Home » 2014 » April

Monthly Archives: April 2014

Advertisements

Prologue To Wealth Inequality Awarness

By Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Before I had a blog, before the Wall Street “privateers of equity” crashed the economy, and long before the Occupy movement occupied anything, there were seemingly crazy folks like me trying to sound the alarm on our economy. I wrote Letters to the Editor in local newspapers and sent copies to every newspapers across the country for which I had an email addresses. What disturbed me back then was that no one in the media, or even in academia, seemed to be paying much attention. Event have consequences, and the crash in 2008 caught us flat footed.

It is unknown how social problems that exist for years suddenly become public issues to be solved. No one knows what triggers these tipping points. Even when a single individual is clearly associated with a change or a movement or a discovery (Einstein, for example), that person is responding to what ever came before. Sometime it is the consequential event rather than any alarm bells that finally get our attention. The firmament that precedes public cognition before a disastrous event remains a mystery to me.

My wife just came across one of my old letters. What startled me is that I could have written this same letter today, except the statistics are far worse now.

Here below is my Daily Record Letter to the Editor published on Christmas Eve, 2006.

DailyRecLtrEditor 12 2006

Advertisements

Hey Main Street, Meet Your Wall Street Landlords

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

If you lost your home when Wall Street investment bankers made a hash of the home mortgage industry, you may be terrified to learn they want to become your landlord.

Up to now most single home rentals have been owned by local owners or regional companies. Private equity firms are taking advantage of loopholes in financial regulation and the depressed housing market to create national home rental corporations. They are scooping up foreclosed homes at fire sale prices all across the country and turning them into rentals. Their ultimate aim is to turn the equity in all those rental agreements into rent-backed securities that can be bought and sold on Wall Street. (Gentlemen, place your bets!)

Under this business model, the equity present in rental agreements will be aggregated into tranches based on confidence in the financial ability of the tenants pay their rent. The collateralized security instruments from these tranches will have various rates of return based on risk factors from the underlying leases. Should these rent-backed securities default, the security owners may even have an ownership stake in the properties to fall back on. If you haven’t heard about this before, you can read more in the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Finance or one of several good articles in Mother Jones.

The initial sale of rent-backed securities by these corporations will allow them to free up equity in these properties to purchase even more distressed homes. If the underlying financial structure of these plans sounds familiar, it should. Substitute mortgage equity for equity in these lease agreements and the securitized bonds are nearly identical to mortgage backed securities that inflated the housing bubble and crashed the economy in 2008. The only element missing so far are the “credit default swaps” inside investors bought to bet that the mortgage bonds would fail.

Hubris is the word that comes to mind when considering that the same class of players who foreclosed on the American Dream now want to be our landlord under these same self-serving schemes.

To be fair, the concept of private equity firms buying distressed houses to fix up and rent does has merit. Turning vacant houses into renovated rental properties has a positive patina best explained in theirpromotional videos.

Moreover, whenever investment money is applied directly to tangible projects that benefit ordinary families it is always a blessing. It brings jobs, boosts local economies, improves the quality of life and strengthens families.

If Wall Street investors could just be satisfied with the profound social benefits and ordinary financial returns on their investments it would be great. In fact, it is what Wall Street owes Main Street for all the pain they inflicted. But social benefits are not the things they value these days, and ordinary investment returns are never good enough. They must relentlessly drive to maximize profits.

Scratch the surface on their nationalized real estate plans and ominous consequences emerge. Ask yourself, what type of landlords will these national private equity firms become?

On April 15, 2014, the grass roots housing advocacy organization, Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA), published their “grassroots research” to answer that question. They looked at the earliest entrant into this field, the Blackstone Group, which owns Hilton Hotels, the Weather Channel, Sea World and Invitation Homes, a subsidiary that has purchased tens of thousands of homes across the country.

Here is some background on the Blackstone group. It is a private equity firm with global real estate holdings in the U.S., Parts of Europe and China. According to Jon Gray, the Head of Global Real Estate for Blackstone, their real estate holdings make up 60% of their assets, or around $80 billion dollars. It is already the largest landlord in the united states and it sees the distressed U.S. housing market as a growth opportunity.

