First Quarter GDP 2009 in the USA was down 6.1%. This is after a revised 6.3% drop in fourth quarter of 2008 (preliminary fourth quarter report showed a 6.2% decline). Real exports of goods and services decreased 30% in the first quarter, compared with a decrease of 23.6% in the fourth. Real imports of goods and services decreased 34.1%, compared with a decrease of 17.5%.
The personal saving rate — saving as a percentage of disposable personal income — was 4.2% in the first quarter, compared with 3.2% in the fourth quarter of 2008.
The news certainly is nothing to be happy about. But the stock markets around the world were buoyed by the Federal Reserves positive words:
Although the economic outlook has improved modestly since the March meeting, partly reflecting some easing of financial market conditions, economic activity is likely to remain weak for a time. Nonetheless, the Committee continues to anticipate that policy actions to stabilize financial markets and institutions, fiscal and monetary stimulus, and market forces will contribute to a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth in a context of price stability.
True, those words hardly sound like great news but the markets were quite happy.
Credit card interest rates are typically pegged to the prime rate, which has fallen from 5.25% a year ago to 3.25% now. But the national average rate for credit cards has actually risen over that period, moving from 11.3% to 12.4%
* The standard balance transfer fee has risen to 3%, and Bank of America recently joined Discover in increasing that fee to 4% on certain offers.
* Cash advance fees had been 3%, but Bank of America now has 5% cash advance fees for money obtained through ATMs and at banks, and 4% fees on advances via direct deposit and checks.
* Foreign transaction fees — charged when you make purchases in other countries or use foreign banks — are going up for many cardholders. Starting June 1, Bank of America will begin charging for a service it had previously provided free: Transactions made in U.S. dollars but processed through foreign banks (such as online purchases from overseas merchants using foreign banks) will be hit with 3% fees.
The incredibly large fees are a good reason to not use your credit card for these activities. 5% to get money from an ATM. You have to be crazy to submit to such a fee. The banks continue to fight with the airlines for who can keep providing the most horrible customer service.
Related: How to avoid getting ripped off by credit card companies – Sneaky Credit Card Fees – Avoid Getting Squeezed by Credit Card Companies – Incredibly Bad Customer Service from Discover Card – more posts on credit cards
Peet’s Coffee: In Africa, Brewing Good Works by Steve Hamm
Because of bad roads and delays at border crossings, it took 12 days for a truck with a container full of green coffee beans to travel 1,000 miles to the Kenyan port of Mombasa. The sea journey from Mombasa took nearly two months. Worse, when the shipment arrived in Oakland, Calif., in late February, a portion of the coffee was slightly damaged.
Moayyad traveled to Rwanda to cement relationships with farmer groups and gather stories about the farmers for use in marketing. With a videographer tagging along, she navigated molar-crunching roads in a four-wheel-drive pickup to remote villages and farms perched on hillsides high above Rwanda’s Lake Kivu. On the roadsides, children greeted the passing truck with an excited cry of “Abazungu [white people]!” Moayyad plans to post a journal of her travels on Peet’s Web site, aimed at the company’s most loyal customers, called Peetniks.
A good effort. Real world issues confront you when you take steps to build the capacity for capitalism to help people live better lives. We need more such efforts to help capitalists make better lives for themselves around the world.
It seems to me the situation that lead to the current economic problems are due to the overthrown of the Glass-Steagal and other long time sensible regulation put in place to restrict economy wide destruction caused by a few large financial firms (well, that plus incredibly poor management by people that paid themselves many times more than anyone else and other factors – huge consumer debt…). But the most significant systemic problem was failure to regulate even close to sensibly. I have several posts on this topic on previously: Congress Eases Bank Laws, 1999 – Treasury Now (1987) Favors Creation of Huge Banks – Canadian Banks Avoid Failures Common Elsewhere and Greenspan Says He Was Wrong On Regulation.
Capitalism requires sensible regulation. Regulation is not a friction on capitalism it is a necessary component. Poor regulation is a friction that is waste that should be excised. Unfortunately that is a very challenging task and when you allow those with the most gold to set the rules it is no surprise you have them saying they should not be regulated but should be protected. The failure of financial regulations do show the very obvious problem we have currently of those that donate huge amounts to politicians are granted favors that are paid for by the economy overall.
The widespread failure to regulate financial markets recently is almost certain to lead to this exact type of situation every time. Companies will over-leverage, take huge risks, take huge pay while times are good and just go bankrupt when times are bad. Think about how a bank makes money. They charge fees for things like: writing a loan, overdraft charges on your account, arranging financing (loan or stock sale)… They charge more for in interest than they pay. Some money there but really they are doing nothing special so they should not be able to charge too much. Even the ridicules fees companies pay (often those in the companies have arrangements to get personal special deals – allocations of IPO’s, jobs later…) for arranging stock sales do not have a systemic risk. Those risks should be very easy to manage sensible.
