Monday, December 31, 2007

People again leaving California


Those of you who lived in California during the early 1990s no doubt remember the exodus of friends and associates to other states such as Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Some people said that this meant the end for California -- that it would no longer be able to compete due to high taxes, an anti-business environment and high housing prices. What it DID mean were some great buying opportunities for those who were patient enough to wait until the next boom.

For those who left the state, many moved back when the housing market improved, in large part because they missed the entertainment, cultural and restaurant options here. Oh, sure, you might save a bundle by moving to Carson City, Nevada, but once you get used to your lower house payment, then what? Knitting circles? Strip Monopoly?

Well, apparently it's happening again, and this Wall Street Journal article concludes it's due to the declining housing market:

Population growth in several of the fastest-growing states is slowing -- in Arizona, Florida and Nevada, in particular -- in a trend both reflecting and fueling the housing-market malaise in those areas. "This is our first chance to see what has been the migration impact of the housing-market slowdown, and it's showing up in these highflying states," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The Census Bureau's annual estimate of state population changes covers the 12 months that ended July 1. It shows that people continue to flee the Midwest -- especially Michigan, one of two states to lose people -- and that the Mountain states in the West continue to post large population gains as people arrive from California and elsewhere...

In the most recent period, 263,035 people left California for another state. The state's 0.8% population growth was mostly because of births.

Still, because of California's huge population base, it still added over 300,000 new residents, mostly due to new births. That will continue to mean demand for larger homes and/or new households, which will help the state work off its inventory load faster than many other states. Of course this will vary considerably by area, with the inland areas taking much longer to reach supply-demand equilibrium.


Blame the Politicians, Act II

One consequence of our broken political system -- which is run more by lobbyists than voters -- is that state laws once floated in several states to protect buyers from predatory lenders were either watered down or scuttled completely after the donation checks cleared.

Writing in today's Wall Street Journal, Glenn Simpson's Page One story provides a detailed overview of what happened to potential laws in numerous states including California.

Ameriquest Mortgage Co., until recently one of the nation's largest subprime lenders, was at the center of those battles. Working with a husband-and-wife team of Washington lobbyists, it handed out more than $20 million in political donations and played a big role in persuading legislators in New Jersey and Georgia to relax tough new laws. Those victories, in turn, helped blunt efforts by other states to crack down on reckless lending, critics of the industry contend...

So politicians ignored the best interests of their constituents for money? Say it ain't so!

..Executives at Ameriquest, based in Orange, Calif., acknowledge that the company lobbied heavily against state lending restrictions, but say that other subprime lenders did so as well. In fact, a host of subprime lenders and banking trade groups, including
Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Countrywide Financial Corp. and the Mortgage Bankers Association, spent heavily on lobbying and political giving.

I remember the "but they did it too!" excuse while growing up, but my mother never bought it. Too bad she wasn't elected to office!

According to Wright Andrews, a lobbyist who gave millions to various politicians to help fight mortgage-related bills, he's not to blame either:

"Personally, I think and have long felt the Fed should have done more early on," he says. "But I don't think anybody realized the level of problems that were going to come out in the last year or two. If you had said to me the industry was going to melt down, I would have said you were absolutely insane."

That's right, Mr. Andrews. Blame the Fed -- everyone else is!



Sunday, December 30, 2007

When Forecasts Go Bad

Many people don't know that economics is really a social science; sure, there's a lot of math and stats involved, but they're only barometers to explain the behavior of people and markets. That's why the book Freakonomics was such a huge hit -- it helped explain the hidden meanings behind economic case studies (such as crack dealers living with their mothers) that at first glance didn't make sense.

The fact that economics is a social science is also why forecasts can go bad -- sometimes very, very bad. Writing earlier this month in Slate, author Daniel Gross (one of my favorite writers & commentators) argues that certain forecasts are inherently suspect:

...within the fraternity of financial and fiscal forecasters, the seers at the National Association of Realtors—longtime chief economist David Lereah and his successor Lawrence Yun—may be uniquely ill-equipped to deliver sobering forecasts. They work for a trade group whose mission is to buck up the spirits of real-estate brokers. And real-estate brokers—who live to sell, promote, and market—are constitutionally disinclined to hear anything but good news.

That's also why you might see similarly (relatively speaking) rosy forecasts from other trade group sources such as NAHB, although since their magazine, Builder, is licensed to be published by another company, Hanley Wood, the magazine can remain more objective. That's also why you might expect the CBIA to release bad news on a Friday afternoon in order to minimize coverage by the state's newspapers (sort of like when the White House declassifies documents on a holiday weekend).

These trade groups are in a tough spot: they don't want to anger those members they represent, and yet they want to be viewed as objective and appropriate news sources to the media, although Gross argues that NAR took it to the extreme:

Indeed, as I noted last summer, Lereah's penchant for putting out positive spin on dismal housing numbers inspired a blog and led critics to dub him the Baghdad Bob of real estate. Lereah has moved on. But Yun has picked up where he left off.

In addition to claiming that the sun is shining brilliantly even as rain pours down from the heavens in a mighty stream, Lereah and Yun have also hazarded optimistic, educated guesses about the future.

I think these guesses have really hurt the NAR's credibility as well as those of all real estate agents, many of whom are much more responsible with their clients when it comes to hazarding guesses about the future. Markets go up, markets go down, and there's always risk involved. Period.

So what about other economic forecasters? Why do they get it wrong? Several reasons according to Gross:

There are some institutional reasons for this: Many economists are associated with corporations, Wall Street firms, and trade groups, where it doesn't pay to be bearish. Others fall into the trap of extrapolating existing trends into the future. But given the complexity of the contemporary world, the huge range of variables, the unrelenting flow of data, and the fallibility of humans, it's likely impossible to forecast consistently with any accuracy. And it's especially difficult to project economic activity when the economy reaches inflection points—times when the economy is about to go from expansion to contraction, or vice versa.

Certainly relying on past patterns alone could allow a forecaster to ignore an inflection point. Writing in the New York Times, author Peter Bernstein offers a recipe for botching future predictions:

From the end of 2002 to the early months of 2007, prosperity seemed firmly rooted and even touched by some kind of magic. The Fed appeared to have inflation under control, productivity was high, no squalls were hitting the stock market, the dollar’s decline was orderly, home prices generally rose steadily, and the unemployment rate fell in many months. Even better, investors could buy all those interesting new forms of financial paper invented by the engineers, offering high yields at what the rating agencies assured investors was low risk.

But the magic was not in concrete; it never is. The conviction that risks were low led investors to take greater risk without requiring higher expected returns. By late 2006, the Fed was wrestling with inflationary pressures from oil and food, productivity had lost its momentum, housing prices had been declining since summer, and the mortgage markets were starting to crack.

Nevertheless, like me in 1958, investors refused to see the ground shifting beneath them, even though the environment was no longer what they knew and thought they understood. Like me, they were walking into a trap where the responses were not what they had anticipated. Like me, they were headed toward big surprises for which they had no preparation.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Science of Guesstonomics

Remember a year ago when many economists were predicting flat or very weak growth in the housing market? This was well before the mortgage issue arose, so most were looking just at inventory and sales numbers.

So why should anyone believe their forecasts for 2008? I'd argue that it depends on the performance of their previous predictions, and CNNMoney's Chris Isidore provides a summary. Some highlights:

Greenspan & Bernanke:

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and his successor Ben Bernanke, after reviewing home sales and mortgage rates in fall 2006, were hopeful that the market had bottomed out.

"It may be too soon to say that it's over. It may not be too soon to say that the worst is over," said Greenspan in an October 2006 speech in Richmond, according to press reports.