According to an April 9th, 2014, interview Gray gave on the Fox News network “… distressed asset pricing is attractive,” with single family homes selling for less than half their pre-recession values in parts of Europe and the U.S. Blackstone has already purchased 47,000 foreclosure homes in 14 US cities, spending $8 billion dollars, or an average of $190,000 per home. Blackstone is betting on rising housing prices in part because depressed new home construction is a third of what it was before the recession.

What Blackstone doesn’t say can be found in the OOAH research report on how this nation’s biggest landlord has affected renters in Atlanta. Families who rent from Invitation Homes in the Atlanta area face higher rents, higher rental fees, less responsive property management service and some even face automatic rent increases as high as 20% per year. The OOAH report caught the attention of Congressman Mark Takano, who sent out a disturbing press release highlighting some of the findings ( appended below).

And there are other potentially negative consequences yet to follow. Tenancy laws and regulations are diverse across the states and local municipalities to reflect local and regional values. What impact might the power of national corporate landlords have in influencing those laws to suit their business interests?

The shame of it all is that most of the former home owners now renting from private equity landlords would still be in their own homes if it hadn’t been more profitable for banks to foreclose than to participate in the federal government’s HAMP, HARP, PRA or 2MP mortgage assistance programs. But then, if that happened, this private equity investment opportunity wouldn’t exist today, would it?

————————————————————–

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Contact: Brett Morrow

brett.morrow@mail.house.gov; (202) 225-2305

 

Rep. Mark Takano Statement on “Blackstone: Atlanta’s Newest Landlord” Report

Washington DC – Earlier today, the organization Occupy Our Homes Atlanta released its report titled “Blackstone: Atlanta’s Newest Landlord” showing that:

· Tenants wishing to stay in their homes can face automatic rent increases as much as 20% annually.

· Survey participants living in Invitation Homes pay nearly $300 more in rent than the Metro Atlanta median.

· 45% of survey participants pay more than 30% of their income on rent, by definition making the rent unaffordable.

· Tenants face high fees, including a $200 late fee for rental payments.

· 78% of the surveyed tenants do not have consistent or reliable access to the landlord or property manager.

After the report was released, Rep. Mark Takano issued the following statement:

“The report released today gives a snapshot of the experiences faced by Invitation Homes renters in the greater Atlanta area, and further shows the need for Congress and regulatory agencies to examine the growing phenomenon of large institutional investors owning rental properties. Local residents who rent from large institutional investors should not be subjected to unfair practices or poor service. I once again call on the House Financial Services committee to hold hearings on the issue, and request regulatory agencies begin looking at the emerging REO to rental market.”

Background Information:

In January, Rep. Takano released his Riverside” report examining the cause of rising rents in Riverside County, California. In the report, Takano discovered that one of the potential causes of rents increasing is the rise of large institutional investors purchasing single-family homes, renting them out.

Takano then sent a letter to House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Ranking Member Maxine Waters requesting Congressional hearings into single-family rental backed securities that are being developed by The Blackstone Group, Colony Capital, American Homes 4 Rent, and others.

Takano later sent letters to federal regulators, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, requesting information about how institutional landlords can impact local housing markets and the tenant experience.

###

 

Brett Morrow

Communications Director | Congressman Mark Takano

1507 Longworth HOB, Washington, DC 20515

Office: (202) 225-2305 | Cell: 202-440-2268

 

Image Credits:

House Image : (World Law Directory) http://www.worldlawdirect.com/forum/law-wiki/12476-unlawful-detainer.html

Jon Gray Image: (Fox News Network) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5pGbKGQtrU)

Wall Street: (Google Images) etruthseeker.co.uk/?p=54365

Government of the People Is Gone- Here’s Proof

by Brian T. Lynch

 

Martin Gilens of Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University , conducted a multivariate analysis of 1,779 policy issues in the United States, the results of which confirmed that the United States is no longer a Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.oligarchy

 

In other words, we have lost majority rule. The United States has become an oligarchy. Business interests and the interests of the wealthy elite have overwhelming dominance in influencing United States policy and laws. You can read their conclusions below and read this newly published study in full at this URL:

http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf

According to the authors, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.”