They speculate in currency markets, commodities markets, futures, derivatives… If you want a stable economy if you allow huge speculative investments to be assumed to such an extent they risk the economy you are in trouble. If you refused those risks to limited liability companies perhaps your limited regulation model might work. Where those profiting on products with negative economic externalities would personally go bankrupt prior to the losses becoming economically crippling. But I doubt even that would work. And we don’t have that now. We allow people to setup limited liability corporations, drain them of capital on speculation of potential value and then walk about with hundreds of millions of dollars if the company fails. And the negative externalities (due to huge leverage) are huge.
Regulation seems the obvious solution. And it works when applied. It wasn’t until the USA decided to abandon the financial system regulation and enforcement that the problems became systemic. And see the current Canadian banking system for what happens, even while the world economy is collapsing if you required banks to remain banks instead of massively leveraged speculators paying huge bonus to the executives based on their claims of profitability.
I agree trying to control risk is dangerous. There are however, very sensible measures to take. Do not allow huge financial companies to exist (we have laws on anti-trust, anti-competitive behavior…). Do not allow banks to speculate (more than a careful controlled regulated amount). Do not allow massive leverage of massive amounts of money. Do require audited financial records. Do require companies that want to speculate to be much smaller than regulated bank, and bank-like companies. Do elect politicians that will appose allowing companies to undertake systemic risks to the economy for short term financial gains.
We continue to elect politicians that provide large favors to those giving them money at the expense and risk to the rest of us. Therefore we are bringing this upon ourselves. When we chose to stop supporting politicians that behave in that way then we will get different behavior. Until that point it will continue. We don’t seems to be in any mood to change what we have been doing.
Comments on Note to Regulators: Beware the Montana Paradox
Mortgages Falling to 4% Become Bernanke Housing Focus by Brian Louis and Kathleen M. Howley
Conventional mortgages averaged 4.61 percent in 1951, 4 percent when backed by the Veterans Administration, and 4.25 percent by the Federal Housing Administration, according to The Postwar Residential Mortgage Market, a 1961 book written by Saul Klaman and published by Princeton University Press. Rates during the 1930s were as high as 7 percent.
Mortgages were cheaper through most of the 1940s, ranging from about 4 percent to 5.7 percent, depending on whether the lender was a life insurer, a commercial bank or a savings and loan. In that era, most loans were for 14 years and less.
The central bank has purchased more than $300 billion of mortgage-backed securities in 2009 through the week ended April 8, helping to cut home-loan rates to 4.82 percent last week from 5.1 percent at the start of the year, according to Freddie Mac data.
The difference between 30-year mortgage rates and 10-year Treasury yields has narrowed to about 2.2 percent from 3.1 percent in December, which was the widest since 1986. The spread remains almost 0.7 percentage point above the average of the past decade, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Rates for 15-year mortgages are about 1.8 percent above 10-year Treasury yields, compared with an average 1.4 percent since 1999.
Excellent article with interesting historical information. I don’t believe mortgage rates will fall to 4% but differences of opinion about the future is one function of markets. Those that predict correctly can make a profit. I am thinking of refinancing a mortgage and I think I am getting close to pulling the trigger. If I was confident they would keep falling I would wait. It just seems to me the huge increase in federal debt and huge outstanding consumer debt along with very low USA saving will not keep interest rates so low. However, as I have mentioned previously, it is interesting that the Fed is directly targeting mortgage rates and possible they can push them lower. The 10 year bond yield has been increasing lately so the slight fall in mortgage rates over the last month are due to the reduced spread (that I can see decreasing – the biggest question for me is how much that spread can decrease).
I must say this is the is how I feel, but I don’t have the time to research all the details – to know all the existing limitations for realistic solutions. But I can’t believe allowing huge, incredibly poorly run financial organizations to remain in place with the same bozos that have looted the treasuries of their companies and then taken huge handouts from the federal government, is good policy. It was a very bad idea to allow such anti-competitive large financial institutions to exist in the first place. Then the extremely bad behavior of thousands of people taking millions from those banks treasuries and imposing huge risks on the financial system certainly should result in government finally doing their job to prevent harm to the economic system.
This sounds like a much more sensible strategy to me. It is certainly much much better than increasing consolidation with moves like having huge financial firms buy other huge firms. Obviously I would not support the selling of pieces of the old broken institution to remaining large organizations. The anti-competitive market power must be sharply reduced.
Related: Treasury Now (1987) Favors Creation of Huge Banks – posts on the credit crisis – Leverage, Complex Deals and Mania – Canadian Banks Avoided Failures Common Elsewhere – There is No Invisible Hand
I made my 100th contribution to a micro-loan through Kiva last week. Participating with Kiva is a great antidote to reading about the unethical “leaders” taking huge sums to run their companies into the ground (or even just taking obscene sums to maintain their company). The opportunity to give real capitalists an chance at a better life is wonderful.
Kiva allows you to lend money to entrepreneur (in increments of $25). The most you get back is the amount you loaned, and if the entrepreneur, does not pay back the loan then you take a loss. This is something you do if you believe if giving people an opportunity to make a better life for themselves through hard work and intelligent economic choices.
