TIME Banking

Banking by Another Name

Traditional lenders aren't doing their job. Enter a raft of startups to do it for them

You know credit is tight when the former chair of the Federal Reserve can’t get a mortgage. Ben Bernanke, who isn’t exactly hard up (he reportedly makes at least $200,000 a speech), recently lamented that he wasn’t able to refinance his home because of tight credit conditions. This is an inglorious reminder that the housing recovery is being driven not by first-time home buyers or people who want to trade up but by wealthy people who don’t need a loan. Since most middle-class Americans still hold most of their wealth as equity in their homes, we won’t achieve a sustainable recovery until we fix the housing market.

Banks would say the difficult credit conditions reflect the higher costs of complying with new regulations like Dodd-Frank. There’s some truth to that but not enough to justify turning down nearly any borrower who can’t put down 30% cash on a house. A more accurate explanation is that home-mortgage lending isn’t nearly as profitable as securities trading, which is where big banks still make much of their money these days. And so, hidden in the sluggish housing recovery is another revolution: American banks continue to morph into investment houses in ways that could ultimately put our financial system at risk.

Rather than Bemoan this, I am encouraged by some of the innovative companies trying take advantage of these shifts. A whole new category of nontraditional lenders is springing up to take traditional banking’s place. Nonbank financial firms, a category that includes everything from companies like Detroit-based Quicken Loans to peer-to-peer lenders like the Lending Club, are growing exponentially. (Peer-to-peer lending is the relatively new practice of lending money to unrelated individuals without going through a traditional intermediary like a bank.) This category of nonbank banks is taking up a lot of the slack left by traditional banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis. During the first half of this year, almost a quarter of mortgages made by the top 30 lenders came from nonbank firms, the highest level since the financial crisis began.

Many of these lenders use unconventional metrics to judge how creditworthy borrowers really are. They’re focusing not just on borrowers’ salary and tax returns, which are the basis of most traditional mortgage-lending calculations, but also on their field of work, what kind of degree program they are in or what their potential income trajectory might be.

Such metrics enable these lenders to take on risks that traditional banks now shun. “There’s a misperception out there that millennials don’t want to buy a home,” explains Mike Cagney, CEO of Social Finance, a company that has already done over $1 billion in crowdsourced student-loan refinancing and is now pushing into the online mortgage market. “But the reality is that they don’t have the credit to do it.” Cagney says many of his initial mortgage borrowers mirror the profile of the customers to whom he gives reduced-rate student loans–upwardly mobile young professionals, many with degrees from top schools, who have bright futures in high-income professions but little cash in the bank. Particularly on the coasts, where real estate prices are high, it is nearly impossible for a young person to buy a home with a traditional credit profile.

Of course, it’s not only upwardly mobile future members of the 1% who deserve a break on credit. Research shows that many low-income borrowers with steady jobs are much better credit risks than they look like on paper. One University of North Carolina study found that even poor buyers could be better-than-average credit risks if judged on metrics other than how much cash they have on hand. That’s not to say we should have runaway borrowing as we did in the run-up to 2008, but credit standards are still very tight relative to historical averages.

Nontraditional lending has already shown there is an alternative to the not-very-public-minded banking system we have in place now. That raises the question, Why should big banks whose primary business model is no longer consumer lending be government-insured in the first place? (Many would argue that the bailout guarantee implicit in such insurance was the reason the too-big-to-fail institutions were able to leverage up and cause the subprime crisis in the first place.) Perhaps the safest thing would be for banking as a whole to go back to a model in which institutions simply keep a lot more cash on hand, or have unlimited liability as a hedge against risk taking? Who knows? That might make mortgage lending look good again.

TIME Economy

We Still Haven’t Dealt With the Financial Crisis

Five Years After Start Of Financial Crisis, Wall Street Continues To Hum
A street sign for Wall Street hangs outside the New York Stock Exchange on September 16, 2013 in New York City. John Moore—Getty Images

It often takes years after a geopolitical or economic crisis to come up with the proper narrative for what happened. So it’s no surprised that six years on from the financial crisis of 2008, you are seeing a spate of new battles over what exactly happened. From the new information about whether the government could have, in fact, saved Lehman Brothers from collapse, to the lawsuit over whether AIG should have to pay hefty fees for its bailout (and whether the government should have penalized a wider range of firms), to the secret Fed tapes that show just how in bed with Wall Street regulators still are (the topic of my column this week), it seems every day brings a debate over what happened in 2008 and whether we’ve fix it.

