Exactly who is singing, now? Mack, approaching exit from Morgan Stanley, and Bernanke assert the worst is over admidst new reports that credit-card industry abetted bankruptcy abuse

September 18th, 2009 by Mike Hinshaw

Fibs, lies, and statistics: the old saw popularized by Mark Twain, and said to trace to Disraeli, is certainly a jumping-off point for recent news and discussions.

Case in point–are we turning around the financial crisis? Or not?

Recapping a Reuters Television appearance today of the outgoing Morgan Stanley John Mack, CNBC posted the headline, “Worst Over for World Economy: Morgan Stanley CEO.” And here’s a Sept. 15 clip of Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke saying he thinks the recession “has very likely” bottomed out. More optimism is borne out in the equities market, with one CNBC account mentioning “the meteoric run-up” of the current stock rally while a CNN piece says “Stocks flirt with new highs.”

But more headlines today paint a darker picture for folks needing jobs, with Bloomberg’s saying two states hit record levels of unemployment, CNBC’s saying three hit record levels and CNN’s take that five states breached the 12 per cent mark.

Bloomberg says: “Unemployment rose in 27 U.S. states in August, with California and Nevada reaching record levels of joblessness.

“Rhode Island rounded out the list of states with the highest level of unemployment since data began in 1976, the Labor Department reported today in Washington.

“California’s unemployment rate reached 12.2 percent and Nevada’s climbed to 13.2 percent.”

Despite their differing headlines, the CNBC report pretty much agrees with the Bloomberg view, adding that overall the rate “. . . rose from July in 27 states and the District of Columbia, declined in 16 states and was unchanged in seven others, according to the Labor Department.” CNN agreed with CNBC about the record levels in three states, chipped in that five states “posted jobless rates above 12% in August,” and summarized the states with best unemployment news: “North Dakota posted the lowest jobless rate in August, at 4.3%. It was followed by South Dakota, at 4.9%; Nebraska, with 5%; Utah, at 6%, and Virginia, at 6.5%.”

CNN also included an explanation by way of an econmist at Wachovia. “The losses tend to be heavy in states that have a high concentration of manufacturing jobs or were hit hard by the housing bust,” said Mark Vitner, economist at Wachovia. “The states with the lowest rates tend to have fewer metropolitan areas,” . . . Vitner said.

“When you consider how a city like Las Vegas dominates Nevada’s economy, you can see how that weakness could devastate a state.”

So all that kinda makes sense. To be fair, when Bernanke told the Brookings Institution, “From a technical perspective, the recession is very likely over at this point,” he also cautioned that new economic growth will not keep unemployment from rising.

And when Mack said in Russia that “The good news is that I believe the economic fear, the crisis is over,” he also was paraphrased by CNBC as saying “the capital markets [are] open and all asset classes now [have] liquid markets except for securities backed by commercial real estate assets and residential mortgage-backed securities.”

It does seem a little odd that lack of liquidity for the latter two asset groups is not so much a problem, given the blame laid directly on the hearths of millions of troubled households that got swept up into dizzying arrays of securitized “tranches.” But I suppose they’re both saying Our Fat Lady of  the Crisis has sung, so now we wait and wade through the aftermath of the lag-effect and hope that our clients and bosses and contractors start hiring again.

What I still don’t get is the myriad views of how we got here and why U.S. consumers don’t have some legal whiz cueing up for a class-action lawsuit to the tune of Big Tobacco Got Slammed–Why Can’t We do Some Slamming, Too?.

For example, I read “The Failure of Bankruptcy Reform” in a Sept. 15 “Business” post at The Atlantic and wonder how on Earth the U.S. screwball Senate gets away with refusing to go along with the move to fix the Bankruptcy reform act of 2005.

As  Mike Konczal writes: “The goals of the controversial 2005 Bankruptcy Reform were to both lower the number of those filing bankruptcy and also to increase the amount recovered post bankruptcy by forcing consumers into Chapter 13 bankruptcies. Seeing the latest data, it is clear that both of these goals have been failures–however the unique way in which they have failed is worth investigating.”

Part of the credit-card industry’s message was that w-a-a-y too many shiftless plebes were abusing the Bankruptcy Code by filing Chapter 7 petitions and thereby skipping merrily lah-de-dah into the guilt-free twilight for yet another round of consumer excess–oh, and, uh…also stiffing the erstwhile credit card companies who were simply doing their patriotic best to provide retail-level liquidity. How do we spell “moral hazard”?

As Bankruptcy Corner readers know, the number of recent Chapter 7 filings has astounded and confounded experts. But what I’m only now learning is the stated goals of the act may not have been the actual goals. (I know–dumbfounding, right?)

