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Friday, November 28, 2008

This Is A “Fill In The Blanks” Financial Crisis. Now It’s Time To Fill In Your Blanks.

The Great BailoutIn the following article, we invite you to just fill in the blanks where you see parentheses. Fill in each blank with any old Bank and see what you get:

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Banks Have Their Backs Covered. Who’s Got Yours?

On [just pick a date], the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the US President, and Congress agreed to give [Big Name Bank] 300 [Billions or Trillions, take your pick] Dollars in tax payer money, so [Big Name Bank] could buy [Bank About to Fail] for 1 Billion. For those who didn’t know, [Bank About to Fail], one of Wall Streets largest and best known investment bank was bankrupt. [Bank About to Fail] owed more debt than it had in value. Sounds familiar. Kinda' sounds like many people in Foreclosure. Actually, it also sounds like many homeowners not in foreclosure, who have a mortgage loan greater than the value of their home. Just like many ordinary people who have more debt than cash. But I digress. [Bank About to Fail] was in financial trouble because they were worth nothing on paper. So we heard in the news “[Bank About to Fail] must be saved.” Why? “Because if [Bank About to Fail] went under than the whole financial system could have fallen apart. “COULD HAVE”. The stock market “would have” plunged. Big investors “would have” lost lot’s of money. There “would have” been a world crises.

Now let’s think about their bailout logic, one more time. This is my take:

First: [Bank About to Fail] was about to file for bankruptcy because…THEY WERE REALLY BANKRUPT!!.

Second: The Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the US President, and Congress determined that if [Bank About to Fail] does fail we will have a World Wide Financial Crises.

Third: The Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the US President, and Congress “saves the day” by essentially GIVING [Big Name Bank] [Billions or Trillions, take your pick] of DOLLARS OF TAXPAYER MONEY so [Big Name Bank] could buy [Bank about to Fail] for 1 BILLION.

Fourth: The Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the US President, Congress, [Big Name Bank], [Bank About to Fail] and All the Kings Men shake hands, hug, pat each other on the back, exclaim “JOB WELL DONE” b/c the WORLD DID NOT DESCEND INTO FINANCIAL CHAOS.

Do you see what just happened? What does it mean?

No# 1 : There are certain people and businesses TOO IMPORTANT to let go Bankrupt even WHEN BANKRUPT.

No# 2 : The Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the US President, and Congress DO NOT NEED YOUR PERMISSION to give taxpayer money away to a BANKRUPT BUSINESS.

No# 3 : The Threat of a World Wide Financial Crises is a REALLY GOOD EXCUSE.

No# 4 : It doesn’t take a genius to figure out WHO GOT ALL THE MONEY.

No# 5 : The employees of [Bank about to Fail], who saw the value of their IRA’s or pensions drop because their [Bank about to Fail’s] stock tanked, WATCHED their MONEY they PAY IN TAXES given to…Well let’s say it WAS not given to them to SAVE THEIR IRA’s or PENSIONS.

Truth be told, it is entirely possible that had [Bank about to Fail] actually failed, there would have been a financial crises. It is equally true that if [Bank about to Fail] actually failed, there would NOT have been a financial crises. As is everything in life that could have been, WE WILL NEVER KNOW.

So the rules are made and when things get BAD there is only one Sheriff in town and that Sheriff has friends to protect.

This is history repeating itself over and over. DO FOR YOUR FRIENDS AS YOU WOULD DO FOR YOURSELF. There are those who claim that the bail out of [Bank about to Fail] created a “moral hazard” because [EVERY SINGLE BANK] will take even more risks and ask for even more bailouts because the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the US President, and Congress will cover their behind.

And cover their behind they have. For the first time in history, the Federal Reserve allowed Wall Street Investment banks to borrow money from the Fed at a discount (window). For the first time in history, investment banks can become commercial banks. For the first time in history, the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the US President, and Congress can hand out TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS of YOUR MONEY without telling YOU where it is going.

It doesn’t end there, the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, the US President, and Congress gave [Big Name Banks] Treasury Bills (your money) in exchange for [Big Name Banks] worthless collateralized paper. YOUR MONEY FOR BAD PAPER. The paper that consists of collateral debt obligations, sub-prime mortgage backed securities, alt-a mortgage backed securities, credit card backed securities, auto loan backed securities…and the BAD PAPER list goes on and on and on…..

It all boils down to one thing. When it all hits the fan, the BIG NAME BANKS’ Peoples get together, handle their business and do what is necessary to keep their stuff together.

