Geithner Outlines Accomplishments, Future of Financial Reform

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told
the Financial Stability Oversight Council that the financial system is getting
stronger and safer and that much of the excess risk-taking and careless
financial practices that caused so much damage has been forced out.  However, he said, “These gains will erode
over time if we are not able to put our full reforms into place.”

He outlined the basic framework has been
laid, with new global agreements to limit leverage, rules for managing the
failure of a large firm and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
up and running, and the majority of the new safeguards for derivatives markets proposed.  Geithner ticked off the major accomplishments
of reform.

First, banks now face much
tougher limits on risk which are critical to reducing the risk of large
financial failures and limiting the damage such failures can cause.  The focus in 2012 will be “on defining the
new liquidity standards and on making sure that capital risk-weights are
applied consistently.”

 The new rules are tougher on
the largest banks that pose the greatest risk and are being complemented by
other limits on risk-taking such as the Volcker Rules and limits on the size of
firms and concentration of the financial systems.  These will not apply only to banks but to
other large financial institutions that could pose a threat to financial system
stability and this year the Risk Council will make the first of these
designations.

Second, the derivatives market will,
for the first time, be required to meet a comprehensive set of transparency
requirements, margin rules and other safeguards.  These reforms are designed to move
standardized contracts to clearing houses and trading platforms and will be
complemented with more conservative safeguards for the more complex and
specialized products less amenable to central clearing and electronic
trading.  These reforms, the balance of
which will be outlined this year, will lower costs for those who use the
products, allow parties to hedge against risk, but limit the potential for
abuse, the Secretary said. 

Third, is a carefully designed set
of safeguards against risk outside the banking system and enhanced protections
for the basic infrastructure of the financial markets: 

  • Money market funds will have new
    requirements designed to limit “runs.”
  • Important funding markets like the
    tri-party repo market are now more conservatively structured.
  • International trade repositories are
    being developed for derivatives, including credit default swaps.
  • Designated financial market utilities
    will have oversight and requirements for stronger financial reserves;

Fourth; there will be a stronger set
of protections in place against “too big to fail” institutions.  The key elements are:

  • Capital and liquidity rules with
    tough limits on leverage to both reduce the probability of failure and prevent
    a domino effect;
  • New protections for derivatives,
    funding markets, and for the market infrastructure to limit contagion across
    the financial system;
  • Tougher limits on institutional size;
  • A bankruptcy-type framework to
    manage the failure of large financial firms.
    This “resolution authority” will prohibit bailouts for private
    investors, protect taxpayers, and force the financial system to bear the costs
    of future crisis.

Fifth, significantly stronger
protections for investors and consumers are being put in place including the
CFPB which is working to improve disclosures for mortgages and credit cards and
developing new standards for qualified mortgages.  New authorities are being used to strengthen protections
for investors and to give shareholders greater voice on issues like executive
compensation.

Geithner pointed to the failure of
account segregation rules to protect customers in the MF Global disaster as proof
of the need for more protections and said that the Council will work with the
SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Council on this problem.   

Moving forward, reforms must be
structured to endure as the market evolves and to work not just in isolation
but to interact appropriately with each other and the broader economy.  “We
want to be careful to get the balance right-building a more stable financial
system, with better protections for consumers and investors, that allows for
financial innovation in support of economic growth.” 

First, he said, we have to make sure
we have a level playing field at home; that financial firms engaged in similar
activity and financial instruments that have similar characteristics are
treated roughly the same because small differences can have powerful effects in
shifting risk to where the rules are softer. 
A level field globally is also important, particularly with reforms that
toughen rules on capital, margin, liquidity, and leverage, as well as in the
global derivatives markets.  “In these areas we are working to discourage
other nations from applying softer rules to their institutions and to try to
attract financial activity away from the U.S. market and U.S. institutions.” 

