The Presidential Mortgage Refi

Six days ago, at the end of a blog post (September 2, Blutarsky’s GPA), we indicated a concern regarding mortgage-backed securities, that during today’s speech a mortgage refinance proposal would be launched that would be a backdoor to QE3.

Almost in passing tonight, the President mentioned his intention to provide refinancing to qualified homeowners at 4% — in the name of creating jobs.

If this American Jobs Act were to pass Congress, the refinancing provision alone would allow $1 trillion dollars of mortgage-backed securities to roll off the books of the Federal Reserve.  Since the Federal Reserve has pledged to buy Treasury bonds with the proceeds of any mortgage roll-offs, this would be a $1 trillion quantitative easing without the public being aware of the stealth QE.

Sneaky, but well played.

From an investment perspective, the prepayment risk puts mortgage-backed security investments in peril.  If $1 trillion in stealth money creation passes, it’s jet fuel for risk assets and a huge negative for the U.S. dollar.

Keep an eye on MBS, the USD, and all things risk to assess the probability that this sneaky QE will actually go through.

I trust the markets (particularly the bond market) to tell the truth.

Far more than any political speech.

Pass me a Dilly Bar, a Coke, and 700 million Bank of America warrants, please.

Today, the Ogre… I mean, Oracle… of Omaha made another red, white, and blue investment on behalf of the good old USA.  And in true down-home, golly-gee fashion, Buffett claims he didn’t come up with this investment idea immediately after his recent economic conversation with Mr. Obama.  Rather, it came to him yesterday morning as he soaked in the modest porcelain bathtub of his even more modest Nebraska home (try not to visualize it;  you can’t gouge out your mind’s eye!).

According to CNBC’s Becky Quick, “He says he just dreamt this idea up on Wednesday morning while he was in the bathtub.”

Gosh, that’s a swell story, Mrs. Quick.

Good ol’ Warren has a bathtub revelation and the most endangered bank in the country ends up with $5 billion in new capital.

And everytime a bell rings an angel gets her wings.

Now might be a good time to take a look at the details of the deal… just to make sure Buffett has our best interest in mind.

  • First, he bought $5 billion of preferred stock.  That puts his claim ahead of all the common stock shareholders of BAC.  Point, Buffett.
  • Second, based on the 6% dividend on the preferred stock, Buffett will receive $300 million in income each year. If I remember the crazy rules of corporate accounting, these dividends paid to Berkshire Hathaway bring a major tax advantage known as the dividends-received deduction.  This particular aspect of the tax code allows corporations to exclude 70% of the interest they’re paid when calculating taxes.  On the back of a napkin this means that good ol’ Warren’s tax rate on these dividends will effectively be about 10.5%.  Wait…That’s not the kind of tax rate he was proclaiming he and all his rich friends should be paying.  So  I guess, he’s going to add a little extra $ to his 4/15 payment lest his secretary pay a higher tax rate than he.  Or not.  Point Buffett.
  • Third, the “bathtub revelation” gave Buffett warrants to purchase 700 million shares of Bank of America at $7.14 over the next 10 years.  Today alone, the gains in BAC’s stock (largely and circularly due to the Buffett cash infusion) already generated about $400 million in profits if the warrants were executed right now.  And those gains are capital gains.  This time next year they will only be taxable at the 15% rate.  It’s a shame that this simple man, who only wants to pay his “fair share, ” keeps falling into a plethora of tax-favored transactions.  Point, Game, Match, Buffett.

So, what can be deduced from an investment perspective?  I’ll go with the following:

  • Despite their claims, Bank of America needed capital.  And $5B may not be enough.  Looking at their mortgage book, another $10B may be called for.
  • The government was unable or unwilling to step into another bank recapitalization.  So, Warren “independently” solved the immediate problem while contemplating in his tub.
  • Buffett did what Buffett does.  He successfully pulled a similar maneuver on Goldman Sachs a few years ago, and he did it again (only larger) this time with Bank of America.  He seldom makes stupid decisions, so one has to raise the probability that Bank of America will survive.  But the larger, and more bearish, issue is the same as that which was in place when he bailed out GS…  How bad is the environment when one of the world’s largest banks needs to strike an asymmetrically poor deal with a private investor to stay afloat?

While on the surface, Buffett’s infusion of cash could easily be interpreted as a bullish signal for the banks (“Buffett is investing, so banks must be a good investment for me”), I’d postulate that it may well be an indication of banking trouble…  perhaps even deeper than we realized even yesterday.

An update from Europe

The morning started with abysmal growth numbers coming out of Western Europe.  But, there was a hint of hope as Germany and France sat down to work on solidifying an approach to dealing with the European sovereign crisis.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel emerged from their meeting this afternoon…  and the markets saw their shadow.

The new initiatives they announced were poorly accepted, by banks in particular.  Below is a summary of their conclusions:

  • There will be no immediate plans to issue joint Euro bonds.  Merkel called the idea of a Euro bond the “last resort.”  The market was hoping for greater acceptance of the Euro bond idea, and the lack of support was a source of disappointment.
  • They announced that the EFSF bailout fund (44o billion Euro) was sufficient to handle Europe’s sovereign debt problems.  They may be the only two people on the planet who believe that.
  • They floated the idea of a financial transaction tax to help raise “revenue.”   A new tax…  how very European.
  • They promoted the idea of a common Economic Governance Institution.         Huh?

It seems the decision-makers in Europe remain content tinkering on the margin until things escalate to the point where emergency action is required.  This pattern has dominated since the sovereign crisis began.  Hopefully the crisis won’t spread to the banking system while we wait.

