Tag Archives: housing market

John McCain, New Deal Democrat?

Meet John McCain, New Deal Democrat.

In the presidential debate this week, McCain shocked many of fellow Republicans by proposing the largest and most expensive government intervention in the housing market in U.S. history.

Specifically, McCain announced that he would tell his treasury secretary to spend $300 billion to buy the mortgages of homeowners in financial trouble and replace them with more affordable loans.  The program, which McCain calls the American Homeownership Resurgence Plan -– there’s that word “surge” again — would be available to mortgagors for whom the property is their primary residence, who can prove they were creditworthy when the original loan was made, and who made a down payment.

According to the McCain campaign:

“John McCain will direct his Treasury Secretary to implement an American Homeownership Resurgence Plan (McCain Resurgence Plan) to keep families in their homes, avoid foreclosures, save failing neighborhoods, stabilize the housing market and attack the roots of our financial crisis.”

“America’s families are bearing a heavy burden from falling housing prices, mortgage delinquencies, foreclosures, and a weak economy. It is important that those families who have worked hard enough to finance homeownership not have that dream crushed under the weight of the wrong mortgage. The existing debts are too large compared to the value of housing. For those that cannot make payments, mortgages must be re-structured to put losses on the books and put homeowners in manageable mortgages. Lenders in these cases must recognize the loss that they’ve already suffered.”

“The McCain Resurgence Plan would purchase mortgages directly from homeowners and mortgage servicers, and replace them with manageable, fixed-rate mortgages that will keep families in their homes. By purchasing the existing, failing mortgages the McCain resurgence plan will eliminate uncertainty over defaults, support the value of mortgage-backed derivatives and alleviate risks that are freezing financial markets.”

“The McCain resurgence plan would be available to mortgage holders that:

  • Live in the home (primary residence only)
  • Can prove their creditworthiness at the time of the original loan (no falsifications and provided a down payment).”

“The new mortgage would be an FHA-guaranteed fixed-rate mortgage at terms manageable for the homeowner. The direct cost of this plan would be roughly $300 billion because the purchase of mortgages would relieve homeowners of ‘negative equity’ in some homes. Funds provided by Congress in recent financial market stabilization bill can be used for this purpose; indeed by stabilizing mortgages it will likely be possible to avoid some purposes previously assumed needed in that bill.”

“The plan could be implemented quickly as a result of the authorities provided in the stabilization bill, the recent housing bill, and the U.S. government’s conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It may be necessary for Congress to raise the overall borrowing limit.”

This certainly doesn’t sound like a Republican plan to me.

In fact, it isn’t. 

As the New York Times has pointed out, “The mortgage renewal idea actually originated with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain. And Mrs. Clinton, who proposed the idea in a recent newspaper column, borrowed it from a Depression-era New Deal agency, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation.”

How seriously should we take McCain’s plan?

First, we should appreciate what a stunning turn-around this proposal is for John McCain, who has previously railed against the “moral hazard” of bailing out homeowners who took out larger mortgages than they could afford.

Only last March, McCain declared — in response to the Hillary Clinton plan that McCain has now closely appropriated — that “it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers.” 

As the New York Times then observed, “Mr. McCain’s remarks on Tuesday represented a stark tonal shift from the increasing calls for helping homeowners, as he faulted not only borrowers who engaged in risky lending, but suggested that some homeowners engaged in dangerous financial practices. ‘Some Americans bought homes they couldn’t afford, betting that rising prices would make it easier to refinance later at more affordable rates,’ he said. Mr. McCain argued that even during the ongoing crisis, the vast majority of mortgage holders continued to make their payments. ‘Of those 80 million homeowners, only 55 million have a mortgage at all, and 51 million homeowners are doing what is necessary — working a second job, skipping a vacation and managing their budgets to make their payments on time,’ he said. ‘That leaves us with a puzzling situation: how could 4 million mortgages cause this much trouble for us all?’”

