makes just $51 per loan per year.

Here’s where things get interesting: That $33,000 insurance premium is ultimately paid by the investors who bought the loan.

And the worst of this is….the insurance is often reinsured by the bank/servicer, which basically means the insurance is completely phony. The servicer will never put in a claim to trigger payment. As Felix Salmon noted,

This is doubly evil: it not only means that investors are paying far too much money for the insurance, but it also means that, as both the servicer and the ultimate insurer of the property, JPMorgan Chase has every incentive not to pursue claims on the houses it services. Investors, of course, would love to recoup any losses from the insurer, but they can’t bring such a claim — only the servicer can do that.

Note there are variants of this scheme where insurance is charged to the borrower (I’ve been told of insurance being foisted on borrowers that amounts to unconsented-to default insurance, again with the bank as insurer; this has been anecdotal with insufficient documentation, but I’ve heard enough independent accounts to make me pretty certain it was real)

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

Just because something has a lot of anecdotal evidence behind it doesn’t necessarily mean the specific case is true. But the forced-place insurance scam has been part of other servicer lawsuits, so it definitely exists. Whether this set of emails shows that taking place is another matter. Apparently this is just the first Anonymous email dump, so there should be more on the way

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic

Parmy Olson at Forbes:

Yet however inconclusive the e-mails may be, the leak may have wider implications as Anonymous gradually proves itself a source of comeuppance for disgruntled employees with damning information about a company or institution. Once the domain of WikiLeaks, the arrest of key whistleblower Bradley Manning suggested the site founded by fellow incarcerate Julian Assange could not always protect its sources. “A lot depends on the impact of this week,” says Gabriella Coleman, a professor at NYU who is researching Anonymous, who added that “Anonymous could go in that [WikiLeaks] direction.”

Anonymous is not an institution like WikiLeaks. It is global, has no leader, no clear hierarchy and no identifiable spokespeople save for pseudo-representatives like Gregg Housh (administrator of whyweprotest.net) and Barrett Brown.

It has some ideals: Anonymous tends to defend free speach and fight internet censorship, as with the DDoS-ing of the web sites of MasterCard, Visa and PayPal after they nixed funding services to WikiLeaks, and the DDoS-ing of Tunisian government Web sites. It is also great at spectacle. The group’s hacking of software security firm HBGary Federal not only gained oodles of press attention, it inadvertently revealed the firm had been proposing a dirty tricks campaign with others against WikiLeaks to Bank of America’s lawyers.

That hack led, rather organically, to the establishment of AnonLeaks.ru, a Web site where the Anonymous hackers posted tens of thousands of HBGary e-mails in a handy web viewer. While it took just five supporters to hack HBGary, hundreds more poured through the e-mails to identify incriminating evidence, leading to more press reports on the incident.

Such is the nature of Anonymous–global, fluid, intelligent, impossible to pin down–that it is could become an increasingly popular go-to for people wishing to vent damaging information about an institution with questionable practices.

The collective already receives dozens of requests each month from the public to attack all manner of unsavoury subjects, from personal targets to the government of Libya, from Westboro Baptist Church to Facebook. It rarely responds to them–as one Anonymous member recently told me, “we’re not hit men.”

Yet for all its facets as both hot-tempered cyber vigilantes and enlighteners of truth, Anonymous is becoming increasingly approachable, as the latest emails between OperationLeakS and the former BoA employee show. Assuming this particular employee doesn’t end up languishing in jail like Manning, more people may now be inclined to follow suit.

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Filed under Economics, New Media, Technology, The Crisis

Is It Good News? Is It Really, After All This Time, Good News?

Chart via Calculated Risk

Calculated Risk:

From the BLS:

Nonfarm payroll employment increased by 192,000 in February, and the unemployment rate was little changed at 8.9 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.

The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for December was revised from +121,000 to +152,000, and the change for January was revised from +36,000 to +63,000.

The following graph shows the employment population ratio, the participation rate, and the unemployment rate.

Daniel Indiviglio at The Atlantic:

It should be noted that today’s report revised upwards the number of jobs for both December and January to 152,000 from 121,000 and to 63,000 from 36,000, respectively. Obviously, it’s good news that there were actually 58,000 more jobs created during these two months combined than we thought.

Those 192,000 net new jobs in February according to BLS’s Establishment survey aren’t far off the 250,000 estimated by its Household survey. There was a major discrepancy last month: these surveys estimated 36,000 and 589,000 jobs created, respectively. It’s nice to see these two surveys’ statistics a little closer together in February, as it provides better credibility to the numbers we’re seeing.

