Opinion

Felix Salmon

Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Jun 24, 2011 05:04 UTC

Michelle Vaughan’s Twitter project is live, including my tweet100 Tweets

Gothamist has $5k they want to spend on a big feature article — Gothamist

Treasuries dip into negative-yield territory — Reuters

How the mortgage industry lies with statistics

Felix Salmon
Jun 23, 2011 22:51 UTC

Yesterday something calling itself the Coalition for Sensible Housing policy put out a dense 13-page white paper entitled “Proposed Qualified Residential Mortgage Definition Harms Creditworthy Borrowers While Frustrating Housing Recovery”.

It’s all part of the lobbying campaign surrounding Dodd-Frank, and the eminently sensible idea that if a bank wants to securitize a bunch of mortgages, it has to keep at least 5% of those mortgages for itself. Somehow, in the course of putting Dodd-Frank together, an exception was carved out to that rule, called the Qualified Residential Mortgage, or QRM. For the small group of the most copper-bottomed mortgages, banks could sell off the whole lot, without having to retain 5%.

This gave the mortgage lobby an opening, and they’re attacking it aggressively. They want to open the QRM loophole as wide as possible, and are now kicking up a very loud fuss, complaining that consumers will be damaged if they can’t get access to a QRM loan. The main part of the QRM qualification that they’re upset about is the requirement for a significant downpayment, and so a central part of the lobby’s argument is that if you’re underwriting loans properly, increasing the downpayment doesn’t have much of an impact on delinquency rates. There’s other bits to the argument, too, such as the idea that non-QRM mortgages are going to be much more expensive, but for this post I’m just going to concentrate on the downpayment question.

The white paper explains — in bold type, on page 5 — that “boosting down payments in 5 percent increments has only a negligible impact on default rates”. It continues:

As shown in Table 3 (and in Attachment 2), moving from a 5 percent to a 10 percent down payment requirement on loans that already meet the defined QRM standard reduces the overall default experience by an average of only two- or three-tenths of one percent for each cohort year.

Of course, there are charts and tables. The table comes first:

table.tiff

This is so misleading and confusing that I’ve spent a large chunk of the past 24 hours trying to work out what on earth it’s actually saying, and where the data comes from. The raw data here is indeed being sourced from CoreLogic, and a company called Vertical Capital Solutions did analyze that data, in February 2010. The Vertical Capital report did not, however, have any of the information in this table. Indeed (and inconveniently, from the mortgage lobby’s point of view), it had a whole page which talks about how qualified loans have “substantially higher Delinquencies and Defaults on Qualified Loans with a LTV >80″. (Loan-to-value, or LTV, is the converse of the downpayment: the downpayment and the loan combined are 100% of the loan, since qualified mortgages by definition exclude piggyback loans were second mortgages are involved.)

What the Vertical Capital report does have is a chart of delinquency rates on qualified loans where the LTV is less than 80%, on page 7, and another chart where the LTV is more than 80%, on page 8. Put the two together, and you get something like this:

dlinq.jpg

The difference in delinquency rates between the low-downpayment loans and the high-downpayment loans, here, ranges from 2.94 percentage points for the 2008 vintage, to 7.15 percentage points in 2006. Clearly much bigger differences than are implied in the white paper’s table. And if you look at the percentage increase in delinquency, it’s enormous: all of the delinquency rates more than double, with the lowest increase being 101% in 2006 and the highest being an amazing 502% in 2002.

The mortgage lobby’s own chart, of course, looks very different indeed. Here it is, from page 12 of the white paper:

lobbychart.tiff

What this chart purports to show is that non-qualified loans — the red bars — have very high delinquency rates, while qualified loans — the purple, green, and blue bars — have much lower and pretty similar delinquency rates, regardless of the downpayments they use.

But look more carefully. The non-qualified delinquency rates include all delinquencies for all non-qualified loans. But the qualified delinquency rates are not directly comparable, because all of them specifically exclude qualified mortgages with a downpayment of less than 5%.