In a November 2006 speech, Bernanke said he saw some "encouraging" signs in recent housing reports.

Many commentators think that Greenspan ignored the ultimate consequences of a housing bubble with increasingly lower short-term interest rates and that Bernanke has not seemed concerned enough about the market's meltdown.

Lawrence Yun, NAR (thank God they got rid of former Chief Economist David Lereah, who in February 2006 published
Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust—And How You Can Profit from It.). Thanks to him, numbers from all trade groups are now suspect:

The National Association of Realtors made a forecast a year ago that was far more optimistic than those by Wyss and many other economists. The Realtors expected only a 1 percent drop in the pace of existing home sales, and a 1 percent gain in median prices. Instead, 2007 will likely end with a 12.5 percent plunge in the pace of sales, and nearly a 2 percent drop in prices, the first such decline on record.

The group's current forecast for 2008 calls for a 0.5 percent increase in the pace of sales, and a 0.3 percent rebound in prices. But Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the trade group, said that making forecasts is even tougher this year than it was a year ago.

Yun forecasts essentially flat prices in 2008. Yet, he also believes there's at least a one in four chance that prices will fall more than they did this year, and about the same chance that prices could rebound by 3 percent or more.

"I would not be surprised if home sales improves in 2008," he said. "At the same time I can also foresee a circumstance where buyers continue to pull back, the inventory sitting on the market continues to build and it causes prices to go down further."

I think Mr. Yun is flailing a bit, but he's right that economic forecasts are always tricky. Of course I also remember when CAR's Leslie Appleton-Young said she needed more time to come up with an appropriate term when the market peaked and started trending downward, thus suggesting she was caught unawares.

Robert Shiller (co-founder of the Case-Shiller index):

Robert Shiller, a Yale economist who had argued for years that a bubble was forming in real estate prices, points out that one group was on target about where prices would go - investors in a real estate futures market that he helped set up on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Starting in May 2006, the CME set up futures contracts for 10 metropolitan real estate markets, allowing investors to bet whether prices would go up or down and by how much.

By the end of 2006 those futures were pointing to real estate price declines between 5 percent and 7 percent in those markets, Shiller said. That ended up in line with the 6.7 percent annual decline in the October reading of S&P/Case-Shiller home price index, which was the largest drop recorded in that 20-year-old price measure.

"I'm not normally an advocate of market efficiency, but there's something to be said when you're putting money on the line with your prediction, rather than just talking," he said.

Those futures today are far more bearish about future housing prices than most current economists - foreseeing an additional 4 percent to 14 percent drop in prices over the next year.

Although the Case-Shiller index doesn't track all cities, its strength is its focus on matching sales of the same properties. Plus Dr. Shiller has a good point when he says, "there's something to be said when you're putting money on the line with your prediction, rather than just talking."

Friday, December 28, 2007

New home sales down nationally but up in the West

From the notoriously revised Commerce Department statistics, new home sales fell to a 12-year low in November but were up by 4% in the West. According to the USA Today story:

The sales pace for November was much weaker than economists were expecting. They were predicting sales to drop around 1.8%, to a pace of 715,000.

I take two things from this article: (1) Economics always offer guesstimates and so never really know for sure (such is the nature of predictions, although they do offer solace to some people which keeps psychics in business); and (2) Expect revisions next month from the Commerce Department since the survey less than 5% of permit reporting places nationally.

Higher Gas Prices Bad News for Commuters

If you read the comments to various housing blogs, you'll notice many predictions of across-the-board price declines of 30% or more, but I don't think it's that simple.

According to an LA Times story, Californians should expect gas price approaching $4.00 per gallon in 2008 (Happy New Year!):

"If anyone expects gas to be less than a new record, they are not thinking," said Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. "There is no question it will be much higher than last year."

Americans will start 2008 paying about 65 cents more a gallon than they did in January 2007, according to the forecasts, and by April could see self-serve regular selling for $3.50 to $3.75 a gallon.

In California -- where gas this year has fetched as much as 50 cents more than the national average -- $4 a gallon "will no longer be considered a rogue number," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service. "It will list for that much in a lot of places."

So what does that mean for far-flung areas with poor public transit options and requiring a long (and increasingly expensive) commute? Probably larger price declines than in areas which are within walking distance of various MTA lines or require shorter commutes. For example, I'd expect sellers to offer greater discounts in Palmdale than in North Hollywood, but only time will tell.

Perhaps next time politicians try to float a sales tax increase to fund public transit options in certain counties in which they've been voted down, voters will take it more seriously.

Loan defaults moving onto Option ARMS

The next wave of potential loan defaults is expected to involve Option ARM loans made to borrowers with good credit according to the LA Times. Why were these loans so popular? Simple math and greed:

Before standards were tightened, several mortgage brokers and former and current Countrywide employees said, it was easy to sell option ARMs to borrowers by focusing on the low minimum payment.

As the housing market boomed, borrowers figured they could always sell the home at a higher price if they got in trouble -- and brokers pocketed big rebates for selling option ARMs, said John Diamond, a Chino broker with 39 years in the business.

Although a broker might earn $4,500 for selling a $300,000 fixed-rate loan, Diamond said, the commission could total $12,000 on an option ARM of the same size.

"These loans drove the whole industry from late 1999 through late 2006," Diamond said. "It was just about the only thing any broker wanted to sell."

I remember those days well: if you were bold enough to demand a traditional 30-year fixed rate loan, you had to be prepared to steadfastly stand behind your decision, which wasn't easy when others were bragging about their low teaser rates and payments. Suddenly anyone who could fog a mirror was becoming a loan broker, including cab drivers and personal trainers (and I'm not making this up). It was really little more than "Take the Money and Run" (no offense to Woody Allen, of course).

I just wonder where the media was when these loans were taking off: if newspapers and TV stations were regularly doing stories on the different types of loan options -- and the consequences -- would it have mattered?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Some good news: the world economy has never been healthier!

While some Americans have been failing Home Economics 101 and splurging on things they didn't need or could appropriately afford, from this Newsweek story the rest of the world has been behaving... (drum roll, please)...quite responsibly! While it's too soon to know if a newly adult world will help bail the U.S. out of its housing-induced hangover, it's still good news that once we recover the world's economies will mostly be on better footing:

For the past four years, the world has grown at a 5.2 percent annual rate—a full 2 percentage points higher than in the '80s and '90s—thanks in large part to booming emerging markets. While the United States and many parts of Europe are lagging, most of the rest of the planet is soaring. Consider that between 1980 and 2000, the number of countries growing at 5 percent or more hovered around 50. In 2006, 104 nations grew at that rate...

Even as Western consumers have fudged on retirement savings in favor of flat-screen TVs, and Western governments have skimped on education and infrastructure, emerging nations have been paying back debt, taming inflation, strengthening their institutions, diversifying their economies and generally behaving like responsible global citizens. The result has been a huge range of benefits: fewer hungry children in Tanzania, increased political stability in Brazil and a more balanced global financial system, in which nations previously labeled unstable debtors are now extending credit to richer countries...

Emerging nations are no longer just extracting resources and supplying cheap labor, but growing their own massive middle classes, breeding world-beating companies and becoming players on the global financial stage. Such developments—the prospect of China suddenly being a major source of investment capital, cash-rich Latin American countries banding together to lend to one another, Russia emerging as the top luxury-car market—have defied the predictions of the world's collective economic wisdom.

Bueno trabajo!

Reverse Mortgages to the Rescue

Since the Bush Plan to Save Housing won't assist any borrowers who can't make their existing mortgage payments, the reverse mortgage has arisen as a potential savior for older buyers looking to pay off a toxic loan while receiving steady monthly payments from their built-up equity. Writing in the Wall Street Journal:

Reverse mortgages used to be a way for homeowners to get extra cash during retirement. Now they're also being used for a more-pressing purpose: helping people who are struggling to meet payments on high-interest-rate loans to keep their homes.