Of course, anyone paying attention to government policies versus the popular will of the electorate would already have drawn this conclusion. I recently posted a two part piece on this very subject a few months ago:  http://j.mp/1bz7aO5

The Gilens and Page study opens by asking a critical question, who really rules? Are we, the people, the sovereigns of our nation, or have we become “largely powerless?”  He begins to answer this by summarizing four different theoretical traditions recognized by scholars who study democratic governance.

The first of these theoretical traditions discussed is the Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, which is best “… encapsulated in Abraham Lincoln’s reference to government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This tradition holds that laws and policies should reflect the views of the average voter, and that the positions of politicians seeking election should converge towards the center of the normal range of voter opinion.  It is this view of democracy most often presented by major media outlets when covering our politics. More importantly, this is these are the outcomes most of us expect from our democracy.

The second tradition is the Economic Elite Domination tradition in which US policy making is dominated by those with high levels of wealth or income.  Some scholars also include social status or position as part of this tradition. The economic elites often exercise their influence through foundations, think-tanks and “opinion shaping apparatus,” as well as to the lobbyists and politicians they finance.

Majoritarian pluralism is the third theoretical tradition that Gilens and Page discusse. This tradition analyzes politics through the lens of competing interest groups within the population. These groups may include political parties, organized interest groups, business firms or industry sector organizations.  All things being equal, the struggle between diverse factions within the population should also produce policy outcomes that are at least compatible with civil majority opinions.  But all things are not necessarily equal, leading to the fourth, related tradition called Biased Pluralism.

Biased pluralism entails policy outcomes that result from contending, but unrepresentative organized interest groups. These unrepresentative interest groups are generally made up of upper-class citizens with the power and influence to tilt policy towards the wishes of corporations, businesses and professional associations.So, after statistically comparing almost 2,000 policy outcomes against these four models of political influence in our democracy, what did the researchers find?  In their own words:

“By directly pitting the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other within a single statistical model …  we have been able to produce some striking findings. One is the nearly total failure of “median voter” and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” 

“Nor do organized interest groups substitute for direct citizen influence [snip]… Over-all, net interest group alignments are not significantly related to the preferences of average citizens.” The net alignments of the most influential, business oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes.” 

“Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites…  have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. 

What then has become of our democracy? It has been usurped by billionaires who directly fund candidates for public office, directly influence policy through lobbying and heavily fund public marketing campaigns to influence public opinion for their own advantage.

GildedAge2

We have seen this before during the “Gilded Age” at the turn of the last Century.  We found our voice a hundred years ago and we took back our democracy from the wealthy elite. Today they are smarter, richer and have more control over the media and government than they did back then, so the challenges we face to save civil democracy and regain majority rule won’t be easy. But history tells us that power is ultimately with the people.  We must start by recognizing our situation and begin organizing ourselves to collectively act in our own best interest. We need to become, once again, a nation of citizens, not a nation of businesses and the rich.

“Dark Pools” Caste a Shadow Over Stock Prices

We now know that the universe is filled with dark matter. This strange substance cannot be seen, heard, felt or touched, and doesn’t interact in any way with ordinary matter. Even so, its presence can be felt by its gravitational influence. It is the enormous amount of dark matter that causes galaxies to form and to spin as rapidly as they do.

While dark matter may ultimately be beneficial to the cosmos, “dark pools” in the financial markets doesn’t seem like a good idea. When large investors buy large blocks of stocks outside of public view, they do so to obtain a tactical advantage. The market effect of dark trading is that the real value of openly traded stocks is less certain. This is another example of how the playing field is tilted away from mom and pop investors and towards the rich and powerful.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/11/us-sec-darkmarkets-idUSBREA3A0CP20140411

 

 

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. securities regulators are considering testing a proposed reform that could drive business to major…

REUTERS

NSA vs. Citizens of the World.

by Brian T. Lynch

Before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the clandestine activity of the National Security Agency (NSA) and selectively released documents to the press, no one had any idea what the NSA was up to. This apparently included the President of the United States and the Congressional Select Committee on Intelligence that is charged with agency oversight.

