Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Are We Represented?

The word 'politics' is derived from the word 'poly', meaning 'many', and the word 'ticks', meaning 'blood sucking parasites'.
Larry Hardiman

From the Community Board on up, if you live in SoHo (or other parts of Downtown), there comes a point when you have to ask whether you really have any political representatives. Of course, this seems like a ridiculous question. We have Assemblymembers, City Councilmembers, State Senators, Borough President, Mayor, and a few Congressional officeholders – a group of people who run things for us. Right?

If they actually represent us, ask yourself this question:
When was the last time you spoke to any of them or was able to get anyone on the phone to ask for something to be taken care of?

Like, the billboards in SoHo, erected by the biggest media companies that contribute heavily to campaigns. Companies such as ClearChannel and VanWagner,

Like the assault on affordable housing -- ignored by HPD, Department of Buildings, Mayor’s Office, Borough President’s Office, and the City Council. Lip-service and press releases abound. But, how many tenants have these politicians helped? Margaret Chin, recently elected to the City Council for her support of Housing activism, has recently been unresponsive on this issue.

Like the knock-off trade on Canal Street (hand-bags, watches) run by Asian gangs and sold on the sidewalks by Nigerian shills with impunity – and which criminalize our streets.

The Community Board is a political club, which has little contact with residents, except for a few issues that threaten Greenwich Village and owes complete fealty to the Borough President – who has complete control over who is appointed. It bears no resemblance to democracy.

The City Council is owned and operated at the whim of the Mayor-King who has the fealty of The Speaker, Christine Quinn.
The existence of Trump SoHo speaks for their commitment to any Downtown resident. We were all sold out. Only Tony Avella, among a few others, had the courage to demonstrate before the construction crews arrived on that hated project.

From State Senator to Assembly member, from Mayor to City Councilmember, we have representatives who cannot even commit to saving guerrilla art in SoHo, tearing down the billboards, or making the job of crossing the streets safer.
The only business taken seriously is campaign donations and maintaining their jobs.

Is there a Tea Party in the audience?

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Big Lie(s)

The future ain't what it used to be.
-- Yogi Berra

According to the media, we are somewhere between a slow recovery and a double-dip in this Great Recession. Virtually no one knows whether we face a slow grinding malaise or a possible drop that brings us to the gates of Hades. Or, Depression 2.0.
But, despite the attempts at maintaining a positive point of view, it is clear that what is good for Wall Street is no longer necessarily good for Main Street. The bursting of the real estate bubble, predicated upon the CDO’s and multi-levels of mortgage-backed tranches, which were clearly securitized bombs, is yet to play out in the economy. With 11 million homes worth less than the mortgage liens against them, several million houses already in foreclosure with another 2 million expected this year, the combined prospects of higher unemployment and a further dropping of home values, provides grim prospects for many homeowners.
Moving used to be an option when jobs were scarce. Now, moving to a new location in order to secure a job, means abandoning an underwater home – followed by default and damaged credit – followed by loss of an investment and financial ruin.

Some of the widely held beliefs about our economy have been challenged by this ongoing debacle. The buy and hold crowd on Wall Street is thinning, for one thing. Those who bought and held in the late nineties are poorer, not richer. Using the home as an investment, is another challenged concept. Prices clearly do not always rise and your house is no longer a reliable or viable ATM machine.
Another cherished concept is the belief that the government, while a bloated entity, protects you. The clear movement of executives from investment banks to government positions – and the focusing on everyone BUT the banks as the cause of this crisis – seals that deal. Even though the CEO’s from Lehman, Bear, Merrill and Goldman were buying insurance (credit-default swaps) against the toxic mortgages, which they knew would default, neither they nor their front men in the mortgage lending business took any heat. That is a story that needs be told. We might learn more about who was behind the grassy knoll first.
But, what is clear is that it is easier to prosecute homeowners for mistakes made in the mortgage process than it is to take down the perpetrators of the biggest fraud in this country’s history.

Meanwhile, expect more bond defaults at the Village, Town, County and State levels and a paring back of pensions that have already been hit by unsustainable withdrawals, losses and underfunding. The wall that we will ultimately hit is still years off and real recovery is not expected until somewhere between 2016 and 2020. Until then, small business in America will continue to dwindle in numbers. With the ability to prey on “Mom & Pop” operations by Code Enforcement inspectors, Federal and State tax agencies, Worker’s Comp inspectors, Sales Tax collectors and Health Department workers – looking to justify their own continued employment – small businesses are on the way out. This, despite the fact that it is responsible for 65% of employment in this country.

