Whose Risk Is It Anyway?

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Editor’s Comment:

Now that securities analysts are looking at investments the way I was trained to see them, it is now possible to see the way the mortgage bond market should have operated, why it didn’t operate according to industry standards and why it is continuing to drain the economies of the U.S. Economy and the economies and societies of the western world.

There are two general types of risk in any investment. The first type is return of principal and the second type is the rate of return. The rate of return is the amount of money paid to the investor in addition to the principal. In today’s markets the two main contenders for investment money are equities (stocks) and liabilities (bonds). The price of an investment depends upon risk more than anything else: “is this price worth the risk that I will get my money back along with the targeted rate of return (interest in the case of bonds).

The inescapable rule has always been and always will be that if an issuer is seeking investment capital they must pay higher and higher interest rates for every degree of increased risk. If the risk is return of capital they are junk bonds. If the risk is that the rate of return (interest) on bonds may vary from the stated or targeted return, that too will increase the cost of capital to those issuers seeking investment capital.

My conclusion is that mortgage bonds have so destabilised the markets and confidence in the bond markets, that they are difficult to evaluate using common sense industry standards. Sure enough we see here that the slightest move away from the bonds with the absolute lowest risk of return of principal results in huge jumps in the cost of capital. And if the issuer of that bond is downgraded to a higher risk, their bonds will take a beating. Each beating amounts to a reduction in the open Market price paid for the bond — which means that the investor who bought at or near par value is now considered likely to receive less of his principal back and most probably will take a “haircut” on both principal and interest.

The obvious solution is to remove mortgage bonds from the bond Market through whatever means are necessary and to show the world that such bogus bonds will not be tolerated in the U.S. Or anywhere else. Yet we continue to kick the can down the road. Not only have we failed to give recognition to what world bankers have understood for four years — that mortgage bonds are worthless — we compound the problem by having government entities sell these “securities” under circumstances that ought to land any issuer or broker in jail.

The U.S. Government and the U.S. treasury have become co-conspirators in the largest economic crime in human history and to add insult to injury they think we are all too stupid to see it. Francois Hollander as the new president of France stands as living testimony that the people will neither be apathetic nor stupid on the issue of the Banks and finance. As leader of the socialist party, the election if this marginalised candidate sent Sarkozy packing for Hollande’s arrival on May 16, 2012, which is less time than the ordinary eviction takes in the United States.

Pretending the mortgage bonds have value is hurting us. Failing to get restitution to the victims of this fraud is hurting us even worse because it is retarding our efforts at economic recovery. And the failure of all three branches of government to assure that this fraud will end, that stolen property and money will be returned, and that criminal perpetrators will go to jail is perpetuating a widening income inequality that often presages social upheaval. If we keep going like this, the United States of America might become a confederation of regions. China will become the next bully on the block and we will all be learning mandarin whether we want to or not.

How to Play the Bond Market Now

Many pros are bracing for higher interest rates but are willing to shoulder some risk of defaults

By MICHAEL A. POLLOCK

Bond investors, pick your poison.

Interest rates are pitifully low for old standbys like Treasurys and highly rated corporate bonds. But the risk factor increases so rapidly the more one tries to reach for higher returns that it is hard these days to know how to allocate fixed-income dollars. Before investing, one has to carefully weigh and compare risks including rising rates, possible defaults, currency swings and liquidity.

To get the best balance of risk and return, the answer may be mixing various types of taxable and municipal bonds for maximum diversification.

In the current climate, many pros also suggest that investors say yes to moderate credit risk but limit their exposure to an eventual rise in rates.

Here’s how to strike a good balance between risk and reward in today’s bond market:

Know the two basic types of bond risk and how those risks compare

Many people mistakenly believe bonds are entirely safe. Actually, bondholders continually face two major threats to the value of their investments: interest-rate risk and credit risk.

The first stems from expectations that stronger economic activity will fan inflation, eroding returns on securities that pay fixed rates of interest—as most bonds do. Such worries can spark selling. And as prices fall, that pushes up yields, which move the opposite way. You might not be affected if you hold individual bonds and don’t sell before maturity, although rising yields do entail an opportunity cost: You’re stuck with low rates while newer securities would offer better returns. But if you own a bond fund, the risk is greater: Funds don’t have a final maturity and lose value as long as rates are rising.

The other key concern, credit risk, results from fears that a bond issuer can’t make interest payments or repay principal at maturity. The trade-off is higher-risk issuers have to pay higher interest to lure bond buyers, boosting investors’ income if the bond doesn’t go bad.

Robert Hall, a fixed-income fund manager at Boston-based MFS Investment Management, is among those who say it makes sense now to base bond-investment decisions more on credit risk than on rate risk.

Most bond professionals believe rates are going to climb eventually. But “trying to anticipate rates has been a losing game,” says Mr. Hall. During the economic recovery so far, U.S. rates have remained near historic lows because of strong global demand for lower-risk investments and central-bank actions to keep rates low in order to spark growth.

Assessing an issuer’s credit risk is an easier exercise, by comparison. “You can get your hands around credit risk” by scrutinizing an issuer’s financial reports, Mr. Hall says.

Some investors have been taking more credit risk this year. According to fund tracker Morningstar Inc., MORN -0.66% high-yield funds—which hold below-investment-grade, or “junk,” bonds—attracted nearly $15 billion through March. Tax-exempt and emerging-markets funds, where credit risk also plays a big role, saw good inflows, too.

To temper rate risk, climb lower on the corporate credit ladder.

Corporate bonds are rated according to perceived default risk. And the more default risk a bond carries, the less it tends to trade in sync with U.S. Treasurys. That means a portfolio of lower-rated bonds isn’t as vulnerable to any broad rise in rates.

Currently, 10-year investment-grade corporate bonds yield around 3%, or about one percentage point over 10-year Treasurys. That yield premium doesn’t adequately compensate for the principal loss they could suffer if rates were to spike, says Mr. Hall of MFS.

He arrives at this conclusion by doing some basic bond math. This involves computing a bond’s so-called duration, or interest-rate sensitivity, which is determined by its yield and time left until maturation. For a highly rated 10-year corporate bond, the sensitivity measure is about 7. If you multiply 7 by a hypothetical percentage-point increase in yields, you get the amount by which the bond’s price is likely to fall in response.

So, for the 10-year corporate in question, if rates rose by one percentage point, the impact would be a 7% decline in the value of your investment before any interest is paid.

But if you move lower on the ratings ladder to double B, the top tier for high-yield, below-investment-grade bonds, you’ll get around 6% to 7% in yield and a rate sensitivity around 4. If yields rose one percentage point, such bonds might still have a positive return after interest.

