Monday, June 29, 2009

State Budget Woes Are Poised to Get Worse

The Wall Street Journal - State budgets look bad now, but they are set to get worse.

The bulk of funds from the federal government's stimulus package will be allocated by 2011, but tax collections aren't likely to be enough to take their place -- even if the economy is recovering.

The drop in tax revenue is set to be deeper and last longer as collections have become more sensitive to business cycles in recent years. At the same time, states face growing health-care costs and the need to replenish pension programs funded by decimated investments. And some of the stimulus funds expand programs that will require state money to sustain them after the federal largesse runs out.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Credit Relief May Not Last Long

The New York Times - The experience of being choked to death can concentrate a person’s attention. When the chokehold is removed, a feeling of relief, perhaps even of exhilaration, is to be expected.allowing a person to breathe may not be enough to restore him to health.

In that regard, 2009 is starting to feel a little like 1980.

Then, as in recent months, a sudden credit contraction choked off economic activity. When the credit squeeze eased, a sense of relief spread. Within a few months, consumer confidence leaped amid expectations that both employment and business conditions would soon improve.

The improvement came, but it did not last long.

When the current credit crisis was at its worst, even financially solid companies could not get short-term financing. Banks did not trust one another, and trade financing dried up. One result was a collapse in inventories, as imports sagged even more than final demand.

Now, thanks to government financing of debts as diverse as mortgages and commercial paper, credit is more readily available. That should provide a lift to orders and at least a temporary boost for countries, including China and Germany, that rely on export markets

Preparing to Sell E-Books, Google Takes on Amazon

The New York Times - Google appears to be throwing down the gauntlet in the e-book market.

In discussions with publishers at the annual BookExpo convention in New York over the weekend, Google signaled its intent to introduce a program by that would enable publishers to sell digital versions of their newest books direct to consumers through Google. The move would pit Google against, which is seeking to control the e-book market with the versions it sells for its Kindle reading device.

Google’s move is likely to be welcomed by publishers who have expressed concerns about Amazon’s aggressive pricing strategy for e-books. Amazon offers Kindle editions of most new best sellers for $9.99, far less than the typical $26 at which publishers sell new hardcovers. In early discussions, Google has said it will allow publishers to set consumer prices.

Google’s e-book retail program would be separate from the company’s settlement with authors and publishers over its book-scanning project, under which Google has scanned more than seven million volumes from several university libraries. A majority of those books are out of print

Low Mortgage Rates Are Going, Going…

The Wall Street Journal - If you're looking for a new 30-year mortgage, last week's events from the financial markets carry a very simple message: Get 'em cheap while you still can.

Rates on conforming 30-year loans jumped dramatically in just a few days, ending the week at an average of 5.27% according to That's still OK by historic standards, but it's a jump from the levels seen just a few weeks ago, when you could get loans at 4.75% or below.

The underlying cause isn't hard to find. Rising government debts, and burgeoning hopes of an economic recovery, are pushing up long-term interest rates on government debt. The yield on the 10-Year Treasury, which was barely 2% near the end of last year, surged to 3.67% late last week before settling back slightly. And that, in turn, pushes up rates on other long-term loans.

What does this mean for you?

This surge in mortgage rates, if it continues, is ominous news all around. It's bad for those trying to refinance an existing mortgage, those looking to buy a new home, and those looking to sell their home. It may also be bad for the stock market, and maybe even for the dollar, too. More on that later.
For those trying to refinance: If you hadn't locked in the rate already, you are probably out of luck. You may be stuck with higher rates.

Ironically, if you were stuck crawling through the refi process when the rates jumped, you may be a victim of new mortgage rules. These were introduced in the last year to prevent another subprime scandal. They have slowed down the loan approval process and have discouraged most lenders from offering rate locks until other steps have been completed. "Lenders are not locking in borrowers' rates until the (home) appraisals are in," says Paul Sapienza, broker at Drew Mortgage in Boston. Until last year you could lock in a rate while you refinanced, or even looked for a new home. "That's over," Mr Sapienza says.

For those looking to buy a new home: Be aware this rate hike -- to 5.25%, from 4.75% recently -- can add quite a bit to your expenses. It will cost an extra $50 a month for someone buying a typical $200,000 residence with an 80% loan.

Dollar's Woes Not Over

The Wall Street Journal - After three months of losses for the U.S. dollar against the euro, what's one more week?

Traders say the dollar, which fell to its lowest level this year on Friday, is likely to continue to trend lower this week as investors sift through a number of key data reports, as well as news from the European Central Bank policy meeting, and react to another round of Federal Reserve Treasury purchases.

The bond purchases may be the key to the dollar's performance in the first part of the week, as they could drive down yields, particularly as the Treasury won't have any note sales this week.

With market rates falling, inflation fears will come to the fore again.

Not that the dollar's chances for a bounce are nil.

"The dollar-positive scenario comes if the Fed allows a bond market selloff to undermine housing," said John Normand, a foreign-exchange analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase. "But officials are unlikely to take this gamble so early in the recovery."

Ultimately, the most vulnerable currency in the near term is the one that is most exposed to quantitative easing.

Given the Fed's commitments on asset purchases, the dollar fits the bill, which will give the euro room to advance after hitting $1.4168 Friday, a level unseen since December

Fed Mortgage Efforts Prove Costly

The Wall Street Journal - The U.S. Federal Reserve's program to keep mortgage rates low by buying securities and Treasury bonds so far has been costly and seems to be having a fleeting impact.

An analysis of the timing of the Fed's purchases of mortgage-backed securities by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. shows the Fed is "under water" on its portfolio by about 10%, and it would have to take about $5 billion in losses if it were to mark its portfolio to the market.
Since last autumn, the Fed has purchased more than $480 billion, out of an allowance of $1.25 trillion, in mortgage-backed securities and more than $130 billion, of $300 billion, in Treasury bonds to help keep mortgage rates low. Keeping rates low lets people refinance their mortgages to reduce payments and stay in their homes. It also encourages them to consider snapping up bargains in the still-ailing housing market. Many analysts believe the Fed plans to hold these securities until they mature in 10 years or so, with no plans to sell them into the market, so the losses will probably never be realized.

The central bank owns the majority of securities sold in 2009, with interest payments of 4%, 4.5% and 5%, according to J.P. Morgan's research. As interest rates rise, the value of these securities falls because new bonds are backed with higher-interest mortgage loans and thus pay higher coupons.

The Fed has spent about $2,500 per borrower, by J.P. Morgan's analysis -- more than it costs a typical mortgage borrower to refinance their debt. Higher fees and adjustments based on a borrower's credit score or home's value have been an impediment to borrowers looking to refinance a mortgage, damping the refinancing wave the Fed hoped for, analysts say


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