From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Archive for June 2011

CNBC reports on housing doldrums

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Diana Olick is the real estate blogger/reporter for CNBC, and has a great column this week commenting on the recent “semi-good-news” from CoreLogic. For her full column, and links to the CoreLogic report, click here.

The synopsis — CoreLogic reports that foreclosure sales as a percentage of total sales are down. Great news, if it wasn’t for the sad fact that distress sales in May were still at 31% of the total market, albeit down from 37% in April.

Ms. Olick correctly notes that the “shadow” market hanging out there is huge. A few snippits:

Loans in the foreclosure process (either REOs or in-process) total 1.7 million homes, down from 1.9 million a year ago. Given that total home sales in America seem to be hovering around 5 million per year, this is a huge portion of the inventory.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

The Livingston Survey — Semi-Good News

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Regular readers of this blog will note that I’m enamored with the Philadelphia FED’s surveys of professional economists. They actually do two surveys — one quarterly series, which has a slightly larger survey base, but doesn’t go into as much depth; and the semi-annual Livingston Survey, which has a smaller audience but a lot of detail. For direct access to the current Livingston Survey, click here.

Bottom line? The first half of 2011 isn’t as rosy as economists previously predicted, but they’re still modestly bullish on the second half of the year. Currently, the annualized GDP estimate is an anemic 2.2%, down from an almost-equally boring 2.5% in the December survey. However, GDP growth in the second half of the year is expected to be even stronger than previously thought, with second-half growth forecasted at an annual rate of 3.2%. More significantly, previous estimates of unemployment are being cut. In the last survey, economists collectively projected that year-end 2011 unemployment would stand at 9.2%; today, that projection has been lowered to 8.6%. Of course, these projections were surveyed before the most recent nasty jobs-growth reports, so everyone who uses this data is taking a bit of a “wait and see” prospective.

The nasty news is on the inflation front — prior estimates put the consumer price index rise from 2010 to 2011 at 1.6%; current consensus thinking is 3.1%. While that doesn’t sound like much, the producer price index is even worse — a prior estimate of 1.9% is now being revised to 6.3%. Both indices are expected to settle down in 2012, but we can only hope.

With that in mind, projections of T-Bill and T-Note rates are, not unexpectedly, higher than previously thought. The current 3-month T-Bill rate (as of this morning) is 0.04%. Current thinking is that we will end June in the range of 0.08%, but that by the end of 2012, 3-month bill rates will be up to 1.58%. Ten-year Note rates will follow a similar, but slightly flatter pattern (representing a slight expected flattening in the yield curve). The 10-year composit Note rate as of this morning (according to the Treasury Department) was 3.77%. Economists actually project it will decline a bit by month-end (to 3.25%), then rise slightly by the end of 2012 to 4.5%.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 9, 2011 at 8:06 am

A Movie Review of Sorts

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I just saw HBO’s “Too Big To Fail”, staring a whole host of Hollywood “names” (James Woods, John Heard, William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, Cynthia Nixon, Topher Grace, Ed Asner etc.). Sadly, it’s a fairly boring movie, albeit about a terrifically exciting piece of near-term history. It focuses on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, mostly through the eyes of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (played spot-on by William Hurt). Asner does a wonderful Warren Buffett (who almost, albeit reluctantly, came to Lehman’s rescue) and Giamatti is a wonderful Ben Bernake. (As an aside — Bernake is the most dead-pan person I’ve ever met. Giamatti’s version of Bernake is even more deadpan than reality.)

The movie gets one thing right and one thing wrong. First, the wrong, and then the right.

The movie keeps referring to Lehman’s “real estate”. No one will buy Lehman if they have to buy its real estate holdings, too. Lehman’s real estate “problem” is at first estimated at $40 Billion, then $70B, then “who knows”. The truth, of course, was “who knows”. Cynthia Nixon plays Paulson’s press secretary, who serve as an amiable foil to allow Paulson and his Chief-of-Staff Jim Wilkinson (Topher Grace) to explain the nature of the crisis to her (and thus to the viewer). Unfortunately, Lehman’s “real estate” isn’t “real estate” but “real estate mortgages”. More to the point, they have “tranches” of real estate mortgage pools, and to understand what a “tranche” is would be well beyond the capacity of a two-hour movie. Tranche, by the way, comes from the French word for “slice”. Imagine we pool $100 million or so in mortgages, then split up the ownership into three equal parts — an “A” tranche which will get paid in full, including interest, before anyone else gets paid; a “B” tranche which gets paid next, and a “Z” tranche which only gets paid after everyone else gets paid.

