Monday, November 29, 2010

Pension Seizure Precedents

One of the problems with out of control government spending is the way it affects the behavior of government itself. Like any other junkie, the government convinces itself it needs "just one more" fix and will do anything to get it. Again like a junkie, the government will prostitute itself and steal from friends and family to keep the drug supply coming.

We see a glaring example of the later when governments simply grab private property in order to pay off their own debts. We have already seen the precedent for pensions being seized by government. Just last week in Hungary the government grabbed $14 billion in private assets. Over the weekend, the Irish government decided to take 15 billion Euros from the future pensions of its citizens to give to the banks. Now France is taking 36 billion Euros from the pension fund to keep its bloated and unsustainable welfare state afloat for just a little while longer.

People need to understand that the United States is not immune to the same financial pressures that caused Hungary, Ireland and France to take these desperate measures. If you are counting on a future pension from the state, you might wish to start making alternate plans. In most states, there is effectively zero chance that you will get everything promised - the state government pension funds are already over $1 trillion in the hole. The gap will only grow as additional obligations are incurred but little new money is available to meet them from the state budget side. It would be completely unsurprising if the more desperate and foolish states attempted to raid these pension funds to "invest" in more unemployment payouts or other attempts to fund general budget spending.

Of course we won't have that problem with Social Security since it is funded entirely by current taxes. Since no such pension fund exists, we don't have to worry about the government grabbing it. Of course that raises the question of which assets the will try to take since the same financial imperatives and the same junkie behavior are at work in Washington as in Budapest, Dublin and Paris. That said, we need to be vigilant for any sign that similar asset seizures are imminent here in the United States since the precedent has already been set. We have been warned by events across the pond.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Shadow Knows

Today's topic is Shadow Inventory - the foreclosed or soon to be foreclosed properties that banks are stuck with and which are not listed for sale. As a result, they are not found in any formal listing of housing inventory when existing home sales are reported. This has been a problem for a long time, as we mentioned many months ago in Household De-formation.

The media's silence on this issue has been almost total. Probably because any reasonable discussion of the topic would severely undermine the illusion of stability they are trying to project. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal took a stab at estimating the damage. Their conclusion is that it would take 107 MONTHS to clear the shadow inventory at current sales rates. Obviously not a number that the bankers and their apologists in government and media are anxious to publicize.

Over the summer, banks appeared to be making some headway. The government’s mortgage-modification program helped some people get current on their payments, taking their homes out of the foreclosure pipeline. At the same time, homebuyer tax credits helped boost sales. Combined real and shadow inventory fell to 91 months of sales in May.

Lately, though, a new wave of defaults appears to be coming in, in part related to the high rate of failures on government modifications. As of September, some 1.9 million homeowners had missed one payment on their mortgages, up 14% from March. Meanwhile, home sales have slowed sharply with the end of government stimulus.

The government "assistance" was never going to help many people, much less actually succeed on a large scale. However, it was helpful for the banks - aiding them in concealing the collapse of their collateral for another year or so (i.e. another Bonus Cycle).

But the good news is that we can expect the housing market to start to recover - in another eight or nine years.