Thursday, July 31, 2008


Georgia Power vying for tax credits on nuclear reactors

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 07/31/08

Georgia Power is expected to file for Georgia Public Service Commission approval of two new nuclear reactors Friday, beginning an eight-month approval process.

The company and its parent, Southern Co., are among nine utilities with construction and operation licenses for 15 reactors pending at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That number will likely grow.

The companies are competing for a limited number of tax credits that could net – in Southern's case – up to $125 million per year for eight years.

The credits will be divvied among companies that meet several requirements: file a license application by the Dec. 31 deadline, pour concrete by 2014 and begin operating by 2021.

Also, the first two new reactors will each get $500 million of insurance against regulatory delay.


Georgia Power says new reactors will help diversify power supply options at a time when others – like coal-fired and gas-fired plants – are being battered by soaring fuel costs. They also point out reactors do not emit carbon. Growth in Georgia will demand new plants that can run 24-7, year-round, the company says. Nuclear fits the bill.


Environmental groups and others say new reactors are a bad idea, especially since there's no permanent place to store nuclear waste. The first generation of U.S. reactors came with a staggering price tag and huge cost overruns, they say. Conservation and renewable energy should be Georgia's first priority.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Foreclosure filings up 120%

There were 220,000 homes lost to bank repossessions in the second quarter, and the annual forecast for 2008 will have to be revised upward.

By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- Foreclosures continue to soar, with 220,000 homes lost to bank repossessions in the second quarter of this year, according to the latest statistics from RealtyTrac, an online marketer of foreclosed homes. That's nearly triple the number from the same period in 2007.

There were a total of 739,714 foreclosure filings recorded during that three month period, up 14% from the first quarter, and up a whopping 121% from the same period in 2007. That means that out of every 171 U.S. households received a filing, which include notices of default, auction sale notices and bank repossessions.

"Most areas of the country are seeing at least some increase in foreclosure activity," said RealtyTrac CEO James Saccadic. "Forty-eight of 50 states and 95 out of the nation's 100 largest metro areas experienced year-over-year increases in foreclosure activity."

Because foreclosure filings are growing so quickly, RealtyTrac will have to reevaluate its foreclosure forecast for the year, according to spokesman Rick Sharga.

"We've been saying foreclosures will total 1.9 million to 2 million this year," he said. "But midway through the year, we're already at 1.4 million so we're going to be raising our projections."

And there is more bad news: Bank repossessions are up as a proportion of total filings, representing 30% of the notices issued during the quarter, up from 24% a year ago.

"I don't think that's a surprise if you look at the general conditions out there," said Brian Bethune, chief financial economist for Global Insight. "There have been six straight moves of weaker employment this year. The ongoing problems in the housing market are compounded by a generally weaker economy. Foreclosures won't go down until we start to see employment move up again."

Sun Belt front and center

California's Central Valley remains ground zero for foreclosure filings. Stockton, which is just east of San Francisco, had the highest rate of foreclosure filings of any metro area, one for every 25 homes. That's seven times the national average.

Riverside/San Bernardino, which is east of Los Angeles, had the second highest rate in the nation with one filing for every 32 households. Las Vegas, Bakersfield and Sacramento rounded out the top five.

Detroit continued to suffer more than any other non-Sun Belt area, with one filing for every 66 households. And several Ohio cities were also hard hit, led by Toledo (one in 92 households), Akron (one in 93) and Cleveland (one in 108).

On the other hand, there were a handful of metro areas that remained relatively unscathed. Honolulu, at one filing for every 1,331 households had the lowest rate of all, followed by Allentown, Penn. (one for every 972) and Syracuse, NY (one for every 880).

At the state level, Nevada had the highest rate with one filing for every 43 households, while California had the highest total number of filings - 202,599.

The report came as more negative news for the housing market this week. On Thursday, a report form the National Association of Realtors revealed that existing home sales had declined again as the number of homes for sale continued to rise. On Tuesday, a government agency reported home prices registered another drop in May.

All this is happening as Congress struggles to pass a housing rescue bill that will make FHA-insured loans available to many at-risk borrowers. That bill, even if signed this week, will not take effect until October.

One of the sponsors of the bill, Barney Frank (D -- Mass.), released a statement on Thursday in which he encourages lenders and mortgage servicers to delay taking action against delinquent borrowers before the new law takes effect.

"I am urging the mortgage servicers to hold off on foreclosures in applicable cases," he said, "so borrowers can take advantage of the program." To top of page

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bank Run, USA


Like dozens of others waiting in line with her, Joan Rubin said she was drawn to IndyMac Bank by the high interest rates it paid and the friendly service her local branch provided.

