Editor’s note: This Debits and Credits holiday edition reviews the business press from the past two weeks
Two days before Christmas The New York Times unwrapped an excellent examination of how broadly the housing bust’s fallout is being felt in hard-hit areas.
Take a look at the havoc unfolding in Lee County in Southwest Florida:
In the county, a tidal wave of foreclosures is turning some neighborhoods into veritable ghost towns. The county school district recently scrapped plans to build seven new schools over the next two years. Real estate agents and construction workers are scrambling for other lines of work, and abandoning the area. As houses are relinquished to red ink and the elements, break-ins are skyrocketing, yet law enforcement is resigned to making do with existing staff.
The macroeconomic impact of the mortgage mess has proven difficult to predict. Will the economy tip into recession? While consumers nationwide are reining in their spending a bit, it’s in freefall in Lee County, Florida, and its economy is sinking. With foreclosures up fourfold from a year ago in the county, sales-tax receipts are down 14 percent and government and business spending is slowing. One in four houses in the county sits empty, and the unemployment rate has nearly doubled in a year. Burglaries are up more than 33 percent.
As the Times’ headline puts it, “This Is the Sound of a Bubble Bursting”:
Scanlon Auto Group, a luxury car dealer, says it has seen its sales dip significantly — the first time that’s happened in 25 years. Rumrunners, a popular Cape Coral restaurant with tables gazing out on a marina, says its business is down by a third, compared with last year.
Furniture dealers are folding. Hardware stores are suffering. At Taco Ardiente in Lehigh Acres, business is down by more than three-fourths, complains the owner, Hugo Lopez. His tables were once full of the Hispanic immigrants who filled the ranks of the construction trade. The work is gone, and so are the workers.
In Cape Coral, city hall is paying landscapers to mow the overgrown lawns of abandoned houses. One realtor has stopped printing lists of foreclosed and other troubled properties because “it’s too long.” Homeowners who cashed in their newfound equity now are under water on their loans and losing their homes.
“It was here that housing prices multiplied first and most exuberantly, and here that the deterioration has unfolded most rapidly. As troubles spill from real estate and construction into other areas of life, this region offers what may be a foretaste of the economic pain awaiting other parts of the country
If the Times’s supposition proves correct, look out below.
Also on the 23rd, the Times ran a Ben Stein column
on capitalism and trust. You can’t have the former without the latter, he notes, pointing out how major scandals have shaken market confidence from the junk-bond frauds in the ‘80s to the technology analysts’ cynical hype in the ‘90s. He addresses the latest case of breached trust:
The biggest of the big names were among the most aggressive in betraying their clients’ trust, as I see it. Some of the biggest names were selling securities that they — apparently — barely understood themselves. In so doing, they exposed their buyers, and their stockholders, to immense losses. (Think Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and many others.) Other major players, including Goldman Sachs, were aggressively shorting the very same sort of products they were underwriting.
Now, Stein has come under attack lately, not always reasonably. Portfolio’s Felix Salmon validly but with some unneeded heat points out these investment banks have no fiduciary duty to people buying these securities unless they manage their money.
If an investment bank underwrites a sale of securities, then the bank’s client in that transaction is the issuer, not the investors. In an IPO, for instance, the issuer often pays the underwriter 7 percent of the proceeds. The investors, meanwhile, make their own decisions as to whether they think the stock is a good buy at the IPO price. If you want to get a good idea of who a bank is working for, just look to see who’s paying them.
It is true: Stein employs words like “fiduciary” and “client” carelessly. We wish he’d shape up because he’s got some valuable things to say.