News & Current Affairs

February 24, 2009

US recession ‘may last into 2010’

US recession ‘may last into 2010’

US Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke has warned Congress that without the right policies from the government, the US recession could last into 2010.

But he said if the Obama administration and the central bank can restore some measure of financial stability, 2010 could be a year of recovery.

Mr Bernanke made the comments to the Senate Banking Committee.

He also warned that the global nature of the downturn was a threat because exports would be hit.

In its attempts to revive the economy, the Federal Reserve has cut its key interest rate to nearly zero, while the Obama administration has recently signed a $787bn (£546bn) economic stimulus package.

Mr Bernanke said that the potential economic turnaround would hinge on the success of such measures in getting credit and financial markets to operate more normally again.

“Only if that is the case, in my view there is a reasonable prospect that the current recession will end in 2009 and that 2010 will be a year of recovery,” he said.

Vicious circle

Mr Bernanke reassured legislators that he was, “committed to using all available tools to stimulate economic activity and to improve financial market functioning”.

But he also outlined long-run predictions for the economy, which he said reflected “the view of policymakers that a full recovery of the economy from the current recession is likely to take more than two or three years”.

He described a vicious circle of rising unemployment and shrinking house prices and savings forcing consumers to cut back, which would in turn increase unemployment.

“To break that adverse feedback loop, it is essential that we continue to complement fiscal stimulus with strong government action to stabilise financial institutions and financial markets,” he said.

Speaking of the concern about bankers benefiting from bail-outs, he added that the country “ought not abstain from saving the financial system just because it rewards people who erred”.

Sliding confidence

Mr Bernanke’s testimony came shortly after data showed that consumer confidence in February had fallen to the lowest level since the Conference Board began reporting the figures in 1967.

Its sentiment index fell to a much worse-than-expected 25.0 in February from January’s figure of 37.4.

“We just got the worst consumer confidence number ever on record,” said Matt Esteve, a foreign exchange trader at Tempus Consulting in Washington.

“Following yesterday’s awful sell-off in the stock market, it just highlights the risk that there is right now.”

House prices

There were also figures showing that the decline in US house prices had accelerated.

The S&P Case Shiller house price index showed the price of a single-family home had fallen 18.5% in December, compared with the same month of 2007.

It was the biggest drop since the index began being calculated 21 years ago.

“There are very few, if any, pockets of turnaround that one can see in the data,” said David Blitzer, chairman of S&P’s index committee.

“Most of the nation appears to remain on a downward path.”

November 25, 2008

US Fed unveils new $800bn rescue

US Fed unveils new $800bn rescue

A US home that has been repossessed

The Fed’s aim is to prevent a deep economic slump

The Federal Reserve is to pump $800bn (£526.8bn) into the markets in another bid to deal with the financial crisis.

The US central bank said it would use $600bn to buy-up mortgage-backed securities to help encourage lending.

Separately the Fed also unveiled a $200bn plan to help unfreeze the consumer credit market.

As the credit crisis has deepened, banks and other financial institutions have been reluctant to lend, deepening the economic slowdown.

Under this new rescue plan – which is in addition to the already-announced $700bn bank bail-out – the Fed is to buy up to $100bn in debt from the troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The central bank said it would also buy another $500bn in mortgage-backed securities – pools of mortgages that are bundled together and sold to investors.

New bail-out

The $600bn effort on mortgages came as the Fed also unveiled a separate program to help unfreeze the consumer debt market.

The central bank said it would lend up to $200bn to the holders of securities backed by various types of consumer loans, such as credit cards and student loans.

The Fed said that the $600 billion effort to support the mortgage market was being taken to reduce the cost of home mortgages and increase their availability.

It said the purchases of the mortgages and mortgage-backed securities would take place over a number of months.

The severe financial crisis that is rocking global markets at the moment began more than a year ago with rising defaults on subprime mortgages, loans provided to borrowers with weak credit histories.

‘Unblocking credit’

Recently, Treasury secretary Henry Paulson had indicated that the government was working on this new program, which will be supported by $20bn of credit protection provided by the existing $700bn bank bail-out fund.

The news of this latest massive financial rescue plan was generally welcomed.

“They are getting to the heart of the problem, it’s clean, it’s quick, it’s direct. It’s a good way to bring down mortgage rates, because at the end of the day they have to stabilise the housing market,” said Todd Abraham of Federated Investors, Pittsburgh.

Robert Macintosh, chief economist with Eaton Vance, Boston, said: “If they can pull it off it’ll make some people happy, but I don’t know how effective it’ll actually be.”

Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James Associates, Florida, said: “Here is the Fed taking a bunch of debt out of the market, which doesn’t hurt. I think it should it should help unblock the credit markets.”

September 15, 2008

Lehman set to go into insolvency

Lehman set to go into insolvency

Graph

Preparations are being made for Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest investment bank in the US, to file for bankruptcy.

The two strongest potential buyers appear to have pulled out of talks to rescue Lehman – the latest victim of the American credit crisis.

If no new financing comes before Wall Street opens, it will have to seek “Chapter 11” bankruptcy protection.

This could result in a severe shock to the global financial system, as banks unwind their complex deals with Lehman.

Late on Sunday the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, announced new moves to ease access to emergency credit for struggling financial companies.

The Fed said the step – which broadens the types of securities financial institutions can use to obtain emergency loans – was designed to mitigate the potential risks and disruptions to markets.

In a related move, a consortium of 10 investment banks announced a $70bn (£39bn) loan program that troubled financial companies can use to help ease the credit shortage.

The banks – Bank of America, Barclays, Citibank, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and UBS – each agreed to provide $7bn (£4bn) to the pool.

On Monday, Asian stock markets fell amid concerns over the fate of Lehman Brothers.

Singapore stocks dropped 2.26% in morning trading and shares in Taiwan fell 1.83%.

Markets in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul were closed for public holidays.

Lehman employs about 25,000 worldwide, including 5,000 in the UK.

Accountancy firm PWC has already been lined up to run the British operations of Lehman should the firm go into administration.

BBC business editor Robert Peston says UK bank Barclays’ decision to walk away from a Lehman deal was a huge setback for the effort to rescue the Lehman.

Barclays terminated the negotiations because it was unable to obtain guarantees in relation to financial commitments faced by Lehman when markets open on Monday.

Bad bank, good bank

The rescue effort for Lehman was being co-ordinated by the US Treasury and the New York Federal Reserve.

No other large firm should buy Lehman whole – its toxic real estate and securities are too difficult to value
Peter Morici
University of Maryland

The US government had hoped to arrange a bailout under which other US investment banks would finance a “bad bank” that would hold the most “toxic” investments of Lehman in the property and mortgage market.

The “good bank” or rest of the firm, including its investment and wealth management arms, would then be sold to another financial institution, for example Bank of America or the UK’s Barclays.

Although such a deal would have cost the other investment banks millions, it might have restored confidence in the sector and avoided a sharp drop in the share price of all banks.

However, it appears that this plan is falling apart.

“The only thing that can prevent Lehman collapsing would be a huge injection of taxpayers’ money,” a banker close to the talks told the BBC, but added that US Treasury Secretary “Hank Paulson has made it clear he doesn’t want to do that”.

Hard choices

Bank of America, meanwhile, is said to be unconvinced that buying Lehman would be in the interest of its shareholders.

Instead, according to a report in the New York Times, Bank of America is in “advanced talks” to buy investment bank Merrill Lynch for more than $38bn.

HAVE YOUR SAY

It’s amazing that companies which charge high interest to cover risk still need to be bailed out by the taxpayer.

Jack, Canada

Like other US investment banks Merrill has suffered losses of tens of billions of dollars in the subprime crisis, and has seen its share price plummet during recent months.

“No other large firm should buy Lehman whole – its toxic real estate and securities are too difficult to value,” said Peter Morici of the business school of the University of Maryland.

Lehman is up for sale after it reported a $3.9bn (£2.2bn) quarterly loss last week amid concerns over its long term financial viability.

The firm’s share price has plummeted as fears over its future have mounted.

Former Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan said the US government faced “very difficult decisions” over Lehman if it could not secure a rescue deal that did not involve public funds.

Yet Mr Greenspan said it would be “unsustainable” for the government to bail out every US bank that got itself into difficulty.

Predicting that Lehman would not be the last to require rescuing, Mr Greenspan added that this would not necessarily pose a problem.

“The ordinary course of financial change has winners and losers,” he said.

September 14, 2008

Talks over sale of Lehman resume

Talks over sale of Lehman resume

Lehman Brothers headquarters

Lehman is the fourth largest US investment bank

Negotiations have restarted to find a buyer for troubled US investment bank Lehman Brothers, before a Sunday evening deadline.

Bank of America and UK lender Barclays are said to be the main candidates to buy all or part of the company.

