International Forecaster Weekly

The Magnitude Of The Downturn Has Set In

Bankruptcy filings increased by a third, job market improvements only amount to less of a slowdown, industries coping with economic downturn, Fed still being deceptive, new unemployment filings also up, xmas presents from Geithner for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Bob Chapman | January 9, 2010

The number of Americans filing for personal bankruptcy rose by nearly a third in 2009, a surge largely driven by foreclosures and job losses.

And more people are filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which liquidates assets to pay off some debts and absolves the filers of others. That is significant because a 2005 overhaul of federal bankruptcy laws aimed to encourage Chapter 13 filings, which force consumers to sign onto debt-repayment plans in exchange for keeping certain assets.

The changes were designed to make it more difficult for people to shed their debt, particularly in a Chapter 7 filling. A "means" test, for example, was introduced to separate those who could afford to repay their debt from those who couldn't. A Chapter 7 filing is off the table if the means test determines a person is able to pay back at least a portion of the debt after it is restructured.

The worst U.S. recession in a generation is testing the effectiveness of these laws. The economic downturn also has prompted more middle-class Americans to file for bankruptcy protection.

Overall, personal bankruptcy filings hit 1.41 million last year, up 32% from 2008, according to the National Bankruptcy Research Center, which compiles and analyzes bankruptcy data. It is the highest level of consumer-bankruptcy fillings since 2005. Consumers rushed to file in 2005 before the new bankruptcy laws took effect in October of that year.

Chapter 7 filings were up more than 42% as of November 2009, compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the research center. November is the most recent month with analyzed data available. Chapter 13 filings rose by 12% and made up less than a third of 2009 filings as of November.

"That suggests it was largely ineffective," Ronald Mann, a law professor at Columbia University, said of the 2005 overhaul. "I don't think anybody who's knowledgeable about the bankruptcy system thought the statute was well crafted."

During this recession, the housing crisis and high unemployment rate have prompted more people to file for bankruptcy who may never have considered the option before, experts said. Filings from 2008 showed more people with high income and high education levels resorting to bankruptcy petitions, according to an annual survey of consumer-bankruptcy filers' demographics by the Institute for Financial Literacy, a nonprofit that provides bankruptcy-related counseling and education services. Those demographic trends appeared to continue last year.

Mr. Mann said he believes bankruptcies reached their peak sometime last year, but bankruptcy attorneys from across the country said there was no sign that business was slowing. The 113,274 filings in December alone were a third higher than the same month a year earlier.

"I can't see over the top of the files on my desk," said Cathleen Moran, a bankruptcy attorney at Moran Law Group in Mountain View, Calif., likening it to the rush of clients before the revised law went into effect. In a three-month period before those rules changed in 2005, her firm filed five times as many cases as usual.

Ms. Moran's clients in 2008 typically were people who earned between $40,000 and $80,000. That changed last year when a rash of people who earned $100,000 to $300,000 began filing as well, she said.

Non-manufacturing sector expanded in December, but barely, according to data released Wednesday by the Institute for Supply Management. Employment within the broad sector continued to contract.

The ISM's non-manufacturing purchasing managers' index rose to 50.1 last month, from 48.7 in November. The December index was slightly below the 50.5 expected by forecasters surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires. Readings above 50 indicate expanding activity.

The ISM said its December business activity/production index rose to 53.7 last month from 49.6. The new-orders index slipped to 52.1 from 55.1 in November.

Nonfarm private employment declined by 84,000 jobs in the month of December, marking the eight straight month of a decreasing rate of job destruction.

According to the authors of the ADP National Employment Report, “employment losses are now rapidly diminishing and, if recent trends continue, private employment will begin rising within the next few months.”

Despite the improvement over the 145,000 jobs lost in November (revised up from -169,000), December's slowdown was still less than forecast. Analysts had expected a better improvement in the range of 63,000 jobs lost.

Well-known banking analyst Meredith Whitney on Tuesday cut her earnings estimates for Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs for the second time in less than a month.

Shares of Goldman Sachs (NYSE: gs) fell immediately after the news, but then rebounded higher.

Whitney, head of the Meredith Whitney Advisory Group, lowered her fourth quarter estimate for Goldman Sachs to $5.50 from $6.

She also cut her full-year estimate for Goldman for 2010 from $19.65 to $19.20; her 2011 earnings per share estimate from $20.60 to $20.25; and her 2012 estimate from $21.45 to $21.10.

Whitney had previously cut her estimates for Goldman on Dec. 17.

