Wednesday, May 17, 2017

WSJ: U.S. Household Debts Hit Record High in First Quarter

By Ben Leubsdorf

The total debt held by American households reached a record high in early 2017, exceeding its 2008 peak after years of retrenchment in the face of financial crisis, recession and modest economic growth.

The milestone, announced Wednesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, was a long time coming.

Americans reduced their debts during and after the 2007-09 recession to an unusual extent: a 12% decline from the peak in the third quarter of 2008 to the trough in the second quarter of 2013. New York Fed researchers, looking at data back to the end of World War II, described the drop as “an aberration from what had been a 63-year upward trend reflecting the depth, duration and aftermath of the Great Recession.”

In the first quarter, total debt was up 14.1% from that low point as steady job gains, falling unemployment and continued economic growth boosted households’ income and willingness to borrow. The New York Fed report said total household debt rose by $149 billion in the first three months of 2017 compared with the prior quarter, or 1.2%, to a total of $12.725 trillion.

“Almost nine years later, household debt has finally exceeded its 2008 peak, but the debt and its borrowers look quite different today,” New York Fed economist Donghoon Lee said. He added, “This record debt level is neither a reason to celebrate nor a cause for alarm.”

The pace of new lending slowed from the strong fourth quarter. Mortgage balances rose 1.7% last quarter from the final three months of 2016, while home-equity lines of credit were down 3.6% in the first quarter. Automotive loans rose 0.9% and student loans climbed 2.6%. Credit-card debt fell 1.9%, and other types of debt were down 2.7% from the fourth quarter.

Americans' debt has returned to levels last seen before the recession in nominal terms, but the makeup of that debt has changed significantly. Change in total debt balance, by type, since its previous peak in 2008: The data weren’t adjusted for inflation, and household debt remains below past levels in relation to the size of the overall U.S. economy.

In the first quarter, total debt was 66.9% of nominal gross domestic product versus 85.4% of GDP in the third quarter of 2008. Balance sheets look different now, with less housing-related debt and more student and auto loans. As of the first quarter, 67.8% of total household debt was in the form of mortgages; in the third quarter of 2008, mortgages were 73.3% of total debt. Student loans rose from 4.8% to 10.6% of total indebtedness, and auto loans went from 6.4% to 9.2%.

Mortgages continue to account for the majority of overall U.S. household debt, though student and auto loans represent a growing share of the total.  Mortgage lending to subprime borrowers has dwindled since the housing crisis in favor of loans to consumers considered more likely to repay. In the first quarter, borrowers with credit scores under 620 accounted for 3.6% of mortgage originations, compared with 15.2% a decade earlier. Borrowers with credit scores of 760 or higher were 60.9% of originations last quarter, versus 23.9% in the first quarter of 2007. Auto loans have remained relatively available to subprime borrowers, helping fuel the record vehicle sales of recent years as interest rates have been low. Some 19.6% of auto-loan originations last quarter went to borrowers with credit scores below 620, down from 29.6% a decade earlier. The median credit score for auto-loan originations in the first quarter was 706, compared with 764 for mortgage originations.

The share of debt considered seriously delinquent — at least 90 days late — is down from recession-era levels, but varies widely by type of loan. Some 4.8% of outstanding debt was delinquent at the end of the first quarter, little changed from late 2016, with 3.4% at least 90 days late, known as seriously delinquent. Seriously delinquent rates have climbed recently for credit-card debt, 7.5% in the first quarter, and auto loans, 3.8% last quarter, and remained high—11% last quarter— for student loans, according to Wednesday’s report.

Copyright 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Taxi medallion litigation updated

In our continuing posts about issues related to the decrease in the value of taxi medallions in New York City, this month we are covering two lawsuits regarding the dramatic drop in taxi medallion values. The first lawsuit involves two taxi medallion owners who have filed lawsuits against the New York City and the Taxi and Limousine Commission (“TLC”). This lawsuit was reported in the New York Daily News on May 3, 2017. The plaintiffs, driver Marcelino Hervias and medallion owner William Guerra argue that: (1) the apps for hailing cars and burdensome rules have made taxi medallions practically worthless and have created unfair competition; (2) New York City and the TLC are bound by a rule to create standards ensuring medallion owners remain financially stable; (3) New York City allows the apps to dominate the streets and provide rides similar to taxis, but with none of the financial and legal burdens that medallion owners and drivers face; and (4) the driver has to work harder and longer to cover his monthly medallion loan payments and expenses. Mr. Hervias estimates that his business is down 30% and that he must work extra shift hours each day to make up the difference. Mr. Hervias also states that there is no market for medallions because financial institutions will not lend money to buy a medallion. The attorney for the plaintiffs indicated that this is the first suit of its kind as it pertains to the taxi industry. The article states that Mayor de Blasio and the City’s Corporation Counsel (the entity that defends the City against lawsuits) did not return requests by the Daily News reporter for comments.

