The BBC's Louise Redvers reports on the ghost town of Kilamba, Angola, a horrendously expensive high-rise enclave built by Chinese companies on a line of credit secured with Angolan oil, which has only seen 220 apartments out of 2800 sold. Kilamba is the most ambitious of several new towns being built outside of existing Angoloan cities by Chinese firms.
It's like a bizarro-world version of the Keynsian idea of getting the economy going by paying one group of laborers to dig holes and another to fill them in. But in this case, one group of workers are paid to pump oil, which is offshored to China. In exchange, a group of Chinese workers is paid to build a gate-guarded enclave for a non-existent pool of mega-rich locals that no one can afford to live in, and which gradually turns into a massive liability. Profit!
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The place is eerily quiet, voices bouncing off all the fresh concrete and wide-open tarred roads.
There are hardly any cars and even fewer people, just dozens of repetitive rows of multi-coloured apartment buildings, their shutters sealed and their balconies empty.
Only a handful of the commercial units are occupied, mostly by utility companies, but there are no actual shops on site, and so - with the exception of a new hypermarket located at one entrance - there is nowhere to buy food.
After driving around for nearly 15 minutes and seeing no-one apart from Chinese labourers, many of whom appear to live in containers next to the site, I came across a tiny pocket of life at a school.
The LA Times's Diana Marcum tells the story of the bankruptcy of Stockton, California, a city of about 300,000 people, which has just filed for bankruptcy. The city -- and its developers -- borrowed heavily in the past decade to build a series of follies: a luxury hotel, a marina, a promenade, in a bid to lure people down from the Bay Area. Stockton is a boom-and-bust poster-child, and has just gone through the new AB 506 arbitration procedures set out for municipal defaults in California law, a drawn-out "death of a thousand meetings," and is still headed into bankruptcy.
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Although a city of almost 300,000, Stockton is a place where many families have known one another for generations. The most impassioned speakers argued on behalf of others, with the main rallying cry a plea to keep health insurance for retirees with illnesses. A high school student spoke of his aunt, a retired city worker with cancer, and a retired fire chief spoke of his former secretary who cares for her ill husband.
"People look at me and say, 'Well he can afford his own insurance,' and I can," said Gary Gillis, the retired chief. "But how about the ones who mowed the lawns, went in the sewers, typed my letters? We have to protect the most vulnerable among us."
Experts say there are no clear answers to what comes next for Stockton or how its fall will affect the rest of the state. Other cities hit hard by the housing bust and state budget crisis are negotiating with employee unions for concessions and are watching to see if municipal bankruptcy proves medicine or poison.
An award-winning Chase vice-president has gone public with accusations that his bank deliberately tricked naive borrowers into taking out high-commission loans they could never pay back (his team wrote $2B in loans during the subprime bubble), putting the lie to the narrative that subprime was about greedy borrowers taking money they knew they shouldn't:
A Banker Speaks, With Regret
One memory particularly troubles Theckston. He says that some account executives earned a commission seven times higher from subprime loans, rather than prime mortgages. So they looked for less savvy borrowers — those with less education, without previous mortgage experience, or without fluent English — and nudged them toward subprime loans.
These less savvy borrowers were disproportionately blacks and Latinos, he said, and they ended up paying a higher rate so that they were more likely to lose their homes. Senior executives seemed aware of this racial mismatch, he recalled, and frantically tried to cover it up.
Theckston, who has a shelf full of awards that he won from Chase, such as “sales manager of the year,” showed me his 2006 performance review. It indicates that 60 percent of his evaluation depended on him increasing high-risk loans.
In late 2008, when the mortgage market collapsed, Theckston and most of his colleagues were laid off. He says he bears no animus toward Chase, but he does think it is profoundly unfair that troubled banks have been rescued while troubled homeowners have been evicted.
(via Naked Capitalism
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Georgia Judge Dennis Blackmon has rejected a petition from U.S. Bank to throw out a complaint from a homeowner whose mortgage the bank refused to modify, without explanation. The judge didn't mince words on his opinion of the bank's motion:
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The order lays the case out like this: Phillips is in danger of foreclosure. U.S. Bank is among the "poorly run organizations" that recently received massive bailouts from the federal government and agreed to participate in the Obama administration's Home Affordable Modification Program. When Phillips applied for a modification, the bank denied his request "without numbers, figures, or explanation, reasoning, comparison to guidelines, or anything..."
