The Housing Bust Takes Center-stage

By Mike Whitney

April 21, 2009 "
Information Clearing House" -- -The Fed's $12.8 trillion of monetary stimulus has triggered a six week-long surge in the stock market. Think of it as Bernanke's Bear Market Rally, a torrent of capital gushing from every leaky valve and rusty pipe in the financial system. The Fed's so-called "lending facilities" are a joke; stocks rocket into the stratosphere while the broader economy is stretched out corpse-like on a cold marble slab. Is this an economic recovery or just more of Bernanke's "no down" zero-percent "no doc" faux prosperity?

Bernanke has provided generous "100 cents on the dollar" loans for Triple A mortgage-backed collateral that is now worth 30 cents on the dollar. The Fed stands to lose trillions of dollars on these loans because the assets will never regain their original value. Eventually the taxpayer will have to pony up the difference in higher taxes, fewer public services and a weaker dollar.

Naturally, some of Bernanke's liquidity has made its way into the stock market where the prospects for maximizing profit are still the best. The Fed's creditors didn't borrowed the money just to stick it in a dusty vault in their offices. They've put it where they think it will do them some good. At the same time, the relentless systemwide contraction continues apace and hasn't been eased by Bernanke's low interest rates or lending programs. All of the economic indicators point to a deepening recession that will last for two years or more. Here's a clip from a recent statement from the IMF:


"Recessions associated with financial crises have typically been severe and protracted. Financial crises typically follow periods of rapid expansion in lending and strong increases in asset prices. Recoveries from these recessions are often held back by weak private demand and credit reflecting, in part, households’ attempts to increase saving rates to restore balance sheets. They are typically led by improvements in net trade, following exchange rate depreciations and falls in unit costs.

Globally synchronized recessions are longer and deeper than others. Excluding the present, there have been three episodes since 1960 during which 10 or more of the 21 advanced economies in the sample were in recession at the same time: 1975, 1980 and 1992. The duration of a synchronous recession is, on average, nearly 1 time as long as the duration of the typical recession. Recoveries are usually sluggish, owing to weak external demand..."

The recession will be a long uphill slog regardless of developments in the stock market. Bernanke admitted as much last Thursday when he said that the collapse of U.S. lending will cause “long-lasting” damage to home prices, household wealth and borrowers’ credit scores.

“One would be forgiven for concluding that the assumed benefits of financial innovation are not all they were cracked up to be....The damage from this turn in the credit cycle -- in terms of lost wealth, lost homes, and blemished credit histories -- is likely to be long-lasting.”


Unlike Treasury Secretary Geithner, Bernanke has been surprisingly candid in his analysis of the crisis. That doesn't mean that his policies have been worker-friendly; far from it. But he has been honest about the shortcomings of deregulation and financial innovation. So far, the meltdown has wiped out more than $11 trillion of household wealth, ignited soaring unemployment, and pushed millions of people from their homes. As Bernanke admits, the country will not quickly bounce back from this 100-year economic flood.

Economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have conducted a study on the last 18 international financial crises and compiled their findings in a document called: "Is the 2007 U.S. Subprime Financial Crisis So Different?" What they discovered was that "rising public debt is a near universal precursor of other post-war crises" and that countries that experienced large capital inflows were particularly vulnerable to crises. By 2006, two-thirds of the world's surplus capital was flowing into the United States via its current account deficit. This flood of foreign capital kept interest rates low, housing and equity prices high, and Wall Street flush with money. Now foreign investment is drying up, housing prices are falling, the secondary market is frozen, and deflation is setting in across all sectors of the economy. Rogoff and Reinhart believe that "recessions that follow in the wake of big financial crises tend to last far longer than normal downturns, and to cause considerably more damage. If the United States follows the norm of recent crises, as it has until now, output may take four years to return to its pre-crisis level. Unemployment will continue to rise for three more years, reaching 11–12 percent in 2011." (Newsweek, "Don't Buy the Chirpy Forecasts")

The proliferation of opaque, unregulated debt-instruments (MBSs, CDOs, CDSs) also played a big role in the present crash by reducing transparency and increasing systemic instability. Here's Rogoff and Reinhart in their Newsweek article "Don't Buy the Chirpy Forecasts:

"Assuming the U.S. continues going down the tracks of past financial crises, perhaps the scariest prospect is the likely evolution of public debt, which tends to soar in the aftermath of a crisis. A base-line forecast, using the benchmark of recent past crises, suggests that U.S. national debt will rise by $8.5 trillion over the next three years. Debt rises for a variety of reasons, including bailout costs and fiscal stimulus. But the No. 1 factor is the collapse in tax revenues that inevitably accompanies a deep recession. Eight and a half trillion dollars may sound like a lot. It is more than 50 percent of U.S. national income. But if one looks at the Obama administration's stunning budget-deficit projections, with exceedingly optimistic projections on growth and bank-bailout costs, we think the U.S. is right on track."

Tax revenues are already falling sharply across the country as the recession deepens. In fact, Bloomberg News reports that “State and local sales-tax revenue fell more sharply in the fourth quarter of 2008 than at any time in the past half century"… (Corporate and personal income taxes are also declining at a record pace.) This makes it impossible to predict the ultimate cost of the crisis. But what makes it even harder is that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner refuses to remove toxic assets from the banks balance sheets using the usual "tried and true" methods. A recent report from a congressional oversight committee (The Warren Report) revealed that there are three ways to fix the banking system; liquidation, reorganization and subsidization. Geithner has rejected all three of these preferring to implement his own make-shift Public Private Investment Program (PPIP) which is thoroughly untested, has no base of public or political support, and is clearly designed to shift the toxic debts of the banks onto the taxpayer through publicly-funded non recourse loans. (Geithner's plan will allow the banks to establish off-balance sheet operations so they can buy their own bad assets from themselves using 94 percent public money) The whole thing is a obvious swindle papered-over with gibberish.

So far, less than $10 billion has been transacted through Giethner's PPIP; a mere drop in the bucket. The IMF estimates that the banks and other financial institutions may be holding up to $4 trillion in toxic assets. At the current rate, Geithner's strategy will take a century to succeed. There's simply not enough time. The Treasury Secretary knows his plan won't fix the banking system; he's just hoping that the economy rebounds before the government is forced to nationalize the big banks. It's just a stalling ploy, but, even so, there are risks. As the economy worsens, the likelihood of another financial meltdown or a run on the dollar increases. Foreign central banks and investors on getting antsy and are starting to rattle Geithner's cage. In recent months China has slowed it purchases of US Treasuries, traded tens of billions of USD in currency swaps, and gone on a spending spree for raw materials; all to protect itself from perceived weakness in the dollar. According to Bloomberg:



"People's Bank of China Zhou Xiaochuan called for the establishment of a "super-sovereign reserve currency" last month after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he's worried a weaker US dollar may hurt China's investments. Inflation and a depreciating dollar would erode the value of US holdings owned by international investors."

Again, Bloomberg:

“China, Japan and Korea should establish a routine mechanism to diversify the region’s reserve currencies away from the dollar, the China Securities Journal reported, citing central bank adviser Fan Gang. The Asian countries need to consider setting up a transitional arrangement to help reduce reliance on the dollar before the problems in the international financial system are resolved."

Geithner's foot-dragging could be extremely costly for America's long-term economic prospects. The Treasury Secretary should be tackling the toxic assets problem head-on and stop the dilly-dallying. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson underlined the importance of swift action in a recent interview:

“Only somebody who studies financial history could say, ‘Look, something as big as the liquidity crisis of 1914 or as big as the banking crisis of 1931 is imminent.. If we stay the present course, you're going to see the tailspin continue... The Great Depression was initially a U.S. financial crisis. But what made it a depression was its global contagion, and then the breakdown of trade and the retreat into protectionism. All of that can happen. All of that is in fact happening with terrifying speed.”

There's no time to lose.



HOUSING BUST REDUX: Shadow Inventory Portends an even Bigger Crash


Due to the lifting of the foreclosure moratorium at the end of March, the downward slide in housing is gaining speed. The moratorium was initiated in January to give Obama's anti-foreclosure program--which is a combination of mortgage modifications and refinancing--a chance to succeed. The goal of the plan was to keep up to 9 million struggling homeowners in their homes. But it's clear now that the program will fall well-short of its objective. (Legislation for cram-downs, that is, allowing judges to reduce the face-value of the mortgage, is still bogged-down in Congress. Most economists believe that cramdows are the only way to keep people from abandoning their homes when they are underwater on their loans.)

In March, housing prices fell faster than anytime in the last two years. Trend-lines are now steeper than ever before, nearly perpendicular. Housing prices are not falling, they're crashing and crashing hard. Now that the foreclosure moratorium has ended, Notices of Default (NOD) have spiked to an all-time high. These Notices will turn into foreclosures in 4 to 5 months time creating another cascade of foreclosures. Market analysts predict there will be 5 million more foreclosures between now and 2011. This is a disaster bigger than Katrina. Soaring unemployment and rising foreclosures ensure that hundreds of banks and financial institutions will be forced into bankruptcy. 40 percent of delinquent homeowners have already vacated their homes. There's nothing Obama can do to make them stay. Worse still, only 30 percent of foreclosures have been relisted for sale suggesting major hanky-panky at the banks. Where have the houses gone? Have they simply vanished?

Here's a excerpt from the SF Gate explaining the mystery:

"Lenders nationwide are sitting on hundreds of thousands of foreclosed homes that they have not resold or listed for sale, according to numerous data sources. And foreclosures, which banks unload at fire-sale prices, are a major factor driving home values down.

"We believe there are in the neighborhood of 600,000 properties nationwide that banks have repossessed but not put on the market," said Rick Sharga, vice president of RealtyTrac, which compiles nationwide statistics on foreclosures. "California probably represents 80,000 of those homes. It could be disastrous if the banks suddenly flooded the market with those distressed properties. You'd have further depreciation and carnage."

In a recent study, RealtyTrac compared its database of bank-repossessed homes to MLS listings of for-sale homes in four states, including California. It found a significant disparity - only 30 percent of the foreclosures were listed for sale in the Multiple Listing Service. The remainder is known in the industry as "shadow inventory." ("Banks aren't Selling Many Foreclosed Homes" SF Gate)


If regulators were deployed to the banks that are keeping foreclosed homes off the market, they would probably find that the banks are actually servicing the mortgages on a monthly basis to conceal the extent of their losses. They'd also find that the banks are trying to keep housing prices artificially high to avoid heftier losses that would put them out of business. One thing is certain, 600,000 "disappeared" homes means that housing prices have a lot farther to fall and that an even larger segment of the banking system is insolvent.

Here is more on the story from Mr. Mortgage "California Foreclosures About to Soar...Again"

"Are you ready to see the future? Ten’s of thousands of foreclosures are only 1-5 months away from hitting that will take total foreclosure counts back to all-time highs. This will flood an already beaten-bloody real estate market with even more supply just in time for the Spring/Summer home selling season...Foreclosure start (NOD) and Trustee Sale (NTS) notices are going out at levels not seen since mid 2008. Once an NTS goes out, the property is taken to the courthouse and auctioned within 21-45 days....The bottom line is that there is a massive wave of actual foreclosures that will hit beginning in April that can’t be stopped without a national moratorium."

JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Fannie Mae have all stepped up their foreclosure activity in recent weeks. Delinquencies have skyrocketed foreshadowing a brutal ajustment straight ahead. According to the Wall Street Journal:

"Ronald Temple, co-director of research at Lazard Asset Management, expects home prices to fall 22% to 27% from their January levels. More than 2.1 million homes will be lost this year because borrowers can't meet their loan payments, up from about 1.7 million in 2008." (Ruth Simon, "The housing crisis is about to take center stage once again" Wall Street Journal

Another 20 percent carved off the aggregate value of US housing means another $4 trillion loss to homeowners. That means smaller retirement savings, less discretionary spending, and lower living standards. The next leg down in housing will be excruciating; every sector will feel the pain. Obama's $75 billion mortgage rescue plan is a mere pittance; it won't reduce the principle on mortgages and it won't stop the bleeding. Policymakers have decided they've done enough and refuse to lift a finger to help. They don't see the tsunami looming in front of them plain as day. The housing market is going under and it's going to drag a good part of the broader economy along with it. Stocks, too.

 

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