Another reason to own lower-rated corporate issues is that default risk has been falling, says Sabur Moini, a high-yield bond manager at Payden & Rygel, Los Angeles. As more investors have warmed to lower-rated bonds, their issuers “have done a very good job at reducing debt, keeping costs low and building up cash balances,” he says.

Mix in some municipals for possible tax savings.

Last year, muni prices plummeted as investors fled the sector amid fears of surging defaults by financially strapped local governments. Now, although prices have recovered somewhat, munis still offer very good value, says Dan Genter, who heads RNC Genter Capital Management in Los Angeles.

The interest that munis pay is exempt from federal income tax, and generally also from state tax in the state of issuance, so munis historically have yielded only about three-fourths as much as taxable Treasurys. But in an unusual situation, munis now yield about the same as Treasurys. That makes them cheap—not only to people in the top tax bracket, but to everyone, says Mr. Genter.

At around 2.5%, the current yield of top-quality, intermediate-maturity munis is the after-tax equivalent of nearly 4% on a taxable bond for an investor with a 33% marginal federal tax rate. The after-tax equivalent could be higher if federal tax rates increase next year, as scheduled under current law.

As muni investors have been focusing more on credit risk, the market has been trading less in sync with Treasurys. That means munis other than those with long maturities could offer some protection against any broad rise in Treasury yields, says John Miller, co-head of global fixed income at Chicago-based Nuveen Asset Management.

Illustrating the divergence, Nuveen All-American Municipal Bond returned 5.1% in the first four months of 2012, even after Treasury rates blipped higher in March. In contrast, the iShares Barclays 7-10 Year Treasury IEF -0.02% ETF returned just 0.6%, according to Morningstar.

Own emerging-markets bonds for yield and diversification.

Bonds of emerging-markets nations such as Brazil and Malaysia have yields five percentage points or more above those of government bonds in developed countries. And owning such bonds essentially means you are lending money to governments that are in a stronger position to repay it than governments of many developed countries, says Robert Stewart, a managing director and emerging-markets specialist at J.P. Morgan Funds in London.

The chief downside to these bonds is their volatility. These nations may have stronger growth prospects and smaller debt burdens than the U.S., for example. But at times of financial uncertainty, investors tend to rush back to the perceived safety of U.S. Treasurys.

Last September, as Europe’s financial woes prompted a flight to safety, the average emerging-markets bond fund tracked by Morningstar posted a negative 7.5% return for the month.

The answer for many investors is to add a modest helping of emerging-markets bonds to your plate—perhaps around 5% to 10% of your overall bond allocation, says Mr. Stewart.

Volatility-averse investors should choose a fund that invests mostly in U.S. dollar-denominated bonds because in uncertain times, bonds denominated in local currencies may be hurt more by flight to safety than those issued in U.S. dollars.

For instance, about 90% of the bonds owned by TCW Emerging Markets Income are denominated in dollars. The fund, which yields 6.5%, has large holdings of bonds issued in Brazil, Mexico and Russia.

To simplify things, consider funds with a diverse mix of securities.

Because institutional players dominate the credit markets, people with less money to invest who want credit exposure are usually better off owning mutual funds than individual bonds. Funds offer much better liquidity than individual corporate bonds, meaning that it is easier to buy and sell a position.

You could get moderate credit exposure through a fund in Morningstar’s multisector bond-fund grouping. Such funds invest in a mix of U.S. government, corporate and high-yield securities and periodically adjust holdings based on market conditions and manager expectations. Multisector funds also may have some holdings of non-U.S. bonds.

Among strongly performing multisector funds, Loomis Sayles Bond recently had about 60% of its holdings in corporate debt securities for an average portfolio credit rating of double-B and a moderate interest-rate sensitivity of 5.5. The fund also had about a third of its portfolio in non-U.S. securities. Over the 10 years through April, it ranks in the top 6% of Morningstar’s multisector group, with an average annual total return of 10%.

Michael Collins, who oversees multisector fund strategies at Prudential Investments, believes it is unclear whether U.S. rates will rise significantly in the near future. Still, in the funds he helps manage, Mr. Collins has been loading up on high-yield bonds because of the cushion they can provide against rising rates. Says Mr. Collins, “High-quality bonds don’t pay much, and you potentially have a lot of downside there.”

Budgetary Cracks Crawling Across the Continent and Abroad

EDITORIAL NOTE: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY

These budgetary cracks throughout our system were caused primarily by one thing — the Wall Street securitization scheme that was fake from the start. The result was the illusion of growing towns — with growth that could be sustained — growing population — when the population wasn’t growing — and governments losing money by starting projects to accommodate the projections of new demographics while at the same time headed off a revenue cliff because tax revenues were about to plummet. Add to that the direct losses to pension systems and operating accounts of state and local governments from the purchase of worthless mortgage bonds and you have the prescription for disaster that is playing out before our eyes.

IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY: County and City Attorneys could be charging Wall Street players with crimes and civil damages. That is where the money is — that is where THEIR MONEY is sitting. The banks are not lending because they are already in play  planning to use the money on their next BIG TRADE. The reason is simple — by deregulating the finance industry we have turned the country into a place where paper is fabricated, forged, created, sold and traded and not much else happens compared to a few decades ago. Nearly 50% of what they are counting as our gross domestic product is euphemistically referred to as “financial services”.

Financial service to whom? With unemployment at dangerously high levels and small business start-ups (and expansion) at an all time low, where is the upsurge in employment going to come from? Where is the spending going to come from? Nowhere. But Wall Street will continue “trading” paper as though it were wroth something until the referees get back on the court — people who understand the game and can call foul. Right now we need the whistle blowing about every 2 seconds. Maybe we could get that down to once per month — but not until we, the people, commit to taking charge like our constitution says.
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Broke Town, U.S.A.

By ROGER LOWENSTEIN

Vallejo, a city about 25 miles north of San Francisco, offers a sneak preview of what could be the latest version of economic disaster. When the foreclosure wave hit, local tax revenue evaporated. The city managers couldn’t make their budget and eliminated financing for the local museum, the symphony and the senior center. The city begged the public-employee unions for pay cuts — all to no avail. In May 2008, Vallejo filed for bankruptcy. The filing drew little national attention; most people were too busy watching banks fail to worry about cities. But while the banks have largely recovered, Vallejo is still in bankruptcy. The police force has shrunk from 153 officers to 92. Calls for any but the most serious crimes go unanswered. Residents who complain about prostitutes or vandals are told to fill out a form. Three of the city’s firehouses were closed. Last summer, a fire ravaged a house in one of the city’s better neighborhoods; one of the firetrucks came from another town, 15 miles away. Is this America’s future?