The Select Committee on Intelligence initially denied the validity of Snowden’s claims because they, too, were in the dark about NSA operations. Once the Committee got a hold of Snowdon’s documents and investigated, they learned that the NSA concealed a great deal about its operations from Congress and even lied to Congress on occasions to protect its secrets. Since them more has surfaced from release of Snowden’s NSA documents. Among the revelations:

  • NSA engaged in mass surveillance of US citizens as well as the citizens of allied nations.
  • NSA collected metadata on all US domestic phone calls and subjected them to powerful meta analysis that can reveal very personal information about citizens not connected in any way with terrorism.
  • NSA collected and analyzed all, or nearly all domestic and foreign emails.
  • NSA engaged in domestic spy on human rights organizations, also not connected in any way with international. terrorism or criminal activity.
  • NSA spied on other international human rights organizations.
  • NSA breached its own protocols many times and targeted innocent civilians for scrutiny.
  • NSA tapped the personal cell phones of world leaders who are our allies.
  • NSA listened in on lawyers negotiating international trade agreements.
  • NSA spied on the UN and on the UN Children’s Fund.
  • NSA broke the encryption code that protects financial business transactions worldwide.
  • NSA has (and may still be) provided U.S. law enforcement agencies with secretly and illegally obtained evidence in domestic criminal cases, even non-violent criminal cases, without ever informing the defendant or the courts of the evidence or its source.

AND this is not a comprehensive list of the illegal, unconstitutional or questionable activities in which the NSA has engaged.

Discussion about these issues began to take place for the very first time only after Snowden brought them to light. These discussions are now taking place worldwide, because before Snowden, no one knew these things were even happening.

Here in the U.S., the investigation of Snowden’s claims has prompted Congress and the Obama Administration to being reorganizing and reforming the NSA. It’s abusive practices are being curtailed. President Obama has personally and publically apologized to world leaders for the conduct of the NSA. Other nations are now exploring the issues raised by Snowden’s revelations and considering how NSA technology in the wrong hand might threaten human rights.

These are the fact that are now out in the open. The main stream media has been far to silent and passive in covering this scandal. Most people remain unaware of the scope and significance of the NSA’s illegal activities. This agency has significantly violated our constitution and our personal civil rights. With or without the help of the national press, we have a responsibility as citizens to explore these issues and pass judgment on the activities or our government.

Here is the full video link of Edward Snowden’s testimony on April 8, 2014, before the Council of Europe hearing on Mass Surveillance and Whistle Blowing. It is compelling testimony with serious implications, and demonstrates once again, that the rest of the civilized world is having an important discussion about the threat posed by mass surveillance which is absent here in the United States. Our main stream media gave little attention to this event. The United States Government was invited to participate in these discussions, but declined.
http://clients.dbee.com/coe/webcast/index.php?id=20140408-1&lang=en

To be clear, no one disputes the fact that Mr. Snowden broke laws when he turned over classified documents to the press. What he did was clearly illegal. But his actions should be weighed against the greater good that may have resulted from these disclosures. Yes, the law is the law, but justice is our goal and mercy is our higher value. We may want to strike a balance in this case between what laws Snowden broke and the harm that would have followed if NSA abuses had not been brought to our attention. Public discussion and ultimately public opinion following civil dialogue should the final judge in this case.

With respect to prosecution, how do we proceed when government wrong doing is at the heart of the case? I believe this is very much a matter for public debate to seek a popular consensus on his fate. We, the people, should be the jury here. We would be abdicating our responsibilities as citizens to close our eyes and let the establishment laws deal with him when we are all plaintiffs and the government itself is the accused.

Civil Service Pensions – A Marker for What We’ve Lost

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

In New Jersey, as in many other states with conservative Republican Governors, the state civil service pension systems are under attack. A friend of mine, who has followed Governor Chris Christie’s rhetoric in the newspapers, commented about how reasonable this sounded since the system seems to be going broke. But the story of the pension system in New Jersey is more complicated that the current political sound bites. Let me tell you a true story about how civil service pensions came to be a target for public ridicule.