Private sector jobs did much better than government jobs in February. Firms added 222,000, while state and local jobs declined by 30,000. Federal jobs were unchanged.

Felix Salmon:

The general reaction to this morning’s jobs report is “meh”, as you might expect, given the release, where the phrases “changed little”, “about unchanged”, “little or no change”, “unchanged”, and “essentially unchanged” all appear in the first five paragraphs. But that’s largely a function of the fact that the release attacks the unemployment figures first; when it comes to payrolls, they rose by a statistically significant amount — 192,000 jobs, and the trend, while modest, is clearly in the right direction:

Since a recent low in February 2010, total payroll employment has grown by 1.3 million, or an average of 106,000 per month.

The really good news in this report is that it’s looking increasingly as though the sharp drop in the unemployment rate over December and January, when it fell from 9.8% to 9.0% in two months, is less of an aberration than it might seem. The 8.9% rate, while undeniably unacceptably high, is the first time we’ve seen an 8 handle on this figure in almost two years. And remember that in October 2009, the number was 10.1%.

Given that unemployment by its nature falls more slowly than it rises, a decrease of 1.2 percentage points in 16 months has to be taken as an indication that something is, finally, going right. (Other unemployment rates, like the much-discussed U6, are also down sharply: it’s now 15.9%, from 17.0% in November.)

Even the worst news of the report, in table A-12, is something of a statistical aberration: while the mean duration of unemployment hit an atrocious new high of 37.1 weeks, that’s mainly because the upper bound for for unemployment duration was changed this year to 5 years from 2 years. The median duration fell, to 21.2 weeks. There’s still an American underclass of about 2.5 million long-term unemployed, but it does seem to be shrinking a little.

Tom Diemer at Politics Daily:

The news wasn’t good enough for the Republican National Committee. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said even with the better jobs numbers, “we have yet to see the leadership we need coming out of the White House to restore sustainable economic growth. . . . Frankly, if the answer doesn’t involve more spending, this administration is simply out of solutions.”

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) saw a better day ahead and warned that cutting the federal budget too deeply this year could cost jobs in a fragile economy. “Republicans should work with us to quickly pass a long-term budget that reduces the deficit while protecting jobs, and [giving] business certainty,” he said. Similarly, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the improving economy “remains threatened by irresponsible budget cutting in Congress and in states and cities.”

Ezra Klein:

The most important thing for not only the economy, but also the long-term deficit, is that we get unemployment down, and fast. When businesses begin hiring again, that’ll mean more revenue rushing into state and federal coffers, it’ll mean gains in the stock market, it’ll mean lower social spending through programs like Medicaid and unemployment insurance. Sharp spending cuts may save us some money, but that doesn’t mean they’re a good deal, at least right now. What we need at the moment is more jobs reports like this one — businesses need to be convinced that this is a recovery, not merely a good month. Anything that might get in the way should wait until we’ve had a few of them in a row.

Doug Mataconis:

There are caveats, of course. There are still millions of people sitting outside the labor force after the recession, and returning them to full employment is going to be a difficult, if not impossible, task to achieve The rising price of oil, brought on by the myriad crises in the Middle East, could put a damper on any economic recovery we’re experiencing right now. And, of course, this could all be a one month anomaly. Nonetheless, this is good news and let’s hope it continues.

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Filed under Economics, The Crisis

Erlernen Sie Von Uns, Amerika, Part III

David Leonhardt at NYT:

Remember the German economic boom of 2010?

Germany’s economic growth surged in the middle of last year, causing commentators both there and here to proclaim that American stimulus had failed and German austerity had worked. Germany’s announced budget cuts, the commentators said, had given private companies enough confidence in the government to begin spending their own money again.

Well, it turns out the German boom didn’t last long. With its modest stimulus winding down, Germany’s growth slowed sharply late last year, and its economic output still has not recovered to its prerecession peak. Output in the United States — where the stimulus program has been bigger and longer lasting — has recovered. This country would now need to suffer through a double-dip recession for its gross domestic product to be in the same condition as Germany’s.

Yet many members of Congress continue to insist that budget cuts are the path to prosperity. The only question in Washington seems to be how deeply to cut federal spending this year.

If the economy were at a different point in the cycle — not emerging from a financial crisis — the coming fight over spending could actually be quite productive. Republicans could force Democrats to make government more efficient, which Democrats rarely do on their own. Democrats could force Republicans to abandon the worst of their proposed cuts, like those to medical research, law enforcement, college financial aid and preschools. And maybe such a benevolent compromise can still occur over the next several years.

