Leisure, Lifestyle & Wellness
Improving US market conditions and the housing boom

The US housing boom in 2004 lured many to go in for second homes but unable to pay the mortgages, some were forced to return to rented apartments. The 43rd part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business

As we moved into 2004, one important activity that was noticeable was the great publicity and advertisement programs relating to leasing and sale of newly built houses in and around Washington DC. In fact, this phenomenon was noticed everywhere, and the building construction activity was in full swing. Beautiful communities were coming up, offering townhouses, of various sizes, and at competitive prices. But these prices were relatively high, and the prices of old houses were going up at a fast rate.
 
As the prices began to go up, all of us were flooded with mail and offers from finance companies and banks for extending credit. Phone calls would be received from marketers who would talk about your increased valuation of your own house, and how they would be able to arrange for immediate credit, which would enable you to replace your old cars; how you may take your much needed vacation and enjoy the sun in the Caribbean; take a long cruise; or fly down to Paris, have car at the Charles De Gaulle airport and drive around the whole of Europe, which you always wanted to do; or take a trip down to the Orient, gamble in Macao or walk up the great Wall of China! The enticing list things and activities that you could do with the extra cash was overwhelming!
 
A townhouse, bought for $160,000 was presently valued at $250,000 and the market price of the house was growing by the day; the marketer was willing to get a cash credit arranged immediately for $50,000 and one could do any of the above; and slowly pay back along with the house mortgage. It was easy to buy houses and the interest rates attractive.  If on your budget, you decided go in for a house valued $200,000 your agent/broker would highly recommend that you buy a more spacious single independent family home for $300,000 or more, particularly when he/she finds out that both the husband and wife are employed. “It is far cheaper to buy now than continue to pay rent; we can work out a deal that would practically bring the mortgage payments at par with your rent?” The sales pitch was very high, and newly built houses had all the amenities one would hope for.
 
We declined to fall into a death trap of taking any loans; we felt the market was saturated with reckless credit and even more callous methods for spending this ‘unearned’ cash. Many of my colleagues were keen to buy bigger houses than they really needed, because, they ‘feared’ that they may lose the opportunity. In fact, many bought a “second home” because they had a little cash in the bank to play with and always felt that they could rent the house, as long as the rent covered or was equal to the mortgage costs. What they failed to realise was as to what would happen if the tenant simply disappeared after delaying the rent payment?  This happened to many. My own colleague, who went against my advice, and bought a huge single family home, not only lost it, but had to take a huge debt and return back to a rented apartment in a matter of less than two years!
 
The credit squeeze had began to affect everyone, including our regular visitors to the hotel; our guests began to demand ‘compensation’ for delays in picking up at the airport, which was a complimentary service, fixed at certain intervals, taking into account the distance and time covered for the travel. Slowly, we became victims of circumstances where customers would misuse our friendly hospitality at the restaurants by being in cahoots with servers! Three guests would enjoy the meal; get charged for two, and give a rewarding ‘tip’ to the server!  Likewise, there were hanky-panky practiced in the paid garage facilities; when these were noticed, the associates received marching orders mercilessly. Every hotel had different incidents that they faced, and, when the top brass met for the monthly get-togethers, notes were exchanged!
 
The staff facilities included free laundry for our uniforms; so, if one was working five days a week, it would be normal to have these and a couple of pants for cleaning in the laundry, but certainly not any other garment, and that too from other family members! When such things began to be noticed by the receiving associate, not only the front office manager received the data but also the human resources director (though the FOM), and the associate got charged for the services utilized and warned future sterner action in case of repeat performance!
 
We continued to receive a greater number of government ‘servants’ staying with us at the fixed rates meant for this purpose. This was only when they were on ‘duty’ and paid for in our recorded cards meant for this purpose. If they had to extend their stay and convert it into a personal visit, though, for the sake of long standing relations, they may be able to get the government rates, but they would automatically pay for it by cash or by their personal credit cards. The guests were very clear on this and admirably followed the rules and regulations to the book.
 
As the housing boom continued, there was a lurking fear in the minds of many that as the reckless credit ballooned up, it was bound to burst sooner than later. Many owners of second ‘homes’ really found they were suddenly saddled with collectable rents, as the tenant had run away, and still they had to pay for water, gas and electricity bills! The market stalled for a while, but home prices in good locality remained high.
 
An unusual incident came to light, when one guest, Ms Maria called and asked for me by name.  When I answered her call, she mentioned that she gave her credit card for payment to the only girl in the counter, and when she reached home at Baltimore, she could not find it! She had searched everywhere, and felt positive that she didn’t take the card back! “Can you search at your end immediately, before I report it to the card company and have it cancelled?” After assuring her, I began the search, all over the place, including the front desk, Computer terminals for guest’s use, the restaurant she had used for breakfast, her room and also the ladies rest room!  There was no sign. The last thing she must have done was the check out at the garage, where she must have used the room key which was activated to permit her entry and exit in the garage. The garage attendant was on duty, and she confirmed that there was some problem in the morning as most guests had difficulty in using their room keys to exit. I called in Nelson, from the engineering department and had to open the key box at the exit gate, where the guests are requested to drop the keys, so that we may recycle them. Ms Maria had apparently exited the garage, and, mistakenly dropped her credit card in the key collection box! I called her back and arranged for sending it back to her by courier, which she got a day later!  I had quiet forgotten about the whole incident until she had sent a letter of appreciation to the management!

