Guest post by Mark Parker
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Mark Parker is a contributory writer associated with the Debt Consolidation Care Community and has written several articles for various financial websites. He holds his expertise in the Debt industry and has made significant contribution through his various articles.
The Spain debt outlook is nothing like that of its Greek counterpart. When you get right down to it, Spain looks more like the United States than it does the other European "PIGS" (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, or "PIIGS," if you wish to include Italy). It's because of those U.S. similarities that Spain is fairly unlikely to share the fate of its Mediterranean neighbor, Greece, which is essentially insolvent.
Indeed, in one respect, Spain's position is actually much better than its U.S. counterpart. We'll see why shortly.
Like Greece, Spain suffered from a reviled dictatorship that exited the scene in the 1974-1975 time frame. The dictatorship in Greece ended in 1974 with the collapse of the "Regime of the Colonels," while the curtain came down on Spain's autocracy in December 1975 with the death of General Francisco Franco.
However, both the tenure of the dictatorships and the two countries' reactions to the collapse of their respective regimes were quite different.
Greece's dictatorship lasted only seven years, was never stable, and occupied itself mostly with corruption, military expenditure and saber rattling in Cyprus. Franco, on the other hand, after winning a truly devastating civil war in 1939, devoted himself over his remaining 36 years to developing his country's economy on a more or less free-market basis, with low public spending, while maintaining an international posture of caution and neutrality.
With the two countries traveling down such divergent paths, it's no surprise that they experienced very different outcomes. By 1975, Greece was a total basket case, with only its offshore (and non-taxpaying) shipping sector flourishing, whereas Spain was a rapidly developing tourist magnet, with a substantial industrial economy behind it.
After 1975, the two countries continued to develop very differently. Greece – which had exiled its king, Constantine II – elected the leftist socialist Andreas Papandreou and in 1981 joined the European Union (EU), where it became a master in the art of subsidy corruption: After all, Greece was the union's poorest country at that time.
Spain, on the other hand, kept King Juan Carlos, who thwarted a coup in 1981, elected a moderate social democrat government under Felipe Gonzalez followed by a very good center-right one under Jose Maria Aznar. The nation also developed the best luxury tourism sector in Europe, together with one of its best business schools in the University of Navarra's IESE.
Today, while both countries have similar per-capita GDPs – $33,700 for Spain and $32,100 for Greece – Spain is ranked 32nd on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, while Greece is ranked 71st – below much poorer countries like Bulgaria and Ghana.
Spain's debt load – at about 55% of GDP – is less than half of its Greek counterpart. Clearly, Greece's GDP per capita needs to be sharply deflated for the country to regain competitiveness; it's much less clear that Spain needs to do the same.
In addition to a budget deficit of 11.5% of GDP in 2010 – very similar to that of the United States – its banking and real estate mess (though the largest bank, Banco Santander SA (NYSE ADR: STD) is pretty solid), and its relatively low debt, Spain (also like its U.S. counterpart) also has itself a left-leaning government with a proclivity for overspending.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was unexpectedly elected on an anti-U.S. platform after a terrorist attack in 2004, and was re-elected in 2008 – both times by small majorities. Zapatero is undoubtedly responsible for much, though not all, of Spain's budget problems; he undertook two economically damaging "stimulus" packages in 2008 and 2009 and has raised public spending from about 38% of GDP when he took office to 46% of GDP today.
In fairness to Spain, the big run-up in spending wasn't due to a big run-up in poorly thought out handouts: The country moved enthusiastically – perhaps too much so – into the green-technology sector, to the point where an all-too-familiar boom-and-bust scenario played out.
Like the United States, Spain is stuck with its left-leaning administration until 2012 (both have four-year electoral cycles; Spain's is seven months earlier). However, it has one enormous advantage over the United States – a savings ratio (personal savings as a percentage of disposable income) that stood at an extraordinary 24.7% in the 2009 fourth quarter, compared with a mere 2.7% in the latest month here in the United States.
Admittedly, Spain's saving is highly cyclical, so the annual average is only about 20%. Nevertheless, the much-higher level of domestic saving suggests Spain should be able to finance its budget deficit domestically much more easily than will the United States.
With public debt also lower than in the United States – let alone in Greece – Spain's position is thus fundamentally sounder. It should be relatively easily able to navigate the current storm and ride out the current government's spendthrift tendencies – giving the voters the chance to put a more-fiscally-appropriate government in place in the next election.
That being said, investors have to acknowledge that panic can trample logic. Indeed, as U.S. investors learned all too well back in 2008, in a market panic even well-run institutions can get into trouble (not that many of the Wall Street houses of that year were well-run, but a few were).
The same is true of countries, and Spain under Prime Minister Zapatero has weak-and-economically damaging leadership, which the voters are stuck with for another two years. Nevertheless, with its debt rating still a very respectable "AA," only the worst storm should cause Spain to take the same kind of crisis-spawned battering that Greece continues to face.