My answer, of course, is that we haven’t. To hear more on that, check out my debate on the topic with New York Times’ columnist Joe Nocera, on this week’s episode of WNYC’s Money Talking:

TIME Economy

Our Dysfunctional Financial System

Tapes of what really happens between bankers and regulators show how far we have to go

In some ways, the most shocking thing about the 46 hours of secret audiotapes made by former Federal Reserve bank examiner Carmen Segarra in 2012 is that they are no shock at all. Did anyone ever doubt that the New York Fed was in hock to Wall Street? Or that Fed bank examiners–the regulators tasked with monitoring the risks banks take–might fear alienating the powerful financiers on whom they depend for information or future jobs?

It’s one thing to know and another to hear in painful, crackling detail how the Fed’s financial cops slip on their velvet gloves to deal with Goldman Sachs. Or how Segarra, one of a group of examiners brought in after the financial crisis to keep a closer watch on the till, was fired, perhaps for doing her job a little too well. One can only hope that this latest example of regulatory capture by Wall Street will focus minds on the fact that six years on from the crisis, we still have a dysfunctional financial system.

Consider one of the shady deals highlighted on the secret tapes of New York Fed meetings, which Segarra made with a spy recorder before she was let go and which were made public on Sept. 26 in a joint report by ProPublica and This American Life. The 2012 transaction with Banco Santander, initiated in the midst of the European debt crisis, ensured that the Spanish bank would look better on paper than it really was at the time. Santander paid Goldman a $40 million fee to hold shares in a Brazilian subsidiary so that it could meet European Banking Authority rules. The Fed employees, who work inside the banks they examine (yes, it’s literally an inside job), knew the deal was dodgy. One even compared it to Goldman’s “getting paid to watch a briefcase.” But it was technically legal, and nobody wanted to make a fuss, so the transaction went through.

It’s hard to know where to begin with what’s problematic here. I’ll focus on the least sexy but perhaps most important point: existing capital requirements–the cash that banks are obligated to hold to offset risk–are pathetic. Despite all the postcrisis backslapping in Washington about how banks have become safer, our system as a whole has not. No too-big-to-fail institution currently is required to keep more than 3% of its holdings in cash (a figure that will rise to 5% and 6% in 2018), which means banks can fund 97% of their own investments with debt. No company outside the financial sector would dream of conducting daily business with that much risk. As Stanford professor Anat Admati, whose book The Bankers’ New Clothes makes a powerful case for reining in such leverage levels, told me, “We’ve got to get rid of this idea that banking is special and that it should be treated differently than every other industry.”

Of course, if you start telling financiers they should use more than a few percentage points of their own money when they gamble, they’ll throw a fit. They will tell you that would make it impossible for them to lend to real businesses. They will also uncork lots of complex financial terms–“Tier 1 capital,” “liquidity ratios,” “risk-weighted off-balance-sheet exposures”–that tend to suffocate useful (a.k.a. comprehensible) debate. Financiers use insider jargon to intimidate and obfuscate. This is something we need to fight. In banking, as in so many things, complexity is the enemy. The right questions are the simplest ones: Are financial institutions doing things that provide a clear, measurable benefit to the real economy? Sadly, the answer is often no.

One thing we’ve learned since the crisis is that bailing out Wall Street didn’t help Main Street. Credit to individuals and many businesses plummeted during and after the bailouts and remains below precrisis levels today. Numerous experts believe that the size of the financial sector is slowing growth in the real economy by sucking the monetary oxygen out of the room. Banks don’t want to lend; they want to trade, often via esoteric deals that do almost nothing for anyone outside Wall Street.

This disconnect between the real economy and finance is now being closely studied by policymakers and academics. Adair Turner, a former British banking regulator, thinks that only about 15% of U.K. financial flows go to the real economy; the rest stay within the financial system, propping up existing corporate assets, supporting trading and enabling $40 million briefcase-watching fees. If the New York Fed really wants to redeem itself, it might consider commissioning a similar study to look at Wall Street’s contribution to the U.S. economy. After all, if finance can’t justify itself by showing it’s actually doing what it was set up to do–take in deposits and lend them back to all of us–what can justify it?

TIME Economy

The 3% Economy

Yes, 3% growth is better than 2%. But, for most Americans, it’s actually more worrisome

A little over three years ago, I wrote a column titled “The 2% Economy,” explaining how a recovery with only 2% GDP growth, no new middle-class jobs and stagnant wages wasn’t really a recovery after all. Like everyone, I hoped that once growth kicked up to about 3%, middle-class jobs and wages would finally revive.