The strategy, which is relatively novel but gaining popularity among legal-aid attorneys and housing advocates around the country, calls for persuading lenders to take the cash generated by a reverse mortgage in lieu of foreclosing on older homeowners...

Other public-service attorneys around the country are turning to reverse mortgages as a way to negotiate lower payoffs for subprime loans made to older clients. In Chicago, for example, "we advise a lot of clients that a reverse mortgage is appropriate when it's the only way to keep them in their home," says Michelle A. Weinberg, a supervisory attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. "The same people have been refinanced over and over again to very little benefit for themselves, with high fees."

It won't bail out everyone, but it could help older borrowers who claim they were misled by lenders who didn't divulge the details of loan resets down the road.



Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Lot Write-Downs to Continue?

On the heels of Hovnanian's $638 million loss for fiscal year 2007, Bloomberg's Jonathan Weil thinks (in an opinion piece) that the large gaps remaining between builders' stock prices and book values (or assets minus debts) implies future impairments to come:

Eight of the nine U.S. homebuilders with market values of at least $1 billion now trade for less than their book values. Some like Pulte already have taken large writedowns on everything from real estate and joint ventures to goodwill. Yet their plunging stock prices indicate bigger charges to earnings may be needed.

Under the accounting rules, companies mainly use internal estimates of future cash flows to test whether assets such as real estate may be impaired. If the values aren't supportable, companies must write down the assets to their so-called fair values, though these may be only loose guesses.

Pulte is one of five companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 Homebuilding Index; the others are Centex Corp., D.R. Horton Inc., KB Home, and Lennar Corp. While the five companies have a combined book value of $22.7 billion, the stock market says they're worth just $15.2 billion. Put another way, the market is signaling that their net asset values are inflated by more than $7 billion, mostly because of frothy inventory values.

Oddly, Wall Street analysts covering the stocks appear to be rejecting the market's hints. Pulte, for instance, is expected to post a $153.2 million fourth-quarter net loss, according to a Bloomberg survey of seven analysts. That suggests no one is counting on major writedowns. The loss would be much larger if Pulte were to mark its assets in line with what its stock price implies...


Saturday, December 22, 2007

NAHB's Cloudy Crystal Ball

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has recently come out with their year-end forecast, and I'm a bit disappointed because it's mostly more of the same rehashed news we've all been reading for at least a couple of months. A clear crystal ball it is not:

Placing the blame for the housing recession squarely at the feet of the mortgage market meltdown, NAHB CEO Jerry Howard and chief economist David Seiders warned of another bleak year for housing in 2008, during the NAHB's year-end Housing Forecast call on Thursday.

Exacerbating the situation is the slowdown in the overall United States economy, as housing and mortgage problems have spilled over and tightened credit conditions economy-wide.

Over the past couple of years, I've found NAHB's forecasts to be a little behind the eight ball on their housing forecasts, and it seems a bit convenient to lay the blame on the housing recession "squarely at the feet of the mortgage market meltdown," as if no one at Mr. Seiders and Co. had any clue that home prices were far outpacing incomes in many markets and that there was a serious risk of overbuilding when measured against most reasonable demand forecasts. And, because association groups such as NAHB and NAR likely historically felt compelled to appease their members with continuously optimistic forecasts, housing bears such as Chris Thornberg (formerly of UCLA, now of Beacon Economics) and Mark Zandi (Economy.com) have been able to drive their trucks through the resulting breach and make big names for themselves because they're being proven right.

I tried discussing this and other subjects when I met Mr. Seiders at a reception during the last Builder 100 conference in Carlsbad, but found his professorial demeanor tough to penetrate. Perhaps I should have raised my hand?

Lot Prices Coming Down: This is Good News

Since the largest cost for builders in California is the land upon which they build, making homes affordable has been challenging when landowners refuse to cut their prices in the face of a slower market. Simply put, the market for new homes will not improve markedly until prices are more in line with household incomes and buyers can qualify for mortgages in the traditional way (i.e., 10-20% down, a couple months of reserves, etc.).

That's why it's actually good news that lot prices in hard-hit areas such as the Antelope Valley and the Inland Empire have finally fallen to levels last seen two or even five years ago. According to a story by Builder's John Caulfield, a report (i.e., clever press release) produced by the land broker The Hoffman Company, finished lot land values are down by up to 52% when comparing the fourth quarters of 2005 and 2007.

Why the change? Not surprisingly, fewer buyers. According to the story:

Norm Scheel, a principal with Hoffman, tells Builder ONLINE that the majority of the pullback in land prices occurred this year, which he attributes primarily to a "lack of need" among home builders that are themselves selling land and walking away from options.

"Home builders seem to be doing two things," says Scheel, "preserving capital and burning inventory."

So where is the carnage the worst? Areas such as Lancaster and Palmdale, where lot values in certain areas have plunged by over 38% (and which will eventually mean more affordable new homes). In the Inland Empire counties of San Bernardino and Riverside, the hardest-hit areas include French Valley (-52%), Highland (-49%) and East Lake Elsinore (-47%).

These areas do have something important in common: they were all areas that buyers were willing to drive to in order to find something affordable. Now, with home prices falling in those communities closer to various employment centers (such as the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys or the western and southern Inland Empire), the only ways that land prices in more outlying areas can compete is on price.

This is also exactly what happened with land prices in the early- to mid-1990s that eventually led to the housing recovery of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It's really just part of the correction process, painful as it may be for landowners (and especially for those who borrowed heavily to buy land).



"Prestine" Oceanfront Condos in Mazatlan!

Sometimes I can't help myself: even when I'm on vacation (in this case Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta with my extended family), I'm always interested in local real estate, how it's marketed, who the buyers are and how it all compares to how we do things here in the U.S.

One thing I noticed: when signs are translated into English, the spelling (and often the use of apostrophes) tends to suffer (i.e., No Worry's Bar and Restaurant in Cabo). I always wonder why builders would spend tens of millions of dollars on a project and then fail to pay someone to spell check a sign (especially a billboard near a popular beach!).

But perhaps I'm quibbling: for prices sometimes far less than in the U.S., American buyers have long flocked to the Mexican Riviera (although prices in Cabo San Lucas are now at U.S. levels).

When Mexico became too crowded and pricey for the value-oriented second home buyer, they popularized Costa Rica, and now 70,000 ex-patriots call that country home (at least part of the time). Now they're starting to look elsewhere in Central America, chiefly Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.

During my recent trip, I read a book on buying second homes in Central America that I'll be reviewing for the Los Angeles Times, which I hope will be one of many to follow in the future. Assuming they like what I turn in, it should run sometime in January in the real estate section or "West" magazine.

I learned a lot from this book and will be giving it a positive review, but what struck me the most was this: with governments not just in Central America but around the globe improving their economies and stabilizing their governments, no longer will areas such as Palm Springs or Florida be the only game in town for U.S. retirees. If the U.S. hopes to compete for the next generation of second and/or vacation home shoppers, builders will have to work hard to stay on top of their game.