Cities across America are facing dire financial distress. Meredith Whitney, a banking analyst turned independent adviser who correctly predicted the banking meltdown, has issued an Armageddon-like prediction of mass municipal defaults. Others — notably Newt Gingrich — have suggested that state governments as well as cities should be allowed to file for bankruptcy. Congress held a hearing to examine the idea.

These forecasts of apocalypse have touched a nerve. Americans, still reeling from the devastating impact of the mortgage debacle, are fearful that the next economic disaster is only a matter of time. To anyone reading the headlines of budget deficits and staggering pension liabilities, it takes little imagination to conclude that the next big one will be government itself. The problems of cities are everywhere. The city council of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, has enlisted a big New York law firm to explore bankruptcy as a means of restructuring a crushing debt. Central Falls, R.I., is in receivership. Hamtramck, Mich., a small city within Detroit’s borders, says it could run out of money next month. Hamtramck has only 90 employees, yet it is saddled with the pensions and health care obligations of 252 retirees. Detroit itself is at risk. Large deficits will mean closing about half of the city’s schools and will push high-school class sizes to 60 students.

These and other struggling locales do not begin to approach Whitney’s forecast of hundreds of billions in municipal defaults this year. (It would take defaults by 40 cities with as much debt as Detroit to reach even $100 billion.) Some industry experts accuse Whitney of exaggerating the crisis and of worsening the cities’ problems by frightening away investors. Whitney’s theory is that states, whose finances are also in desperate shape, will cut off local aid to preserve their own budgets; cities that have been subsisting on government transfers would become fiscal orphans and, in a financial sense, unworkable. She has not elaborated on her thesis beyond a few well-chosen television appearances. (She declined to talk to me.) But in the two months following Whitney’s warning, investors unloaded about $25 billion in shares of mutual funds that invest in municipal bonds. The selling spree sent the prices of these munis, typically among the most reliable investments, into a free fall.

If muni bonds were to default (causing investors permanent harm, as distinct from the temporary discomfort of price fluctuations), ordinary Americans would lose big. Munis are bonds issued by state and local governments, as well as agencies like hospitals, with the interest going to bondholders tax-free. Their relative safety, plus the tax break, has made them a favorite among individual investors, who own about two-thirds of the total, either directly or via mutual funds.

But what if the burden of municipal woes falls elsewhere than on bondholders? Yes, cities and states have creditors. They also have citizens who rely on their services and who pay the taxes, and they have public employees who are dependent on stable public-sector jobs and often-ample benefits. Whitney isn’t wrong about a crisis in local government; the crisis is here. The question is, will it be articulated in terms of bond defaults or larger kindergarten classes — or no kindergarten classes at all? The efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to squash organized labor suggest that politicians are no longer so willing to protect public employees. Teachers and nurses are likely to suffer well in advance of investors.

The United States has nearly $3 trillion in municipal bonds outstanding. Though some are backed by specific projects like airports and toll roads, most are general-obligation bonds; local taxes are used to pay the interest on those bonds before other expenses. Unlike a corporation, whose revenue can disappear, cities do not go away — or at least, most of them don’t. Detroit is in trouble because of its shrinking population, as are any number of towns in the former steel region of Western Pennsylvania. Many former industrial cities are burdened with governments that are out of proportion to their shrunken tax bases. Local budgets were stretched even before the recession; now, diminished tax receipts have threatened their ability to balance budgets. Bondholders in those municipalities have reason to sweat.

For areas with a stable economy, however, solvency is largely a matter of political will. Historically, far fewer than 1 percent of municipal bonds fail, and most that do tend to be issued for quasi public projects rather than cities. Typical is a monorail that links Las Vegas casinos — and that defaulted for lack of riders. In 2008, a record 166 issues defaulted, but the great majority were Florida land developments; essentially, builders used the tax code to finance sewers and water lines and then walked away when the mortgage bubble burst. The issues were small; defaults in 2008 totaled $8.5 billion. Last year, defaults fell to $2.8 billion.

Chastened by their failure to foresee the mortgage bust, the credit agencies have downgraded munis as the cities’ troubles have accelerated. But the agencies that evaluate muni bonds are paid to worry about bondholders, not about kindergartners or local fire departments; consequently, they are not alarmed. Moody’s says it expects defaults to rise in 2011. But the agencies do not predict a default epidemic. “Munis are not like subprime bonds,” Eric Friedland, a managing director at Fitch Ratings, said.

Government entities do seem less exposed to the sort of chain-reaction panic that undid banks. Lehman Brothers needed financing every day; when confidence disappeared, Lehman disappeared, too. Cities are generally not dependent on short-term financing. (A sizable exception involves some $80 billion in variable credit lines expiring over the next six months — which could force some governments to scramble.)

Another factor that tilts against default is that states and cities carry much less debt relative to the size of their economies than do troubled national governments like those of Greece or Spain (or the United States, for that matter). And muni debts generally come due in a steady stream — not all at once. Robert Kurtter, a managing director at Moody’s, says, “State and local governments really don’t have a crushing debt problem.”

Which is not to say they don’t have a problem. For most of the past decade, local government was a growth business. Avid consumption and the real estate boom spurred an abundance of sales- and property-tax receipts; with dollars flowing in, governments got used to spending more and borrowing more. Then, in the recession, tax revenues dried up, while demands for services kept rising. For the last few years, both cities and states have faced severe, recurring budget gaps.

As part of the 2009 stimulus package, Washington gave the states $150 billion. The states became dependent on a higher level of federal aid — 35 percent of their budgets, compared with about 25 percent before. But the stimulus is ending, and the states will have to cut.

Determining who will suffer from budget cuts is a political and a legal calculation. The cities’ problem is that annual spending is greater than revenue; that imbalance does not entitle them to walk away from bond payments. Moreover, states and cities devote less than 10 percent of their revenue to annual debt service. In other words, they have ways of balancing budgets without defaulting. Lately, governments have been taking a chain saw to ordinary spending. The cuts sometimes reflect a retreat from what was once conceived as the essential mission of government. Education is being hit hard. Arizona is seeking a federal waiver to remove 280,000 adults from Medicaid rolls. Massachusetts is stripping out funds for homeless shelters. New Jersey has canceled a commuter-rail tunnel under the Hudson River. If the government doesn’t build a rail tunnel, who will?

States are also cutting aid to cities — much as Whitney forecast — aggravating the loss of local tax revenues. Camden, N.J., which has one of the highest crime rates in the country, has dismissed nearly half its police force. Michigan cities have seen aid diminish by $4 billion. In San Diego, where the city has cut other spending to pay for spiraling pension costs, residents have formed 56 “maintenance assessment districts” to take care of parks and patch up sidewalks. When the city failed to pass a hospitality tax, local hotels banded together and agreed to charge a 2 percent visitors’ fee. Scott Lewis, who writes about politics for the Web site Voice of San Diego, says, “I think the city is dissolving.”