It is necessary to align the
developing derivatives regimes around the world; preventing attempts to soften
application of capital rules, limiting the discretion available to supervisors
in enforcing rules on risk-weights for capital and designing rules for
resolution of large global institutions.  Also, because some U.S. reforms are different
or tougher from rules in other markets, there needs to be a sensible way to
apply those rules to the foreign operations of U.S. firms and the U.S.
operation of foreign firms.

 The U.S. also needs to move
forward with reforms to the mortgage market including a path to winding down
the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs.) 
The Administration has already outlined a broad strategy, Geithner said,
and expects to lay out more detail in the spring.  The immediate concern is to repair the damage
to homeowners, the housing market, and neighborhoods.  The President spoke this week about the range
of tools he plans to use.  Our ultimate goals
are to wind down the GSEs, bring private capital back into the market, reduce
the government’s direct role, and better target support toward first-time
homebuyers and low- and moderate-income Americans.

Geithner said the new system must
foster affordable rentals options, have stronger, clearer consumer protections,
and create a level playing field for all institutions participating in the
system.  For this to happen without
hurting the broader economy and adding further damage to those areas that have
been hardest hit, banks and private investors must come back into the market on
a larger scale and they want more clarity on the rules that will apply. 

Credit availability is still a problem
and there is a broad array of programs in place to improve access to credit and
capital for small businesses.  As
conditions improve, it is important that we remain focused on making sure that
small businesses, a crucial engine of job growth, have continued access to
equity capital and credit.

Many Americans trying to buy a home
or refinance their mortgage are also finding it hard to access credit, even for
FHA- or GSE-backed mortgages.  The Administration has been working closely
with the FHA and FHFA to encourage them to take additional measures to remove
unnecessary barriers and they are making progress.  They will probably outline additional reforms
in the coming weeks.

Bank supervisors, in the normal
conduct of bank exams and supervision, as well as in the design of new rules to
limit risk taking and abuse, must be careful not to overdo it with actions that
cause undue damage to the availability of credit or liquidity to markets.

Geithner said the U.S. financial
system is getting stronger
, and is now significantly stronger than it was
before the crisis.  Among the achievements:

  • Banks have increased common equity
    by more than $350 billion since 2009.
  • Banks and other financial
    institutions with more than $5 trillion in assets at the end of 2007 have been
    shut down, acquired, or restructured.
  • The asset-backed commercial paper
    market has shrunk by 70 percent since its peak in 2007, and the tri-party repo
    market and prime money market funds have shrunk by 40 percent and 33 percent
    respectively since their 2008 peaks.
  • The financial assistance we provided
    to banks through TARP, for example, will result in taxpayer gains of
    approximately $20 billion.

The Secretary said the strength of
the banks is helping to support broader economic growth, including the more
than 3 million private sector jobs created over 22 straight months, and the 30
percent increase in private investment in equipment and software.  
Broadly, the cost of credit has fallen significantly since late 2008 and early
2009.  Banks are lending more, with commercial and industrial loans to
businesses up by an annual rate of more than 10 percent over the past six
months.  

He concluded by saying that no
financial system is invulnerable to crisis, and there is a lot of unfinished
business on the path of reform.  The reforms are tough where they need to
be tough.  “But they will leave our financial system safer, better able to
help businesses raise capital, and better able to help families finance safely
the purchase of a house or a car, to borrow to invest in a college education,
or to save for retirement.  And they will protect the taxpayer from having
to pay the price of future crisis.”

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SEC Names Ex-Credit Suisse Employees in Subprime Fraud Scheme

Four
former investment bankers and traders from the Credit Suisse Group were charged
by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Wednesday violating multiple
sections of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 while trading in subprime
mortgage bonds
.  The indictments allege
the four engaged in a complex scheme to fraudulently overstate the prices of $3
billion of the bonds during the height of the subprime credit crisis. 

The
four are Kareem Serageldin, the group’s former global head of structured credit
trading; David Higgs, former head of hedge trading; and two traders, Faisal Siddiqui and Salmaan
Siddiqui.  According to the complaint
filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Serageldin
oversaw a significant portion of Credit Suisse’s structured products and
mortgage-related businesses. The traders reported to Higgs and Serageldin.