I spent some time today talking to the man who put this chart together. (It’s sourced to Vertical Capital, but in fact these numbers came from Genworth’s own analysis of CoreLogic’s data, and Vertical Capital did none of this work.) His name is Anthony Guarino, and he’s the vice president of public policy at Genworth mortgage insurance — the company which initially commissioned the Vertical Capital report. I asked him, if he was showing the delinquency rates for all non-qualified loans, why wouldn’t he show the delinquency rates for all qualified loans? Well, he said, “the consortium didn’t want to even talk about zero downpayment mortgages. Why would we even show that? We’d lose credibility if we showed a qualified loan with no downpayment.”

Guarino was perfectly happy to tell me that by excluding all the loans with downpayments of less than 5%, “you’re throwing out the loans with the higher default rates. No one’s saying that downpayment doesn’t matter.” But compare that with the official tone of the white paper:

Based on data from CoreLogic Inc., nearly 25 million current homeowners would be denied access to a lower rate QRM to refinance their home because they do not currently have 25 percent equity in their homes… Even with a 5 percent minimum equity standard, almost 14 million existing homeowners – many undoubtedly with solid credit records – will be unable to obtain a QRM. In short, the proposed rule moves creditworthy, responsible homeowners into the higher cost non-QRM market.

This sounds very much as though even a 5% minimum downpayment is desperately unfair to millions of American homeowners; there’s no indication whatsoever, in the paper, that including a minimum downpayment of 5% in the definition of what constitutes a qualified mortgage might actually be a good idea. Yet when the consortium wants to publish a chart showing the delinquency rates of qualified mortgages, it’s very careful to first strip out any mortgages with a downpayment of less than 5%.

On top of that, the bars in the official chart all look very similar largely because they are very similar: the industry is essentially comparing a set of loans with itself, and declaring that there’s not a lot of difference. The purple bar is all the loans with a downpayment of more than 5%; the green bar is all the loans with a downpayment of more than 10%; and the blue bar is all the loans with a downpayment of more than 20%. The blue bar is a subset of the green bar, which in turn is a subset of the purple bar. The chart is designed, in other words, to look at similarities rather then differences.

I asked Guarino if he could send me the data sliced more naturally: how do loans with a downpayment of less than 5%, for instance, compare to loans with a downpayment of between 5% and 10%? To his credit, he did come back to me with some new data, even if it wasn’t exactly what I asked for: he refused to slice the loan tranches by year, as he did in this graph. Instead, he would only give me aggregate figures, for 2002-2008 and for 2002-2004. Here’s what they look like, charted:

dlinqq.png

When the mortgage industry starts complaining about the 14 million people who would be denied the chance to buy a qualified mortgage if they don’t have a 5% downpayment, it’s worth remembering that qualified mortgages for people who don’t have a 5% downpayment have a delinquency rate of 16% over the course of the whole housing cycle. (You can be sure the numbers were much higher still in 2006 and 2007, which is why Guarino didn’t give them to me.)

And you can see too why the 20% downpayment limit was put in place: it’s the point at which delinquencies fall to less than 5%. If you take one group of loans with a 20-25% downpayment, and a second group of loans with a 15-20% downpayment, then the second group, on these numbers will have a delinquency rate 56% higher than the first.

The big picture here is that QRM is a distraction, which really shouldn’t exist in the first place. But given that it does exist, the downpayment requirements embedded within it are perfectly sensible. The lower the downpayment, the more likely a loan is to become delinquent. By far. That’s a simple fact which the mortgage lobby will go to astonishing lengths to hide.

Update: Guarino responds in the comments.

COMMENT

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Reverse Mortgage Lenders Direct. Com

Posted by Andy124 | Report as abusive

Debating financial speculation with speculators

Felix Salmon
Jun 23, 2011 18:31 UTC

On Tuesday I moderated a panel at the New York Forum which featured, inter alia, Duncan Niederauer, the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, and Richard Robb, the CEO of Christofferson Robb, a money management firm which does its fair share of speculation.

My question at the beginning of this clip, for Niederauer, didn’t come entirely out of the blue. Amar Bhidé had previously talked about the casino aspect of markets, and Andrew Ross Sorkin had talked about the distinction between speculation and investment. But Niederauer was not happy when I pushed him on these concepts. Wall Street is increasingly a game of speculation rather than investment, I said, and asked how a casino operator pushing people to make bets over the course of a millisecond was not part of the problem. Rather than engaging with the question, he simply shut me down: “I thought my job description was quite different than what you just described,” he said. “So you must be talking to someone else.”