All that was a memory on Tuesday, however, as Rubin and about 200 other anxious, embittered and sometimes angry customers swarmed an IndyMac bank branch in the San Fernando Valley, creating a Depression Era-like scene as they demanded their money just four days after the failing bank was seized by federal regulators.

"I've already lost three nights of sleep and three days of eating; now I'm done," Rubin, 52, said as she sat in a beach chair on the sidewalk in stifling heat. She planned to empty her account following the failure of the Pasadena-based bank, which has 33 branches, all in Southern California.

"It's a very sad day in America," Rubin said.

At one point police had to be called to the branch in the city's normally quiet Encino neighborhood. Tempers grew short when customers who had arrived before dawn accused others of cutting in line.

Some of the line jumpers had been turned away the day before but were given vouchers granting priority by bank employees.

Police quickly restored order without arrests, and as the day progressed people were divided into two lines that each stretched for an entire block. People wanting to close accounts were let in, in groups of five.

Customer Ann Collier, 67, a retired secretary, also chose IndyMac as her bank because of its high interest rates.

Initially, she was careful to deposit less than $100,000 in her account so it would be fully insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. But over time, her money grew beyond the limit.

She declined to say how much she now might lose.

"I have to live off this money for a long time," she said while waiting in line late Monday outside the Pasadena office.

Lillian Krasn said she had a strange feeling something was wrong when she arrived at the Encino branch a week ago to renew her certificate of deposit, but she went ahead anyway. She came back Tuesday to cash it in and take the money elsewhere - although exactly where, she hadn't decided.

"Where do you go from here?" the 78-year-old retiree asked. "Under your mattress?"

Shortly before noon, two employees of rival Comerica (nyse: CMA - news - people ) bank arrived to hand out water bottles with their business cards taped to them. They said they hoped to scoop up some former IndyMac customers like Krasn.

"One man's loss is another man's treasure - or something like that," said Comerica banker Danny Sobrino.

Meanwhile, as the wait stretched into hours, people donned baseball caps or carried umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. Some fanned themselves with their bank documents as they sweated in temperatures that were already in the 80s by midmorning.

The Office of Thrift Supervision transferred control of the bank to the FDIC on Friday because it didn't think IndyMac could meet depositor demand. Over the weekend, it became IndyMac Federal Bank, FSB, and by Monday morning the scramble by bank customers to recover their money was on.

Shortly before noon Tuesday, the bank provided folding chairs for those who hadn't brought their own, and the line decreased to about 100 as some people were persuaded to schedule appointments and return later.

A few people, such as Aliki Deffam, visited the bank to make deposits. For them, there was no waiting to get inside.

Deffam, a real estate agent, said she believed the FDIC, which is now operating the bank, when it announced that all IndyMac deposits were fully insured up to $100,000.

"I feel very safe," said Deffam, 42. "I don't think that my money is going to disappear."

Many others, however, weren't willing to take that chance - or to leave until they had their money in hand.

"I just can't take their word for it," said Ismelda Quintos, an accountant. "I want to get my money out so I can sleep at night. It's hard-earned money, and I'm not rich, so it's a big deal for me."

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bad Move, says Jim Rogers

July 14 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Treasury Department's plan to shore up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is an ``unmitigated disaster'' and the largest U.S. mortgage lenders are ``basically insolvent,'' according to investor Jim Rogers.

Taxpayers will be saddled with debt if Congress approves U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's request for the authority to buy unlimited stakes in and lend to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Rogers said in a Bloomberg Television interview. Rogers is betting that Fannie Mae shares will keep tumbling.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analyst Daniel Zimmerman said the mortgage finance companies' shares may fall another 35 percent and lowered his share-price estimate for Fannie Mae to $7 from $18 and for Freddie Mac to $5 from $17. Freddie Mac fell 64 cents, or 8.3 percent, to $7.11 in New York Stock Exchange trading, while Fannie Mae fell 52 cents, or 5.1 percent, to $9.73.

``I don't know where these guys get the audacity to take our money, taxpayer money, and buy stock in Fannie Mae,'' Rogers, 65, said in an interview from Singapore. ``So we're going to bail out everybody else in the world. And it ruins the Federal Reserve's balance sheet and it makes the dollar more vulnerable and it increases inflation.''

The chairman of Rogers Holdings, who in April 2006 correctly predicted oil would reach $100 a barrel and gold $1,000 an ounce, also said the commodities bull market has a ``long way to go'' and advised buying agricultural commodities.

`Solvency Crisis'

Billionaire investor Soros said today that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac face a ``solvency crisis,'' not a liquidity one, and that their troubles won't be the last financial disruption, Reuters reported.

``This is a very serious financial crisis and it is the most serious financial crisis of our lifetime,'' Soros told Reuters in a telephone interview. ``It is an idle dream to think that you could have this kind of crisis without the real economy being affected.''