And of course that means never mis-spelling "pristine."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

At sea, no blogging this week

I thought that perhaps I'd be able to post at least some blog posts this week, but I'm on a cruise ship off the coast of Mexico and the wireless reception really ain't up to snuff. I return on Saturday, after which I'll catch up on the week's news and post on Sunday.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The "Mild" Fed

Writing in Business Week, writer Peter Coy suggests that the Fed's lowering of rates and creating the Term Auction Facility will certainly help, but more will be needed:

What's becoming clear is that market frenzies take their own course, and there's no easy remedy. The core problem remains: Many banks loaded up on iffy assets such as subprime loans that are continuing to lose value as the U.S. housing market keeps sinking. They're reluctant to make new loans because they don't trust their borrowers, and they want to husband their cash in case they have to make further writedowns. The Fed's Dec. 12 plan, while it should ease stress in the system, "does not fix in any shape or form the source of the problem," says Lena Komileva, Group G7 economist for Tullett Prebon, an interbank broker.

And yet today's report of higher-than-expected inflation could also mean that the Fed can't cut interest rates as much as it would like, prompting a delicate balancing act between (a) aiding the housing market; and (b) fighting inflation.

Green homes in the area of home theaters

Back in 2000, I met with Rich Lambros of the Building Industry Association of Southern California to discuss starting a council (or other such group) to focus on technology in the building industry (we ended up with the Technology Task Force). Part of that was certainly green building, but the group struggled to gain notice because most builders didn't want to hear about it: after years of muddling through the 1990s, the market was finally looking up and they didn't want to threaten their production schedules with anything too new.

For the next rebound, however, it'll likely be new technologies and green building that will help revive the building industry, so it's good to see so many magazine titles focusing on green building techniques and the large number of solar energy companies at the BIS Show.

And yet despite the best efforts to replace energy-hogging incandescent lightbulbs with florescent or even LED alternatives and to push Energy-Star compliant appliances whenever possible, it seems the insatiable appetite for larger, more impressive home theater systems may completely negate those gains.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rebecca Smith warns that prices for the largest TV sets are dropping so fast that what can appear like a bargain today can quickly be eaten up by future power bills:

"What scares us is the prices for plasma sets are dropping so fast that people are saying, why get a 42-inch plasma set when you can get a 60-inch or 64-inch one," says Tom Reddoch, director of energy efficiency for the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute's laboratory in Knoxville, Tenn., an independent organization that advises the utility sector. "They have no idea how much electricity these things consume."

Doug Johnson, senior director of technology policy for the Consumer Electronics Association, says the industry is working to improve disclosure and energy efficiency. He says comparing television energy use to refrigerator energy use is "hackneyed," adding, "when was the last time the family gathered around the refrigerator to be entertained."

But consumers making an effort to go greener at home -- and who also want to ditch their bulky old TV set -- can be in a bit of a bind. The energy savings gleaned from swapping out incandescent light bulbs for energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights, for example, can easily be canceled out by the pileup in entertainment gear.

Currently, 11% to 13% of the average American household's electricity bill stems from consumer electronics. But that is projected to rise to 18% by 2015, according to the EPA, part of the Department of Energy.

So maybe as builders promote their own green building initiatives it'd also be useful to model more energy-efficient home theater systems (like using LCDs instead of plasmas), because all it takes is some 16-year-old know-it-all to suggest that marketing "green" may be little more than a simple gimmick.

California new home sales down by 46%

Hot off the press:

The monthly report issued by CBIA and Hanley Wood Market Intelligence (my alma mater) for October concludes that we're still off by nearly half from the same period of 2006 (it takes HWMI about a month to compile its data and then up to another couple of weeks to write/edit/approve and post the press release):

The monthly CBIA/Hanley Wood Market Intelligence (HWMI) New Home Sales and Pricing Report showed that new home sales in October were 46 percent below October 2006, similar to the year-over-year decline seen in September. During the month, 3,292 homes and condominiums were sold in the subdivisions tracked by Costa Mesa-based HWMI, compared to 6,047 in October 2006. Sales of single family homes dropped by 37 percent, while sales of townhomes and “plexes” – duplexes, triplexes, etc. – were down 41 percent and sales of condominiums were down 71 percent.
Compared with the same period last year, the median base price of homes sold dropped by 9.7 percent.
Non-seasonally adjusted total new-home sales were 3 percent lower than levels seen in September, although it is not unusual for October to show a slower pace of sales activity than September. Median base sales prices statewide were just under 1 percent higher than in September.

There were, however, a couple of relative bright spots including Fresno (-10.7%), Santa Rosa/Petaluma (-3.4%) and Visalia/Porterville (-14.7%).

Want to see how your area is doing? Click here.

Settle down, Chicken Littles!

Lately we've been warned about a possible "financial collapse" related to the housing market that will mean another "Depression" and a steady decline in the U.S. standard of living (not to mention torturous declines in housing prices nationwide).

Or maybe not.

Writing in his blog, Dr. George Friedman (Founder and CEO of Stratfor, a consulting firm providing intelligence on global economic, political and security issues) argues that today's interlinked global economy will likely prevent any Depression-style meltdown in the U.S. economy.

While this is a lot to copy over, his points are made so well that I think they must be shared as much as possible, although I highly recommend reading the entire blog entry.

Given the broad belief that the subprime crisis is only the beginning of a general financial crisis, and that the economy will go into recession, we would have expected major market declines by now. Markets discount in anticipation of events, not after events have happened. Historically, market declines occur about six months before recessions begin. So far, however, the perceived liquidity crisis has not been reflected in higher long-term interest rates, and the perceived recession has not been reflected in a significant decline in the global equity markets.

When we add in surging oil and commodity prices, we would have expected all hell o break loose in these markets. Certainly, the consequences of high commodity prices during the 1970s helped drive up interest rates as money was transferred to Third World countries that were selling commodities. As a result, the cost of money for modernizing aging industrial plants in the United States surged into double digits, while equity markets were unable to serve capital needs and remained flat.

So what is going on?

Part of the answer might well be this: For the past five years or so, China has been throwing around huge amounts of cash. The Chinese made big, big money selling overseas — more than even the growing Chinese economy could metabolize. That led to massive dollar reserves in China and the need for the Chinese to invest outside their own financial markets. Given that the United States is China’s primary consumer and the only economy large and stable enough to absorb its reserves, the Chinese — state and nonstate entities alike — regard the U.S. markets as safe-havens for their investments. That is one of the things that have kept interest rates relatively low and the equity markets moving. This process of Asian money flowing into U.S. markets goes back to the early 1980s.

Another part of the answer might lie in the self-stabilizing feature of oil prices, the rise of which should be devastating to U.S. markets at first glance. The size of the price surge and the stability of demand have created dollar reserves in oil-exporting countries far in excess of anything that can be absorbed locally. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has made so much money, particularly in 2007, that it has to invest in overseas markets.

In some sense, it doesn’t matter where the money goes. Money, like oil, is fungible, which means that if all the petrodollars went into Europe then other money would flow into the United States as European interest rates fell and European stocks rose. But there are always short-term factors to consider. The Persian Gulf oil producers and the Chinese have one thing in common — they are linked to the dollar. As the dollar declines, assets in other countries become more expensive, particularly if you regard the dollar’s fall as ultimately reversible. Dollars invested in dollar-denominated vehicles make sense. Therefore, we are seeing two massive inflows of dollars to the United States — one from China and one from the energy industry. China’s dollar reserves are derived from sales to the United States, so it is stuck in the dollar zone. Plus, the Chinese have pegged the yuan to the dollar. The energy industry, also part of the dollar zone, needs to find a home for its money — and the largest, most liquid dollar-denominated market in the world is the United States.

In other words, the combination of the rise of China and higher oil prices may actually help soften the blow from the mortgage meltdown by stabilizing both the dollar and the economy. Very interesting...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Analyzing the Fed Bailout

I think the Federal Reserve should have to obey the same motto taught in medical school: Primum non nocere, or "First do no harm." While this saying is not technically included in the Hippocratic Oath, perhaps the Fed could launch its own "Hypocratic Oath," in which its moves should not be seen as nakedly political maneuvers.

