News & Current Affairs

December 30, 2008

US consumer confidence plummets

US consumer confidence plummets

Shoppers at a J C Penney store

US consumers are increasingly gloomy about economic prospects

US consumer confidence has unexpectedly dropped to a record low in December, in the face of the US economic slowdown and continuing job cuts.

The index fell to 38, from November’s revised 44.7 figure, though it had been expected to rise.

The dismal job market appears to have outweighed falling oil prices in consumers’ minds, analysts said.

Meanwhile, October house prices in 20 US cities fell by a record yearly rate, according to a key home price survey.

Falling confidence

According to the Conference Board, those respondents saying jobs were “hard to get” rose to 42% in December – up from 37.1% in November, while those claiming jobs were “plentiful” dropped to 6.2% from 8.7%.

The proportion of consumers anticipating an increase in their incomes decreased to 12.7% in December from 13.1% in November.

And those claiming business conditions were “bad” increased to 46% in December from 40.6% in November, while those saying business conditions were “good” declined to 7.7% from 10.1%.

The survey is based on a representative sample of 5,000 US households.

Separately, house prices in 20 US cities fell by a record annual rate of 18.04% in October, according to the The S&P/Case-Shiller home price survey.

Record falls

The index shows that prices of homes is continuing to fall across the US with many areas showing record price falls.

David Blitzer, of Standard & Poor’s said that “home prices are back to their March 2004 levels”.

October’s annual fall was more than had been expected by analysts, who had been predicting a 17% drop.

The city which showed the biggest price-fall was Phoenix, where home prices plunged 32.6% in the year to October – followed by Las Vegas, which was down 31.7% and San Francisco, down 31%.

Overall, house prices for the 20 metropolitan areas in the survey fell 18.04% in the year to October, the largest drop since its inception in 2000.

The annual fall in prices for the top 10 metropolitan areas was 19.06%, its biggest decline in its 21-year history.

Both indices have now recorded annual declines for 22 consecutive months.

Prices in the 20-city index have dropped more than 23% since their peak in July 2006, while the 10-city index has fallen 25% since its peak in June 2006.

None of the 20 cities saw annual price gains in October – for the seventh consecutive month.

‘Decline slowing’

Wall Street’s reaction to this latest housing survey was initially muted, as November figures on the depressed state of the housing market have already been published.

Last week, figures from the Commerce Department showed that sales of new homes in the US had slowed to their lowest level in 17 years in November, while new home prices had dropped by the biggest amount in eight months.

Tim Ghriskey of Solaris Asset Management in Bedford Hills, said this survey was “pretty much right in line with expectations but very depressed”.

“There are signs we believe that the decline in housing prices is slowing and we’re in a bottoming process but clearly this does show that housing prices continue to decline significantly,” he said.

The US housing market is in the worst downturn since the Great Depression as a huge supply of unsold homes, the credit squeeze and record mortgage foreclosures has pushed down home prices.

Economists believe the market will not begin to recover until home prices fall far enough to stimulate demand, which has dropped off precipitously.

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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.”

October 3, 2008

Biden and Palin debate

Biden and Palin debate

The two US vice-presidential candidates have traded blows on the financial crisis, climate change and foreign policy in their only TV debate.

Democrat Joe Biden sought to link Republican presidential candidate John McCain to the policies of President Bush, saying he was “no maverick”.

Republican Sarah Palin defended herself against claims of inexperience and said the McCain ticket would bring change.

Voter polls suggested Mr Biden had won but Mrs Palin did better than expected.

The debate at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, was seen as particularly crucial for Mrs Palin, whose poll ratings have fallen.

Mrs Palin played to her strengths and her image as a mother in touch with ordinary Americans.

For the most part she spoke fluently but simply about the economy, climate change and the war in Iraq, our correspondent says, and there were few of the stumbling gaffes that have become the staple of late-night comedy shows.

Two polls conducted after the debate, by US networks CNN and CBS News, judged Mr Biden the winner. However, the CNN poll found a large majority thought Mrs Palin had done better than expected.

‘Hockey moms’

Asked by moderator Gwen Ifill who was at fault for the current problems with the US banking system, Mrs Palin blamed predatory lenders and “greed and corruption” on Wall Street.

It would be a travesty if we were to quit now in Iraq
Sarah Palin
Republican VP nominee

Senator McCain would “put partisanship aside” to help resolve the crisis, she said, and had raised the alarm over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac long ago.

She said “Joe six-packs and hockey moms across the country” – referring to middle-class voters – needed to say “never again” to Wall Street chiefs.

Mrs Palin also accused Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama of seeking to raise taxes but Mr Biden rejected that claim.

He said the economic crisis was evidence that the policies of the past eight years had been “the worst we’ve ever had” and accused Mr McCain of being “out of touch” on the economy.

Senator Obama’s plan to raise taxes on households earning over $250,000 was “fairness”, Mr Biden said, unlike Mr McCain’s proposals for more tax breaks for big companies.

‘Dead wrong’

On foreign policy, Mrs Palin accused Mr Obama of refusing to acknowledge that the “surge” strategy of extra troops in Iraq had worked.