The SEC charges that the four
deliberately ignored specific market information showing that prices of the
subject bonds were declining sharply, pricing them instead in a way that
allowed Credit Suisse to achieve fictional profits, and, through the traders,
changing bond prices in order to hit daily and monthly profit target and cover
losses.  The scheme was driven in part by
the prospect of lavish year-end bonuses and promotions.  The scheme hit its peak at the end of 2007.

“The
stunning scale of the illegal mismarking in this case was surpassed only by the
greed of the senior bankers behind the scheme,” said Robert Khuzami, Director
of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement and a Co-Chair of the newly formed Residential
Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group
, “At precisely the moment investors
and market participants were urgently seeking accurate information about
financial institutions’ exposure to the subprime market, the senior bankers
falsely and selfishly inflated the value of more than $3 billion in
asset-backed securities in order to protect their bonuses and, in one case,
protect a highly coveted promotion.”  

SEC
explained that it was not charging Credit Suisse in the scheme because the
wrongdoing was isolated; Credit Suisse reported the violations to the SEC,
voluntarily terminated the four, implemented internal controls to prevent
additional misconduct, and cooperated with SEC in the investigation.  The SEC said that the four named in the
complaint also cooperated in the investigation and that assistance was provided
by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York
and the United Kingdom Financial Services Authority.

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Case-Shiller Reports Continued Erosion in Home Prices

Home prices continued to fall in November according to the
S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices released this morning.  Both the 10-City and the 20-City Indices were
down 1.3 percent in November compared to the previous month and for the second
month in a row19 of the cities also saw their prices inch lower.   Phoenix was the only one of the 20 to post a
gain in November.

The year-over-year price declines in November widened from those in October.  The 10-City and 20-City Composites were down
3.6 percent and 3.7 percent respectively from November 2010 to November 2011
compared to the -3.2 percent and -3.4 percent annual rate of change in
October.  Thirteen of the cities in the
larger index also saw a large drop in annual prices than they had in October. 

Atlanta had the worst performance with its annual return down 11.8 percent.  Atlanta’s prices fell 2.5 percent in November
following a 5.0 percent decline in October, 5.9 percent drop in September and
2.4 percent loss in August.  As was the
case in October, only two cities, Detroit and Washington, DC saw an improved
annual rate, but in both cases that annual increase was lower than their
October number.

David Blizer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Indices said,
“Despite continued low interest rates and better real GDP growth in the fourth
quarter, home prices continue to fall. 
Annual rates were little better as 18 cities and both Composites were
negative.  Nationally, home prices are
lower than a year ago.  The trend is down
and there are few, if any signs in the numbers that a turning point is close at
hand.”

The 10-City Composite is now about 1.0 percent above its crisis low reached
in April 2009 and the 20-City is 0.6 percent above the low it reached in March
2011.  Both Composites are close to 33
percent off of their 2006 peak levels. 
As of November average home prices across the U.S. are back to mid-2003
levels.

“It’s not telling us much we don’t know. A lot of people fell into the trap of looking at the upturn in housing starts at the end of the year and mistaking that for a turnaround in the housing market. That’s absolutely premature.” – Andrew Wilkinson, Chief Economic Strategist, Miller Tabak & Co., New York.

 

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Places for Home Builders to Dig In

Where are the best markets to build and sell new homes these days?

Amid a flurry of housing news this week, including President Barack Obama’s latest mortgage-refinance proposal, comes an interesting piece of real-estate analysis in the building sector. Houston-based Metrostudy has analyzed the strongest markets for home builders. They include: San Diego; Southern California; Texas’s Rio Grande Valley; St. George, Utah; and Orlando.

The research is by Brad Hunter, chief economist at Metrostudy, a company that, among other things, sends observers out each month to hundreds of new-home communities to count how many single-family homes are under construction, occupied and vacant. Metrostudy’s work is a complement to the U.S. Census’s monthly housing starts numbers and vacancy survey.

