Before getting into why Goldman has every right to take both sides of the mortgage market, let's look at the key facts. According to the New York Times, Goldman's top executives were involved in making decisions about its position in the mortgage market -- including CEO Lloyd Blankfein, President Gary Cohn, Goldman's president, and CFO David A. Viniar. (Their involvement is territory previously covered by the Journal -- although it focused on two traders who pushed Goldman to bet against the mortgages by shorting the ABX, a mortgage index.)
CNNMoney reports that after $150 billion in stimulus spending, tens of thousands of states, cities, and private companies have saved or created 650,000 jobs. At $230,769 per job, is that worth it?
The answer depends on whose side you're on. Those who want the president to fail are not thrilled, those who want to work and/or want him to succeed can feel some satisfaction.
One of President Obama's accomplishments during his first 100 days was the passage of a $787 billion stimulus plan. I think the idea of economic stimulus makes sense when an economy is in the middle of a deflationary spiral. As I posted, that's when a drop in demand leads to excess productive capacity, causing companies to cut prices and fire workers, which in turn lowers demand as more workers -- whose consumer spending accounts for 70% of GDP growth -- have less to spend.
So far, only about 10% of the stimulus money has been doled out and it's not having much effect in counteracting this deflationary spiral. How so? First quarter GDP plunged 6.1% -- compared to a 6.3% decline in 2008's fourth quarter -- and the preliminary numbers are usually adjusted downward. The unemployment rate is expected to hit 8.9% in April from 8.5% in March.
Last fall, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson decided it would be good to buy the toxic waste off of bank balance sheets, so he persuaded the President and Congress to spend $700 billion to create the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
Once he got the money, he changed his mind and decided that buying toxic waste made no sense -- so he used it to buy big chunks of senior preferred stock in U.S. financial institutions (FIs). Why? I don't know, but it certainly was not to get lending going again.
Today's announcement that Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL) would acquire Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ: JAVA) for $7.4 billion worth of cash left me scratching my head. The rationale? Something that Oracle's president calls non-GAAP earnings. Does this mean that Oracle's first acquisition of a hardware company makes strategic sense? I don't know.
I am not sure what non-GAAP earnings are, but it sounds like it is a special kind of accounting meant to justify a deal that would not look good on a GAAP basis. Safra Catz, Oracle's president, estimates that on a non-GAAP basis, the deal will add $1.5 billion in "non-GAAP operating profit" in the first year and $2 billion to that new measure in future years.
With apologies to Buffalo Springfield, there's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. But if Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) first quarter numbers are sustainable, then it may not be long before the government is out of the business of bailing out banks. That's because Bank of America reported a $4.24 billion profit -- its 44 cents earning per share was 40 cents a share more than the 4 cents a share the average analyst expected.
How did Bank of America achieve this feat? Like its peers, the bank benefited from gains on home refinancing -- on April 9 President Obama said that refinancings rose about 88% in the last month -- and trading. But don't get too excited because Bank of America expects more credit problems, which is why it added $6.4 billion to its loan loss reserves.
In February I interviewed Bill Gross back when the Dow traded at 7,182. Gross's message? Equities are dead. Or more specifically, in light of his expectation that there would be no economic growth for the foreseeable future, there was no point in risking an investment in common stock since it stands in line behind all sorts of debt for a piece of the cash flows of a company in the event of a bankruptcy.
Interestingly, President Obama spoke to reporters not long thereafter -- on March 3rd to be specific when the Dow was at 6,726 -- and during that talk, he mentioned that buying stocks might be a good deal. Since then, the Dow has risen 21.5% and since Gross recommended staying away from stocks, they've gained 13.8%. The Dow is at 8,175 as of this writing.
As I posted, some of the largest recipients of Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) money want to pay it back. TARP was originally designed to buy toxic waste from banks but it turned into a plan to put capital into banks in exchange for senior preferred stock. Since TARP money limits how much banks can pay executives and employees, the banks want to pay back the money so they can get a competitive advantage over banks that can't pay it back.
How so? If a bank pays back the TARP, it will no longer face limits on how much it can pay people and it won't have to cut back on corporate jets and multi-million dollar office renovations. TARP-free banks will attract top talent from TARP-laden ones. Does this mean that banks want to stop getting taxpayer money altogether?
Today we have another example of why it is such a huge mistake to let companies write their own report cards. That's right folks, Citigroup, Inc. (NYSE: C) reported a $1.6 billion profit for the first quarter of 2009. Doesn't this sound great? It sure does until you take two seconds to realize that the profit would have been a $900 million loss were it not for a $2.5 billion accounting trick.