In theory, all three tranches should be good securities, since the underlying mortgages are pretty safe bets, and in practice the “A” and “B” tranches really were pretty good. However, the “Z” tranches will bear all the default risks. Banks (both mortgage and investment) made tons of money on these things, because the default risks could be “priced” as long as market continued to rise. Various investment banks then borrowed money to buy “Z” tranches, and coupled with credit-default swaps (essentially, a mutual insurance pact among investment banks), they were able to borrow huge amounts of money with very little capital.

The Paulson/Wilkinson explanation in the movie makes it sound like the whole problem came from mortgage defaults and foreclosures. In reality, mortgage defaults DO cycle up when a recession comes along, but these are usually predictable cycles. The REAL problem came from borrowing huge amounts of money — with almost no capital — to buy “Z” tranches that didn’t reasonably price the increased in defaults. A slight up-tick in defaults sent everyone to the emergency room, and when owners couldn’t sell or re-finance, the whole market went down the tubes. THAT was the “real estate” problem which plagued Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Salomon Brothers, Morgan Stanley (my old alma-mater) and all the others. Sadly, the movie perpetuates the myth that the real estate down-turn was an exogenous event, and fails to discuss the sins of the secondary mortgage market which took a simple, cyclical downturn and turned it into a long-term, world-wide crisis.

But, even with that, the movie got one thing so very right that made up for the mistakes. In one pivotal scene, Paulson and his team are presenting the TARP idea to the leaders of Congress. (Central Casting found some excellent look-alikes for Pelosi, Dodd, Shelby, Frank, and the rest.) Note that this comes very late in the movie, well after Paulson (an almost billionaire, who really didn’t sign on for this level of stress) and his team have tried ever possible solution to stem the crisis. The movie does a great job of playing Paulson up as the unsung hero who really saved the world’s economic life, by the way. Anyway, the leaders of Congress don’t “get it” until Giamatti’s Bernake gives the most important 2-minute economic lecture in history. He notes that while the Great Depression started with a stock market crash, it was the failure of the credit markets which made the depression last so long. The current crisis, if left un-solved, would spin the world into a much worse, much longer economic depression. Giamatti really nails the tone of the reality which was facing the nation’s top economic thinkers at the time.

Anyway, I don’t watch very many movies. I saw Adam Sandler and Jennifer Anniston in “Just Go With It” on an airplane last week, and thought it was a hoot. As movies come-and-go, “Too Big To Fail” doesn’t even rise to the entertainment level of “Just Go With It”, but as an educational piece, it’s a must-see, even with its critical flaws.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Housing Finance — Take 2

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Again, from the Wall Street Journal, we find reasons for concern. The “Ahead of the Tape” column in today’s Journal, we find an excellent — but troubling — article by Kelly Evans titled “Economy Needs a Borrower of Last Resort.” It really follows my theme from yesterday, and I couldn’t agree more.

Graph courtesy The Wall Street Journal

The first line of the article says it all: “A lack of funds isn’t hampering the U.S. Economy right now. It is a lack of demand for them.” The FED has been pumping billions into the money supply by buying bonds from banks. In a healthy economy, this should drive up the money supply by a multiple of the face amount bought. Why? An old equation from Econ 101 called the “Velocity of Money.” When I was teaching, I explained (or tried to, for the C students) that when the FED injects money into banks, the banks loan it out. The borrowers in turn buy stuff and the money goes back into the banks, minus a little. That happens several times over. Thus, a dollar of money “injection” by the FED should usually result in at least $2 of net M2 money creation.