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker, the new governor, declared that the state was “broke.” He does not mean that Madison intends to default on its obligations to debt holders; he means that public employees will have to increase contributions toward their benefits in an amount equal to 7 percent of their pay. For some employees, the cuts will mean real hardship. Public institutions like schools are also likely to suffer. Though elected officials prefer not to mention it, taxpayers will also have to ante up. Illinois sharply raised its income tax; Arizona voted for a sales-tax increase. Both of those states had markedly low tax rates to begin with, but Illinois’s case should be troubling to bondholders. Even after raising taxes, the state is planning to borrow about $12 billion to cover pensions and past-due bills — pushing both benefit costs and current expenses into the future.

The deficit problems have, at times, seemed to blend with the issue of pensions into a single, giant mess. As E. J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute observes, “This is a conflating of different things.” States and cities have to put money aside to pay for future pensions, and the portion of that obligation that is “unfunded” represents a huge liability — from $1 trillion to $3.5 trillion, depending on your assumptions about future pension-fund investment returns. This underfunding won’t be felt in a big bang but as a continuous burden for years to come.

Nonetheless, because governments are required to make catch-up payments to those funds, the pension problem is worsening the current budget squeeze. In some cities, the pressure is suffocating. In Miami, according to Fitch, the pension-fund obligation eats up 25 percent of the city budget. In Philadelphia, which has neglected to make payments, the pension fund could be exhausted as early as 2015, says Joshua Rauh of the Kellogg School at Northwestern. Rob Dubow, the city’s finance director, insists that “we’ll make contributions to make sure that doesn’t happen.” The city has budgeted a huge $460 million contribution next year. “The real story” of the pension debacle, Dubow says, “is that it will leave less money for police and fire and sanitation.”

For a long while, government budget-cutting obeyed a distinctive political calculus: pensions were considered untouchable, so jobs were eliminated instead. Now, governments are going after pensions. Many states have taken the easy step of reducing benefits for new employees. Benefits for existing workers were considered inviolable. But some, like New Mexico and Mississippi, are dunning employees for higher contributions, and Wisconsin may follow. Minnesota and Colorado have watered down pension cost-of-living increases; both have been sued.

Whether such efforts will significantly ease the states’ burdens may depend on the courts. In Illinois, where the pension underfunding is among the most egregious, the state constitution says that “benefits shall not be diminished.” This language has long been interpreted to mean that when a public employee is promised a pension that increases with each year of service, the rate of accrual can never be changed. Sidley Austin, a law firm in Chicago hired by a pro-business civic group, has circulated a memo arguing that the clause refers only to benefits already earned — not to the rate of accrual in the future. That interpretation, if acted on by the Legislature, would shatter previous notions of pension protections. Sidley also makes the even-more-explosive argument that if Illinois’s pension funds dried up, the state could not be forced to contribute more. Let pensioners go hungry.

That is unlikely. Even in Illinois, pensions will be paid. Failure to do so would embroil the government in court for years. That may be the hope of ideologues, who envision that the courts — or possibly even a bankruptcy filing — could be used to alter employee contracts. In the 1930s, progressives persuaded Congress to let cities declare bankruptcy to escape the clutches of creditors. Now, conservatives want Congress to authorize states to file for bankruptcy. “Some people on the right see it as a chance to whack the public unions,” says David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written in favor of state bankruptcy. It’s not hard to fathom why Gingrich, who as speaker of the House in the 1990s briefly shut down the U.S. government, would favor default by the states.

But the fantasy of using bankruptcy to suspend government runs up against a hard truth: even in bankruptcy, cities and states don’t disappear — nor do their obligations. Orange County, Calif., which entered bankruptcy in the mid-1990s after its treasurer ran up massive losses in derivatives, ultimately paid every cent it owed. “Among the reasons so few [cities] choose to go this option is, it’s not clear what they gain,” Kurtter of Moody’s says.

Another reason is that cities are creatures of their states, which fear a negative impact on their own credit. Connecticut prevented Bridgeport from declaring bankruptcy in the ’90s, and Michigan is stopping Hamtramck now. In Pennsylvania, about 20 municipalities are operating under a program to nurse insolvent cities back to health. The program has helped Pittsburgh, despite its woefully underfunded pension plan, to slowly improve its credit.

Harrisburg is a different story. A former mayor wanted to create a destination city with a series of ambitious projects, including a Wild West museum. He also approved an expensive plan to refurbish an incinerator so that it could become a moneymaker — a project that has buried Harrisburg under a mountain of debt. There are other Harrisburgs, cities undone by foolhardy projects, but these cases are particular, not systemic.

Vallejo, which ran out of money when the economy imploded, is more representative. A blue-collar city of 110,000, it had been hurting since a naval base closed in the 1990s. In 2007, the Wal-Mart left town. Then, with the recession, property taxes crashed from $29 million to $20 million. Vallejo cut back on street repairs and vehicle maintenance and reduced its staff by a third. The city sought pay cuts from the police and fire unions, whose members’ pay and benefits accounted for about 80 percent of the budget; the unions offered to defer pay raises. The council considered, but rejected, the idea of putting a tax increase to a referendum. Rob Stout, the outgoing finance director, who noted that the police chief is retiring on a $200,000 pension, says the general attitude was one of resistance to footing the bill.

Vallejo was a failure of political will. It is also an example of why bankruptcies for cities don’t work. All the constituencies who might have hoped to avoid hardship are being walloped anyway. Labor costs are being cut (though not pensions) and holders of $54 million in city bonds will suffer losses — how much won’t be known for years. Even Marc Levinson, a partner with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which represents the city, calls the bankruptcy a waste of money and time. “It’s better to cut a deal than go through the pain we have in Vallejo,” he says. Pain is coming regardless. In some cities, bondholders will be burned. But America’s failing governments may be one of those crises whose full impact is not registered in the muni market, or in any market. Until voters can agree on what government services they want and will pay for, it is possible that bondholders will bank the profits while taxpayers, employees and citizens share the losses.

Roger Lowenstein (elrogl@gmail.com) is a contributing writer and the author of “While America Aged” and, most recently, “The End of Wall Street.”

Editor: Vera Titunik (v.titunik-MagGroup@nytimes.com)

NEW JERSEY BOND RATINGS FALL

COMBO Title and Securitization Search, Report, Documents, Analysis & Commentary COMBO Title and Securitization Search, Report, Documents, Analysis & Commentary

THE NEXT WAVE: MUNICIPAL BOND RATINGS AND DEFAULTS

EDITOR’S NOTE: With heads stuck in the sand, avoiding the “third rail” of acknowledgment that tens of trillions of dollars of mortgage transactions are fatally defective, which would save or partially save the budgets of most states, counties and cities, New Jersey took it on the chin with a downgrade in the announced quality of their bonds. This from the rating agencies that told the states,, counties, cities and investors that CDOs were AAA rated (virtually risk free).