`Going Bankrupt'

Fannie Mae's market value is now about $10 billion, down from $38.9 billion at the end of 2007. Freddie Mac's market value has shrunk to about $5 billion from $22 billion at the end of last year.

``These companies were going to go bankrupt if they hadn't stepped in to do something, and they should've gone bankrupt with all of the mistakes they've made,'' Rogers said. ``What's going to happen when you Band-Aid and put some Band-Aids on it for another year or two or three? What's going to happen three years from now when the situation's much, much, much worse?''

Paulson's proposal, which the Treasury anticipates will be incorporated into an existing congressional bill and approved this week, signals a shift toward an explicit guarantee of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt.

The Federal Reserve separately authorized the firms to borrow directly from the central bank.

Washington-based Fannie Mae slid 45 percent last week, while McLean, Virginia-based Freddie Mac sank 47 percent on concern they may require a bailout that would wipe out shareholders.

Former St. Louis Federal Reserve President William Poole last week said in an interview that Freddie Mac is technically insolvent under fair value accounting, which measure a company's net worth if it had to liquidate all its assets to repay liabilities. Poole said Fannie Mae may also become insolvent this quarter.

Rogers said he had not covered his so-called short positions in Fannie Mae and would increase his bet if it were to rally.

The U.S. economy is in a recession, possibly the worst since World War II, Rogers said.

``They're ruining what has been one of the greatest economies in the world,'' Rogers said. Bernanke and Paulson ``are bailing out their friends on Wall Street but there are 300 million Americans that are going to have to pay for this.''

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fannie and Freddie, R.I.P.

July 14, 2008

Bush Offers Plan to Save Fannie, Freddie

WASHINGTON — Alarmed about the sharply eroding confidence in the nation’s two largest mortgage finance companies, the Bush administration will ask Congress to approve a rescue package that would give the government the authority to buy billions of dollars in stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and also lend to the companies to meet their short-term funding needs, people briefed about the plan said on Sunday.

Separately, the Federal Reserve voted on Sunday to also open a lending facility for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, if they need emergency capital. The two companies would be able to post their own securities as collateral.

The plan calls on Congress to give the government the authority over the next two years to buy an unspecified amount of stock in the two companies. Over the same period of time, it would permit the companies to have greater access to the Treasury, by expanding the credit line that each company has from the Treasury. Each company now has a $2.25 billion credit line, set nearly 40 years ago by Congress. At the time, Fannie had only about $15 billion in outstanding debt. It now has total debt of about $800 billion, while Freddie has about $740 billion.

Today the two companies also hold or guarantee mortgages valued at more than $5 trillion.

As part of the plan, the administration will also call on Congress to raise the national debt limit, people briefed on the plan said. And it will ask Congress to give the Federal Reserve a role in setting the rules for how big a capital cushion each company must hold. Giving the Fed a consulting role in the companies’ oversight is seen as yet another way to reassure nervous markets.

Treasury officials declined to comment on the plan but indicated that a statement would be issued later on Sunday. It was described by lawmakers and officials at other agencies that have been briefed on it.

They said that the Bush administration was hoping that Congress would adopt it quickly as part of a measure intended to help the housing markets and overhaul the regulation of Fannie and Freddie. Last Friday, the Senate approved the measure, and the House is hoping to take it up this week.

Announcement of the plan on Sunday evening was intended to send a sharp signal to both stock markets and debt markets that the government was standing behind the beleaguered companies.

Throughout the weekend, senior officials from the Treasury and the Federal Reserve closely monitored preparations by Freddie Mac to raise money help meet its short-term funding needs. Top officials spent Saturday and Sunday being briefed on Wall Street’s appetite for a $3 billion debt offering by Freddie Mac that was set for Monday. Officials said they were watching to see if the steep declines last week of Freddie and Fannie stock would spill into the debt market and undermine the confidence of lenders.

Fannie and Freddie have grown to become central to the nation’s housing markets. They buy mortgages from banks and other lenders, hold some of them, and sell others in the form of mortgage backed securities. Together, they own or guarantee nearly half the nation’s mortgages. In recent months, the stocks of the two companies have plunged as a wave of foreclosures has eroded confidence in the companies.

The credit line provided by the Treasury to the companies has always been seen by the market place as evidence that the two companies would be rescued by the government if they ever encountered severe financial problems. Yet for many years, a steady of stream of leaders from the Federal Reserve and to officials from Republican and Democratic administrations has denied the existence of a so-called “implicit guarantee.” Those who denied the existence of the guarantee included Treasury secretaries Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Henry M. Paulson Jr., and Federal Reserve Chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben S. Bernanke.