The question for you is “Will Your Peoples Come together, When it starts to get BAD”. It’s time to fill in your blanks.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Convenience of a Check Card and a Loan Shark All Rolled Into One

loan sharkPerhaps this has happened to you. You go to buy something at the store. It's been a busy week, so you haven't been watching your bank balance as closely as you should. The cashier rings you up. You swipe your check card and the cashier says, “It didn't go through. Do you have another card?” What happened? A check card draws money from your checking account, so your balance must have dipped too low to pay for your purchases. It happens.

Well... not anymore, it doesn't.

I switched my checking account to Bank of America a few years ago when I refinanced my adjustable rate mortgage into a home equity line. Back then, my credit was solid and it seemed like it would be easier to have my checking account within easy reach of my second mortgage and my Bank of America credit card. And like my other bank, Bank of America sent me a check card so I could make purchases with the ease of a credit card, minus all those pesky finance charges.

The first time I received an overdraft fee, I didn't think much about it. When you buy gas, the charge doesn't always show up right away and if you forget to keep track of your pending charges, sooner or later you're going to overdraw the account, especially if you're living paycheck to paycheck. The fee was hefty, but it was a small price to pay to make sure my charges were covered. Bank of America would have commended me for my attitude.

Then things started getting tight between paychecks, with more and more checks and charges floating around, and I started getting negative balance numbers that looked strangely plump. I thought maybe someone over the internet had stolen my account number, but the charges were all mine. In fact, I'd made several of them that same day. Twenty dollars here, six dollars there, twelve dollars somewhere else... and even though the balance must have been precariously low when I made the first of the three transactions, I was sure that the other transactions should have been declined. Furthermore, the fact that those two had gone through after the account dipped below zero meant that Bank of America had assessed another $70 in overdraft fees.

If I went to an ATM and tried to withdraw the same amount of money, Bank of America would have checked the balance and said, No dice. If I used my check card, on the other hand, it would authorize the charge regardless of whether or not I had money in my checking account. What mad, tortured logic was this? I could understand having to pay a fee when one too many floating charges collided because I hadn't been keeping a balanced checkbook. What I couldn't understand was how transactions kept getting approved after my account dipped below zero. It didn't make any sense.

My first credit card was a Capital One gold card, offered to me when I was still in high school. It had a $2000 dollar limit back then, and I can remember the exact moment that I reached that limit because the cashier handed it back to me and said, “It was declined, sir.” I'd gone over the limit and couldn't use the card any more. There was an over-the-limit fee and everything. I don't recall how far I'd gone over the limit, but it didn't take more than a single payment to get me back to $2000. One thing I remember very clearly was calling to ask Capital One whether I would be assessed another fee if the finance charges pushed the balance back over the limit. The customer service rep told me, “No, as long as you don't make any charges while you're over the limit, there won't be any more over-the-limit fees.”

It seemed logical to me. If I was to be penalized for using the card when my available balance was too low, that was fair, but if the credit card company could stack fees on top of each other until I got another over-the-limit fee, that was ridiculous. What Bank of America was doing with my check card charges seemed equally ridiculous.

In a single month, Bank of America charged me $350 in overdraft fees, spread out over ten separate charges. Many of these charges should have been declined in the first place, but I was noticing something else. Bank of America had an ugly habit of clearing charges in order from largest to smallest, often draining the account with the first charge and causing multiple overdrafts when clearing them in order would have overdrawn on only the largest transaction. This policy was the source of class action lawsuit against Nationsbank, which became Bank of America, that was settled in 1999. Since then, they've been informing new account-holders of the policy per the settlement agreement, but I don't recall being told about the policy by the manager who set up my account. I'm sure it's in the stack of papers he gave me to sign, or in the folder full of pamphlets I didn't have time to read after the account was processed.

The check clearing policy, however underhanded, is now an industry standard. Most banks will clear your largest checks first, claiming that this is “for your own good.” You want your mortgage payment to go through, don't you? What they don't say is that the three or four smaller transactions after the mortgage payment will go through as well, to the tune of $140.

From the Bank of America website:

Though the Bank of America Visa Check Card is accepted nearly anywhere VISA Cards are accepted, it's not a Credit Card and it's not tied to a line of credit.


Fair enough, but if it's not really a credit card, why do so many transactions go through after you overdraw your account, sometimes days after your account has fallen to a negative balance?

Bank of America explains their methodology:

We charge an overdraft fee when we pay a check or other withdrawal even though you don't have enough available funds in your account to cover these transactions.