Lehman is up for sale after it reported a $3.9bn (£2.2bn) quarterly loss last week amid concerns over its long term financial viability.

The firm’s share price has plummeted as fears over its future have mounted.

‘Rescue package’

The talks to sell Lehman are being led by senior officials from the US Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.

Graph

It is understood that the US government wishes to arrange a bailout package under which other US investment banks – such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs – would contribute funds to a rescue deal which would see Lehman’s balance sheet cleaned up before its sale.

Although this is expected to cost the banks many millions, the alternative would likely be a sharp fall in their share prices if Lehman was to fail.

A number of sources report that US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is determined that no tax payers’ money will be used to help Lehman.

‘Difficult decision’

Former Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan said the US government faces “very difficult decisions” over Lehman if it cannot secure a rescue deal that does not involve public funds.

” “They [will then] have to make a very difficult decision as to whether or not they allow it to liquidate or they support it,” he said.

Yet Mr Greenspan said it would be “unsustainable” for the government to bail-out every US bank that got itself into difficulty.

Predicting that Lehman would not be the last to require rescuing, Mr Greenspan added that this would not necessarily pose a problem.

“The ordinary course of financial change has winners and losers,” he said.

Bad mortgage woes

Lehman could be sold off as one company, or else broken up into parts and sold separately.

While the firm got itself into financial difficulty due to extensive bad mortgage debts, its fund management business is in relatively good shape, analysts say.

Neither Bank of America or Barclays have made any comment.

Lehman’s shares lost 80% of their value last week, and its quarterly loss was the largest in its history.

The firm is the fourth-largest US investment bank.

Concerns over the fate of Lehman follow the bail-out last weekend of mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

The lenders were thrown into financial difficulty after the collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage market.

September 6, 2008

US rules out new economic package

US rules out new economic package

Worker rolls a spool of cloth at the Nice-Pak factory in New York state

Jobs are being lost in the service, business and manufacturing sectors

The United States government says it does not see an immediate need for new measures to stimulate the US economy despite a sharp rise in unemployment.

The latest figures show a rate of 6.1% – the highest since December 2003.

A White House spokeswoman said that while the figures were disappointing, the existing economic stimulus plan was having the impact intended.

A call for more action had been made by the Democratic Party presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

A higher-than-expected 84,000 jobs were lost last month, which together with the unemployment rate has added to concern about the US economy and its ability to stave off a recession.

In a further blow, the Labor Department revised upwards job loss figures for each of the past two months.

The Federal Reserve said earlier that economic activity remained “weak”.

A separate report by the Mortgage Bankers Association said that almost one in 10 US homeowners were behind with their mortgage payments or was in foreclosure procedures.

The 9.2% default rate between April and June was up from 8.8% in the previous quarter, and nearly double the rate one year ago.

‘Convincing evidence’

The number of jobs lost last month was significantly higher than the 75,000 forecast by economists.

All sectors of the economy were affected with manufacturing worst hit, shedding 61,000 jobs.

This is more convincing evidence that the economy is still in trouble
Gary Thayer, Wachovia Securities

The labor market has worsened noticeably in recent months, reflected by the fact that it is now apparent that more jobs were lost in June and July than was previously thought.

Revised figures show that in June, 100,000 jobs were lost while in July 60,000 jobs disappeared. This was up from the 51,000 figure initially forecast for both months.

“It seems unemployment in the US really is accelerating,” said the BBC’s North America business correspondent, Greg Wood.

“There do not seem to be many sectors of the US economy which are hiring.”

‘Clearly deteriorating’

In the first eight months of 2008, 605,000 jobs have been lost.

Employers have now reduced their payrolls for eight straight months, with the dramatic downturn in the housing market and the credit crunch hurting all sectors of the economy.

“This is more convincing evidence that the economy is still in trouble,” said Gary Thayer, senior economist at Wachovia Securities.

“The economy is clearly deteriorating.”

Political focus

Both candidates in November’s Presidential election are under pressure to come up with concrete proposals to help the growing number of people out of work and families battling against rising living costs.

Although the US economy grew a robust 3.3% in the second quarter, businesses are struggling to cope with the high cost of raw materials and energy, fragile consumer confidence and weaker export markets.

The Federal Reserve, which meets to decide on interest rates next week, has warned that the US is facing the twin threats of weak growth and rising inflation.

The bleak employment picture means the Fed is unlikely to raise rates in the foreseeable future while further cuts seem equally unlikely against a background of rising inflation.

“The jobs number is weak again but we think this probably is not the time to panic,” said Steve Goldman, strategist at Weeden & Co.