The second case involves New York City credit unions that manage more than 2 billion dollars in taxi medallion loans are appealing a court ruling that rejected their argument that the TLC treatment of medallions violates the equal protection clause under the United States Constitution. (information about this lawsuit can be found in a May 4, 2017 post on The credit unions’ legal argument was that medallion owners are required to comply with state regulations, while Uber, Lyft, Gett and other ridesharing services operate without being required to comply with the same regulations. The credit unions argue that such disparate treatment violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, on March 30, 2017, United States District Court Judge Alison J. Nathan ruled that there was no disparate treatment because a mobile app is not the same as hailing a medallion on the street. The judge wrote that “[q]uite simply, medallion taxicabs are not similarly situated to hire vehicles because medallion taxicabs… have . . . a monopoly over one particular form of hailing.” The ruling also notes that several courts around the country considering similar Equal Protection claims also came to the same holding. The original lawsuit was filed in November 2015 by Melrose Credit Union (‘Melrose”), Progressive Credit Union, LOMTO Federal Credit Union (“LOMTO”) and taxicab industry organizations and individual investors. The credit unions filed a notice of appeal on April 27, 2017 with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.

It is this author’s opinion that individual lawsuits like that described in the Daily News article are expensive, could take years to conclude and the outcome or result is uncertain. With respect to Judge Nathan’s ruling, many taxi medallion owners would argue that “this is a distinction without a difference”. But Judge Nathan’s ruling is the law, unless it is reversed on appeal.

The article noted that Melrose was placed into conservatorship in February by the New York State Department of Financial Services. The article also states that LOMTO is undercapitalized, with a net worth of 5.87% according to the National Credit Union Administration.  

These two lawsuits would seem to suggest that litigation will not assist medallion owners whose medallions have dramatically decreased in value.

Many taxi medallion owners who’ve consulted with Shenwick & Associates own medallions, which, to use a finance term, are “underwater.” Underwater means that the value of the asset is less than the loan collateralized by the asset. In simple terms, many medallion owners have loans against the medallions totaling $700,000-$900,000 (or more) and the medallions presently are worth approximately $240,000. As Mr. Hervias noted in the Daily News article, if banks are not providing loans to medallion purchasers, in the future it will become increasingly difficult for buyers to buy medallions because of the lack of financing (unless they are all cash buyers).

What options are available for medallion owners? One possible solution may be for medallion owners and their organizations to lobby the City of New York and Mayor de Blasio to create a fund to compensate medallion owners due to the disparate treatment faced by medallion owners and the ridesharing services. Another solution is for the city or state to create an entity or mechanism to provide funding or financing for future medallion purchases. The city or state could also look to the ridesharing services to contribute to those funds, though the ridesharing services would argue that their technology is merely “disruptive” and that competition has decreased the value of medallions, not inappropriate actions on their part. Recent articles about the Uber culture would seem to suggest that Uber would not voluntarily contribute to such funds.

The issue for medallion owners is: (1) whether they should continue to make loan payments on their medallions, if the value of the loans exceeds the value of the medallions; (2) competition from the ridesharing services has reduced their earnings; and (3) banks are not lending money to finance medallion purchases. If a medallion owner stops making loan payments, he or she will be in default under their loan(s) and the banks can commence litigation to foreclose on the medallions and/or seek repayment of their loans.

As we discussed in a prior article dated February 2nd, medallion owners who stop paying their loans have four options: (1) arrange their financial affairs so that they are “judgment proof”; (2). negotiate an out-of-court settlement with the banks that financed their medallion purchases; (3) file for bankruptcy protection or (4) litigate with the banks that loaned them money to purchase their medallions (an expensive and often times losing proposition). The option that is best for an individual medallion owner depends on his or her facts and circumstances.