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With his "Alpha Bulldog" investing strategy – the crux of his Permanent Wealth Investor advisory service – Hutchinson has managed to combine dividends, gold and growth in a winning formula that has developed eye-popping returns for subscribers. To find out more about opportunities related to dividends, gold, "Alpha-Bulldog" stocks and The Permanent Wealth Investor, please click here.]
A guest post by Dorothy of the [redacted due to the guest poster’s idiocy]
Credit cards are a common financial accessory that people use for their day to day transactions. So it is important that we protect our credit cards. As information technology is booming, scammers are taking advantage of it and are fraudulently stealing credit card numbers. As a result, credit card frauds are leaving people distressed and pushing them towards a severe financial crisis.
Credit cards come with a lot of utilities. But if they are stolen or forged, it takes a heavy toll on your finances. In the U.S. you will find various credit card debt management or consolidation plans. However consolidating debts could ruin your credit score as well. There are many consolidation firms that mislead people with their flashy adverts and a false promise. Confide into them only when you have cross-checked their goodwill. One reason why these credit card frauds are increasing is losing your cards or leaving your receipt after shopping or making any other transactions. This allows credit card fraudsters to access your card numbers. Here are some tips for you for not getting into the trap of fraudsters:
Fraudsters often get access to your credit card from various fraud companies. So never give out your account details to a company who has called you. You can check out the reputation of a company at your local consumer protection office or Better Business Bureau. The moment you lose your credit card report it. Remember that you can never be made liable for any unauthorized charges.
The FTC works for the consumer to prevent credit card frauds and other criminal practices. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The FTC enters consumer complaints into the Consumer Sentinel Network, a secure online database and investigative tool used by hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Guest Post by Christian Gordun
The holiday hangover is not over yet – most of us still have a stack of holiday shopping bills piled up on our coffee tables or desks to deal with. In a recent post, we addressed one way people can rebound from the holidays and start anew this year, but just like any hangover, the ultimate cure involves more than just one simple trick.
Let’s take a look at some reasons why shoppers often end up with a massive debt headache and arm you with some simple but effective money-saving tips that will help you stick to your budget and avoid the infamous holiday shopping hangover.
During the holiday season, shoppers are often rushed to check off all the items on their list and will forgo some of the easiest ways to save money such as checking out competitive prices or using coupons. As they get caught up in the holiday buying frenzy, many are forced to make impulsive purchases while last-minute shopping at stores, instead of researching different options online. The holiday rush causes consumers to forget how much they are spending and rack up massive credit card debt, which has shoppers making New Year’s spending resolutions they know they’ll never keep.
Instead of making all those impossible resolutions, we’re going to let you all in on a little secret that will leave you debt-free after every holiday shopping season: you never have to pay full price for anything again! As a result of the recession, more retailers than ever are giving you the chance to save money via online coupon codes and deals. It’s simple, just follow these rules:
Coupon Craze is an online coupon code and deal site that will help you follow these coupon commandments. Like we said last time, if you’re hungover, you take aspirin, have a greasy breakfast, get hydrated and sometimes swear that you’ll never do that again! Treat a financial hangover the same way. Create a budget and then stick to it by using online coupons.
Are you ready to make online coupons a part of your shopping routine? Let us know!
Christian Gordun is the founder and CEO of Coupon Craze, a free consumer resource with online coupon codes and deals from over 10,000 retailers. He founded the company in 2000 as a hobby, and prior to taking it on fulltime, spent five years as a senior programmer and technical project manager. He received his master’s degree from London Business School in 2008.
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By Shah Gilani, Contributing Editor, Money Morning
Sooner or later, mounting losses on commercial real estate could crash through the market's 2009 optimism and send the economy and stocks into a double-dip downturn.
The major problem is that lawmakers and regulators are setting up investors into believing that commercial real estate (CRE) losses are being effectively addressed. The truth is that escalating losses are being hidden as part of a campaign of optimism in a desperate gamble that a robustly reviving economy will save the day.
To protect yourself from another investment beating, here's what you need to know.
Two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of 79 members from the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. The lawmakers want the public to know that they are concerned that the "commercial-real-estate industry has the potential to infect our economy and slow a recovery," according to Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, D-Pa.
Kanjorski, the chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance, and Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs)- which includes the likes of Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE) – says it's the administration's responsibility to make sure that happens. "The Treasury and Federal Reserve now must take needed and urgent action to stave off a potentially devastating wave of commercial real estate foreclosures and bank losses," Kanjorski said.
So in keeping with how effectively overseen and transparent our capital markets, insurance industry and GSE institutions are, the lawmakers want more accounting gimmickry to be made available to banks that hold commercial-real-estate assets. The lawmakers are concerned that banks may be forced by some regulators to write down the value of performing loans, even when payments are current. And these elected officials want more latitude for banks to manipulate recently issued CRE loan-modification guidelines.
Just what recently issued CRE loan modification guidelines are we referring to?
The tooth fairy commeth. On Oct. 30, bank, thrift and credit-union regulators very quietly gave lenders flexibility in how they classify distressed commercial mortgages. Banks can now slice distressed loans into performing and non-performing loans, and institutions will magically be able to reduce the total reserves set aside for non-performing loans.