But we’re now in a 3% economy, and I’m writing the same column. Only this time, the message is more disturbing. Growth is back. Unemployment is down. But only a fraction of the jobs lost during the Great Recession that pay more than $15 per hour have been found. And wage growth is still hovering near zero, where it’s been for the past decade. Something is very, very broken in our economy.

It’s a change that’s been coming for 20 years. From World War II to the 1980s, according to data from the McKinsey Global Institute, it took roughly six months after GDP rebounded from a recession for employment to recovery fully. But in the 1990–91 recession and recovery, it took 15 months, and in 2001 it took 39 months. This time around, it’s taken 41 months–more than three years–to replace the jobs lost in the Great Recession. And while the quantity has come back, the quality hasn’t. The job market, as everyone knows, is extremely bifurcated: there are jobs for Ph.D.s and burger flippers but not enough in between. That’s a problem in an economy that’s made up chiefly of consumer spending. When the majority of people don’t have more money, they can’t spend more, and companies can’t create more jobs higher up the food chain. This backstory is laid out in an interim Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report cautioning that poor job creation and flat wages are “holding back a stronger recovery in consumer spending.” If this trend is left unchecked, we are looking at a generation that will be permanently less well off than their parents.

There are so many signs of this around us already. The decline in August home sales–a result of wealthy cash buyers and investors stepping back from the market–shows how what little recovery in housing we’ve seen so far has been driven by the rich; anyone who actually needs a mortgage has been slower to jump in. The real estate recovery too is very bifurcated, with much of the gains concentrated in a few more affluent, fast-growing cities. (Plenty of places in the Rust and Sun Belts are still underwater.) While overall consumer debt is down, it is still high by international standards, and student debt is off the charts. When I asked one smart investor where he expected the next financial crisis to come from, he said, “Student debt.” Interest rates on tuition loans are high and fixed, and the loans can’t be refinanced, meaning they’re a trap that’s hard to escape. And student debt continues to grow fast. History shows that the speed of increase in debt, more than the sheer amount, is a predictor of bubbles. By that measure, student debt is blinking red: it has tripled over the past decade and now outstrips credit-card debt and auto loans.

It’s easy to understand why. Much of the population is desperately trying to educate its way out of a terrifying cycle of downward mobility. But students are fighting strong structural shifts in the economy. While technology-driven productivity used to be what economists said would save us from jobless recoveries, technology these days removes jobs from the economy. Just think of companies like Facebook and Twitter, which create a fraction of the jobs the last generation of big tech firms like Apple or Microsoft did, not to mention the multitude of middle-class positions created by the industrial giants of old.

And we’re just getting started: consider the outcry in certain cities over companies like Zillow, Uber and Airbnb, which are fostering “creative destruction” in new sectors like real estate, transportation and hotels. McKinsey estimates that new technologies will put up to 140 million service jobs at risk in the next decade. Critics of this estimate say we’re underestimating the opportunities that will come with everyone having a smartphone. All I can say is, I hope so. What’s clear is that development isn’t yet reflected in stronger consumption or official economic statistics.

What I do see is growing discontent with the economic status quo. In my 2011 column I wrote, “It’s clear that the 2% economy heralds an era of even more divisive, populist politics–at home and abroad.” Ditto the 3% economy. Witness outrage over displaced lower-income workers in the Bay Area, or the fact that the Fed is keeping interest rates low in part because gridlock has prevented Washington from doing more to stimulate the real economy, or the Treasury Department’s new rules limiting American companies’ ability to move outside U.S. tax jurisdiction. Whatever number you put on growth, a recovery that doesn’t feel like a recovery is, yet again, no recovery at all.

TIME Companies

Are Alibaba’s Best Days Ahead or Behind It?

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma
Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., in Hong Kong on Sept. 15, 2014. Brent Lewin — Bloomberg / Getty Images

A question of whether Alibaba will prove the exception or the rule

This week’s record-setting IPO of the Chinese Internet firm Alibaba makes it feel like it’s 1999 all over again (a year I remember with some regret — I joined a “B to C” dotcom company that folded 18 months later).

