The latest credit industry end-around? Sneaky ‘health-care’ credit cards, pitched by health providers right in their offices

September 16th, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

What’s next from the banksters and their credit operations…special cards for funeral costs? credit schemes for veterinary emergencies? Next to personal health issues, these are two of the next most-likely emotionally-charged situations in which to take advantage of someone who’s scared, in pain or in grief.

60-year-old ‘duped at the dentist’s office’

Following up on credit-card loopholes and abuses we discussed here and here, today we begin with the case of  Maxine Veach, in this excerpt from an Aug. 31 piece in The Washington Post:

The 60-year-old retired postal worker has dental insurance through Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and MetLife. Suffering from a sore jaw, she visited a dentist near her Syracuse, N.Y., home who told her she needed three crowns and three extractions. She gave the office information about her insurance so they could bill for the charges. But Veach decided to sign up for the health-care credit card offered by the practice to cover any amounts not paid for by her plan.

After getting her teeth cleaned and a set of X-rays taken, Veach was surprised to receive a bill from the credit card company for $2,300.

Veach made numerous attempts to sort out the overcharge and get the office to bill her insurers for the work that had been done, but eventually she called Cuomo’s office, which negotiated an $1,850 reduction in the amount owed. Now she’s looking for a new dentist.

“I was very upset with them,” she says. “I told them they had a nice little scam going on.”

Circumventing the CARD act

So, yeah, now we have health-care credit cards. Here’s what a blogger at CreditLoan.com has to say: “Health care credit cards are the newest invention of credit card issuers determined to circumvent the CARD Act. These credit cards are designed to help consumers pay for medical expenses not covered by their insurance (e.g. cosmetic procedures, dental, infertility treatments, weight loss treatment, veterinary services) but can also be used to pay for health insurance deductibles.

“However, not unlike the newer business credit cards and professional credit cards, health care credit cards offer none of the protections afforded by the CARD Act, in addition several other factors that pose a serious risk to consumer financial health . . . .”

Cuomo: ‘hundreds of complaints”

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has begun an investigation, says Bloomberg Businessweek, “after receiving hundreds of complaints from consumers who were convinced by doctors and dentists to sign up” for the deceptive programs.

“Investigators will look into financial incentives providers receive for promoting the cards that can leave patients struggling with overcharges and high interest rates, Cuomo said,” reports Businessweek.

In an Aug. 9 PR, Cuomo “announced the expansion of an industry-wide investigation into predatory health care lending where consumers, especially seniors and vulnerable patients, are misled about financing, causing them to be pushed into debt.

“An investigation by Attorney General Cuomo found that some health care providers use fast-talking sales pitches to pressure and deceive consumers into applying for health care credit cards such as Chase Health Advance, Citi Health, and GE Money’s CareCredit. The investigation also found that CareCredit pays kickbacks in the form of rebates to the providers based on how much business they charge consumers on CareCredit cards.

‘No interest’–yeah, right

“The investigation was based in part on hundreds of consumer complaints received by the Attorney General’s Office. Consumers reported that health care providers promised that the credit card had ‘no interest,’ when it often carried retroactive interest of over 25 percent if not paid in full during a promotional period. Consumers were also unknowingly charged up front for services they never received, and their attempts to obtain refunds were often thwarted or ignored. Meanwhile, the credit card companies typically paid the health care providers in full within 48 hours of the charge.”

Businessweek also quotes Cuomo’s recognition of the tie to filings for bankruptcy protection: ” ‘Health care debt is the number one cause of individual bankruptcy and this scheme is contributing to the economic burden being felt by consumers,’ Cuomo said.”

80-year-old declines credit, gets popped on credit report

Apparently, many folks who sign up do so under the impression that they’re agreeing to an extended-payment plan. Beyond the risks of retroactive interest on the full balance–regardless of any payments that have been made–consumers can also take a hickey on their credit report if they realize it’s not a payment plan and therefore cancel the contract. Says Businessweek, “Philip Palumbo, 80, of Rochester said he signed up for CareCredit to pay for an estimated $5,600 in dental work, not realizing he was agreeing to a credit card. After having the work done elsewhere, he continued to receive bills from CareCredit and wound up with a strike on his credit report.”

Get a real payment plan

An MSNBC article says a payment plan is exactly what consumers should be asking for:

Patient advocates are concerned that practitioners are taking advantage of patients’ trust at a time when they need help and may be in pain. “Some of the people we’ve worked with feel pressured to apply,” says Mark Rukavina, executive director of the Access Project, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps consumers solve medical-debt problems. “They need the services, and the provider is really encouraging them to use these medical credit cards.”

As health care costs continue to rise, more people are struggling to cover their medical bills. Using plastic may seem like a good—and sometimes the only—solution. According to a [2007] study by management consultants McKinsey & Co., credit cards accounted for less than 20 percent of consumers’ out-of-pocket medical spending in 2007, or $45 billion. However, with the “right” business models that make consumer-to-provider payments more efficient, the study predicted, credit card spending could more than triple, to $150 billion, by 2015.

There are better options than putting charges on a credit card, say patient advocates. The simplest: Ask for an extended payment plan.

Many providers will offer it and charge no interest, says Rukavina.

We gotta stay edumacated, folks. It’s pretty apparent the banksters have no shame–but roping health-care providers in to sell their squirmy products? Even if we could trust the lawmakers, they can’t write laws fast enough to stay ahead of the banksters’ “financial engineers.”

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The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”), bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13

Background and basics of a buzz word: ‘Plutonomy,’ Part One

August 31st, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

People considering, already in, or emerging from bankruptcy protection should have the best information possible in order to plan for their financial futures.

Economy, foreclosures, lending, medical costs

Accordingly, as closely as we can, we monitor stories and studies about bankruptcy itself, of course–but also these core subjects: economy and unemployment; foreclosures and housing starts; lending (mortgages and credit-card); and the health-care system (including medical bankruptcies).