For example, let's assume that a developer borrowed to build a shopping mall, but only one tenant leased space in the finished project. Cash flow from the project would be insufficient to service the loan, meaning the lending bank would have to set aside reserves against the total loan. Under the new guidelines, however, the mall loan actually could be carved into two loans – a performing loan representing the rented space, and a non-performing loan that represents the empty space.
Theoretically, with fewer reserves having to be set aside, bank balance sheets would look better, leaving lenders with more cash available for loans. But the reality might be very different. Granted, this accounting hocus-pocus might well stave off some bank failures. But with the overhang of non-performing loans still on their books, will those banks really be eager to lend out their precious cash?
That's not the only concern, either. The fact that lawmakers don't want to force banks to write down "performing loans" should be a cause for concern among investors. It's like the riddle: If an airplane crashes exactly on the border of two states, where do you bury the survivors? Hint … you don't bury survivors. And, you don't have to write down performing loans – unless, of course, they're not really "performing."
What's really happening with performing loans is a game called "extend and pretend." When most banks make commercial loans they include an "interest reserve." The reserve amount is part of the total loan, and it is there so that banks can pay themselves their interest until the project generates enough cash flow to start paying interest and principal.
The unvarnished truth is that innumerable commercial loans are in distress right now because projects aren't being finished. And if they are , tenants aren't leasing. So rather than write down the loans, banks are extending the terms of the debt with more interest reserves included so they can continue to classify the loans as "performing."
Hiding behind the extend-and-pretend game is the dark reality that property values have declined at an alarming rate – racing ahead of the rate at which banks are writing down these loans.
Nor is that the only concern. Because interest reserves do not repay any of the loan principal, there is no amortization on these debts. In other words, banks are extending loans that they would never make now, because borrowers are already grossly upside-down.
But let's be real: There isn't enough time on any clock to ever win that race.
Why do I say that? Because, in order for the United States to rebound to a full-employment rate of at least 5%, the nation's economy would have to create 200,000 jobs per month – for seven years.
Although all the big banks hold significant amounts of underperforming-commercial-
Regional and local community banks have as much as 80% of their balance sheets tied up in commercial real estate, and very few other sources of significant fee income to offset CRE losses.
It's not the too-big-to-fail banks that are lending to consumers; they're too busy catering to huge corporations, enslaving the credit card borrowers they pressed into servitude with low teaser rates, and pandering to lawmakers to preserve their monopolies and their outrageous executive compensation packages.
It's the regional and community banks that lend to individuals and small businesses that are sinking fast under the weight of CRE. How are they going to be the credit providers to consumers and the backers of the small businesses we are counting on to create jobs for the country's 18 million unemployed?
Lawmakers and regulators expect to buy time for the economy to grow in order to drive up commercial-real-estate prices and save the banks that are threatened. But their rescue vehicle of choice is the banking sector that is foundering because of the growing gale of commercial-real-estate losses. So please forgive me if I label these Washington insiders as grossly incompetent, self-serving and deluded.
If we continue to chart this course, we're headed right for a double-dip downturn in the economy and in the stock market.
But there is a way out.
First, break up all the too-big-to-fail banks into "bad banks" by saddling them with all the bad bank loans. Don't worry: It won't take long for those institutions to discover how to make money from these non-performing loans.
Let these "new" institutions keep their proprietary trading desks so they can steal money from the big corporations and investment banking clients they front-run.
Cap all compensation for the top 25% of earners at those banks. And make these top-tier executives stay and work at their new employer for seven years, which is the same amount of time it takes to discharge a bankruptcy. That's only fair since bankruptcy is where these institutions force credit-card borrowers after ripping them off with hidden, retroactive fees and usurious interest rates. Phase out all taxpayer backing over the same seven years. Limit each bank's leverage and require them to add equity capital on a pre-set ratio relative to balance-sheet risk.
Spin off all big-bank credit-card operations into four regionally based trusts and make them operate as not-for-profit entities. Cap interest rates at some nationally set level above the prime rate, and make credit limits a function of income, assets and credit history. While we're at it, only charge merchants and credit-card users 50 cents each per any transaction.
Make community banks "good banks" by spreading the big banks performing loans across their balance sheets so banking is more "localized" and community-centric. Limit the size they can grow to – period. If there's additional business to be had in a particular locale, let another bank open up and help drive down the cost of services.
Create a compensation arrangement for bankers that rewards them generously for creating jobs, improving standards of living in their communities and running their banks profitably relative to standardized risk metrics.
As far as big loans and securitizing and selling asset-backed pools, make the banks syndicate and spread risks between themselves, all of them. They'll actually become experts in risk management as opposed to paying lip service to schemes like Value at Risk.
I'd like to say that I'm kidding, and that everything will work out just fine if we do nothing. But the reality is that only a comprehensive overhaul of banking regulations will save the U.S. economy and stock market from significant pain. Hiding behind accounting gimmickry is just another tarp being thrown over our problems by same special interests that got us into this mess in the first place.