My loans have been made to in 32 countries including: Ghana, Cambodia, Uganda, Viet Nam, Peru, Ukraine, Mongolia, Ecuador and Tajikistan. Kiva provides sector (but I think this data is a not that accurate – it depends on the Kiva partners that are not that accurate on identifying the sectors (it seems to me). A large number of the loans are in retail, clothing and food. I like making loans that will improve productivity (manufacturing, providing productivity enhancing services…) but can’t find as many of those as I would like (8% of my loans are in manufacturing, 11% agriculture, retail 18%, 23% food, 25% services (very questionable – these are normally really retail or food, it seems to me).
Some examples of the entrepreneurs I have lent to: welding workshop (Nicaragua), expanding generator services business with computer services (Cambodia), food production (Ghana), manufacturing nylon (Nigeria), internet cafe (Lebanon), electronics repair (Benin), new engine for mill (Togo), weaving (Indonesia) and a food market (Mexico).
21 of my loans have been paid back in full. 3 have defaulted. Those figure give a distorted picture though (I believe). There was a problem with a Kiva partner (they partner with micro-finance banks around the world) MIFEX, in Ecuador. Kiva discovered that MIFEX (i) improperly inflated the loan amounts it posted for entrepreneurs on the Kiva website and (ii) kept the excess amount of the posted loan to fund its own operational expenses. Kiva does not expect any further payments on these loans. I had 2, so I think those 2 give a fair impression. The 3rd default is from Kenya. That loan was to a business selling bicycle parts. In 2008, in Kenya, the prevailing political crisis deteriorated and businesses have either been destroyed or closed in fear of looters. Technically the loan did default, however, I was paid $71.50 out of $75 loan (so the defaulted amount was very small.
The other area of concentrated distress is subprime mortgages, which increased their share of the American mortgage market from 7% in 2001 to over 20% in 2006. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the delinquency rate was 22% in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with only 5% for prime loans.
“Perhaps the most compelling argument for housing as a means of wealth accumulation”, argues Richard Green of the University of Southern California, “is that it gives households a default mechanism for savings.” Because people have to pay off a mortgage, they increase their home equity and save more than they otherwise would. This is indeed a strong argument: social-science research finds that people save more if they do so automatically rather than having to choose to set something aside every month.
Yet there are other ways to create “default savings”, such as companies offering automatic deductions to retirement plans. In any case, some of the financial snake oil peddled at the height of the housing bubble was bad for saving.
The debate over whether home ownership is a wise investment or not, is contentious (more so in the last year than it was several years ago). I believe in most cases it probably is wise, but there are certainly cases where it is not. If you put yourself in too much debt that is often a big problem. I also think you should save a down payment first. If you are going to move (or have good odds you may want to) then renting is often the better option.
The “default saving” feature is one of the large benefits of home ownership. That benefit is destroyed when you take out loans against the rising value of the house. And in fact this can not just remove the benefit but turn into a negative. If you spend money you should have (increasing your debt) that can not only remove you default saving benefit but actual make your debt situation worse than if you never bought.
Federal Reserve Beige Book highlights for April 15th. The Beige Book documents comments received from business and other contacts outside the Federal Reserve and is not a commentary on the views of Federal Reserve officials. The book is published eight times a year.
Manufacturers’ assessments of future factory activity improved marginally over the survey period as well.
Consumer spending remained generally weak. However, several Districts said sales rose slightly or declines moderated compared with the previous survey period.
Home prices continued to decline in most Districts, although a few reports noted that prices were unchanged or that the pace of decline had eased. Low mortgage rates were fueling refinancing activity. Outlooks for the housing sector were generally more optimistic than in earlier surveys, with respondents hopeful that increased buyer interest would lead to better sales.
Commercial real estate investment activity weakened further.
Labor market conditions were weak and reports of layoffs, reductions in work hours, temporary factory shutdowns, branch closures and hiring freezes remained widespread across Districts.
Life Insurers Profit as Retirees Fear Outliving Cash by Alexis Leondis
Payouts among insurers vary significantly, said Weatherford of NAVA. Monthly payments range from $629 to $745 for a $100,000 investment by a 65-year-old male, according to a survey of six issuers by Hueler Companies, a Minneapolis-based data research firm and provider of an independent annuity platform.
An annuity is a comforting in that you cannot outlive your annuity payment. However, there are drawbacks also. Having a portion of retirement financing based on annuity payments does help planning. Social security payments are effectively an annuity (that also increases each year, to counter inflation). While living off social security payments alone is not an enticing prospect, as a portion of a retirement plan those payments can be valuable. If you have a pension that can also serve as an annuity.
It can make sense to put a portion of retirement assets into an annuity however I would limit the amount, myself. And the annuity payout is partially determined by current interest rates, which are very low, and those now the payout rates are low. If interest rates stay low, then you lose nothing but if interest rates increase substantially in the next several year (which is certainly possible) the payout for annuities would likely increase.
Choosing to purchase an annuity is something that should be done after careful study and only once you understand the investment options available to you. Also you need to have saved up substantial retirement saving to take advantage of the option to buy enough monthly income to contribute substantially to your retirement (so don’t forget to do that while you are working).