Posts Tagged ‘financial crisis’

QE3 A Boon to CMBS

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

If history repeats itself, QE3 will be good for commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS). The Fed’s third round of quantitative easing – which is purchasing $40 billion of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) each month from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – will free up money for the commercial real estate market and lure investors away from other vehicles in their hunt for maximum yield.  QE3 is expected to last at least until 2015.

“The primary difference between 2012 and 2010 is that commercial property prices in healthy markets are stronger than they were just two years ago.  At its peak, CMBS constituted 40 percent of all commercial real estate loans,” said John O’Callahan of CoStar.  O’Callahan notes that “Investment returns of 40 percent or more for riskier assets during QE1 were largely a result of a bounce-back from the lows caused by investor panic in late 2008 through early 2009.  The overall impact of QE becomes clearer upon examining QE2.  Prices of equities and high-yield bonds, including CMBS, gained a respectable 12 to 15 percent.”

Low interest rates mean that returns will narrow to as little as 150 basis points, forcing investors to look elsewhere for respectable yields.  Currently, B-piece CMBS investors are achieving 20 percent and higher yields.  By contrast, the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s yield has remained below three percent each of the last 20 years.

CMBS has “been a boon for us,” said Kenneth Cohen, head of CMBS at UBS Securities.  “You’ve seen a fairly good size increase in loan pipelines.  Our pipeline has increased probably 50 percent over the last six weeks.”  Borrowers also are cashing in on the favorable loan terms.  According to Fitch Ratings, loans in 2012 are averaging 95.7 percent of a stressed property’s estimated value; that’s up from 91.6 percent in 2011.

Despite the good news, industry experts don’t expect the resurgent CMBS market to resolve all financing woes.  For example, the encouraging loan terms are of minimal help to commercial real estate owners who are under water, nor will new issuance be adequate to refinance the $54 billion in CMBS loans coming due this year.  Additionally, some ratings firms warn that the credit quality of CMBS loans could increase risk for some investors.  In response, Moody’s Investor Services’ now requires that senior bonds have expensive credit protection.

Basel III Compliance Requires 29 Biggest Banks to Raise $556 Billion

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

The world’s largest banks need to raise as much as $566 billion of common equity to meet Basel III rules on capital to be implemented by 2019, cutting shareholder returns, according to analysts at Fitch Ratings.  The 29 global banks that regulators believe are too big to fail need new capital that equals nearly 23 percent of the lenders’ current $2.5 trillion of aggregate common equity, according to the report.  The median lender could meet the requirements with three years of retained earnings, according to Fitch.

Basel III is the latest version of a global regulatory standard on bank adequacy, stress testing and market liquidity risk, requires banks to hold 4.5 percent of common equity, an increase from the two percent under Basel II.  The higher standard is an attempt to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

International banking regulators meeting under the sponsorship of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel are seeking to implement rules to prevent taxpayers being forced to rescue failing banks.  In addition to boosting capital requirements, they are instituting rules on leverage ratios and funding to ensure lenders can withstand future crises.  “There’s a shortfall and we wanted to see what covering that implies,” according to Martin Hansen, a Fitch analyst.  The Basel III rules “create incentives to reduce expenses further and to increase pricing pressure on borrowers and customers where feasible,” he said.  The banks global systemically important financial institutions must hold a special capital surcharge of between one and 2.5 percent of assets weighted by risk.

The banks are likely to reduce their holdings of more volatile, lower-rated assets, potentially increasing borrowing costs for weaker companies and reducing the availability of credit.  The borrowers’ securities would become harder to trade, forcing companies borrow from less regulated lenders such as private equity firms and hedge funds, according to a Fitch report, called “Basel III: Return and Deleveraging Pressures.”  “If banks decide to originate risk and then pass it on to outsiders then it adds to the stability of the banking system,” Hansen said.  “Risk hasn’t been reduced, though — it’s been moved from one part of the system to another.”  The median return on equity of the 29 lenders was 7.3 percent last year and averaged 11 percent between 2005 and 2011.  That is expected to decline to 8.5 to nine percent as the banks make up the capital shortfall, according to Hansen.