Meanwhile the spin machine is running full time reminding readers and listeners that bankruptcy is not an option under current law for government entities. Of course they avoid the obvious — the legal remedy of bankruptcy has nothing to do with the factual reality of BEING bankrupt.

As the stimulus money runs out, the downgrading will reach a roar, and while the SEC searches around for alternatives to the current rating agencies, we will still be marching to the tune of S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch. Defaults seem inevitable but anyone who says so is verbally beaten to death. We like to wait for our disasters to strike before we do anything about them.

The facts are simple: government is running out of money and prospects. People don’t have enough money as it is, so raising taxes is not going to produce more revenue. We’re not training our workers to function in the modern economy, so the prospect of greater commerce or revenues to tax are also pretty dim. Past commitments for pensions and other forms of safety nets are getting expensive because the governments are not producing the tax revenue that was projected when those commitments were made.

The ONE place where the money can be located, the one source of tax revenue that is owed but both unpaid and unreported (Wall Street) is off limits. The simple admission of the scheme — that the mortgages, notes, loans, obligations and receivables generated by the holographic image of a financial structure that was never intended to be real — would produce substantial revenue, and allow for substantial recovery of losses taken by governments when they too bought mortgage backed securities that did not exist in form or substance.

It isn’t a magic bullet. But it would make the crisis aspect of our situation go away and return wealth to where it was stolen from — the middle class and poor. It isn’t the whole solution. But reality has a way of coming around to bite you. China is now positioning itself to have its own currency creep into the world markets as the world’s reserve currency. I don’t know if they will be successful (the idea that China is infallible has been bandied about without merit), but I DO know that central bankers, and commercial bankers around the world do not trust Wall Street, do not trust the the American government to do anything except protect Wall Street and do not trust the U.S. dollar.

If we lose our position in the world currency market, people should take notice. we will have a shellacking that will dwarf the 2010 elections. Financially, we are on the precipice of a looming crisis that far exceeds the scope of the Great Recession and thus threatens to compete with the Great Depression. While the White House and Congress continue to take their regulatory advice from the people who created this mess, the Court systems are getting the hang of it, and the remedy is coming faster and faster for most people, if they can hang on. The fraud might be addressed in large scope, but through the Court system, it may come too late to help us retain our market position in the world.

Costs Soaring, New Jersey Bond Rating Is Lowered

By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA

NY Times

A top credit-rating firm lowered New Jersey’s bond rating on Wednesday, citing ballooning pension and other costs, and Gov. Chris Christie and Democrats in the Legislature wasted no time in blaming each other.

The firm, Standard & Poor’s, downgraded New Jersey’s general-obligation rating to AA-, from AA, and dropped the ratings on some other state debts even lower. The changes will increase the interest rates that the state must pay when it borrows money.

Standard & Poor’s has given lower ratings to just two states, California and Illinois; four others stand with New Jersey at AA-, which is the fourth-highest rating. The firm rates New York and Connecticut a notch higher, at AA.

A Standard & Poor’s credit analyst, Jeffrey Panger, cited New Jersey’s underfinanced pension and employee benefit funds, and his firm’s shift to putting more emphasis on such obligations.

The state reported last year that its pension system had $54 billion less than it needed to meet future obligations, one of the biggest such deficits in the country, and experts have said the state could run out of money within a decade. The fund for retiree health care is even further behind.

Year after year, lawmakers have failed to contribute what actuarial rules said was required to make the systems whole, increasing the size of the payment that the rules required the following year. In 2010, Mr. Christie’s first year as governor, the state was supposed to put $3 billion into the pension system, but in grappling with a large budget deficit, it contributed nothing.

The governor, a Republican, has said the state needs to curb government employee pensions and benefits to remain solvent, and at a public forum in Union City on Wednesday, he said the Democrats, who control the Legislature, had compared him to Chicken Little. “The sky started to fall in today,” he said, referring to the Standard & Poor’s action.

Such talk brought the governor criticism last month, when he mused publicly about the prospect, however distant, of a state bankruptcy — at a time when the state was marketing a new bond issue. Some bankers said he had spooked the market and possibly raised the state’s cost of borrowing by saying what chief executives usually refused to acknowledge.

Democrats said Wednesday that the governor was responsible for the downgrade, for failing to put money into pensions last year. They noted that last year they agreed to pension and benefit reductions for newly hired employees.

“It’s time the governor took responsibility for his own actions and stopped trying to blame others,” said Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald, chairman of the budget committee.

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS UNDERWATER: TIME TO CORRECT PRINCIPAL BALANCES

COMBO Title and Securitization Search, Report, Documents, Analysis & Commentary COMBO Title and Securitization Search, Report, Documents, Analysis & Commentary

We now have a growing group of unlikely bedfellows — investors, homeowners and local governments who were all duped and whose claims are being treated as though each one was unique when in fact the entire plan was a highly organized crime. Add the Federal government to that group who has also demanded “buy-back” of fake mortgages and fake mortgage bonds, although it is highly probable that the government was complicit, certainly in the BUSH administration when the Government and the Fed started all these bailout programs whose total seems to exceed the total of ALL credit that was extended in the original transactions!?!

MY QUESTION IS WHETHER DIMON IS RIGHT: DOES HE LIVE IN A COMPLETELY RISK-FREE ENVIRONMENT OR ARE WE GOING TO APPLY THE LAW TO HIM? GOD HELP US IF HIS ASSUMPTION IS CORRECT.

THE MORE IMPORTANT QUESTION IS WHETHER WE ARE FINALLY GOING TO MAKE THE OBVIOUS CORRECTION OF AN OBVIOUS LIE ABOUT THE VALUE OF THE PROPERTIES AND THE ELABORATELY CONSTRUCTED ILLUSION OF “GROWTH” ? IT ISN’T “PRINCIPAL REDUCTION” TO CUT IT DOWN TO THE REAL FIGURE THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN USED — IT’S PRINCIPAL CORRECTION.

STATES, COUNTIES, CITIES, TOWNS, INVESTORS AND HOMEOWNERS CAN ONLY GET OUT FROM UNDER THE ILLUSION OF DEBT BY ACKNOWLEDGING THE OBVIOUS — IT ISN’T REALLY THERE IF YOU APPLY THE LAW. IT’S ONLY THERE IF YOU APPLY UNBOUNDED POWER.