I say this because some analysts believe that the Fed's latest move to shore up global liquidity may actually prolong the mess that has to be cleaned up by allowing the market to mop up its excess inventory. Senior Fortune magazine writer Peter Eavis explains:

The potentially dangerous aspect of the TAF is that it will allow banks with problems to borrow their way out of trouble, rather than by taking measures like issuing large amounts of stock to bolster their balance sheets. Struggling banks are struggling chiefly because they were mismanaged and wrote too many risky loans when credit was cheap. The TAF potentially gives mismanaged banks even more cheap credit, which will delay a much-needed restructuring of the banking sector. Nervousness about banks could then deepen, leading to even fewer loans being made. One of the big lessons of the credit crunch is that overly cheap credit causes massive harm to the economy in the long run. The TAF suggests that the Fed still hasn't learned that.

I remember back in 2005 when I was trying to explain -- at least to those who would listen -- that a housing price bubble was simply a symptom of a worldwide credit bubble. In other words, there was too much money sloshing around looking for the best return -- in this case, subprime, Alt-A and other adjustable mortgages. Around the same time, I noted that Congress had made it much more difficult for individuals to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, potentially leaving many on the hook for homes even though they long ago parted with the keys, and minimum payments on credit cards doubled from 2% to 4%.

I guess I'm just surprised at all the surprised looks out there...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

HousingTracker Stats for California

I think the HousingTracker website is useful because it regularly updates asking prices and inventory for various metro areas. So for 12/10/07, here's how the various metro areas of California look:

Los Angeles (median prices stabilizing, inventory declining last 3 months):

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$498,900-0.2%-4.1%-7.6%-9.3%
Inventory44,715-3.8%-3.7%+9.7%+27.5%

Of course that probably just means buyers are taking their homes off the market and waiting for a better day; this time of year is almost always very slow for real estate sales (last year was an exception).

Orange County (prices still falling, inventory falling last 6 months):

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$575,000-2.5%-5.7%-10.9%-11.5%
Inventory17,825-5.3%-8.4%-4.7%+20.6%

Same story as L.A.; buyers waiting (at least for now) for a better day to sell.

Riverside (prices still falling, inventory falling last 3 months):

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$355,900-3.6%-7.6%-11.9%-15.3%
Inventory52,474-2.8%-7.3%+3.9%+26.8%

This is really the market to watch next year: inventory up by 27% over the last year, median asking prices down by 15%; the recent inventory declines are likely due to buyers pulling their listings off the market.

San Diego (prices still falling, inventory falling last 3 months):

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$456,900-2.4%-6.6%-8.6%-13.0%
Inventory20,403-3.9%-7.2%+1.2%+14.1%

Still a very challenging market, although San Diego may improve before other areas of California because it was the first to join the boom.

San Francisco:

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$549,950-3.5%-6.8%-8.3%-12.0%
Inventory16,864-8.6%-9.8%+3.0%+36.0%

San Jose:

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$624,889-2.3%-5.3%-8.1%-10.5%
Inventory7,369-5.4%-7.5%+10.0%+55.0%

Sacramento:

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$338,500-3.0%-8.6%-14.9%-17.4%
Inventory16,569-5.5%-10.5%-3.6%+16.6%

And, just for fun, let's see how Las Vegas and Phoenix are doing:

Las Vegas:

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$289,900-2.7%-5.6%-9.4%-11.9%
Inventory29,115-2.1%+1.5%+5.6%+27.4%

Phoenix:

Trend12/10/20071 month3 month6 month12 month
Median Price$279,000-0.4%-3.8%-8.5%-11.4%
Inventory49,445-1.2%+1.7%+7.2%+26.4%

Potential widespread fraud behind the mortgage meltdown?

From Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle is an opinion piece by a local attorney who claims that none of the remedies set forth by either the Bush Admin. or those running for President will amount to much. That's because:

The sole goal of the freeze is to prevent owners of mortgage-backed securities, many of them foreigners, from suing U.S. banks and forcing them to buy back worthless mortgage securities at face value - right now almost 10 times their market worth.

The ticking time bomb in the U.S. banking system is not resetting subprime mortgage rates. The real problem is the contractual ability of investors in mortgage bonds to require banks to buy back the loans at face value if there was fraud in the origination process...

The catastrophic consequences of bond investors forcing originators to buy back loans at face value are beyond the current media discussion. The loans at issue dwarf the capital available at the largest U.S. banks combined, and investor lawsuits would raise stunning liability sufficient to cause even the largest U.S. banks to fail, resulting in massive taxpayer-funded bailouts of Fannie and Freddie, and even FDIC...

We are on the cusp of a mammoth financial crisis, and the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury are trying to limit the liability of their banking friends under the guise of trying to help borrowers. At stake is nothing short of the continued existence of the U.S. banking system.

Oh, my.

Now I have to admit that this is a very well-written article and lays out some important points. There are some folks (such as Bruce Norris, speaking at tomorrow's sold-out Real Estate Research Council lunch at Cal Poly Pomona) who think that 2008 will be even worse than currently predicted (and for the low, low price of $4,000 he'll teach you how to benefit!). But I like Bruce -- he's a straight shooter and has been proven right before on some prior predictions and usually makes a good case for his ideas.





Monday, December 10, 2007

Subprime loans only the first to default?

As also noted in the L.A. Land blog, it seems that defaults in the subprime mortgage sector are only the first wave of others to follow. According to a mortgage insider named Mark Hanson who regularly emails Herb Greenberg, a blogger on mortgages for MarketWatch:

The Government and the market are trying to boil this down to a ’sub-prime’ thing, especially with all constant talk of ‘resets’. But sub-prime loans were only a small piece of the mortgage mess. And sub-prime loans are not the only ones with resets. What we are experiencing should be called ‘The Mortgage Meltdown’ because many different exotic loan types are imploding currently belonging to what lenders considered ‘qualified’ or ‘prime’ borrowers. This will continue to worsen over the next few of years. When ‘prime’ loans begin to explode to a degree large enough to catch national attention, the ratings agencies will jump on board and we will have ‘Round 2′. It is not that far away...

Sub-prime aren’t the only kind of loans imploding. Second mortgages, hybrid intermediate-term ARMS, and the soon-to-be infamous Pay Option ARM are also feeling substantial pressure. The latter three loan types mostly were considered ‘prime’ so they are being overlooked, but will haunt the financial markets for years to come. Versions of these loans were made available to sub-prime borrowers of course, but the vast majority were considered ‘prime’ or Alt-A. The caveat is that the differentiation between Prime and ALT-A got smaller and smaller over the years until finally in late 2005/2006 there was virtually no difference in program type or rate...

To get housing moving again in Northern California, either all the exotic programs must come back, everyone must get a 100% raise or home prices have to fall 50%. None, except the last sound remotely possible.

Personally, I always thought a good rule of thumb was to (a) multiply your income by 3 and then (b) multiply that total by .8 to figure out what you could comfortably afford in a home purchase. Sure, that could mean a condo or a townhome or a single-family home in a borderline area instead of a detached home in a nice neighborhood, but why not befriend people with the yards and just bring a nice bottle of wine?

Subprime Mortgage Crisis vs. the S&L Meltdown

I remember the dark days of the S&L crisis well; in fact, before becoming a real estate market analyst my first job out of college was working for the long-defunct Imperial Savings & Loan in the Treasury Department. I was put in charge of ensuring that the value of the company's $1.3 billion in mortgage-backed bonds, other CDOs (including car loans) and commercial paper would remain high enough to avoid defaulting on various collateralized loan covenants (including the lease on the company's HQ in San Diego). "Marking to market" (i.e., obtaining the current value of the securities) was a mess even back in those days, especially since we were coming up on the market bust of 1987. It was really due to the opacity of the securities industry that I decided to enter the "tangible" world of real estate -- just in time for the boom and bust cycle of the late 1980s and early 1990s!