Our latest three posts are as follows:

Origins of ‘Plutonomy’

Today we’ll look at a relatively new term: plutonomy,apparently first used by Citigroup analyst Ajay Kapur in a 2005 paper for clients. An October paper, also crediting two other Citigroup analysts, refers to a September paper but then expounds on the term, although somewhat scattered in and among pitches to potential clients. Some of the paper reads like working notes, but following are selected, crucial excerpts, with some of our own reformatting for clarity’s sake :

  • The World is dividing into two blocs–the Plutonomy and the rest. The U.S., U.K. and Canada are the key Plutonomies–economies powered by the wealthy. Continental Europe (ex-Italy) and Japan are in the egalitarian bloc.
  • In plutonomies the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy and have a massive impact on reported aggregate numbers like savings rates, current account deficits, consumption levels, etc.
  • [T]he world is dividing into two blocs–the plutonomies, where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few, and the rest. Plutonomies have occurred before in sixteenth century Spain, in seventeenth century Holland, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties in the U.S.
  • What are the common drivers of Plutonomy?
    1. Disruptive technology-driven productivity gains,
    2. creative financial innovation,
    3. capitalist-friendly cooperative governments,
    4. an international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth creation,
    5. the rule of law,
    6. and patenting inventions.
  • Often these wealth waves involve great complexity, exploited best by the rich and educated of the time.

How to participate

The idea for the analyst team, of course, was to sell a method by which their clients could prosper–in other words, trading strategies to exploit the wealth-gap economy.  One way, they wrote, was to buy equities in general. But better yet, buy stocks of companies that cater to the really wealthy–hence, the “Plutonomy basket”: a mix of equities issued by companies that cater to the very rich. In the pre-recession era the team was writing, they offered a basket of “luxury stocks” that had returned an enviable “an annualized return of 17.8%, handsomely outperforming indices such as the S&P500.”

And why not? After all, the team reasons, “Perhaps one reason that societies allow plutonomy, is because enough of the electorate believe they have a chance of becoming a Pluto-participant. Why kill it off, if you can join it?”

In short, a plutonomy seems merely an embodiment of the old adage, “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” To a certain, the adage holds true.

Of and by the wealthy

But the rich/richer, poor/poorer framework aphoristically glosses over the middle class. In that sense, plutonomy is a portmanteau, blending economy with plutocracy: an economy driven by the wealthy, of and by the wealthy.

It is in that sense that a Wall Street Journal blogger admonishes us in an Aug.5 “Wealth Report” to face the “surprising” recognition of “just how much or our consumer economy is now dependent on the rich, and how that share has increased as the U.S. emerges from recession.”

Blogger Robert Frank notes that, “According to new research from Moody’s Analytics, the top 5% of Americans by income account for 37% of all consumer outlays . . . .

“By contrast, the bottom 80% by income account for 39.5% of all consumer outlays.

“It is no surprise, of course, that the rich spend so much, since they earn a disproportionate share of income. According to economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, the top 10% of earners captured about half of all income as of 2007.”

A question of stability

To his credit, Frank also recognizes the inherent problem:

“The data may be a further sign that the U.S. is becoming a Plutonomy–an economy dependent on the spending and investing of the wealthy. And Plutonomies are far less stable than economies built on more evenly distributed income and mass consumption. ‘I don’t think it’s healthy for the economy to be so dependent on the top 2% of the income distribution, [Moody's chief economist Mark] Zandi said. He added that, ‘In the near term it highlights the fragility of the recovery.’ ”

However, Frank stops short on two fronts, the evolving recognition that:

  1. the economy already has become a Plutonomy, and
  2. some experts believe the parameters “of and by” have been transcended, such that what we have now is an economy “of, by, and for” the wealthy.

[EDITOR'S NOTE--Continued in Part Two.]

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The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”), bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13

Against din of housing slump and unemployment, credit-card reform loophole exploited: subprime, pre-account fees

August 26th, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

Let’s survey some ledes from around the country.

Housing, unemployment, bankruptcy

“Housing sales in July plunged to their lowest level in more than a decade, exceeding even the grimmest forecasts.”

That’s from The New York Times, Aug. 24.

Here’s another, also from the same edition of the Times: “The Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index ended lower Tuesday for a fourth consecutive day, unable to rebound from a disappointing report on existing-home sales.”

This one’s from the Wall Street Journal, Aug. 5: “More Americans filed for bankruptcy protection in July, reversing a trend of declining filings over the previous three months and highlighting the continuing financial struggles of many consumers.”

Highest rates since ‘reform act’ of ’05

“Long-term unemployment and small-business failures continue to propel personal bankruptcy filings,” reports an Aug. 22 article in the Tenneseean (our emphasis added), “with Tennessee in step with a national trend that shows the number of cases spiking in July for the first time after declining for three months.

From the Aug. 18 Economist, we get the following brief (and the following chart, as well, based on data from the Administrative Office of  the US Courts): “Bankruptcy filings rose 20% in the year to June 30th compared with the previous 12-month period, according to statistics released on August 17th by the Administrative Office of the US Courts. This takes quarterly filings to their highest point since tougher bankruptcy laws were introduced at the end of 2005. That change brought a spike of bankruptcies, as companies and individuals rushed to declare themselves broke under the more lenient old regime. The data suggest that an older trend is reasserting itself. This is could be more bad news for America—or it could just mean that creative destruction is alive and well.”

US-Bankruptcy historical chart

One recent blog mentions that the return to pre-2005 levels may “merely be” a statistical “reversion to mean.”

Election fodder?

