Category: Economy

Wall Street’s New Watcher

The Wall Street Journal

Two weeks after moving into a skyscraper near Wall Street to start assembling a muscular new agency overseeing banks and insurers in New York, Benjamin M. Lawsky got a surprise during an introductory meeting with a midlevel manager: His power was even broader than he thought.

The 41-year-old former federal prosecutor, who spent the last four years as Andrew Cuomo’s confidant and adviser in the New York attorney general’s office, learned that he had greater latitude to pursue criminal fraud cases than he initially knew.

As the head of the New York State Department of Financial Services, which officially opens its doors Monday, he says he plans to use that authority to put the new agency on the map.

Since the June meeting, Mr. Lawsky has been contacting Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, lawyers and other trusted allies from his past as part of his plans to "exponentially" increase the criminal division from the current handful of employees, he says. But he adds that he will use the power of his new office judiciously.

"I’m strategically aggressive," says Mr. Lawsky, who went after a slew of banks, securities firms and top executives while working in the attorney general’s office.

Mr. Lawsky, who is paid $127,000 a year, won’t say what the criminal-enforcement unit will investigate first, though he is eager to join forces with state and federal prosecutors to bring cases. That seldom happened before New York lawmakers combined the state’s banking and insurance regulators in March to create the new agency.

New York’s Department of Financial Services will instantly become one of the highest-profile financial regulators in the nation. The 1,700-person agency will oversee 3,900 banks, insurers, mortgage brokers, loan servicers and New York-based outposts of foreign banks. Those companies have about $5.7 trillion in combined assets.

Few people on Wall Street will talk publicly about Mr. Lawsky, except in an optimistic, hopeful tone. "He’s approachable," says Thomas Workman, president and chief executive of the Life Insurance Council of New York, a trade group.

However, some executives and lawyers who represent them are worried that Mr. Lawsky will behave more like a prosecutor than a regulator. As an assistant U.S. Attorney, Mr. Lawsky foiled a plot to smuggle rocket-propelled grenade launchers into the U.S., solved cold-case murders committed by Asian mobsters, and took down an insider-trading ring.

Mr. Lawsky is remembered on Wall Street for his relentless scrutiny, while working as Mr. Cuomo’s special assistant, of bonuses paid by U.S. financial firms that got bailout money. He played a key role in an ongoing lawsuit against former Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Kenneth D. Lewis, in which Mr. Lawsky publicly asked tough questions about the role of the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department in the 2008 takeover of Merrill Lynch & Co. He was also a behind-the-scenes force in extracting more than $60 billion in repayments to investors whose cash was frozen in auction-rate securities.

"Ben is a formidable adversary on the other side of the table," says Mary Jo White, a former U.S. Attorney in New York who hired Mr. Lawsky. Ms. White, now a partner at law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, represents Mr. Lewis in the civil-fraud case. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Lobbyists and trade groups resisted when the new agency’s authority was being hashed out in Albany earlier this year. One of the biggest fears was that the Department of Financial Services could be as mighty as the New York attorney general’s office. In response, some of Mr. Lawsky’s powers were slightly tempered.

Still, working as the agency’s acting head this summer, Mr. Lawsky snarled Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s agreement to sell its Litton Loan Servicing subsidiary until he got a promise that Goldman, Litton and the buyer promise not to process foreclosure documents without reviewing case files and adhere to other business practices. The sale was completed in August, but Mr. Lawsky is pressing numerous other mortgage firms to make the same pledges.

"It was a potentially significant problem," says H. Rodgin Cohen, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP who represented Goldman in the Litton sale. Mr. Lawsky wasn’t "a bully," and "he wanted to get it done."

Mr. Lawsky, a Pittsburgh native, is a marathon runner and fan of composers Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner. His sixth-floor office includes a Pittsburgh Steelers "terrible towel" and a framed photograph with Gov. Cuomo on Wall Street. He said he doesn’t mind being seen as tough "if it keeps the people we regulate on their toes."

The financial industry has a huge impact on New York’s struggling job market and economy. As a result, Mr. Lawsky’s top priority is to "do what it takes to get the (financial) industry thriving again," he says.

In an email, Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat who took office in January, wrote: "Ben is smart and effective, and he brings a balanced and fair approach to the job. He knows we need to keep New York a center of finance but at the same time aggressively protect consumers."

Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, says working with Mr. Lawsky as a federal prosecutor showed that he is "not timid." At the same time, Mr. Lawsky is "not a bomb-throwing guy," adds Mr. Bharara, who is still friends with Mr. Lawsky.