This is a downward spiral, which will contribute to deflation of assets – from businesses to real estate – and there is a failure to understand and act by our leaders. The Stimulus packages were a failure and one interesting fact belies the lack of expertise. Obama has spent more of what we don’t have in a year and a half -- than everything spent by all of the previous presidents in our entire country’s history.

This does not bode well for our future considering where we are now.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Read it and Weep

If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style.
-- Quentin Crisp

What is amazing about the BP leak, assuming that the rock formation above the pool of oil beneath is intact and not also leaking from numerous locations, is the fact that little has been said about one aspect of how this happened.
The Cheney connection (Halliburton) to the oil business runs deep, as does the Bush family cash.
As the wildlife die, along with the ecosystems that are about to turn the Gulf into the new Dead Sea, remember that the $600,000 system which is required in Europe – but was excused here by that dynamic duo of legal crime – is the acoustic shutoff system for the blowout preventer.
Avoiding that price tag was a much-appreciated gift from Cheney and is directly attributed to his allowing rigs drilled in the U.S. to save that expense. Voila, environmental disaster.
As one commenter on said:

"I practiced law before federal energy agencies for over 25 years... here is what happened.. George W. Bush appointed hand-picked oil and natural gas friendly and environmentally unfriendly cronies to the commissions/agencies (FERC/DOT/MMS, etc.) so that the oil and natural gas industry could do whatever it wanted to do.. I actually saw it happen... it used to be that the agencies were tough and required compliance - there were regular rate cases to make sure the big monopolistic pipelines weren't overcharging the public, investigations to make sure the pipes weren't violating safety and environmental regulations, etc. etc. Then, after W put his cronies in place, everything changed... no rate cases (allowing the big pipes to overrecover cost of service by hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars from regular consumers like you and me); no checks on pipeline safety and environmental reports (which would uncover fraud); investigations into tariff violations blocked by commissioners (while the pipe presidents bragged about their "Commissioner Shields"); lawyers that tried to ensure management complied with rules fired; etc.,etc.... All of this was triggered by the oil and gas industry executives' desire to rob bigger and bigger bonuses from shareholders... remember those earning incentive clauses in their contracts!! Say what you will - -the truth is the truth..."

It has been estimated that this Gulf disaster is the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez spill, per week.

And, wait until Hurricane season!
Florida may be the tar ball capital of the world if, as is predicted, the plume (which stretches for 30 miles, 400 feet thick and several miles wide) continues to grow by upwards of 80,000 barrels of oil per day.
That’s nearly 3.5 million gallons of oil, per day. All headed towards Florida and wrapping around both coasts and on its way to the Carolinas. The Hamptons may be able to set fire to the waves next 4th of July.
And, there may be "fire sales" for beachfront property in Southampton if the plume makes a sharp left unexpectedly.

And, Palm Beach anyone? Madoff got out of town just in time.

Now, with Albany underwater by $10-15B, California desperate for $40B, Florida hinting that this BP thing will cost them $60B in lost tourism – Municipal Bonds about to tank (Warren Buffet) -- the Eurozone in disaster mode – and the Stock Market starting to resemble 1932 when the big drop occurred -- did anyone read Depression 2.0?

Villages and Counties are going to RAISE taxes. All of this while their bonds are in danger of defaulting. And, the Feds are going to print more money to give to States to keep them alive. Meanwhile, we continue to lose jobs and small businesses are being hounded out of existence by State workers trying to hold onto their jobs by taking in money in by any means necessary (fines, taxes, assessments, code violation fees) before they lose their jobs and their pensions are cut.

The piece de resistance was Governor Paterson’s decision to borrow money from the State pension – in order to pay the current obligations for THE PENSION. In New York, the only state that has this, taxpayers must guarantee the pension of civil service workers! While many states are rolling back pensions and obligations, New York simply borrows from Peter to pay Paul to pay Mary.

Makes you wonder when Alice will smash the mirror once getting through to the other side. It seems saner there.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Chapter 9

Spare no expense to save money on this one.

-- Samuel Goldwyn (1882 - 1974)
Coming to a bookstore near you?
No, actually, it’s a Bankruptcy Code for Villages, Towns and other Municipal entities that allows for reorganization because they cannot pay their debts. And, if Warren Buffett is right, it’s just around the corner for many local governments. Only $14 Billion has defaulted thus far, but the cost of Credit Default Swap insurance is rising rapidly on these bonds.

