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Should we really care whether bankers work their fingers to the bone?

The public hand-wringing by banks about the hours their junior staffers have to work seems a little... disingenuous.

Let's be real here: These banks don't really care about those of their interns and first-year analysts that are working themselves to the point of collapse. They only care about getting the job done, whatever it takes.

In fact many bankers will tell you (off the record, of course) that they LIKE the fact that their bank is seen as a particularly grueling and brutal place to work. They went though it, the argument goes, so why shouldn't the new lot go through it, too?

The memo sent out by Goldman Sachs at the end of October, encouraging junior bankers to take weekends off, was met by skepticism within the industry. The news the following month that the death of an intern at Bank of America could have been triggered by overwork appeared to push other banks to join Goldman. This PR flurry was ostensibly aimed at ensuring that the banks wouldn't lose their best recruits to private equity, or some other arm of the finance industry that doesn't have quite the same notoriety when it comes to working hours.

But as John Gapper points out, the fact that investment bankers are overworked isn't news, and yet Goldman Sachs received 17,000 applications for the 330 jobs as analysts.

So, if senior bankers like the way things are, and ambitious junior bankers don't seem too bothered, why should we care? 

One reason: as the FT's John Gapper points out, it's inefficient.

"Many junior bankers end up working in the evening because a partner who has been out pitching to potential clients all day returns to the bank late in the afternoon, and tells them to prepare a document immediately based on the sortie. Although they have been at their desks for hours, they start to work intensively only then."

Bankers cost money, and if the banks are using them inefficiently, shareholders should get upset. 

Another reason, from The Guardian's Helaine Olen: it's sexist.

"... the wo ...

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Jan 17, 2014

Explainer: Why can't we cap CEO pay?

Jan 15, 2014
Switzerland recently toyed with the idea of capping CEO pay at 12 times the amount of the lowest-paid worker.
Posted In: ceo pay, wages

Why the Qualified Mortgage could be our best defense against another financial collapse

God bless the Volcker Rule. While it's been out there, taking withering fire from Wall Street's big guns, the hero of the hour has managed to evade the enemy and escape almost unscathed. I'm talking, of course, about the Qualified Mortgage. It's taken some flak from lobbyists and it's the subject of a hearing in the House Financial Services Committee, but otherwise the qualified mortgage is in good shape and ready to defend America.

Q. This is our hero? If so, what exactly is the Qualified Mortgage?

 It's a mortgage that will meet certain standards, designed to protect borrowers.

Q. What kind of standards?

For a mortgage to be qualified, it can't include certain features:

  • It can't extend more than 30 years.
  • If it's larger than $100,000, it can't carry more than 3 percent in upfront points and fees.
  • It can't have interest-only payments or payments that are less than the full amount of interest so that the home loan debt grows each month.
  • It can't be a "balloon loan", where the borrower has to make a big payment when the loan matures.
  • It can't drive a borrower's total debt load above 43 percent of his or her monthly income. (Unless it's backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or a federal housing agency like FHA or the VA.)

Q. Sounds good for borrowers. How do lenders feel about it?

Quite positive. Qualified mortgages come with legal protection for lenders, too. Depending on which type of qualified mortgage they make (there are two types), they're insulated frm borrowers filing lawsuits.

Q. Does this mean lenders will be able to get away with anything?

No. If lenders break any consumer law related to the handling of the mortgage etc, they are still liable.

Q. Why does this make the qualified mortgage such a hero?

Because many economists and analysts reckon that the financial crisis was in large part caused by lenders making "toxic" loans to consumers: loans that were almost guaranteed to fail. The qualified mortgage goes a long way from preventing lenders extending loans to anyone with a pulse. It creates a regulatory b ...

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Jan 13, 2014

Why Janet Yellen should worry about 6.7% unemployment

Unemployment is down to 6.7 percent.

Ordinarily, that should be cause for celebration: The number of people out of work is falling, and we're getting close to the magic number of 6.5.

A 6.5 percent unemployment rate has become the signal for the Federal Reserve to start unwinding some of its extraordinary support for the economy.

But the people over at the Fed aren't popping corks just yet. Remember the Fed's dual mandate: to ensure maximum employment and stable prices (control of interest rates is No. 3). And while  the unemployment number did indeed fall in December, very few jobs were created. As we've been hearing all day, this means that large numbers of people are dropping off the unemployment rolls. They've been out of work for so long, or there's so little hoping of getting work, that they've given up looking.