Whitney lowered her estimates for bank Morgan Stanley (NYSE: ms) this past December, reducing her 2010 expectations to $2.60 a share from $2.63 a share. For 2011, her firm lowered its profit estimates to $2.75 a share from $3.28 a share on the bank. It also set an earnings estimate of $2.90 a share for Morgan Stanley for 2012.

Construction spending on hotels, office buildings and retail centers may fall 13 percent this year, the second straight annual decline amid a drop in property prices, the American Institute of Architects said.

The Washington-based group’s forecast is more severe than an estimate it made in July, when it predicted a 12 percent decrease. Spending will turn “marginally” higher in 2011, the group said today.

“The magnitude of the downturn has set in,” Kermit Baker, the group’s chief economist, said in an interview. This year’s expected drop compares with a decline of about 20 percent in 2009. “Another bad year is the bottom line, but there are some prospects of recovery as we get into 2011.”

U.S. commercial real estate values sank to the lowest level in seven years in October as job losses cut demand for apartments, offices and retail space, Moody’s Investors Service Inc. said last month. Office vacancies may approach 20 percent in 2010, according to Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. and Grubb & Ellis Co. Unemployment was 10 percent in November after a 26-year high of 10.2 percent the prior month, the Labor Department said.

Commercial construction spending will probably have a “marginal increase” of 1.8 percent next year, according to the architects group.

That forecast “still implies a weak first half of 2011 and a stronger second half,” Baker said.

Industrial construction spending is likely to slump the most this year, 24 percent, and an additional 7.8 percent in 2011, the institute said.

The group expects hotel building to also fall about 24 percent this year, before rising 5.4 percent in 2011.

Spending on office buildings may drop 19 percent this year and then increase 12 percent in 2011, while retail construction is likely to decline 17 percent this year before climbing 3.2 percent next year, the group said.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, then led by Timothy Geithner, told American International Group Inc. to withhold details from the public about the bailed-out insurer’s payments to banks during the depths of the financial crisis, e-mails between the company and its regulator show.

AIG said in a draft of a regulatory filing that the insurer paid banks, which included Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA, 100 cents on the dollar for credit-default swaps they bought from the firm. The New York Fed crossed out the reference, according to the e-mails, and AIG excluded the language when the filing was made public on Dec. 24, 2008. The e-mails were obtained by Representative Darrell Issa, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The New York Fed took over negotiations between AIG and the banks in November 2008 as losses on the swaps, which were contracts tied to subprime home loans, threatened to swamp the insurer weeks after its taxpayer-funded rescue. The regulator decided that Goldman Sachs and more than a dozen banks would be fully repaid for $62.1 billion of the swaps, prompting lawmakers to call the AIG rescue a “backdoor bailout” of financial firms.

“It appears that the New York Fed deliberately pressured AIG to restrict and delay the disclosure of important information,” said Issa, a California Republican. Taxpayers “deserve full and complete disclosure under our nation’s securities laws, not the withholding of politically inconvenient information.” President Barack Obama selected Geithner as Treasury secretary, a post he took last year.

Central bankers will hold talks with banking executives in Switzerland this weekend amid concern financial companies are rebuffing a push to increase regulation and temper risk-taking as the recent crisis ebbs.

The gathering to discuss regulation will take place at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, according to two Group of Seven central bank officials. The BIS invited commercial bankers citing concerns that they are returning to the excessive-risk patterns that helped spark the global crisis in 2007, the Financial Times reported today.

The meeting comes a month after the BIS urged central banks to take greater account of financial stability and published proposals aimed at forcing banks to hold more and better-quality capital and discourage leverage. The MSCI World Index of stocks has surged 73 percent since its low of last March.

“The central bankers are clearly aiming to head off the excesses that will certainly come out of the very easy monetary policy” put in place during the crisis, said Bill Belchere, global chief economist at Mirae Asset Securities in Hong Kong. “They have no choice but to be prudent and vigilant to grapple with the potential problems and stop bubbles before they emerge.”

The BIS meetings occasionally feature sessions with private banks and this month’s gathering will be such an example, the two officials said on condition of anonymity because the agenda isn’t public. Bank executives usually attend the January meet.

The difference between two- and 10- year Treasury yields widened to within 4 basis points of the most in at least 20 years as the Federal Reserve signaled it will hold its target interest rate at a record low.

The so-called yield curve steepened after minutes of the Fed’s last meeting showed officials believe economic growth will be “rather slow relative to past recoveries.” The Treasury will announce plans for next week’s debt sales today.

“Growth and inflation concerns are pushing up longer yields, while market participants are betting that the central bank will keep rates on hold,” said Michael Markovic, a senior fixed-income strategist in Zurich at Credit Suisse.