Mr. Hunter’s analysis of about 80 markets found that most areas saw housing starts fall in the fourth quarter. (Housing starts in November reached a 19-month high, but they were flat the following month.)

There were a few other key points in Metrostudy’s analysis:

1. San Diego, which showed some signs of recovery in home prices earlier this year, showed “significant strength” towards the end of the year. Construction began on 440 new homes there in the fourth quarter of 2011, a 46.7% increase over the previous quarter. Part of this increase comes because the third quarter numbers were abysmal. But San Diego also showed a 72.8% increase in absorption of new homes, meaning more houses are selling and supply is shrinking, making it a good market for builders.

2. A few of the usual suspects are some of the worst new-home markets in the country, including exurban Central California (starts down 8.2% in the fourth quarter compared with the prior quarter) and Las Vegas (32.9% decrease) as demand continues to lag there and inventory remains roughly flat.

3. Northern Virginia, which has stayed relatively strong during the housing downturn because of its proximity to job centers related to the federal government, is starting to falter. Metrostudy found that starts of single-family detached homes there fell 22.1% in the fourth quarter, and at year end, home construction was down 14.7% annually. Fewer people are moving in as well, as absorption fell 10.9% in the quarter, and inventory rose 17.7%, the highest level of any market observed.

Pending Home Sales Decline in December, Remain Above a Year Ago

Pending home sales fell off of the
19-month high reached in November according to figures released on Wednesday by
the National Association of Realtors® (NAR), but were still higher than one
year ago.  NAR’s Pending Home Sales Index
(PHSI) dropped from 100.1 in November to 96.6 in December, a decline of 3.5 percent.  December pending home sales were still 5.6
percent above the December 2010 index of 91.5.

The PHSI is a measure of signed
sales contracts for home purchases where the transaction has not closed.  It is considered a forward indicator as the
sale is usually finalized within one or two months of contract signing.  An index
of 100 is equal to the average level of contract activity during 2001.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said the trend line remains
positive.  “Even with a modest decline, the preceding two months of
contract activity are the highest in the past four years outside of the
homebuyer tax credit period,” he said.  “Contract failures remain an
issue, reported by one-third of Realtors® over the past few months,
but home buyers are not giving up.”

Yun said some
buyers successfully complete the sale after a contract delay, while others stay
in the market after a contract failure and make another offer.  “Housing
affordability conditions are too good to pass up,” he said.  “Our hope is
lending conditions will gradually improve with sustained increases in closed
existing-home sales.”

On a regional
basis results were mixed with three regions showing increases on a year to year
basis but only one increasing during the December.

Pending Home Sales by Region

Region

Index in

December

Chg Nov to
Dec.

(%)

Chg Dec.
2010 to

Dec. 2011
(%)

Northeast

74.7

-3.1

-0.8

Midwest

95.3

+4.0

+13.3

South

101.1

-2.6

+4.9

West

107.9

-11.0

+3.7

U.S.

96.6

-3.5

+5.6

NAR also issued an economic forecast which predicts a healthy growth in
both real and nominal GPD over the next two years with real GDP growing in a historically
normal range of around 3 percent and the unemployment rate falling under 8
percent by 2013. 

Housing starts are expected to improve to around 750,000 in 2012 and
reach a million the next year – both figures well below the historically
typical 1.5 million.  Housing sales, both
new and existing, will remain relatively flat with new home sales reaching a
half million by the end of 2013.  
Existing home sales are estimated to have totaled 4.26 million in 2011
and will rise gradually to 4.45 million and 4.62 million in 2012 and 2013
respectively. 

Inventories are not projected into the future, but the supply of existing
homes is trending down and is now around 2.25 million.  The inventory of new homes has declined to a
nearly negligible level, however given the pace of sales, both inventories
represent about a six month supply.

NAR expects
median prices of both new and existing homes to rise only slightly from current
levels of$223,400 and $166,100 during 2012 but will rise more rapidly during
2013 to a median level of $235,800 and $172,600 by year end.

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