The immediate problem, however, is the fragility of the economy. Gross domestic product may have surpassed its previous peak, but it’s still growing too slowly for companies to be doing much hiring. States, of course, are making major cuts. A big round of federal cuts will only make things worse.

So if the opponents of deep federal cuts, starting with President Obama, are trying to decide how hard to fight, they may want to err on the side of toughness. Both logic and history make this case.

Let’s start with the logic. The austerity crowd argues that government cuts will lead to more activity by the private sector. How could that be? The main way would be if the government were using so many resources that it was driving up their price and making it harder for companies to use them.

In the early 1990s, for instance, government borrowing was pushing up interest rates. When the deficit began to fall, interest rates did too. Projects that had not previously been profitable for companies suddenly began to make sense. The resulting economic boom brought in more tax revenue and further reduced the deficit.

But this virtuous cycle can’t happen today. Interest rates are already very low. They’re low because the financial crisis and recession caused a huge drop in the private sector’s demand for loans. Even with all the government spending to fight the recession, overall demand for loans has remained historically low, the data shows.

Similarly, there is no evidence that the government is gobbling up too many workers and keeping them from the private sector. When John Boehner, the speaker of the House, said last week that federal payrolls had grown by 200,000 people since Mr. Obama took office, he was simply wrong. The federal government has added only 58,000 workers, largely in national security, since January 2009. State and local governments have cut 405,000 jobs over the same span.

The fundamental problem after a financial crisis is that businesses and households stop spending money, and they remain skittish for years afterward. Consider that new-vehicle sales, which peaked at 17 million in 2005, recovered to only 12 million last year. Single-family home sales, which peaked at 7.5 million in 2005, continued falling last year, to 4.6 million. No wonder so many businesses are uncertain about the future.

Without the government spending of the last two years — including tax cuts — the economy would be in vastly worse shape. Likewise, if the federal government begins laying off tens of thousands of workers now, the economy will clearly suffer.

Doug J.:

Bobo six months ago on German austerity:

The early returns suggest the Germans were. The American stimulus package was supposed to create a “summer of recovery,” according to Obama administration officials. Job growth was supposed to be surging at up to 500,000 a month. Instead, the U.S. economy is scuffling along.

[….]

The economy can’t be played like a piano — press a fiscal key here and the right job creation notes come out over there. Instead, economic management is more like parenting. If you instill good values and create a secure climate then, through some mysterious process you will never understand, things will probably end well.

An actual economics reporter (Dave Leonhardt) today:

With its modest stimulus winding down, Germany’s growth slowed sharply late last year, and its economic output still has not recovered to its prerecession peak. Output in the United States — where the stimulus program has been bigger and longer lasting — has recovered. This country would now need to suffer through a double-dip recession for its gross domestic product to be in the same condition as Germany’s.

[…..]

“It’s really quite striking how well the U.S. is performing relative to the U.K., which is tightening aggressively,” says Ian Shepherdson, a Britain-based economist for the research firm High Frequency Economics, “and relative to Germany, which is tightening more modestly.” Mr. Shepherdson adds that he generally opposes stimulus programs for a normal recession but that they are crucial after a crisis.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that any argument involving the idea of government as parent will be a faulty argument.

No one could have predicted that Paul Krugman would be right about austerity.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

David Leonhardt is speaking simple economic truths in what must sound like a foreign language, given the tenor of debates over the past few months. Standard economic theories haven’t applied in Washington for a while, so Leonhardt’s essay has the force of the running man throwing the hammer into the Big Brother TV screen in the famous Apple 1984 commercial.

Leonhardt manages to mention that GDP is still growing too slowly in the US for mass hiring, even with a higher growth rate than Germany. He manages to note the state and local cuts that will blunt recovery. He manages to look at interest rates, which are historically low, and reason that government spending is not crowding out the private sector in any way. He calls John Boehner a liar for saying the federal workforce has grown by 200,000 employees since Barack Obama’s tenure in office (it’s about 1/4 that). He says that the problem right now is a lack of demand. He cites the much better example of Britain, which has gone whole-hog for austerity and seen negative job growth and negative GDP growth since.

I’d like to think that this kind of truth would, like resuscitating a dying patient, shock the political class back to life. More likely it will just fall down the memory hole, drowned out by the bipartisan cries of “we all want to cut spending.” The unemployed are still invisible, economic theory is still upside down, and one article won’t change that.