EDITOR’S COMMENT: Time for local government to start seeking debt relief and doing those securitization reports and research. Whether they received money from the banks or not, officials in local government are being forced to face the reality that they are presiding over the collapse of our social system for lack of money.

They are in debt — and the amount of debt so vastly exceeds their ability to pay or any prospect to pay that defaults are inevitable — including strategic defaults and bankruptcies where the debt is modified downward. In other words, they are in the same boat as the homeowners.

Actually they are worse off because Wall Street had the nerve to sell local governments triple-A rated mortgage bonds that were worthless, putting them both in the same boat as homeowners and the same boat as other investors.

And if you dig deeper you will connect the dots — the appraisal fraud and other misleading information led these municipalities, towns and counties into planning and for phenomenal growth in demand for services over wider geographical areas, each local government believing that their revenue stream and population would grow at a rate that was both unprecedented and unsupported by any economic fundamentals. They are now stuck with debt to pay for services, they won’t deliver, roads they won’t build, and buildings that are being abandoned or sold.

In plain language, the argument that the crisis grew from greedy homeowners must also be extended to greedy politicians who intentionally bankrupted their cities and towns in the misguided attempt to make a fast buck. Few people will argue whether people are greedy, whether they are homeowners or politicians, but the argument that they would intentionally put themselves in a position of drowning in debt is absurd. There is only one reason this all happened — Wall Street sales machine went to work selling people on “concept” and funding it with other people’s money to create a vast illusion for which we are all paying whether we  participated or not.

The astonishing reversal of fortune for virtually all Americans (except a select few who continue to lie about what they did and when they knew what they were doing) and all their societal structures, governments and government services (police, fore, medical, education etc) is in stark contrast to the massive profits and bonuses that continue to be reported and paid on Wall Street. The entire country has been tilted past the tipping point, so that everything of value went from the the nation as a whole to Wall Street.

In a NY Times Magazine article on Jamie Dimon he continues the BIG LIE strategy that Moynihan over at BofA is using: we had didn’t realize the extent of the lying on stated income loans. He’s staying on message because it is working. As a group, most of us still want to believe and do believe that our system will not break down, but it IS breaking down. The process is already underway. Dimon’s current lie is intended to distract us from considering that the lie was created by him and his officers and employees. The lie works because you must take the time away from your job-hunting and ask yourself how all those applications were filled with bad information without anyone knowing about it. “Due diligence,” a term coined on Wall Street for inspecting the chicken before you buy it, is NEVER overlooked.

Countrywide, Chase, Citi, Goldman and others lied about the quality of the loans and the values of the real property and the documentation of the loans, notes and mortgages because they could. They controlled the entire apparatus. The sheer size made it look “institutionalinstead of organized crime. Of course they knew, but they were acting in a totally risk-free environment because they were using other people’s money — investors to whom they lied with the same lies that were told to borrowers — we have reviewed the application, verified the data, verified the value of the property, and the loan meets with underwriting standards. The loan is approved. Or in the case of local government, the bond is approved, the underwriting and selling of it shall begin.

We now have a growing group of unlikely bedfellows — investors, homeowners and local governments who were all duped and whose claims are being treated as though each one was unique when in fact the entire plan was a highly organized crime. Add the Federal government to that group who has also demanded “buy-back” of fake mortgages and fake mortgage bonds, although it is highly probable that the government was complicit, certainly in the BUSH administration when the Government and the Fed started all these bailout programs whose total seems to exceed the total of ALL credit that was extended in the original transactions!?!

MY QUESTION IS WHETHER DIMON IS RIGHT: DOES HE LIVE IN A COMPLETELY RISK-FREE ENVIRONMENT OR ARE WE GOING TO APPLY THE LAW TO HIM? GOD HELP US IF HIS ASSUMPTION IS CORRECT.

THE MORE IMPORTANT QUESTION IS WHETHER WE ARE FINALLY GOING TO MAKE THE OBVIOUS CORRECTION OF AN OBVIOUS LIE ABOUT THE VALUE OF THE PROPERTIES AND THE ELABORATELY CONSTRUCTED ILLUSION OF “GROWTH” ? IT ISN’T PRINCIPAL REDUCTION TO CUT IT DOWN TO THE REAL FIGURE THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN USED — IT’S PRINCIPAL CORRECTION.

STATES, COUNTIES, CITIES, TOWNS, INVESTORS AND HOMEOWNERS CAN ONLY GET OUT FROM UNDER THE ILLUSION OF DEBT BY ACKNOWLEDGING THE OBVIOUS — IT ISN’T REALLY THERE IF YOU APPLY THE LAW. IT’S ONLY THERE IF YOU APPLY UNBOUNDED POWER.

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Mounting State Debts Stoke Fears of a Looming Crisis

By MICHAEL COOPER and MARY WILLIAMS WALSH

The State of Illinois is still paying off billions in bills that it got from schools and social service providers last year. Arizona recently stopped paying for certain organ transplants for people in its Medicaid program. States are releasing prisoners early, more to cut expenses than to reward good behavior. And in Newark, the city laid off 13 percent of its police officers last week.

While next year could be even worse, there are bigger, longer-term risks, financial analysts say. Their fear is that even when the economy recovers, the shortfalls will not disappear, because many state and local governments have so much debt — several trillion dollars’ worth, with much of it off the books and largely hidden from view — that it could overwhelm them in the next few years.

“It seems to me that crying wolf is probably a good thing to do at this point,” said Felix Rohatyn, the financier who helped save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s.

Some of the same people who warned of the looming subprime crisis two years ago are ringing alarm bells again. Their message: Not just small towns or dying Rust Belt cities, but also large states like Illinois and California are increasingly at risk.

Municipal bankruptcies or defaults have been extremely rare — no state has defaulted since the Great Depression, and only a handful of cities have declared bankruptcy or are considering doing so.

But the finances of some state and local governments are so distressed that some analysts say they are reminded of the run-up to the subprime mortgage meltdown or of the debt crisis hitting nations in Europe.

Analysts fear that at some point — no one knows when — investors could balk at lending to the weakest states, setting off a crisis that could spread to the stronger ones, much as the turmoil in Europe has spread from country to country.

Mr. Rohatyn warned that while municipal bankruptcies were rare, they appeared increasingly possible. And the imbalances are so large in some places that the federal government will probably have to step in at some point, he said, even if that seems unlikely in the current political climate.

“I don’t like to play the scared rabbit, but I just don’t see where the end of this is,” he added.

Resorting to Fiscal Tricks

As the downturn has ground on, some of the worst-hit cities and states have resorted to fiscal sleight of hand to stay afloat, helping them close yawning budget gaps each year, but often at great future cost.