Since it is impossible for regulators to perfectly align capital requirements with risk exposure, some banks might seek to increase return on equity through riskier activities that maximize yield on a given unit of Basel III capital, including new forms of regulatory arbitrage,’ Hansen said.

James Moss, another Fitch analyst, said the banks, which have a collective $47 trillion in assets, will have to look at the full spectrum of ways to meet the new capital requirements.  “This is a very dynamic time for banking so the strategic side of bank planning is going to get a lot of attention over the coming years,” he said.  “Basel III creates a trade-off for financial institutions between declining return on equity, which might reduce their ability to attract capital, versus stronger capitalization and lower risk premiums, which benefits investors.”

Our overall objective remains to strengthen the resilience of the banking sector in the European Union while ensuring that banks continue to finance economic activity and growth,” said Michel Barnier, EU Internal Markets Commissioner.  “The final compromise must contribute to financial stability, the necessary basis for growth and employment.”

March Housing Starts Down, While Construction Permits Rise

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

American homebuilders started construction on new houses in March at a slower pace, but in an ironic twist, the number of construction permits jumped to their highest level in 3 ½ years.  This is a positive signal for the slumping residential industry.  According to the Department of Commerce, housing starts fell 5.8 percent to an annual rate of 654,000, significantly below the MarketWatch forecast of economists who had projected an increase to 703,000.  Housing starts in February were also revised down slightly, to 694,000 from 698,000.  At the same time, building permits — a measure of future demand — rose 4.5 percent to 747,000 in March from February’s revised 715,000.  The increase occurred entirely in the multi-dwelling housing segment.

The increase in permits suggests builders are increasingly optimistic as the industry recovers from the worst slump in modern times. Multi-family permits rose 24.2 percent to 262,000.  On the other hand, permits for single-family homes fell 3.5 percent to 462,000 — evidence that builders still face pressure from a deluge of foreclosures.  Many buyers are looking for deals on existing homes instead of paying more for new construction.

Some economists speculate that warm weather contributed to the March decline in housing starts because it allowed builders to start new projects in January and February that they normally would have begun in spring.  “It appears that the payback from an unusually warm fall and winter came in March as record warm temperatures likely pulled new construction forward,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva of BNP Paribas.

The average March temperature was 51.1 degrees; that’s 38.6 degrees warmer than the 20th century average and the hottest March since records were first kept in 1895, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.  Spring home sales are expected to outpace last year as record low mortgage rates produce an attractive market for home buyers.  The average fixed rate on a 30-year mortgage was 3.88 percent in mid-April, according to Freddie Mac and may fall again.

An oversupply of unsold homes is holding prices down, creating a major difficulty for the sector, said Gregory Miller, an economist at Suntrust Banks in Atlanta.  “The production side of the housing market is in the early stages of recovery, but builders are shifting their composition of products from condos and single-family homes to apartment construction.  It’s going to be rocky for awhile.  You still have inventory overhang.  There are also issues on the financing side of production as well as the mortgage side.  The problem is getting over the financing hurdle. Lenders are still very concerned about where they put their capital.  From a trend perspective, it is still on a rising path.  Tentative is the best we could say about this.”

Even a slow-growing housing market is a big plus because it is no longer a drag on the broader economy. Residential real estate was the cause of the financial crisis and the recession, so it’s encouraging to see this sector moving in the right direction.  It’s early to expect strong, sustained growth in the immediate future.  “Housing continues to bump along the bottom,” said Jacob Oubina, a senior economist at RBC Capital Markets.  “The best we can hope from housing over the next couple years is that it won’t subtract from growth.”

According to Omer Esiner, Chief Market Analyst, Commonwealth Foreign Exchange, “The housing data is mixed.  On the one hand housing starts came in below expectations and on the other hand it was a strong month for permits, which bodes well for the months ahead.  So the rise in permits kind of offsets the disappointing data.”

Rising Unemployment Could Push Eurozone Into a Double-Dip Recession

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Europe’s unemployment has soared to 10.8 percent, the highest rate in more than 14 years as companies from Spain to Italy eliminated jobs to weather the region’s crisis, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office.  That’s the highest since June 1997, before the Euro was introduced.  European companies are cutting costs and eliminating jobs after draconian austerity measures slashed consumer demand and pushed economies from Greece to Ireland into recession.