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)

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US Presidency: The battle for Wisconsin

Scott Walker will learn that there is a heavy price for union busting. If it can be done in progressive Wisconsin today can it be done across American tomorrow?

It is just June yet, but I am sure it feels like November in Wisconsin, the picturesque Midwestern state where governor Scott Walker is sought to be recalled. It is only for the third time in US history that   a recall election for a governor is happening. (A recall election—also called a recall referendum or representative recall—is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended. In some states, a recall triggers a simultaneous special election.)

The atmosphere is electric, the election is close and it has got the nation’s attention; but it is also very divisive. Public opinion in the state is split right down the middle. Jacob Carrel of Madison, Wisconsin, who I spoke to told me that a opinion poll over the weekend shows 49% of the electorate in favour of governor Scott Walker and 49% in favour of Tom Barrett—the Democrat challenger—with 2% undecided. But opinion polls are aplenty and The Huffington Post opinion poll puts governor Scott Walker slightly ahead.

Going ahead, both Democrats and Republicans have rolled out their heavyweight campaigners—Bill Clinton was in Milwaukee for a raucous rally over the weekend to gather the faithful.  Bill Clinton is enormously popular in Wisconsin and had carried it during both his elections. He is probably the most important Democrat campaigner today after President Obama. Many Republican governors have visited the state but neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has gone there so far. The probable reason is that neither of them can afford to be seen backing a loser and nobody knows who that will be on Tuesday.

The importance of Wisconsin to President Obama is clear. He won Wisconsin by 16% points in 2008 and the last Republican presidential candidate to win it was Ronald Reagan, although George W Bush came close to winning on both occasions when he ran for president. But any calculation of 270 electoral votes for President Obama includes Wisconsin.

(Each elector gets one vote. Thus, a state with eight electors would cast eight votes. There are currently 538 electors and the votes of a majority of them—270 votes—are required to be elected. Since Electoral College representation is based on congressional representation, states with larger populations get more Electoral College votes.)

The governor’s recall election has suddenly put Wisconsin in play and Mitt Romney is setting up more offices there. It should also be mentioned that though President Obama carried Wisconsin in 2008 during the mid-terms in 2010 the Republicans swept the polls when because of the Great Recession many of the incumbents were defeated. Some other polls show Scott Walker, the Republican governor, leading in some polls  but the Democratic challenger ground game is supposed to be in tip-top shape and ultimately it may all come down to turnover.  

It is believed that a smaller turnover will favour the Republicans whereas a large turnover will favour the Democrats. In the election of the governor in 2010, $37 million were spent but the recall is likely to cost approximately $60 million. Jacob also tells me that the Republicans have probably outspent the Democrats by a margin of 12:1 and whereas most of the money obtained by the Republicans is from outside the state most of the money obtained by the Democrats is from within the state. Cities like Madison, the capital, which is a University town as also Milwaukee which is quite industrial are Democratic strongholds whereas the rural areas are Republican strongholds.

So what is all the fuss about and why the recall? Governor Scott Walker has followed the principles of fiscal conservatism—he has sought to rein in the fiscal deficit and make spending cuts reduce taxes. But more than that he has taken on a principal Democratic constituency the trade unions and has sought to weaken them if not destroy them. And this is particularly ironic as the first government workers union was established in Madison in 1932. He has prevented Unions of Western Public Workers from collective bargaining and the issues subject to collective bargaining are now restricted. He has upped their pension contribution of the workers and he has stopped automatic contributions to the unions. This is more than conservatism. This is union busting. And the Democrats had hit back and mounted a fierce challenge by organizing a recall.

Scott Walker will learn whichever way the election goes that there is a heavy price for union busting. But this has also made Scott Walker a poster boy of conservatism in America. If it can be done in progressive Wisconsin today can it be done across American tomorrow?

But will it affect President Obama in November. That is not certain. While the Republican base is highly charged, so are the Democrat followers. Further, nothing like the amount being spent in Wisconsin per capita will be spent in November and an economist survey has that unemployment in Wisconsin fell to 6.7% the last year, much below the national average. This might help the incumbent Scott Walker in the recall but will help President Obama in November as he is the incumbent.

I will end with what Jacob told me. He said a friend’s mother who is 80 years old is campaigning door-to-door for Tom Barrett the Democratic challenger. That is how high the stakes are.

(Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier's College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master's in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)

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Credit ratings: Faith Accompli

Credit rating serves a useful purpose but its severe limitations need to be...

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