Nick Carey
Reuters
March 24, 2008

CLEVELAND (Reuters) – As hundreds of thousands of American home owners fall behind on their mortgage payments, more people are turning to short-term loans with sky-high interest rates just to get by.

While hard figures are hard to come by, evidence from nonprofit credit and mortgage counselors suggests that the number of people using these so-called “pay day loans” is growing as the U.S. housing crisis deepens, a negative sign for economic recovery.

“We’re hearing from around the country that many folks are buried deep in pay day loan debts as well as struggling with their mortgage payments,” said Uriah King, a policy associate at the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

A pay day loan is typically for a few hundred dollars, with a term of two weeks, and an interest rate as high as 800 percent. The average borrower ends up paying back $793 for a $325 loan, according to the Center.

The Center also estimates pay day lenders issued more than $28 billion in loans in 2005, the latest available figures.

In the Union Miles district of Cleveland, which has been hit hard by the housing crisis, all the conventional banks have been replaced by pay day lenders with brightly painted signs offering instant cash for a week or two to poor families.

“When distressed home owners come to us it usually takes a while before we find out if they have pay day loans because they don’t mention it at first,” said Lindsey Sacher, community relations coordinator at nonprofit East Side Organizing Project on a recent tour of the district. “But by the time they come to us for help, they have nothing left.”

“If the Fed had not stepped in, we would have had pandemonium,” said James Melcher, president of the New York hedge fund Balestra Capital.

“There was the risk of a total meltdown at the beginning of last week. I don’t think most people have any idea how bad this chain could have been, and I am still not sure the Fed can maintain the solvency of the US banking system.”

All through early March the frontline players had watched in horror as Bear Stearns came under assault and then shrivelled into nothing as its $17bn reserve cushion vanished.

Melcher was already prepared – true to form for a man who made a fabulous return last year betting on the collapse of US mortgage securities. He is now turning his sights on Eastern Europe, the next shoe to drop.

“We’ve been worried for a long time there would be nobody to pay on the other side of our contracts, so we took profits early and got out of everything. The Greenspan policies that led to this have been the most irresponsible episode the world has ever seen,” he said.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has moved with breathtaking speed to contain the crisis. Last Sunday night, he resorted to the “nuclear option”, invoking a Depression-era clause – Article 13 (3) of the Federal Reserve Act – to be used in “unusual and exigent circumstances”.

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