According to Eurostat, the number of unemployed totaled 17.1 million, nearly 1.5 million higher than in 2011.  The figures stand in marked contrast to the United States, which has seen solid increases in employment over the past few months.  “It looks odds-on that Eurozone GDP contracted again in the first quarter of 2012….thereby moving into recession,” said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight.  “And the prospects for the second quarter of 2012 currently hardly look rosy.”

The North-South divide is evident, with the nations reporting the lowest unemployment rates being Austria with 4.2 percent; the Netherlands at 4.9 percent; Luxembourg at 5.2 percent; and Germany at 5.7 percent.  Unemployment is highest among young people, with 20 percent of those under 25 looking for work in the Eurozone, primarily in the southern nations.  The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, defended the debt-fighting strategy, insisting that reforms undertaken by governments are crucial and will ultimately bear fruit.  “We must combat the crisis in all its fronts,” Amadeu Altafaj, the commission’s economic affairs spokesman, said, stressing that growth policies are part of the strategy.

According to Markit, a financing information company, Germany and France, the Eurozone’s two powerhouse economies, saw manufacturing activity levels deteriorate.  France fared the worst with activity at a 33-month low of 46.7 on a scale where anything below 50 indicates a contracting economy.  Only Austria and Ireland saw their output increase.

Spain, whose government recently announced new austerity measures, had the Eurozone’s highest unemployment rate at 23.6 percent; youth unemployment — those under 25 years of age — was 50.5 percent.  Greece, Portugal and Ireland — the three countries that have received bailouts — had unemployment rates of 21 percent, 15 percent and 14.7 percent respectively.

With unemployment rising at a time of austerity, consumers have stopped spending and that holds back the Eurozone economy despite signs of life elsewhere.  “Soaring unemployment is clearly adding to the pressure on household incomes from aggressive fiscal tightening in the region’s periphery,” said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.  She fears that the situation will worsen and that even in Germany, where unemployment held steady at 5.7 percent, “survey measures of hiring point to a downturn to come.”

The numbers are likely to worsen even more. “We expect it to go higher, to reach 11 percent by the end of the year,” said Raphael Brun-Aguerre, an economist at JP Morgan in London.  “You have public sector job cuts, income going down, weak consumption.  The economic growth outlook is negative and is going to worsen unemployment.”

Writing for the Value Walk website, Matt Rego says that “By the looks of it, Europe could be heading for a recession very soon.  If the GDP contracts this 1st quarter of 2012, they will most likely be in a double dip.  Those are some pretty scary numbers and forecasts because they would send economic aftershocks around the world.  If Europe goes into a double dip and U.S. corporate margins do peak, we could be looking at trouble.  If you are a ‘super bull’ right now, I would reconsider because we are walking the line for both factors coming true and there really is nothing we can do, the damage is done.  Could we have seen all of the year’s gains in the beginning of this year?  Probably not but this European recession scare would certainly trigger a correction in the U.S. markets.  Bottom line, get some protection for your portfolio.  Buy stocks that aren’t influenced by economic times and buy protection for stocks that would react harshly to a double dip.”

Treasury Makes $25 Billion in Successful MBS Sale

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

The Treasury Department just raked in a cool $25 billion for the American taxpayer. It sold the agency-backed mortgage-backed securities (MBS) that it bought during the financial crisis.  “The successful sale of these securities marks another important milestone in the wind-down of the government’s emergency financial crisis response efforts,” said Mary Miller, Treasury assistant secretary for financial markets.  The Treasury’s mortgage purchases were one part of the government’s support for banks and the financial markets.  The associated takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac cost another $151 billion.

Treasury bought the mortgage debt in an attempt to stabilize the housing industry, with funds approved by the Housing and Recovery Act of 2008.  Critics claim that it did more to prop up Wall Street than Main Street.  Anti-bailout anger fueled both the conservative Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street on the left.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner argues that the government’s action helped prevent a deeper economic downturn.  TARP funds enabled the government to purchase preferred stock in banks, other financial firms and some automakers in return for the public investment.  Some of the preferred stock ultimately was converted to common stock.  According to a Treasury official, to date $331 billion has been repaid, including dividends and interest earned on the preferred shares.  While TARP currently is $83 billion in debt, Treasury projects losses will eventually number about $68 billion.  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecasts a lower loss of just $34 billion.

