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With European peripheral bond yields collapsing every single day to new all time lows (primarily driven by Europe’s near-certainty that a US-style QE is imminent as we first showed here in November, despite Mario Draghi’s own words from November 2011 that a QE intervention is virtually impossible), increasingly more of Europe is trading just as safe, if not more, as the United States. And in keeping with the analogies, considering a major US metropolitan center, Detroit, recently went bankrupt, it is only fair that Europe should sacrifice one of its own historic cities to the gods of negative cash flows. The city in question, Rome, which as the WSJ reports, is “teetering on the brink of a Detroit-style bankruptcy.”
Rome, the eternal city, which survived two millennia of abuse from everyone may be preparing to lay its arms at the hands of unprecedented corruption, capital mismanagement and lies
On the first day of his premiership, Matteo Renzi had to withdraw a decree, promulgated by his predecessor, that would have helped the city of Rome fill an €816 million ($1.17 billion) budget gap, after filibustering by opposition lawmakers in the Parliament on Wednesday signaled the bill had little likelihood of passing.
Devising a new decree that provides aid to Rome will now cost Mr. Renzi time and political capital he intended to deploy in promoting sweeping electoral and labor overhauls during his first weeks in office.
For Rome’s city fathers, though, the setback has more dire consequences. They must now face unpalatable choices—such as cutting public services, raising taxes or delaying payments to suppliers—to gain time as they search for ways to close a yawning budget gap. If it fails, the city could be placed under an administrator tasked with selling off city assets, such as its utilities.
“It’s time to stop the accounting tricks and declare Rome’s default,” said Guido Guidesi, a parliamentarian from the Northern League, which opposed the measure.
Alas, if one stops the accounting tricks, not only Rome, but all of Europe, as well as the US and China would all be swept under a global bankruptcy tsunami. So it is safe to assume that the tricks will continue. Especially when one considers that as Mirko Coratti, head of Rome’s city council said on Wednesday, “A default of Italy’s capital city would trigger a chain reaction that could sweep across the national economy.” Well we can’t have that, especially not with everyone in Europe living with their head stuck in the sand of universal denial, assisted by the soothing lies of Mario Draghi and all the other European spin masters.
So what is the catalyst that would push the city into default? Trash.
No really: an appeal for a €485 million transfer from the central government to compensate Rome for the extra costs it incurs in its role as a major tourist destination, the nation’s capital and the seat of the Vatican. “Rome is unique compared with other cities” and deserves state support because of huge numbers of visitors who use services but don’t contribute much to the economy, Mr. Marino said in a recent interview. But even before the government of Enrico Letta fell this month, the proposed transfer had prompted complaints that the aid was unfair, given the dire straits of other cities.
Rome has long struggled to balance its books. Because of its dearth of industry, the city depends heavily on trash-collection levies and the sale of bus and subway tickets. It struggles much more than other European cities to collect either one. About one in four passengers on Rome’s public transit system doesn’t buy tickets, costing around €100 million in lost revenue annually, compared with just 2% of passengers on London’s public transit network.
Meanwhile, employee absenteeism at Rome’s public-transit and trash-collection agencies runs as high as 19%, far above the national average.
But how can Rome’s clean up costs be a surprise? Well, they aren’t. What is however, is the severity of the recession that crushed the national economy.
Just six years ago, some €12 billion in city debts was transferred to a special fund subsidized and guaranteed by the national government in a move aimed at giving Rome a fresh start. But Italy’s economy has shrunk by almost 10% since then, eroding the tax base just as national austerity programs pushed extra costs onto local governments.
Even before the withdrawal of the “Save Rome” decree, Mr. Marino was facing unpalatable choices. He has already raised cremation and cemetery fees and plans to centralize city procurement, which he says will save €300 million a year.
Now, without the transfer from the central government, he may be forced to impose income and property tax surcharge—already among the highest in the country—and to cut salaries to the city’s 20,000 employees or trim city services such as child-care centers or job-training programs—also unpopular moves.
What would happen then is unknown, but hardly pleasant:
The political fallout could be severe. The mayor of Taranto, a southeast city that defaulted on €637 million in debt in 2006, has suffered some of the lowest poll ratings in the country after cutting back services.
Oh well, another government overhaul is imminent then, after all it is Italy. Just as long as it is not elected. Because then there woud be a chance that someone who actually sees behind the facade of lies, like Beppe Grillo for example, may just be elected PM, and then all bets are off.
Howeber, that will never be allowed, and instead Rome will almost surely be bailed out. That however would open a whole new can of worms as every other insolvent city demands the same treatment:
A new appeal for a special transfer to Rome could embolden demands that other cities in distress be helped, even though Italy’s public finances are already strained. Naples is close to having to declare bankruptcy. Reggio Calabria has been run by a special commissioner for the past three years, but may still default on €694 million in debt, according to Italy’s Audit Court.