It would be nice if it did.

Andrew Leonard at Salon:

What do we learn from the correlation between states with the worst housing bust and budget shortfalls? If U.S. economic growth slows, the federal deficit situation will get worse. Republicans believe that cutting government spending will spur economic growth. But the evidence we have from countries that have attempted such a strategy since the Great Recession began to ebb — Germany and the United Kingdom — suggests exactly the opposite. Austerity policies are not the right medicine for a fragile economy.

Felix Salmon:

One of the best aspects of being a journalist is that you get to talk at length to the most knowledgeable and interesting experts on just about any subject you can think of. For me, yesterday was a prime case in point: a long and fascinating lunch with James Macdonald, the author of my favorite book on the history of sovereign debt. Turns out he also has a microscopic vineyard in Tuscany, so the conversation ebbed wonderfully from economics to wine and back.

Macdonald has an economic historian’s view of the current austerity debate, and he was very clear: if you look at the history of countries trying to cut and deflate their way to prosperity while keeping their currencies pegged, it’s pretty grim — all the way back to Napoleonic times. Sometimes, the peg is gold. For a good example of the destructive abilities of that particular peg, look at the UK in the 1920s, which Macdonald says was arguably worse than the US in the 1930s: shallower, to be sure, but substantially longer. The devaluation of the pound, when it finally came, was very long overdue.

At other times, the peg is simply political: Macdonald gives the example of southern Italy being locked into what was essentially the Piedmontese monetary system at the time of the Risorgimento. That might have been well over a century ago, but there’s a case to be made that it has hobbled just about everywhere south of Rome to this day — and that’s in a country with about as much internal labor mobility as between EU countries.

So from a historical perspective, the prospects for countries like Portugal, Ireland and Greece are pretty grim. They can cut their budgets drastically and stay pegged to the euro, but most of them would be better off in the position of Iceland, which can and did devalue in a crisis (and allowed its banks to default, too). So far, the Baltic states have stuck to their deflationary guns with the most determination and discipline, but such things work until they don’t: at some point it’s entirely possible that Latvia or Estonia could pull an Argentina and kickstart growth by devaluing.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

I’m sure that, in the light of this new evidence, American conservatives will undertake a thorough rethinking of their anti-stimulus beliefs. After all, as they told us at the time, this was a natural experiment.

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Filed under Economics, Foreign Affairs, The Crisis

Weekend At Bernie’s Jail Cell

Diana Henriques at NYT:

Bernard L. Madoff said he never thought the collapse of his Ponzi scheme would cause the sort of destruction that has befallen his family.

In his first interview for publication since his arrest in December 2008, Mr. Madoff — looking noticeably thinner and rumpled in khaki prison garb — maintained that family members knew nothing about his crimes.

But during a private two-hour interview in a visitor room here on Tuesday, and in earlier e-mail exchanges, he asserted that unidentified banks and hedge funds were somehow “complicit” in his elaborate fraud, an about-face from earlier claims that he was the only person involved.

Mr. Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence, seemed frail and a bit agitated compared with the stoic calm he maintained before his incarceration in 2009, perhaps burdened by sadness over the suicide of his son Mark in December.

Besides that loss, his family also has faced stacks of lawsuits, the potential forfeiture of most of their assets, and relentless public suspicion and enmity that cut Mr. Madoff and his wife Ruth off from their children.

In many ways, however, Mr. Madoff seemed unchanged. He spoke with great intensity and fluency about his dealings with various banks and hedge funds, pointing to their “willful blindness” and their failure to examine discrepancies between his regulatory filings and other information available to them.

“They had to know,” Mr. Madoff said. “But the attitude was sort of, ‘If you’re doing something wrong, we don’t want to know.’ ”

Matt Schneider at Mediaite:

Bernie Madoff, the con artist who pleaded guilty two years ago to a series of financial crimes, gave his first jailhouse interview to The New York Times and was angry with a lot of his critics. Most notably, he attacked the news media for their “disgraceful” coverage of his son’s suicide.Appearing “noticeably slimmer,” “frail” and “agitated,” Madoff disclosed that banks and hedge funds were complicit all along and “had to know” about his schemes. He again claimed that his family was unaware of his crimes until the very end. In reporting on the interview, ABC’s Brian Ross quotes a prosecutor who concludes “Madoff is incapable of telling the truth still to this day.”