That would be some mean-dang revertin’, all right, given that the credit-card lobby’s pure intent in getting the “reform act” of ’05  was to make it harder for people to file for Chapter 7 protection. They did, and it is–yet, Chapter 7 filings far outnumber Chapter 13 filings.

Perhaps cheekily, the blog ends with the admonition to watch for this chart as the election nears–with the rejoinder to see how many times it appears with the pre-2005 years left off the chart. But, really, that’s a good suggestion: Any candidate from any party who monkeys with the data should be immediately suspect.

Reform fail? Credit-card company hits loophole

Speaking of credit-card companies, it looks as though at least some are definitely reverting to mean. The credit-card reform legislation passed last year was supposed to rein in the heinous practices of the industry. But as this Aug. 21 piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrates, loopholes already are being exploited.

“When Congress passed the credit card reform act last year, it took aim at the sort of high-fee card that sat in Lynne Fischer’s purse until recently. There’s now some evidence that Congress missed.

“Lynne Fischer, 64, lives in St. Louis Hills on about $1,700 a month from a small pension and a disability check. She’s had problems paying some bills. ‘My credit history is not well,’ she says.

“Still, she wanted a credit card for emergencies: ‘What if my car breaks down?’ she asked. When the mail last fall brought an offer from First Premier Bank of South Dakota, she applied.

“It was a costly decision. . . .”

The article describes First Premier as using this business model: The company “offers cards for people with bad credit, and they charge significant up-front fees. They pitch the card as a way for customers to rebuild their credit by making on-time payments.”

The article also says that consumer advocates label such practitioners as predatory “fee harvesters,” a term we will probably see more often in the months to come. At any rate, and perhaps needless to belabor, she finally realized it was a stinky deal: “Fischer sometimes made only the minimum payment, and so she ended up paying interest on those fees. When she called to cancel the card this summer, she says the bank’s representative insisted that she pay $253 — an amount consisting mainly of the fees.”

Oh–but there’s more. The quote next at bat really, truly exhibits the depths of the ether-soaked depravity in which these companies are willing to traffic.

“As of last week, First Premier was offering a card with an annual fee of $75. That’s 25 percent of the $300 credit limit. But it also has a $95 ‘processing fee’ that must be paid before the customer gets the card.

“It’s perfectly legal, says First Premier. ‘The credit card act does not preclude fees charged prior to the account being opened,’ says Darrin Graham, the bank’s vice president for marketing. So, the $95 fee doesn’t count.”

Holy moly and Great Winged-Leaping Lizard-Bats! and whatever other mythical creatures that defy reason. Let’s look at that statement again, with emphasis added:

“The credit card act does not preclude fees charged prior to the account being opened.”

Just imagine if this becomes a trend: Utility companies guess where we’re going to move, then start billing us before we move in; Redbox and Netflix get predictive software, and charge us for movies before we select them. And on and on…

Perhaps First Premier is simply running interference for the rest of the industry, trying an end-around to see how much trouble such tactics will attract. Or perhaps they really are the junkies they appear to be, addicted to cash flow they pump from the least sophisticated, most vulnerable consumers they can bag. We’ll keep following and let you know what we find.

[Next time: Using credit cards under the new law and credit for college-age children.]

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The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”), bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13

LAB Part 3: Considering bankruptcy? Be aware of the hard-line stance of bankruptcy critics

May 20th, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

[Editor's note: Mike Hinshaw blogs about bankruptcy, workmen's compensation and disability issues in the United States. With a background in journalism and textbook publishing, he is neither an attorney nor credit counselor nor SSI/SSDI advocate. The following is third part in a four-part series on considerations to make before filing for bankruptcy protection and specific steps to take during Life After Bankruptcy. Part One is here and Part Two is here.]

In years past, filing for bankruptcy protection was tantamount to stamping a scarlet “F” on your forehead, publicly admitting that you’re a failure.

Investopedia warnings

In certain quarters, that attitude remains. For example,  after first noting that, among many other celebrities, “Mark Twain, Walt Disney, Donald Trump and Henry J. Heinz all filed for bankruptcy at some point in their lives,” this article at Investopedia.com warns that “For the individuals who have declared bankruptcy, the recovery process is long and difficult.”

In a subsequent paragraph, the article says: “Getting a loan of any kind will be extremely difficult for the next couple years, although it is possible to regain a better score and even some types of loans after only a year. However, the lenders that will finance you will probably be from finance companies that charge exorbitant rates of interest. In some cases, it may not be possible to get credit at all for major purchases, such as a car or home. These issues will remain for the next 10 years under a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.”

Well, yes and no–but we’ll address these issues more in a minute, and then more fully in the final, fourth part of this series. The Investopedia piece also references a page on the site of Dave Ramsey, contemporary radio’s King of Cash. Indeed, Ramsey’s “no-credit” approach may well make sense for most folks–especially those who consistently have trouble managing credit cards.

Buying a house Dave Ramsey’s way

Now, Ramsey does grant that buying a home via a good mortgage makes sense. Oh, sure, says paying cash is best, but he knows that’s an ideal situation, out of range for the ordinary consumer. Here’s his bottom-line, best tips on using a mortgage:

  • “Before you consider buying a home, you should be debt-free and have three to six months of expenses saved in addition to your down payment (more on that later). Being debt-free with money in the bank will keep you from losing your home in the event of a job loss or illness.
  • “Also, if you’re married, you should be married for at least a year before you buy a home. Don’t add the stress of a home purchase to a brand new marriage, and never buy real estate with anyone you’re not married to.
  • “If you can’t postpone the purchase until you can pay cash, buy a home with a down payment of at least 10% on a 15-year (or less) fixed-rate mortgage. Limit your monthly payment to 25% or less of your monthly take-home pay.”

For anyone emerging from bankruptcy, securing a home will probably be high on the list. If so, then, together, these guidelines represent the “gold standard” for homeownership. Of course, securing and keeping an income is job #1; depending on where you live, having a reliable vehicle is the next priority, if for no other reason than getting to and from work.