What accounting trick? I could not believe my eyes when I read it but it turns out that Citi was able to take to a $2.5 billion gain on a rule that lets it record any declines in the market value of its debt as an unrealized gain. The rule, which Citi adopted in 2007, reflects the possibility that a company could buy back its own debt at a discount, which under traditional accounting methods would result in a profit. But Citi didn't do that -- this has to be some kind of an error.
How did things turn out for those folks? Yesterday a few hundred people stood in the rain outside the White House and a few hundred more did the same in Philadelphia. But in places like Texas and Utah, there were more tea baggers. 1,000 cheered Governor Rick Perry who suggested in Austin that Texas might secede from the U.S. And a crowd booed Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah for accepting $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money.
Here's the thing. There are 300 million people in this country and enough of them vote so that the thousands of people who showed up at the 750 teabagging ceremonies are not likely to make any difference -- even if they could figure out what they wanted to see change. Nevertheless, they have every right to voice their opinions and with the exception of the White House protest -- which was stopped when a protester threw a package onto the White House lawn -- they did.
14 months ago, I learned about the $330 billion market for Auction Rate Securities (ARS) -- bonds sold as cash-like whose yields reset in periodic auctions. But in February 2008, the banks that created ARS stopped propping up the market and people who held these cash-like securities found that their ARS were frozen. Since I first posted about this, 7,988 comments have appeared on the post from people trying to get their money back.
Today, I learned that there is an even bigger market that has been suffering the same fate since October 2008 -- Variable Rate Demand Notes (VRDNs) -- which until then were supposedly low-cost bonds that cities issued and whose rates reset in daily or weekly auctions. Houston issued $1.8 billion worth of VRDNs in May 2008, but when the auctions froze up, it found itself paying 15% interest rates instead of the much lower money market rates it had anticipated.
After three better-than-expected bank earnings announcements, investors are beginning to act as though the worst is over for the financial crisis. Are these earnings reports based on one-time events or a fundamental improvement in the business climate and those banks' strategies? A bit of both. There is a significant amount of one-time gimmickry in the numbers coupled with trillions in capital and big interest rate cuts from the U.S. intended to help banks rebuild their capital.
Here are the numbers for three such banks:
- JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) earned $2.1 billion worth of net income, or 40 cents a share, which was 8 cents a share more than analysts had expected, but down 40% from last year. JPMorgan took a $6 billion charge for bad loans and set aside another $4.2 billion in provision for more bad loans. The good news was profits from near 0% interest rates and trading gains. JPM's stock is up a mere 3% so far in 2009 and it has no plans to repay its $25 billion piece of the TARP.
It's beginning to look like the cozy little plan of salvaging Chrysler through an investment from Italy's Fiat is going to fall flat on its face. And if it does, this will leave the U.S. in an awkward position. Instead of forking over another $77 billion to get General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GM) over its bankruptcy hump, it will need to deal with Chrysler as well. And that could mean more taxpayer money going to finance a merger between the two.
A few weeks ago, it looked like Fiat would give access to technology, platforms and research worth $10 billion in exchange for a 35% ownership stake in Chrysler -- thereby taking some heat off the U.S. government. Chrysler has already received $4 billion in U.S. loans, but that will only last for two more weeks, so it wants $9 billion more.
If tea baggers were real patriots though, they would come up with real alternatives to fix the problems about which they're complaining. As best as I can tell, the teabaggers were inspired by an on-air rant by CNBC's Rick Santelli back on February 19 who complained that Obama's $75 billion bailout of mortgage defaulters "rewarded bad behavior." Interestingly, Santelli has no problem with the other $12.725 trillion -- out of a total of $12.8 trillion -- being spent to bail out Wall Street's bad behavior.
The follically challenged Herb Allison is likely to take over from Neel Kashkari, the former Goldman Sachs Group (NYSE: GS) banker who brought his shiny pate to Congress to get kicked in another part of his anatomy as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) continued to frustrate almost everybody. If approved, Allison's formal title will be assistant secretary for the Office of Financial Stability which administers TARP. Under former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, TARP went from being a way to buy toxic assets to a source of capital for big banks -- whether they wanted it or not.
Now, Treasury Secretary Geithner wants to revive Paulson's original idea to the tune of a deeply flawed $1 trillion program to further enrich a handful of billionaire hedge fund and private equity honchos. And Geithner appears to have selected a very cold fish for that job -- former Merrill Lynch executive Allison -- a Yale philosophy major and Stanford MBA who lost out on the CEO's chair at Merrill Lynch a decade ago to the far more stock-broker-friendly David Komansky.