GDP good Recession news? Consumer strife data say no as bankruptcies rise along with unemployment and forclosures

October 30th, 2009 by Mike Hinshaw

We left the Phat Lady of the Turnaround headed back to her dressing room, not yet ready to sing the praises of the end of the Recession and the start of a shiny future.

In fact, foreign observers may have a better feel for the plight of the U.S. consumer than do many domestic pundits and measures that just don’t seem to get it.

For example, an Oct. 26 report from MarketWatch tells us, “A broad gauge of U.S. economic activity rose above the level that typifies recessions, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reported Monday.”

But here’s an account from Oct. 28…from Ireland, mind you, showing a better grasp of the situation:

“The US recession is expected to be declared over tomorrow but economists insist that it is still too early to start celebrating.

“When gross domestic product (GDP) estimates for the third quarter are released at 8.30am local time (12.30 Irish time), they are likely to report that the economy is growing again, ending one of the deepest slumps since the Great Depression.”

Of course, that report did not materialize, but even if it had,  imagine the bitter taste and hollow comfort “to the millions of people left unemployed or who have lost their homes as a result of prolonged economic downturn–especially as economists suggest that more jobs and houses are to go before real improvement is realised.”

And here’s this…from The Globe and Mail, in Canada: “Fresh figures due out Thursday are widely expected to show that the U.S. economy grew in the third quarter for the first time in more than a year – long-awaited confirmation that the recession is over and recovery has begun.”

But a few grafs down, here’s the kicker: “But temper the enthusiasm: The main driver of the economy – U.S. consumers – are still in a deep funk, relying heavily on temporary government incentives to get them to spend.”

At least the president seems to have a grasp.

As we know, the recession’s end was not announced Thursday, but still the AP reported, “Helped in large part by federal support for spending on cars and homes, the economy grew at an annual rate of 3.5 percent from July through September, the government said Thursday.”

Although Obama called the numbers “welcome news,” he also said, ” ‘The benchmark I use to measure the strength of our economy is not just whether our GDP is growing, but whether we are creating jobs, whether families are having an easier time paying their bills, whether our businesses are hiring and doing well.’ “

So, maybe the numbers are simply saying that the recession is over for the Big-Shoe Boys on Wall Street, where business continues as per usual?

Remember the teeth-grinding despair in certain circles when the gummint “turned its back” on Lehman Brothers while bailing out everybody else? Well, have a look at Kevin White, one of Lehman’s “architects” of the so-called “securitized” debt that helped create the Recession. In a Fortune report via CNNMoney.com, we learn that White was “head of the global structured finance syndicate at Lehman Brothers ([before being]  . . . promoted to a different job in 2006), [when he] created the kind of collateralized debt securities that fueled the financial bubble–and still bedevil many bank balance sheets.

“Now White runs a firm that’s doing a nice business in cleaning up the mess: Spring Hill Capital Partners specializes in buying, selling, deconstructing, and investing in structured finance products.”

And get this–he sounds proud of it: ” ‘The securitization process locked a lot of assets into mortgage-backed securities or CDOs,’ says White. ‘As the underlying collateral ran into trouble, the complexity of securitizations has paralyzed investors, lenders, and borrowers.

But we made a lot of these products, and we’re skilled at taking them apart, valuing them, and in some cases restructuring them.’ “

Kinda sounds like Stanford Kurland, who spent nearly 30 years at Countrywide before leaving in 2006, then subsequently starting PennyMac (along with a cadre of other Countrywide alumnae)–and to do what? Why, to specialize in distressed properties…

As might be expected Kurland puts distance between his role at Countrywide and its riskier business practices, as shown in this March 2008 account at MSNBC.com: “Kurland, who left Countrywide in late 2006, said he wasn’t to blame for problems faced by the company as a result of subprime loans made to people with shaky credit histories.

“ ‘My leaving Countrywide has a lot to do with having a different strategic view,’ Kurland said. ‘I have a reputation in the market that, unfortunately, is tainted by things that transpired after I was gone.’ ”

Not everybody bought into that, according to MSNBC:

“The irony was not lost on analysts.