After Tropical Storm Irene hit New York in late August, Mr. Lawsky traveled the state to help residents file insurance claims. After a crowd in the New York City borough of Staten Island shouted that one insurer had warned it would take 10 days for appraisers to arrive, Mr. Lawsky called executives at the company. The appraisers drove up within two hours.

Although Mr. Lawsky said he is solely focused on his new job, political experts, friends and former colleagues believe Mr. Lawsky is poised for a dramatic political climb.

Already, Mr. Lawsky stands in for Gov. Cuomo at some events. On Sept. 8, Mr. Lawsky gave an emotional speech at Stony Brook University to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. "Planes no longer scare me, but they inspire me," said Mr. Lawsky, who watched the second plane hit from his apartment-building rooftop in Manhattan. "They remind me I am trying to seek justice for people."

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The Wall Street Journal

LEHIGH ACRES, Fla.—Joseph Reilly lost his vacation home here last year when he was out of work and stopped paying his mortgage. The bank took the house and sold it. Mr. Reilly thought that was the end of it.

In June, he learned otherwise. A phone call informed him of a court judgment against him for $192,576.71.

It turned out that at a foreclosure sale, his former house fetched less than a quarter of what Mr. Reilly owed on it. His bank sued him for the rest.

The result was a foreclosure hangover that homeowners rarely anticipate but increasingly face: a "deficiency judgment."

Forty-one states and the District of Columbia permit lenders to sue borrowers for mortgage debt still left after a foreclosure sale. The economics of today’s battered housing market mean that lenders are doing so more and more.

Foreclosed homes seldom fetch enough to cover the outstanding loan amount, both because buyers financed so much of the purchase price—up to 100% of it during the housing boom—and because today’s foreclosures take place following a four-year decline in values.

"Now there are foreclosures that leave banks holding the bag on more than $100,000 in debt," says Michael Cramer, president and chief executive of Dyck O’Neal Inc., an Arlington, Texas, firm that invests in debt. "Before, it didn’t make sense [for banks] to expend the resources to go after borrowers; now it doesn’t make sense not to."

Indeed, $100,000 was roughly the average amount by which foreclosure sales fell short of loan balances in hundreds of foreclosures in seven states reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. And 64% of the 4.5 million foreclosures since the start of 2007 have taken place in states that allow deficiency judgments.

Lenders still sue for loan shortfalls in only a small minority of cases where they legally could. Public relations is a limiting factor, some debt-buyers believe. Banks are reluctant to discuss their strategies, but some lenders say they are more likely to seek a deficiency judgment if they perceive the borrower to be a "strategic defaulter" who chose to stop paying because the property lost so much value.

In Lee County, Fla., where Mr. Reilly’s vacation home was, court records show that 172 deficiency judgments were entered in the first seven months of 2011. That was up 34% from a year earlier. The increase was especially striking because total foreclosures were down sharply in the county, as banks continued to wrestle with paperwork problems that slowed the process.

One Florida lawyer who defends troubled homeowners, Matt Englett of Orlando, says his clients have faced 20 deficiency-judgment suits this year, up from seven during all of last year.

Until recently, "there was a false sense of calm" among borrowers who went through foreclosure, Mr. Englett says. "That’s changing," he adds, as borrowers learn they may be financially on the hook even after the house is gone.

In Mr. Reilly’s case, "there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that we can pay" the deficiency judgment, says the 39-year-old man, who remains unemployed. He says he is going to speak to a lawyer about declaring bankruptcy next week, in an effort to escape the debt. The lender that obtained the judgment against him, Great Western Bank Corp. of Sioux Falls, S.D., declined to comment.

Some close observers of the housing scene are convinced this is just the beginning of a surge in deficiency judgments. Sharon Bock, clerk and comptroller of Palm Beach County, Fla., expects "a massive wave of these cases as banks start selling the judgments to debt collectors."

In a paradox of the battered housing industry, trying to squeeze more money out of distressed borrowers contrasts with other initiatives that aim instead to help struggling homeowners, including by reducing what they owe.

The increase in deficiency judgments has sparked a growing secondary market. Sophisticated investors are "ravenous for this debt and ramping up their purchases," says Jeffrey Shachat, a managing director at Arca Capital Partners LLC, a Palo Alto, Calif., firm that finances distressed-debt deals. He says deficiency judgments will eventually be bundled into packages that resemble mortgage-backed securities.

Because most targets have scant savings, the judgments sell for only about two cents on the dollar, versus seven cents for credit-card debt, according to debt-industry brokers.

