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Film Review: The Warning – PBS / Frontline Documentary

Posted in bailout, banking, bankruptcy, botch, economy, insurance, scam, tanking by commorancy on November 26, 2010

Rated: 4/5 stars.

PBS’ The Warning Documentary

The Warning is a PBS documentary discussing a warning from Brooksley Born, an attorney and a former Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) chairperson. She explained that derivatives were extremely risky insurance vehicles and sent a warning that these vehicles needed regulation during her tenure as CFTC chairperson, but her warnings went unheeded. She resigned in 1999 from the CFTC position after legislation was passed preventing her agency from regulating derivatives.

Vision of this Documentary

While I would like to rate The Warning higher, its take is pretty much tunnel vision on the derivatives markets. While the derivatives markets did melt down and did, to a large degree, spur the meltdown onward, the meltdown was not started because of derivatives. The derivative meltdown was a casualty of and was exacerbated by the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Had the mortgage industry bubble not burst, the derivatives market might have gone unchecked for many more years. The warning was and should have been about placing regulations onto mortgage lending practices. The mortgage lending industry is the industry that failed and sent the economy into a tailspin, let’s make that perfectly clear. The derivatives (insurance) market, which speculated on the mortgage industry, single-handedly sent Wall Street into a tailspin (along with several large insurance companies like AIG).

Derivatives and the Mortgage Meltdown

Anyone with half a brain in their head could see that using questionable lending vehicles like interest only loans for the first two years or adjustable rate mortgages were ticking time bombs. When the actual monthly payments came due years later after rates went up to where they should have been, people couldn’t afford pay. This was especially true when lenders were handing these loans to people who could barely afford the ‘introductory period’ payments. So, loans came due, people defaulted and the rest is history. The derivatives (insurance policies) that were issued also came due because of the en masse foreclosures. Insurance companies that issued derivative policies speculating people wouldn’t default en masse began to fail because their speculation was wrong. So then, these insurance companies couldn’t pay off on the insurance claims. So, when consumers defaulted, so did the insurance companies offering derivatives.

It wasn’t as if warnings weren’t being issued regarding the inevitable mortgage meltdown, it’s just that Brooksley Born (the focus of this film) was not one of the people issuing the mortgage warning. Her warning was strictly about the highly risky derivatives. More specifically, the black box non-transparent nature of them. The danger, of course, is that derivatives can be placed on any speculative and risky investment as insurance. The reason derivatives need to be regulated is to prevent companies the size of AIG from making stupid decisions about such risky vehicles. However, from a consumer perspective, banks should never have gotten into the position of issuing such risky mortgages like water to people who couldn’t afford them. This was the single mistake that led to where we are today and that mistake has nothing to do with derivatives and everything to do with Government and the Federal Reserve making stupid decisions.

Overall, the movie is worth watching, but also understand its information’s place in the larger meltdown that was at work in our economy.

Is Obama hostile towards big business?

To answer this question, we need to delve a little deeper. Note, I am neither condoning nor praising Obama’s handling of his regulatory efforts. However, I would like to point out certain corrections that do need to be made.

“The truth is that not even the Franklin Roosevelt administration was as hostile to and ignorant about free enterprise as this [Obama’s] administration is.”
–Steve Forbes.

But, is Obama really hostile towards business? Or, is he making needed corrections? There is a fine line here. This issue also points out a serious problem in politics today. That problem is, you guessed it, money. Without money, the world doesn’t work. Without money, candidates don’t get elected. Without money, businesses don’t sell things and make money. Back up the train.. Businesses make plenty of money without governmental help. The trouble is that businesses want to be able to make laws that enable their businesses to make more money and then have the government be lenient with them when issues arise.

The reality, though, is that like the separation of church and state, the government now needs separation of business and state. The two are oil and water, they don’t mix. Government needs to be able to make law without interference from any party. But, businesses have deep pockets and hefty lawyers. These two elements help elect officials and help sway these same officials into making good on promises they made towards these businesses during the election.

