Saturday, September 12, 2009

Condo Enabler Taken Over
Corus Bank, the large financier of condo developments, was finally taken off life support yesterday. After struggling for months, the Comptroller of the Currency stepped in and appointed the FDIC as receiver, which in turn entered into a purchase and assumption agreement with MB Financial of Chicago to assume all Corus' deposits. Calculated Risk has a good rundown here and here.

Corus financed high rise condo developments around the country, many that are now struggling. Here is an article from Wednesday's New York Times on a few of Corus' South Florida loan projects. Here are a couple of outtakes:

Whatever the outcome, Corus will go down as the great enabler of condo madness, and its travails are a harbinger of the pain yet to come in the troubled world of commercial real estate. More than any other condo lender, Corus epitomized the easy lending and lax oversight of the go-go years — and the pain of the ensuing bust. Its share price, which was nearly $13 in February of 2008, has plummeted into the land of penny stocks, closing at 25 cents Wednesday.

Corus barreled into hot markets like California, Florida and Nevada and then kept lending as those markets boiled over. Rather than diversify, it concentrated its lending bets by financing only a handful of big, risky projects. And it poured its idle cash into a small group of other banks and financial companies that were upended when the crisis struck.
And this:

Corus was not always so condo crazy. It used to be a sleepy family-run affair known as River Forest Bancorp. Then, in 1984, Robert J. Glickman took over from his father, Joseph C. Glickman, and began transforming the bank into a powerhouse in construction loans. Corus shut its student lending business, its trust operations and all but a handful of its Chicago area branches. It began catering to condo developers across the nation, offering developers quick loan approvals and attractive interest rates. Corus soon fanned out into hot markets like Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Miami. As the property market exploded, so did Corus. Its assets reached nearly $10 billion in 2006. But almost all the loans were tied to the condo market, and nearly 40 percent were for more than $100 million.

Robert Glickman kept reaching for more. Just off the Las Vegas Strip, Corus single-handedly financed a $108.2 million luxury development called Streamline Tower.
This passage is not a shock:
Then, of course, the bottom fell out. By late 2007, the share price of Corus was under attack on Wall Street. But Robert Glickman, whose family then controlled nearly half of Corus, rebuffed offers to sell the bank. Instead, Corus paid a special dividend that netted the Glickman family about $25 million, even though the payout ate into the bank’s reserves. By mid-2008, Corus was losing money and stopped making loans altogether.
The Times article points out that many big name real estate investors, including Barry Sternlicht and Stephen Ross, have been eyeing Corus for months, I suspect in hopes of getting its defaulted loans so they can buy the high rise projects at deep discounts. I am not sure how this plays out now, but I imagine those assets will be in play with MB Financial taking the deposits. This is one story that is not over.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Natural Gas Prices Continue to Plunge
Here is an article on natural gas prices. The price per MCF is approaching $2.50, near a seven-year low. The price of natural gas and oil, which had been somewhat correlated for the past few years, have been moving in opposite directions for most of the year.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Healthcare Reform Fiasco
I have watched the healthcare reform discussion with fascination this summer. There is so much misinformation being thrown around. Many people that are so worked up about a government insurance plan don't seem to understand the issue. There is no bill and any healthcare reform is still working its way through both houses of Congress, and any final bill will be dramatically different than the initial proposals. People are angry about a proposed bill that is still in committee and the numbnut pundits (showing how little they know) talk about proposals like they're law.

The whole death panel discussion, in my opinion, is a canard. Any good doctor is going to have a discussion with terminal patients about their wishes - and they will and should get paid for that discussion. It's a required conversation. Why not let the patient decide rather than having a spouse or child trying to figure out what they think the sick patient would want. That's what my parents did and it made things easier. When doctors start writing living trusts and wills than it's time for concern. All I know is that I want a doctor that is going to be honest with me and tell me what I need to hear and I will be pissed off if regulation prevents this conversation.