Silverleaf Advisors LLC, a Miami private-equity firm, is one investor in battered mortgage debt. Instead of buying ready-made deficiency judgments, it buys banks’ soured mortgages and goes to court itself to get judgments for debt that remains after foreclosure sales.

Silverleaf says its collection efforts are limited. "We are waiting for the economy to somewhat heal so that it’s a better time to go after people," says Douglas Hannah, managing director of Silverleaf.

Investors know that most states allow up to 20 years to try to collect the debts, ample time for the borrowers to get back on their feet. Meanwhile, the debts grow at about an 8% interest rate, depending on the state.

Mr. Hannah expects the market to expand as banks "aggressively unload" their distressed mortgages in the next year, driving up the number of deficiency judgments being sought.

They are pretty easy to get. "If the house sold for less than you owe, the lender wins, plain and simple," says Roy Foxall, a real-estate lawyer in Fort Myers on Florida’s west coast.

Mr. Foxall says five deficiency suits were filed against his clients this year, and he couldn’t poke any holes in any of them. Lenders typically have five years following a foreclosure sale to sue for remaining mortgage debt.

Mr. Englett, the Orlando lawyer who has handled 27 such suits for homeowners in the past 21 months, says he didn’t get the bank to waive the deficiency in any of the cases, but did reach six settlements in which the plaintiff accepted less.

Florida is among the biggest deficiency-judgment states. Since the start of 2007, it has had more foreclosures than any other state that allows deficiency judgments—more than 9% of the U.S. total, according to research firm Lender Processing Services Inc.

A loan-deficiency suit can yank borrowers back to a nightmare they thought was over.

Ray Falero, a truck driver whose Orlando home was foreclosed on and sold in August 2010, says he thought he was hallucinating when, months later, he opened the door and saw a sheriff’s deputy. The visitor handed him a notice saying he was being sued for $78,500 by the lender on the home purchase, EverBank Financial Corp., of Jacksonville, Fla.

"I thought I was done with this whole mess," he says.

Mr. Falero, 37, says he was about nine months behind on his loan when the bank foreclosed. Before it did, he bought another home in Minneola, Fla., where he now lives and where he says he is up to date on mortgage payments. Like Mr. Reilly, Mr. Falero says he didn’t swell the foreclosed-on loan through refinancing or home-equity borrowing.

EverBank won a deficiency judgment on Mr. Falero’s Orlando loan. Mr. Falero and his lawyer are fighting to reduce the amount owed. EverBank declined to comment on his case.

Credit unions and smaller banks are the most aggressive pursuers of deficiency judgments, a review of court records in several states shows.

At Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union in Tampa, Jim Simon, manager of loss and risk mitigation, says the institution has a responsibility to its members, and that means trying to recoup losses by going after loan deficiencies. He calls such legal action the credit union’s "last arrow in the quiver."

The biggest banks appear to have stayed largely on the sidelines as they deal with the foreclosure-paperwork mess. One big bank, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., "may obtain a deficiency" judgment in foreclosure cases but will "often waive" the leftover debt when a homeowner agrees to a so-called short sale of a house for less than is owed on it, a bank spokesman says.

Among the hardest-hit spots in Florida is Lehigh Acres, a 95-square-mile unincorporated sprawl of narrow, cracked-pavement streets about 15 miles inland from Fort Myers.

Lehigh Acres was carved out of scrub land and cattle farms in the 1950s by a Chicago businessman, Lee Ratner, who had made a fortune on d-CON rat poison, says Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Before he died, Mr. Ratner sold prefabricated houses to families hungry for a slice of paradise.

Decades later, Lehigh Acres (population 68,265) attracted people eager to cash in on the housing boom, even though it is distant from the sugary white beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Speculative investors bought more than half of homes sold in Lehigh Acres in 2005 and 2006, Bob Peterson, a real-estate agent, estimates.

Many of those stucco homes now stand empty, priced at about a third of the value they had at the peak of the housing boom, which was often around $300,000.

In the first seven months of this year, courts entered 42 deficiency judgments in Lehigh Acres, for a total of $7 million, up from 26 judgments for $4.6 million in the same period of 2010, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of state-court records.

Fifth Third Bancorp, of Cincinnati, filed for the largest share of deficiency judgments in Lehigh Acres last year. The bank declined to comment.

"It’s eerily quiet around here," says Jon Divencenzo, who bought a house in Lehigh Acres at a May foreclosure sale for $50,000. Some nights, he says, the only sounds are rustling pine trees and the idling car engines of former homeowners circling the block to glimpse what they lost.

