Opening Bell: Will The Fed Wilt?

Mortgage industry cries foul over new regs; more Murdoch; hospitals demanding pay upfront; etc.

The New York Times fronts a story on how the mortgage industry is fighting tougher regulations proposed by the Federal Reserve. The opposition is already prompting the Fed to consider scaling back its plans.

The regulations would cover all subprime loans and many middle-tier loans, but wouldn’t apply to most prime loans. The mortgage business says the rules will make lending more expensive, cutting off loans to many. That wouldn’t exactly have been a bad thing from, say, 2004 to 2007. What are these outlandish regulations?

It would force mortgage companies to show that customers can realistically afford their mortgages. It would require lenders to disclose the hidden fees often rolled into interest payments. And it would prohibit certain types of advertising considered misleading.

The Times doesn’t really explain these further, but they sound pretty common-sense and cheap to us. The paper also doesn’t say exactly how the industry suggests these would cost it and consumers money, beyond opening it up to lawsuits somehow.

Critics say the Fed’s not going far enough, bringing us our Quote of the Day:

“The Fed has accurately diagnosed that this is a brain tumor and responded by prescribing an aspirin,” said Kathleen E. Keest, a former state regulator who is now a senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a group supporting home ownership.

Show us the money…and then we’ll operate

The WSJ fronts a worthwhile story about how some hospitals are demanding cash up front before operating on patients.

It’s a big problem: “uncompensated care” rose 44 percent, to $31.2 billion, from 2000 to 2006. The trend is happening even at nonprofit hospitals, which a study recently found had tripled their profit per bed over roughly the same period.

The bad debt is driven by a larger number of Americans who are uninsured or who don’t have enough insurance to cover medical costs if catastrophe strikes. Even among those with adequate insurance, deductibles and co-payments are growing so big that insured patients also have trouble paying hospitals.

The Journal profiles the nightmarish experience of a cancer patient who needed urgent care at a Houston cancer hospital, which demanded $105,000 upfront before it would do anything because she had a limited-benefit health-care plan.

The silence of the lambs

The Times has a good twofer on Murdoch and the Journal on its Business Day cover. The news story profiles Robert Thomson, Murdoch’s main man at the WSJ, and breaks news that the paper will be adding four pages of newshole for international stories.

Adding heft to a paper at a time when cutbacks are the industry norm—The Journal’s advertising revenue, like other newspapers, declined in the first quarter—is a nice start for Mr. Thomson to ease the anxieties of Journal staff members whipsawed by change. But the vagueness of his role—publishers do not typically attend news meetings—has everyone wondering what else he has in store.

To say the least. It’s worth reading the story just for the picture of Murdoch, who looks (even more than usual) like a rubber-masked villain in a Scooby Doo vintage.

The profile is paired with an excellent (and not just because he quotes The Audit) David Carr column in which he calls out outgoing Journal editor Marcus Brauchli—and Journal attorney Stuart Karle, also recently forced out by Murdoch—for walking away without making a stink.

Both men, who had spent their lives helping others speak truth to power, were unwilling to do the same after getting kicked to the curb. Each is under a nondisparagement clause as part of his negotiated agreement, so Journal reporters and editors watched the odd specter of a First Amendment lawyer and a lifelong journalist talking about everything except what was on everyone’s mind…

“Here you have two people who are icons of freedom of expression and they can’t talk because of NDA’s they signed,” said one reporter who was in the room but did not want to be identified speaking ill of his former bosses. “It was disgusting. They were talking about preserving the culture of The Wall Street Journal when it’s clear that the buffer is gone and that culture is history.”

Carr is dead-on when he writes that the paper is “surrendering much of its fundamental value” by, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported last week, halving corporate coverage on page one and tripling political coverage.

He also puts his finger on a fundamental issue: the lack of will on the part of former and current top editors to speak out against the Murdoch takeover, either while it was happening or now that he’s slicing out its DNA.

BoA on serious PR push

The Los Angeles Times has an exclusive saying that Bank of America will change or refinance the mortgages of 265,000 borrowers to help them stay in their homes. The LAT says the bank, which is trying to “fast-track” its purchase of Countrywide, will also double its community-development lending to $1.5 trillion over the next decade. And, throwing in the kitchen sink, it’ll donate $2 billion to charity over the next ten years, too.

The announcements are timed to the bank’s appearance at a Fed hearing on the Countrywide deal.

The new nationalism

The WSJ has a page-one thumbsucker on what it says is the unwinding of globalization at the hands of reasserted nationalism.

The paper says 9/11, the commodities boom, and the backlash against free trade are the prime movers here. That’s resulting in stricter immigration policies (or at least lip-service to them), state-run investment pools and energy companies, and stalled trade talks. The crisis in global food markets has countries stopping food exports.

Dental pain

The Times has an interesting page-one story on an Alaskan program that allows so-called dental therapists to perform basic dentistry, like cavity-filling, on Native Americans after completing a two-year curriculum.

The dentists’ lobby is drilling lawmakers to keep the program from spreading to the lower forty-eight, something critics say is because they don’t want cheap competition. The dental therapists make less than half what a typical dentist makes and in Alaska help Natives to get care they otherwise wouldn’t receive. A study found no difference in the quality of care between dental therapists and dentists.

Since 1990, the number of private dentists has remained roughly flat, at 150,000, even as the United States population has increased 22 percent. As a result, dentists can easily fill their appointment books without seeing people who cannot meet their fees, and patients who have decayed teeth are suffering needlessly, said Tammy Guido, 50, who is one of seven students now training in Anchorage to become a therapist.

This is the root of the matter here and the story could have used a few beefy paragraphs expanding on it.

Buffett, Mars to gobble up Wrigley

The WSJ scoops on A1 that Mars Inc. and Warren Buffett are teaming up to buy Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. for more than $22 billion. The paper says it could trigger further consolidation in the candy industry. Buffett would likely finance the deal for Mars in exchange for a stake in Wrigley.

Continental stays single

The papers all report that Continental canceled its merger talks with United Airlines. The NYT and Financial Times report the move came after United’s terrible earnings report last week, and the FT adds that prompted Continental execs to look deeper into United’s books and find that they didn’t like what they saw. The WSJ doesn’t really get around to saying why the talks fell apart.

Has finance juggernaut peaked?

The Journal writes on A2 that the finance sector’s share of the U.S. economy may have peaked with the credit bubble. Finance’s portion of gross domestic product has more than doubled since 1980 to 27 percent last year.

The paper says the financialization of the country had some clearly negative consequences:

As finance rose, financial workers took a bigger chunk of total U.S. pay. And as technology allowed financial firms to do more with fewer people, individual paychecks got fatter. Finance was a major factor in the widening gap between the very rich and the middle class. In 1980, finance workers made about 10% more than comparable workers in other fields, estimates New York University economist Thomas Philippon. By 2005, that premium was 50%.

That money diverted some of the brightest minds from other pursuits. “We’re seeing significantly more of our students going into the financial sector,” says Vincent Poor, dean of Princeton’s engineering school. “Traditionally, engineering students had not followed that path.”

The WSJ goes as far as saying the coming shift may be comparable to what manufacturing workers went through in the 1980s, and quotes an analyst saying ten percent of the nation’s seven million finance jobs may go bye-bye.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.