"This court cannot imagine why U.S. Bank will not make known to Mr. Phillips, a taxpayer, how his numbers put him outside the federal guidelines to receive a loan modification," Blackmon continued. "Taking $20 billion of taxpayer money was no problem for U.S. Bank. A cynical judge might believe that this entire motion to dismiss is a desperate attempt to avoid a discovery period, where U.S. Bank would have to tell Mr. Phillips how his financial situation did not qualify him for a modification."
If Phillips didn't qualify, Blackmon wrote -- with apologies to folksinger Arlo Guthrie -- why didn't the bank say so with "mathematic equations, pie charts, and bar graphs, all on 8 by 10 glossy photo paper, with circles and arrows and paragraphs on the back explaining each winning number"?
"Maybe U.S. Bank no longer has any of the $20 billion left, and so their lack of written explanation might be attributed to some kind of ink reduction program to save money," Blackmon continued.
An Atlanta police officer sent an email to Occupy Atlanta protesters asking for help with his house, which is under threat of foreclosure (when the family tried to refinance their mortgage, the bank responded with a foreclosure notice). Dozens of Atlanta occupiers shifted their camp to the house's lawn, erecting "This home is occupied" signs and promising to put their bodies between the house and the sheriff's deputies when the eviction comes. The neighbors are highly supportive.
Last week, Tawanna Rorey’s husband, a police officer based in Gwinnett County, e-mailed Occupy Atlanta to explain that his home was going to be foreclosed on and his family was in danger of being evicted on Monday. So within a few hours Occupy Atlanta developed an action plan to move to Snellville, Georgia on Monday to stop the foreclosure. At least two dozen protesters encamped on the family’s lawn, to the applause of neighbors and bystanders.
Occupy Atlanta Encamps In Neighborhood To Save Police Officer’s Home From Foreclosure
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A canny gentleman has taken adverse possession of a $300K McMansion in Flower Mound, TX. The house had been in foreclosure and the mortgage company that held its paper had gone under, so Kenneth Robinson spent $16 filing adverse possession paperwork with the county courthouse. He's living there without power or water, but if he stays for three years, the house is his. Predictably, his neighbors are upset because he figured out how to legally acquire a house without going into hock for the rest of his life.
But, Robinson said just by setting up camp in the living room, Texas law gives him exclusive negotiating rights with the original owner. If the owner wants him out, he would have to pay off his massive mortgage debt and the bank would have to file a complicated lawsuit...
Stranger moves into foreclosed home, citing little-knownTexas law
Robinson posted "no trespassing" signs after neighbors asked police to arrest him for breaking in...
Lowrie and her neighbors continue to look for legal ways to get him out. They are talking to the mortgage company, real estate agents and attorneys. They're convinced he broke into the house to take possession, but Robinson told News 8 he found a key and he gained access legally.
"If he wants the house, buy the house like everyone else had to," Lowrie said. "Get the money, buy the house."
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A man in Dundee, Ontario had his double-wide portable house ripped off:
It did not take long for police to find the home, as it was located only 10 kilometers north of police headquarters on a plot of land in Proton Station, Ont.
Police find Brampton man's stolen house
The property owner initially produced documents proving the home was his - although these were later found to be fraudulent.
The Southgate man has been charged with theft over $5,000.
(via Lowering the Bar
(Image: double wide trailer, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from pinkmoose's photostream) Read the rest
David Lereah served as economist for the National Association of Realtors and published a series of books advising readers that there was no real estate bubble and that buying highly leveraged property would make them rich. The Amazon reviews sections for these books have become a kind of performance space for highly sarcastic commentary on the conmen who sold America on the idea of going into hock to buy real estate. Here's Mark M:
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I agree with other reviewers who have pointed out that this is, in fact, an extraordinarily important book. In particular, it provides a classic example of the mentality that underlies every asset bubble. The author pulls out every trick in the book - demographic trends, financial innovation, macro trends, etc. - to argue that "this time is different." Alas, as we all have found out, this time was not different. What goes up for no discernible reason, must come down. If something seems to good to be true, it probably is. You can try to argue that the "fundamentals have changed", but they rarely do. And when things correct, it can be bloody. (Alas, the difference here was that the hucksters were also able to take the down the financial system, but that's another matter.)