Medallion owners who need such counseling are urged to contact Jim Shenwick.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Men's Fitness: 5 reasons filing for bankruptcy could save you from life-crushing debt

By Damon Trent

Whether you’re drowning in debt because of unemployment, medical bills, or just good old-fashioned spending—in 2016, almost 772,000 Americans found themselves in one of those situations—you’ve probably considered declaring personal bankruptcy, an option designed to allow people in financial distress to hit the reset button. But does it work? And should you consider it? Here’s what you need to know.

When should I consider bankruptcy?

Anytime you find yourself with more debt than you can handle, bankruptcy is an option worth exploring. Bruce Weiner, a New York bankruptcy attorney, says that in nearly 40 years of practice he’s found “a good thumbnail is when the amount you owe starts to approach what you make in a year.” (Note: Some debts—like taxes, child support, and mortgages—aren’t usually eligible for bankruptcy relief, so if you owe those, you’ll have to pay them even if you file for bankruptcy.)
The U.S. offers a half-dozen forms of bankruptcy to choose from, each named for the chapter of the law that established it. The most popular for individuals are Chapters 7 and 13.

Chapter 7

Also known as “liquidation” bankruptcy, Chapter 7 is by far the most common form of personal bankruptcy in the United States (versus Chapter 11 for businesses).
After you file your paperwork, the judge appoints a “trustee,” whose job it is to sell (“liquidate”) any assets you have and distribute the proceeds among the people to whom you owe money.
Luckily, this won’t leave you naked and homeless. Part of the trustee’s job is to ensure that you’re left with the resources you need to live and work. Plus, any money you earn from that day forward is yours to keep.

Chapter 13

If you have a steady income, Chapter 13 offers a somewhat gentler solution. Instead of selling your assets, a Chapter 13 trustee works out a legally binding plan for paying back your debts, or a percentage of them, over a fixed time period, usually three to five years.
Along with letting you keep your stuff, in some cases Chapter 13 can apply to common types of debt that Chapter 7 doesn’t cover.

What happens when I file?

Different kinds of personal bankruptcy all share one glorious feature: the “automatic stay.”
The day you file your paperwork, your creditors are legally barred from trying to collect their debts. That means no more lawsuits. No more “Final Demand” on red-trimmed envelopes. No more voicemails demanding you call the sinister “Mr. Peterson” back “immediately.” Instantly, those headaches are gone for good. And soon your debts are also gone—or “discharged,” in legal terms.

What’s the catch?

There’s one great reason not to file for bankruptcy: Your credit score takes a hit. Of course, if you haven’t paid a bill for a year or two, your score may already be in the basement. If not, you can expect a drop of several hundred points. And that black mark stays on your record for eons—a decade for Chapter 7, eight years for Chapter 13.
In many cases, though, declaring bankruptcy will actually leave you with a higher credit score than if you simply allowed your debts to fester. Weiner says that many of his clients are shocked to start receiving offers for credit cards and mortgages only months after filing for bankruptcy.

So, going bankrupt is good?

No. Bankruptcy is unpleasant, and intrusive, and creates an indelible record of a low point in your life.
“Nobody wants to end up here,” says Weiner. But it beats the constant, crushing stress of unpayable debt.
Not only that, but, well, bankruptcy is also fundamentally American. That’s why it’s in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers knew that if this land was going to be a place where citizens could dream big and take risks, they also had to have what Weiner calls “the freedom to fail.”
That freedom is yours to enjoy— if you’re ever unlucky enough to need it.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

New York City taxi medallions continued

Our February post on taxi medallions and their significant loss in value generated much reader interest. In this month’s email, we’ll update readers on taxi medallions and related issues.

The New York Post reported earlier this month that a taxi medallion recently sold for $241,000-a new low. As recently as three years ago, taxi medallions were selling for $1,300,000-a drop in value of over 80%.  And there are approximately 50,000 Uber drivers in NYC vs. approximately 13,587 yellow cab drivers.

With just 13,587 yellow cabs on New York City’s streets compared to about 50,000 cars from black cab and app services, New Yorkers now have more transportation options than ever before. In New York City, people took fewer trips and spent less on taxis during the first half of last year compared with 2015, according to a November securities filing from lender Medallion Financial Corp.