In some circumstances, Bank of America may choose not to pay the check or other withdrawal. In this case, we will return it to the payee as unpaid, and may charge an Insufficient Funds Fee.


So, if they decide to pay the charge that should have been declined, they assess a fee. If they decide not to pay the charge, they also assess a fee. That's a pretty profitable arrangement. How exactly do they decide whether or not to pay a fee? Is it even possible to drop so far into negative numbers that your check card will be declined?

A few months ago, I found out the limits of Bank of America's largess when a series of overdrafts and the accompanying fees brought my account balance hundreds of dollars into the negatives. Knowing that the paycheck that would be direct deposited would be eaten up by the negative balance, I had no choice but to keep using the card to buy food and gas, each time watching yet another $35 fee join the transaction. $50 in gas? Let's just call it gas and a short term loan. A $35 fee for every purchase would be criminal if it was actually a finance charge, something akin to what a loan shark might charge, but I didn't have any choice if I wanted to gas up my car to go to work.

It seemed like they were willing to pay on anything as long as they could attach another overdraft fee, so I took one final look at my balance, $-643 and change, and I paid my electric bill. To my astonishment, the transaction was actually approved. I really hadn't expected it to work. A few days later, Bank of America changed its mind about this act of extreme generosity and canceled payment, charging me both the original overdraft charge, as well as the returned item fee.

Remember that thing I mentioned about their “biggest items first” policy, and how it was for my own good? I didn't use the card any more after that, but I forgot about a monthly membership charge that automatically debits the checking account in the amount of $9.96. That charge went through AFTER they declined to pay the debit to the electric company, and it was approved and paid, with the standard $35 overdraft fee tacked on, of course.

The policy of letting transactions go through even after an account's available balance reads $0.00 has become standard in the industry, and it's not even limited to check cards any more. My wife used a SunTrust debit card to buy about $50 worth of groceries last night, entered the PIN number at the Publix register, received approval and went home thinking that the charge was covered by money in the account, only to find a negative balance in the morning and a returned check fee.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Fed's Plan for Dealing with The Mortgage Problem

The Federal Reserve has released it's plan on how to tackle the problems in the American mortgage industry. Here's how I feel about certain bullet points from the Fed's press release:

  • Creditors would be prohibited from engaging in a pattern or practice of extending credit without considering borrowers’ ability to repay the loan.

  • Creditors would be required to verify the income and assets they rely upon in making a loan.

It's a real shame that Alt-A mortgages were abused. I was hoping this financing option would be available to me when I'm ready to buy, since I am self-employed and have undulating income. The way it looks now, ALT-A loans may eventually disappear from the market forever.

FYI: With stated income mortgages, you provide the lender with your social security number so that they can check your credit score, but the lender doesn't require hard proof of income, like a 2 years of tax returns or payment stubs. A stated income home loan is a type of Alt-A mortgage.

  • Prepayment penalties would only be permitted if certain conditions are met, including the condition that no penalty will apply for at least sixty days before any possible payment increase.

Weak! The Fed should simply ban all mortgage prepayment penalties and be done with them. This is one (of many) reason why I like credit unions much more than banks: a federally chartered credit union cannot charge prepayment penalties, ever. The Federal Credit Union Act of 1934 prohibits federally chartered credit unions from assessing prepayment penalties of any type on any loan.

A credit union is a financial institution that's owned by its members. When compared to credit unions, banks tend to offer more services, and they tend approve loans and credit card applications more readily. But credit unions almost always have better interest rates on loans, better yields on savings and certificates of deposit, and reasonable fee schedules. Also, with credit unions, the terms and conditions attached to loans and credit cards are invariably more consumer-friendly.

I like the idea of benefiting from both worlds: I keep my savings in a credit union, and my business checking account with a large bank.

  • Lenders would be prohibited from compensating mortgage brokers by making payments known as “yield-spread premiums” unless the broker previously entered into a written agreement with the consumer disclosing the broker’s total compensation and other facts. A yield spread premium is the fee paid by a lender to a broker for higher-rate loans. The consumer’s written agreement with the broker must occur before the consumer applies for the loan or pays any fees.
This will definitely help. During the height of the mortgage origination frenzy, mortgage brokers would target subprime borrowers with loans that would likely go into foreclosure, so as to make big money with premium spreads.

  • Creditors and mortgage brokers would be prohibited from coercing a real estate appraiser to misstate a home’s value
Fraudulent appraisals were a big part of the problem, and lots of guilty appraisers won't be prosecuted due to lack of evidence. This proposed rule would certainly help to keep appraisers honest.

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