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Time to Buy a House? Not on Your Life!

by MIKE WHITNEY

Anyone who buys a house in today’s market should be aware of the risks. They should know that current prices are not supported by fundamentals, but by unprecedented manipulation by the Fed, the Obama administration, Wall Street Private Equity investors, and the nation’s biggest banks. If any of these main-players withdraws or even reduces their support for the market (in other words, if the banks release more of their distressed inventory, if rates rise, if PE firms buy fewer homes, or if the Congress curtails current mortgage modification programs), housing prices will fall. Given the increasing volatility in global stock and bond markets in recent weeks–which is likely to intensify as the Fed  implements its exit strategy from QE– interest rates will continue to fluctuate putting downward pressure on housing sales and prices. The impact the Fed’s policy will have on markets and the economy is unknown. The Central Bank is in uncharted water. That makes it a particularly bad time to buy a home. Caveat emptor.

When we say that fundamentals are weak, it means that the factors that typically drive the market are not strong enough to boost sales or push up prices. In a normal market, “first-time homebuyers” and “move up” buyers would represent the vast majority of sales. In today’s market, these two “demand cohorts” are actually quite weak, which is to say that current prices are not sustainable. Consider this: According to Lender Processing Services (LPS) Mortgage Monitor for April, there are  “4,699,000, or 9.76% of home loans delinquent or in foreclosure as of April 30th”…” (“Mortgage Delinquencies Down….But a Record 843 Days to Foreclose“, Naked Capitalism)

So, nearly 5 million homes are either seriously delinquent or in some stage of foreclosure. This unseen backlog of distressed homes makes up the so called “shadow inventory” which is still big enough to send prices plunging if even a small portion was released onto the market.   In other words, supply vastly exceeds demand in real terms. Now check this out from Zillow:

“13 million homeowners with a mortgage remain underwater. Moreover, the effective negative equity rate nationally —where the loan-to-value ratio is more than 80%, making it difficult for a homeowner to afford the down payment on another home — is 43.6% of homeowners with a mortgage.” (Zillow)

This might sound a bit confusing, but it’s crucial to understanding what’s really going on. While many people know that 13 million homeowners are underwater on their mortgages,  they probably don’t know that nearly half (43.6%) of the potential “move up” buyers (who represent the bulk of organic sales) don’t have enough equity in their homes to buy another house.  Think about that. Like we said,  housing sales depend almost entirely on two groups of buyers; firsttime homebuyers and move up buyers. Unfortunately, the number of potential move up buyers has been effectively cut in half.  It’s simply impossible for prices to keep rising with so many move up buyers on the ropes.

So, if “repeat” buyers cannot support current prices, then what about the other “demand cohort”,  that is, firsttime home buyers?

It looks like demand is weak there, too. According to housing analyst Mark Hanson: “First-timer home volume hit a fresh 4-year lows last month and distressed sales 6-year lows”.

So, no help there either. Firsttime homebuyers are vanishing due to a number of factors, the biggest of which is the $1 trillion in student loans which is preventing debt-hobbled young people from filling the ranks of the firsttime homebuyers. Given the onerous nature of these loans, which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, many of these people will never own a home which, of course, means that demand will continue to weaken, sales will drop and prices will fall.

The banks have countered this weakness in demand by withholding distressed inventory. According to Realty Trac, foreclosures are down 33 percent in May year-over-year. There’s no reason for this reduction in foreclosures because there are nearly 5 million homes that are either seriously delinquent or in some stage of foreclosure. The banks are simply manipulating distressed supply to push up prices and avoid losses. To better understand what the banks are up to, check out this article on Marketwatch666:

“As of April, the average seriously delinquent homeowner has not paid on their mortgage for 503 days, and that the typical home in foreclosure has been delinquent for 843 days; in general, those who are seriously delinquent (more than 90 days past due) are not being foreclosed on, and those who are in the foreclosure process are not having their homes seized. Since this metric seems to be increasing an average of ten days a month, and new foreclosure starts are being added each month which should be bringing the average days down, we can only conclude that the foreclosure process is damn near frozen.” (“Mortgage Delinquencies Down….But a Record 843 Days to Foreclose“, Naked Capitalism)

“843 days”! That’s a new record, which means that the banks are actually dragging the process out longer today then ever before. This has had profound effect on prices which have soared by more than 10 percent in the last 12 months creating the illusion of a sustainable recovery.  Keep in mind, that the banks have little choice in the matter. They are still sitting on  more-than one trillion dollars worth of  non performing loans leftover from the recession.  If they simply dumped their backlog of distressed homes onto the market all at once, the deluge would push prices below their 2009-lows leaving bank balance sheets in tatters. That’s the scenario they want to avoid at all costs.   Now get a load of this article in last week’s Reuters:

“Well over a million U.S. homeowners are months behind on payments on government-backed mortgages, raising the risk federal housing agencies will end up facing the cost of managing a fresh flood of foreclosed homes, two government watchdogs said on Thursday.

Some 1.7 million borrowers have missed several payments on mortgages backed by the U.S. government, the inspectors general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a joint report.

These loan delinquencies represent a “shadow inventory” of homes that could hit the market if foreclosed on, which would need be managed by government-run Fannie Mae (FNMA.OB) or Freddie Mac (FMCC.OB), or some other federal housing agency.” (“Shadow’ homes could burden U.S. housing agencies”, Reuters)

Actually, the numbers are much larger that Reuters indicates, but it’s good to see someone in the MSM finally acknowledging the magnitude of the problem.

It would be interesting to know how many of these 1.7 million non-performing loans were shunted off to Fannie and Freddie in 2009 and 2010 by cagey banksters who knew that they were essentially worthless.  We’ll probably never know for sure. The fact is, the vast majority of toxic mortgages weren’t created by the GSE’s but by crooked bankers who pooled the dreck into private label securities and sold them to gullible investors around the world.  Now, much of that securitized sewage is festering on the Fed’s bloated balance sheet. The Fed has replaced the shadow banking system as the place where bad loans go to die.   Here’s more from Reuters:

“Once seized, these so-called real estate owned properties, or REOs, present significant financial challenges to these government agencies, the report said.

“Not only are current REO inventory levels elevated … they may rise over the next several years depending on the number of shadow inventory properties that are ultimately foreclosed on,” the report stated….

The report said the shadow inventory, which is made up of loans that have been delinquent for at least 90 days, is more than seven times the inventory of REOs that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and HUD currently own.” (Reuters)

So, the number of seriously delinquent mortgages IS MORE THAN SEVEN TIMES  the inventory of REOs that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and HUD currently own?!? What the hell kind of shell-game are these guys playing?  Do you get the impression, dear reader, that the government is pulling the wool over your eyes? 7X is a bit more than a rounding error, I’d say.

Okay, so the government has been fudging the numbers to make things look better than they really are. (What a surprise) But why would the GSE’s try to hide what’s going on, after all, Fannie and Freddie have implicit government guarantees, so they don’t really have to worry about falling prices.  And, as far as the red ink, well, Uncle Sugar will take care of that, right?

Not exactly. It looks to me like Fannie and Freddie are tailoring their policies to meet the needs of the banks.  As Reuters reluctantly admits, “Even a fraction of the shadow inventory falling into foreclosure could considerably swell … inventories of REO properties.”

It’s simple, really; more foreclosures mean lower prices. Lower prices, in turn, mean heavier losses for the banks. That’s why Fannie and Freddie are playing hide-n-seek; it’s another giveaway to the banks.

Reuters again: “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac owned about 158,000 REO properties at the end of September 2012, while HUD had about 37,000.” (Reuters)

Huh?  The author has already admitted that the real number is at least 7 times that amount (“Well over a million.”), so why the sudden reversal? Is he trying to downplay the bad news to slip it past his editor?

Many of the experts still anticipate between 3 to 6 million foreclosures in the next few years, so it is doubtful that the current strategy will work. Eventually, the floodgates will open, distressed supply will be released, and prices will drop.

And distressed inventory is just one of many headwinds facing the housing industry today. There’s also this: “Rising Prices Lead to Fewer Investor Purchases, Longer Holding Times“, DS News:

“Close to half—48 percent—of the investors surveyed in May said they will purchase fewer properties in the next 12 months than they did in the past year.” (DS News)

And this from CNN Money:

“Say goodbye to ultra-low mortgage rates.

In the past month, rates have been on the rise and they are expected to continue to climb. This week, the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage jumped another 10 percentage points to 4.07% and are up from 3.3% in early May, according to mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

“It’s unlikely that rates will ever be that low again,” said Doug Duncan, Fannie Mae’s chief economist. “Those who didn’t take advantage of record-low rates have missed the boat — at least for now.” (“Why 3% Mortgage Rates Are a Thing of the Past”, CNN Money)

And this:

Application Volume Stumbles, Sales to Suffer, OC Housing News

“Mortgage application data for May lends credence to analysts’ predictions of a slowdown in the year’s second half, Capital Economics says in its latest US Housing Data Response.  According to Capital Economics’ data—compiled from statistics offered by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA)—total mortgage application volume fell 2.0 percent from April to May, the first monthly drop since February and the biggest decline since January.”  (“Application Volume Stumbles, Sales to Suffer“, OC Housing News)

And, finally, this from BusinessWeek:

“Hedge fund manager Bruce Rose was among the first investors to coax institutional money into the mom and pop business of single-family home rentals, raising $450 million last year from Oaktree Capital Group LLC.

Now, with house prices climbing at the fastest pace in seven years and investors swamping the rental market, Rose says it no longer makes sense to be a buyer.

“We just don’t see the returns there that are adequate to incentivize us to continue to invest….There’s a lot of — bluntly — stupid money that jumped into the trade without any infrastructure, without any real capabilities and a kind of build-it-as-you-go mentality that we think is somewhat irresponsible.”  (“Carrington Stops Buying U.S. Rentals as Blackstone Adding“,  BusinessWeek)

I could go on, but why bother? You get the point. The fact is, is that this is a uniquely bad time to buy a house.  There’s too much uncertainty about rates, inventory, demand and investors. The risks far outweigh the rewards. Anxious buyers should hold-their-horses and wait for the market to normalize instead of chaining themselves to sinking asset that will cost them a bundle.  Remember, patience is a virtue. It can also save you a lot of dough.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. Whitney’s story on how the banks targeted blacks for toxic subprime mortgages appears in the May issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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