The Obama administration has stressed the TARP bank program’s performance, which has returned about $259 billion, more than the $245 billion lenders received.  At present. there are 361 banks remaining in TARP.

In all, Treasury bought $225 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities during the depths of the financial crisis between October of 2008 and December of 2009.  Some of those securities were backing loans believed to be worthless, according to some financial analysts at the time.  Treasury’s portfolio, however, was comprised mostly of 30-year fixed-rate mortgage-backed securities and were guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, enhancing their value.  Congress authorized $700 billion for TARP, but Treasury only paid out $414 billion.  Of that, $331 billion has been paid back, including profits, interest and dividends made from investments.

Writing for The Hill, Peter Schroeder notes that “Now, with markets surging and the financial crisis in the rearview mirror — and with the presidential campaign rapidly approaching — the government is backing away from its outsized presence in the markets.  The move marks the latest in a series of steps by the government to exit its crisis-driven investments.  In July, the Treasury announced it was no longer invested in Chrysler, ending with a roughly $1.3 billion loss.  However, the government has fared better with investments in the banking sector.  The Treasury announced roughly one year ago that it had officially turned a profit on that portion of the bailout, and ultimately estimates it will turn a $20 billion profit on the $245 billion that was pumped into banks.”

All industry analysts are not as optimistic. Economist Douglas Lee, of the advisory firm Economics from Washington, said it is inevitable that the government will end up with “substantial losses” on the bailout, but that it was appropriate to try to reap gains where possible.  “A lot of these assets that were acquired were distressed at the time that they were bought so the chance of coming out ahead in selected areas is quite good,” Lee said.  For the long term, however, the effort to rebuild a reliable housing finance system means that costs for subsidizing operations of firms like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will continue to be expensive.  Investments in insurer AIG and in automakers might prove hard to recoup 100 percent.  Recently, Treasury said it was selling 206.9 million shares of AIG, which would reduce the government’s stake in the company to 70 percent from 77 percent.  “You have to say that these programs have worked in the sense that it’s restored a sense of stability that we sought,” Lee said, “but now it is right to have the government back out and let the private sector get on with their job.”

Gordon Gekko Changes His Mind, Says Greed Is Bad

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Actor Michael Douglas is playing a new and rather surprising role as spokesman for the FBI to fight corruption on Wall Street.  The actor – famous for his line “greed is good” in the 1987 film “Wall Street” – is sending a new message in a public service announcement, explaining that insider trading is a serious crime.  “The movie was fiction, but the problem is real. To report insider trading, contact your local FBI office,” Douglas says in the spot.

“In the movie ‘Wall Street,’ I played Gordon Gekko, a greedy corporate executive who cheated to profit while innocent investors lost their savings,” according to Douglas.  “The movie was fiction, but the problem is real.  Our economy is increasingly dependent on the success and integrity of the financial markets.  If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is,” he concludes.  The one-minute commercial opens with Douglas as he looked in 1987 and in the Gekko character famously addressing a fictional shareholders meeting in the movie, before the clip cuts to the grey and older actor who is now working for federal law enforcement.

Douglas’ new role is part of the FBI’s “Perfect Hedge” operation, which has successfully prosecuted 57 individuals in the last five years for insider trading, and is targeting 120 more suspects.  The commercial is part of the ongoing effort, and will feature segments of actual FBI wiretaps from successful prosecutions.

So far, the new video — which is being shown on CNBC and Bloomberg Television — is part of the government’s broader initiative aimed at drawing cooperating witnesses and tipsters from Wall Street.  Previously, insider trading was not one of the FBI’s areas of focus, so potential informants might not have known where to turn, according to the accepted wisdom.  Now that the crime is a top priority for securities investigators, the video is part reminder, part plea for those who have seen something illegal to come forward and provide information.  Additionally, the video is an effort to raise the FBI’s public profile.  As David A. Chaves, a supervisor and special agent, said, “It’s important for us to have the FBI brand out on Wall Street.  He’s talking about himself as Gordon Gekko and the role that he played and how that was fiction and this is not but about real crime on Wall Street.”