It’s a version of Russian Roulette that begets the question: do we bite the bullet now and reign in our expenses and employment structure, or do we throw caution to the wind and hope that Washington will bail us out? The other, more popular option for many local governments, to raise taxes, would create a new housing downdraft and the much-feared'double-dip.' The results of increased property taxes during the tail end of this Great Recession could easily force us into Depression 2.0, which some economists believe will hit this Fall. Housing and employment are shaky and even the now expired tax credit has had limited effects. The mid-range properties (condos in Manhattan and second homes in the Hamptons costing from $750,000 to $1.5 million) are not helped by $8,000.
No one wants to tighten their belt. And, that includes the local governments who would rather pass on the bill for keeping municipal employees at work and continues local building projects.

Watch for the vacant chair once the music stops.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Depression 2.0

The future will be better tomorrow.
-- Dan Quayle (1947 - )

Those of you who are buying into the recovery underway may want to re-think your plans. As has been mentioned here numerous times, there will be no recovery. We have been heading into a prolonged period of hyperdeflation, deflation or depression, depending upon whether it is you or your neighbor who is suffering the most.
A perfect example of the spin that has been spun was the announcement by GM part 2, that the automaker has paid back its TARP loans after reporting better sales. What was left out of that announcement was the fact that the payback was coming from another TARP account. That same game is played on Canal Street corners with shells and peas.

The economic corruption, often created by political corruption, is now so pervasive that some do not worry about a “Black Swan.” It is a White Swan for some economists. Meaning, that all of the signs were obvious for the bust as well as the 2008 Lehman disaster, and that the big Kahuna is already on the horizon for all to see.

We have the U.S. debt cost approaching 93% of GDP, an expiring $8,000 home-buying credit, the only mortgages being written by Fanny Mae (which is on life-support and in conservatorship) super-welfare in the name of extended-extended unemployment, and numerous States that are bleeding money. California is actually in worse shape than Greece with New Jersey and New York not far behind (New York’s projected deficit is $15 Billion for next year). If Wall Street is really a prognosticator of the future 6-12 months out, it sees an oncoming train in the tunnel.

New York City is about to experience severe budget cuts. The Town of Southampton is still relatively clueless and has done nothing to reign in the bloated employee roster. While the Police have always been sacrosanct as regards budget cuts in the Hamptons, if that same methodology continues, there will be plenty of cops and no teachers. The U.S. itself is in serious trouble. One of the few states that depend upon taxpayers to support civil service pensions that are not fully funded, New York, will soon come to terms with an impossible situation. It’s like the Social Security System, which is broken – except New York can’t print money and the problem is not many years away but immediate.
While everyone has gotten used to looking to real estate and its associated taxes to cover the shortfalls, that particular party is over. Property values are still dropping as fast as they can increase the tax rate and homeowners with good credit are starting to walk away from insupportable values that are underwater. Fully 14% of all properties in this country are either in default or foreclosure.
As one reader-observer wrote:

“The govt. bailing out lenders, wall street, banks, car companies, insurance companies and paying bond holders 100% on the dollar while throwing it on top of the taxpayers back was the greatest heist of wealth in the history of the world.

consult a lawyer first. Non Recourse vs. Recourse is important too. You will be able to save some money before you leave. Rent in the same area for 1/2 of what you pay for a mortgage.

Get a secured credit card, keep inquiries low, open a small dollar car loan, pay off on your credit back up. you will be able to get that loan in 2 years, Fannie in 4 or less.

Don't let them fool you, there is no shame. Corporations do it all the time. Morgan Stanley just walked away from 1.3 billion loan....The shame comes from rewarding failure and horrible regulation antics of the SEC, FCC, FED, Treasury, Congress etc....”

This brings us to some causes and few solutions. Goldman Sachs, the Grinch of Wall Street, is indicative of the actual greed that still takes $100 million a day out of the market in profits. They do this by virtue of “frontrunning” – essentially, by “seeing” an order coming in and both buying and then selling the trade to the incoming buyer at a profit in a nanosecond – with high-speed computers that are physically closer to the exchange computers. Mayor Motz of Quogue got 8 years in Federal prison for what Goldman Sachs does thousands of times a day.
This is a company that is one of many Wall Street vultures, like JPMorgan Chase, which has essentially destabilized countries (like Greece). Across this country, Villages, Towns, Counties and States have been devastated by the accounting maneuvers and credit default swaps associated with pension funds and financial instruments used to shore up bloated budgets. The same is true for their “expertise” which was exported around the world. The Eurozone is now experiencing this and is heading into a downward spiral of debt via stimulus plans and printing money just as the U.S. has done.