Today's Wall Street Journal has an excellent story comparing the current mortgage & liquidity crisis with the infamous S&L meltdown of the late 1980s as well as the stock bust of 2000-2002. With separate interviews with George Soros, Paul Volcker (Fed Chair before Greenspan), William Seidman (former FDIC chief) and Robert Shiller (Yale professor and co-architect of the Case-Shiller index), the sheer complexity of financial instruments backed by mortgages makes it difficult to predict the eventual outcome, although so far it hasn't risen to the level of losses experienced during the stock bust of 2000-2002 (see table above).

In some ways, the S&L bailout was simpler because the players were known, but this case is much different. While the shifting of risks from banks to securities markets has helped fuel global growth of mortgages and other types of lending, it's not yet been tested for what former Fed Chair Volcker calls a "major-league crisis." Explains the article:

Mortgages today are dispersed among banks as well as more than 11,000 investment pools, each of which may have hundreds, if not thousands, of investors. Many of those pools have been further repackaged into specialized funds known as structured investment vehicles and collateralized debt obligations, or SIVs and CDOs -- each of which have their own investors. That makes determining who owns the securities, what they are worth and the nature of the underlying collateral a tricky process.

David Barse of Third Avenue Management LLC, a New York investment firm specializing in distressed companies, is steering clear of CDOs for now. He says he would need to hire new experts just to figure how much they are worth. "We don't have the analytical systems to break them down," he says.

Indeed, coming up with a value for a CDO entails analyzing more than 100 separate securities, each of which contains several thousand individual loans -- a feat that, if done on any scale, can require millions of dollars in computing power alone.

This is also why the three band-aid approaches provided by the government -- including (a) the two recent rate cuts and the one expected tomorrow, (b) the now-apparently imperiled "super fund" created by banks to create a ready market for mortgage-backed securities, and (c) freezing interest rates on *some* subprime loans (can you say "political?") -- may not be of much use in the short term.

Many analysts think that the U.S. government intervening in private markets sets a bad precedent and may constrict future mortgage liquidity, although columnist Lou Barnes makes a case for protecting unsophisticated borrowers from modern-day loans sharks.

I'd expect this entire situation -- and its solutions -- to slowly play out throughout 2008 and into the first part of 2009.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Construction Loans Souring Next?

A story set to run in Saturday's New York Times tells us that we're moving towards Stage 2 of this housing downturn: construction loans in peril.

Says the article:

Figures compiled by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and released last week show that both midsize and small banks had construction loans outstanding that were greater than their total capital. A decade ago, such loans were equal to only a third of capital for those banks.

For most of this decade, that was a good strategy. Construction loans proved to be very profitable, particularly for smaller banks as competition from larger banks and securities markets eroded their position in areas like mortgage lending and credit card issuance.

Now, however, more than 3 percent of all construction loans are classified as being nonperforming, or have borrowers that are behind on their payments. That is the highest proportion in a decade.

In the real estate market research game, this is fairly typical: first sales slow, and we don't have a lot to do because builders start to put plans for new projects on hold and it's mostly about working on mixed-use, infill or non-residential projects or helping residential builders get a sense of incentives, price reductions, and what works in today's market to move product. This is a good time for us to take a vacation and catch up on long-delayed visits to the doctor and dentist (I even got an orthodontist!).

Stage 2 is more about focusing on existing projects that are not performing well at the behest of investors, partners and lenders, but this is an important stage because it helps us set the new pricing models that will absorb inventory. Stage 2 is also when some land sellers who've been sitting on the sidelines (and watching the recent Lennar land sales) may have trouble holding on, depending of course when they bought their land, how much they paid and the extent of their resources to stay in the game.

I'd expect Stage 2 to start gaining momentum after the holidays, because given the slow torture of how Stage 1 has played out over the past 15-18 months, many would like to see the market take care of itself sooner rather than later.

How ironic would it be if the supply side of building homes (i.e., construction lending) took care of itself by letting the market make its own corrections vis-a-vis oversupply and soured loans while the demand side (i.e., mortgages) is delayed so politicians get *some* voters to believe that their fixes will actually help?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Now that we've got THE PLAN, who will help the sub-primers?

Uh-oh. Looks like after all of the back-and-forth before President Bush announced his plan (and who benefits is not clear) to help *certain* sub-prime borrowers stay in their homes, there may not be enough counselors to help them out. Apparently most of these non-profit counseling centers don't really pay very well, so those potential experts who really know the mortgage business wouldn't be interested in the gig (although after reading reports of former loan brokers working in retail shops, who knows?).

Beware the angry renters -- they vote too!

Ah, politics. Just when Bush, Clinton, Edwards, etc. think they've got a solution (meaning votes) to the sub-prime mortgage mess, now the renters want a voice, too! It seems that many have been waiting for home prices to deflate so they can jump in, but are now concerned that the Bush deal (which will actually only help a small fraction of over-their-head buyers) will make that impossible.

To them I say, "be patient, don't worry; this is an election-year ploy that will only postpone the pain!" (not to mention dramatically dry up the demand for future mortgage securities), but I can understand their anger that it always seems like it's the flakes in life who are bailed out (like the alcoholic sister-in-law or the child who can't seem to keep a steady job).

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, "Milton Ezrati, market strategist with money-management firm Lord Abbett & Co., says the plan could undermine the market for mortgage-backed securities. Investors may say, 'if you can interrupt my cash flow today, you can do it tomorrow,' says Mr. Ezrati."

Meanwhile, those who bought homes under the old rules (meaning 5-20% down payments and providing complete documentation to loan underwriters) and those who've been waiting to responsibly buy a home -- and whom I'm sure will also vote in large numbers (part of that responsibility ethic) are just beginning to shout. It's also been topic #1 on local talk radio. But will they be heard?

How to get a great headline? Predict housing prices falling by 30%!

I have to hand it to the PR folks over at Moody's Economy.com, because Mark Zandi has become a true king of the press quote. Now they're predicting a 12% decline in overall prices from peak to trough by early 2009 (over 15% when concessions/incentives are factored in), with even larger declines in places like Stockton (over 30%).

Want to read the report yourself? You can buy it for the low, low price of $3,995!

Generally, such press releases include some more detail on specific areas, but not this time (I'm hoping it magically appears somewhere in the Internet once it's released, or that they provide some summary tables so we can compare different metro areas).

It also doesn't discuss their methodologies; I don't think we should have to pay $4k for a report just to see whether or not their calculations make sense. And frankly, I wish reporters would delve a little deeper in these methodologies before running a headline that's only going to further fuel the politically motivated 'solutions' to this issue.

I'm hoping for some objective analysis by someone who doesn't work at Moody's once the report has been released.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Why it's always important to read the fine print.

There are few things more boring to read than mortgage documents (although the plain toast-dry textbook in my first microeconomics class would be a contender -- why do they always use 'widgets' as examples?), but they really do spell out the specifics. I remember when I refinanced a loan and a nice lady came to my home accompanied by a Notary Public; we all sat down and I read through EVERY SINGLE PAGE over the course of an hour because signing a mortgage is, quite literally, signing part of your life away.

Now it seems that even more credit-worthy borrowers -- who either didn't read the fine print or do their homework on the options available to them -- were blindly paraded into sub-prime loan products without their knowledge. According to the Wall Street Journal article:

An analysis for The Wall Street Journal of more than $2.5 trillion in subprime loans made since 2000 shows that as the number of subprime loans mushroomed, an increasing proportion of them went to people with credit scores high enough to often qualify for conventional loans with far better terms.