But I have been feeling for some time that America’s IPO market is booming, but broken. I’ve been reading a lot of research recently, including this fascinating NBER paper looking at how much more robust innovation and investment is in private firms, rather than public ones. Particularly for tech companies, their best days as innovators and creators tend to be before they go public, rather than after. Once they are in the public markets, they become beholden to the quarter, and it’s more difficult to justify long-term investment and strategies that won’t yield fruit quickly (this is all the more true with the rise of “activist” investors).

It will be interesting to see whether Alibaba proves to be the exception or the rule to this.

For more on the subject, listen to New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and me debate it on this week’s WNYC Money Talking.

TIME

Rich Guy Philosophers Hit Silicon Valley

Peter Thiel is only the latest in an old trend

For some time now, there’s been a tendency on Wall Street for rich guys to become philosophers – think George Soros and his reflexivity thesis, or Ray Dalio and his little red book of self-criticism. Now, that trend seems to be coming to Silicon Valley – witness PayPal founder and investor Peter Theil’s new book Zero to One, which, among other things advises young people to drop out of college to do tech start ups (this from a guy with double Stanford degrees). While I agree with Theil’s advice that people should think different (a la Steve Jobs) to really come up with ground breaking innovations, I fear that this book may herald a new era of tech gurus who imagine themselves public intellectuals simple because they’ve made a lot of money.

Joe Nocera and I discussed the topic on this week’s WNYC Money Talking, along with where the tech industry itself is headed in the wake of Apple’s new product announcements.

 

TIME Tax

The Artful Dodgers

Companies that flee the U.S. to avoid taxes have forgotten how they got so big in the first place

If income inequality and the wealth share of the “1%” were the room-clearing economic issues of the past few years, corporate tax dodging is shaping up to be a focus of the next few.

President Obama recently used the word deserters to describe firms that have attempted to lower their tax rate by acquiring foreign firms, chiefly in order to switch to lower-tax jurisdictions. A few days ago, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew upped the ante by pushing Congress to take legislative action against such firms, as well as hinting that the Administration itself might try to regulate away inversions.

The stakes are high. Corporations in the U.S. today are hoarding about $2 trillion in profits overseas, arguing that the U.S. corporate tax rate of 35% makes it too difficult to bring this cash home and invest it here–better to keep the money abroad and pay lower taxes in other countries. Yet the truth is that legions of tax lawyers make sure that most big American corporations never pay anywhere close to that rate. FORTUNE 500 companies on average pay more like 19.4%, and a third pay less than 10%, chiefly because of all the generous loopholes Congress has afforded corporations over the years. Partly as a result, U.S. firms are enjoying record profit margins, making more money than ever before yet paying a lower share of the overall U.S. tax pie than they have in decades.

While there are plenty of creative ways for corporations to avoid paying U.S. taxes by stashing money in Ireland, the Netherlands or the Cayman Islands, inversions go a step further: those companies are more or less renouncing their corporate citizenship to avoid taxes. They want the benefits of U.S. talent and markets but not the responsibilities. This strikes many as grossly unfair, particularly given that taxpayer-funded, early-stage investments in areas like the Internet, transportation and health care research are the reason many of the largest U.S. companies got so big and successful to begin with. That’s a leg up–call it corporate welfare–that most firms conveniently forget when they start looking for places to hide their profits. As the academic Mariana Mazzucato argues in her excellent book The Entrepreneurial State, many of the most lauded corporate innovations, including the parts of smartphones that make them smart (Internet, GPS, touchscreen display and voice recognition), came out of state-funded research. Ditto any number of pharmaceutical, biotech and cybersecurity innovations. “In so many cases, public investments have become business giveaways, making individuals and their companies rich but providing little return to the economy or the state,” says Mazzucato.

Tax inversions that expatriate the gains of American corporations to enrich a tiny managerial caste symbolize a whole new genre of selfish capitalism. Globalization allows firms to fly 35,000 feet over the problems of both nations and workers, who are all too familiar with the reality on the ground–an economy in which wages still aren’t rising, good middle-class jobs remain hard to come by and public deficits remain large, since the private sector won’t spend to fill the void. Economics 101 tells us that when one sector saves, another must spend, but the textbooks didn’t anticipate this.

As a recent Harvard Business School alumni survey summed up the problem, we’re stuck in an economy that’s “doing only half its job.” Says Michael E. Porter, an author of the study, “The United States is competitive to the extent that firms operating here do two things–win in global markets and lift the living standards of the average American.” We’re doing the first but failing at the second. “Business leaders and policymakers need a strategy to get our country on a path toward broadly shared prosperity.”