It will not work.

Stimulus plans are predicated upon creating money out of nothing. No new assets are created which serve as the basis for money that is printed. And, the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government is rapidly fading. We have phony money, which is inflationary, chasing ballooning deficits – because we want to continue on as before. That must end – and it will – badly.

So far, $1.3 Trillion has been removed from available credit – used by small business and individuals – to continue to operate. Another $1.3 Trillion may soon vanish. And, if the banking reform is on track as planned, credit card companies will no longer be permitted to charge rate for credit cards and personal loans based upon where their main office is (the main reason why Citibank moved to South Dakota, for example). If banks can only charge the rates permitted by each individual state, instead of the rate permitted by the state where they are located, they will stop lending in states that have low interest-rate ceilings. If that happens, available credit will be further reduced.

All of this matters because small businesses are in big trouble. And, small business employs 65% of the workers in this country – employment that enables them to pay mortgages and buy goods.

Simultaneously, with the Libor rate rising (which some mortgages are tied to) due to the cost of credit, many interest-only Alt-A loans reset this year and in 2011 and 2012.

Put all of this together.

Rising debt loads, contraction of small business, reductions in employment, reductions in credit-lines, rising “strategic” defaults on mortgages, mortgage resets, “welfare” mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that are subsidized toxic assets from bankrupt entities, and bread lines of “extended” unemployment – and the collapse of Wall Street.
We are in a brief moment of illusory improvement because it is springtime and seasonal employment as well as spending has blinded us.

So, when do the Villages, Towns, States and Countries get the REALLY good news? Starting now -- and coming to a budget office near you by November. That’s when Depression 2.0 will visit.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Flash Crash

Buy on the rumor; sell on the news.
-- Wall Street Proverb

So here’s the deal.

Flash trades basically are handled by “bots” or computerized systems at close to the speed of light.
Buy or sell orders are handled in nanoseconds. In fact, orders are received and transacted faster if the physical location of the computer-generated trade is closer to the servers that exist for the Exchange – wherever that facility is actually located.
If the brokerage house/investment bank is closer to the Exchange, it’s possible to execute a trade faster than a local office of, say, Merrill Lynch, whose office could be in Iowa. The electronic time lag gives the edge to the broker near the Exchange.

Goldman Sachs is known to have been making its money by having its systems closest to the action. Fully 70% of all trading is now flash trading. Goldman is said to account for nearly 48% of these trades and 35% of all trades. Flash trades enable the fastest “gun in the East” to get ahead of other orders and with a few million trades a day, makeing its money by executing in and out before its rivals. Investors who have stop loss orders are sold out and combined losses of hundreds of billions of dollars are estimated. Goldman makes money. In fact, Goldman regularly has $100 million days.

Essentially, flash trades permits Goldman to see an order and choose its execution by inside information that is due to the faster (closer) proximity to the source of the information. The Flash Crash exposed this system.

Mayor Motz of Quogue was prosecuted for this. Only, in his case it was called “Frontrunning.” Either Motz is innocent or Goldman is guilty. You can’t have it both ways. The only difference was speed.

There you have it, folks.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Political Notes 5.7.10

Democracy becomes a government of bullies tempered by editors.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

As the economy “improves,” the volatility in financial markets as well as the quality of life continues to deteriorate. The anomaly is not really inexplicable. What is missing is accurate reporting about what is going on. The government is desperate to have us believe that everything is on the mend. Despite the fact that “they are rioting in Africa,” or rather, in Greece, all is well. Except, that all is not well.

The fact is that the VIX, the market volatility index, is spiking and Wall Street had a wild ride on Thursday – down nearly 1000 points intraday.

The dismay sown by the Communists in Greece has risen to the level of a few fatalities. So, while a loan package via the IMF and Germany has been extended, the rest of the PIGS will soon arrive with their collective hands out. That’s when the fun will begin in the Eurozone – and that’s when it will start to really get interesting here in America.