He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that people talk about around the kitchen table
Joe Biden
Democratic VP nominee

“It would be a travesty if we were to quit now in Iraq,” she said, describing Mr Obama’s plan to withdraw combat troops a “white flag of surrender”.

Mr Biden countered by saying Mr McCain had been “dead wrong” on Iraq and had yet to present a plan to end the conflict.

He said the US was wasting $10bn a month in Iraq while ignoring the real front line in the fight against terrorism, Afghanistan.

In turn, Mrs Palin said Mr Obama was naive for saying he was willing to talk directly to the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba. “That is beyond bad judgment. That is dangerous,” she said.

The pair also sparred on the issue of climate change.

Mrs Palin, governor of energy-rich Alaska, said human activities were a factor in climate change but that climatic cycles were also an element. She urged US energy independence as part of the answer.

Key words used most frequently by Joe Biden in the debate

Mr Biden pointed to climate change as one of the major points on which the two campaigns differed, saying: “If you don’t understand what the cause is, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a solution.”

He said he and Mr Obama backed “clean-coal” technology and accused Mr McCain of having voted against funding for alternative energy projects and seeing only one solution: “Drill, drill, drill.”

While Mrs Palin described her party’s candidate as “the consummate maverick”, her rival argued that Mr McCain had followed the Bush administration’s policies on important issues such as Iraq.

“He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that people talk about around the kitchen table,” Mr Biden said.

Overall, commentators highlighted Mrs Palin’s frequent use of a “folksy” style, for example using expressions like “doggone it” and telling her opponent: “Aw, say it ain’t so, Joe.”

They also noted how Mr Biden appeared emotional as he talked about raising his two young sons alone after a car crash killed his first wife.

Poll shift

According to a Pew Research Center poll, two-thirds of voters planned to follow the debate, far more than in 2004.

McCain and running mate Sarah Palin at Republican convention in St Paul on 4 September 2008

Sarah Palin was a huge hit at the Republican convention last month

A new poll by the Washington Post suggests that 60% of voters now see Mrs Palin as lacking the experience to be an effective president.

One-third say they are less likely to vote for Senator McCain, as a result.

Independent voters, who are not affiliated to either political party, have the most sceptical views of the 44-year-old Alaska governor.

Another poll, for CBS News, gives Senator Barack Obama 49% to 40% for Mr McCain.

It is the latest in a series of opinion polls that have shown a significant shift in the direction of Mr Obama since the economic crisis began.

Mrs Palin, whose fiery speech at last month’s Republican convention inspired Christian conservatives, produces unusually strong feelings – both positive and negative – among voters.

Key words used most frequently by Sarah Palin in the debate

Although Mrs Palin has succeeded in mobilising conservative Republicans, her key challenge is to appeal to the swing voters who could determine who will win the battleground states, analysts say.

In particular, she needs to win over the “Wal-Mart moms” – white, working-class married women.

A recent poll of customers of discount giant Wal-Mart suggested that Mr McCain was slightly ahead with this group in Ohio and Florida, while Mr Obama was leading in Virginia and Colorado.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is scaling back its operations in another swing state, Michigan, effectively conceding the advantage to Mr Obama there.

September 28, 2008

‘Great progress’ in US bail-out

‘Great progress’ in US bail-out

US congressional leaders say they have reached the broad outline of a rescue plan for the American financial system.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “great progress” had been made – but details remain to be agreed.

The Bush administration wants $700bn (£380bn) to be able to buy bad debt that is freezing up financial markets.

A vote could be held in the House of Representatives as early as Sunday, with negotiators keen to reassure the markets before they reopen on Monday.

The deal proposes that the government would spend the $700bn to buy up bad mortgage-related debts from US banks, borrowing the cash from the money markets by issuing more government debt.

A White House spokesman welcomed the announcement and praised the efforts of the negotiators.

“We’re pleased with the progress tonight and appreciate the bipartisan effort to stabilise our financial markets and protect our economy,” said Tony Fratto.

The outline deal gives the treasury secretary powers to oversee the two-year plan, but critics have insisted on the inclusion of greater oversight and reporting.

The tentative agreement that appears to have been reached is thought to include a measure to limit the pay for executives of companies which seek financial assistance, which was a key demand of the Democrats.

At the request of Republicans, who have strongly criticised some elements of the administration’s proposal, the accord is believed to include the setting up an insurance program for mortgage-backed securities.

Payoff restrictions

A statement from Nancy Pelosi’s office said the new agreement would see $250bn issued immediately, and another $100bn when the president wanted to spend it.

But the the final $350bn would only be released after review and approval by Congress.

There would also be measures to protect taxpayers, who would be given an ownership stake and profit-making opportunities in relation to any assets that were sold.

It also puts new restrictions on executive compensation for participating companies, including no “golden parachute” payoffs.

Earlier on Sunday it was announced that the two-year project would be supervised by a board of officials, including the Federal Reserve chairman, and scrutinised by Congress’s investigative arm and an independent inspector general.

Finally, the government could use its power as the owner of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities to help more struggling homeowners modify the terms of their home loans.

‘All night’

US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who took part in the talks, said that Congressional leaders had been “working very hard”.