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September 5, 2008

US jobless rate near 5-year high

US jobless rate near 5-year high

Worker rolls a spool of cloth at the Nice-Pak factory in New York state

Jobs are being lost in the service, business and manufacturing sectors

The unemployment rate in the US is at its highest level in nearly five years after a higher-than-expected 84,000 jobs were lost last month.

The jobless rate has risen to 6.1%, the highest since December 2003, adding to concern about the US economy and its ability to stave off a recession.

In a further blow, the Labor Department revised upwards job loss figures for each of the past two months.

The Federal Reserve said earlier that economic activity remained “weak”.

Worse than thought

The number of jobs lost last month was significantly higher than the 75,000 forecast by economists.

All sectors of the economy were affected with manufacturing worst hit, shedding 61,000 jobs.

This is more convincing evidence that the economy is still in trouble
Gary Thayer, Wachovia Securities

The labor market has worsened noticeably in recent months, reflected by the fact that it is now apparent that more jobs were lost in June and July than was previously thought.

Revised figures show that in June, 100,000 jobs were lost while in July 60,000 jobs disappeared. This was up from the 51,000 figure initially forecast for both months.

In the first eight months of 2008, 605,000 jobs have been lost.

Employers have now reduced their payrolls for eight straight months, with the dramatic downturn in the housing market and the credit crunch hurting all sectors of the economy.

“This is more convincing evidence that the economy is still in trouble,” said Gary Thayer, senior economist at Wachovia Securities.

“The economy is clearly deteriorating.”

Political focus

Both candidates in November’s Presidential election are under pressure to come up with concrete proposals to help the growing number of people out of work and families battling against rising living costs.

Although the US economy grew a robust 3.3% in the second quarter, businesses are struggling to cope with the high cost of raw materials and energy, fragile consumer confidence and weaker export markets.

The Federal Reserve, which meets to decide on interest rates next week, has warned that the US is facing the twin threats of weak growth and rising inflation.

The bleak employment picture means the Fed is unlikely to raise rates in the foreseeable future while further cuts seem equally unlikely against a background of rising inflation.

“The jobs number is weak again but we think this probably is not the time to panic,” said Steve Goldman, strategist at Weeden & Co.

August 28, 2008

US GDP rebounds with 3.3% growth

US GDP rebounds with 3.3% growth

A US shopper

Tax rebates have encouraged consumers to spend more

The US economy grew at a revised 3.3% annually in the second quarter of 2008, the Commerce Department said, much higher than its first estimate of 1.9%.

The rebound was linked to strong US exports, helped by the weak dollar, while government tax rebates also boosted consumer spending.

GDP grew at a rate of 0.9% in the first quarter, after a 0.2% contraction in the last three months of 2007.

The Federal Reserve has warned the economy will remain weak this year.

“While we’re not out of the woods yet, maybe we’re beginning to see some sunlight,” said John Wilson, equity strategist at Morgan Keegan.

“At some point, the market will begin to look through the trough and gauge the strength of the coming upturn.”

‘No recession’

The data showed that exports grew at an annualized rate of 13.2%, higher than the government’s initial estimate of 9.2%.

Imports fell at a rate of 7.6% as the US economic slowdown reduced demands for goods made overseas.

The improved trade balance added 3.1 percentage points to second-quarter GDP, the biggest since 1980.

The slowdown in the housing market was evident, as builders cut back and businesses reduced their spending.

Consumer spending, boosted by the government’s $600 tax rebate payments, rose by 1.7%, slightly higher than the previous quarter’s 1.5%.

Some observers said that the figures lent support to the argument that the US was not heading for a recession.

“For a recession the economy is certainly growing very quickly,” said Avery Shenfeld, senior economist at CIBC World Markets.

“A lot of that growth is driven off exports and pessimists might say that can’t continue during slowing growth overseas.

“But I would say this happened precisely during the period of slowing growth overseas … this is still an economy that faces slow times but not a recession.”

16-year low

However recent data on the US housing market suggests a grim outlook for the sector.

US house prices were down a record 15.4% in the April to June quarter compared with a year ago, according to a closely-watched report released earlier this week.

The decline was recorded by the latest S&P/Case-Shiller survey of US national home prices.

The report said the fact that the falls were nationwide was the latest sign the US housing downturn is continuing.

Separate government data said sales of new homes were at an annual rate of 515,000 units in July, up slightly from June, but still near a 16-year low, and half the rate of new home sales one year ago.

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