Few workers with neglected 401(k) retirement accounts would risk taking out second mortgages to invest in stocks, gambling that the investment gains would be enough to build bigger nest eggs and repay the loans.

But that is just what Illinois, which has been failing to make the required annual payments to its pension funds for years, is doing. It borrowed $10 billion in 2003 and used the money to invest in its pension funds. The recession sent their investment returns below their target, but the state must repay the bonds, with interest. The solution? Illinois sold an additional $3.5 billion worth of pension bonds this year and is planning to borrow $3.7 billion more for its pension funds.

It is the long-term problems of a handful of states, including California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York, that financial analysts worry about most, fearing that their problems might precipitate a crisis that could hurt other states by driving up their borrowing costs.

But it is the short-term budget woes that nearly all states are facing that are preoccupying elected officials.

Illinois is not the only state behind on its bills. Many states, including New York, have delayed payments to vendors and local governments because they had too little cash on hand to make them. California paid vendors with i.o.u.’s last year. A handful of other states, worried about their cash flow, delayed paying tax refunds last spring.

Now, just as the downturn has driven up demand for state assistance, many states are cutting back.

The demand for food stamps has been rising significantly in Idaho, but tight budgets led the state to close nearly a third of the field offices of the state’s Department of Health and Welfare, which take applications for them. As states have cut aid to cities, many have resorted to previously unthinkable cuts, laying off police officers and closing firehouses.

Those cuts in aid to cities and counties, which are expected to continue, are one reason some analysts say cities are at greater risk of bankruptcy or are being placed under outside oversight.

Next year is unlikely to bring better news. States and cities typically face their biggest deficits after recessions officially end, as rainy-day funds are depleted and easy measures are exhausted.

This time is expected to be no different. The federal stimulus money increased the federal share of state budgets to over a third last year, from just over a quarter in 2008, according to a report issued last week by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers. That money is set to run out next summer. Tax collections, meanwhile, are not expected to return to their pre-recession levels for another year or two, given that the housing market and broader economy remain weak and that unemployment remains high.

Scott D. Pattison, the budget association’s director, said that for states, next year could be “the worst year of this four- or five-year downturn period.”

And few expect the federal government to offer more direct aid to states, at least in the short term. Many members of the new Republican majority in the House campaigned against the stimulus, and Washington is debating the recommendations of a debt-reduction commission.

So some states are essentially borrowing to pay their operating costs, adding new debts that are not always clearly disclosed.

Arizona, hobbled by the bursting housing bubble, turned to a real estate deal for relief, essentially selling off several state buildings — including the tower where the governor has her office — for a $735 million upfront payment. But leasing back the buildings over the next 20 years will ultimately cost taxpayers an extra $400 million in interest.

Many governments are delaying payments to their pension funds, which will eventually need to be made, along with the high interest — usually around 8 percent — that the funds are expected to earn each year.

New York balanced its budget this year by shortchanging its pension fund. And in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie deferred paying the $3.1 billion that was due to the pension funds this year.

It is these growing hidden debts that make many analysts nervous. States and municipalities currently have around $2.8 trillion worth of outstanding bonds, but that number is dwarfed by the debts that many are carrying off their books.

State and local pensions — another form of promised debt, guaranteed in some states by their constitutions — face hidden shortfalls of as much as $3.5 trillion by some calculations. And the health benefits that state and large local governments have promised their retirees going forward could cost more than $530 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“Most financial crises happen in unpredictable ways, and they hit you when you’re not looking,” said Jerome H. Powell, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center who was an under secretary of the Treasury for finance during the bailout of the savings and loan industry in the early 1990s. “This one isn’t like that. You can see it coming. It would be sinful not to do something about this while there’s a chance.”

So far, investors have bought states’ bonds eagerly, on the widespread understanding that states and cities almost never default. But in recent weeks the demand has diminished sharply. Last month, mutual funds that invest in municipal bonds reported a big sell-off — a bigger one-week sell-off, in fact, than they had when the financial markets melted down in 2008. And hedge funds are already seeking out ways to place bets against the debts of some states, with the help of their investment banks.

Of course, not all states are in as dire straits as Illinois or California. And the credit-rating agencies say that the risk of default is small. States and cities typically make a priority of repaying their bond holders, even before paying for essential services. Standard & Poor’s issued a report this month saying that the crises that states and municipalities were facing were “more about tough decisions than potential defaults.”

Change in Ratings

The credit ratings of a number of local governments have improved this year, not because their finances have strengthened somewhat, but because the ratings agencies have changed the way they analyze governments.

The new higher ratings, which lower the cost of borrowing, emphasize the fact that municipal defaults have been much rarer than corporate defaults.

This October, Moody’s issued a report explaining why it now rates all 50 states, even Illinois, as better credit risks than a vast majority of American non-financial companies.

One reason: the belief that the federal government is more likely to bail out a teetering state than a bankrupt company.

“The federal government has broadly channeled cash to all state governments during recent recessions and provided support to individual states following natural disasters,” Moody’s explained, adding that there was no way of being sure how Washington would respond to a bond default by a state, since it had not happened since the 1930s.

But some analysts fear the ratings are too sanguine, recalling that the ratings agencies also dismissed the possibility that a subprime crisis was brewing. While most agree that defaults are unlikely, they fear that as states struggle with their growing debts, investors could decide not to buy the debt of the weakest state or local governments.

That would force a crisis, since states cannot operate if they cannot borrow. Such a crisis could then spread to healthier states, making it more expensive for them to borrow, if Europe is an example.

Meredith Whitney, a bank analyst who was among the first to warn of the impact the subprime mortgage meltdown would have on banks, is warning that she sees similar problems with state and local government finances.

“The state situation reminded me so much of the banks, pre-crisis,” she said this fall on CNBC.

There are eerie similarities between the subprime debt crisis and the looming municipal debt woes. Among them:

¶Just as housing was once considered a sure bet — prices would never fall all across the country at the same time, conventional wisdom suggested — municipal bonds have long been considered an investment safe enough for grandmothers, because states could always raise taxes to pay their bondholders. Now that proposition is being tested. Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, considered bankruptcy this year because it faced $68 million in debt payments related to a failed incinerator, which is more than the city’s entire annual budget. But officials there have resisted raising taxes.

¶Much of the debt of states and cities is hidden, since it is off the books, just as the amount of mortgage-related debt turned out to be underestimated. States and municipalities often understate their pension liabilities, in part by using accounting methods that would not be allowed in the private sector. Joshua D. Rauh, an associate professor of finance at Northwestern University, and Robert Novy-Marx, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Rochester, calculated that the true unfunded liability for state and local pension plans is roughly $3.5 trillion.