And if all else fails, there is the nuclear option: “Some politicians say Rome should sell assets such as ACEA, the electric utility that is worth about €1.8 billion and is 51% owned by the city.”
True: and Goldman, or some other bank filled to the gills with the Fed’s generous excess reserves, would be happy to swoop in and scoop up hard Roman assets providing it with just the right cover for creeping global encroachment. The benefactors? A select few equity shareholders. Because for every million or so peasants who suffer, a few rich men have to get even richer in the New Feudal Normal.
Back in the years just before the previous housing bubble burst (not to be confused with the current, even more acute one), one person did the math on subprime, realized that the housing – and credit bubble – collapse was imminent, and warned anyone who cared to listen – almost nobody did. That man was Kyle Bass, and because he had the guts to put the money where his mouth was, he made a lot of money. Fast forward to 2014 when subprime is all the rage again and the subprime bubble is bigger than ever: it may comes as a surprise to some that in 2013, subprime debt was one of the best performing fixed income instruments, returning a whopping 17% in a year when most other debt instruments generated negative returns. And this time, while Kyle Bass is busy – collecting nickels (each costing a dime) perhaps – it is someone else who has stepped into Bass’ Cassandra shoes: that someone is Jeff Gundlach.
“These properties are rotting away,” Gundlach, 54, said last week on a conference call with investors, about homes stuck in foreclosure pipelines, adding that it could take six years to resolve defaulted loans made to the least creditworthy borrowers before the real-estate crash. Those residences are a sign of an uneven U.S. recovery, which has left blighted neighborhoods in cities from Los Angeles to Detroit and about 8 million borrowers still owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
But while warning on yet another subprime implosion is nothing new, and many have done it in the past, why this time may be different and far more timely, is because seriously delinquent borrowers are literally soaring, up from 7% in 2012 to 32% currently!
A measure of losses on mortgage debt rose last quarter for the first time since 2011, Fitch Ratings said in a report yesterday. The reversal was driven by an aging pool of loans in the foreclosure process, particularly in states such as Florida and New Jersey which give added legal protections to homeowners against repossessions.
About 32 percent of seriously delinquent borrowers, those at least 90 days late, haven’t made a payment in more than four years, up 7 percent from the beginning of 2012,according to Fitch analyst Sean Nelson.
“These timelines could still increase for another year or so,” Nelson said, leading to even higher losses because of added legal and tax costs, and a greater potential for properties to deteriorate.
This means that the capacity of lenders to absorb losses is rapidly declining as inbound cashflows slow to a trickle. And not only that, but loss severities, or how much a lender will lose in case of default are also grinding higher:
Loss severities on subprime debt, tied to risky mortgages that inflated the housing bubble, increased to 75.9 percent from 74.1 in the last three months of the year. The severities — a measure of losses suffered on a liquidated loan — peaked at 77.1 percent in early 2012 from 12.8 percent at the end of 2006, during the property boom.
Gundlach isn’t the only one:
“In 2013, we were very bullish on subprime,” said Anup Agarwal, head of mortgage-backed and structured products at Pasadena, California-based Western Asset Management. “It was overall a big winner and you saw that reflected in prices.” Agarwal, whose firm managed $443 billion in fixed-income assets as of Sept. 30, has in the past six months turned more negative on subprime and started shifting money into Alt-A securities.
One William Street Capital Management LP, a hedge fund firm with $2.7 billion in assets, is expecting reduced losses as home prices continue to rise, according to a letter sent to investors this month. The investment firm said increased regulations have added to costs for firms that deal with troubled mortgages.
For subprime prices to make sense, recoveries must improve but won’t because of the backlog of loans, Gundlach said.
Gundlach’s take home message is simple:
“The housing market is softer than people think,” Gundlach said, pointing to a slowdown in mortgage refinancing, the time it’s taking to liquidate defaulted loans and shares of homebuilders that have dropped 14 percent since reaching a high in May. D.R. Horton Inc., the largest builder by revenue, fell 1.9 percent to $21.54 at 9:43 a.m. in New York trading, extending its drop since May to 22 percent.
The money manager has cautioned investors before about avoiding subprime. In 2012, he said investors can’t assume the “lines will head south” speaking about loss severities for loans and then last year, referred to the debt as being stubborn.
Alas, warnings in a centrally-planned system in which only what the head of the Fed does matters, are lost on everyone: such was the case with Bass, such will be the case with Gundlach for the simple reason that the ever fainter music is still playing, and those whose money comes from furiously shuffling worthless assets back and forth, must dance. Plus by now everyone knows that by the time people actually do listen, it is always too late.