Opinion

Christopher Papagianis

What could hold back the start of a recovery in housing this year?

Christopher Papagianis
May 31, 2012 16:27 UTC

This post is adapted from the author’s testimony at a recent hearing before the U.S. Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.

Many of the major negative housing trends that dominated the headlines since the crisis are now well off their post-crisis peaks. While prices are only flat to slightly down year-over-year, there is finally some optimism for probably the first time in more than three years. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s examine some of the economic fundamentals and also assess the policy and regulatory headwinds that are still blowing from Washington.

New delinquencies are trending lower on a percentage basis. The decline in home prices also appears to be leveling off or approaching a bottom on a national basis. Data from CoreLogic suggests that house prices have increased, on average, across the country over the first three months of 2012 when excluding distressed sales. Even the numbers from the Case-Shiller Index out this week suggest that a floor in home prices has been reached.

There is also a relative decline in the supply of homes for sale. The chart below shows how the existing stock of homes for sale is now approaching a level equal to five to six months of sales. This is a very promising development. According to the Commerce Department, the housing inventory fell to just over five months of sales in the first quarter, the lowest level since the end of 2005.

In short, the level of housing supply today suggests that the market is close to equilibrium, which implies house prices should rise at a rate consistent with rents. Market analysts often look at a level above or below six months of sales as either favoring buyers or sellers, respectively. It’s not surprising then that the recent stabilization of home prices nationally has occurred as the existing inventory, or supply level, has declined.

For Washington, JPMorgan’s big failure can be an opportunity

Christopher Papagianis
May 16, 2012 19:25 UTC

In light of JPMorgan Chase’s bad derivatives trades, the media’s spotlight has appropriately turned to the pending Volcker Rule. That’s the moniker for the still-under-development regulation that might restrict big banks from pursuing hedging strategies across their entire portfolio, including their own bets. Proponents say banks shouldn’t be able to do this, since banks hold consumer deposits that are effectively guaranteed by taxpayers and since taxpayers could be forced to bail out a foundering bank if it’s deemed too big to fail. On the other hand, the underlying law for the Volcker Rule, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, specifically exempts or allows hedging related to individual or “aggregated” positions, contracts or other holdings, which may very well have covered JPMorgan’s recent trade.

Inside the beltway, a fresh dispute is now emerging between regulators and policymakers on whether the current draft of the Volcker Rule can even apply to scenarios like JPMorgan’s, given how explicit Dodd-Frank is on this topic. On the one hand, there is the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which is starting to argue that these JPMorgan trades would likely have been exempted from the not-yet-final Volcker Rule. But then there are policymakers (namely, Senator Carl Levin) who are trying to make the case that Congress never intended for the law’s language to be interpreted so broadly.

While all the details around JPMorgan’s failed trading strategy emerge, there is an even more interesting backdrop to consider – whether JPMorgan Chase and other banks are still too big to fail. It was only a week ago that the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing where Paul Volcker, Thomas Hoenig and Randall Kroszner testified on “Limiting Federal Support for Financial Institutions.” While they each expressed different viewpoints, it was newly installed FDIC Director Hoenig who made the most news. He used the stage to discuss a paper he wrote in May 2011 on “Restructuring the Banking System to Improve Safety and Soundness.”

Making sense of what comes next in Greece

Christopher Papagianis
May 9, 2012 22:03 UTC

Analysts are scrambling to interpret the voting results from Greece’s first election since the crisis began in late 2009, hoping to accurately gauge the political risk that a new parliament in Greece will successfully (and meaningfully) renegotiate the previous austerity accords. At stake is the ongoing debt-financing support from the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank. Already the triumvirate has warned that it will not follow through on the next loan disbursement unless the new Greek government also follows through in detailing next month how it will achieve budgetary savings of more than 11 billion euros for 2013 and 2014.

Here are a few important guideposts to keep in mind as the news out of Greece develops over the next few weeks.

1. Another election is likely, which means general fears about fresh instability will remain elevated over the next month. The two major political parties (Conservative New Democracy and Socialist Pasok) that endorsed the austerity pacts over the last few years lost big in the election. Combined, a bunch of smaller, and in some cases fringe, political groups (including the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party) won more than 60 percent of the popular vote. In all, Sunday’s results left Greece with its most fragmented parliament since democracy was restored in the country back in the 1970s. The consensus view is that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for these diverse factions to form a coalition government. If that happens, a new “do-over” election will have to take place, though probably not before the middle of June.

Is Uncle Sam ever truly an investor?

Christopher Papagianis
May 2, 2012 19:48 UTC

Last week, a debate erupted about whether the government’s massive Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) made or lost taxpayers money. Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability Timothy Massad and his colleagues at the Treasury Department argue that TARP is going to end up costing a lot less than originally expected and may even end up turning a profit for taxpayers. Breakingviews Washington columnist Daniel Indiviglio scoffs at this, arguing that TARP “looks more like a loss of at least $230 billion.”

While the two sides are miles apart on their calculations (and it is important to examine why), their disagreement reflects a broader philosophical dilemma that deserves more attention. It concerns whether the U.S. government should be held to the same standards as private investors. Put another way, should policymakers adopt the same analytical approach that private-market participants use to evaluate or measure the prospective return on new investments? The answer has important consequences for defining the roles for the public sector and private enterprise – and particularly how the U.S. government accounts for all of its trillions in direct loan programs and loan guarantees.

Let’s start by using TARP as a case study. The calculation Treasury uses is simple: If a bank that received a TARP capital injection pays back the original amount, then the taxpayer broke even. If some interest or dividend income (i.e., on the government’s ownership stake from the injection) is generated, then the taxpayer likely made a profit on the investment.

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