Niederauer then used all his media training to pivot and give a mini-speech instead about how self-regulation was better than Dodd-Frank. But Richard Robb, to his credit, engaged, even if what he said doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. “I don’t know what the difference between investing and speculation looks like,” he said, throwing up a straw man of everybody working at peoples’ tractor collectives. Robb’s prescription was essentially to do nothing but ban a few of his competitors: stop big banks from doing what he does, leave him alone to do anything he wants, and “let innovation find its own way, and if it’s parasitic and unproductive, it will not be rewarded by the capitalist system.”

That’s clearly false, of course: we can all think of parasitic and unproductive Wall Street innovations which have made millions of dollars for bankers and traders and money managers. Richard Robb himself gave a good example earlier on in the panel: structured investment vehicles.

And so Sorkin jumped in, making the good and obvious point that “it’s actually very easy to see what speculation is and what investing is.” Here’s one simple distinction: speculation is where you buy something in the expectation that it will rise in price, where investment is where you put money into something so that over the long term you can make a profit from the resulting cashflows, be they coupon payments or dividends. And as Sorkin said, if you make an investment for two seconds, that’s clearly speculation.

Robb’s response to Sorkin I think was one of the most telling points of the panel. “How about two days?” he asked. “Two weeks? Two months? Where would you draw the line?”

I could barely believe what I was hearing — was Robb really suggesting that holding a position for two days might be considered investment rather than speculation? Or even two months? All of them are speculation — and the fact that the likes of Niederauer and Robb can’t see that is I think a big part of the problem.

The subject of the panel was financial innovation, and Robb genuinely believes that he’s something of a centrist on the issue: he makes great play of agreeing with his friend Bhidé, for instance. But the fact is that if you’re talking to alumni of Goldman Sachs (Niederauer) or the University of Chicago (Robb), or someone who used to run the derivatives desk at a too-big-to-fail bank (Robb, again), then their idea of what’s good for the world is always going to be pretty skewed. They’ve made millions of dollars in the Wall Street casino, and they’re precisely the people being put on panels to ask whether the casino is a good thing. It’s reasonably easy to predict what they’re going to say — and to discount it heavily.

COMMENT

Without reading all the comments, I will say the “investment is good and speculation is bad” construct is fatally flawed. I’m a big supporter of more regulation of the finance industry, but I think pure, greedy speculation can have a lot of upside, particularly through increasing liquidity in certain instruments.

In the commodity markets, for example, it would be tough to see a market for hedges for airlines, farmers or food producers without traders constantly trying to make a buck. The old-fashioned market-makers on the NYSE floor also do the same thing, doing nothing except trying to buy low and sell high. I read once that most guys still on the floor read the New York Post rather than the WSJ. They couldn’t really care less about the long-term fundamentals of a company, but they still help grease the wheels for investment.

The real issue is how speculators could take systematically dangerous risks. Do you remember all the CME traders threatening the downfall of the international markets? Neither do I. On the shadow market, on the other hand, counterparty risk can be extremely unpredictable and subject markets to bank runs. The real way to help make financial markets robust is not to demonize “speculation,” but the system robust to too much speculation.

Posted by mwwaters | Report as abusive

Adventures with debt-ceiling Kabuki, cont.

Felix Salmon
Jun 23, 2011 15:09 UTC

I’m worried about the brinkmanship going on in the debt-ceiling talks which House majority leader Eric Cantor has just decided to pull out of. Cantor’s point seems to be that he is incapable of talking about tax hikes as part of the deficit-reduction negotiations with Joe Biden; instead, the only way such a conversation can take place is if it’s between Barack Obama and John Boehner.

