The Housing Chronicles Blog: Now Business Week chimes in: 25-30% price declines

Monday, February 4, 2008

Now Business Week chimes in: 25-30% price declines

Although we've been hearing about the potential for price declines of up to 30% (or more) from certain economists and housing bloggers, it's when a former housing cheerleader like Business Week chimes in with a similar story that it gets my attention:

Brace yourself: Home prices could sink an additional 25% over the next two or three years, returning values to their 2000 levels in inflation-adjusted terms. That's even with the Federal Reserve's half-percentage-point rate cut on Jan. 30

While a 25% decline is unprecedented in modern times, some economists are beginning to talk about it. "We now see potential for another 25% to 30% downside over the next two years," says David A. Rosenberg, North American economist for Merrill Lynch (MER), who until recently had expected a much smaller slide.

Shocking though it might seem, a decline of 25% from here would merely reverse the market's spectacular appreciation during the boom. It would put the national price level right back on its long-term growth trend line, a surprisingly modest 0.4% a year after inflation. There's a recent model for this kind of return to normalcy after the bursting of a financial bubble. The stock market decline that began in 2000 erased most of the gains of the boom of the second half of the 1990s, leaving investors with ordinary-sized returns.

Why might housing prices plunge violently from here? Remember the two powerful forces that pushed them up: lax lending standards and the conviction that housing is a fail-safe investment. Now both are working in reverse, depressing demand for housing faster than homebuilders can rein in supply. By reinstituting safeguards such as down payments and proof of income, lenders have disqualified thousands of potential buyers. And many people who do qualify have lost the desire to buy. "A down market is getting baked into expectations," says Chris Flanagan, head of research in JPMorgan Chase's (JPM) asset-backed securities group. "People say: I'm not buying until prices are lower.'" He predicts prices will fall about 25%, bottoming in 2010...

The second shock to the economy from the housing bust will come from the financial sector, which has been weakened by losses on mortgages as well as mortgage-backed securities and more exotic derivatives. Banks borrow so much money to fund their investments that if a loss on some holding reduces their capital by $10, they have to reduce their lending by $100 to avoid exceeding their self-chosen leverage targets, calculates Goldman Sachs (GS) chief U.S. economist Jan Hatzius. He estimates that banks and other financial institutions will suffer about $200 billion in real estate losses and respond by cutting their lending by $2 trillion, or about 5% of total lending. The cutback could be even more extreme if they react to the turmoil by lowering their leverage ratios, he says, rather than keeping them intact. Banks have already begun tightening lending standards. In the third quarter, mortgages were harder to get than at any time in the 17-year history of the Federal Reserve's survey of senior loan officers...

For American consumers, meanwhile, huge losses would almost certainly undermine the long-held premise that homeownership is the most reliable way to build wealth and a middle-class life. "I know you're not supposed to say I told you so,' but I'm at the age where I can do it: Homeownership was oversold," says 67-year-old House Finance Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

One look at the long-term home price chart tells you all you need to know: Starting in 2000, prices crossed above their trend line and just kept going up. The spike had never happened in modern U.S. history, according to data dating back to 1890 that Shiller painstakingly compiled for the second edition of his book Irrational Exuberance in 2005...

For a truer picture of the market, look at sales by banks and builders, which don't have the luxury to wait things out because they have to worry about cash flow. Deutsche Bank (DB), among other banks, has been slashing prices on repossessed homes to get rid of them. In a recent transaction mentioned on BusinessWeek's Hot Property blog, Deutsche Bank sold a house in Woodbridge, Va., in December for $150,000, less than half its last sale price of $315,000 in the spring of 2005. In November, Lennar (LEN), the big builder, sold 11,000 home sites to a joint venture it formed with Morgan Stanley Real Estate for $525 million, 60% below what they were valued on Lennar's books. That's capitulation, and it's likely to occur more often as sellers get the idea that waiting won't solve their problems...

If home prices really fall an additional 25%, Washington's rescue program is likely to seem seriously inadequate. So far the Bush Administration is pushing two main ideas: FHASecure, which offers new mortgages to certain well-qualified borrowers, and Hope Now, a private-sector program to streamline the modification of unaffordable loans. But FHASecure isn't open to people who are underwater on their mortgages—in other words, those who most need help. And the Hope Now alliance doesn't seem to be coping successfully with the mounting backlog of loan delinquencies. The other big Washington initiative, to crack down on loose lending practices, could be ineffective and even counterproductive, because it's making loan funding less available right when it's needed most.

The next big reform ideas may hark back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many of the housing market's props today—including Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration—were launched during the 1930s. If things get bad enough, say some analysts, it could raise interest in renewing another innovation of the Depression years, the Home Owners' Loan Corp., which lent money directly to hard-pressed borrowers to prevent foreclosure. If enough banks get into trouble, Congress might even create something roughly parallel to the 1980s-era Resolution Trust Corp., which cleared up the savings and loan crisis by shutting down weak thrifts, thus wiping out the investments of the owners, and then selling off their assets to the highest bidders.

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