¶The states and many cities still carry good ratings, and those issuing warnings are dismissed as alarmists, reminding some analysts of the lead up to the subprime crisis.

Now states are bracing for more painful cuts, more layoffs, more tax increases, more battles with public employee unions, more requests to bail out cities. And in the long term, as cities and states try to keep up on their debts, the very nature of government could change as they have less money left over to pay for the services they have long provided.

Richard Ravitch, the lieutenant governor of New York, is among those warning that states are on an unsustainable path, and that their disclosures of pension and health care obligations are often misleading. And he worries how long it can last.

“They didn’t do it with bad motives,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of them didn’t understand what they were doing. They did it because it was easier than taxing people or cutting benefits. We’re getting closer and closer to the point where we can’t do that anymore. I don’t know where that is, but I know we’re close.”

Mortgage Meltdown: Investor Alert: Fasten Your Seatbelt

Events today lead me to say that the risk in holding “safe” AAA government or corporate bonds is far higher than they are priced. This does not mean that there will actually be defaults. But my analysis indicates that, at a minimum, several municipalities and corporations will default on their bonds this year and next year. How bad the situation will actually get is really anyone’s guess, but the comments released today from Dodd, Paulson and Bernanke are blunt admissions of the risk of something much worse than anyone is actually saying out loud.
Even if the situation does not get as bad as it looks to me now, it is going to at least look far worse and that will have its own repercussions. Times like these are not necessarily buying opportunities.
The bottom line is that the dollar continues to be at risk, corporate earnings are at far greater risk than one might suppose, price-earnings ratios are almost certainly going to decline on average on U.S. based companies and probably all companies, and bond and loan defaults of all types and sizes are going to rise for sure. The outlook, in terms of risk, is basically red alert for any U.S.  Security or any account held in U.S. dollars. I would say that at a minimum this outlook cannot change for at least 2 years. I am suggesting that you consider this in making your investment decisions.
In my opinion, any (and all) investment in a dollar denominated account holding any security or “money” should be migrated to a non-dollar denominated account (even if the investment vehicle remains the same), and any “safe” (almost cash) investment vehicle should be closely examined even if maintained in another currency. Any reliable insurance or hedge vehicles that are available should be considered as options as well. Buffet’s offer to provide insurance on municipal bonds is expensive, but worth it.
I am deeply concerned for family and friends, that their “nest eggs” might be more at risk than they know. Risk is a relative term. But when it is on the rise, you have to be able to say to yourself, as my wife says, “what is the worst thing that could happen?” and if you can’t deal with that, then do something else.
If you choose not to migrate and you are depending upon your investments to cover your debt (mortgage, car etc), then I suggest you hedge the problem by liquidating investments to pay off debt. If you are going to migrate, then you should not pay down debt, as you might be able to do so later with much cheaper dollars arising from a gain in foreign exchange.

Mortgage Meltdown: Time for Groundhog Day reversal

Paulson’s announcement is really only a re-hash of prior “hope” and other plans. The important thing is that government and private sector are talking and starting to work together. We can only hope that they finally get down to business before the 30 day voluntary freeze is over and that the project, which is based upon voluntary compliance, will do SOMETHING.

The bottom line: Unless we have a groundhog day reversal of this entire scheme, homeless people will be streaming down every steet, local governments will own uninhabitable homes that were once in posh neighborhoods, and the entire U.S. economy, already reeling from the declining dollar, the exporting of everything we have including our own toll roads, will be turned on its head.

This Project Lifeline signals the public that the numbers have been crunched and that the upcoming news will continue to get progressively worse. Neither this administration, nor the lenders, would have any interest in helping borrowers unless they recognized that they had gone too far with the credit bubble; so far, in fact that they severely damaged almost every prospect for the country and its citizens. These ARE the people to undo the damage because we have no time to build a separate regulatory infrastructure to save our economy. But we must recognize that these are also the same people who came up with the fraudulent scheme of overvaluation, kickbacks and assignment of risk to unsuspecting investors based upon false AAA ratings and false insurance.

That they are all capable of just about anything to put money in their own pockets at the expense of the future of the country is now well-established. What has happenned is that they are now realizing bit by bit, that their own existence (and freedom if prosecutions ensue) has also been undermined by this boiler-room scheme. Although none of the news reports put it all together in one story, it seems that all appropriate agencies of the Federal government are on board, albeit without a clue as to what to do. And the major private  players are at least giving the appearance of being on board.

Yet the likely remedy will come not from Federal intervention but from State intervention because the laws of property are governed almost exclusively by State law. This is why the state attorney generals have standing to sue the lenders for their grossly inappropriate behavior. The tricky part is that the right to foreclosure, if stalled, raises consitutional issues of due process — which brings in the Federal goernment again, whose ineptness at dealing with reality is well-documented.

The fact is, no lender wants to exchange its loan portfolio for a portfolio of vacant, vandalized homes needing monthly maintenance and requiring the payment of taxes. That is exactly what will happen if this scheme is not put in reverse. Someone, somewhere will be in the reverse position of paying costs and taxes instead of receiving a return on their money. The BIG problem that the derivative schemers have created is that when they shifted the risk to unsuspecting investors, they created a class of potential involuntary homeowners who are more likely to walk away from their “investment” than pay for maintenance, taxes and upkeep.

On a smaller scale this would present a buying opportunity bringing glee to the eyes of every real estate investor. But on THIS scale it presents risks and probabilities of repeated foreclosures on the same property. Begin with the borrower walking away from an upside investment that isn’t worth his money or time in maintaining. Then start with the loan servicer, the lender and the investor. That involves foreclosures and assignments. Then they walk away from a vandalized house stripped of fixtures, appliances and copper wiring. So the local taxing authorities foreclose on the property again. The lender-derivative investor group is glad to be rid of the problem even if it means writing off huge losses.

This leaves a financially strapped city or county holding millions of homes that are in various states of decay in neighborhoods that have turned into ghost towns — by people who WERE paying their mortgage but stopped and walked away because home values and the quality of the neighborhood have deteriorated to conditions that are unsafe and unwanted.

Many billions of dollars in lost tax revenues will result in downgrading the investment quality of tax-free bonds, which is why Buffet is trying to shore up that piece with his $800 billion reinsurance plan. Buffet can’t do this alone. Nobody has enough MONEY to cure this. Reinsuring the bonds will only result in another round of foreclosures and assignments because the revenue streams to support the bonds are not there.

This is why we need a ground-hog day plan which puts everything in reverse, due process or not, and lands people, agencies, private sector, investors etc in as close a position as possible to where they were before this scheme was launched. In the end, there is no doubt that the taxpayers are going to take it on the chin here. We can only hope that our taxpayers will have any money to pay their taxes.

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