Obama’s corrections

While I don’t agree with every single thing Obama has done, I do agree that change is necessary. The change that he is making is intended to correct the issues that led to the economic downturn. The trouble comes with statements from people like Steve Forbes. Mr. Forbes believes that he is the end-all-be-all-know-it-all when it comes to all-things-business. The trouble is, he doesn’t. Yes, he runs a successful magazine, but that doesn’t make him an authority. That makes him a successful business owner.

Obama is walking that fine line. A fine line that shouldn’t even be necessary. But, there it is. The line that’s there to help Obama help the economy, help spur business and growth and reduce the chances of a repeated failure. At the same time, the line is there to show that government values business, but isn’t there to socialize it. The trouble is, this economic downturn was of our own making. By our, I mean Wall Street. The housing bubble was just that, a bubble. Bubbles eventually burst and this bubble was no exception. It’s not as if analysts and intelligent minded people couldn’t see the handwriting on the wall. When the mortgage interest rates got down to 1% and all of those ARM and specialty loans were being issued like water flowing down the Mississippi, trouble was inevitable. We just didn’t know that banks and insurance companies were tying their financial soundness to these extremely risky loans using credit default swaps.

Until the bubble burst, no one really knew just how deep the rabbit hole went. Then, everything came crashing down and all of the nasty subprime mortgage and credit default swap issues came into view in their all fugly detailed glory. The first evidence of that was Bear Stearns followed by AIG (and the subsequent governmental bailout). I still think they should have let AIG fold, I digress.

Government and Business

It’s high time that government distanced itself from corporate businesses. It’s high time congress made laws to separate government from business (including political support). It’s high time that government stopped being a pawn for corporate businesses. Forbes clearly seems to think that Free Enterprise requires socialism to function. Free Enterprise is not part of and does not need socialism. Free Enterprise means that businesses can do whatever they need to do (within the limits of the laws) to make their business succeed. Clearly, there have not been laws enabled that have dramatically impacted Free Enterprise. The laws that have been enacted have been placed there to prevent corporations from producing risky investment vehicles with a high likelyhood of crashing down again. If businesses are now floundering, it’s not because of laws. It’s because corporations have lost their way and are still expecting handouts. Well, you can keep your hand out, but don’t expect the government to be dropping any coin in it.

Corporations have relied, no… depended on the US Government for handouts. That time needs to end. Subsidies for business need to go away. Businesses need to fend for themselves just like Free Enterprise mandates. If a business can’t make it on its own, then let it fail. I’ll repeat, LET IT FAIL. Failure is also part of Free Enterprise. Businesses that will succeed, will succeed because they produce a good product or service. Businesses that fail, will fail because they don’t produce good products or services.

Lost our way

America, and specifically corporate enterprises, have lost their way. For far too long have big corporations depended on favorable governmental conditions (sounds like a weather report) to help them stay in business. Well, that train has left (and must leave). It should be solely up to you and your business practices alone to make or break your company. It is the quality of your products, services and support that makes people want to buy your products or invest in your company. Nothing has changed about this aspect of Free Enterprise.

We need to go back to a time when quality was the key. When providing a superior product was the answer to getting people to buy things. If that also means deflation, then so be it. Businesses need to find their way by learning how to do more with less. How to manage their staff better and stop over-hiring. At the same time, many of them need to stop under-hiring and also value the employees that they have right now.

The key to keeping your business flowing is by keeping your employees active, productive and happy. Morale is a big problem in companies during any downturn. Once fear sets in over the next reduction in force (RIF), then morale falls to all-time-lows. No, taking the employees on an outing doesn’t boost morale. The way to boost morale is to stop RIFing the staff out the door. Yes, I know it gives a temporary boost to the stock price and makes the shareholders happy, but that’s a temporary fix with limited effects. Once the dust settles, the employees who are left become disgruntled, unhappy and produce less. This is completely backwards thinking. Which is why business has lost its way.

Shareholder value vs quality products

I know, someone’s going to say that it is all about ‘shareholder value’. That may be the way things seem now, but it is wrong. Currently accepted actions that lead to improved shareholder value tend to undercut production, stifle innovation, reduce profit margins and lower productivity. Why would you intentionally do this to your business? So, while these measures may seem to help the stock price, it does nothing to help the company improve its quality of products and services. In fact, in the long run, these actions almost always negatively impact the bottom line. So, the fundamental question is, are you in business to make the shareholders happy or are you in business to sell quality products and services? This fundamental question must be answered.