Several government agencies are investigating illegal behavior on Wall Street, from the FBI to the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators.  To build their cases, investigators use uncompromising tactics once reserved for organized crime and terrorism cases, such as wiretaps and well-placed cooperators.  The FBI’s attitude is who could be a better spokesman against insider trading than the man who played Gordon Gekko, who came to personify Wall Street crime in both the 1980s and in the recent financial crisis with the 2010 sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  “The more people out there aware of the problem, the more opportunities we have to get tips,” said Richard T. Jacobs, a FBI supervisory special agent, who helped bring a major insider trading case which resulted in the conviction of a billionaire hedge fund manager.

The campaign also is targeting embezzlements by stockbrokers and Ponzi schemes — which have surged since the financial collapse of 2008.  Since then, securities and commodities fraud investigations have risen 52 percent, from 1,210 inquiries to 1,846 last year, the FBI said.

According to FBI spokesman Bill Carter, the spot will be distributed to 15 cities — Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington and New Haven, CT – all of which have seen an increase of fraud cases or evidence of potential trouble.

Surprisingly, Douglas was “startled over the positive response he received as Gordon Gekko,” Chaves said.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with Wall Street but I would be approached all the time, people would ‘high-five’ me or shake my hand for being this terrible man who stole people’s money.  Where are the values?  What are people thinking when I’m held like a hero in that role?  The culture has to change.”

Attorney General Eric Holder affirmed that the Justice Department is committed to rooting out corporate crime.  “From securities, bank and investment, to mortgage, consumer and health-care fraud, we’ve found that these schemes are as diverse as the imaginations of those who perpetrate them, and as sophisticated as modern technology will permit,” Holder said.

Fewer Couples Are Going to the Chapel

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

The number of American couples marching down the aisle to get married is in decline, with just 51 percent of adults reporting that they are married, according to the Pew Research Center and the Census Bureau.

The Pew Center’s study determined that new marriages in the United States fell five percent between 2009 and 2010; the slow economy likely was a contributing factor.  Compare the current record low of 51 percent of married adults with the 72 percent who were in wedded unions in 1960, according to the Pew Center.  The median age at first marriage for brides stands at 26.5 and for grooms it is 28.7.  That is the oldest Americans have ever been when they first married.

Researchers noted the United States is not alone in seeing a significant decline in marriage rates; other advanced, post-industrial societies are seeing the same long-term declines.  The Pew Center said that it is “beyond the scope” of the group’s analysis to “explain why marriage has declined.”

Some respondents just don’t like the idea of marriage. Nearly 40 percent of respondents believe that marriage is becoming an archaic institution.  They also report that in 2010, approximately 61 percent of adults who have never been married would like to be one day.

“The most dramatic statistics to me are when you look at the share of younger adults who are married now compared with in the past,” report author D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at Pew Research Center, said.  “That’s really been where you’ve seen the big decline.”  Pew researchers analyzed U.S. Census data from 1960 and data from the American Community Surveys from 2008 – 2010.

Flat wages are another factor. “The incentive to get married – because you could rely on a man whose real wages would continue to rise, who would get a pension at the end of it – has been undermined as well,” Cohn said.

According to Census Bureau statistics, 7.5 million couples lived together without being married in 2010, a 13 per cent increase when compared with the previous year.  The financial crisis has forced people to move in with partners.  Marriage rates are highest among college graduates (approximately two-thirds).  Less than half of high school graduates are married.

Not surprisingly, divorce is a factor impacting the ranks of the currently married, although it is unclear how important it has been.  Divorce rates rose in the 1960s and 1970s, but have leveled off in the past 20 years.  Approximately 72 percent of adults have been married at least once, down from 85 percent in 1960.

“If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years,” according to the Pew report.  “Other adult living arrangements-including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood-have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.”

“Well, it does not mean that marriage is dead,”  said Stephanie Coontz, a historian on family life at Evergreen State College in Washington state.  Many of those 20-somethings will sooner or later tie the knot.  “But what it does bring home to us is that we can no longer pretend that marriage is the central organizing principle of society. We have to take account of the many, many social networks and relationships that people cycle through, marriage being just one of them,” Coontz said.

“This marks a continuation of a long term trend,” said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center.  “If this trend continues, we are approaching a turning point where fewer than half of all adults in this country will be married.”