Uri Friedman at The Atlantic:

Madoff’s statements are particularly relevant at a time when Irving Picard, the trustee for Madoff’s victims, has accused JPMorgan Chase of harboring serious concerns about Madoff’s investment business but not notifying authorities or halting business with him. Yet, as Henriques notes, federal prosecutors have yet to accuse the major banks and hedge funds that dealt with Madoff “of knowingly investing in his Ponzi scheme.”

Madoff Has Helped Trustee

Madoff claimed he’s met with his victims’ trustee, Irving Picard, and provided him with information about the banks and hedge funds he did business with, though he says he hasn’t shared this information with federal prosecutors working on criminal cases.

Family Crisis Unforeseen

Madoff said he didn’t foresee the extent of the suffering his fraud would inflict on his family. His relations are confronting a barrage of lawsuits and his son, Mark, committed suicide in December. Madoff called some of the press coverage of Mark’s death “disgraceful” and stated that he didn’t attend Mark’s funeral because of prison regulations and because he didn’t want to turn the funeral into a “media circus.”

Mets Owner ‘Knew Nothing’

Picard alleges that New York Mets Owner Fred Wilpon and his brother-in-law, Saul Katz, knew or should have known from their financial dealings with Madoff that he was defrauding investors, but Madoff vehemently denies this: “They knew nothing. They knew nothing,” he asserted.

Andrew Leonard at Salon:

Should we trust him? After all, if there is one thing we know about Bernie Madoff, it is that he is one hell of a liar. But as evidence emerges that bank executives were exchanging e-mails wondering about Madoff’s amazing investment record, the possibility that the banks were purposefully looking the other way is not inconceivable.

The question is: What to do about it?

How about: Make sure government regulatory agencies entrusted with oversight over financial markets are adequately funded and staffed for the job?

Wouldn’t you know it — Obama wants to boost the budget for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the two key government agencies watching over Wall Street

Jacob Heilbrunn at The National Interest:
As Frank Rich recently observed, Madoff was a “second-tier player.” But he could lead to bigger fry. The Wilpons, who own the New York Mets, are already in big financial trouble for their extensive dealings with Madoff–Donald Trump is angling to buy a majority stake in the team. Then there are the hedge funds and banks that were linked to, or in cahoots with, Madoff.

At this point Madoff has little to lose. President Obama shows little appetite for curbing the excesses that led to the last financial crash. Madoff cannot achieve redemption. His historical role as the biggest Ponizi schemer (so far) in history is set. He became the type-cast bad guy. For awhile Madoff took all the credit, if that’s the right phrase, for the malversation he oversaw. That’s changed. Now he seems to be interested in ensuring that his collaborators, witting or unwitting, also take the fall (though he is notably exempting his own family members from any knowledge of his transgressions).

Madoff’s own crediblity is shot. But if the information that he’s apparently providing to Picard pans out, then he may get his own measure of revenge for the humiliations he has suffered, and is suffering.  Balzac said that behind every great fortune is a crime. Madoff now seems intent on demonstrating the truth of that axiom. One thing seems clear: Madoff is not going to go down quietly. The aftershocks from his exposure may well continue to roil the financial world.

Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider

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Our Bubbles Keep Bursting

David Streitfeld in NYT:

Few believed the housing market here would ever collapse. Now they wonder if it will ever stop slumping.

The rolling real estate crash that ravaged Florida and the Southwest is delivering a new wave of distress to communities once thought to be immune — economically diversified cities where the boom was relatively restrained.

In the last year, home prices in Seattle had a bigger decline than in Las Vegas. Minneapolis dropped more than Miami, and Atlanta fared worse than Phoenix.

The bubble markets, where builders, buyers and banks ran wild, began falling first, economists say, so they are close to the end of the cycle and in some cases on their way back up. Nearly everyone else still has another season of pain.

“When I go out and talk to people around town, they say, ‘Wow, I thought we were going to have a 12 percent correction and call it a day,’ ” said Stan Humphries, chief economist for the housing site Zillow, which is based in Seattle. “But this thing just keeps on going.”

John Ellis at Business Insider:

Everyone thought that when the housing crisis hit, it wouldn’t hit hard in “stable” US cities like Seattle and Minneapolis.  No one thinks that anymore

David Leonhardt at NYT:

When we last listed the price-to-rent ratios in major metropolitan areas, Seattle’s was near the top of the list. Only in the Bay Area of Northern California and in Honolulu were house prices higher, relative to rents.