The implicit guarantee was a useful device both for the companies and the federal government. It has enabled the companies to get money in the debt markets at rates far lower than other companies and close to the same as treasury securities. At the same time, the Federal government did not have to record on its budget any significant liabilities for the large subsidy it was, in effecting, providing to the companies. Yet it also raised concerns among critics, who said it was unfair to rival companies and that it promoted a management laxity since executives knew that the companies could always count on a hand from the government if they began to falter.

Now, in the face of market turmoil in recent days, a quiet yet dramatic policy shift has occurred. Government officials no longer deny the existence of a guarantee. Instead, senior officials at both the Fed and the Treasury have been talking in recent days of possibly taking steps to “harden the guarantee.”

Motivating the change was the central role of the two institutions and the depth of ownership in the paper they have issued. Every major bank, and many mutual funds and pension funds and foreign governments, hold significant amounts of securities issued by Fannie and Freddie, which have been viewed over the years as being almost as safe as treasury securities. A default by either one of the companies could be catastrophic for the financial system.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Thanks a lot

July 11, 2008

U.S. Weighs Takeover of Two Mortgage Giants

WASHINGTON — Alarmed by the growing financial stress at the nation’s two largest mortgage finance companies, senior Bush administration officials are considering a plan to have the government take over one or both of the companies and place them in a conservatorship if their problems worsen, people briefed about the plan said on Thursday.

The companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have been hit hard by the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Their shares are plummeting and their borrowing costs are rising as investors worry that the companies will suffer losses far larger than the $11 billion they have already lost in recent months. Now, as housing prices decline further and foreclosures grow, the markets are worried that Fannie and Freddie themselves may default on their debt.

Under a conservatorship, the shares of Fannie and Freddie would be worth little or nothing, and any losses on mortgages they own or guarantee — which could be staggering — would be paid by taxpayers.

The government officials said that the administration had also considered calling for legislation that would offer an explicit government guarantee on the $5 trillion of debt owned or guaranteed by the companies. But that is a far less attractive option, they said, because it would effectively double the size of the public debt.

The officials also said that such a step would be ineffective because the markets already widely accept that the government stands behind the companies.

The officials involved in the discussions stressed that no action by the administration was imminent, and that Fannie and Freddie are not considered to be in a crisis situation. But in recent days, enough concern has built among senior government officials over the health of the giant mortgage finance companies for them to hold a series of meetings and conference calls to discuss contingency plans.

A conservatorship or other rescue operation would be the second time in four months that the Bush administration has stepped in to engineer a rescue to prevent the financial system from collapsing. Last March, it forced the sale of Bear Stearns to JPMorgan Chase to avert a bankruptcy of that venerable investment house.

Officials have also been concerned that the difficulties of the two companies, if not fixed, could damage economies worldwide. The securities of Fannie and Freddie are held by numerous overseas financial institutions, central banks and investors.

Under a 1992 law, Fannie or Freddie could be put into conservatorship if their top regulator found that either one is “critically undercapitalized.” A conservator would have sweeping powers to overhaul them, but would not have the authority to close them.

The markets showed fresh signs on Thursday of being nervous about the future of the companies. Their stock prices continued a weeklong slide, hitting their lowest level in 17 years. The debt markets, meanwhile, pushed up the two companies’ cost of borrowing — their lifeblood for buying mortgages.

The companies are by far the biggest providers of financing for domestic home loans. If they are unable to borrow, they will not be able to buy mortgages from commercial lenders. In turn, that would make it more expensive and difficult, if not impossible, for home buyers to obtain credit, freezing the United States housing market. Even healthy banks are reluctant to tie up scarce capital by offering mortgages to low-risk home buyers without Fannie and Freddie taking the loans off their books.

Together the two companies touch more than half of the nation’s $12 trillion in mortgages by either owning them or backing them. They hold more than $1.5 trillion of the mortgages as securities. Others are sold to investors in the form of mortgage-backed bonds.

In recent weeks, the companies have spiraled downward, undermined by declining confidence in their future and shaken by sharp declines in their assets as the housing markets have continued to slide and foreclosures have risen.

In the last week alone, Freddie has lost 45 percent of its value, and Fannie is off 30 percent. Expectations of default at the companies have also risen; it costs three times as much today to buy insurance on a two-year Fannie bond as it did three years ago.

Analysts expect the companies to announce a new round of write-downs and possibly be forced to raise capital by issuing additional shares, which would dilute their value for current shareholders.

Despite repeated assurances from regulators about the financial soundness of the two institutions, financial markets have concluded that by some measures they are deeply troubled.

Freddie, for instance, is technically insolvent under fair value accounting rules, in which the company puts a market value on assets as if it had to sell them now.