Any government insurance plan is going to involve premiums so it won't be a boondoggle for the homeless and illegal immigrants. Plus, people that choose to be uninsured can still go to the emergency room, where they have to be seen, and cost all taxpayers money. Oh wait, that's what the uninsured do now and is one reason healthcare is so expensive. As Benjamin Franklin said 250 years ago, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If find it funny that old people and veterans rail against healthcare reform and government run insurance. I wonder whether they know that Medicare and VA insurance are government run insurance plans. I think it's more that they want only government programs for themselves.

The fears of rationing are overblown. Anybody that has Kaiser knows healthcare is already rationed, and I saw this first hand with both my parents. The actuarial cost of letting certain patients die is cheaper than many treatments. The small amount of lawsuits and any related settlements are dwarfed by the cost savings of not treating some sick people. No private insurance will pay for a treatment that is not covered by Medicare. For all elderly people, Medicare is the default price and treatment benchmark. That's reality.

Most pundits on the left and right don't know a damn thing about healthcare. Here is an example from Ezra Klein's Washington Post blog that blazed across the internet yesterday of CNBC's Maria Bartiromo showing her ignorance on the most basic facts about healthcare:

Why Aren't You on Medicare?

A few minutes ago on MSNBC, Maria Bartiromo and Rep. Anthony Weiner had a shouting match over universal health care. If you like Medicare so much, Bartiromo snapped at Weiner, why aren't you on it?

Weiner is 44 years old.

Update: Here's the transcript:

REP. WEINER: Listen, Carlos talks about Canada. You talk about Europe. Let's talk about the United States of America, Medicare --

MS. BARTIROMO: You have to look at where there are public plans.

REP. WEINER: No. No. The United States of America, 40 percent of all tax dollars go through a public plan. Ask your parent or grandparent, ask your neighbor whether they're satisfied with Medicare. Now, there's a funding problem, but the quality of care is terrific. You get complete choice and go anywhere you want. Don't look at --

MS. BARTIROMO: How come you don't use it? You don't have it. How come you don't have it?

REP. WEINER: Because I'm not 65. I would love it.

MS. BARTIROMO: Yeah, come on.

Yeah. Come on.

Memo to Maria: Medicare is a government health insurance program for all people over the age of 65. A 44-year-old man cannot qualify for Medicare. It is a sad state when people are getting their information from Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Sarah Palin and other pundits that don't know anything about healthcare or how it's priced. All the pundits know is that if they're a Democrat any Republican proposal is bad, and if they're Republican any Democrat proposal is bad, and the more inflammatory their comments - true or not - the better . This lame-brained mentality keeps things easy for the pundits.

It is amazing to me that how few doctors, pharmaceutical company and insurance company executives are on TV discussing the reform (I am not talking about the insurance company executives defending themselves for organizing protests at the town hall meetings). They will feel the immediate impact of any reform and should have input. Most importantly would probably have the best ideas about reforms since they deal with the system every day.

I find it funny that Republicans are now screaming to defend Medicare when they have been trying to kill it since it was enacted in the 1960s. Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland has a great discussion of the virulent Republican reaction to Medicare legislation.

I wonder why there is so little discussion of tort or lawsuit reform. Malpractice insurance premiums are probably a large part of the cost of doctors' doing business. The amount of added paperwork and added steps that doctors need to go through just to avoid being sued probably also add to the cost of healthcare. Doctors should not operate under the constant threat of being sued.

It will be interesting to see how the reform efforts evolve. I hope the debate gets more substantive but don't expect it too. The House and Senate are so fractious that healthy give and take are unlikely. Clinton and Gingrich reformed welfare for the better (and Medicare, too). And Reagan and Tip O'Neil got legislation done. That's what politicians are supposed to do. Ideologues from both sides of the aisle stuck in a vacuum refusing to budge for fear of offending a small but vocal minorities within their parties are bad for the country.

The healthcare debate keeps getting crazier. An apparent belligerent anti-healthcare protester had his pinky finger bit off by a reform protester last night. The anti-healthcare guy had his finger reattached under Medicare - a government-sponsored program. I would call this irony.