What this says to me is that we’re still very far from the point at which any House Republican — let alone Eric Cantor — is going to be willing to vote for long-term fiscal prudence, as that term is commonly understood. Triggers and ten-year fiscal straitjackets and other such mechanisms are all well and good if your aim is deficit reduction. But Republicans, as we saw most spectacularly during the George W Bush administration, tend to be very bad at reducing deficits, and very good at increasing them. If you vote for tax cuts on a semi-regular basis and you never vote for tax hikes, then no amount of spending cuts is going to get you smaller deficits — especially if Medicare and Medicaid are pretty much off the table.

This is all out of the standard Republican playbook: cut taxes, raise deficits, and leave the consequences to future generations. But now there’s been an important change, in that the Republicans are trying to have their cake and eat it. They can continue to be fiscally irresponsible on taxes, which inevitably means a steadily rising national debt, or else they can start drawing lines in the sand when it comes to the debt ceiling, in which case they have to allow that some tax increases are necessarily going to have to be on the table. But they can’t have it both ways. Hence the punt by Eric Cantor. Something has to give, and he doesn’t want to be in the room when that happens: he’s kicking responsibility over to Boehner instead.

Let’s say the Obama-Boehner meeting happens. If Boehner does give in on taxes — and that’s a big if — then will Cantor and the rest of the House Republicans fall loyally in line and vote for such things? That’s far from a foregone conclusion. And if Boehner doesn’t give in, it’s hard to see how the deficit-reduction plan would have any credibility whatsoever in the markets, since the markets know full well that the deficit can’t be shrunk without some kind of tax hikes.

The whole point of a long-term fiscal plan is to give the markets confidence that the US has its debt situation under control. What I fear is that coming out of these negotiations we’ll end up with a plan which sounds impressive coming out of the mouths of politicians, but which has no real credibility or fiscal force. And that as a result we’ll have even more uncertainty when it comes to future fiscal policy — the exact opposite of what both sides in these negotiations say that they want. And that would be a good outcome, compared to the worst-case scenario where there’s no agreement at all come August 2.

So can someone remind me again why we’re even going through this whole Kabuki? It seems to benefit no one at all.

Update: Boehner’s no more grown up than Cantor is:

“Tax hikes are off the table,” he said. “First of all, raising taxes is going to destroy jobs….second, a tax hike cannot pass the US House of Representatives — it’s not just a bad idea, it doesn’t have the votes and it can’t happen.”

COMMENT

Excuse me, I meant 0.0075 above post. Imagine how much the Treasury will save if we get yields down to my newly revised target of 0.0025%

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive

Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Jun 23, 2011 06:04 UTC

Price gap: Storage vs Bandwidth — Backblaze

What ‘Inside Job’ got wrong — WaPo

Larry Summers joins Square Board Of Directors — HuffPo

xkcd vs conoisseurship — xkcd (see also)

Pictures of China’s Ai Weiwei after release on bail — Reuters

The US immigration system is horribly broken. Jose Antonio Vargas’s amazing story should change minds — NYT

COMMENT

Vargas story isn’t going to change too many minds. Here’s why? He isn’t exactly a typical illegal (or for that matter legal) immigrant. The vast majority are poorly educated and likely to be a burden on our nation as long as they are here (and for generations to come).

Don’t believe me? Read “Seeing Today’s Immigrants Straight” (http://www.city-journal.org/html/16_3_i mmigration_reform.html)

Simple summary

“Pay attention to facts on the ground. If someone proposed a program to boost the number of Americans who lack a high school diploma, have children out of wedlock, sell drugs, steal, or use welfare, he’d be deemed mad. Yet liberalized immigration rules would do just that. The illegitimacy rate among Hispanics is high and rising faster than that of other ethnic groups; their dropout rate is the highest in the country; Hispanic children are joining gangs at younger and younger ages. Academic achievement is abysmal.”

Posted by fyouell | Report as abusive

How to create jobs: bike lanes

Felix Salmon
Jun 22, 2011 21:29 UTC

We know that infrastructure spending is a good way of creating jobs. But what kind of infrastructure spending? Heidi Gerrett-Peltier looked at pedestrian, bicycle, and road projects in Anchorage, Austin, Baltimore, Bloomington, Concord, Eugene, Houston, Lexington, Madison, Santa Cruz, and Seattle — and came to a pretty clear conclusion:

Bicycling infrastructure creates the most jobs for a given level of spending: For each $1 million, the cycling projects in this study create a total of 11.4 jobs within the state where the project is located. Pedestrian-only projects create an average of about 10 jobs per $1 million and multi-use trails create nearly as many, at 9.6 jobs per $1 million. Infrastructure that combines road construction with pedestrian and bicycle facilities creates slightly fewer jobs for the same amount of spending, and road-only projects create the least, with a total of 7.8 jobs per $1 million.

This finding isn’t new, but it’s worth remembering as signs of detente start to appear in the war on bikes. It’s hot out there, people: no one wants or needs to ride fast. You get to a red light, stop at it. Take the opportunity to catch your breath and minimize your sweatiness upon arrival. And while you’re waiting, you can ponder the idea that every bike lane represents badly needed jobs in a recovery which is going much less well than expected.

COMMENT

nice post friend

Cycle saddle

Posted by maddy58 | Report as abusive

Chart of the day, auction-house market share edition

Felix Salmon
Jun 22, 2011 20:29 UTC

Randy Kennedy has a bullish article on Artnet’s nascent art-auction business, which is doing better the second time round than it did the first time round, but which is still tiny. I’m skeptical: value in the art world is very much reliant upon the institutional authority of auction houses and galleries, and Artnet’s auction system is designed to strip out all of that information. It can work for fungible editioned works of relatively modest value, but I do think that most collectors are always going to want a bit more hand-holding before buying art, not to mention the opportunity to actually see the art object before buying it.

That said, the decline of the Sotheby’s and Christie’s duopoly is real, and this is a great opportunity for Artnet or anybody else to try to make a name in a new world with many more players. Here’s some data which Artnet pulled for me, showing total global auction sales, split between the duopoly and everybody else. While sales totals rise and fall, the one constant is the decline of the big guys’ market share:

soth.png

Next year, it’s more likely than not that Sotheby’s and Christie’s between them will have less than half the global auction market for fine art (which is the data used for this chart). A large part of this is the rise of China, which has hundreds if not thousands of auction houses, and where the big two have very small market share. But even outside China I think that Sotheby’s and Christie’s are both vulnerable, in theory, to lighter-weight business models like Artnet’s auctions or art.sy or the VIP Art Fair. Many of them will fail — but some will succeed. The big two will be faced with a tough choice: do they compete directly with the new entrants, or do they protect their own high-margin core business?

COMMENT

Some outstanding Fine Art is being sold on collective websites such as The Curator’s Eye (www.curatorseye.com).

Posted by ArtSeller | Report as abusive

Can employment ever catch up with productivity?

Felix Salmon
Jun 22, 2011 18:19 UTC

I moderated a panel on financial innovation yesterday, about which more when I get the video. But there was a lot of talk of leverage, which is the hidden turbo-charger in a lot of financial innovations, from credit default swaps to structured investment vehicles. And there was a general consensus that if you want to create prosperity and jobs, then leverage is in principle a good thing: more debt means more growth which means more prosperity. For a prime example, see this post from Gregory White, who reckons that whenever household debt is going down rather than up, “the economy will stink.”

In reality, however, things are rather more complicated. And Jared Bernstein has a great post up explaining one of the big problems: Over the past 30 years or so, unemployment has been high, compared to the previous 30 years, when unemployment was low. When unemployment is low, productivity gains go to labor; when unemployment is high, they go to capital. And that’s a big reason why median family incomes have been massively lagging productivity growth since 1979, even though the two moved pretty much in lockstep during the postwar period.

The challenge I put to the panel yesterday was to come up with an innovation which produces more growth with less leverage, after an entire generation in which debt has been growing much faster than GDP. Better yet, come up with an innovation which produces more jobs with less leverage. We still have healthy productivity growth. How do we channel that into employment, rather than dividends for plutocrats? The fund managers and CEOs on my panel weren’t much help on that front. But that’s the real challenge facing developed economies today, and I suspect that if we look at Germany, we might be able to find a few clues.