The hard-hit area reveals a sharp contrast in homeowners’ attitudes toward deficiency judgments.

Julia Ingham invested in four Lehigh Acres properties in June 2005, hoping to "drum up some real money for retirement."

All have since been foreclosed on by lenders, says the 62-year-old retired programmer for International Business Machines Corp.

A credit union, after selling one of the foreclosed houses for less than the debt on it, obtained a deficiency judgment against Ms. Ingham for $181,059.54. She worries she could face such judgments on the other properties, too.

Ms. Ingham says when she bought them, she misunderstood how much her investments put her on the hook for. Her builder, she says, promised she could invest $10,000 in four properties and then flip them for a profit. Ms. Ingham says deficiency judgments punish borrowers who were taken advantage of by lenders and builders.

Catherine Ortega, who owns a Lehigh Acres home around the corner from one of Ms. Ingham’s foreclosed homes, says banks should leave people like her former neighbor alone. "Those people have suffered enough," she says.

In July 2005, Mr. Reilly took out a $223,000 mortgage to build a vacation home here, about 160 miles from his primary home in Odessa, Fla. He was laid off just as construction was being completed.

Mr. Reilly says he is current on the loan on his primary residence but couldn’t afford the vacation home’s $1,200-a-month loan payment. Great Western Bank, which is owned by National Australia Bank Ltd., foreclosed on his house in Lehigh Acres in July 2010.

Mr. Reilly, who was a mortgage broker before his layoff, says he knew that deficiency judgments were possible after a foreclosure but didn’t expect to face one because he doesn’t have any financial assets, and you can’t get "blood from a stone."

Alfredo Callado, who lives next door to Mr. Reilly’s former house, is unsympathetic. Like Ms. Ortega, Mr. Callado is troubled by the crime that a neighborhood full of empty houses attracts. He started watching over Mr. Reilly’s former house to ward off thieves who steal air conditioners from vacant properties.

Mr. Callado, sitting on a lawn chair in his driveway, says lenders should use deficiency suits to punish defaulting homeowners for the damage they do to neighborhoods, including driving down property values.

"You have to make them pay for what they do to those of us left behind," he says.

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The Washington Post

Senate leaders agreed to a deal Monday evening that is almost certain to avert a federal government shutdown, a prospect that had unexpectedly arisen when congressional leaders deadlocked over disaster relief funding.

After days of brinkmanship reminiscent of the budget battles that have consumed Washington this year, key senators clinched a compromise that would provide less money for disaster relief than Democrats sought but would also strip away spending cuts that Republicans demanded. The pact, which the Senate approved 79 to 12 and the House is expected to ratify next week, is expected to keep federal agencies open until Nov. 18.

“It will be a win for everyone,” said Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the plan “a reasonable way to keep the government operational.”

Aides to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he will support the compromise.

The spending battle marked the third time this year that congressional acrimony has brought the government to the edge of calamity. In April, Boehner and President Obama reached a deal on funding for 2011 about 90 minutes before a government shutdown was to begin. On Aug. 2, just hours before the deadline, Congress gave final approval to legislation lifting the government’s borrowing authority, averting a partial shutdown and the potential for a default on the federal debt.

Although this week’s fight ended with days, rather than hours, to spare, it drained many in Congress, who thought it was a senseless fight. Reid summed up the feeling of many lawmakers when he quoted Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who said there was too little money in dispute to raise the specter of a shutdown and to halt payments to those affected by natural disasters.

“Let’s fight when there’s something to fight about,” Reid quoted Isakson as saying during a speech on the Senate floor.

At issue was a dispute over how to fund disaster relief, a concern that was heightened in late August after an earthquake struck central Virginia and Hurricane Irene caused flooding in the Northeast.

Although Democrats said the Federal Emergency Management Agency needed more funding, they agreed to accept a Republican plan to spend $3.65 billion in disaster relief money, $1 billion of which would have gone toward the budget for the current fiscal year, which will end Friday. Republicans, concerned about adding to the budget deficit, refused to support the funding without $1.6 billion in accompanying cuts. Their largest target was an auto loan program popular with Democrats, leading to the standoff.

The showdown between the two sides was averted on Monday, when FEMA said it could make ends meet through the end of the week. That led to an agreement that calls for the agency and other government disaster relief programs to forgo the $1 billion in proposed funding for this week. Beginning Saturday and running to Nov. 18, FEMA can begin to tap the remaining $2.65 billion for ongoing efforts.