In 2005, the peak year of the subprime boom, the study says that borrowers with such credit scores got more than half -- 55% -- of all subprime mortgages that were ultimately packaged into securities for sale to investors, as most subprime loans are. The study by First American LoanPerformance, a San Francisco research firm, says the proportion rose even higher by the end of 2006, to 61%. The figure was just 41% in 2000, according to the study. Even a significant number of borrowers with top-notch credit signed up for expensive subprime loans, the firm's analysis found.

So what does that mean now? Volleyball tournaments by former loan agents and brokers at minimum-security prisons throughout the country? Maybe!

The analysis also raises pointed questions about the practices of major mortgage lenders. Many borrowers whose credit scores might have qualified them for more conventional loans say they were pushed into risky subprime loans. They say lenders or brokers aggressively marketed the loans, offering easier and faster approvals -- and playing down or hiding the onerous price paid over the long haul in higher interest rates or stricter repayment terms.

I remember when I first heard about the option ARM when I was buying a property, and I thought it was very interesting. But then I sat down and did a spreadsheet in Excel and calculated that if I were to pay the normal P&I amount for the option ARM that it was only $50 less than what I'd pay on a 30-year fixed note (which at the time had briefly dipped back down to just over 5.6%).

Although I know Excel is a fairly common software, I remember thinking at the time that what I was doing -- my homework to double-check what the broker was telling me -- was probably pretty rare. When she kept pushing me towards the ARM, I told her that I was going with the fixed note, and that if she mentioned the ARM again I'd go elsewhere. I also went through the settlement statement and wrote in what I'd be willing to pay for various items (i.e., not $50 for a FedEx) while repeating, "No junk fees!" I'll bet I was her favorite client ever.

But the fact that higher-income households may be holding sub-prime mortgages may also be good news:

Credit-worthy borrowers holding subprime loans may turn out to serve as a sort of shock absorber for the current mortgage crisis. They may be more likely than traditional subprime borrowers to withstand the double whammy of declining home prices and adjustable-rate mortgages soon due to reset at higher interest rates. The data perhaps explain why, so far, nearly 80% of the borrowers with subprime loans have continued to keep their loan payments current, according to some analysts. That could indicate the crisis won't continue to deepen as much as some fear.

Yes, it's true that brokers got a higher commission for an option ARM than a traditional fixed-rate note -- that's also why they couldn't keep quiet about it!

So thank you, Microsoft Excel, for helping me make an informed decision, because I knew that it was folly to count on objectivity from someone who saw me mostly as just another commission.

Just how politically motivated is the mortgage-rate freeze idea?

With 'Super Duper Tuesday' just about two months away, it's not surprising to see the likes of California's Governor or the Bush Administration weigh in on SubprimeForeclosureGate, but now it's apparently issue #1 at the Hillary Rodman Clinton campaign. In a somewhat threat-laden letter to Secretary Henry Paulson, the Democratic front-runner spells out her demands to put an immediate end to sub-prime foreclosures. Should he not heed these demands (what is she, on a star ship?), then he can expect her to do the following:

I will consider legislation that enables lenders to convert unworkable mortgages into stable, affordable loans without the permission of investors. Protection from lawsuits will remove the obstacle that keeps lenders, servicers and others from turning mortgages that were designed to fail into mortgages families can afford. Right now, servicers who process monthly loan payments and interface with homeowners have flexibility to modify loans. However, they are reluctant to fully exercise this discretion in part because they fear investor lawsuits. Investors who own the securities into which the mortgages have been packaged may assert that they are harmed when servicers help at-risk borrowers. Protection from lawsuits could enable the servicers to help homeowners avoid foreclosures, help investors avoid the losses they would otherwise suffer, and help the economy.

In other words, the first presumption is that all of these loans were made by unscrupulous lenders to victimized homebuyers, with the proceeds split into pieces (or 'tranches' in fancy Wall Street parlance, which means 'slice' in French) to be sold to investors who were apparently also in on the game. I can see the campaign literature now: "Too bad investors -- you have no say in this idea, and you'll take what we give you -- and you'll like it!"

At first mortgage investors hated Paulson's plan, which was to freeze rates for a shorter period of time, but they're now warming up to it because the Democratic alternative is so much more Manichean.

The second presumption is that the 'teaser' rates were set so low that refusing it would be akin to a five-year-old refusing free (and unsupervised) Halloween candy, but it's not that simple, either. According to the a recent AP story, "FDIC officials note that many subprime borrowers received starter rates that were not especially low at the time: typically around 7 percent to 9 percent, when rates as low as 5 percent were common for borrowers with strong credit."

In other words, many of these folks simply bought more home than they could afford and would have greatly benefited from (a) cleaning up their credit to qualify for a better loan; and (b) saving up a down payment to quality for a fixed-rate, 30-year loan. But when the news headlines are blaring huge price increases, it's easy to see that many thought, "If I don't buy now with WHATEVER MEANS POSSIBLE then I may lose the opportunity forever." That's exactly what happened in the last boom-and-bust cycle of the late 1980s-early 1990s.

But who, exactly, would benefit under Paulson's plan? Those already in foreclosure? Nope. Like the "Soup Nazi" made famous in numerous Seinfeld episodes, there will be not be soup (aka mortgage rate assistance) for everyone! According to this Money Magazine article, "Paulson divided subprime borrowers into four groups. The plan would be most geared toward those who can afford the mortgage now but won't be able to after the adjustment. The other three groups are largely left out: Borrowers who can afford an adjustment; those who are already behind on their payments; and those who can refinance into a fixed-rate loan."

And what about the investors and flippers who thought that praying would save them? Looks like they'll have to go soup-less too: "It has also been reported that homes that were bought as investments - as opposed to for the purpose of living in - would be excluded. More than 50% of the increase in delinquent mortgages are actually investor-related, said Wachovia senior economist Mark Vitner. 'It's hard to conceive how many people are actually going to meet this criteria. There's nothing at all in there that addresses investors,' said Vitner, who added he doesn't support an investor bailout."

Ok, so for those who do qualify, how do we decide who can and can't afford their mortgage? Why your friendly, customer-centric mortgage servicer, of course! According to a CNNMoney.com article:

There are two basic ways to determine affordability. The company that services your loan may use one or both in combination.

The first is debt-to-income ratio. So, for instance, a monthly mortgage payment (including interest and taxes) may be deemed affordable if it does not exceed 36 percent of the borrower's gross monthly income and if total debt payments do not exceed 45 percent of income.

Some lenders making loan adjustments, however, will allow total debt to run as high as 55 percent of income, Shea said.

The second method is documenting an affordability budget. To see how much a borrower can afford to pay for housing, a servicer will compare a borrower's net income to his expenses plus required debts, said Bruce Marks, founder and CEO of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA).

But servicers differ in what they consider to be "reasonable" to spend on necessities such as food or on non-recurring expenses such as an unexpected car repair. They also differ on what they consider to be "required" debt. So some servicers may consider a second mortgage, a car loan or a credit card balance as debt you need to pay off, thereby reducing the amount you have left to pay your primary mortgage, but others may not.

Servicers may use a cost-of-living index to determine if the amount a homeowner spends on food, transportation and other necessities is deemed "reasonable" but they don't all use the same index, and not all indexes are adjusted for family size or geography.

Clear as mud? Great!

I've never been a big fan of mortgage servicers, which is why I opt out of loans with impounds for taxes and insurance. Each year, there was a hefty surprise: either I got to write a large check right around the holidays, or I got a nice refund check. While the refund check was nice, how hard is it to calculate annual taxes and insurance? Rocket science is it not.