A sky-high price-to-rent ratio is perhaps the single best sign that an area is in a housing bubble. Real-estate agents, homeowners and even home buyers can tell a lot of stories to justify the bubble — stories about central cities or good school districts being immune to bubbles — but eventually people will realize that renting is a much better deal and more will do so.

There is no such thing as a market price that cannot fall.

Matthew Yglesias:

David Streitfeld writes that “The rolling real estate crash that ravaged Florida and the Southwest is delivering a new wave of distress to communities once thought to be immune — economically diversified cities where the boom was relatively restrained.”

First see David Leonhardt on whether the boom really was all that restrained in Seattle. But the other examples are better and I think this is a reminder that the relationship between the housing market and the economy is push and pull. There was, in fact, an unsustainable bubble in house valuations across much of the country that led to localized unsustainable booms in home building and related activities. That process came to an end in 2006-2007 and we were in recession all throughout 2008 as the unemployment rose and the construction boom unwound. But then came the really giant collapse of aggregate demand in fall of 2008 continuing through the subsequent winter. Now we’re way below the long-term trend level of overall nominal spending:

Overall nominal spending equals overall nominal incomes. And we live in an economy where lots of us have contractual obligations that are nominally denominated. That’s my cable bill, it’s my cell phone bill, and it’s my mortgage, and it’s probably your mortgage too. Fortunately for me, my nominal income isn’t below its pre-crisis trend growth path. But America’s collective income is. So if our nominal income is below where we expected it would be when we signed the contracts, people are going to be unable to pay bills. That means, among other things, serious housing problems even in jurisdictions that never suffered from noteworthy construction booms.

Calculated Risk:

Leonhardt writes:

When we last listed the price-to-rent ratios in major metropolitan areas, Seattle’s was near the top of the list. Only in the Bay Area of Northern California and in Honolulu were house prices higher, relative to rents.

A sky-high price-to-rent ratio is perhaps the single best sign that an area is in a housing bubble. Real-estate agents, homeowners and even home buyers can tell a lot of stories to justify the bubble — stories about central cities or good school districts being immune to bubbles — but eventually people will realize that renting is a much better deal and more will do so.

There is no such thing as a market price that cannot fall.

I agree completely with that last sentence – no place is immune.

Price-to-rent is a great indicator, but some areas have high price-to-rent ratios because of the mix of housing units (rentals units are not perfect substitutes for buying). I prefer tracking price-to-rent over time for a particular city (as opposed to comparing cities), but a high price-to-rent ratio is definitely a warning flag.

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The End Of Mubarak And The End Of Fannie and Freddie?

Uri Friedman at The Atlantic:

On Friday, the Obama administration laid the foundation for what is sure to be a fierce debate about the role government should play in supporting homeownership in the United States in the wake of the housing bubble and financial crisis.

The Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a report to Congress outlining how government can gradually scale back its involvement in the mortgage market and transfer housing finance to the private sector. The report proposes abolishing the government-backed mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac within ten years and suggests three possible systems to take their place.

Daniel Indiviglio at The Atlantic:

With that said, however, the government’s presence in the housing market will not disappear entirely. In fact, it would certainly remain intact for the affordable housing initiatives through the Federal Housing Authority and other targeted programs, as it had in the past. The big change would be how mortgage funding would be provided for the vast majority of mortgages in the U.S., which have heavily relied on Fannie and Freddie for decades. The Treasury wants the private market to step in and take on most of that funding responsibility and relieve taxpayers of some or almost all of the mortgage market’s risk.

Before getting into the three alternative policy possibilities that it offers, the plan explains how the mortgage market would be weaned off of Fannie and Freddie over a period of time. One change would be to gradually increase the guarantee fees that the GSEs charge, so that private guarantors would be able to better compete. Another change would be to require Fannie and Freddie to obtain more private capital to cover subsequent credit losses. The Treasury also intends to reduce the size of mortgages that qualify for Fannie and Freddie guarantees. Finally, the administration intends to wind down Fannie’s and Freddie’s mortgage portfolios, by at least 10% per year.

The Treasury also provides some guidance on mortgage underwriting and measures to crack down on predatory lending. Perhaps the most surprising assertion was that loans that obtain government backing going forward — excluding those in designated programs specifically targeting lower-income borrowers — should eventually be required to “have at least a ten percent down payment.” The Treasury also stressed the importance of ensuring borrowers have the ability to pay the mortgages they obtain.