Ramsey hates bankruptcy

But back to Ramsey’s take on bankruptcy. In short, he hates even the idea: “That word sends chills up the spine. If you’re facing the prospect of bankruptcy or in the middle of it right now, you know it’s a living nightmare. It can devastate your job, destroy your marriage and steal your peace of mind.”

Following that opening, Ramsey cites a case of young woman whose soon-to-be ex-husband will be taking the brunt of their financial problems. (Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most people who need bankruptcy protection.)

Then Dave writes: “Bankruptcy is not something I recommend any more than I would recommend divorce. Are there times when good people see no way out and file bankruptcy? Yes, but I will still talk you out of bankruptcy if given the opportunity. Few people who have been through bankruptcy would report that it is a painless wiping-clean of the slate, after which you merrily trot off into your future to start fresh.”

So on the one hand, he more less concedes that bankruptcy can be a viable business decision, but then props up the straw horse that bankruptcy filers do so “painlessly” then skip off “merrily.”

Comments offer alternative viewpoint

True, bankruptcy protection does offer a chance to start over. But no qualified, experienced counselor will tell you to expect painless merriment. Also,  by the way, at least a couple of comments following Ramsey’s piece have a few bones to pick with ol’ Dave. One, from “Jen” (May 5, 9:08 am) mentions “two friends who recently had their bankruptcies discharged” and were able to protect some nice jewelry and “everything else they own.” Now, remember, this comment could be from anybody with any sort of agenda, but can’t you just hear the regret as she writes: “My husband and I just finished paying off 45,000 in student loan and home equity loan following the Dave Ramsey plan, but we had to sacrifice and do without. Sometimes, I am jealous because these two families eliminated all their debt without having to sacrifice anything.”

Again, that’s probably an inaccurate account and a too-rosy picture.  But if we can take it at face value, “Jen” not only gets caught up in the myth that bankruptcy filers get off “scott free” but also she expresses some remorse for buying into Dave’s tirade against filing for bankruptcy under any circumstances.

Here’s some highlights from another comment, this poster using the nick “Regretful” (April 27, 9:38 am): “I wish Ramsey would address those who don’t make a lot of money—$30K or less each year who find themselves in financial trouble. I have one of his workbooks, but it seems like all of his subjects make $40K or more. I’m in the process of filing ch 13 because I’m sick of never getting out of debt. I will probably never get a good paying job, so I’ve given up. My neighbor up the street is a Ramsey fan, but she works like two days a week as a home health care giver and maybe 2-3 weeks as an electrician, and she refuses to file for bankruptcy. Maybe if her house is threatened, she’ll change her tune.”

“Regretful” goes on to say that she is trying to protect her home before a credit-card company can go to court and “put a lien” on her house. Then she says,  “A friend and former co-worker filed for ch 13 and she said it’s not really that bad. Yeah, it stays on your record, but with the economy the way it is, a lot more people have filed for bankruptcy, and because of that, bankruptcy will not have the stigma that it once had.”

Looking forward to being debt free

She expresses more regret over having mismanaging credit cards and the poor outlook for jobs and then displays a pretty good take on her future as she works through her Chapter 13 repayment: “It will be a lean next three years, but after that, I’ll be debt-free and I will sock away money after that.”

To end her comment, “Regretful” had a very specific suggestion for approaching bankruptcy and coming out in better shape when emerging on the other side. We’ll take up those specific points in Part 4.

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It’s true that the bankruptcy reform act of 2005 changed many aspects of the law for those needing protection and also for attorneys who practice bankruptcy law. If you’re considering filing for bankruptcy, it’s important to receive counsel from not only trained bankruptcy attorneys but also from experienced bankruptcy attorneys. Bankruptcy offers many consumers powerful tools for starting over, but it can be a complex process–and timing the submission of your petition can be crucial to your ongoing success, for years to come. We have background information available as well as a simple form that will get you started today. Please notice some terms seem similar on your first reading, so don’t hesitate to click back and forth to get a feel for the terminology and the distinctions between different programs.

Perhaps debt elimination is best for you. If so, start here.

Maybe debt consolidation is better for you: In that case, start here.

If you already have exhausted the preceding information, you may be ready to consider invoking protection from the bankruptcy code–if so, read here.

If you need immediate help, you can complete a short form at the bottom of this page.

‘Moral failing’ comments strikes columnist wrong way; ‘rich and famous’ showing up with bankruptcies, foreclosures

April 21st, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

Not to beat a dead(beat) horse ourselves, but the “myth of the deadbeat” comes up fairly regularly when researching bankruptcy topics. We most recently this phenomenon a few weeks ago here, where we mentioned that at least one news outlet has quit covering weekly info on personal bankruptcies because, well, it’s just not newsworthy.

Yet, with every new round of data concerning bankruptcy rates, it seems like somebody, somewhere  has to trot out this old, tired pony and flog it around the arena of “shame-on-you.”

The latest, apparently,  is a woman named Mary Hunt, who runs some sort of debt-control Web site called DPL, short for “Debt-Proof Living.” Her regimen looks kinda like Dave Ramsey’s: there’s a “boot camp,” a repayment plan,  and a component for building emergency funds. She offers a free newsletter, and paid members get access at various monthly subscriptions (three months for $10, six for $18, a year for $29, etc.).  Today’s home page offers such tidbits as “Five Quick and Easy Tricks with Bacon”; a method for “Quick Bathroom Cleanup”; and “Mary’s Thought for the Day” for anyone who might “Feel Like a Failure” (if so, keep persevering…like Abraham Lincoln did).

Which, of course, is all good: if she can make a buck by helping folks get debt under control–hey, why not?

