The Housing Chronicles Blog: Signs of a housing rebound?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Signs of a housing rebound?

The cover story for the 7/14/08 edition of Barron's magazine has controversial in that it's calling for a bottom in the housing market. How can that be? Read on:

Home prices are down nearly 18% from the market's peak, according to Case-Shiller, and inventories of unsold homes are at near-record levels. Foreclosures are mushrooming on "subprime" properties, or homes whose purchase was financed with subprime debt. Blowback from the crisis has left mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae (ticker: FNM) and Freddie Mac

(FRE) financially strapped, while many other lenders lack the stomach -- or money -- to offer new mortgages. Noted market experts such as Pimco bond-fund manager Bill Gross and economist Mark Zandi of Moody's predict the meltdown in housing will continue for many months, with home prices declining by 10% or more from today's depressed levels.

Yet, such pessimism appears overdone, based on much recent data. Sales of existing homes are showing tentative signs of increasing, while the plunge in prices likely is nearing an end. Total inventories fell in May to 4.49 million existing homes for sale, or a 10.8-month supply at the current sales pace, down from an 11.2-month supply in April, according to the National Association of Realtors, in just one statistic emblematic of the nascent trend.

YES, THE SUPPLY OVERHANG still is humongous, but at least the numbers are moving in the right direction, as even Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson noted last week. Speaking at a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. conference, Paulson declared that "we are well into the adjustment process." Inventories of new single-family homes are down 21% from a 2006 peak, he observed, while "existing-home sales appear to have flattened over the past several months, indicating that demand may be stabilizing."

Still other numbers suggest prices are close to bottoming. The S&P/Case-Shiller Index for April, released just last month, showed the biggest year-over-year price decline yet, of 15.3%. Buried in the numbers, however, and widely ignored in the media, was the news that home prices actually rose, albeit slightly, between March and April, in eight of the 20 markets covered by the index (Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Portland, Ore., and Seattle). This was in sharp contrast to the readings for March, which showed prices falling in 18 of the 20 surveyed markets. Also, the pace of monthly price declines is starting to slow in most of the markets with negative readings...

In general, transaction-based home-price indexes, including S&P/Case-Shiller, may be painting a bleaker picture of price trends than warranted. That's because subprime housing, though less than 10% of the total U.S. housing stock, accounts for a far larger share of current sales volume, owing to spiraling defaults and distress sales. In the San Francisco area, expensive homes ($721,548 and up) have suffered a peak-to-trough drop in price of only 10.7%, compared with low-priced homes ($473,711 and under), down 40.9%, and mid-range homes, down 28.3%, according to the latest Case-Shiller numbers. The surge in low- and mid-range sales has been sufficient to push average peak-to-trough prices down by 24.6%, despite the index's valuation-weighting.

Help for the housing market also may be on the way in the form of proposed congressional legislation that would allow the recasting of some $300 billion in troubled subprime mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration. The bill, which some have derided as a bailout, would demand sacrifices by both lenders and borrowers, and could help to ease conditions in the subprime market.

Of greater importance, a government takeover of loss-ridden Fannie and Freddie -- the subject of widespread speculation late last week -- would ease concerns about the continued availability of credit in the housing market. Fannie and Freddie, which buy mortgages from banks and repackage them into mortgage-backed securities, are the biggest source of financing for the U.S. mortgage market...

SURPRISINGLY, CHIP CASE, whose knowledge of the housing market goes back decades and is based on the voluminous collection of data, is among those who think home prices may be nearing a bottom. Case notes, among other things, that new housing starts fell to 975,000 in April from a peak rate of 2.27 million in January 2006, and that three declines of similar magnitude -- from more than two million to less than one million -- have occurred in the past 35 years. "Every time this has happened before, housing-market activity has rebounded within a quarter and caught experts by surprise," he says. "In many areas, particularly outside the overbuilt markets of Arizona, Florida and Nevada and the huge bubble market of California, home prices may well stabilize" and begin to recover before the end of this year.

Case acknowledges history might not repeat, as the U.S. could be on the cusp of a painful recession. Unlike the three prior dips of a million-plus starts -- in the first quarter of 1975, the second quarter of 1982 and first quarter of 1991 -- the latest slide was triggered by insensate speculation and suicidal lending practices rather than the traditional factors of rising unemployment and interest rates and slowing economic growth. Thus, he says, a protracted dip in the economy would temper his optimism, though the official measures of economic growth don't indicate a recession yet.

Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist of Wells Fargo's primary investment unit, expects home prices to steady by year end, with the pace of foreclosures slackening shortly. Most of the subprime debt at the center of the current crisis already has been written down by financial institutions, he notes, while many subprime borrowers who lost their homes are returning to rental units. "Folks who compare this home-price cycle to the one that occurred in the early '80s obviously have short memories," Paulsen says. "In the 1980s the economy was in a deep recession, mortgage rates were at 17% or more, and unemployment [was] hitting a post-Great Depression high of nearly 12%."...

NAR economist Lawrence Yun is optimistic home prices will stabilize in the next five months and begin to recover next year, despite today's gloom and overly stringent lending standards. NAR officials typically are cheerleaders, but Yun advances some reasonable arguments to buttress his view. Home sales, he notes, currently are running at a pace of about five million a year, around the same level as a decade ago. Yet, the population has grown by 25 million in the past 10 years, and the U.S. has created 10 million new jobs. Though the rate of new-household formation requires the net addition of 1.6 million housing units a year, housing starts likely will remain below one million into next year, creating pent-up demand in the years ahead...

Delinquencies, defaults and foreclosures hit the housing market with a rapidity and virulence unmatched in previous cycles, pushing total loans past-due and foreclosure rates to unprecedented highs. As a consequence, the current residential real-estate cycle has been front-end-loaded relative to past bear markets, which suggests the pain, though excruciating for many, may be shorter-lived than in the past. Early mortgage defaults have blunted the negative impact of subprime-mortgage-rate resets, which peaked in the spring, and are likely to curb the effect of interest-rate resets on option ARMs and other affordability products, expected to peak between 2009 and 2011. Many of these mortgages already are in the foreclosure pipeline, which will lessen the overhang of foreclosed properties in the future...

An ebbing tide of new delinquencies strongly hints that the worst may soon be over for the housing market, at least in terms of burdensome supply. The pig, in other words, is well along the python's alimentary canal.

In hindsight, the housing bust hasn't been nearly as calamitous as depicted in the media, or as Wall Street's woes might suggest. Yes, people have lost their homes, but more than a few were mendacious mortgage applicants and mere speculators, who eagerly sought out 100% margin loans, only to fold just as quickly when prices turned against them.

It is important to remember, as well, that even after a steep drop in the S&P/Case-Shiller Indices, long-term buyers in the top 20 U.S. metro markets have seen their properties appreciate by 70% since 2000. Home prices often take five to 10 years to recover fully from severe declines such as this. But at least the available data suggest the scary dive in home prices soon will be over.

On the other hand,'s Marek Fuchs insists that 'they' just don't get housing in this video:

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