With the House out of session this week, the Senate approved a resolution that will keep the government open through next Tuesday. The House is expected to approve that extension in a voice vote Thursday, which does not require all members to be present, and then approve the longer-term bill next Tuesday.

Some lawmakers from hard-hit states are unhappy with the compromise, saying that it would result in a slight delay in processing aid to victims, and that the overall total of FEMA funding wouldn’t be enough to account for the damage caused by the disasters.

“They would delay the process by punting back to the House,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). The deal “also stripped $1 billion in disaster relief and provides less emergency funding for Missourians in the wake of record flooding and tornadoes,” he added.

The debate over the budget bill turned on sharp — and familiar — political lines that scuttled earlier talk that the two parties were going to tone down their attacks.

Republicans, particularly House conservatives, said they were unwilling to add to the federal deficit, even for disaster funding, and accused Democrats of overspending. Democrats used the debate to portray Republicans as “holding hostage” relief checks for those struck by tornadoes, flooding, forest fires and droughts, focusing much of their criticism on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R), who represents Mineral, Va., the epicenter of the earthquake.

Although the agreement lifts the imminent specter of a government shutdown, it will not resolve the fight over how much FEMA needs to help disaster victims and whether that money must be offset with spending cuts.

The White House has said FEMA will need $4.6 billion for the next fiscal year — a figure many Democrats say underestimates the agency’s needs.

Democrats will push to fully fund FEMA’s request and perhaps broaden it during negotiations over spending for the rest of the year, but they were split Monday over what the compromise would mean for future funding battles.

“This is a very big and important move. It says we met each other halfway. We saved the jobs,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), referring to the the auto loan program. “We figured out a way to fund FEMA that was acceptable to them. It’s a template. We have to figure out how to meet each other halfway here.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), whose state was hit hard by flooding from Hurricane Irene, said the deal would solve the disaster issue — but only temporarily.

“I’m concerned about the fact that we give blank checks to Iraq and [Afghanistan] and we don’t want to take care of America for Americans,” he said. “It’s wrong, it’s foolish and it will come back to haunt us.”

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Yahoo! Finance

On Oct. 1, the size of mortgages eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will shrink. That isn’t necessarily a big deal in most parts of the country; the new lower limit of $625,500 — down from today’s $729,750 — still is big enough to cover most homes in almost all markets in the United States.

Furthermore, mortgage bankers are stepping up with new money to cover those bigger loans, reports Mortgage Daily. "Programs here and there are popping up," says publisher Sam Garcia. He reports that some new lenders, including TMS Funding and New Penn Financial LLC, are launching programs that will make mortgages as big as $2 million available to lenders with good credit scores and enough cash to keep up with the payments. And many existing mortgage lenders currently will make those so-called "jumbo" loans and just keep them in their portfolios instead of selling them.

But those loans will cost more. Currently the difference between rates on so-called conforming loans and private-made loans is about 0.64 percent. Over the last two years that spread has been as low as 0.48 percent and higher than one percent, says Garcia.

So in some pricey places, the new limits will really pinch borrowers. Those limits vary from market to market and are determined in part by local housing prices. In expensive housing markets where prices have fallen, the limits will drop the most. Hardest to be hit, according to a new analysis by, will be San Diego, where loans up until $697,500 qualify for Fannie and Freddie until Sept. 30. On Oct. 1, that limit drops to $546,250, a $151,250 difference.

Folks there who want to borrow a bunch for a home will see their costs rise significantly. A San Diego homebuyer who needs $600,000 would pay $2,937 a month for a 30-year loan at today’s rate of 4.18 percent, according to Starting next month, if rates stay stable and that borrower goes to a private lender, he would pay $3,155 a month. That’s $228 more a month, or $82,080 more over 30 years.

Some buyers (and lenders) may try to get around that by piggy-backing loans; piling a smaller non-conforming loan onto a conforming loan.

Here are some other areas, most often searched on, that could see significant changes in their loan limits, according to the Move analysis.


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The Federal Housing Finance Agency lacks the staff to properly monitor the mortgage giants it has in conservatorship, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General.

The report said the agency also failed to provide adequate oversight over default services legal issues.

The Office of the Inspector General for the federal regulator said the FHFA "has far too few examiners" to properly handle its examination system to monitor Fannie Mae,Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks

The inspector general report also "identified shortfalls in the agency’s examination coverage, particularly in the areas of real estate owned and default-related legal services," which it blames on the staffing shortages.

In another report, the inspector general said the FHFA over the past five years "repeatedly found Fannie Mae had not established an acceptable and effective operational risk management program despite outstanding requirements to do so." The auditor said the regulator hasn’t exercised its power as conservator to force the company to do as much, and recommends the FHFA compel Fannie to establish stronger controls.

"Fannie Mae’s lack of an acceptable and effective operational risk management program may have resulted in missed opportunities to strengthen the oversight of law firms it contracts with to process foreclosures," according to the auditor’s report.

"Given Fannie Mae’s history of noncompliance, (the Office of the Inspector General) believes that the agency must exercise maximum diligence and take forceful action to ensure that Fannie Mae meets the agency’s expectations in this regard. Otherwise, FHFA’s safety and soundness examination program, as well as its delegated approach to conservatorship management, may be adversely affected."

Fannie Mae declined comment.

Edward DeMarco, acting director of the FHFA, has said the agency is having trouble hiring experienced examiners because many don’t want to move to Washington and there’s the perception the government-sponsored enterprises will ultimately go away.

The FHFA has 120 examiners and plans to hire another 26, but "has expressed concern that its current hiring initiative will neither enable it to overcome its examination capacity shortfalls nor ensure the effectiveness of its 2011 reorganization," according to the inspector general report.

The agency wanted all the new examiners on board by the end of September, but now expects to have them all working by the end of the year.

The agency wants to assign 20 to 25 examiners to each examination team, yet is only staffing them with 13. The FHFA indicated only 34% of the 120 nonexecutive examiners are accredited federal financial examiners, and there is no accreditation program currently in place.

The federal auditor recommends the FHFA further study its staffing problems, implement an examiner accreditation program and use contractors to mitigate the shortage.

"Moreover, FHFA has not reported upon its examination capacity shortfalls in a systematic manner," according to the report. "Given FHFA’s critical responsibilities, it is essential that it keeps Congress, the executive branch and the public fully and currently informed about its examination capacity."

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USA Today

The bad news is all around us and never seems to end. If it’s not Tea Party Republicans who somehow, shockingly seemed willing to allow the country to go into default before they would accept even the most basic of revenue increases, it’s a president who seems unable to match his legislative ability to his previous soaring rhetoric, sharp mind and historic promise.

And that’s for starters.

Unemployment remains far too high, hovering near 9%. The deficit is all too real and getting bigger. China is emerging as a global power, and taking the lead in creating green energy solutions – the clear, big playing field of this new century.

Here at home, Gen X and Gen Y’ers seem resigned to living in a country that was not as great as the one they were born into, and my generation – Baby Boomers – are only too happy to collect our benefits.

What are we to do?

Entrepreneurship is the answer. Small business to the rescue. Foster startup fever.

In America, small business has always been The Answer. More than 99% of businesses with payrolls in this country are small businesses, according to the Small Business Administration, and those small businesses historically employ more than half of all workers and create 80% of new jobs.

Small business is, and always has been, the engine that moves the country forward. So if the stagnant political class really wants to get this country moving again, and help reassert our rightful place as the most innovative, entrepreneurial, industrious place on the globe, they need to start enacting policies and programs that do one thing – help small businesses and entrepreneurs.

What we need is a comprehensive 21st Century Entrepreneurship Act.

Want to lower the unemployment rate? Cultivate small business startups and you will.

Want more tax revenue? Foster entrepreneurial growth and you will get it.

Want to see America create the Next Big Thing? Help small business and just watch where it leads us.

The last great boom, during the Clinton administration, created more than 20 million jobs, and many of those came from startups that grew. In 1992, hardly anyone had ever heard of the Internet and no one knew what an was. Today that company, started out of Jeff Bezos‘ garage, employs about 30,000 people. In 1992, Starbucks was a regional business with about 100 stores. Today it is a public company worth more than $27 billion, and it has more than 6,500 stores.

Was there ever a better friend to small business, someone who believed in the power of free enterprise, more than Ronald Reagan? As he said in a May, 1988 speech to students at Moscow University: "The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs, men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown. These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States."

The great economic growth during the Reagan administration was similarly fueled by a commitment to, and fostering of, entrepreneurship.

So what does "promoting small business and entrepreneurship" mean? What does it look like?

I am privileged to be a member of the board of the World Entrepreneurship Forum. This global think tank has spent a lot of time considering what governments can and should do to promote entrepreneurship. They include:

"Reform Regulations: To promote a truly entrepreneurship-centered business climate, reform tax and regulatory environments so as to make it easier, faster, and less costly for entrepreneurs to set up enterprises.

"Create Entrepreneur-Friendly Institutions: Introduce entrepreneurship-friendly support institutions that provide technological knowledge, market information, business know-how, certification services, access to capital, and other essential business support.

"Understand Entrepreneurship: Make it known that entrepreneurs are positive agents of social change, wealth creation, transparency, sustainability, and innovation."

A comprehensive 21st Century Entrepreneurship Act would include tax reform, and regulatory ease. It would include, as SBA administrator Karen Mills recently wrote, immigration reform so we can again attract the best and brightest entrepreneurs and engineers to our country. It would increase access to capital. It would help more startups start up. It would foster business incubators and programs like Business Matchmaking.

And it would require something that those in Washington have forgotten about, something that cannot be legislated, but cannot be ignored: It would require pulling together for the common good and the promise that is America.

I, like many Americans, am disappointed in both the president and Congress. But I still hold out hope, because I know what is possible, what we can do together. So to our leader, I say: Mr. President, tear down these walls!

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The Real Estate Bloggers

The housing market may be getting a little tighter in a couple of months. The bureaucrats working on enacting some of the provisions of the Dodd-Frank reforms have interpreted the loosely written laws to require homes that qualify for the best interest rates to have a minimum of a 20 percent down payment.

That sound you just heard is agents across the country gulping in panic.

The homes that have a 20 percent down payment will get the best interest rates, those buyers that do not have 20 percent to put down will be held to a much higher standard for approval and face higher interest rates.

The fact that the real estate industry is still muddling along with historically low interest rates, high inventories, and significantly lower prices is bad enough news for the millions of agents out there. Now adding the prospective of tougher loan approvals and the reduction of potential buyers the real estate industry has another hurdle to cross.

Some Dodd-Frank reforms are already in place, but Congress left details of others to regulators. The down payment rule is currently in a “public comment” period that’s been extended to Aug. 1.

The proposal would split home loans into two categories. One would be loans to buyers who put 20 percent down, and lenders would face few regulatory hurdles bundling those loans to sell as investment securities. It was the volume of subprime loans in such securities that helped precipitate the financial crisis.

The other loan category would allow smaller down payments but would require lenders to maintain at least 5 percent of the total value of their loans so they shoulder part of the risk. The intent is to ensure lenders thoroughly vet borrowers.

Isakson and others believe the second category would be subject to higher interest rates and could shut lower-income buyers out of the market.

“Loan rates would go up 3 percent because of the scarcity of the loans,” said Isakson, who ran a real estate company in metro Atlanta before his days in Washington. “With the housing market in the shape it is, it’s just ridiculous.”

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Banks have a new remedy to America’s ailing housing market: Bulldozers.

There are nearly 1.7 million homes in the U.S. in some state of foreclosure. Banks already own some of these homes and will soon have repossessed many more. Many housing economists worry that near constant stream of home sales from banks could keep housing prices down for years to come. But what if some of those homes never hit the market.

Increasingly, it appears banks are turning to demolition teams instead of realtors to rid them of their least valuable repossessed homes. Last month, Bank of America announced plans to demolish 100 foreclosed homes in the Cleveland area. The land is then going to be donated back to the local government authorities. BofA says the recent donations in Cleveland are part of a larger plan to rid itself of its least saleable properties, many of which, according to a company spokesperson, are worth less than $10,000. BofA has already donated 100 homes in Detroit and 150 in Chicago, and may add as many as nine more cities by the end of the year.

And BofA is not alone. A number of banks are ramping up their efforts not just to rid themselves of their unwanted homes, but to fully dispose of them. Fannie Mae has a program to sell houses to local municipalities for around a few hundred dollars. Wells Fargo has donated 800 homes to be demolished since 2009. JPMorgan Chase says it was one of the first banks to begin donating houses it couldn’t sell, or didn’t think were repairable. Since 2008, the JPMorgan has donated or sold at a discount 1,900 houses to city or county officials.

The banks do the deals because once the properties are donated they no longer have to pay taxes or for upkeep. Tax experts say the banks may also be able to get a write off for the donation. That appears to be a better deal than trying to repair some of these homes, which according to a BofA spokesperson are more economical to demolish than fix up. The local governments like these deals because they get free land to develop or use for open space. Cleveland-based Cuyahoga County Land Reuntilization Corp., which inked the deal with BofA, has been one of the most aggressive local government organizations in striking these deals. Housing economists like these deals because they remove homes from the market that would otherwise sell for a low price or not at all, dragging down home prices in general. An oversupply of homes on the market has been once of the big problems plaguing real estate. At the end of June, it would take nine and a half months for the current number of homes on the market to sell. The housing market is considered healthy when supply equals six months of sales. So taking some of these homes off the market for good could remove some of the inventory drag.