‘Moral failing’

But in at least one columnist’s opinion, Hunt went over the top in a recent version of her blog. Writing April 17 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune, John Ewoldt says: “Everyday Cheapskate” columnist Mary Hunt wrote recently that bankruptcy is a moral failing. Hunt’s opinion isn’t a random swipe — it is based on personal experience after she slowly clawed her way out of a $100,000 credit card debt without declaring bankruptcy. Since then, she has written many books about using credit wisely.

“Hunt’s ‘moral failing’ comment was in response to a personal finance expert who wrote that if you can’t get out of your financial mess in two years, consider filing for personal bankruptcy.

As Ewoldt says, people need to be accountable.  No competent professional will say otherwise. In fact, anyone who downplays the gravity of filing for bankruptcy protection is neither competent nor professional.

But “moral failing” ? That’s simply ridiculous.

Have unscrupulous people ever dodged debt by playing the system? Undoubtedly. But for most–especially nowadays, in this economy, in this crisis–it’s simply a business decision.

Well, don’t buy GM cars, then

Ewoldt asks: “Where’s her column that no one should buy a vehicle from General Motors because it needed a bailout?”

Indeed. In fact, upon reading her background story, one suspects Hunt might be projecting qualities from her past–behavior from years ago–onto jammed-up debtors of today.  According to Hunt, her early years of marriage were characterized by her impulsive, compulsive spending and abuse of every credit card she could lay hands on, mail-order catalogs and even the checkbook–issued from the bank where her husband was a manager. No doubt that caused some friction at home.

Having hit bottom, the pair eventually turned things around. She writes: “It took us 13 years to pay back more than $100,000 in unsecured debt, plus all the penalties and interest. Had I known then what I know now, we could have paid it back in six years or less. But, that’s not important now. What matters is that we did it … we persevered and we are so much better for having gone through it.”

That’s nice. But what really matters is they learned their lesson, and she quit committing credit abuse.

But most folks fighting to keep their homes, fending off harassment, looking for work or dealing with a medical emergency are not guilty of the types of out-of-control acquisition that Hunt concedes afflicted her.

Medical bills, job loss, divorce

According to Ewoldt, “More than 60 percent of people who declare bankruptcy are in over their heads due to medical bills, according to a 2007 study published last year by the American Journal of Medicine. While Hunt and others personalize bankruptcy as people spending willy-nilly or gambling away the farm, about 90 percent of personal bankruptcies result from medical bills, job loss or divorce, said Henry Sommer, the former president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.”

And from the Big Huff herself, at Huffington Post (Apr. 5), we see a reference to a study that’s gaining traction around the Web, in a piece in which Huffington writes: “The consequences of our failed financial system are everywhere you look.”

Huffington, whose larger point is the pressing, critical need for deep, meaningful reform of the financial system, writes: “A study by Elizabeth Warren and Ohio University’s Deborah Thorne, entitled ‘The Vulnerable Middle Class: Bankruptcy and Class Status,’ found that the personal bankruptcy surge is being led by former members of the middle class.

“According to the report, the proportion of bankruptcies filed by those who had attended college went from around 46 percent in 1991 to almost 60 percent in 2007. And, ominously, the data for the report was compiled before the economic crash. ‘I’m almost afraid to look at the data now,’ says Warren.”

Rich and famous

An April 9 article in The Wall Street Journal, headlined “Foreclosures Hit Rich and Famous,” informs us that “Big borrowers are more likely to default than ordinary people, according to data from First American CoreLogic. Its loan database, reflecting more than 80% of the overall home-loan market, includes 1,700 loans with balances of $4 million or more. About 14.8% of those loans were 90 days or more overdue at the end of January, compared with 8.7% for all home loans tracked by First American. Sam Khater, a senior economist at First American, said the bigger borrowers may be more prone [than smaller borrowers] to stop making payments when they have lost all their home equity.”

And, yes, it raises eyebrows to learn that actor Nicholas Cage had “a Tudor mansion in Bel-Air” that “was in foreclosure auction . . . [but] reverted to the lender.”

Even more telling, though, is the case of a formerly high-flying exec at Merrill Lynch, Richard Fuscone, whose 14-acre estate in Westchester  was on the foreclosure block. “Mr. Fuscone, Merrill Lynch’s one-time head of Latin America, put his mansion up for sale in November, asking $13.9 million. But he couldn’t find a buyer.

The court had scheduled a foreclosure auction for Thursday for the 18,471-square-foot mansion—with two swimming pools, two elevators, six fireplaces, 11 bathrooms and a seven-car garage.”

But Fuscone took action and got the foreclosure process stalled. How’d he do that?

He filed for bankruptcy protection:

“The personal bankruptcy filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court Wednesday temporarily freezes the foreclosure process.

“Reached by phone, Mr. Fuscone declined to comment. Brokers and real estate tracking companies say that his home is one of the most expensive properties to face foreclosure proceedings yet.”

Well, at least he was reached.

Ewoldt says he e-mailed Ms. Hunt but received no reply.

“Hunt,” he writes, “who didn’t reply to an e-mail outlining these concerns, should quit picking on the little guy.”

(Editor’s note: In the next installment, Mike Hinshaw will take a look at life after bankruptcy.)

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The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”), bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13

Millions sued, wages garnished–often by shady tactics that leave courts unable to help ignorant consumers; fueled by recession, student-loan rates rise nearly 50% since 2007

April 15th, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

From The New York Times (Apr. 2), we see that creditors are increasingly reaching out and tapping alleged debtors’ bank accounts via wage garnishment.

“One of the worst economic downturns of modern history has produced a big increase in the number of delinquent borrowers, and creditors are suing them by the millions.

“Concern is mounting in government and among consumer advocates that the debtors are not always getting a fair shake in these cases.”

