Friday, September 26, 2008

Class Warfare: Who Gets the Bailout?

The rich and the middle class and the poor are not friends; they are enemies. (To the rich, everybody else is the poor, by the way.) The rich do not care about the fate of the poor. Soaking the poor, grinding the poor down into greater poverty, is the time-honored method of getting rich. But there are consequences to such indifferent venality, as the aristocrats guillotined during the French Revolution may have realized.

The recent real estate bubble was a direct consequence of investors fleeing the uncertain stock market after 9/11 for a safer venue. Land always exists, after all. But the sudden fashion for investing in real estate and the availability of this new investment money created pressure to use the money creatively. And that embroiled too many ordinary citizens in what amounted to a giant Ponzi scheme. Yes, as with any scam, the mark has to agree knowingly to some kind of cheat. And people did, signing up for mortgage payments they knew they could not afford. The scam they thought they were running was to dip into increasing equity in their new homes as the market continued to rise crazily. Meanwhile, the biggest investment companies were selling each other a different scam, consisting of complicated bets on whether this would happen. Swaps of risks, at high earnings. When the bubble burst, everybody had to lose.

That of course is the reason that people are saying no bailout at the top of the financial pyramid will work unless there is a bailout at the bottom. If foreclosures continue, the value of the complex securities bolstering the big financials will continue to drop because no one knows what they are worth in today’s market. If foreclosures stop, the market will stabilize.

My own personal suggestion is that every mortgage in or nearing foreclosure should be renegotiated to a 50- or 60-year term. Anything to get the monthly bite down to what is affordable. It’s not as if the length of a mortgage really matters, since 80% of people sell their houses long before they pay off their mortgages. (The total dollar indebtedness hardly matters, either, since in a stable housing market, prices normally rise. Thus even a house that has lost 25% of its value in today’s market will eventually regain that value.)

What is important is that we provide a way for ordinary people to stay in their houses, living from paycheck to paycheck as usual. The middle class must be able to keep up with their payments. All their payments, including home equity loans and credit card bills. The US economy depends on the pressured middle class to keep paying and paying, at high rates of interest. It’s not an ideal economy, but as long as people don’t go too far into debt, it works.

What the housing catastrophe has proved is just how devastating a significant middle class loss can be to the highest levels of the economy. Increasingly in the past several decades, anti-regulatory laws have enabled the rich to make amazing financial gains at the expense of the middle class. The rich have brushed off concerns about the financial burdens of the poor (remember, that’s how they think of the middle class). Now the rich are hurting because their own investments are tied up in the companies that are foundering. And these companies are foundering directly because of the foreclosure crisis affecting our middle class. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe the rich are not so immune from consequences after all. And maybe we don’t have to guillotine them to punish them for their vicious greed. They can take the fall that the rest of us are taking.

So count me as anti-bailout unless the rest of us get a bailout, too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Lesson in Pricing

Wall Street is a mess right now. The biggest, oldest investment banks in America are tumbling like dominoes. The world’s largest insurance company is in deep trouble. And looking at your 401(k) at this moment is an act of self-torture.

The New York Times had a very interesting article describing this entire situation, “On Wall Street as on Main Street, a Problem of Denial,” by Joe Nocera. I’m intrigued by the idea that these big institutions have been in the same denial as individual homeowners, thinking their property is worth more than it is. Market determines worth. It’s a hard lesson right now for some people.

Yet only a few years ago, we sold our house for a fabulous profit because of the rising market. Not because our house had suddenly become wonderful. It was an ordinary home with no architectural distinction, and it had some flaws. But suddenly, in that crazy rising market, it was worth twice what we had paid for it 15 years before. Did we object to the absurdity of that high dollar amount? Of course not. We took the money.

Right now another modest suburban home is for sale a couple of doors down from my relatives. It is priced to sell, as the phrase goes, but there have been no takers. Even though the price has been lowered several times, the house is lingering on the market as so many houses are across the country. But it should be noted that the price they started with was way, way beyond what that level of house was valued at only a few years ago. It’s a fair price for the market that no longer exists. Until the price is reduced to meet the market as it exists now, the house isn’t going to sell. Even though they have dropped the price more than $60,000, that impressive dollar figure is only a reduction of 15% in price. We expect 15% and more off when an item is on sale in a store. Why not expect a house to be similarly discounted? This house still has not been reduced to the price level of what those houses were worth five to eight years ago. Depending on how far the market has fallen, the owners may still be out of luck even though they aren’t in denial. But as long as they have owned that house throughout this entire bubble, they haven’t lost any money; they’ve simply lost expected profit.

According to the Times article, the big investment firms have been and may still be in denial. They aren’t longtime owners of specific dollars the way a homeowner can be the longtime owner of a property; their money gets shifted around constantly. So they are looking at real losses. Except that the values they have assigned to their now tumbling assets have always been arbitrary. And right now, retaining the old pricing is a form of denial. They simply haven’t been willing to admit that they need to discount until the stated price of their holdings reaches the current market value. Because they’re talking in billions of dollars, we ordinary mortals find it hard to grasp that the percentage is the issue here, not the dollar figure. But the house near my relatives tells the true story.

Who knew that these big companies could get as silly and stubborn as we individual homeowners? It’s a lesson in scale. Also in pricing.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Financial Instability Sucks

Recently someone chastised me for talking negatively about my financial situation. The person cited how good it is compared to that of other people. That got me to thinking about why I was carrying on so.

These are scary times for our economy. People keep losing good jobs, and never finding good ones again. Whole categories of work have gone from our shores forever. Age discrimination is real, and so is degree creep, both of which are helping to keep me and many other people out of employment. Not to mention other forms of bias. I have hit the wall on serious employment, like many people whose employers have been merged, shut down, and downsized (I’ve experienced all three). My employment resume is too old and too cold for a regular job. And my freelance work is too odd and unusual (romances? personal finance? comic books?) to be attractive to a conventional employer. Plus I live way out in the boondocks where there aren’t many good jobs anyway. In fact, I feel pretty darn sorry for myself. Sure, I can change where I live, and I can go back to school again, but these efforts are expensive and they might not be enough in today’s tough employment scene. I’ve been a freelancer for many years, but so far have never made big bucks at it. The fact that I make any money at all as a freelance writer puts me miles ahead of many other writers I know, but that is cold comfort when I’m feeling worried.

Still, ten years ago, my life really sucked. Bad things were happening, and I owed enormous amounts of money. It was a terrible time. But why am I so down in the mouth right now? All of those ills are over. Our income is higher. I only owe one credit card the price of paving the driveway, and that can be paid off at any time because we have savings. Everybody is healthy and happy. What’s the problem? Is having that one credit card bill enough to send me into a funk? Is that how fragile I feel?

And why do I feel fragile? Because I feel helpless.


If these were good times for employment, I could solve a real money problem or even an imaginary one by getting an additional job. But they aren’t good times, and with gas prices so high, the cost of the easily-come-by bad job in a discount store is too close to the net pay. So it won’t solve my problem whether my financial issue is real or imaginary. The next few years may prove that all my fears are for naught, but I don’t know that now, do I? And it makes me fretful and even whiny. And that’s how I feel based only on worrying. Imagine how bad people feel who have something concrete to worry about, such as high credit card bills, college loans, impossible mortgage payments, declining health, and more. No wonder these are negative times in our country. People are stressed and the result is a “the glass is half-empty” attitude. When actually, my glass is half-full, and probably yours is, too.

I don’t know the answer to turning my attitude around, but counting my blessings is certainly a start. If you’re feeling down and out, maybe you should do the same. Because the truth is, things could be worse. We might as well try to enjoy today.