The 10-year note yield was 3.83 percent as of 7:10 a.m. in New York, according to BGCantor Market data. The 3.375 percent security due in November 2019 was little changed at 96 9/32.

The rate is 2.82 percentage points more than two-year securities. The spread was 2.84 percentage points earlier today, within 4 basis points of the biggest gap since at least 1990. The curve widened to a record 2.88 percentage points on Dec. 22.

The government will sell $10 billion in 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities on Jan. 11, $40 billion of three- year notes on Jan. 12, $21 billion of 10-year securities on Jan. 13 and $13 billion of 30-year debt on Jan. 14, according to Wrightson ICAP LLC, an economic advisory firm in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Treasuries were the worst performing sovereign debt market in 2009 as the U.S. sold $2.1 trillion of notes and bonds to fund extraordinary efforts to bolster the economy and financial markets.

Investors in U.S. debt lost 3.5 percent on average through Dec. 30, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes, the biggest annual slide since at least 1978. The 10-year Treasury yield reached its highest level in six months yesterday before a Labor Department report next week forecast to show payrolls were unchanged in December after the U.S. economy lost jobs in every month since January 2008.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin of Bethesda said that it plans to cut 1,200 employees by the spring as it consolidates two of its business units and that it foresees a slowdown in its upcoming work from the Pentagon. [they have already cut 730 jobs.]

The number of Americans filing first- time claims for unemployment benefits rose less than forecast last week from the lowest level in more than a year, indicating jobs cuts are waning as companies become more confident in the economy.

Initial jobless applications increased by 1,000 to 434,000 in the week ended Jan. 2, fewer than the 439,000 claims economists anticipated, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The number of people receiving unemployment insurance dropped in the prior week to 4.8 million, and those receiving extended benefits increased.

Improving sales and production gains are prompting companies to slow the pace of firings as the economy recovers from the worst recession since the 1930s. Labor Department data tomorrow may show employment was unchanged in December after almost two years of job cuts.

This is clearly a strong number, said Maxwell Clarke, chief U.S. economist at IDEAglobal in New York, who forecast claims at 435,000. Looking forward, you should see slow and steady improvement and a return to positive payroll numbers.

The four-week moving average of initial claims, a less volatile measure, fell to 450,250 last week, the lowest since the Sept. 13, 2008, from 460,500 the prior one. Claims have fallen 36 percent since reaching a 26-year high of 674,000 in the week ended March 27.

The Federal Reserve's latest weekly money supply report Thursday shows seasonally adjusted M1 rose by $1.7 billion to $1.688 trillion, while M2 rose $16.4 billion to $8.413 trillion.

US job losses resumed in December after revisions showed payrolls rose in November for the first time in nearly two years, the Labor Department estimated Friday. Nonfarm payrolls fell by a seasonally adjusted 85,000 in December following a revised 4,000 gain in November. During 2009, payrolls fell by 4.2 million. Since the recession began two years ago, payrolls have fallen by 7.3 million. The official unemployment rate remained at 10% in December. An alternative gauge of unemployment, which includes discouraged workers and those forced to work part-time, rose to 17.3% from 17.2%. Details of the report were weak, with few signs of further improvement in labor conditions. [John Williams net unemployment figure is 22.7%, our figure is 22.5%.]

We find it comical that the Fed says it is going to wind down the control bank’s purchases of toxic mortgage securities in March and a day later says they may continue them. The excuse is they are concerned that the housing market may collapse without their assistance and 30-year fixed rate mortgage might rise to 6-1/4%. Not to mention staggering real unemployment, which stands at 22.5%.

December Challenger job cuts were at the lowest level in two years. Employers announced 45,094-planned job cuts in December, the fewest since 12/07. That was a 73% decline year-on-year.

Monster Worldwide’s barometer of online employment said its index fell to 115 in December from 119 in November, the lowest in five months.

Incidentally, there are now more government employees than goods-producing workers in the US.

For the week of January 6th, commercial paper fell by $94.2 billion to $1,076 trillion, which is substantial.

We find it of great interest that Timmy, the dwarf, Geithner, removed the bailout limitations on Fannie and Freddie on Christmas Eve, when no one was around to see the news on the major media. This is what you could expect from a habitual tax cheat and a crook.

Worse yet, as head of the NY Fed he pressured AIG to violate SEC laws by instructing them to withhold from the public details of a $200 billion taxpayer bailout of AIG. We paid these bankers 100% on the dollar for worthless paper. The dwarf should be thrown out of his job immediately and be tried for tax fraud.

In case you missed it, Barney Frank found Geithner and the Fed’s actions troubling. This proves again Washington is a criminal enterprise and a den of thieves. Where does it end? We will tell you if we can’t clear out Congress we are doomed.