But why this book is important, and why I'd suggest that every investor read it, is because it illustrates exactly the sentiments that lead to absurd behavior in asset markets. Silly assumptions. The belief that the price of some asset will continue to rise.
Michael W Hudson's book-length investigative journalism piece on the subprime meltdown, The Monster, is both a brilliant example of skeptical business journalism done right, and a brilliant example of the storyteller's art. Hudson combines his meticulous, exhaustively documented research with a novelistic approach to telling the story that strips away all the financial jargon and the cosy justifications and rationalizations and lays bare the heart of the story: greed, depraved indifference, fraud, and a howling moral vacuum that swallowed up people at all levels of finance and financial regulation.
The Monster starts with the S&L crisis, and the fraudsters who destroyed the finances of the ordinary people who'd trusted them, and shows how the worst of the S&L conmen moved on to subprime, founding companies like Ameriquest and FAMCO. People like Richard Arnall, who became a billionaire, was the prime financier behind George W Bush's 2004 presidential bid, and actually served as the US ambassador to the Netherlands, even as he built an empire built on outright, deliberate swindling.
And swindling it was. Hudson leaves no room for doubt here. You may have heard that the subprime collapse was caused by greedy homeowners fudging the facts about their income in order to secure easy credit, but Hudson shows that in the vast majority of cases, the "liar" in the "liar loan" was usually a banker, a mortgage broker, an underwriter, a bond-rater, an appraiser. These are the people who went into poor neighborhoods where vulnerable, poorly educated people had scrimped and saved all their lives to buy their homes and conned them into taking out brutal, lopsided second mortgages, lying to them, bilking them out of 20% (or more!) in upfront fees, lying some more, forging documents, and then handing off the mortgages to Wall Street to launder out as toxic bonds. Read the rest
According to Case-Shiller/S&P, US housing prices have fallen to levels not seen since the 1890s (adjusted for inflation, of course), in 11 of 20 markets. It looks like this is slightly skewed by the serious economic problems in rustbelt cities, which is not to say that things aren't pretty terrible -- and the same analysis predicts a further decline of 15-20%.
Some years back, Yale Professor Robert Shiller produced a long-run nominal home price index for the U.S. by fusing together data that had been gathered from a number of historical archives.
Home prices falling to level of 1890s
House prices plummet in Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland - Boing Boing
What happens to junk left behind in foreclosed homes? - Boing Boing
September 2008 crash cost $108K per US household - Boing Boing
Depressing million-dollar London homes - Boing Boing
Artists buying cheap houses in Detroit - Boing Boing
Daily Show on the housing crisis: Why can't Geithner sell his ... Read the rest
Shiller then adjusted the index for inflation revealing the very interesting fact that, in real terms, prices for U.S. homes changed very little over the span from 1890 to the mid-1990s.
This might come as a surprise to many since recent "common sense" notions held that homes were always a great investment carrying the implication that they must typically increase in value yet, the reality is that over the long run home prices must stay in-line with changes in the level of income (the source generally used to fund the home cost) or else typical households would not be capable of making a purchase.
Michael "Liar's Poker" Lewis has a fantastic, captivating piece on the Irish econopocalypse in the new Vanity Fair
. Lewis ranges freely from slice-of-life observations about Dublin as a city occupied by foreign management consultants trying to figure out what to do with the disastrous worst-of-the-worst banks, to the history of the Celtic Tiger economy, to the ebb and tide of Polish workers in Ireland as an economic indicator, to the incredible and bizarre housing boom that, inevitably, turned into a world-class bust. It's vintage Lewis, gripping, savage, illuminating:
Even in an era when capitalists went out of their way to destroy capitalism, the Irish bankers set some kind of record for destruction. Theo Phanos, a London hedge-fund manager with interests in Ireland, says that "Anglo Irish was probably the world's worst bank. Even worse than the Icelandic banks."
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Ireland's financial disaster shared some things with Iceland's. It was created by the sort of men who ignore their wives' suggestions that maybe they should stop and ask for directions, for instance. But while Icelandic males used foreign money to conquer foreign places--trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia--the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another. An Irish economist named Morgan Kelly, whose estimates of Irish bank losses have been the most prescient, made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros.