Banks Getting Healthier

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Bank earnings rose to their highest level in more than four years, while the number of troubled banks declined for the second consecutive quarter.  The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) said the banking industry earned $35.3 billion in the 3rd quarter, an increase from the $23.8 billion reported in the same timeframe last year.  More than 60 percent of banks reported improved earnings.  According to the FDIC, there currently are 844 banks on its confidential “problem”, or roughly 11.5 percent of all federally insured banks.  That was down from 865 between April and June, and was first quarter in five years to show a decline.

“After three years of shrinking loan portfolios, any loan growth is positive news for the industry and the economy,” said Martin Gruenberg, FDIC’s acting chairman.  Lending has not yet reached healthy levels.  So far in 2011, 90 banks have failed.  That’s a significant improvement over the 157 banks that were shuttered last year — the most for one year since the darkest days of the 1992 savings and loan crisis — and the 140 in 2009.

The FDIC’s so-called problem bank list consists of the institutions considered most likely to fail, though few actually are shuttered.  Only 26 of the nation’s 7,436 banks failed in the 3rd quarter, 15 fewer than the same period of 2010.  “The trend has been improving, but the current number of failures and problem institutions remains high by historical standards,” Gruenberg said.

Banks whose assets exceed $10 billion drove of the earnings growth. They account for just 1.4 percent of all banks but accounted for about $29.8 billion of the industry’s earnings in the 3rd quarter.  Those are the biggest banks, such as Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.  The majority of these banks have recovered with help from federal bailout money and record-low borrowing rates.

Writing on MarketWatch, Ronald D. Orol says that “It is unclear whether the reduction in troubled banks on the list is a result of institutional failures or improvements.  In the 3rd quarter there were 26 bank failures and 21 banks dropped off the problem bank list.  In the 2nd quarter there were 22 bank failures and 23 banks came off the problem bank list.  It is possible that a bank fails so fast that it is never on the problem list.  FDIC-insured institutions posted net income of $35.3 billion in the 3rd quarter, an increase of $11.5 billion, or 48 percent, compared to a year earlier.  The profits were at the highest level since the 2nd quarter of 2007, the FDIC said.  However, Martin Gruenberg said that even though the industry is generally profitable, the recovery is ‘by no means’ complete.  He noted that a central concern for the agency is whether banks can generate income from a greater demand for loans, something that is still lacking.  He said that the industry has seen income gains generated from improvements in credit quality and the ability to reduce loss provisions but that to really generate income and revenue, funding for loans is going to have to expand and that ‘depends on the overall economy.’  The key issue is going to be whether there can be a pick up in economic activity and generate demand for loans.  Ongoing distress in real-estate markets and slow growth in jobs and incomes still pose a threat to bank credit quality.”

The majority of banks that have struggled or failed have been small or regional institutions.  They rely a lot on commercial property and development loans, sectors that have lost a lot of money.  As companies closed during the recession, they vacated shopping malls and office buildings financed by those loans.  Nevertheless, large banks are less profitable than they were before the financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008, leading to some sizable layoffs.  Some credit rating agencies have been warning that the European debt crisis could hit the largest American banks.  Financial companies’ stocks have been especially beat up in the stock market’s volatility in recent months.

“We continue to see income growth that reflects improving asset quality and lower loss provisions,” Gruenberg said.  “U.S. banks have come a long way from the depths of the financial crisis.  Bank balance sheets are strong in a number of ways, and the industry is generally profitable, but the recovery is by no means complete.”  The banking industry also saw a 0.5 percent rise in net operating revenue compared with 2010, thanks in part to a $3.2 billion — or 5.8 percent — increase in non-interest income, the first year-over-year increase in nearly two years.  “Absent these unrealized gains, net operating revenue would have posted a year-over-year decline for a third consecutive quarter,” Gruenberg concluded.