“We’ve made great progress toward a deal, which will work and will be effective in the marketplace, and effective for all Americans,” he told a news conference.

But Ms Pelosi said the deal had to be committed to paper before it could be formally agreed.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Congress hoped to be able to make an announcement on the deal later on Sunday.

“We’re committing it to paper tonight and our people will work all night long,” he said.

Congressional leaders are trying to finalise the deal in time for the opening of the Asian markets on Monday morning.

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.


Have you recently been made unemployed in the US? Are you affected by the issues in this story? What are your experiences? Send us your comments

August 9, 2008

Fannie Mae unveils loss of $2.3bn

Fannie Mae unveils loss of $2.3bn

Courtesy BBC

Problems in the US housing market have pushed mortgage finance company Fannie Mae into the red.

The group sank to a net loss of $2.3bn in the three months to 30 June, against a profit of $1.97bn last year.

It comes days after its sister company Freddie Mac posted worse-than-expected results and its top executive warned house price falls are not over yet.

Both government sponsored firms own, or guarantee, nearly half of the nation’s mortgage debt.

Shares in Fannie Mae sank in the wake of the announcement, falling 9.8% to $8.98.

Difficult market

As mortgage guarantors, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, must pay out when people default on their loans.

But as a result of recent woes in the US housing market and subsequent sub-prime crisis the pair have run into severe difficulty.

Fannie Mae says it has the capital to weather the storm, but its looking more and more stormy by the day
John Raines,
Exclusive Analysis

Fannie Mae said that the current housing crisis had added to its woes to the tune of $5.3bn in credit expenses.

The latest losses at the firm – which came in at more than three times analysts’ estimates – followed a $2.2bn loss for the first three months of the year.

“Our second-quarter results reflect challenging conditions in the housing and mortgage markets that began in 2006 and have deepened through 2007 and 2008,” said Daniel H Mudd, president and chief executive officer of Fannie Mae.

Cost cutting

He added that the firm had also taken steps to raise an additional $7bn to help it tackle the “most difficult US housing market in more than 70 years”.

As part of the plan Fannie Mae is slashing its dividend by more than 85% to 0.05 cents, raising its fees and has taken steps to cut its costs by 10%.

The group also said it would stop purchasing ‘Alt-A’ loans – loans made to borrowers with good credit but little proof of their income, or people who either put down a small deposit, or no deposit, for their loan.

But there was little to offer hope in near-term future with Fannie Mae warning that increased volatility in capital markets and deteriorating credit conditions meant that it would face more losses.

Bail-out

Last month, the federal government offered a financial lifeline to the two beleaguered companies offering to extend their line of credit.

However, the financial aid may leave the taxpayer facing a bill of $25bn over the next two years.

“The taxpayer is stuck if they have to be bailed out,” John Raines, deputy director of political risk for Exclusive Analysis told the BBC.

He added that reports had suggested the actual cost could end up being anywhere in the region of between $10bn to $100bn.

“Right now, Fannie Mae says it has the capital to weather the storm, but its looking more and more stormy by the day.”

August 5, 2008

Clinton wants Aids funding boost

Former US President Bill Clinton has called for an increase in funding to keep down the cost of drugs for people with HIV.

Courtesy BBC

Mr Clinton told a world Aids conference in Mexico that a 50% rise was needed in the next two years just to keep pace with expanding drug programme.

Figures released ahead of the meeting show the number of people with HIV worldwide has decreased slightly.

However, infection rates are still rising in some countries.

Across the world 33 million people are affected by the syndrome.

“Aids is a very big dragon. The mythological dragon was slain by Saint George, the original knight in shining armour, but this dragon must be slain by millions and millions of foot soldiers,” Mr Clinton told the conference.

A crowd of demonstrators holding banners calling for housing for people with HIV walked in front of the podium during his speech.

Mr Clinton used the moment to talk about how rising oil, food prices and the mortgage crisis had made the lives of people with HIV even more difficult.

There was “no silver bullet” to rid the world of the disease, he said.

“We know there is so much yet to be done: to expand prevention, treatment and care, to strengthen undeveloped health systems,” he added.

Universal access

The six-day conference was preceded by an awareness march, a photo exhibition and other events.

About 20,000 scientists, government officials and campaigners are in Mexico City for the event.

Funding, access to treatment, improving prevention against HIV and social issues such as stigma and violence against women are all on the agenda.

However delegates are not expecting any breakthrough announcement concerning new drugs or the search for a preventative vaccine.

The UN General Assembly and the Group of Eight (G8) have set the goal of achieving universal access to treatment and therapy by 2010.

Since Aids first became widely known, a quarter of a century ago, 25 million people have died.

In one positive development, US President George W Bush recently won backing to triple US spending on combating the syndrome.

But in some countries like Russia and China, and even Germany and the UK, the rates of infection are rising, the BBC’s Duncan Kennedy reports from Mexico City.

In the US, better detection methods have just shown the figures there have been underestimated by about 30%.

And in Africa, home to 70% of cases, access to the right drugs is improving but there are not enough health care workers to administer them.

There are concerns too about the human rights of sufferers who are often too scared to seek treatment.

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