Mark Calabria at Cato:

While the report does say a lot of the right things — such as protecting the taxpayer — it is awfully short on any real details.  And in many areas, the report makes clear that the Obama administration intends to keep the taxpayer on the hook for future losses arising from Fannie and Freddie.  For instance, after assuring us that the GSEs will have sufficient capital to meet their obligations, including debt, the report tells us that such capital will not come from investors, but from the taxpayer.  One has to wonder whether this report was written for the benefit of the Chinese Central Bank (one of the largest GSE debtholders) or for the benefit of the U.S. taxpayer.

Equally vague is the discussion of “winding down” Fannie and Freddie.  While that sounds great, how is this to be accomplished? And how long will it take?  Again it seems that this “wind-down” will be financed by the taxpayer.  It is suggested that the GSE guarantee fees will increase.  Again, by how much and when?

Paragraph 2 of Section 1074 of the Dodd-Frank act, which required this study, also requires an “analysis” of various options and impacts.  In all due respect to HUD and Treasury and their efforts, there is nothing in this report that remotely resembles an “analysis” — just vague generalities.

I appreciate the administration’s stated desire to move us closer to a private market solution, but we’ve heard these empty promises before.  Remember that financial reform was going to end “too big to fail” and bailouts?  Health care reform was going to “bend the cost curve”?  It is past the time of fluff.   We need actual details and an actual plan.

Ezra Klein:

Beyond the basically insane structure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — private institutions with lobbyists, profit motives, and the protection of an unarticulated but widely acknowledged government guarantee to cover their big losses — the administration’s diagnosis of what went wrong in the housing market speaks much more to issues dealt with in the financial-regulation law than issues included in their three options for reform of the government’s system of housing finance and insurance.

The story they tell begins in the consumer market, where inadequate protections and incompetent regulatory oversight allowed the brisk trade in bad mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them to take off. It then moves to the opaque and underregulated finance system, where the banks were packaging products they didn’t understand into securitized bonds and selling them off so quickly that they stopped worrying about how risky they were, and where regulators didn’t see what was going on and thus didn’t demand the banks hold enough capital to protect themselves from the inevitable reckoning.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were part of this story, of course. But they were late to the party. They only got into the riskier stuff in 2006, while the rest of the financial industry had been playing in the mud since 2001. Reforming them can help mitigate a housing crisis in the future. But given this chain of events, it can’t prevent it.

The root causes will be fixed — or not — in Dodd-Frank. It’s up to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to strengthen the weak consumer protections that allowed these mortgages to be sold in the first place. Regulators will have new powers to force financial players — particularly the megafirms whose failure threatened the whole system — to hold more capital as a buffer against bad times. Banks won’t be able sell off all their risk because the law says they have hold five percent of the risk of any product they originate — though as Bethany McLean notes, that’s not true when the product consists of “qualifying residential mortgages,” and it’s up to the regulators implementing Dodd-Frank to define what a qualifying residential mortgage is.

That’s not to say reforming the way the government structures its presence in the housing market doesn’t matter. It does. But the government isn’t looking to dramatically change the role they play in the housing market. They’re just looking to get away from poorly designed institutions like Fannie and Freddie. The real action — the work that could prevent another crisis — is still in Dodd-Frank, where many of the questions central to how the housing markets works going forward haven’t been answered, and where many of the rules that might stop it from blowing up again have yet to be written.

Arnold Kling:

Incidentally, the more I think about it, the more outraged I am by the sketchiness of their proposal. It takes up only a few paragraphs, and those are quite vague. It is the sort of thing that, if somebody tossed it out at a meeting or in a blog post, you would say, “Might be interesting, but I am not quite sure how you would do it. Do you have a background paper on it somewhere?” In the form that it is presented in the report, I think that it is irresponsible to even call it a proposal. Shame on Treasury for putting something so half-baked at the center of their report.

This puts me in the strange position of defending Freddie and Fannie. My first choice would be for government not to hand out any goodies. But if you are going to have the government hand out goodies, the ability of regulators to control the costs and mitigate the risks will be much greater if we revert to Freddie and Fannie than if we try something new. Under any arrangement, the hard part will be what I call “staying off the booze,” meaning keeping the government from guaranteeing riskier mortgages (second mortgages, cash-out refis, loans on investment properties, loans with low down payments, etc.) when house prices start rising again.