According to an article in Skift, 81 percent of Capital One's $690 million in loans for taxi medallions are at risk of default. The share of taxi medallion loans Capital One thinks its borrowers won’t be able to repay in full has nearly tripled over the past year, to 51.5 percent. Another 29 percent of Capital One’s loans are to stressed borrowers who could be at risk of default. And  BankUnited told its investors in November that nearly 59 percent of its loans secured by taxi medallions were under water. Close to 95 percent of BankUnited’s loans were to New York City borrowers.
Many readers have asked us what the banks that loaned money to medallion owners can or are doing. Their options are as follows: 1. Close and go out of business; 2. File for chapter 7 or 11 bankruptcy and liquidate or attempt to reorganize; 3. Sell their non–performing loans to third parties such as hedge funds; 4. Restructure their loans from third parties; 5. Seek capital from third parties; or 6. Work to restructure their loans to medallion owners. Which strategy is optimal? The optimal strategy depends on the facts of each case.

For medallion owners whose loans exceed the value of the medallions, the question remains as to what their strategy should be. The key issue for a medallion owner is whether to continue to own and make payments on a medallion loan, where the value of the medallion is far below the loan balance. For those medallion owners seeking specific advice, please see our post here. Any course of action chosen by a medallion owner involves NYS debtor/creditor law, bankruptcy law and tax law. Medallion owners are advised to seek legal counsel and to proceed with caution.

Many readers have also asked about timing. Assuming the bank or fund that made them the loan is in financial trouble, are they better off negotiating a settlement now or waiting to see what the future holds? This author has negotiated with buyers of distressed debt (defaulted or written off credit card debt) and often those creditors can be more difficult to deal with than banks.

However, in this author’s opinion, taxi medallion prices will continue to decrease in value or remain at these low levels, and taxi medallion owners need to develop a strategy to address these issues based on their own facts and circumstances. To discuss your situation regarding tax medallion ownership, please contact Jim Shenwick.

Monday, April 17, 2017

NY Times: Workers Find Winning a Wage Judgment Can Be an Empty Victory

The sign above Soft Touch Car Wash on Broadway in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan declares, “Open 24 hours,” but last month the bustling carwash suddenly closed. It was the same at the four other carwashes owned by the same family in New York City and the surrounding area: the phone lines disconnected, the hoses and wash mops idle and dry.

The operators of the small chain, José and Andrés Vázquez, agreed to pay $1.65 million to 18 employees to settle a federal lawsuit over stolen wages, a significant victory in the battles against wage theft in the city’s low-paying industries.

But the suddenly shuttered carwashes illustrate a persistent problem confronting many low-wage workers not just in New York but across the country: Winning in court is no guarantee that they will ever see much, if any, compensation.

The workers who toiled at the Vázquez carwashes battled for nearly six years before receiving the money they were due, their efforts hampered by the owners having filed for bankruptcy — a well-worn tactic used to avoid paying exploited workers, according to labor advocates. The owners could not be reached for comment.

Now, some New York State lawmakers are renewing a push for legislation that would put in place a type of insurance against this tactic, which crops up in industries from nail salons to restaurants. The measure would essentially enable employees who accuse an employer of wage theft to have a lien placed on the employer’s assets while the outcome is being determined.

“We are improving the lot of low-paid service workers; however, we haven’t attacked this fundamental problem of them giving their work, giving their time, and not getting compensated for it,” said Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan. “And it’s just not something we can tolerate anymore.”

In a setback for workers and their advocates, the measure was dropped from the budget agreement that state lawmakers reached. But a bill with the same measure, introduced this year by Ms. Rosenthal, is poised for a vote this spring in the Assembly.

Selling off houses and businesses — sometimes for a nominal sum, and frequently to a relative — and declaring bankruptcy is a move that experts say business owners often use to avoid paying back wages, overtime or damages, usually as a result of a court order. Under Ms. Rosenthal’s proposal, businesses would not be permitted to sell their assets while a wage dispute was underway.

“We know their tricks,” she said, referring to unscrupulous business owners. “This is an attempt to jump in front of their tricks.”

A 2015 report written by several worker advocacy organizations calculated that between 2003 and 2013, the New York State Department of Labor was unable to collect over $101 million that employers owed workers.

“It’s not surprising that people who are willing to cheat their workers are willing to transfer their assets to prevent their workers from getting what they are rightfully owed,” said Richard Blum, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society who works in the employment law division.

Small-business groups have opposed Ms. Rosenthal’s measure, saying it is an unnecessary and unfair burden on employers.

“It’s based on an accusation, not on proof,” said Denise M. Richardson, the executive director of the General Contractors Association. “An employee who feels aggrieved should not be able to tie up a business’s finances absent any proof that in fact they have been subject to wage theft.”