Recent College Grads Can Expect Starting Salaries 10 Percent Below 2000 Levels

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Recent college graduates can expect to earn 10 percent less than they did as long ago as 2000.  In fact, one of the longest-lasting legacies of the great recession may be its negative impact on the lifetime careers of young graduates.  The current high unemployment rate will leave many of them a step behind throughout their careers.  A study conducted by Yale School of Management economist Lisa Kahn determined that workers who graduated from college during the recession of the early 1980s were still in worse shape financially than workers who graduated in better times after approximately 2006.  When young college graduates do get a job, it frequently won’t pay well.  According to Census Bureau statistics, the median annual earnings of a worker 25 to 34 years old with a bachelor’s degree was $40,875 last year, a significant decline from the $45,200 reported in 2000, adjusting for inflation.

Despite the dismal salary news, there is good news in that fact that hiring for 2011 graduates is up 10 percent when compared with last year.  Meanwhile, unemployment rates among those with a degree is less than half the national average.  It’s those with just a high school education whose unemployment rates are above the national average.

The typical wage for recent college graduates has fallen by nearly $1 per hour over the last 10 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).  Despite the lack of growth in entry-level wages, a college degree remains a worthy investment.  According to the EPI’s Heidi Shierholz, “After gains in the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s, hourly wages for young college-educated men in 2000 were $22.75, but that dropped by almost a full dollar to $21.77 by 2010.  For young college-educated women, hourly wages fell from $19.38 to $18.43 over the same period.  Now, with unemployment expected to remain above 8 percent well into 2014, it will likely be many years before young college graduates — or any workers — see substantial wage growth.”

There is some upbeat news for the class of 2011. Students who will graduated this year received job offers with starting salaries averaging $50,034 annually, a 3.5 percent increase over last year, according to a survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).  Employers said they plan to increase hiring of college graduates by 13.5 percent compared with 2010.  Business majors were the best positioned, with the average starting salary rising nearly two percent to $48,089.  Accounting majors received salary offers of $49,022, up 2.2 percent, while finance majors were offered an average of $50,535, an increase of 1.9 percent.  Starting salaries for business administration/management graduates fell slightly to $44,171, down 2.3 percent.  Engineering graduates — typically one of the highest-paying fields — didn’t see a big change, with the average starting salary down 0.3 percent but still impressive at $59,435.

Certain engineering majors saw noteworthy increases, with electrical engineering majors receiving an average salary offer of $61,690 — up 4.4 percent over 2010.  Mechanical engineering salaries rose 3.8 percent to $60,598, although it didn’t pay as well to graduate with a degree in civil engineering, with starting salaries in that field slipping 7.1 percent to $48,885.  While the association’s survey didn’t break out starting salaries for individual liberal arts majors, offers were up an impressive 9.5 percent to $35,633.  That compares to a steep decline of 11 percent last year.

The financial crisis is forcing Americans to re-think what they want out of a college education. “Students and families are becoming more savvy consumers about how they get their degrees, where they go to school and how they pay for it.  I think that is long overdue,” said Edie Irons, the Institute for College Access and Success’s communications director.  “It used to be that a college degree seemed like a ticket to ride, but there are no guarantees anymore that once you get that degree, you’re going to get a great job and do really well financially.  There’s been research that has shown students graduating in a recession earn lower incomes throughout their lifetimes than those graduating in a boom,” Irons said.  “It is a real concern, and we think graduates need good information about how to manage their debt.”

According to Brandon Lagana, director of admissions at Northern Illinois University, students are being more fluid in their approach to college.  Some chose a more affordable university, others start at a two-year institution then finish at a four-year school, and some wait a few years before starting any schooling.  “We’re certainly seeing students using more options to a degree than they ever did before,” he said.

Read my recent Huffington Post article about college education and debt here.

Federal Reserve Asks for Comments Before Implementing the Volcker Rule

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Federal regulators have requested public comment on the Volcker Rule — the Dodd-Frank Act restrictions that would ban American banks from making short-term trades of financial instruments for their own accounts and prevent them from owning or sponsoring hedge funds and private-equity funds.  The Volcker rule, released by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, is intended to head off the risk-taking that caused the 2008 financial crisis.  The rule, which is little changed from drafts that have been leaked recently, would ban banks from taking positions held for 60 days or less, exempt certain market-making activities, change the way traders involved in market-making are compensated and assure that senior bank executives are responsible for compliance.

