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

Jumping the gap from Wall Street bonuses to cornbread mix

August 17th, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw

That recovery we keep hearing so much about?

Seems to be going be well–if you work in the neighborhood where the Great Recession was engineered.

According to an Aug. 13 article in MarketWatch, “Bonuses in the financial services industry will increase slightly this year as the sector outpaces the recovery of the broader economy, according to a forecast published by Johnson Associates Inc. Thursday.”

Supposedly, it’s a big deal among legislators, too. Apparently some of them see problems with bonuses for those in the sector that caused the problems that nearly drove the economy off the cliff.

“The increase in bonuses would come at a time when rising compensation in the sector has become a hot issue for lawmakers in the wake of the financial crisis.”

Of course, bonuses were off the charts during the boom leading up to the crisis. Trouble is, nothing changed during

Cuomo’s report

“But when the financial crisis hit in 2008, compensation stayed at these levels even as bank earnings plummeted. According to an investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office, at Bank of America net income fell to $4 billion from $14 billion, but total payouts still remained at $18 billion. Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, now owned by Bank of America, lost $54 billion in 2008, but still paid out about $9 billion in bonuses. Read more about Cuomo’s [2009] report here. [" According to the 2009 article, "Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's office analyzed 2008 bonuses and earnings at the nine financial institutions that were the first to receive government money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP."

Another bailout beneficiary, GM is doing pretty well, although fellow bailee Chrysler is still struggling. Ford, not a bailee, is doing OK, too. Other big corps are reeling in the dough, like say, Disney (riding blockbusters Toy Story 2; Alice in Wonderland; and Iron Man 2).

The 'new abnormal'

And people aren't just buying downsized cars and going to the movies. Describing a "bifurcated market," this July 29 BusinessWeek article says bewildered-and-bewildering consumers are scrimping on soap and other basics in order to blow money on luxuries.

"The new abnormal has given rise to a nation of schizophrenic consumers. They splurge on high-end discretionary items and cut back on brand-name toothpaste and shampoo. Companies such as Cupertino, California-based Apple, whose net income jumped 94 percent in its last quarter, and Starbucks Corp., which saw a 61 percent increase in operating income over the same time frame, are thriving.

"Mercedes-Benz is having a record sales year; deliveries of new vehicles in the U.S. rose 25 percent in the first six months of 2010. Lexus and BMW were also up. Though luxury-goods manufacturers such as Hermes International SCA and Burberry Group Plc are looking primarily to Asia for growth, their recent earnings reports suggest stabilization and even modest improvement in the U.S."

Well, who can blame the American consumer for being at least a little crazy?

As the Aug. 17 Detroit Free-Press says, "The U.S. lost nearly 3 million jobs in the second half of 2008.

A 'deep hole'

"The hole was so deep that even with the 620,000 private-sector jobs that the Economic Policy Institute reports were added over the last seven months, it doesn't feel like a recovery to many.

"Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University economist, agrees that the recovery is very slow, but not ending.

" 'We're coming out of the worst economic downturn in our lifetimes,' Ballard said. 'Given that a sledge hammer was taken to the economy when Lehman Brothers failed, we're lucky the damage hasn't been worse.' "

Earlier in the year, some encouraging reports were noted, hinting that unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies had bottomed out. More recent reports say no.

Foreclosures still raging

From an Aug. 13 ABC News report: "In July, banks repossessed the second highest monthly number of homes ever, according to the California-based foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac, Inc. There were 92,858 properties taken over by banks in July, an increase of nine percent in the month and six percent for the year.

"A sagging job market is the likely culprit. The silver lining: Overall foreclosure activity in July did drop about 10 percent from a year ago. But it was the 17th straight month of foreclosure actions on more than 300,000 properties, according to RealtyTrac."

Apple cakes and cornbread

That report also describes a consumer pushback of sorts, as people sick and tired of waiting for help are increasingly taking matters into their own hands--even if their plans are, let's say, fanciful. Efforts range from representing themselves in court--as more judges are  getting savvy to lender tricks--to having large-scale "bake sales."

One woman who lost her house after losing her job has been inspired by "Teaneck, N.J., homeowner Angela Logan [who] sold enough of her $40 apple cakes to qualify for a loan modification that allowed her to save her home. She dubbed her venture Mortgage Apple Cakes.”

Fueled by visions of Logan’s success, Beverly Davis decided to sell her grandmother’s cornbread recipe (10 bucks for the dry mix or the mix plus a cast-iron skillet for $40; see cornbreadmillionaire.com)–in hopes of raising  80 grand in order to buy her house back. On August 13, the ABC report said she had 21 days left. A quick check at her site shows an Aug. 4 post indicating that the bank told her the house will not be auctioned but instead will go on the market with a “firm price”–but (of course!) they can’t reveal to her any advance info…

No, that would make too much sense–to give out information to the most motivated buyer for the house, somebody who already thinks of it as home.

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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

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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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. Start here.

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