We have Goldman Sachs, an investment bank that took TARP money because it was “too big to fail” unlike Lehman -- which had a hand in bringing down Greece through its “creative accounting” and credit-default swaps. GS is now arguably facing a criminal investigation – which the populace has been calling for, for years. The Eurozone is facing collective bankruptcy or at default on its Sovereign debt and the U.S. is facing the possibility of a double-dip recession. The current improvement in employment numbers may, in fact, be the predicted temporary rise in spring fever/seasonal employment for Small Business. Schiller, the Yale economic guru, has predicted a huge coming increase in foreclosures brought on by Alt-A and Prime loans which will reset this year and have a chilling effect going forward. The fact that nearly one third of all homes in America are worth less that the mortgage is important. Those that bought homes with the $8,000 tax credit have been told that the value of their homes dropped before the ink was dry on the loan documents.
As a backdrop to all of this, local economies from States to Counties, to Cities, to Villages have become the antagonists towards the one source of energy that can help solve the crisis – Small Businesses in America.

With fully 65% of all jobs emanating from this source, it has become the target instead of the savior for every civil service agency from the IRS, to the NY State Tax Department, the NYC Traffic Enforcement Bureau, and the Worker’s Compensation people, ending with Code Enforcement personnel, which initiate fines. The list of antagonists to the energy and drive needed by Small Business owners is growing as the deficits caused by the Wall Street/Banks/Mortgage Broker fiasco plays out.

The credit default swaps and phony mortgage products that were signed off on by unsuspecting borrowers – fueling the CDO’s and SIV’s that were sold off to pension funds, small banks, Countries, Cities, States, Counties and Villages across the country – are now spawning legions of civil service employees looking to make up the losses while creating a justification for them to keep their own jobs. Soon government will have no subjects to collect from and Hannibal Lector will be in charge of the feast.

This is being played out with the same tactics used by the King.

Threaten and tax the people -- who are the victims. Why? It’s easier than going after the banks. It’s cheaper. And, because we can.

But, why are we killing Small Business? It is the real Goose that laid the Golden Egg in America. This is the conundrum which begs a political answer in this country -- if we are to succeed.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Let the Games Begin

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.
-- Woody Allen (1935- )

The St. Vincent’s saga has been a long and unpleasant one. One of the most essential institutions in the Downtown neighborhood and certainly the most necessary medical facility -- has been this hospital and emergency room. It would be hard to find a family that has not relied on the top flight Emergency Room and what some have called the best-kept medical secret in New York.

Whether the doctors, nurses, attendants, ambulance personnel and other hospital employees will manage to weather this storm, is yet another story. But, from the AIDS epidemic, to the SARS scare, to the 9-11 disaster, the hospital and its staff has always been there for the community. My only complaint involved the parking. Other than that, they saved my son’s life. Literally.

Lenox Hill, another important Manhattan hospital, is also reportedly in financial trouble. Upper East Side friends have reported long Emergency Room waits, only to spend hours on a gurney in the hallway waiting for attention. The large area of Manhattan without St. Vincent’s leads you away from where you live or where your doctors are affiliated.

Where do you bring your kid in the middle of the night with a 105-degree temperature when an ice bath won’t do it? Where do you take a cab to when the headache pain is so intense that you fear an aneurism? To a new hospital with no doctor you know or who knows you?
At a kid’s party last week one of the 5 year-olds hurt his arm and not knowing where to go we had to drive in rush hour traffic to N.Y.U on 33rd Street. The Downtown mom did not know where to take him. Suppose it were a life-threatening condition?

Forget the Rudin deal, forget the politicians (who also sometimes need a hospital in a hurry), and forget the community organizations that have taken both sides of the fierce opposition to St. Vincent’s development -- in order to save the hospital services.

This is a deal that will only be saved by financial realities.

So, the well-place rumor is that Mount Sinai is ready to do the deal and is in the wings behind curtain #1, pending resolution of the $700 million of St. Vincent’s in debt -- which the new potential suitors will not assume. Shortly, they may not have to, and will take over the hospital operation.

Let’s hope so.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A New Era

It’s never just a game when you’re winning.
-- George Carlin

The election on Thursday evening at the Downtown Independent Democrats ushered in a new era for residents of lower Manhattan. One of Manhattan's most powerful political clubs, which had been headed by Sean Sweeney, brought in some new leadership. After an informative speech by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the voting took place. What was striking, was the sense of camaraderie among the members – a stark contrast to the previous elections, which had been marred by, attempts to pack the club and dislodge the leadership.

Marc Ameruso challenged winner Jeanne Wilcke for the Presidency, but the other officers were largely unopposed.
However, while there was a sense of excitement, there was no rancor or divisiveness. The days of the Julie Menin and David Reck challenges to power appear to be over. He now has his own club with former District Leader Linda Belfer and Bill Love.