In the short-term, the idea of a financial transaction tax could have a very negative impact on their markets.  Historically (and logically) transaction taxes are met with market sell-offs.  Another example of the “Law of Unintended Consequences” being applied.

Some random thoughts and observations

Warren Buffoon

This morning I had the misfortune of reading Warren Buffett’s op-ed in the New York Times.  As has become his regular mantra, he once again bemoaned the fact that he and his chums aren’t being taxed enough.

Is it possible that the tax code is NOT the reason for his remarkably low tax rate (~17.4%)?  Or is it more probable that he and his peers take their income in a tax-favored manner (i.e. long-term capital gains and qualified dividends) with the conscious effort of increasing their after-tax ROR and avoiding the payment of payroll taxes?  I mean, this is the guy who, when asked about the holding period for companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway replied, “Our favorite holding period is forever.”  Perhaps Warren is advocating a tax on unrealized gains…  which is the only way taxes can be extracted from a holding period of forever.  I somehow doubt he’d back that proposal in Congress.

His op-ed then went from merely disingenuous to pure pandering with this dilly:   “While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks.”  Nothing says “humble” like invoking our country’s service men and women in the same sentence as “we mega-rich.”

Warren then added, “I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people. They love America and appreciate the opportunity this country has given them. Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.”

Well if any of you are email pals with Mr. Buffett  or his mega-rich, decent, friends ( I don’t think he (nor they) reads our blog), you can tell him he’s in luck.  Just direct him to click on the attached link:

From TreasuryDirect Website, the link brings you to “Gift Contributions to Reduce Debt Held by the Public, ” and reads:

The Bureau of the Public Debt may accept gifts donated to the United States Government to reduce debt held by the public. Acting for the Secretary of the Treasury, Public Debt may accept a gift of:

  • Money, made only on the condition that it be used to reduce debt held by the public.

He can just fill out the form, attach a check for a couple of $ Billion, and feel better about his efforts to reduce our nation’s debt.

I have to assume he just didn’t know what to Google to find the link on his own, since in 2010 voluntary contributions to reduce the Federal Debt only totaled $2.8 million.  It certainly couldn’t have anything to do with hypocrisy.

Money Market Funds Update

Last week, Citi downgraded Federated Investors on fears that the Fed’s Zero Interest Rate Policy for the next two years would hurt Federated’s earnings.  45% of Federated’s revenue comes from its money market mutual funds.

Then today, this from a Federated communication:

“Due to current market conditions, Federated is reducing certain fees and/or payments on several money market funds in an attempt to help the funds maintain a zero or positive net yield.  The current unsteady and volatile market environment has created an overall flight to quality in the marketplace, with investors seeking liquidity and safety in money market mutual funds.  This significantly heightened the demand for liquidity of principal and short-term securities lowered yield of money market funds throughout the industry as well as at Federated.”

So, it appears that savers are confronting two problems:  1) European bank paper exposure in domestic money market funds (although this exposure has been reduced significantly in recent weeks), and 2) zero or negative net yields.  This dovetails with BONY/Mellon’s decision last week to charge 0.13% on large cash deposits.

The push to force savers into risk assets seems to be continuing unabated.

Mutual Fund Redemptions

A lot of mutual funds were redeemed post-Lehman in 2008.  Something along the order of $9.2 Billion.  Last week’s “interesting” market action sent more retail investors to the sidelines than even during that horrible week in 2008.  Last week, $9.4 Billion was redeemed.  You have to go back to the bursting of the tech bubble to find an historical equivalent.  Billions of dollars flowing into zero or negative yielding securities.  I guess the old adage that “a return of capital is more important than a return on capital” was definitely in play last week.

Richard Nixon and the Gold Standard

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of the United States coming off the gold standard in exchange for fiat currency.  Nixon announced this on Sunday night — needing to get the news out before the markets opened on Monday.  His announcement did, however, preempt the day’s most popular show, Bonanza, bringing him grief from a whole bunch of people who knew all about the Cartwright family even if they didn’t know how to spell Bretton Woods!

Nixon made the decision, “to prevent a run on Fort Knox, which contained only a third of the gold bullion necessary to cover the amount of dollars in foreign hands.”

At the time of the announcement, a dollar could buy 1/35 an ounce of gold.  Today, that same buck will get you 1/1764 an ounce.  Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

HR 2411: Your Government with its Hat in its Hand

The link listed above is from the Library of Congress.  I point that out because under ordinary circumstances, you might assume it came from the Onion, or maybe some right-wing blog making up crazy stories.  If you’re not inclined to read the bill itself, let me summarize:

  1. The name of the bill is “Reduce America’s Debt Now Act of 2011”.  Sounds dreamy…
  2. The basic premise is that employees have the right to voluntarily have a payroll deduction taken from them, the proceeds of which will be directed to the US Treasury solely for the purpose of debt reduction.
  3. Employers will have the burden for accounting, filing, and submitting the deduction.

This is like some maniacal extension of the concept of War Bonds.  Except with War Bonds you got your money back at some point in the future.  In this case, the very entity that created our massive debt is now standing there, hat in hand, asking for a voluntary bailout.  I guess for those among us that feel we’re under-taxed, this is a great way to let us pay our fair share.

Realistically, this bill has no chance of passing —  it’s just too silly.  It’s just another case of political posturing so candidates can claim how they introduced legislation to reduce the debt.  Maybe when their done playing around on the margin, they can find time to implement constructive solutions.

Wait… who’s sounding silly now?