And that's a whole new headache for Janet Yellen. The unemployment rate was 7 percent in November. Having dropped to 6.7 percent in December, it's not inconceivable that the rate could fall to 6.5 percent in January.

U6

 

Per Ben Bernanke's pledge, that should trigger the Fed to begin dismantling all the extraordinary support the economy has had up until now. But the fact that we're not creating many jobs should give Yellen pause. This month's number implies we're creating a large and growing body of long-term unemployed, and the "jobless" number is providing a smokescreen for what amounts to a timebomb at the heart of the American economy.

Yellen needs to be careful: Raising interest rates and withdrawing support for the economy at this point could be the match that lights the fuse.


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Jan 10, 2014

Explainer: the charitable tax deduction

Dec 26, 2013
If you give $1,000 to charity, that reduces your taxable income by $1,000, because there’s less for the government to tax.
Posted In: whiteboard, Charity

What you should do if you’re a Target shopper

News of the theft of tens of millions of credit and debit card numbers and associated data is causing confusion amongst customers and prompting lots of questions:

Q. How many cards have been affected?

Roughly 40 million.

Q. I shop at Target. Has my data been stolen?

It depends when you shopped there. The breach appears to have occurred over the Thanksgiving weekend. If you shopped at Target between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, yes, your data may have been stolen.

Q. OK, now I’m worried. I bought a pack of onesies for my cousin’s new baby. What do I do now?

1. Don’t panic. 

2. Check your credit card statement. Most card companies will call if they see unusual spending on your account. But because it’s the holidays, they may miss something. So check. Either call your card company and ask them to run down any expenditures since Nov. 26, or go online and check there.

3. Pay attention to the details. Thieves often run a test on a stolen card, charging a small amount to see if the card works and if you notice.

4. Call your card company.Let them know you shopped at Target during the time in question. Ask them what their policy is. My card company has a recorded message telling me right up front that they’re aware of the data breach, that I’m not liable for fraudulent charges and that they’re tracking my card spending.

5. ...But don’t rely on your card company. Keep checking your account. If you don’t have online access, get it. That way you can check your account every couple of days or weeks. Make it a routine.

Q. OMG! There’s a charge for $6,000 worth of gasoline bought in Alaska! I live in Chicago! What do I do now?

1. Don’t panic!

2. Call your card company. Inform them about the charge, and ask for your account to be reviewed, and the charge reversed.

3. Call a credit bureau. You don’t have to call all three. Just get one of them to put a fraud alert on your account.

Q. Does a fraud alert mean my card is canceled?

No. A f ...

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Dec 20, 2013

Does the taper mean it's going to be more expensive to borrow?

In a word, no.

At least, not yet. And even then, not by much.

The Federal Reserve announced today that it's tapering off its quantitative easing program: Buying just $75 billion of bonds, instead of $85 billion, starting in January. But it also committed to holding interest rates down, saying it will keep the "exceptionally low" target range for the federal funds rate to between 0 and 0.25 percent. What's more, the Fed said it expects to keep rates that low rate:

"[W]ell past the time that the unemployment rate declines below 6.5 percent, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal."

This means that the interest rate that banks charge to lend to each other will stay low.

But what does it mean for you and I?

It means that the interest rate that lenders charge people like us to borrow money to buy cars, houses and educations will not move by very much for quite some time. Even if unemployment drops below 6.5 percent, which some observers reckon could happen next year, the Fed will keep those rates low. 


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Dec 18, 2013

Wanna buy a bitcoin? Here's how...

Fidelity Investments contradicted a report today that said the company was offering customers the chance to put bitcoin into their IRAs.

The manager of Bitcoin Investment Trust said in an interview that Fidelity customers would now be able to invest their retirement money in his fund.

I'm a Fidelity customer, so I called to ask about this, and was told the company does not have any such arrangement.

A few hours later Fidelity announced: "On an individual basis, we allowed an investor to invest in that Bitcoin Investment Trust. We are no longer allowing that.”

Never mind. Still interested in buying a little bitcoin?

Q. You betcha! How can I get some of that action?

A. Well, before we get to that, do you understand what bitcoin is?

Q. Ummm….? [silence]

A. Fortunately, there are a lot of good explainers of what bitcoin is and how it works out there.

Try this video:

(Bitcoin Explained from Duncan Elms on Vimeo.)

This written explainer:

"A Bitcoin is a unit of currency, launched in 2009, that only exists online and isn't controlled by any kind of central authority, like the US Federal Reserve. You can send Bitcoins to anyone who has a web connection (or hand someone your hard drive containing the currency.)"

This infographic:

Bitcoin infographic  
by bpalacio@mac.com.
Explore more infographics like this one on the web's largest information design community - Visually.
 

Q. OK, so I'm ready dip my toe in the waters. What's the first step to buy some?

Well, there are a number of ways:

1. You can sell some stuff and ask for bitcoin in return, instead of dollars.

2. You can buy bitcoin "by

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Dec 12, 2013

Who is Stanley Fischer?

Stanley Fischer is the man tipped as the leading candidate to succeed Janet Yellen at Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve when she ascends to replace Ben Bernanke.

Q. Great, that's why I'm hearing his name today. But who is he, really?

A. Mr. Fischer is the former governor of the Bank of Israel. He’s been a deputy head of the IMF, a vice chairman at Citigroup, chief economist at the World Bank, a professor of economics at MIT, and an advisor to many central bankers, including Bernanke. He’s 70 years old.

Q. Okay, former Israeli central banker. Does that mean he's Israeli, and does that matter?

A. Indeed he is. He was made an Israeli citizen when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked him to head Israel’s central bank in 2005, but he has retained his American citizenship. And besides, nationality doesn’t seem to matter much when it comes to heading central banks these days: The governor of the Bank of England, for example, is Canadian.

Q. So, Fischer's stepping into the fiscal fire. What's his leanings: Is he a devotee of Keynes or Hayek?

A. Neither. A profile in the Washington Post says he identifies with both sides, and is an architect of so-called “New Keynsian” economics.

Q. So what does that mean he thinks of the taper and quantitative easing?

A. It’s hard to say. Fischer has stated that he thinks the financial crisis proves that Keynsian economics is still very important. That includes the aggressive use of monetary policy, which is what all this bond-buying is about. But during the financial crisis, he moved aggressively to raise interest rates in Israel, so it’s possible that he might, were he appointed to the Fed, argue for an aggressive tapering of the program.


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Dec 11, 2013

Why all eyes are on HENRY this holiday season

HENRY is back. And he's worrying retail analysts who keep an eye on consumer spending.

Who is Henry?

HENRY is a classification of consumer. It stands for High Earners, Not Rich Yet. It covers people who earn between $100,000 and $250,000 a year. Not too shabby, but not Fortune 500 CEO, either.

Why are HENRYs such a big deal?

Because they support a key part of the retail market. They don’t patronize super high-end boutiques or stores like Barneys, and they’re not such a problem for stores like Target or Wal-Mart, or even Macy’s. But HENRYs do a lot of shopping at mall stores like Bloomingdales, Nordstrom and Tiffany, and they’re the mainstay of the "modest luxury" market, which includes brands like Coach, Ralph Lauren and Cole Haan.

OK, so they’re important. What are they doing that’s bothering investors?

It’s what they’re not doing: shopping. Mall traffic is way down over the last month; big chains like Saks and Nordstrom have been marking products down by 40 percent since before Thanksgiving, and analysts are worried that HENRYs will stay frugal through the key holiday shopping season.

But these people make a lot of money. What’s stopping them from shopping?

In a word: uncertainty. Consumers in this class of earners tend to own their homes and are invested in the stock market, so they’ve seen the value of their assets rise as stocks have gained and the real estate market has come back. But the "wealth effect" of that recovery hasn’t translated into increased confidence in the economy. These people got poorer on paper during the downturn, and now that their net worth is about back to where it was before the Great Recession, they’re going to do everything in their power to make sure that doesn’t happen to them again. They’re not confident that the economy is going to stay on the upswing, so they’re being extra conservative, saving more and spending less, and steering clear of luxury unless it’s being offered at a steep discount.

What does that mean for retailers?

It means this is going to be a tough holiday season for them. They’re going to have to work hard to get the attention of HENRYs, via email and social media, and snail mail, of course. HENRYs can expect a barrage of advertising, touting this discount and that price cut, right through the holidays. We’ve already heard that companies have in general stocked up on too much inventory during the last quarter, so getting rid of the stuff they have on hand will be a priority. That means they’ll be selling it cheap, and as quick as possible.

Sounds like a recipe for some great holiday and New Year sales.

Count on it.


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Dec 10, 2013

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