Although Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, passed up invitations by lawmakers on Thursday to seek legislation to deal with the crisis, officials said that the administration had been privately considering a government takeover should the markets continue to turn against the companies.

At a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday, both Mr. Paulson and Mr. Bernanke were guarded, carefully trying not to say anything that could further erode confidence in Fannie and Freddie. They both said that the regulator of Fannie and Freddie had found that they were, in the words of Mr. Paulson, “adequately capitalized,” meaning that they had sufficient cash and other assets to withstand the turbulence in the markets.

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are also working through this challenging period,” Mr. Paulson said.

Neither official would address a question posed by Representative Dennis Moore, Democrat of Kansas, who asked whether the failure of either institution would pose a risk to the financial system.

“In today’s world I don’t think it is helpful to speculate about any financial institution and systemic risk,” Mr. Paulson said. “I’m dealing with the here and now, and the important role that they’re playing and other financial institutions are playing.”

Mr. Bernanke said that Fannie and Freddie “are well-capitalized in the regulatory sense” but added that they, and other major financial institutions, needed to raise their capital levels further.

Despite repeated denials by officials in the Bush and prior administrations, financial markets have long assumed the government would stand behind Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in times of difficulty, both because they are integral to the housing and financial markets and because the companies have a line of credit to the Treasury.

But Congress set that credit more than 38 years ago, long before the companies rose to such size and prominence, and its limit, $2.25 billion for each, has become a tiny fraction of the companies’ overall debt.

Some analysts have begun to propose that the Fed also permit the two companies to borrow from it, as Wall Street investment banks began doing after the rescue of Bear Stearns. But there is no indication that the Fed is contemplating such a move.

On Thursday, the rapid sell-off of shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac came after a former central banker made comments that the companies might not be solvent, and an analyst at UBS issued a report critical of Freddie Mac.

The turmoil also shook the debt of the companies, with one main measure indicating that their cost of borrowing has risen to the highest level since mid-March, when the government rescued Bear Stearns. Throughout the day, senior officials sought to reassure the markets about the financial health of Fannie and Freddie.

Later in the afternoon, James B. Lockhart, the regulator who oversees the two companies, issued a statement that his agency was carefully watching the companies’ “credit and capital positions” and said that they were adequate to get through the current turmoil.

Fannie Mae issued a statement saying that it remained financially strong.

“Our company has raised more than $14 billion in capital since November 2007, including $7.4 billion most recently in May,” the company said. “As our regulator has stated, and has reiterated in public statements this week, we are adequately capitalized.”

Sharon McHale, vice president for public relations at Freddie Mac, said: “Our regulator has emphasized that we have continued to maintain the highest capital rating, and we are in the market every day. We’ll continue to do so.”

Shares of Freddie Mac plunged more than 30 percent and Fannie Mae’s more than 20 percent in the first hour of trading on Thursday. By the close of trading, Fannie shares had fallen nearly 14 percent, and Freddie shares had dropped 22 percent. It was the second straight day of declines for the companies.

While their stocks trade on the New York Stock Exchange, Congress created the two companies to promote housing, and the marketplace has long come to believe that they would be bailed out should they become insolvent. They hold a far lower level of capital than banks do. In recent years, they have both suffered from accounting scandals and management shake-ups.

Neither Mr. Paulson nor Mr. Bernanke, at the hearing on Thursday, would answer a question about whether Congress needs to give the regulators more tools to deal with the possible insolvency at either company.

“I don’t think we should be speculating or talking about what-if’s with any particular institutions, and so with Fannie or Freddie, what I’m emphasizing is that the tool that I want is the reform and the reform legislation that would inject confidence into the marketplace,” Mr. Paulson said, referring to a measure that would revamp the oversight of the companies.

The problems of the two companies spilled onto the campaign trail on Thursday when Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, said he supported federal intervention to save Fannie or Freddie from collapsing.

“Those institutions, Fannie and Freddie, have been responsible for millions of Americans to be able to own their own homes, and they will not fail, we will not allow them to fail,” Mr. McCain said during a stop at the Senate Coney Island Restaurant in Livonia, Mich. “They are vital to Americans’ ability to own their own homes. And we will do what’s necessary to make sure that they continue that function.”

Jason Furman, the economic policy director for the Democratic presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, said that Mr. Obama “believes the Bush administration’s willful neglect of warning signs in housing, in financial markets and in the job market, have compromised the nation’s housing finance system.”

“The challenges facing Fannie and Freddie are part of the broader weakness in our economy,” Mr. Furman said.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, said that the markets should rest assured that the mortgage giants have a “federal lifeline” and would not be allowed to fail — though he said he thought a government rescue would not be needed and should be a last resort.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Fat Lady is warming up

July 10 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. foreclosure filings rose 53 percent in June from a year earlier and bank repossessions almost tripled as deteriorating property values and higher payments on adjustable mortgages forced more people to give up their homes.