When I first went into civil service it was a calling to serve, not a career choice for the prospect of making lots of money. I was following the inspired words of John F. Kennedy and asking what I could do for my country. I was, and am still, an idealist. Money didn’t matter as much to me. I wanted to help people. I still feel that way now, which is why I blog.Back when I started with the state, everyone in the private sector had better health care and benefits, better defined pension benefits and they made a lot more money per hour or had higher salaries. Even the state cars we drove back then had no radios or air conditioning as that was considered too extravagant for state employees. That is the way it was, so working for the State came with low earnings expectations.

But things were changing in 1979 when I began my civil service career, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Big business had begun organizing politically and started spending big bucks on lobbying government for laws and regulations more favorable to business. Industry organizations were created to raise money and coordinate anti-union marketing campaigns. Ronald Reagan came into power in 1980 and set the tone for union bashing by crushing the air traffic controllers union. Private sector wages, which up to that time always rose in to proportion to increases in hourly GDP, were frozen and have remained frozen ever since. A fear campaign and actual business tactics based on globalization made jobs less secure. Private company pension systems were intentionally dismantled by big corporations to quarterly boost profits. Profit sharing arrangements took their place initially so workers had to invest in their company for their hope of retirement income. Then Wall Street saw all this money and wanted some action. They got congress to pass the IRA laws and all that pension money went to them.

Instead of real raises, businesses only offered cost of living adjustments, which keeps up with inflation but doesn’t share the extra wealth that the growing hourly GDP created for their employers. That extra wealth went to CEO’s and wealthy stockholders, beginning the cycle of great income disparity we have today. At the same time, Reagan cut the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28%, a windfall for the rich and a huge loss of tax revenue that the rest of us had to bear.

So while the raises, salaries and benefits I received were always sub-par compared with the private sector during the first half of my career, declining private sector wages and benefits, rather than civil service raises or improved benefits, is the reason civil service looks so good today. In fact, civil service benefits have been steadily eroding for the last 15 years but this decline is slower than the collapse of private sector benefits. Civil service salaries also have barely budged in years and actually declined when you factor in inflation. But the assault on private sector salaries and benefits makes civil service look great by comparison only.

Know this, if corporate business interests had not conspired to suppress wages in America over the last 40 years the median income for a family of four today would be over $100,000/year. Instead it is shrinking and down to $51,000/year.

My point is that people in this country who work in the private sector have to fight back to regain a fair bite of the wealth they create for their employers. Workers need to re-organize and demand their fair share of our GDP. Rather than tearing away at civil servant pensions, people should be working to recreate what has been taken from them and use civil service as the framework and model to rebuild private sector retirement security.

There are particulars about why the pension system in New Jersey is in so much financial trouble.  It isn’t because it is too generous. It is in trouble because when New Jersey was flush with money during Governor Christie Whitman’s (R) term she stopped making payments. She said she did this because the stock market was booming at that time. She said the pension system was way over-funded and didn’t need more cash. By the time she finished bankrupting the state with massive tax cuts and increased credit spending, Governor James Florio (D) didn’t have the revenue to pay into the state pension system during his entire term in office. This default model became a habit with subsequent Governors. Nothing, or only fractional amounts, were paid into the retirement system for the last 20 years. Governor Chris Christie (R) refused to put money into the system a few year back, when he had the money to pay, saying he didn’t want to put money into a broken system. This is crazy talk since it was the Executive branch that broke the system in the first place by doing exactly what he was doing.

The New Jersey State Pension system is, to a lesser extent, also in trouble because it has been abused for years by politicians bumping up the salaries of their political cronies just before retirement so they get huge pensions that they didn’t deserve or contribute towards. Politician’s take advantage of the way pensions are calculated to reward their buddies.

In New Jersey, civil service pensions are based on the average salary for the last three years. Recently the Star Ledger newspaper criticized the Governor for bumping up the salary of a political friend such that his retirement income was around $120,000 per year when his base salary had been closer to $30,000 for most of his career. Politician’s have treated the state’s pension system like it was there private cookie jar.

So when the state’s pension system, or any states fixed pension system becomes a target for political destruction, let it be a reminder instead of just how much ground private sector workers have lost. Let state pension systems be the model on which the rest of the work force rebuilds what they once had.
Photo Credit: http://ivn.us/2012/07/11/california-ignores-growing-public-pension-crisis/