Sweeney remains as Treasurer and spent most of the evening photographing luminaries. He had to borrow a camera because his own needed help. Having a Scotsman watching even his own money is probably a good sign.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Just Desserts or Black Swan?

Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.
-- Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965)

Trying to read between the tealeaves in this regenerating economy is no easy task. While the numbers appear to show that business is improving in certain sectors, employment has again dropped along with optimism and foreclosures have again surged in March.

Improvements in certain real estate in some sections of the country have been noted. Condos in Manhattan have reportedly increased in both sales price and numbers of transactions. There is a market in Manhattan for higher-end apartments (above $3 million) and for Hamptons’ summer homes in higher price brackets (above $2 million) as well as very low priced housing (under $350,000). Most of these transactions follow a simple logic: FNMA mortgages are readily available up to $417,000 and for those happy souls with cash – the lack of mortgages is not a stumbling block. Discounts of 15 to 20 percent all across the board are common.

Meanwhile the foreclosure numbers keep rising and more product comes on to the market. This ensures that home values will not appreciate to the top of the market (2006) until the year 2020 in many locations. Fully 25% of all homes are worth less than the mortgage on it.

Businesses, on the other hand, are suffering. Unfortunately, small businesses employ more than 60 percent of the labor force. If loans are not available, most small businesses have few options: continue to operate at a loss, or fire a few people. When there are no people left to fire, the businesses must close.
Even the touted success that GM has paid back its government loans turns out to be like the shell game played on Canal Street.

The hangover, of course, is that unpaid bills and taxes follow everyone around and it doesn’t matter that there is no business. With no financing, many small companies and their employees are enmeshed in a death spiral. The banks have seen to severe bankruptcy restrictions to prevent a sane exit from Dante’s new Inferno.
Even Hollywood is suffering.
The government has attempted to deal with these issues in a variety of unsuccessful ways. Mortgage modifications are an acknowledged disaster, extended unemployment benefits has become the New Welfare, and rather than soften the crushing debt load for small businesses and individuals, 16,000 new IRS agents have been hired to tighten the noose.

Goldman Sachs, that paragon of American Capitalism philosophy, was finally charged with civil fraud for working its magic

After working diligently, sometimes hand-in-hand with JP Morgan Chase, to destabilize Villages, Counties and Countries with their credit-default swap derivatives – then perversely betting that their toxic handiwork would fail – they get a slap on the wrist from the SEC. Considering the degree of devastation caused by knowingly shopping their degraded bonds like Johnny Appleseed, while shorting them since they expected them to plummet, nothing short of scores of indictments are in order. But, that will not likely happen.

Here are some questions to be asked and answered:

Were the banks complicit in creating mortgage products that they knew would implode at some point

before they saturated the market through complicit mortgage brokers who created any and all documents to push them through – as recently came to light at Washington Mutual?

Were they designed to self-destruct from day one? And, were the securitized mortgage bonds created after harvesting the deadly mortgages back from brokers and then sold off – WHILE purchasing credit default swaps so that they could sit and wait for the bombs to go off?

Were homeowners and real estate investors duped by the fine print into accepting mortgages and easy money that were doomed to fail no matter they did?

Will the Goldman investigation spread to all of the other banks like JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Deutche Bank and a few that were decimated, like Bear Sterns, Lehman, Merrill Lynch and Washington Mutual? Given the fact that companies like Countrywide, Ameriquest, Long Beach Mortgage and thousands of other independent mortgage brokers were peddling dynamite – will an extensive investigation find out that all of this was planned and carefully executed since at least 2005?

Given the fact that no borrower ever had the time to read an entire mortgage document at a closing, was this the industry’s dirty little secret about duping the public?
Will this pass because the government has no stomach for it, or will Europe force our hand with its own investigations into the matter.

Then, there is the other dangling shoe in Europe -- which is the Greek financial fiasco. Of course, this too was partly constructed
by Goldman's "creative accounting." How many more of these fiscal time-bombs are buried within sovereign debt structures across Europe?

Either of these problems is capable of morphing into a Black Swan

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

America’s Future

If you’re going through Hell, keep going.
-- Winston Churchill

The recent past and not too distant future in America presents a set of challenges unknown to most generations that did not experience the Great Depression. For all practical purposes, the economic meltdown, which came to head with the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008, was a defining moment in our history. At the same moment in time, the failure of Bear Sterns and Lehman were nearly joined by A.I.G., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, as well. Only after hastily arranged “marriages” for Merrill Lynch, Countrywide, and a number of smaller investment firms, were the majors saved by Federal loan guarantees (JPMorgan acquisition of Bear), actual loans (A.I.G.), and essentially unlimited money via the Fed discount window – was the system propped up.

