Opinion

The Great Debate

Correcting three myths about the housing market

The U.S. Senate should move quickly to confirm Mel Watt as the new head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), but not for any of the political or procedural reasons usually discussed. A quick confirmation is required because we need new leadership on U.S. housing policy — a policy that on some crucial points is headed in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons.

In the years since the collapse of the housing bubble, major Wall Street firms have prospered while millions of homeowners are still dealing with the wreckage of a damaged housing market. That’s in part because nothing as large as a national housing market turns quickly. But it’s also because persistent myths about the market are obscuring the data and driving policy in the wrong direction.

Here are three such myths, and the right way to think about them:

1.    The foreclosure crisis is over.

Most news stories today focus on overall foreclosure numbers dropping and home prices rising, but the truth is more nuanced. Prices are indeed up in some wealthier neighborhoods, and foreclosures are dropping in many communities.

But the big foreclosure statistics don’t include the significant number of delayed foreclosure proceedings still pending, and don’t capture the realities facing many communities with high concentrations of poverty. In these communities, where predatory lending practices were commonplace during the bubble, homeowners still need help, and vacant homes are commonplace. The effect on the overall housing market and local business is clear, as struggling owners hold back the consumer spending that drives our economy.

Even the oft-cited “improving” national numbers remain far worse than they were before the bubble. There are 1.3 million homes in some state of foreclosure or owned by banks. The foreclosure crisis continues — and it affects us all.

Helping America’s renters

We shouldn’t have to sue to get Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to follow their congressional mandate and put some of the billions they are generating into affordable housing for the millions of families who need it. But that’s what is has come to for housing advocates, who are frustrated that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is still refusing to fund the National Housing Trust Fund.

In 2008, before the housing market collapsed, a bipartisan promise was made to millions of working families, when President George W. Bush signed the National Housing Trust Fund into law. The fund, capitalized from the operating profits of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, was to be a downpayment on affordable apartments, which are desperately needed by the millions of Americans who rent.

Yet when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac crashed along with house prices, and were put into conservatorship, the Federal Housing Finance Agency decided to delay funding the Housing Trust until the mortgage giants got back on their feet. For nearly five years, the promise Congress made to America’s renters has remained unfulfilled.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

When illogical policy seems to work

It’s cynical, manipulative and hypocritical – and it looks like it is going to work. How often do you hear a sentence like this, to describe a government initiative or economic policy?  Not often enough.

The media and a surprisingly high proportion of business leaders, financiers and economic analysts seem to believe that policies which are dishonest, intellectually inconsistent or obviously self-interested in their motivation are ipso facto doomed to fail or to damage the public interest. But this is manifestly untrue. The effectiveness of public policies and their ultimate desirability is in practice judged not by their motivations, but by their results.

Which brings me to the real subject of this column: the improving outlook for the world economy and why many economists and financiers cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it. Let me begin with a striking example anticipated in this column back in March: the boom in house prices and debt-financed consumption that the British government is pumping up in preparation for the general election in May 2015.

A solution for underwater mortgages: Eminent domain

It has been nearly six years since U.S. home prices peaked and then plunged, and still the nation’s mortgage markets remain mired in slump. Despite occasional signs of improvement in some localities, the S&P Case Shiller Index shows home prices down 9 percent from their previous post-bubble high – itself very low in relation to trend. Meanwhile a backlog of some 400,000 homes awaited liquidation at the end of 2011, and an additional 2.86 million mortgages were 12 or more months delinquent. That’s a “shadow inventory” of 3.25 million homes already foreclosed or now facing foreclosure – an inventory that weighs on home prices, families and neighborhoods alike.

It also weighs on our economy, at the city, state and national levels. As a recent Federal Reserve Board white paper and other sources abundantly demonstrate, foreclosure and slump in the housing markets feed back into the broader economy by diminishing wealth and consumer spending. That lowers growth and employment – bad enough in themselves, but also sweeping more mortgages into the wave of defaults. Hence the familiar downward-spiraling “feedback loop” of high foreclosure rates, causing low growth and employment, causing yet more foreclosure, and so on.