More than 252,000 properties, or one in every 501 U.S. households, were in some stage of foreclosure, RealtyTrac Inc., an Irvine, California-based seller of default data, said today in a statement. Nevada, California and Arizona had the highest foreclosure rates.

``The foreclosure problem is getting worse and will stay with us well into the next decade,'' Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said in an interview. ``The job market is eroding and homeowners have less equity. Lenders are much less willing to work with you if you've got negative equity, and you're more likely to give up your house if you're deeply underwater.''

About $3.5 trillion in homeowner equity has been wiped out since the spring of 2006, when housing prices were at their peak, Zandi said. Home prices fell the most on record in April, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index of 20 U.S. metropolitan areas. June was the second straight month in which more than a quarter million properties received foreclosure filings, RealtyTrac said. Filings fell 3 percent from May.

`Faster Pace'

``The year-over-year increase of more than 50 percent indicates we have not yet reached the top of this foreclosure cycle,'' James Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac, said in the statement. Bank repossessions, which increased 171 percent in June, are rising at a ``much faster pace'' than default notices and auction notices, he said.

About 53 percent of borrowers with subprime loans, those with poor or incomplete credit histories, will have negative equity in their homes at the end of the year, and the number will rise to 63 percent in 2009, New York-based analysts at Credit Suisse led by Rod Dubitsky said in an April 23 report.

Rising mortgage defaults and auctions of foreclosed properties are adding to a glut of unsold homes and prolonging the deepest housing slump since the 1930s. Efforts by the U.S. Congress to insure as much as $300 billion in refinanced mortgages and save up to 2 million borrowers from foreclosure can work only by ``slowing down or reversing home price declines and equity deterioration,'' Credit Suisse said.

Nevada had the highest foreclosure rate for the 18th consecutive month. One in every 122 households was in some stage of foreclosure, more than four times the national average, and 3,133 properties in the state were seized by lenders, said RealtyTrac. The company has a database of more than 1.5 million properties and monitors foreclosure filings including default notices, auction notices and bank seizures.

California, Arizona

California ranked second, with one filing for every 192 households, 2.6 times the national average, and had 20,624 properties seized by banks. Arizona ranked third at one in 201 households, almost 2.5 times the national average, and had 4,297 bank seizures.

Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana and Utah also ranked among the 10 states with the highest foreclosure rates.

California had seven of the 10 U.S. metro areas with the highest rates, including the top three. Stockton, in the state's central valley, was first with one in every 72 households in a stage of foreclosure, followed by Merced, about 110 miles east of San Francisco, with one in 77 households, and Modesto, near the Sierra Nevada mountains, with one in 86 households. Riverside-San Bernardino ranked fifth, Vallejo-Fairfield was seventh, Bakersfield was eighth and Salinas-Monterey was tenth.

`Beyond the Sprawl'

``The housing beyond the sprawl is going to suffer another serious leg down because of high oil prices,'' Peter Navarro, professor of economics and public policy at the University of California at Irvine, said in an interview. ``A lot of people went out there to get cheaper homes, but this is going to take a big bite out of their mortgage.''

Cape Coral-Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, ranked fourth and ninth, respectively, and Las Vegas was sixth among metro areas with the 10 highest foreclosure rates.

California had the most total filings for the 18th consecutive month, increasing 77 percent in June from a year earlier to 68,666. Florida was second at 40,351 filings, an increase of 92 percent, and Ohio was third at 13,194, an increase of 11 percent.

New York filings increased 22 percent from a year earlier to 5,367, with one in every 1,473 households in a stage of foreclosure, the 32nd highest rate.

New Jersey filings rose 5 percent. The state had one in every 695 households in a stage of foreclosure, the 14th highest rate.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Starbucks closing 600 stores in the US

Tuesday July 1, 10:44 pm ET
By Jessica Mintz, AP Business Writer

Starbucks closing 600 US stores, most opened in the last 2 years SEATTLE (AP) -- For a decade it appeared there was no such thing as too many Starbucks for U.S. coffee drinkers, whose willingness to buy its $4 lattes and dark drip brews rationalized a second green-and-white mermaid awning just down the street -- and sometimes even a third.

But in a sign that those days are over, Starbucks Corp. announced Tuesday it will close 600 company-operated stores in the next year as the faltering U.S. economy hastened the pain caused by the company's own rapid expansion.

Starbucks did not say which stores will be closed, only that they are spread throughout the country. But it did say 70 percent of those slated for closure had opened after the start of 2006.

To put it another way, Starbucks is closing 19 percent of all U.S. company-operated stores that opened in the last two years, Chief Financial Officer Pete Bocian said during a conference call.

