Global Investing

Home is where the heartache is…

On a recent trip home to Singapore, I was startled to learn just how much housing prices in the city-state have risen in my absence.

A cousin said he had recently paid over S$600,000 — about US$465,000 — for a yet-to-be-built 99-year-lease flat. Such numbers are hardly out of place in any major metropolis but this was for a state-subsidised three-bedroom apartment.

Soaring housing prices have fueled popular discontent — little wonder as median monthly household incomes have stagnated at around S$5,000.

For its part, the government — which houses 80 percent of people on the densely populated island — insists that public housing prices are shaped by ‘market forces’, pointing to a raft of financing schemes to help first-time buyers.

What’s less contentious is that Singapore is only part of a regional real estate boom that has driven property values by as much as 70 percent since the start of 2009 in cities such as Sydney, Hong Kong and Beijing.

Act now or forever hold your (b)-piece, Obama

It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington. Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the shocking state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”. The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shake the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems we have now rather simply obsess about those we may or may not encounter in the future. The global banking system may well need some kind of Volcker-esque guidelines to curb the next generation of excessive risk-takers but Obama is putting the cart before the horse in his efforts to haul the economy back on track. Certainly, his and the previous administration has toiled long and hard to stabilise the U.S. housing market, propping up Fannie and Freddie and their dysfunctional offspring, but the subprime mess has distracted attentions from the toxic commercial market, where the clean-up task is no less important. Warren reckons there is about $1.4 trillion worth of outstanding commercial real estate loans in the U.S that will need to be refinanced before 2014, and about half of them are already “underwater,” an industry term that refers to loans larger than the property’s current value. But bank brains are wasting too much time figuring out how the so-called “Volcker rule” might affect their operations and future profitability, instead of getting their arms around underwater real estate loans that could break their institutions in two long before the anti-risk measures even take hold. Obama’s premature challenge to their investment autonomy, which he says cultivated the collapse of banks like Lehmans, is like suturing a papercut while your jugular gapes wide open. Maybe now, as Warren’s report hammers home the threat posed by unperforming commercial real estate debt, Obama will give Wall Street a chance to refocus on the “now” and worry about “tomorrow”, tomorrow.

It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington.

Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the perilous state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”.

The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shock the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems banks have now rather simply obsess about those they may or may not encounter in the future.

Morgan Stanley bales out

Say this for Morgan Stanley — it is not afraid to buck the trend. With world stocks up more than five percent in the few days that have been April trading and up 24 percent since hitting a low on March 9, the bank has decided bale out. In its latest strategy report, MS says it is moving 5 percent out of stocks to neutral. It likes cash.

This puts Morgan Stanley in the camp that sees the current stock rally as just part of a bear market. It says it is looking at fundamentals to get better before it will decide that trouble is past. 

“The three fundamentals we look at are : 1) earnings; 2) U.S. housing; and 3) banks’ balance sheets”,  it says.