Imagine a dollar (or a hundred thousand dollars) injected into the system which is loaned to a family buying a new home. They pay the builder, who deposits the money in the bank (actually, paying off the construction loan) and then that money can be loaned back into the system. Some of it bleeds off into taxes, exports, and such, with each iteration of the deposit-and-loan cycle, but still, the money cycles thru the system. Since each subsequent deposit and loan doesn’t happen instantly, there is a little bit of a lag. Nonetheless, over a short period of time, the system should work. The math behind this is called the “Cambridge Velocity Equation” and it’s been known to economists for hundreds of years.

So, since November, the FED has purchased $684 Billion in bonds, which SHOULD have resulted in trillions of dollars in new money creation. Instead, M2 (the abbreviation for the money supply, defined as all of the cash, bank deposits, and money market funds in the system) has only increased by $326 Billion, suggesting that the velocity of money is about 0.5. Note that it SHOULD be 2 or 3 or more in a vibrant economy. This means that for every dollar injected into the system by the FED, half of it has dissipated.

As the article points out, this is why the recovery has remained so anemic. I would posit that a big problem is in the home loan business, which is far weaker than merely “anemic” — it’s on life support with the undertaker waiting in the lobby.

Kelly Evans posits that the market needs a lender of last resort, which is exactly what I was saying yesterday. Unless and until the system starts turning into the skid, by fixing the totally busted mortgage market, a double-dip recession seems inevitable.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Housing — and today’s WSJ

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The front page of the Wall Street Journal today is plastered with the story of the continued problems with house prices, courtesy of info from the S&P-Case Shiller Index. I’ve commented on this several times before in this blog, but it bears further investigation.

Prior post-WWII real estate recessions (if we can call them that) have been quickly self-correcting. Stagnation in house prices lead to increased investment, as buyers look for deals and bankers need to make loans. As such, real estate recessions rarely have actual price declines, but instead are marked with volume slow-downs or price stagnation.

This recession is very different. Bankers are highly reluctant to make loans, in stark contrast to prior recession-exits. Regulatory problems, lack of bank capital, a doubling of REO portfolios, lack of cash from retail buyers, and a real fear (by both bankers and buyers) that collateral values will continue to decline puts the market in a continued downward spiral. To make matters worse, since many owner/sellers (particularly the most fragile ones — in the “zero down payment” starter homes) are themselves faced with economic travail and often the need to move to find work, the potential for further foreclosures down-the-road is very real, thus further driving down prices. Add to this the fact that a very big chuck of the U.S. economy is housing-related (contractors, developers, bankers, realtors, and many other intermediaries), it’s easy to see that a sustainable jobs market is hard to envision without “fixing” the housing problem.

We can re-examine the causes of this crisis over and over, but very few analysts are focused on the cure. Pilots are taught that when airplanes stall and go into a spin or a downward spiral, after “pulling the power” the pilot has to do something that’s rather counter-intuitive: point the nose downward and actually fly INTO the stall to get out of it. It’s like steering a car INTO the skid on an icy road. It’s very counter-intuitive, but it’s necessary. (The “black box” — it’s actually orange — recently recovered from the Air France 447 crash showed that the two very junior co-pilots who were at the controls when the plane went into a stall tried to pull BACK on the stick, when they should have pushed FORWARD. If they’d thought back to “Flying 101” they might be alive today.)

The “thing missing” from today’s market is the national policy in favor of affordable housing, which was manifested through Fannie-Mae and Freddie-Mac. Pulling the plug on the secondary market (which was at the core of the housing bubble) basically took our financial markets out of the housing business. Now that the price-bubble has bursts, our financial markets need to step back up to the plate and provide some liquidity. Admittedly, a “fixed” market will need to provide better risk-measures and possibly some hedging tools, but these are details that can be worked out once we get the plane flying again. I hate to say this — I’m generally a “free-market” kinda libertarian guy — but the government will need to step up to the plate as a guarantor of last resort…. and yes, I know the U.S. government is effectively broke. However, until it gets the housing market back on its feet, it’s going to stay broke. At some point, they need to steer the car into the skid.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm