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Lien times: The HELOC is back

If you've ever taken out a loan, whether to buy a car or a house or a new PlayStation, you've probably heard the term lien. "I'm putting a lien on your house," for instance.

That’s pretty standard: The bank who lends you the money puts a lien on your property. Fail to make those payments, and the bank gets the house or the car, or whatever.

But what about a second lien? It's pretty apparent, right? A second loan on the same property.

The rules for a second lien are similar to the first, and the net effect is the same: Fail to make a payment on the loan, and the lender can legally force the sale of the house, to get their money back. The only difference is that the second-lien lender has to wait in line: The main mortgage lender gets paid in full first, and only then will the second-lien lender get refunded.

In the U.S., second-lien loans on homes usually come in the form of a home equity line of credit, or HELOCs. If you recall, the HELOC was a key player in the financial crisis.

As home prices kept increasing, many Americans borrowed against their homes. But when the value of the property fell, they found themselves underwater on their mortgages: Owing more than the house was worth.

Small wonder that HELOCs fell out of favor over the last five years: Homeowners were scared of them, and lenders didn’t like that they risked not getting the full amount of their loans back as property values fell.

But now, it seems, the HELOC is back. Bloomberg News reports that HELOC originations could rise 16 percent this year and reach another five-year high in 2014.

Home prices are rising, and real estate watchers like Zillow reckon the number of underwater homeowners is falling sharply. Americans are once again taking advantage of rising real estate prices to pull money out of their homes.

We can hope that this time they’re doing it to renovate (as opposed to buying a jet ski), but the risks remain the same.

That HELOC may not seem like a lot of money compared the main mortgage, but fall behind on payments, and you’re in danger of losing the whole enchilada.


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Nov 25, 2013

How QE keeps your mortgage interest rate down

Nov 21, 2013
Keeping rates low is all about supply and demand.
Posted In: QE, Fed, Bernanke

Today’s monetary forecast: Low rates through the summer

Three numbers out today are fodder for fiscal doves to argue that the economy is giving a green light to the Fed to keep buying bonds and pumping money into the economy:

Retail sales: Rose more than forecast in October. Translation: Low borrowing costs and rising home and stock values are juicing the economy. Keep pumping!

Existing home sales: Fell in October to the lowest level in four months as rising interest rates and limited supply crimped the market. Translation: The Fed needs to keep hammering at interest rates, to keep them low so that Americans can afford to buy homes. Keep pumping!

And the kicker, inflation: The Consumer Price Index fell for the first time in six months. Translation: The cost of living is falling, and inflation is still barely moving the needle. Keep pumping!

Add that to Ben Bernanke’s statement last night that the Fed will likely hold down its target interest rate after it stops its quantitative easing program, and possibly after unemployment falls below 6.5 percent, and you have a low interest rate environment that could last until next summer, at least.


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Nov 20, 2013

Fiduciary duty, new rules for advisers and an explainer

You see those beads of sweat on the brow of your financial adviser? She’s rushing to get you to sign on the dotted line before the SEC creates a uniform fiduciary rule for brokers and advisers.

This could be a very big deal for the personal finance industry, but when I mentioned it to Kai Ryssdal, he said, “Sorry man, you lost me at uniform fiduciary rule.”

So if you’re confused about anything involving the word fiduciary consider yourself in good company. And consider yourself in need of this here explainer video:

So why is it a big deal? Because if the rule is written right, brokers and financial advisers will have to act as a fiduciary, which means they’ll have to act in the client’s best interest. That’s your best interest, not theirs. That means they won’t be allowed to sell you some dodgy mutual fund or insurance product that pays them a fat commission.

Hats off to the Consumer Federation of America, which drafted the proposal. The SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee is expected to vote on it Friday.

Here’s the nub, according to the subcommittee: That any fiduciary duty imposed by the SEC should provide "an enforceable, principles-based obligation to act in the best interest of the customer.”


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Nov 19, 2013

Forget Dow 16,000. Here's the number you should care about.

Nov 18, 2013
It's much smaller than 16,000.
Posted In: explainer, Dow, Wall Street

Explainer: Fiscal hawks vs. fiscal doves

Nov 14, 2013
Why are those who want to fight inflation called 'fiscal hawks'?
Posted In: Bernanke, Yellen, Fed, Fiscal policy

Fed to banks: Get a bigger rainy-day fund

The Federal Reserve said today that it wants to “strengthen the liquidity positions of large financial institutions.” In everyday language, the Fed wants banks to have a lot more cash on hand than they do right now, in case of an emergency. Like an emergency fund. Or the air bag in a car.

Banks don’t usually have much cash lying around in their vaults, since they prefer to lend it out to people and earn interest on it. The only thing that cash in a vault accumulates is dust. But just like any other business, banks need cash to run their businesses. They need to make payroll, make bond payments, settle lawsuits.

But rather than have cash on hand to do those things, banks prefer to borrow the money … from other banks.

In order for one bank to lend to another, the lending bank has to trust that the borrower bank will be able to pay it back. And if the lender doesn’t trust the borrower, he won’t lend. And that leaves the wanna-be borrower with a liquidity crisis.

Trust can break down between banks for any number of reasons. Maybe the lender bank’s been tipped off that the wannabe borrower has bought too many toxic assets. Or maybe there’s a rumor that a big fund owned by the wannabe borrower is about to go bust.

There may be some truth to this ... or there may be none. But all it takes is the whiff of a problem for the money to dry up. And without money coming in the door, a bank can’t send money out the door. And if it doesn’t send money out the door, the bank goes bust.

The Fed doesn’t want banks to go bust.

So it’s come up with an idea.

Banks will have to estimate how much cash is going to go out the door during a short-term period of stress, and based on that, it will have to hold a certain amount of cash on hand. That will essentially allow a bank to operate on its own, without borrowing from other banks, for a certain period of time.

Does this mean that bank robbers are now feverishly working out plans to tunnel into the Bank of New York from the crypt of Trinity Church? Hardly. By cash, the Fed doesn’t mean bank notes necessarily, it means stuff that can be converted into cash very easily and quickly. Like Treasury debt, commercial paper, shares of blue chip companies and the like.


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Oct 24, 2013

Explaining capital adequacy requirements

Oct 11, 2013
Changes to capital adequacy requirements are a cornerstone of the government’s efforts to secure the financial system. Marketplace’s Paddy Hirsch explains.
Posted In: financial crisis

Can the government take on good and bad debt?

Oct 4, 2013
For personal purposes, there is a difference between 'good debt' and 'bad debt' -- but can the government make the same distinction?
Posted In: government spending, debt, investment

Obama & the debt ceiling: An explainer

Sep 26, 2013
The government is considering raising the debt ceiling -- again. But what exactly is the debt ceiling: Watch an explainer to understand what's at stake and what it means for you and me.
Posted In: debt ceiling, government spending, government shutdown

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Where the economy meets your wallet.