As Konczal explains, if the metrics were such that the credit-card industry were paying its lobbyists to reduce bankruptcy filings overall and to steer the remainder toward Chapter 13 filings, why then it’s pretty obvious that it’s been a dismal failure. In that light, he asks, “Since lobbying is costly, if you were the CEO of a credit card or financial company, would you have fired the team responsible for writing this bill for Congress?”

And the surprsing answer?

“Actually no,” writes Konczal, “you’d give that team a giant raise.”

Huh?

Well, it turns out that actual goal may have simply been to string out consumers, to put hurdles in the bankruptcy filing process.

Again, Konczal: “Many of the features of the bill–including ‘credit counseling’, raising filing fees, debt-relief agencies, etc.–are designed to raise the time barrier between financial distress and the act of filing a bankruptcy. And what happens during that time? The person in question is paying triggered high-interest rates on credit card loans.”

And where is Konczal coming up with these crazy notions? From Ronald J. Mann, an award-winning author, scholar and professor of law, who wrote a little essay back in 2006 called “Bankruptcy Reform and the ‘Sweat Box’ of Credit Card Debt,” which you can read here or here.

Now, just to be clear, Mann does not seem anti-credit card, at least not in a Dave Ramsey sort of way. Indeed, in Mann’s conclusion, he says straight up: “The credit card is perhaps the most important financial innovation of the twentieth century; it introduced substantial efficiencies in both payment and borrowing markets.”

However, that insight is immediately followed by this (numerals indicate his footnotes): “The credit card, however, is associated with increases in spending, borrowing, and financial distress.117 It is not clear why that is the case, although academics have suggested it may be due to cognitive impairments, compulsive behavior, unfair advertising, or fraudulent contracting practices. Reform-minded governments around the world currently are struggling with how to respond to the problems with credit cards without undermining the efficiency of payment and lending markets.119″ Some responses focus on the payment functionality. Because credit cards might encourage consumers to spend too much, and perhaps more than they can repay out of monthly incomes, credit card use can lead to unplanned debt.”

A few lines following he writes, “Because the credit card is so easy to use (that is, the transaction costs of credit card lending are so low), borrowers underestimate the risks associated with future revenue streams. The response is to intervene in the market for consumer lending or adjust the types of relief available in bankruptcy.121

Although policymakers around the world are loosening the rigor of their consumer bankruptcy systems—in large part due to the introduction of American-style consumer credit—the legislative desire to protect the credit card’s unique place in the U.S. economy was one of the most important motivations for the bankruptcy reform statute. Oddly enough, the credit card industry successfully convinced bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate that there were serious deficiencies in the American bankruptcy system within which the card has had its phenomenal success. Thus, the central idea behind the ‘fresh start’—the complete liquidation of all debts—has shifted towards a presumption in favor of repayment.”

Now here’s Konczal’s take on the Mann essay: “I’ve written about how the extremely high interest rates can’t be justified on financial engineering risk-measurement quantifications, and are more likely either a way to force consumers to pay off their loans immediately or soak them for what they are worth. Mann runs a quick number experiment (p. 18): Picture a distressed consumer with $2,000 in a credit card. If the cost of funds is 3%/year, interest is 18% for the first 3 months, 24% next three months, and 30% onward, minimum monthly payment is 2%, 2%+$50, and 2.5%+$50, for those time periods, and the borrower has a $40 fee every other month for whatever reason starting in the seventh month. Typical right? If the consumer pays this off for 2 years, the balance on the credit card is still $1,270, but if you look at the economic total (from the cost of capital) the loan has been paid off with $6 to spare. I replicate this in a google spreadsheet here.

“This is why keeping consumers paying off high fees and high interest for an extra year or two can be so profitable, and why it is worth all the lobbyist money even though the stated goals got lost in the shuffle somewhere. Stringing consumers along for another 2 years+ is a great business improvement, even if it doesn’t change a single other thing under equilibrium. And sure enough, it looks like the two years it has taken to get back to the previous numbers is reflective of this newfound, incredibly profitable, lag.”

In our various explorations concerning how we got in this mess, we’ ve learned that mortgage companies have plenty to answer for, especially why they seem so balky-mule resistant to renegotiating outrageous loan terms when–yet the mortgage industry is rabidly opposed to new legislation that would allow bankruptcy judges to modify loans for primary residences. Now we see that the credit-card industry may also be using the new bankruptcy act to soak its least fiscally able customers.

If Our Fat Lady of the Crisis has finished her aria, when do we get to hear the Phat Lady warming up?

[Editor's Note: Next installment of Mike Hinshaw's coverage will return to Adam Levitin's work, first posted here, expounded upon here and revisited here.]

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