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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September 7, 2008

US lenders ‘face state takeover’

US lenders ‘face state takeover’

Home repossessed in US

US mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are set to be put under government control in an attempt to rescue the firms, media reports say.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson will outline government plans at a news conference at 1100 (1600 BST).

The move to shore up the shareholder-owned firms, which hold or guarantee half the US mortgage debt, would be the US’s largest ever financial bail-out.

In July, Congress approved a plan aimed

at offering them more liquidity.

This followed huge losses by the two firms as result of a big increase in defaults and repossessions in the US housing market.

‘Management told’

On Saturday, a senior politician, Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had told him the government would use its powers to ensure the continued and stable functioning of the companies.

The Washington Post, quoting senior administration sources, said the firms would be put under a legal status known as “conservatorship” which would greatly reduce the value of the two companies’ common stock.

BBC Business Editor Robert Peston
This is an event of profound significance for the global economy
BBC Business Editor Robert Peston

Other securities – including company debt and preferred shares – would be guaranteed by the government, the paper added.

The New York Times reported that senior executives at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were informed about the plan on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal said it would include changes in the top management.

There would also be quarterly infusions of cash to keep both firms afloat, the papers say. The total cost to taxpayers is not known but could amount to billions of dollars, they add.

The government was being forced to step in because it was dangerous for the US economy for doubts to persist about the two firms’ viability.

Struggling homeowners

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The two contenders for the US presidency, Barack Obama and John McCain, have been briefed on the takeover by Mr Paulson.

“We’ve got to keep people in their homes,” said the Republican candidate, John McCain.

“There’s got to be restructuring, there’s got to be reorganisation, and there’s got to be some confidence that we’ve stopped this downward spiral,” he added, saying that the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must not benefit executives at the two companies.

The Democratic Party candidate, Barack Obama, said any action should be focused “on whether it will strengthen our economy and help struggling homeowners”.

“We must not allow government intervention to protect investors and speculators who relied on the government to reap massive profits,” he said, adding “we must protect taxpayers, not bail out the shareholders and management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac”.

Fragile

On Friday, America’s Mortgage Bankers Association reported that at the end of June, about four million homeowners with a mortgage – representing a record 9% – either were behind in their payments or faced repossession.

In the past year, the financial crisis has taken a heavy toll on both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The country’s two largest buyers and backers of mortgages lost a combined $3.1bn between April and June.

Both companies say they have the resources to weather the losses, but their shares have fallen sharply on fears that they could go bankrupt as borrowers default.

The rescue plan passed by Congress in July gave the US government the authority to buy shares and offer liquidity to companies to keep them afloat.

Many analysts believe their collapse would be a major shock to the already fragile global financial system.

Together, the two firms own or guarantee about $5.3 trillion worth of home loans – about half the outstanding mortgages in the US.

That is about 25 times as big as the obligations of Northern Rock – which was nationalised by the UK government earlier this year, and twice the size of the UK economy.

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.”

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