About 12,000 workers, or 7 percent of Starbucks' global work force, will be affected by the closings, which are expected to take place between late July and the middle of 2009, spokeswoman Valerie O'Neil said.

O'Neil said most employees will be moved to nearby stores, but she did not know exactly how many jobs will be lost. Starbucks estimated $8 million in severance costs.

In total, the company forecast up to $348 million in charges related to the closures, $200 million to be booked in the fiscal third quarter ended June 30. Starbucks reports third-quarter results at the end of July.

The company had previously planned to shut 100 stores. The 500 more that will be closed had been on an internal watch list for some time. They were not profitable, not expected to be profitable in the foreseeable future, and the "vast majority" had been opened near an existing company-operated Starbucks, Bocian said.

Some analysts had wondered whether Starbucks' explosive growth in the U.S. would come back to haunt it as the market became saturated.

But before Tuesday, the company avoided acknowledging that saturation was an issue and pinned weak financial results and adjustments to new store openings on the economy.

During the call, Bocian said that between 25 and 30 percent of a Starbucks shop's revenue is cannibalized when a new store opens nearby, and that the closures should help return some of that revenue to the remaining stores.

Bocian said there aren't a material number of stores left on the watch list, but that the company will hold remaining stores to the same standards.

Starbucks still plans to open new stores in fiscal 2009, but on Tuesday it cut that number in half to fewer than 200. The company did not adjust its plan to open fewer than 400 stores in 2010 and 2011.

"We believe we still have opportunities to open new locations with strong returns on capital," Bocian said.

During the conference call, the CFO echoed concerns about the economy expressed by Chief Executive Howard Schultz in May, when the company attributed a 28 percent drop in profit to less traffic from U.S. consumers who were feeling the pinch of higher food and gas prices.

At the end of March, there were 16,226 Starbucks stores around the world. The company operates 7,257 of those stores in the U.S. and 1,867 abroad; the remaining 7,102 locations are run by partners who license the Starbucks brand.

Shares of Seattle-based Starbucks jumped 72 cents, or 4.6 percent, to $16.34 in after-hours trading after losing 12 cents to close at $15.62.

Anatomy of a bank failure: When the liquidators come calling

Charleston.Net Logo

Damian Paletta
Wall Street Journal
Sunday, June 8, 2008

— At 7 p.m. on Friday, Mayor Chris Etzler walked through the back door of First Integrity Bank. The lobby should have been closed for the weekend, but dozens of strangers in dark suits were bustling about with laptops and file boxes. Someone had just delivered 32 pizzas.

Dan Walker, a top official with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., a Washington, D.C., bank regulator, had summoned Etzler to explain what was going on: The FDIC had just taken over First Integrity.

“All the deposits are safe,” Walker tried to reassure the mayor. “Nobody is going to have any problems.”

It isn’t easy for 75 federal officials and contractors to slip into a small town undetected and liquidate an 89-year-old bank without anyone knowing. But that’s what just happened in this old railroad town, population 3,200. It’s a scene that’s likely to repeat itself across the country as banks struggle through a painful credit cycle, overwhelmed by troubled mortgages and soured construction loans.

First Integrity, which had two branches and $55 million in assets, was the fourth FDIC-insured bank to fail this year. That’s one more than during the entire three-year stretch leading up to 2008. Some analysts predict that as many as 150 banks, mostly small and medium-size, could fail over the next three years.

In its role as receiver for failed banks, the FDIC acts as a SWAT team, playing equal parts secret agent, medical examiner, salesman and grief counselor. The first 48 hours are typically the most frantic, as the agency must turn a failed bank inside out and oversee its sale — or its orderly burial.

Secrecy is paramount to prevent a panic among the locals and a run on the bank. That could sink a bank and lead to runs on neighboring institutions. Banks only retain a percentage of their deposits in cash, and use the rest for things like loans, which means they don’t have enough money on hand if everyone demands their deposits back at once. Created after the Great Depression to prevent such scares, the FDIC insures deposits at more than 8,000 banks, covering up to $100,000 per depositor in most cases.

To keep a low profile, FDIC officials often use personal credit cards while in town. Many will tell curious strangers they work in insurance. In the case of First Integrity, Mr. Walker rented a conference room in a town 30 minutes away for a meeting of “Robinson & Associates,” and a sign near his hotel’s front door welcomed the fictitious company.

The FDIC allowed a Wall Street Journal reporter to go along with its team in Staples this past weekend, offering a rare window into a little-known government task force.

Despite the military-style planning that goes into taking over a bank, things can go wrong. Once, a local motel guessed the feds were coming and put up a welcome banner on the marquee. Another time, FDIC officials hired a hypnotist to get a confused bank employee to remember the vault code. Sometimes, locals pull up lawn chairs and watch from across the street.