The NYT says national stats are not kept, but that such seizures are up 30 per cent in Cleveland from the past year to this; 55 per cent in Atlanta since 2004; and 121 per cent in Phoenix since 2005.

Phony paperwork

Sometimes the creditors are able to sneakily grab the dough: “Some consumers do not even know they are being sued; the people who are supposed to serve them with formal notice have sometimes been caught skipping that step and doctoring the paperwork.”

Anyone lucky enough to realize that their bank account is being targeted should definitely take notice and appropriate action. Often the creditors instigating the action can’t even prove up on the debt, hoping instead to bully their way to a favorable judgment, via the ignorance of the individuals being sued–or the courts’ lack of recourse when the individual mounts no defense.

“In far more cases, consumers are served but still do not offer a defense. Few can afford lawyers; others are intimidated or confused. In their absence, judges can offer little relief.

“In the rare event that a consumer battles back, creditors frequently lack the documentation to prove their claim, and cases are dropped.”

As the article mentions, filing for bankruptcy protection can help, despite the restrictions in the law that the banking-and credit lobby got passed in 2005.  A Chapter 7 filing can discharge many debts, and Chapter 13 protection offers a structured repayment plan. Both will stop harassment and lawsuits from unsecured creditors and debt collectors.

When defendants don’t show, creditors win by default

Still, it’s imperative to be proactive because some states “allow creditors to charge high interest rates for years after a lawsuit is decided in their favor. In others, creditors can win lawsuits by default and seize wages and bank accounts without a case ever appearing before a judge.”

One example from the article cites a case that “shows how punishing the system can be. In January 2001, a Mr. [Casey] Jones, 45, a maintenance worker from California Crossroads, Va., took out a $4,097 personal loan from Beneficial Virginia, a subprime lender now owned by HSBC, the big bank.

“He fell behind, and Beneficial sued. Mr. Jones did not appear in court.”

By not appearing in court, Jones virtually guaranteed Beneficial of winning a default judgment, resulting in an award of “$4,750, plus $900 in lawyers’ fees, with the debt accruing interest at 27.55 percent until paid in full. The bank started garnishing his wages in March 2003.

“Over the next six years, the bank deducted more than $10,000 from Mr. Jones’s paychecks, but he made little headway on his debt.”

But only $134 applied to principal

By the spring of 2009, Jones still owed “$3,965, a sum nearly equal to the original loan amount.” He finally got an attorney, who discovered  “that all but $134 of his payments had gone toward interest, fees and court costs.”

The bank finally stopped once Jones got a lawyer, which saved him nearly four grand–but by then, he had already paid more than double the original loan.

Student loans up to $56 billion

On another front, a Reuters piece posted at CNBC (Apr. 1) rings an alarm bell about increasing levels of student loans, saying the “unprecedented number of loans . . .[has]negative long-term implications for the housing and auto markets.”

The Great Recession has taken a chunk from the rate of bank-backed credit cards, both in apps submitted and in apps approved. Meanwhile,  however, Equifax told Reuters that outstanding student loans total $56 billion, a rise of “about 50 percent since 2007.”

The news service quoted Dann Adams, president of Equifax’ U.S. Consumer Information Solutions: “This generation of students will be less able to buy their first home given their debt load. Their largest payment will be their student loan.”

Here’s something to keep in mind, though: Even though the recent changes to student-loan law include upper limits on the size of payments to service the loan (10 per cent of discretionary income versus the current 15 per cent), the bankruptcy code offers very little protection regarding student loans.

Hardship exemption

Basically, the only relief through bankruptcy court is obtaining a ruling that repayment of the loan represents an extreme hardship. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult. Here’s a site that offers a pretty good rundown of the process, including guidelines for both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13, along with some “case-study”-type examples.

(Note: For a good summary of the student-loan changes, see this April 8 post at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site, via Ivestopedia. Oddly enough, there’s also an Investopedia link to a slideshow “The Top 5 Reasons why People go Bankrupt,” listed as medical expenses; job loss; poor/excess use of credit; divorce/separation; unexpected expenses such as loss through theft or catastrophes.)

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It’s true that the bankruptcy reform act of 2005 changed many aspects of the law for those needing protection and also for attorneys who practice bankruptcy law. If you’re considering filing for bankruptcy, it’s important to receive counsel from not only trained bankruptcy attorneys but also from experienced bankruptcy attorneys. Bankruptcy offers many consumers powerful tools for starting over, but it can be a complex process–and timing the submission of your petition can be crucial to your ongoing success, for years to come. We have background information available as well as a simple form that will get you started today. Please notice some terms seem similar on your first reading, so don’t hesitate to click back and forth to get a feel for the terminology and the distinctions between different programs.

Perhaps debt elimination is best for you. If so, start here.

Maybe debt consolidation is better for you: In that case, start here.

If you already have exhausted the preceding information, you may be ready to consider invoking protection from the bankruptcy code–if so, read here.

If you need immediate help, you can complete a short form at the bottom of this page.

New chapter in bankruptcy? Not by a long shot…

March 16th, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

Here’s something different.

Ran across this from the Philadelphia Business Journal, headline “A New Chapter in Bankruptcy.”

The thrust of the piece is that the personal bankruptcy rate is not so bad, given the state of the economy.

Jeff Blumenthal writes in his lede: “With the U.S. economy experiencing its worst downturn in more than half a century, one would think that personal bankruptcy filings would be through the roof. But that has not been the case.”

Good grief. Can we beg to differ?

Bankruptcy filings directly reflect the economic pain 0f  any given region, allowing for regional/cultural differences.

If you’re not following bankruptcies, foreclosures, or credit default swaps, it might be easy to buy into Blumenthal’s thesis.