Barry Ritholz sez,
In this case, what she wrote is not technically incorrect, but its very misleading. The lowest this rate has been over the past few decades is 8.5%. So while 11% sounds shocking, it is only somewhat elevated after the worst housing crash in the US since the Great Depression.
The typical data point used to describe vacant homes is the Home Ownership Vacancy Rate. In the US, that number is 2.7% for owner occupied houses and 9% for rental properties, apartments, etc.
The sensationalistic number referenced in the CNBC story (repeated by Consumerist) is not commonly used -- indeed, its towards the end of the Census Bureau release that reports such things.
What it references is the total number of structures that are unoccupied -- this includes a whole laundry list of empty properties -- abandoned old farm houses, (Not sure if vacation properties/second homes are included -- I need to check that). No one usually pays much attention to this number, as it provides very little useful insight.
Welcome to America after the housing bubble, where, according to the census, 11 percent of homes are vacant:
Now to vacancies. There were 18.4 million vacant homes in the U.S. in Q4 '10 (11 percent of all housing units vacant all year round), which is actually an improvement of 427,000 from a year ago, but not for the reasons you'd think.
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The number of vacant homes for rent fell by 493 thousand, as rental demand rose. 471,000 homes are listed as "Held off Market" about half for temporary use, but the other half are likely foreclosures.
Writing in next week's Rolling Stone
, Matt Taibbi is incandescent
on the fraud-riddled, corrupt, closed-door "Rocket Docket" courts set up in Florida to expedite the process of dirtbag lenders kicking people out of their homes without having to provide any real evidence that the banks own the note or that the homeowners are delinquent. Taibbi smuggles himself into the court and documents in ghastly, clinical detail the dirty process by which banks use (badly) forged documents and judges who don't give a damn about justice to steal peoples' houses, all the while making indignant noises about "people who don't pay their mortgages shouldn't be in those houses."
Now, months after its first pass at foreclosure was dismissed, the bank has refiled the case -- and what do you know, it suddenly found the note. And this time, somehow, the note has the proper stamps. "There's a stamp that did not appear on the note that was originally filed," Kowalski tells the judge. (This business about the stamps is hilarious. "You can get them very cheap online," says Chip Parker, an attorney who defends homeowners in Jacksonville.)
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The bank's new set of papers also traces ownership of the loan from the original lender, Novastar, to JP Morgan and then to Bank of New York. The bank, in other words, is trying to push through a completely new set of documents in its attempts to foreclose on Kowalski's clients.
There's only one problem: The dates of the transfers are completely fucked. According to the documents, JP Morgan transferred the mortgage to Bank of New York on December 9th, 2008.
This insanely complex chart represents securitization auditor Dan Edstrom's best attempt to figure out who actually owns his mortgage: "The following flow chart reverse engineers the mortgage on the Ekstrom family residence. It took Dan over one year to take it this far and it clearly demonstrates what happens when there are too many lawyers being manufactured."
Just When You Thought You Knew Something About Mortgage Securitizations
(Thanks, Mr. Tough!)
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David J. Stern is a Florida lawyer who operates a foreclosure mill, a firm that foreclosed on more than 70,000 homes last year. According to a deposition from Tammie Mae Kapusta, a former employee, Stern's firm cut many corners, foreclosing on homes without serving notice, ignoring mortgage payments that would have prevented foreclosure, and "yelling at" employees who talked to homeowners on the phone, because that was "giving them too much time."
Apparently, it's working for Stern, who just bought the mega-mansion next to his mega-mega-mansion on a private island so he could tear it down and install a tennis court. Seriously, this guy sounds like the villain in a Carl Hiaassen novel, except Hiaassen's villains are more believable and less evil.
But while the banks are ultimately responsible, the root of the problem appears to lie with "foreclosure mill" law firms like Stern's. These operations process foreclosure cases on behalf of lenders, and their business model is based on moving the paperwork through as quickly as possible. That's why such firms have pioneered practices like "robo-signing" -- whereby their employees process thousands of court documents in pending foreclosures without ever actually reviewing them, as the law requires. Of course, it's in the banks' interest for their contractors to move quickly, because the faster a foreclosure moves, the less time a struggling borrower has to fight it...
And from Mother Jones
His $15 million, 16,000-square-foot mansion occupies a corner lot in a private island community on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Read the rest