From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Posts Tagged ‘Freddie-Mac

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

The death of the fixed rate mortgage

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It might also be called the “death of the easy mortgage”, and will almost certainly be the death of the small-town lender….

The Obama Administration today outlined the broad-stroke strategy for dealing with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They suggest three solutions, all of which basically call for a multi-year wind-down of the two troubled institutions, which have cost taxpayers about $150 Billion in recent years to bail out.

How we got this way has been covered in thousands of articles, blog posts, and even text books. FNMA and FHLMC were set up to provide liquidity to small mortgage lenders (primarily, small-town S&L’s, of which there aren’t many now-a-days). A small-town S&L had a fairly finite pool of deposits, and once they made a few home loans (which were very long in duration), they simply couldn’t loan anymore until those mortgages were paid-off. Worse still, in times of rapidly changing interest rates, low-rate, fixed-rate mortgages didn’t get paid off, but depositors ran for higher-rate money funds. S&L’s were caught in a liquidity trap, and crisis after crisis ensued.
Today, of course, the mortgage lending business is filled with several thosand-pound gorillas with names like Wells Fargo, BofA, and JPMorgan/Chase. These institutions have the muscle to package mortgage pools and sell them off to investors. Why, then, do we have/need FNMA and FHLMC?

Congress is firmly on the hook for this one. Over the past decade and a half, the F’s were encouraged by Congress to morph into investors of last resort for mortgages that the securities market didn’t want. (It was actually a lot more complicated than that, but you get the general picture, right?) Why didn’t the private sector want these mortgages? Because they knew eventually many of them would go bad — and they did. Congress essentially got what it wanted, a subsidy of home ownership which, unfortunately, wasn’t sustainable.

This deal isn’t done yet, of course. Wait for the long-knives to come out from the Realtors and Home Builder’s lobbies. The current proposal would privatize all housing lending with the exception of FHA/VA lending. To put this in a bit of perspective, today, FHA loans constitute over 50% of housing lending. Back in the “hey-day” of the liquidity run-up, FHA loans were down around 4%. Without the F’s, we’re looking at a privatized mortgage market not far different from what we see out there right now, and that’s fairly unsustainable for the homebuilding industry.

Written by johnkilpatrick

February 11, 2011 at 8:59 am

Housing equilibrium — part 3

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The Economist is simply the most informative magazine in the world today. If I came out of a coma, I’d want it as the first thing I read. One issue, and I’d feel fairly well caught up. The on-line version is an extraordinary supplement to the print edition, and may very well be a one-stop shop for economic research.

With all the obvious sucking-up out of the way (and no, I don’t get a free subscription — I pay for mine just like everyone else), the current issue has a stellar article titled “Suspended Animation” about America’s Housing Market. In prior missives on this blog, I’ve drawn linkages between the home ownership rate (currently at about 66%) and the housing bubble (best visualized with the Case-Shiller Index). The article makes that same comparison, without drawing the conclusions I do (see below).

When visualized this way, the linkage becomes fairly clear and obvious. Nonetheless, the real question is “where is the bottom”. There is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest we may be closing in on it right now, but then again, there’s some evidence to the contrary. On the plus side, a LOT of speculative cash is entering the marketplace right now, and about a quarter of all home sales in America are cash-only (see the front page of the February 8, 2011, Wall Street Journal). More interestingly, in the hardest-hit places, such as Miami, this percentage is approaching 50%. From a pure chartist perspective, we note that the C-S index has been “hovering” around 2003 prices for several quarters now. Back in my Wall Street days (LONG before the movie of the same name), the technical analysts would talk about “bottoms” and “breakouts” and such. Of course, residential real estate is not a security, per se (although mortgages are), and the comparisons fall apart at the granular level.

On the down side, the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac controversies continue to simmer. The Obama Administration and the Republicans in Congress are finding common ground hard to find. The “Tea Party” Republicans want the government out of the home lending business entirely, which means privatizing the F’s. This idea is getting no traction at all among the Realtors and the Homebuilders, two typically “Republican” groups who generally sound like Democrats on this issue. One might blame this on grid-lock, but these are fundamental issues regarding the government’s role in the housing market which date back to the Roosevelt administration. Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — emphatically wanted to goose the home-ownership rate over the last twenty years, and empowered the F’s to do that. After that, the Law of Unintended Consequences got us where we are today. Now, in the words of Keenan Thompson on Saturday Night Live, everyone wants congress to “just fix it!” but with no solution in sight. Until this gets “fixed”, house prices will, at best, probably bounce along where they are today.

Written by johnkilpatrick

February 9, 2011 at 9:38 am

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