The question is whether the banks will ever put up enough housing for demolition to make a difference. The Obama administration says it is working on its own plan to revamp its loan modification program in order to help keep more people in foreclosure in their homes, reducing the number of foreclosed properties on the market. Some areas of the country are looking at how to speed up foreclosures in an effort to return some normality to the market. It’s not clear that any of this will work. Certainly, the idea that we are at the point where banks would be better off knocking down houses that reselling them shows there is still something very wrong with the housing market. But what is clear is that banks and others are at the point where they are ready to try something new to boost the housing market. And that is a good sign for the future.

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Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker said additional monetary stimulus would likely raise inflation further while not providing a substantial lift to economic growth.

“Given current inflation trends, additional monetary stimulus at this juncture seems likely to raise inflation to undesirably high levels and do little to spur real growth,” Lacker said in a speech before the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce in Chantilly, Virginia.

Federal Reserve policy makers meet Aug. 9 to assess the economy and monetary policy. U.S. central bankers have kept their benchmark lending rate in a range of zero to 0.25 percent since December 2008 and expanded the central bank’s balance sheet to $2.8 trillion in total assets in an effort to support growth.

The Fed’s Beige Book, a survey of regional economies released yesterday, said economic activity slowed in eight of 12 Fed districts. The recovery, which began in June 2009, has failed to pull the unemployment rate below 9 percent in all but two of the past 24 months of expansion. Lacker called the rebound in gross domestic product “disappointing” and said it remains to be seen if the economy rises to previous trend rates of around 3 percent annual growth or settles at a lower trend rate.

“When coming out of a recession, real GDP has typically grown several percentage points faster than the 3 percent long- run trend rate,” Lacker said. “This time, real GDP has risen at a 2.75 percent annual rate since the end of the recession.”      

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Investors are a driving force in the housing market, but their enthusiasm is constrained by limited financing options with more investors forced to pay cash for their homes as debt-driven financing remains restricted. And with housing supply only set to increase, the ability of these investors to absorb the overhang may substantially decrease.

Primary activity in the nation’s key housing markets is made up of a significant portion of hard cash buyers operating in the distressed property space. Of this number, only 40% or so are estimated to have access to excess capital.

Seventy-five percent of investor transactions last month were financed with cash, according to researchers who compiled the Campbell/Inside Mortgage Finance HousingPulse Tracking Survey. While investors are welcomed into the market for keeping sales flowing, an earlier report from HousingPulse warned investor cash levels would eventually be depleted, leaving the market in the hands of first-time homebuyers — many of whom no longer qualify for credit because of tightened underwriting guidelines.

Looking forward, researchers who compiled the report expect home prices to dip further in 2011 due to limited financing options for investors and a growing gap between the supply of distressed properties and sagging demand from first-time buyers. One market source interviewed by the firm expects price declines of at least another 10%.

"The fact that the recent rebound in existing home sales has been predominantly driven by cash buyers and investors places a question mark over the sustainability of that rebound," said Paul Dales, U.S. housing analyst for Capital Economics, back in March. "The concern is that there may be a limited pool of such buyers and that first-time buyers will not be able to fill any void."

The survey showed the proportion of first-time homebuyers in the housing market dropped to 35.4% in June, compared to 37.3% in May. At the same time, the HousingPulse Distressed Property Index dropped to 44.7% in June from 46.7% in May. Even with distressed properties clearing the market,  HousingPulse noted "the gap between first-time homebuyers and distressed property supply was 9.3 percentage points in June," suggesting that housing supply far exceeds demand.

Not to mention, the market remains fearful of the eventual unleashing of the growing shadow inventory of foreclosed and short sale properties.

In the report, Campbell/Inside Mortgage Finance quotes an anonymous California real estate agent as saying "there are tens of thousands of homes that have not even received a notice of default that have not made a mortgage payment in months or years."

The same agent said there will not be a bottom until the "economy turns in earnest and or the default inventory is exhausted."

The study concluded that investors have played a significant role since the end of the homebuyer tax credit by accounting for more than 20% of home purchases on average.

Middle-class Americans seem to believe the dire forecast about home prices and future sales, and remain unlikely to meaningfully get into moving up the property ladder, much less buying second homes.

Sixty-three percent of citizens surveyed for the First Command Financial Behaviors Index believe America is already in a double-dip recession, About 55% of those Americans who see the nation in the grips of a double-dip recession consider the weak housing market to be one of the key causes.

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