The true answer to this question also shows that Free Enterprise priorities today are all wrong. It used to be that the customer is #1. Now, shareholders are #1 and customers are #2. This is both wrong and stupid. Until businesses go back to the idea that the customer is #1, corporations will continue to fail and need governmental subsidies. While shareholders are considered #1, there is really no such thing as Free Enterprise when it comes to multi-million dollar corporations… which is why they always need a handout from the government.

Paypal: Don’t trust them with your checking account!

Posted in banking, best practices, scam, scams by commorancy on April 1, 2009

Paypal has been in business for how many years now?  Yet, they still can’t manage to find a way to verify a person without using a bank account?  Since day 1 of Paypal, I’ve been sternly opposed to giving my checking account routing information to Paypal.  Why?  It’s very simple.  I don’t trust them.  I never have.  I never will.

Why you should never give out bank account + routing information to anyone!

Let me first say that when I discuss ‘routing numbers’, this means a combination of both your account and your routing number. Clearly, you wouldn’t just give out only a routing number as that’s not useful. It is only useful when in combination with an account number.

When you give someone a signed check, you implicitly give them your routing information.  That’s a danger when you write a check to a company.  The protection, of course, is that you’ve given them a physical paper check for a specific amount and you know exactly how much that check was.   So, when the check number arrives at the bank and drafts that amount of money from your account, it was expected.  They can’t draw more than the amount the check was written.

Routing numbers, on the other hand, are effectively blank checks.  When you give a company your routing number, you are handing them a signed blank check.  That’s because you’ve agreed to allow them blanket access to your checking account.  That company can then debit any amount of money from your account they see fit without so much as a thank you.   Because Paypal uses EFT (electronic fund transfers) in the form of ACH (automatic clearing house), they can debit your account up to the maximum amount of funds in your account.  This means, they can overdraw your account and completely drain your funds.  ACH/EFT offers no liabilities to the consumer whether accidental or intentional.  Because you gave that company explicit approval to debit your account at will, there are no liabilities for any inappropriate transactions.  That’s left between you and Paypal to resolve.  The bank will usually not become involved.  When banks do become involved, the best they can do is tell you when it happened. You can try to ask your bank for additional help, but they will most likely point you to Paypal for resolution.  The reason is simple, you agreed to give Paypal access to your account up front.

Worse, if the company that overdrafted your account chooses to not give you the money back, then you may be out of luck.  At that point, you better seek a lawyer, assuming you have any money left to pay them.

Paypal and Checking Accounts

Paypal does not need a checking account to verify you.  They just tell you they do because that’s the way they have always worked it.  This verification process can easily be done with a credit card charge that you input later to validate that you receive the bill for the card.  Paypal simply wants to have unfettered access to your checking account.  Frankly, it’s a huge liability for you.  It’s also a huge liability for Paypal to store this information.  One hacker in their system and they could have a field day with your money.

Credit Cards and Fraud

Paypal is well aware of the fraud issues with credit cards.  They are also well aware of chargebacks, merchant liabilities and fees associated with these processes.  To avoid them, they prefer unlimited access to your checking account that hold no such penalties or liabilities.  Because the consumer has no recourse over inadvertant transactions, Paypal has the upper hand.  This is why Paypal will not verify you with only a credit card.  Can they validate based on only a credit card, yes.  They simply choose not to.

Credit cards have long established liability rules that prevent fraud occuring from both rip-off artists and from merchants alike.  Unfortunately, there are no such rules for ACH.

Consumer Protection from Businesses

Whenever a company asks you to give them routing information from your checking account, tell them, “No!”.   Not only should you tell them “no”, you should explain exactly why.  Tell them that you don’t trust them with that level of access to your account.

Should you continue to do business with Paypal?  That’s entirely up to you.  But, I still do not have a verified account with Paypal because I simply will not give them the routing information from my checking or savings account.  I simply do not trust ANY company enough with that information.  Remember, Paypal is not a bank.  Thus, it does not fall under any banking rules, liabilities or any federal insurance.  In fact, who knows what insurance Paypal even carries?  So, whatever Paypal does, you’re at their mercy to do it right.  If they don’t, you have to fight with them to get your money back.  The bank won’t help you.