Here’s some more from Blumenthal:

‘Filings have not skyrocketed’

“Local consumer bankruptcy lawyers said filings have not skyrocketed — though they have increased in each of the past three years — because of a combination of factors. Chief among them are the more stringent law, which makes it harder to file, and new mortgage remodification programs introduced in response to the recession, which have given many would-be filers a reprieve.”

Maybe it’s simply a matter of which end of the telescope you’re using, but looking at some recent headlines from press releases of  the American Bankruptcy Institute, one wonders what it would take for Blumenthal to detect a skyrocket:

Bankruptcy rates about the same as before reform act

Blumenthal seems to hang his argument on the rate of bankruptcy filings before the so-called reform act of 2005. He writes:

“In the decade leading up to the 2005 law’s enactment, annual U.S. consumer bankruptcies hovered between 1.1 million and 1.6 million filings. Those numbers rose to 2 million in 2005 as people rushed to file before the law was enacted that fall. With so many people having already filed, there was a 70 percent drop off in 2006 consumer filings (597,965). Then, with the mortgage crisis hitting in 2007 followed by the 2008 stock market collapse, filings began to jump again — by 40 percent in 2007, 33 percent in 2008 and 32 percent last year. But the 1.4 million filings in 2009 was still only on par with the numbers prior to the law’s enactment.”

Dumbfounding.

Rates dropped 70 per cent after law changed

Let’s get this straight. After the credit card lobbyists succeeded in making it tougher for people to file for bankruptcy protection (and a rush to beat the new law’s deadline), “there was a 70 percent drop off in 2006 consumer filings. . . .” OK, so isn’t that the new baseline?

In other words, the lobbyists won. Which gave us a new landscape, which even Blumenthal seems to concede is a harsh environment for those who most need protection. Here he mentions an authority on bankruptcy law in Pennsylvania (emphasis added): “Henry Sommer, the dean of the Pennsylvania consumer bankruptcy bar, estimated total costs of filing have gone up from about $900 or $1,000 to about $2,000, which he said is too big of a burden for many low-income people. He said lawyer fees are also higher because more paperwork is required. Debtors must provide salary history and bank and tax statements. Sommer said some people who used to be able to tap into more equity or 401(k) plans to stave off filings can no longer because those funds have been eaten away by the recession.

“It used to be simple to prepare,” Sommer said. “Now, it’s a lot more complex.”

Recession-era rates soar to pre-reform levels

So really what we’re seeing is that despite the stricter requirements, higher fees, built-in delays and increased complexity of the “reform,” the number of people seeking bankruptcy protection rose “40 percent in 2007,” another “33 percent in 2008″ and then another “32 percent last year.”

Perhaps the March 2 PR from ABI says it best: “While Congress and the Obama administration continue to consider measures to reduce high unemployment and mortgage burdens, families with increasing debt loads have little choice but to continue to turn to bankruptcy for financial relief,” said ABI Executive Director Samuel J. Gerdano. “Consumer filings this year will likely surpass 1.5 million filings, or the same number of annual filings averaged in the years leading up to the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.”

In other words, the Great Recession is so bad that the consumer bankruptcy rate has soared back to pre-reform levels, and now there’s more people who need the relief but can’t afford it.

Not much of a “new chapter,” is it?

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The bankruptcy reform act of 2005 increased the complexity of the law, but if you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”),  bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, you should be aware that some of those laws have changed recently, too. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing  financial decisions, consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13


Dems’ election loss illuminates the modern filibuster system: How can hard-hit consumers survive this stacked deck?

February 3rd, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

Who knew a relatively unknown state senator could have such far-ranging implications for jammed-up consumers scurrying to deal with over-the-levee unemployment rates, health-care costs and home-foreclosure levels–as well as credit-card company shenanigans?

Scott Brown (R-MA)  hasn’t been seated in Teddy’s 50-year-old chair, yet–but already he has an action figure. And some reports–notably, this one in the Christian Science Monitor– say his Republican victory in the Massachusetts race for Kennedy’s vacancy has “sent tremors” not only within the Team Obama reform effort but also “throughout the United States.” Beyond the five states the Monitor cites as candidates to follow the Massachusetts’ example, the spillover has also reached the Illinois primary–yes, a primary–in which Reuters points out “Five things to watch in Illinois” and at least one GOP-leaning blogger quotes the Reuters report then goes on to say: “The White House is paying close attention today. It’s a primary close to Obama’s heart, as it’s his former Senate seat that’s up for grabs.”

One thing for certain–any leader who can even partially help us to hack our way out of this mess deserves an action figure.

The serious, sobering certainty is that one election cost the Democrats their Senate “supermajority” of 60 votes, the implications of which are detailed in this CBSnews.com piece.

Here’s the highlights: “Basically, without 60 votes, under Senate rules, debate could go on forever and ever. This is called the filibuster. So basically, [because Brown won] . . . , the Republicans, with 41 votes, . . . have enough votes as the minority to prevent the Democrats, the majority with 59 votes, from ever bringing a final vote on health care reform or any other legislative priority to the floor. The minority [does] . . . basically control the Senate.”

Senate tactic not mentioned in Constitution

Ok, well, maybe that’s not quite true, but the point about the filibuster is accurate; and if all this self-focused in-fighting is not enough, turns out that cloture, the “procedure” that kills a filibuster, is not even a Constitutional device–in other words, even though its effects are very important to legislation that affects us all, it’s merely a procedural tactic–and limited to the Senate, at that. (For comparison, read about the Electoral College, which is in the Constitution.) This won’t be “the first time that the filibuster has been used to stop major pieces of legislation,” Fisk and Chemerinsky write, “and it’s definitely not a partisan idea–both parties, when in the minority, have used the filibuster to prevent the majority from passing everything they wanted to.