While it's important to address this issue, making it a political contest of "who's doing more for the victimized homeowners?" right before a Presidential election could mean a plan that sounds great but ultimately does little to fix the very simple issue of people buying more home than they could afford and the smiling list of enablers who made it happen.





Monday, December 3, 2007

What's REALLY up with the Lennar deal with Morgan Stanley?

One reason new housing remains relatively expensive even with price cuts and incentives is the high cost of land, and most landowners have refused to sell their holdings off at deep discounts -- at least until now. While industry veterans such as Jeff Gault (now CEO of LandCap Partners) and Steve Cameron (Foremost Communities) have launched land development companies to take these assets off of builders' balance sheets, this Lennar deal with Morgan Stanley has effectively discounted the land holdings by 60%. What will that do to the valuations of other land holdings being held by owners who've refused to discount?

According to analyst Carl Weichart at Wachovia, "The deal generates immediate cash for Miami-based Lennar and is a continuation of the company's strategy of seeking to become a 'near assetless homebuilder,' Wachovia Capital Markets analyst Carl Reichardt wrote in a Monday report. 'Such business models tend to post higher returns on capital, inventory turns and free cash flow relative to peers,' the report said. In the near term, however, the bold strategy comes in 'a far second to market conditions in housing that continue to wither,' such as low margins, bloated inventories and falling prices.

Over at JP Morgan, "research analyst Michael Rehaut wrote that the $775 million loss on the deal as a 'net negative' for Lennar and the homebuilding industry because it points to more impairment charges on assets such as land into 2008. 'We believe the loss on the sale is a major negative, as it shows charges are far from over,' Rehaut wrote."

And, according to the blog authored by CNBC Realty Check host Diana Olick, one unnamed analyst simply called the news "terrifying," but is it? From today's Wall Street Journal article, it seems that the best way for banks and investors to get a non-performing asset like land to pay off is to partner with an expert -- meaning the builder -- to develop the land and either sell it off to other builders or build it out themselves.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

What happens to real estate development if oil production has peaked?

One of the reasons that oil has been pushing up towards the $100 level is because production (at least of the better-quality crude) has had trouble keeping up with supply. While the Internet abounds with articles and websites predicting a post-oil economic apocalypse, it's when a mainstream source like Time magazine takes on the subject that a potential tipping point of public awareness has passed. A longer story in The New York Times from 2005 explores the issue in even better detail, whereas an interview with Chevron CEO David O'Reilly in the 12/10/07 edition of Fortune magazine has him concluding that both high oil prices and our energy dependence on it are here to stay for some time (perhaps decades). And what about renewables? Not as fast as some would hope (video interview).

People often confuse the current oil prise rise with the gas shortage of the 1970s, which then was due to a politically motivated and human-created embargo. Even if there's still plenty of the black gold to be had today, supply constraints due to political turmoil, technology, money to invest, too few qualified engineers and declines in current oil fields has even some oil company CEOs predicting that production will never eclipse the 100-million-barrels-per-day level even though demand will rise to 110 million barrels by 2030. With China, India and other upwardly mobile countries now competing with the U.S. for the limited supply (which may plateau for a long time instead of peak), gasoline prices may eventually rival those in other Western European countries, which currently approach and exceed $6 per U.S. gallon.

What would that do to our country's love of suburban development and the long commutes often required to maintain that lifestyle? Clearly, access to mass transit will be a key decider in new home purchases -- probably as much as school districts are today with families who have children. Infill and mixed-use development -- now becoming increasingly popular, especially in traditionally car-dependent areas of California -- will become even more mainstream for some of the larger builders, some of whom will be obliged to throw out out their "repeat as often as necessary" business models in favor of unique projects (and floor plans) that are specific to each site. Transit-oriented developments, currently seen more as a novelty than a required convenience for many buyers and renters, will also rise in importance.

In each case, feasibility studies will take on a micro-market focus and builders will need to make the case that new homes, with all of their benefits, are worth more than a nearby resale; simply reviewing countywide stats and hoping that the demand is there will simply no longer suffice.

Fixing the Mortgage DEBACLE

Earlier this year, when I was writing press releases on California's new home market for the CBIA while at Hanley Wood Market Intelligence, I was asked by the CBIA to soften the phrase "mortgage debacle" to something more neutral (such as "mortgage situation") that wouldn't alienate their builder members, who were already sensitive to the constant media reports of a rapidly slowing market. Since I understood the trade group's position and the wording itself wasn't that important to me I acquiesced, but I remember thinking that avoiding the truth would simply postpone the day of reckoning when the building industry risked seizing up due to lack of new credit, that some new solutions would be required and so planning far in advance of it was prudent.

Fast-forward six months later and with the lack of credit clearly having an enormous impact, the federal government's plan to freeze certain subprime loans at their teaser rates could certainly prevent foreclosures (and thereby help prop up property values, potentially helping the new home market), but it also has its critics, namely investors who hold these mortgages (and were soon hoping for greater returns) and analysts who claim that this is merely a political salvo that will postpone the inevitable foreclosure for homebuyers who simply bought more homes than they could afford.

Writing in the Financial Times, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers opines that since the threat to the global economy is becoming worse, more concrete measures need to be taken now, including (1) fiscal stimuli (spending and tax cuts) that will necessarily postpone paying down the national debt; (2) maintaining the flow of credit through "super conduits" in which banks pool together to take on troubled investment vehicle assets to contain the damage; and (3) that the U.S. government, whether through the FHA, FNMA, FreddieMac or all three, keeps the credit spigot on to QUALIFIED BORROWERS while also blessing a template that would set up a comprehensive structure to modify large groups of sub-prime loan terms at risk of default instead of at the glacial pace of one at a time.

Inman News columnist Lou Barnes seconds this idea, arguing that waiting longer would simply continue to erode banks' capital requirements, making them technically insolvent (hence the recent investments in Countrywide, E-Trade and Citibank). While it does seem morally repugnant to bail out the pathologically greedy, Barnes makes a very good point:

Since it is beyond the power of the Fed to deal with capital and counterparty risks, we can't just sit here watching more capital evaporate as more and more assets cross the event horizon to black hole. Everybody wants bad actors punished, and nobody wants a bailout -- not taxpayers, and not the moral hazard police.

Get over it. Get on with it: firewall bad assets, give big banks and dealers get-out-of-jail capital cards, and restore the supply of new credit before this gets ugly.

And yet builders may need to take even faster action if they hope to continue selling homes (and generating cash). In his most recent newsletter, John Burns (yes, I'm a subscriber too!), suggests that builders not only continue to make mortgages, but actually plan to hold them in order to make the sale:

If you have information about your pricing, submarkets and buyer profiles that leads you to believe that there is very little chance that the homes you are selling will fall 20% in value, you might consider forming a venture to make piggyback loans or whole loans. While this is clearly not a preferred choice, it might be the only choice next year that allows you to continue selling homes at a reasonable sales pace.

If this idea seems absolutely absurd to you, ask some of the industry veterans how they survived the 1981-82 downturn. Most of them made the loans on the homes they sold. Today's environment is much different and the loan would be much riskier, but the key to survival is selling homes and recovering as much of the cash you have already invested as you can.

Very interesting idea. So how do you predict if new homes will not fall below 20% in value? I'd suggest micro-market studies, in which the analysis carefully considers the immediate neighborhood, locational advantages (access to freeways and mass transit, future development) and comprehensively argues why this particular project might be more immune from future price declines than elsewhere (a topic I'll be taking on later today for Builder/Developer magazine).

Because just because one WANTS their full piece of pie doesn't mean they'll get it!