Easily the worst source of drag is the large class of “underwater” mortgages – loans on which more is owed than the underlying post-bubble housing collateral is now worth. It isn’t hard to see why. Wrought by the rise in housing prices until 2006, the so-called wealth effect supported consumer spending even when wages and salaries stagnated. But it runs in both directions: Homeowners with “negative equity” cut their spending the most. Even tax cuts, rather than flowing toward employment-supporting consumer expenditures, go toward trimming back overhung mortgage debt. That’s why the 2009 stimulus did so little.

Surprise — we might actually begin meaningful housing reform this year

Last week, I spotlighted three ominous trends in consumer banking. The last one spotlighted a brewing war “between the private bank sector and the government over who exactly controls the allocation of consumer credit in this country.”

By far, the most important front in this battle is over the future of housing finance. Today, the government is underwriting or assuming 100 percent of the credit risk on practically every new mortgage that’s originated. With regard to outstanding mortgages, the government is responsible for 100 percent of the default risk on about $6 trillion of the roughly $10 trillion market.

Thankfully, there is some real hope that a somewhat clandestine reform effort is about to commence that would start to shift a portion of this credit risk back to the private sector. The leader of this effort is the much-maligned regulator of the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. After Fannie and Freddie were bailed out and then taken over by the government in 2008, Edward DeMarco was named acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) and conservator of the GSEs. He was tasked with a nearly impossible balancing act or mission:

Foreclosures, capital and sickening cures

-James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-

A dilemma at the heart of the response to the financial crisis is that the antidote to so many ills actually causes the symptoms to worsen.

Take for examples bank capital levels and the chaos surrounding home mortgage foreclosures.

Both issues are the fruit of the same tree: the desire to do things quickly, cheaply and with minimal safeguards.
And both, if you want to fix them, are probably going to slow the economy and lower asset prices in the short term.

How the mortgage mess could spread beyond sub-prime

jules

By Julian Fisher

Bank of America shares have been rocked by news that a consortium of mortgage bond investors is demanding it repurchase billions in soured mortgages, amplifying the effects of the recent “robo-signing” debacle.

Industry proponents are downplaying the risk that these so-called “putbacks” will impact more than a small number of financial institutions, but the evidence increasingly points to substantial and widespread breakdowns in controls along the mortgage origination and securitization chain.

What’s more, the impetus for putbacks appears to be shifting from lapses in documentation to ones involving possible fraud and misrepresentation.

Welcome to the Teenies, sorry about those returns

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-James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-

As we say goodbye to a decade so abysmal it never even earned a nickname, it is time to take bets on how the coming 10 years will shape up in economics and financial markets.

Welcome, then, to the Teenies, a word that will describe the decade as well as the small returns in financial markets and the shrinking financial sector it will bring.

So, let’s run through some themes for the 2010s:

Banking – The decade will end with meaningful reform of banking in place, but what is not clear is if this happens soon or only after a new banking crisis brought on by an unwillingness to take tough steps now. The likelihood is that regulation limits leverage and causes the share of the economy captured by financial services to shrink. It will be a lousy decade to be a shareholder, but given the government backing, perhaps not a bad one to be a bondholder.

from Commentaries:

Where the job seekers aren’t

Even in weak employment markets, the United States has typically had a trump card to play. The nation's workers are legendary for their willingness to travel across the country for new opportunities.

The result has been a speedier recovery of job growth than in Europe and possibly a higher productivity rate, since skilled workers are better matched to openings.

With the August employment report on Friday expected to show little improvement in the job market, America has never needed this flexibility more. Yet, at the risk of adding to the gloom, this advantage appears to be fading fast. The good news is that the United States still boasts one of the most dynamic labor markets of any rich nation. OECD rankings of its 30 wealthy member nations put the U.S. far
ahead of other large countries. (It comes second only to Denmark, which has unmatched programs to help the unemployed back to work.)

An abnormal recovery

jamessaft1 (James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Things in the U.S. economy are moving in the right direction, but the pace will be slow, frustrating and very likely to disappoint investors betting on a rip roaring old-fashioned recovery.

News that the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller 20 City house price index rose for the first time in almost three years in the three months to May was greeted with much rejoicing.
The Case-Shiller data is important and encouraging but not nearly as positive as it looks at first glance.

For one thing, house prices are supposed to rise in the spring; when looked at on a more meaningful seasonally adjusted basis prices are still falling, though at a slower rate than before.

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