As a result of bailing out the banks with TARP money, taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac via a conservatorship, and giving huge loans to certain “too big to fail” entities, we now have some stability. But, it is a stability that comes with a high price.

That price is looming inflation from printing trillions of dollars, deficits that are thrown forward for nearly a decade and, ultimately, both higher taxes and a severely reduced standard of living. We either had to take the hit all at once with a worldwide Depression, or, slowly, and painfully, as a wasting away of a life of plenty. There is no mystery about it. We have been taking the money from one pocket and putting it in the other, rather than generating and producing like other countries. The derivatives market, all $700 Trillion of it, has assured us of this dubious future.
For at least the next decade, expect higher taxes; lower entitlement programs like social security and Medicare, a higher chronic unemployment, and a dollar that buys less. No retirement may become the price that we all pay for the excesses of Wall Street and the manipulations of the credit markets. We may not have accurately predicted a “double-dip” for the third quarter of this year but all of the non-governmental feedback is that many Americans are suffering, and will continue to suffer, as if we are indeed in the midst of The Great Depression II.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

President Mike?

New York now leads the world's great cities in the number of people around whom you shouldn't make a sudden move.
-- David Letterman (1947 - )

A funny thing happened on the way to Housing Court. A few people who have been very unhappy with Hi-rise Mike, who has been blamed for the over-development of Downtown, have made a slight turn to the right. Apparently, the Mayor has recently made a few moves that even the die-hard left of center Liberals have had to applaud. The most recent of these has been his stance on supporting affordable housing. In the wake of the Stuyvesant Town Court of Appeals ruling and drying up of investment capital for real estate projects, Bloomberg appears to have gotten some religion . Of course, you can always second-guess his motives – but, in this current economic Armageddon, which has erroneously been called The Great Recession, it pays to be thankful for the Ends, not dwelling on the Means.

Considering the fact that Downtown has about had it with delays on rebuilding at the 9/11 site, the Mayor’s assertive comments are welcomed.

As the Pragmatist philosopher William James might say, “What is the cash value of believing in” Bloomberg’s candidacy. The answer is – maybe, fairly high.
So, let’s assume that Bloomberg is obsessively micro-managing his White House aspirations with a good spin from his pr doctors. No politician alive is immune from wanting to reach higher office. That’s true of Stringer wanting to be Senator, Quinn for wanting to be Mayor, Squadron for possibly seeking national office, and Obama… well, wanting to stay where he is; Which is becoming less and less likely as we pussyfoot through the quagmire of Wars and Depression. It may be a time for a change. But, perhaps one that is weighed, deliberate, and cautious.

Even his detractors credit Bloomberg with having high-quality management skills, especially financial acumen. And, even if there is a sizeable contingent of New Yorkers who would have preferred he had moved on – obstinacy and grandiosity (if that’s what it is) are not necessarily negative traits for a President. But, the ability to do an about-face on important social issues, not defense or security, is a valuable trait that he has kept hidden. Our economic condition, however, is a disaster and needs to be changed.

The sensitivity (or practicality) to changing social winds and, perhaps, some sense of what New York and its dysfunctional State government needs from Washington – is a positive sign for New York City as well as Long Island. Bloomberg may have that.
With the assistance of Frank McKay, the still evolving “whiz kid” (not such a kid) from the Independence Party on Long Island as one of his political gurus, is also a promising sign that he’s mindful of the landscape. It goes a long way towards carrying this state and overcoming any Jewish or Billionaire provincialism.

Only money, as he found out in the recent election for Mayor, is not going to do the trick. The ever-so-subtle shift in hubris after his recent close election, however, may have done the trick. He is appearing neither week, nor grandiose.
A combination of smart political moves and sensitivity to voter issues may yet lift Bloomberg onto the national scene this time around.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sign This!

The truth is more important than the facts.
-- Frank Lloyd Wright

Apparently, the company doing the construction on the small parcel bordering Thompson/Watts/Broome streets is not even sure who ordered the job done. But SoHo is now the proud recipient of yet another useless structure whose only reason for existence – is to sport another “wrap-around” billboard. In fact, the race to create this 40-foot high tubular steel Lego set has pitched media companies against each other. The existing VanWagner sign, which has aided the media mess that is turning SoHo into a mini-Times Square, is apparently going to be partially blocked by the new addition. At least there’s some justice in this unfortunate event.