Monica Potts at Tapped:

It’s far to ask whether we’ve been over-promoting homeownership, and, as Alyssa Katzdoes in the latest issue of the Prospect, what we maybe should do instead. Alyssa will have more detail on what happens after Fannie and Freddie on TAP Monday, but for the meantime, I’d like to point out what a symbolic victory this is for conservatives. Whether Fannie and Freddie should have been preserved probably wasn’t considered lightly, but conservatives have been vilifying the agencies as the cause of the crisis since the beginning. They weren’t, they were simply the last to ride a wave that started on Wall Street. That doesn’t mean the weird private/public limbo in which they did business wasn’t also a bad thing, but it does mean that conservatives will point to their demise as proof they were right.

Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator

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There’s Something Strange In The Numbers Here, Waiter

Chart via Calculated Risk

Calculated Risk:

From the BLS:

The unemployment rate fell by 0.4 percentage point to 9.0 percent in
January, while nonfarm payroll employment changed little (+36,000),
the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.

And on the benchmark revision:

The total nonfarm employment level for March 2010 was revised downward by 378,000 … The previously published level for December 2010 was revised downward by 452,000.

The following graph shows the employment population ratio, the participation rate, and the unemployment rate.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

LOOK almost anywhere in the recent economic data and the signs point to an accelerating recovery. A solid fourth quarter GDP report contained a truly blockbuster increase in real final sales. Manufacturing activity is soaring. Consumer spending is up and the trade deficit is down. Markets are trading at their highest level in over two years. And so economists anxiously awaited the first employment figures for 2011, hoping that in January firms would finally react to better conditions by taking on lots of new help.

Instead, the Bureau of Labour Statistics has dropped a puzzler of an employment report in our laps—one which points in many directions but not, decidedly, toward strong job growth. In the month of January, total nonfarm employment grew by a very disappointing 39,000 jobs. This was not at all what forecasters were expecting. Earlier this week, an ADP report indicated that private sector employment rose by 187,000 in January; the BLS pegged the figure at just 50,000. There were some compensating shifts. December’s employment gain was revised upward from 103,000 to 121,000. November’s employment rise, which was originally reported at 39,000, has been revised to a total gain of 93,000.

But there is bad news, as well. The BLS included its annual revision of the previous year’s data in this report, and while job growth over the year looks stronger than before, the level of employment looks worse. In March of last year, 411,000 fewer Americans were working than originally reported. And thanks to a weaker employment performance in April through October, 483,000 fewer Americans were on the job in December than was originally believed to be the case. For now, the economy remains 7.7m jobs short of its previous employment peak.

Felix Salmon:

The BLS press release makes this very clear in a box right at the top, which says that

“Changes to The Employment Situation news release tables are being introduced with this release. In addition, establishment survey data have been revised as a result of the annual benchmarking process and the updating of seasonal adjustment factors. Also, household survey data for January 2011 reflect updated population estimates.”

The effects here are large and unpredictable: the total number of people holding jobs in December 2010, for instance, was revised down by a whopping 452,000 — but despite that, the official December 2010 payrolls number now shows an even bigger month-on-month rise than it did before. More generally the size of the total civilian labor force was revised downwards by 504,000, almost half of which came from the Latino population. That has all manner of knock-on effects: the BLS warns that “data users are cautioned that these annual population adjustments affect the comparability of household data series over time.”

This is a messy report, then — even messier than you’d expect from a monthly data series which is mainly valued for its speed as opposed to its accuracy. At the margin, it’s bad for markets, which concentrate on the headline payrolls number, and it’s good for politicians, who tend to concentrate on the headline unemployment number. But for anybody who’s neither a trader nor a politician, it’s a noisy series which is best treated with a whopping great amount of salt — especially in January, and especially also when any big-picture message is so murky.

Instapundit:

Does this mean that most of the “fall” came from discouraged workers dropping out of the workforce? That would explain the difference between this and the Gallup survey, which showed unemployment rising to 9.8% instead of falling. Or am I missing something?

Matthew Yglesias:

At first glance I thought that was people dropping out of the labor force, but it seems instead to be the conjunction of two different things. One is upward revisions of the last couple of months’ worth of jobs data. The other is a downward revision to the baseline estimate of how many people there are. Basically, more people had jobs a month ago than we thought had been the case, and also there were fewer unemployed people than we thought had been the case.

The upshot is that the new data looks a lot better than the old data. But the new data doesn’t say the situation improved dramatically over the past month, it merely says that last month’s take on the situation was too pessimistic.

Mark Thoma

Brad DeLong:

I want a trained professional to analyze this. It is not unusual for the series to do something odd around Christmastide. It is not unusual for the series to diverge. Not this much.

 

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