Pressed on their overseas tax dodging, corporations say they’ll stop looking for better deals abroad only if the corporate rate shrinks. (They also want a tax holiday to repatriate foreign earnings.) While we should cut and simplify our tax code to put it in line with those of other developed countries (25% would be fine), the last time the U.S. offered a tax holiday, back in 2004, most of the repatriated money went to stock buybacks and dividends–not investments in factories and workers.

A new relationship between corporations and the U.S. Treasury is what’s really needed. Treasury’s Lew should push for changes to the tax code that would reduce the appeal of inversions to companies that pursue them. That would mean taking on corporate lobbyists and the money culture that has turned the tax code into Swiss cheese. As the inversion debate makes so clear, it’s about time.

TIME nation

Detroit: America’s Emerging Market

How the city can teach us to reinvest the rest of the U.S. economy

In August, a year after I wrote a TIME cover story on Detroit’s bankruptcy, I visited Motown again. This time I found myself reporting on a remarkable economic resurgence that could become a model for other beleaguered American communities. Even as Detroit continues to struggle with blight and decline–more than 70,500 properties were foreclosed on in the past four years, and basic public services like streetlights and running water are still spotty in some areas–its downtown is booming, full of bustling restaurants, luxury lofts, edgy boutiques and newly renovated office buildings.

The city struck me as a template for much of the postcrisis U.S. economy–thriftier, more entrepreneurial and nimble. Many emerging-market cities, from Istanbul to Lagos to Mumbai, share similar characteristics, good and bad. The water might be off on Detroit’s perimeter, but migrants are flooding into its center, drawn by lower-cost housing and a creative-hive effect that’s spawned a host of new businesses.

Much of the resurgence has been led by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who a few years back decided to relocate his company’s headquarters downtown, moving from the suburbs to take advantage of the city’s postcrisis “skyscraper sales,” as well as the growing desire of young workers to live in urban hubs. “If I wanted to attract kids from Harvard or Georgetown, there was no way it was going to happen in a suburb of Detroit, where you’re going to walk on asphalt 200 yards to your car in the middle of February and have no interaction with anyone in the world except who’s in your building,” says Gilbert, 52.

Since 2010, Gilbert has created 6,500 new jobs downtown, bought up tens of thousands of square feet of cheap real estate and brought in 100 new business and retail tenants, including hot firms like Twitter, as well as a bevy of professional-services firms. Lowe Campbell Ewald, one of General Motors’ advertising agencies, recently moved back downtown after years in the suburbs, citing better client-recruitment possibilities there. Companies of all types are catering to a growing number of young entrepreneurs who are making the most of cheap real estate (Quicken subsidizes rents and mortgages) and local talent (southern Michigan still has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of industrial-product designers) to create new businesses. For instance, there’s Chalkfly, a dotcom that sells office and school supplies online, and Shinola, the cult-hit watch company that advertises $600 timepieces as “made in Detroit.” Their success is already raising rents–per-square-foot rates have doubled in the past four years–and bringing in tony retail brands like Whole Foods.

The question now is how to spread the prosperity. The answer starts with better public transportation. Motown has always been a disaster in this respect. It used to be that nobody wanted to go downtown; now nobody wants to leave. The M-1 Rail, a new public-private streetcar due to be completed in 2016, aims to link neighborhoods. GM, Penske, Quicken and other firms are contributing the majority of its $140 million cost, and the rail will be donated back to the city within a few years. Studies show that a similar project in Portland, Ore., has generated six times its cost in economic development. In the past few months, officials from New Orleans and Miami have visited Detroit to study the project.

Reinventing Detroit’s manufacturing sector is the next step. That means connecting the dots between the public and private sectors, businesses and universities, and large and small firms. Detroit’s old industrial model was top-down: the Big Three dictated terms to thousands of suppliers, who did what they were told. The new model will be more collaborative. Many of the innovations in high-tech materials, telematics and sensors are happening on campuses or at startups, with the aid of groups like the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The University of Michigan has become a test bed for driverless cars. A new federally funded $148 million high-tech manufacturing institute just opened in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

One could imagine the automakers playing a key role in this resurgence by investing more broadly in local innovation, via their own venture-capital arms. Ford, which acquired a local digital-radio technology startup last fall, is beginning to do just that. It would provide a much needed injection of cash into the city’s innovation economy and offer the automakers a new line of business.

Ultimately, it will take all that and more to ensure that Detroit’s downtown rebirth grows into a boom that is more broadly shared.

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