Walker, 61 years old, has been a part of 10 bank closings, but First Integrity was his first time in charge. Before becoming a regulator, he spent four years in the Army and 12 in the Texas National Guard.

In late April, Walker flew to Minneapolis to plot a strategy in case the bank failed. The FDIC knew First Integrity was in trouble because its capital reserves had evaporated, and the delinquent loans on its books more than doubled in 12 months. Many of the bad loans were tied to Florida real estate. The FDIC is still sorting through the bank’s records and wouldn’t elaborate. David Duhn, the former president of First Integrity, didn’t return calls for comment.

On that first trip, Walker visited the bank’s headquarters in Staples. He then drove seven miles east to First Integrity’s other branch in the tiny town of Motley, to get a feel for its layout and size. He strolled in and asked to exchange a couple of dollar bills for commemorative state quarters. The teller obliged. He took a look around. And then he left.

As First Integrity’s health worsened, the bank was unable to find a buyer. Regulators picked a date to swoop in. Ken Jarzombek is an FDIC official in charge of all the groundwork for a takeover team, from acquiring printers to ordering pizzas. He called the Todd County sheriff’s office and notified them that a “government agency” could be coming to town and would pay deputies overtime to assist it. Jarzombek has worked on about 60 bank failures and says law-enforcement officials often try to push him for specifics. “I try to beat around the bush,” he says.

On Wednesday, Walker and other top FDIC officials flew in. They set up a base in a hotel in Baxter, not far from Staples. They recorded the estimated drive time to Staples and scouted for a place to park 50 rental cars.

A onetime railroad and lumber town in central Minnesota, Staples is now a shadow of its vibrant days. The old opera house closed decades ago, and the town is working to refurbish its main landmark, a train depot across the street from the bank. Todd County is one of Minnesota’s poorest areas, and some residents say First Integrity’s failure will be another tough chapter in their history.

On Thursday, a local newspaper, the Staples World, printed an article about the troubled bank and raised the possibility it could be liquidated. Walker was alarmed; this could cause a panic. An FDIC official stationed inside the bank monitored the lobby. Only when it was clear customers weren’t swarming the place did regulators relax.

Friday morning, minutes after First Integrity opened for the last time, Walker sat in his hotel’s conference room and watched the other FDIC officials file in. He waited for someone to close the door before he spoke. “Is anybody in here not supposed to be at a meeting of Robinson & Associates?” he asked. No one said a word.

There was little room for error. A Watford City, N.D., bank, First International Bank & Trust, had tentatively agreed to acquire roughly 75 percent of First Integrity’s assets, worth about $36 million, and all of its deposits, for a premium of $2 million. The FDIC would retain the loans and assets First International didn’t want, and try to collect as much of the loans outstanding as possible. First International planned to open the lobby Saturday morning to assuage the community.

Late in the afternoon on Friday, Walker and a few others began the 30-minute drive to Staples. They walked into the bank and began the formal proceedings. Officials from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a division of the Treasury Department, revoked First Integrity’s charter and appointed the FDIC as receiver.

Walker went into the lobby and introduced himself to the shaken staff. “We understand what you are going through,” he recalls telling them. No one asked questions, and Walker offered one warning: “It’s going to be crowded,” he said.

The rest of the FDIC officials then swarmed in. Armed sheriff’s deputies moved to the doors to stand guard. FDIC officials put tape on some interior doors to prevent them from automatically locking.

By the time the mayor arrived, the agency had already restored access to the automated-teller machine for depositors and changed the bank’s Web site. The vaults were secure.

A crowd of people stood on the sidewalk across the street at a bar called Gary’s Place — a rumor was spreading about a bank robbery. Once they learned deposits were safe, most went back inside.

“We’re going to be out of here as fast as we can,” Mr. Walker told the mayor, Etzler, who had rushed over from his daughter’s high-school graduation. “It will just be a brief blip in history — that’s it.”

Etzler looked relieved. “Just the uncertainty and the questions that have been floating around, to get some finalization to it,” he said.

Some FDIC officials stayed at the bank until 1 a.m. Saturday morning, and many returned seven hours later. By Sunday, almost all of the bank’s files were in boxes and the vaults were being cataloged.

Local residents said the FDIC officials seemed to come out of nowhere. “I didn’t know they were coming, but we knew when they were here,” said Becky Hasselberg, 58, who has lived in Staples her whole life. “People in suits and ties walked into the coffee shop. They weren’t too casual.”

Monday morning the bank reopened. A temporary sign out front read “First International Bank & Trust — Member FDIC.”

Copyright © 1997 - 2007 the Evening Post Publishing Co.