COMMENT

Having moved from Australia to Germany almost 2 years ago the main differences that Felix might be referring to:

- a strong school education system with equivalent quality universities (that don’t leave students with crippling debts) or pervasive apprenticeships (in all industries, not just traditional “hand work” ones)

- a distaste for debt. People here prefer cash (or the electronic version thereof) and it’s quite common to be unable to use a credit card. A modest mortgage is the limit most people undertake and unmanageable credit card debts are a rarity. This seems to extend to companies too which leads me to…

- a preference for organic growth. The Mittelstand are mentioned so often because these are small-medium companies who punch above their weight in their respective markets but still maintain a focus on longevity all the while compensating all employees generously. In most cases they avoid taking on debt which allows them to ride out cyclical events better although they do get some help from…

- government initiatives like “kürzarbeit” (literally “short work”) helps to smooth out the impact of the business cycle on employment. Businesses reduce hours instead of laying people off and employees get some assistance from the government. The business wins by retaining skilled staff, the employees win by not being laid off and the government wins by spending less than full unemployment benefits.

Posted by MartinBarry | Report as abusive

How to prevent misguided privatizations

Felix Salmon
Jun 22, 2011 13:39 UTC

The problem with talking about federal infrastructure expenditures as “investments” is that someone like Dick Durbin is likely to take the term literally. He’s now introduced legislation which says that any time a state or city wants to privatize a transportation asset, it has to repay the federal government first. So if the government sunk a few hundred million dollars into a highway project, for instance, and then the state decided it wanted to sell off the right to collect tolls on that highway, then the toll operator or the state would first have to repay all the money that the feds spent.

Durbin explained to HuffPo’s Dave Jamieson what he was worried about:

As states and cities across the country face grim budgets, more and more are looking to stem their shortfalls by leasing existing assets, such as roads, lotteries or government buildings. The City of Harrisburg, Pa., may soon lease its parking meters to a private investors, as Chicago has already done for a 75-year period starting in 2008. Durbin remarked that he’s already watched the cost of parking soar in Chicago since that city’s deal was inked.

“It’s a caution to all of us,” Durbin said. “When we look at privatization, we have to look at the long-term.”

This is all a bit incoherent. For one thing, parking meters in Chicago and Harrisburg are a bad example here, because it’s hard to make a case that the federal government has a huge investment in them. And while Durbin is right that the 75-year contract in Chicago is far too long, he’s wrong to consider the rise in the cost of parking to be a bad thing: in fact, it’s the whole reason that the parking meters were privatized in the first place. Parking in dense urban neighborhoods should be expensive, but politicians are loathe to raise meter rates, so privatization is a way that they tie their hands and get to blame someone else.

The bigger picture here is that when the federal government invests in transportation infrastructure, it’s investing in a public good, and insofar as there’s a return on that investment, it’s seen in marginally higher tax revenues from the entire region. If some kind of private-sector involvement can improve the way that those assets are operated, so much the better. Remember that Durbin doesn’t have a problem with tolling roads, or charging for on-street parking: he only has a problem with the private sector having a contract allowing it to do such things. If local government does it, that’s fine — even if local governments are often hobbled by political constraints.

Somewhere in the Durbin bill is the germ of a good idea: preventing local governments from selling off valuable franchises for multi-decade terms in sweetheart deals at a fraction of their net present value, just to fill a yawning budget gap. Transportation privatization is hard to do well, and there’s precious little indication that most local goverments are any good at it. Wall Street can often make a fortune in such deals.

But that’s an entirely separate issue to the question of whether the project received federal funding in the first place, or how much money the feds spent. That’s a sunk cost: the federal government should in principle be happy if the private sector is now willing to pick up some of the tab.

A much more sensible way of doing things would be to set up the national infrastructure bank which the Obama Administration has been talking about since before it was even elected. The bank could be given oversight of public-private partnerships, could put together a set of best practices with regard to privatization contracts, and could generally professionalize an area which to date has been rather chaotic, politicized, and ad hoc. What’s needed here isn’t new legislation: rather, it’s the passage of old legislation which has been gathering dust for years. The infrastructure bank is a great idea, and someone should resuscitate it.

COMMENT

Foppe,there is a perfectly good “reason” Brown chose this way. So he pretend he was not upping the debt whilst going on a spending binge. As for sweethearts deals how is metrorail doing?

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive
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