“According to law professors [Fisk and Chemerinsky] in their Stanford Law Review article from 1997, ‘The Filibuster,’ the technique was used not only to prevent civil rights legislation from passing for years in the last century, but more recently during the Clinton administration. Senate Republicans, then as now in the minority, used the filibuster to stop economic stimulus, campaign finance reform, lobbying reform and the [previous] attempt at health care reform. When the Democrats were the minority party in the Senate, they used the filibuster to stop much of the GOP’s Contract with America.

” ‘Filibusters are so ubiquitous in the contemporary Senate that it is now commonly said that sixty votes in the Senate, rather than a simple majority, are necessary to pass legislation and confirm nominations,’ wrote Fisk and Chemerinsky. “In fact, during the presidency of George W. Bush, Democrats, with Biden in their ranks, frequently filibustered some of the president’s judicial nominees for the federal courts.”

It gets worse.

Evolution of the ‘painless’ filibuster

When you think of a real-life filibuster, aren’t you getting an image at least somewhat informed by movie life? Namely, Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith” in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Anyone who’s ever seen the movie remembers the agonizing filibuster reel, watching the hero struggle to learn the tricks of the rulebook, while the other senators take turns dozing, coming and going in shifts.

Well, it turns out things have changed quite a bit since Capra made that 1939 movie.

The filibuster tactic nowadays is known as the “stealth filibuster.”

From the abstract of the Fisk and Chemerinsky paper: “Filibusters are ubiquitous but virtually invisible, for the contemporary Senate practice does not require a senator to hold the floor to filibuster; senators filibuster simply by indication to the Senate leadership that they intend to do so.”

In other words, a senator merely indicates that “I would filibuster, if I had to” and that takes the place of the real thing: no parched lips, no pleading bladder. *Poof* Instant roadblock, and the bill is tabled–Next!

From a May 5 piece at Huffington Post, “The Electoral College is provided for in the United States Constitution. The filibuster is not. In fact, the word doesn’t appear in any of our founding documents. Its derivation is from the Spanish filibustero, meaning ‘pirate’ or ‘freebooter.’ “

History of the tactic’s development traces to 1789, according to the Huffington piece, but for this discussion, the first important change came in 1917, when “the Senate developed a way of shutting down dilatory tactics of an obstreperous minority. It is called the cloture rule. During the closing days of the session that year, a group of isolationist senators who opposed the entry of the United States into World War I filibustered a bill which would have allowed President Wilson to arm U.S. merchant ships. The President denounced them as a ‘little group of willful men’ and called on the Senate to change its rules.”

Which it did, resulting in “a cloture rule which was embodied in Rule XXII of the Standing Rules of the Senate” . . . providing for “a 2/3 vote of all senators” that “could cut off debate.”

Whether Jimmy Stewart’s character had a problem taking a bathroom break is a question for fans of movie trivia, but the longest. actual-factual real-life filibuster on record–Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour, 18-minute ramble-thon against the Civil Rights Act of 1957–“would have gone on longer had Thurmond’s doctors not forced him to quit out of concern for kidney damage.”

More important was a deal brokered by LBJ (big surprise, right?) that resulted in a couple of new wrinkles, which in turn paved the way for a post-Watergate rule change that, among other things changed the majority requirement to a 3/5 vote and resulted in the the 60-vote supermajority requirement of today.

Inadvertent creation

Sadly, there’s more…which brings us back to Fisk and Chemerinsky, as described in the Huffington piece: “The story took a turn for the worse when, in the early 1970s, Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield — intending to dilute the power of the minority –inadvertently made filibustering easier.

“The extended speechifying made famous by Strom Thurmond and Huey Long before him has been replaced by what legal scholars Erwin Chemerinsky and Catherine Fisk have dubbed the ‘stealth’ filibuster. Its genesis was the early 1970s, when it became apparent to then majority leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT) that delaying tactics such as objections to unanimous consent motions; forcing the previous day’s journal to be read aloud in its entirety; suggesting the absence of a quorum; and — of course — extended periods of time holding the floor were causing the Senate to fall behind in doing the people’s business.”

An idea emerged to let filibusters occupy morning sessions, but to reserve afternoons for “pressing business.”

Perversely, what actually developed from Mansfield’s dual-track system “has proved to be disastrous.”

——————-Next, in Part 2—————

What we have now is a system in which “the Senate has come to a point in time where it seldom takes up legislation unless the majority leadership has counted sixty votes. In other words, a credible threat that 41 senators won’t vote for cloture is enough to keep a bill off the floor on most occasions. Boston College historian Julian Zeliger puts it this way: ‘Mansfield’s measure, which was intended to promote efficiency, inadvertently encouraged filibusters by making them politically costless and painless.’ ”

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If you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”),  bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, please know the laws have changed recently. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13

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.

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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

Fear and Bankruptcy in Las Vegas

September 6th, 2009 by Lance

The entertainment industry in Las Vegas has not been immune to the impact of the recession. Las Vegas bankruptcy case filings in July increased by 54% compared with the previous year.

In a metropolitan area where one industry is the focal point for the local economy, businesses that plan for an economic storm are the ones that survive.

Casino operators like Station Casinos, which filed for bankruptcy protection in July, are committed to keeping their business alive. They turn to bankruptcy as a method to achieve financial stability during a difficult economy, betting that the market and their customer base will eventually return.

You should approach your personal finances like savvy businesses; protect your core assets and plan for the future by partnering with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. You want the assurance that your financial decisions are grounded by lawyers who are experts in bankruptcy protection, including both federal and local regulations.

What rights does a debtor have to assume a contract after the estate rejects it? Under what circumstances would an appeal be dismissed? Selecting the bankruptcy law firm that is familiar with all regulations is a determining factor to the success of your finances.

In this economy, survival requires tough choices and a commitment to do whatever it takes. With the right guidance, bankruptcy can be the tool that protects your assets during the difficult economic road ahead. Partner with a bankruptcy attorney who places your financial recovery above all other goals.