But, I need to give out my routing number…

Here’s another option.  It’s not optimal, but it works.  Simply, open a second checking account. By setting up a checking account specifically and solely to be used with Paypal and merchants, you can limit your financial liability.  You can then link another account to this new account for transferring in money only, but be sure NOT to link the new checking account to any overdraft protection on any other accounts.  So, if Paypal overdraws your account inadvertantly, they won’t get any more money than what you have specifically placed in there.  So, if you want to buy a $250 appliance, only transfer in $250 for just that appliance.

The problem with this technique is that banks sometime require minimums to open an account and minimums to keep it open.  So, you may have to leave $1000 (or some other arbitrary amount of money) to prevent accrual of monthly fees or account closure.  You’ll need to contact your bank for details.

While this does work, it’s not optimal by any stretch.   It requires you to be extra cautious with how you use that account.  You have to be diligent to place the money in there when you need it.  And, you need to remember that transfers of money into the account are not always instanteous.  So, you may have to transfer your money in the day before you intend to purchase to ensure the money is there to cover the transaction.

What if I’m a Merchant?

For merchants who want to get paid for products they sell, I understand the issue here with ACH/EFT.  Again, in this instance, I would set up a separate checking or savings account solely for Paypal use.  Only give this account to Paypal so that when you receive payments, you can transfer them out of that account and to your ‘regular’ account immediately.  This way, if Paypal decides to debit you for any reason, the money won’t be there.

Overdrawn Accounts

If Paypal overdraws your account for any reason, don’t expect them to pay you back for insufficient fund fees.  You will have to deal with these fees on top of the inappropriate debiting from Paypal.  You will then have to argue with Paypal to get your money back and your bank fees reimbursed.  But, good luck with both of those processes.

Spending Limits

If you choose not to give your routing information to Paypal, Paypal arbitrarily limits how much money you can send to an individual when you buy merchandise.   For this silly reason alone, this is enough to tell Paypal to take a hike.  There are plenty of ways to buy merchandise from merchants on the Internet.  In fact, when a merchant is reputable enough, they will set up their own merchant account with a bank and let you pay the merchant directly.  You should also feel comforted knowing that when you send a payment to a merchant, not through Paypal, you have the full card protections behind your transaction.  When you purchase through Paypal, your Paypal account agreement may prevent you from using some of your card’s built-in protections… such as a chargeback.

Credit Cards

For all of these reasons above combined with card liability limits, fraud protection and other protections that come built-in with the Visa, Mastercard and Amex logos, credit cards protect a whole lot more than ACH/EFT.  Cards limit your exposure to ID theft and they also limit your liability if someone steals your card and then, for example, buys a new car with it.

For payments, Paypal could choose to issue checks instead of requiring ACH/EFT.   But, they have never wanted to go this route for payments.  Instead, Paypal forces you to verify your Paypal account by giving them a routing number from your checking account.  As I have said, this is not necessary and is a huge liability.

If you want to protect your money in your bank account from unauthorized transactions, you should not give Paypal (or any company) access to your checking account via routing numbers.  Instead you should insist on the protections that credit cards offer.  Credit cards are more than sufficient for anything that Paypal would need (at least for paying for merchandise).  For merchants, you will need to determine what works best for you.

[UPDATE: 6/27/2012]

Paypal now has a new wrinkle in its verification process.  When attempting to verify a checking account and your bank has a web portal (i.e., Wells Fargo), they will ask for the login and password to your bank’s web portal to do an ‘immediate’ verification. Don’t do it! Don’t give it to them. Paypal says they won’t store the credentials, but with all of the stolen information from various sites, do not trust ANY site with your bank’s web portal login and password. This should really be common sense, but maybe it isn’t. With that said, if you must verify a bank account with Paypal, do it the old fashioned method by letting Paypal make two small sized deposits.  First, it makes Paypal give you about 25 cents. Second, you’re not giving out your bank’s web portal password to some random third party.

As much as I rant above about giving out routing numbers and blank checks, it’s far worse to give out your bank’s web portal login and password information. Do not do either if you can help it. However, if you can manage to set up a separate one-sided transfer system into a free savings or checking account for Paypal payments and transfers, then by all means set that up.  Do not give Paypal access to your primary checking account with full access your bank account. Also, make sure that you have disabled overdraft protections on any accounts you give Paypal so that if they reach in and grab money out, when the account hits $0 it doesn’t go any further.  You don’t want to be mopping up a mess of bad debits and at the same time having to pay interest payments on those bad debits.  Paypal is not a bank and they’re not likely to reimburse you for any bad transactions leading to overdraft fees or interest accrued. So, avoid the issue and prevent Paypal from doing this damage in the first place.

$5 billion given to GMAC Financial

Posted in bailout, banking, bankruptcy by commorancy on January 2, 2009

GMAC Financing (GM’s financing arm) has been given $5 billion in addition to the already $17.5 billion given to GM in order for GM to sell vehicles.  It was stated that GMAC had gotten tangled up in bad mortgage debt.  Um, hello, what business did GMAC have in giving out HOME loans?  I thought this company originated for the purpose of auto financing?  If auto loan companies are sticking their hands into markets where they don’t belong, they deserve to get them slapped.

Again, here is another bailout that was unnecessary.  Yes, I do understand that GM can’t sell cars without its financing arm.  Again, who’s problem is this?  GM needs to work through its issues itself.  The citizens of the US do not need to be propping up these badly run organization through these bailouts.  What business did GMAC have even issuing home loans? Yes, I realize they are a financing arm, but GM should have been keeping careful watch over them to prevent GMAC from offering loans on items other than cars or vehicles.  Again, another company with no oversight that does not deserve a bailout, yet the government is handing them $5 billion.  I understand the reasoning behind the money, but it doesn’t make the pill any less bitter to swallow.

Oh, and the worst part of all of these auto bailouts is that there is no guarantee they won’t go belly-up anyway. Giving the auto makers  this money may all be completely pointless, but we the taxpayers will have to pay the price in the end no matter the outcome.

Does CitiGroup deserve a government umbrella?

Posted in bailout, banking, bankruptcy, economy, tanking by commorancy on November 24, 2008

 

CitiGroup Logo

I guess the broader question, does any large commercial business deserve to be bailed out?  Well, clearly Mom and Pop businesses fail every day.  Yet, the government does nothing.  Why do large conglomerates deserve special treatment? 

The short answer is that there is some magical threshold where there are too many people who would lose their jobs as a result of the failure combined with possible economic ramifications.  But, still, does that warrant a bailout?  No.

If a business cannot run itself in a fiscally appropriate manner (large or small) it deserves to fail and go away.  If any of your family is employed by CitiGroup or any financial company caught up in the turmoil of the financial sector crisis, I feel for you.  But, that doesn’t mean that the company deserves to continue to exist if they cannot maintain profitability even in the toughest of times.  Fiscal responsibility starts at the top of the company and trickles down to even the most bottom level employee.

What does this mean?  It means, don’t request a new computer every year.  Don’t ask for Herman Miller chairs and the most expensive ergonomic keyboard simply because you can.  If the item is considered ergonomic, the company is almost obligated to make sure you get it.  Buying all of these expensive amenities for your desk makes you fiscally irresponsible to the company if you don’t really need it (and, in most cases, you don’t).  But, that’s not to say that this is responsible for CitiGroup’s problems.  

Who knows where the money hemmorage is going inside these companies.  But, clearly, it’s not going back into the business.  Again, I ask, why do these companies deserved to be bailed out?  What makes them special?  I have no sympathy for large companies that can’t properly manage themselves.  Neither should the government.  Spending all of this money to prop up these badly run organizations is clearly counter to free enterprise. 

In Free Enterprise you have to take the good with the bad.  That means, when business is good, you profit.  When it’s bad, you bankrupt and close.   There needs to be no governmental cushion here to soften the fall.

Does CitiGroup or any other badly run business deserve an umbrella?  What do you think?

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