“ ‘He won’t be the first or the last person trying to make money on both sides of a trade,’ said Frederick Cannon, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. who covers Countrywide [since absorbed by Bank of America].

“ ‘On the one hand you could make the case that he was (with) the company that made all these loans. On the other hand, what we need right now is to find some buyers for these assets,’ Cannon said. ‘Is it fair? Hard to say.’ ”

(CNBC has an interesting slide show here, a “where-are-they-are-now?” update on (in)famous figures from the financial crisis, including Countrywide founder Angelo Mozilo, who is fighting the SEC in a civil suit alleging fraud and “misleading investors.”)

By the way, it’s these guys who will “officially announce” the end of the recession; as you can see as of 10-30-09 (on the right-hand side of the page), the current recession has no end date, but merely a question mark. Meanwhile, as end-of-Recession talk buzzes, unemployment, foreclosures and filings for bankruptcy protection continue unabated.

This, from Oct. 28 The New York Times, “Unemployment is Higher Almost Everywhere”:

“Unemployment rates were higher in September than a year earlier in 371 of the 372 United States metropolitan areas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Not too long ago, the concern was that unemployment might blow past 10 per cent. In some areas, the new concern is it may breeze on 20 per cent. “The greatest increase in unemployment over the last year was in  Detroit-Warren-Livonia, Mich., where joblessness grew 8.4 percentage points to a total rate of 17.3 percent in September 2009. The second-greatest year-over-year increase was in  Muskegon-Norton Shores, Mich., where the rate rose 6.8 percentage points to 16 percent.”

And it gets worse: in a couple of areas, 20 per cent is in the rear-view mirror: “In September 2009, the overall highest metropolitan rates of unemployment (again, not seasonally adjusted) were in  El Centro, Calif., and  Yuma, Ariz., where rates touched 30.1 and 24.2 percent, respectively. These two areas, which both border Mexico, are highly agricultural.”

On the foreclosure front, perhaps the worst hardest-hit areas have bottomed out, but the damage seems to be spreading according to RealtyTrac data reported by American Banking News.” ‘Rising unemployment and a new variety of mortgage resets continue to gradually shift the nation’s foreclosure epicenters in the third quarter away from the hot spots of the last two years and toward some metro areas that had avoided the brunt of the first foreclosure wave,’ said James J. Saccacio, RealtyTrac’s CEO in the Metropolitan Foreclosure Market Report. “Per the report, filings for foreclosures rose five percent in the third quarter, and 23 percent over last year. This includes auctions, bank repossessions and defaults. Taking into account the unreported abandonment by homeowners of their houses by banks so they don’t have to include it as an accounting event, and the numbers are even more staggering, to say the least.”

Consumers seeking relief via bankruptcy petitions are filing in waves, unmatched since the rush to beat the “reform” deadline in 2005.

Google “personal bankruptcy news” and the results read like a fill-in-the-blank: numbers rising in _____________  (Massachussetts, ConnecticutGeorgia).

An Oct. 2 Wall Street Journal post sums it up simply as “Personal Bankruptcy Filings Soar”: “Consumer bankruptcies topped one million for the first nine months of this year, the highest point since the system was overhauled in 2005.

“The number of personal bankruptcy filings for the nine months rose to 1,046,449 as of Sept. 30, the American Bankruptcy Institute, an organization made up of attorneys, accountants and other bankruptcy professionals, said Friday, using data from the National Bankruptcy Research Center. There were 773,810 personal bankruptcy filings for the same time period in 2008.

“September’s filings reached 124,790, 41% higher than the same month last year.”

Looks like the Phat Lady of the Turnaround has even left the dressing room and headed home–if she still has one.

****************************

Bankruptcy protection offers a chance for a new start, as well as methods for protecting certain assets–and even improving one’s credit score over time. To asses the value of bankruptcy for your individual situation, you should seek counsel from a trained, experienced bankruptcy attorney.

Here’s some online resources:

U.S. bankruptcy court

Federal Trade Commission, consumer credit

Bankruptcy Corner, overview portal

Bankruptcy Corner, principles of bankruptcy