But workers say they need more powerful tools to battle employers who mistreat them.
“Right now, it is very easy for these sweatshop bosses to steal workers’ wages,” said Jin Ming Cao, who has yet to see any of the over $100,000 a judge ordered his former employer, a restaurant in Manhattan, to pay him in 2010, part of $1.5 million settlement involving a group of workers. “Even when they’re found out by a court, they just change names, it’s so easy.”

Laws allowing liens against business owners involved in wage disputes exist in half a dozen states — Alaska, Idaho, New Hampshire, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin — but only Wisconsin permits liens solely based on an allegation of wage theft, according to the National Employment Law Project. In the other states, a lien is allowed only after wage theft has been proved as a result of a lawsuit or an agency investigation, for example.

In New York, rules are already in place to protect workers in a few select industries where wage theft has been a widespread problem. In 2015, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo imposed a requirement that nail salons carry wage bonds, a type of liability insurance designed to prevent the nonpayment of workers.

Nail salon owners have campaigned against the requirement, arguing that the price of carrying such insurance is too burdensome for small businesses like theirs. The cost varies depending on the coverage; carrying a $25,000 bond, for example, would cost an employer between $550 and $700 a year, according to providers.

Last week, lawmakers in West Virginia voted to remove, on similar grounds, a wage bond requirement that had long been in place for construction and mining industries.
On a sidewalk outside Manhattan Valley, an Indian restaurant on the Upper West Side, about 100 workers gathered recently to pass out fliers and chant that the proposed state measure, commonly known as Sweat — securing wages earned against theft — needed to become law.

When the restaurant was known as Indus Valley, a group of 10 workers sued and were awarded $700,000 in back wages by a federal judge in 2014. They still have not been paid. The owners have told the court that they sold the restaurant and that Manhattan Valley is a new restaurant with different owners. Workers and advocates claim that is a ruse to avoid payment and that the same owners still run the restaurant.

One of the workers is Efren Caballero De Jesus, 43. He delivered curries, bottled raita sauce and cleaned the kitchen at Indus Valley, often seven days a week, 10 or more hours a day, earning as little as $400 per week, for four years. “I felt degraded,” Mr. De Jesus said.

He was elated when a judge apportioned him over $180,000 of the award in 2015, but three years later, he wonders if he will ever receive anything from the two brothers who owned the restaurant, Phuman and Lakhvir Singh.

“I thought if we got the decision, we were going to collect the money,” Mr. De Jesus said. “I feel very angry.’’

Ahmed Hussain, a server answering the phone at Manhattan Valley on Thursday, said the Singh brothers no longer owned the restaurant. The Singhs could not be reached.
Copyright 2017 The New York Times Company.  All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

We've moved!

We are pleased to announce that we've moved to a new location near Grand Central Terminal.  Our new address is: Shenwick & Associates, 122 East 42nd Street, Suite 620, New York, NY 10168.  Please update your records accordingly.

Our phones and e-mail addresses remain the same.  We look forward to continuing to serve you from our new location!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

UPI: U.S. household debt near record levels, Federal Reserve report says

By Ed Adamczyk 

Feb. 17 (UPI) -- Total U.S. household debt climbed to a near-record $12.58 trillion by the end of 2016, a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report says.

February's 33-page "Quarterly Report of Household Debt and Credit" shows that every category of debt measured -- including mortgages, credit cards, student loans and auto loans -- saw an increase.

The total increase of $460 billion in 2016 was the largest in a decade. Mortgage balances, now at $8.48 trillion, made up 67 percent of the household debt.

At the current rate of growth, household debt is expected to break the 2008 record high, of $12.68 trillion, sometime in 2017. The year was marked by the start of a recession.

The report indicates mortgages still make up the bulk of household debt, but student loans are now 10 percent of the total, auto loans are 9 percent of the total and credit card debt is 6 percent. Dollar amounts rose in each category in 2016's fourth quarter. The rising debt indicates that banks are extending more credit to households.

A major difference between the 2008 and 2016 debt levels, the report said, is that fewer delinquencies were reported at the end of 2016. In last year's fourth quarter, 4.8 percent of debts were regarded as delinquent or late in payment, compared to 8.5 percent of total household debt in 2008's third quarter.
There were also 200,000 fewer consumer bankruptcies reported in 2016's fourth quarter, a four percent decline, compared to the fourth quarter of 2015.

Copyright © 2017 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.