Analysts say the proposed rule could slash revenue and cut market liquidity in the name of limiting risk.  Banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., have already been winding down their proprietary trading desks in anticipation of the Volcker Rule kicking in.  Banks’ fixed-income desks could see their revenues decline as much as 25 percent under provisions included in a draft, brokerage analyst Brad Hintz said.  Moody’s Investors Service said the rule would be “credit negative” for bondholders of Bank of America Corporation, Citigroup, Inc., Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley, “all of which have substantial market-making operations.”  The rule, named for former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, was included in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act with the intention of reining in risky trading by firms whose customer deposits are insured by the federal government.

John Walsh, a FDIC board member and head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, said that he was “delighted” that regulators had reached an agreement on the proposed rule, “given the controversy that has surrounded this provision — how it addressed root causes of the financial crisis.”  “I expect the agencies will move in a careful and deliberative manner in the development of this important rule, and I look forward to the extensive public comments that I’m sure will follow,” Martin J. Gruenberg, the FDIC’s acting chairman, said.  The rule will be open for public comment until January.

Not surprisingly, Wall Street opposes the rule, saying it will cut profits and limit liquidity at a difficult time for the banking industry.  Moody’s echoed those concerns, saying the current version of the Volcker rule would “diminish the flexibility and profitability of banks’ valuable market-making operations and place them at a competitive disadvantage to firms not constrained by the rule.”  Some Democratic lawmakers and consumer advocates are pushing to close loopholes in the rules, especially the broad exemption for hedging.  Supporters of the Volcker rule take issue with a plan to excuse hedging tied to “anticipatory” risk, rather than clear-and-present problems.  “Unfortunately, this initial proposal does not deliver on the promise of the Volcker Rule or the requirements of the statute,” said Marcus Stanley, policy director of Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group.  Additionally, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association raised concerns about whether the exemption for trades intended to make markets for customers is too narrow.

According to Moody’s, the large financial firms all have “substantial market-making operations,” which the Volcker Rule will target.  The regulations also will recreate compensation guidelines so pay doesn’t encourage big risk-taking.  Derivatives lawyer Sherri Venokur said restrictions on compensation are “intended to create a sea change in the mindsets of those who create the culture of our banking institutions — to value ‘safety and soundness’ as well as profitability.”

Equity analysts at Bernstein say that the Volcker Rule — if implemented in its current form – will slash Wall Street brokers’ revenues by 25 percent, and cut pre-tax margin of their fixed income trading businesses by 33 percent.  According to Bernstein, the Volcker Rule’s potential limitations are a surprise because it appears to prohibit flow trading in “nonexempt portions” of the bond-trading business.  Bernstein says inventory levels – and, in all probability, risk taking – must be based on client demands and not on “expectation of future price appreciation.”

A Bloomberg.com editorial offers support to the Volcker Rule, while admitting it won’t be perfect.  According to the editorial, “This week, the first of several regulatory agencies will consider a measure aimed at ending the practice.  Known as the Volcker rule, after Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, the measure would curb federally insured banks’ ability to make speculative bets on securities, derivatives or other financial instruments for their own profit — the kind of ‘proprietary’ trading that can lead to catastrophic losses.  Whatever form it takes will be far from perfect.  It will also be better than the status quo.  The bank bailouts of 2008, and the public outrage over traders’ and executives’ bonuses, laid bare a fundamental problem in big institutions such as Bank of America Corporation, Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“They attempt to combine two very different kinds of financial professionals: those who process payments, collect peoples’ deposits and make loans, and those who specialize in making big, risky bets with other peoples’ money.  When these big banks run into trouble, government officials face a dilemma. They want — and in some ways are obligated — to save the part of the bank that does the processing and lending, because those elements are crucial to the normal functioning of the economy.  But in doing so, they also end up bailing out the gamblers, a necessity that erodes public support for bailouts and stirs enmity for banks.  Separating the bankers from the gamblers is no easy task. Commercial banks’ explicit federal backing — including deposit insurance and access to emergency funds from the Federal Reserve — is attractive to proprietary traders, who can use a commercial bank’s access to cheap money to boost profits.  Bank executives like to employ traders because they generate juicy returns in good times that drive up the share price and justify large bonuses. In effect, both traders and managers are reaping the benefits of a government subsidy on financial speculation.  The Volcker rule will not — and probably cannot — fully dissolve the union of bankers and gamblers.”