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Letter From North America: Worrying implications as credit crunch is felt

By Deborah Dundas

Published 25/09/2007

By now the fallout from the American sub prime credit crunch is being felt around the world.

It is not only having an impact on financial markets but has trickled down to the lives of everyday, average working people.

These are not necessarily the people who have overextended themselves thanks to the lure of low interest rates. No. These people are savers, investors – those who work hard for their money and live within their means.

In the UK, as we all well know, this has resulted in Northern Rock needing help from the Bank of England and the Northern Rock's depositors queuing up for blocks to take out their hard-earned savings.

And the fallout isn't over yet. Indeed there are other news stories floating around as well – little items that indicate there is still a lot of fallout to come.

For example, the International Air Transport Association has predicted a fall in the amount of profit airlines are expected to post next year.

According to Giovanni Bisignani, the body's director-general, the credit crunch is a cause for some concern.

Although he initially stated that the drop is "1%, it's not much" (moving the forecast 2008 profit down to US$$7.8bn), he also notes that the credit crunch may cause further fallout. "If it results in a loss of consumer confidence, this will impact negatively on demand."

This could have an impact not only on the airline and tourism industries, but also on retail.

As we all remember, the reason the American economy kept growing over the past few years was because of consumer spending, driven by low interest rates. Certainly experts said it couldn't last – we all knew it couldn't last.

The US Federal Reserve has now jumped in and slashed rates by half a percentage point in order to try to prevent a recession.

It seems unlikely that Americans are going to start spending freely again with the shadow of recession lurking. Besides, many of them simply don't have the means. Rising house prices and low interest rates, which drove their spending, have ended up with mortgage foreclosures in the country rising spectacularly.

The latest figures show that there were 243,947 mortgage foreclosures in the month of August, which works out to one foreclosure for every 510 households. That's up 115% from last August.

In July there were 179,599 filings for foreclosure.

That adds up to over 423,000 Americans losing their homes in two months.

These numbers were given in a report from RealtyTrac Inc. It has only been tracking foreclosures for two years, so these numbers don't give an indication of how July and August compare historically. Still, the numbers sure seem high.

And there are other indications things are not all as they seem. The Internal Revenue Service in the United States has added a special section to its website to answer questions about taxes that those who have lost their homes might have.

There are ways of getting around having to pay tax on that money (apparently insolvent borrowers can offset that income) but it seems awfully odd that wiping out debt by losing your home can result in a tax hit.

We know about Northern Rock, and another story coming out of Canada indicates that there may be a bit of a shake-up.

For the past number of years, Scotiabank, one of the nation's so-called Big Five financial institutions, has been on the lookout to increase its investment arm.

An investment firm called Dundee Capital decided, a few years ago, to open up a banking arm. But, thanks to the sub prime credit crisis, it found it needed someone to bail it out of that beleaguered foray.

In steps Scotiabank. It bought the banking business (which it didn't really want) and negotiated, in return for that favour, to buy an 18% stake in Dundee's investment arm (which is a very strong company and well respected).

A win/win situation for both companies – but not the way Dundee wanted it to turn out.

There will be many, many more stories like this, and perhaps far worse ones, before this crisis finally plays itself out.

Belfast Telegraph

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