Where once there was art, we now have Times Square in SoHo. Big media money has clearly taken over the political process.

The Community Board is nowhere to be seen or heard from in this matter, despite the fact that its entire force was rallied to arrange the removal of one in Greenwich Village. It’s just another example of the political neglect that has severed SoHo from any meaningful support.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Representing SoHo

Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.
-- Henry Kissinger (1923 - )

The recent election, which replaced Alan Gerson with Margaret Chin, comes on the heels of State Senator Squadron’s success in replacing the decades-long incumbency of predecessor Marty Connor. Both Squadron and Chin received strong support from SoHo.
Squadron is now the Social Services Committee Chair in the Senate. While they are all democrats, there are differences even among democrats. Squadron appears to be on a fast track bringing him to statewide and possibly nationwide attention – in part, no doubt, owing to his close relationship with Chuck Schumer. Margaret Chin is a community activist and her City Council membership is too new to evaluate. Both are responsive new leaders.

Community Board #2 is, of course, another matter. For many years it was known as the Greenwich Village board despite the fact that, in theory, it also represents SoHo, Hudson Square, Chinatown and part of Little Italy and the East Village. Its members are appointed by the Borough President and various City Council members. It is certainly not an apolitical entity and is subject to very little scrutiny by the residents of its communities. Yet, it is supposed to be the entry-level forum for local democracy. The current Chair of Community Board #2 is Jo Hamilton.

What we do know is the fact that Marty Connor and Alan Gerson along with some members of the Community Board, which had ignored their base in SoHo -- were removed or were "fired."

From a SoHo perspective, then, the time has come to re-state some issues, which have not been resolved. It is important that we, once again, make those in political power aware of them.

Billboards and Art.

While there has been a recent uproar about a building on 12th street in Greenwich Village (Equinox Fitness Center) that has billboards plastered around its exterior, the decades-long effort to eliminate the unsightly signs in SoHo has been completely ignored. It’s no surprise that the Community Board, whose members are nominated and supported by elected politicians (who receive campaign contributions from the media companies which erect billboards), has dragged its feet.

Speaker Vallone of the City Council pushed through legislation, which called for fines up to $25,000 for illegal billboards and severely restricted them. Of course, the Department of Buildings is a neutered agency and there is no enforcement unit to exercise the mandate – even if there was a will to do so. Which it does not have, courtesy of the Mayor.

SoHo is an area that has thrived due to the history of art. An intelligent media person, a creative Department of Buildings Department manager or a community-minded bureaucrat in the Bloomberg administration – could propose the use of billboards to promote art or even display art.
Protection of the remnants of original community art has always been a dream of many “old-timers” in SoHo.
Attempts to have “Sunflower Park”, the location of the guerilla art sculptures which were unceremoniously ripped out of the asphalt at Broome Street and West Broadway after 40 years, renamed as Bob Bolles Park – has been ignored at all levels from the Community Board to the elected politicians. The art brought condo developments and upscale stores but nothing for its residents that made its place on the international map.
But, artistic minds like don’t exist in City government. Easier to bludgeon the residents into submission with beer ads or scantily clad, anexoric models on 50 feet high murals (as exist on Houston Street) – in open contravention of the laws, good sense or family values.

Another looming fight, which has been played out numerous times at the Community Board, is the issue of liquor licenses. Currently, the Moondance Diner location is the focus of repeated attempts to bypass the community on the issue of commentary and review – a problem that we are all to familiar with in SoHo (Trump SoHo is a good example).
There is also the larger issue of rampant development allowed by virtue of the fact that SoHo is still considered an M-1, manufacturing district – allowing hotels to be built without any review. Entreaties to place a moratorium on hotels or “hotel-condos” have fallen on deaf ears.

The fact that the liquor license committee chaired by Ray Lee and the Zoning committee chaired by David Reck, both of whom appear to suffer from the Stockholm syndrome, allow applicants to hold the community hostage to their whims. More community-minded professionals, such as Doris Diether, for example, (who formerly chaired Zoning) has been relegated to a back seat because she does not cater to developers' agendas. If the community is against a project, she finds a way to make their voices heard.
After years of complaints, which ultimately resulted in a few Town Hall hearings – we are back to square one with the same leadership issues and the same deaf ears at Community Board #2.

In essence, SoHo has no power over its own future. Special interests control our fate.

We call on our elected officials and Community Board #2 to celebrate art, change the way the media companies have changed our community for the debasing worst, and use some common sense in the treatment of SoHo – if they wish to remain.