Second, we should note that McCain’s point man for the plan is his senior economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin.  Holtz-Eakin was the Chief Economist for the President’s Council of Economic Advisors under President George W. Bush and Senior Staff Economist for President George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors.  He was, therefore, as responsible for the deregulation that lead to the mortgage mess as any single economist could be.  (He was also the person who claimed that McCain was responsible for the invention of the Blackberry phone.)   If we are to take McCain’s proposal seriously, then we must assume that Holt-Eakin has also had a Saint Paul-like sudden conversion and is now not a Bushite but a New Deal Democrat.

Third, we should look at the conservative reaction to McCain’s plan.  If they thought that McCain was serious about his plan, they’d be exploding with condemnation and accusations of betrayal.  But, so far, the National Review has nothing to say about it.  Conservative blogs mostly call it “pandering”  — and while they’re not happy about it, they understand it as an election ploy.  The Wall Street Journal doesn’t seem very upset either, taking an uncharacteristically wait-and-see attitude toward a proposal that would violate the foundational principles of modern Republican economics: “The idea must have puzzled many viewers and we’ll reserve judgment until we see the fine print,” the Journal said.” At a glance, it doesn’t sound like something Democrats would oppose — and elections are decided on differences.”

Our conclusion?

The McCain proposal isn’t serious, and few conservatives believe that either (1) McCain will win (and therefore be in a position to implement the plan) or (2) that McCain would implement the plan if elected.

We think that McCain’s new homeowner bailout program should really be called the “McCain Campaign Resurgence Plan.” 

Falling precipitously behind in the polls, especially in so-called “swing states” like Ohio, Florida and Michigan that have been hit hard by foreclosures and falling home prices, McCain has suddenly — and unconvincingly – decided that his favorite president is not Ronald Reagan but Franklin Roosevelt.

We’re not buying it.

Nevertheless, it is a watershed moment in American political history when the Republican candidate for President — and self-described foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution — attempts to outdo the Democratic candidate as a New Deal Liberal.

UPDATE:

Now that a few days have passed and the McCain campaign has repeated its call for a $300 billion bailout of mortgage holders at taxpayer’s expense, conservatives have taken the proposal seriously enough to lambast it.

CNN.com offers a good roundup of conservative commentary: 

” In a sharply worded editorial on its Web site Thursday, the editors of The National Review — an influential bastion of conservative thought — derided the plan as “creating a level of moral hazard that is unacceptable” and called it a “gift to lenders who abandoned any sense of prudence during the boom years.”

“Prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin went one step further, calling the plan “rotten” and declaring on her blog, ‘We’re Screwed ’08’.”

“Matt Lewis, a contributing writer for the conservative Web site Townhall.com, told CNN the plan only further riles conservatives upset with McCain’s backing of the massive government bailout plan passed last week.”

“‘Fundamentally, the problem is John McCain accepts a lot of liberal notions, unfortunately. There is somewhat of a populist streak,’ he said. ‘Most conservatives really did not like the bailout to begin with, and this was really kind of picking at the scab’.”

 

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“What You Get for…$1.00” — The Housing Crisis Gets Crazy

The New York Times has a weekly real estate feature called “Property Values” that shows “What You Get for…” a certain a mount of money. 

This week the Times shows you “What You Get for…$10 Million” and it pictures palatial estates in Newport, Rhode Island, Kauari, Hawaii, and Whitefish, Montana.

But this week’s most interesting — and relevant — “What You Get for…” story wasn’t published in the Times, and the property isn’t situated in an up-scale locale.

The story was published in the Detroit News.

And the property — a cozy two story — is located in the foreclosure-ravaged Motor City.

It recently sold for $1.00 — after being on the market for for 19 days.

After reading the story, we tried an experiment. 

We went to realtor.com and looked up houses in Detroit.  For the minimum amount would put $0 and for the maximum amount we put $1000. 

The result was four more houses for $1, eight more for $100 or less, and a total of 172 properties at or under $1000.

Then we tried Cleveland, Ohio. 

The result was 10 properties available for $1 and five more for $1000 or less.

You can try the same experiment with other cities.  We think you’ll find similar results.

We noticed, too, that this example of America’s housing misery was providing aid and comfort to an old — and perhaps renewed — enemy.

The online edition of Pravda — which used to be the official newspaper of the Soviet Union and is now the official newspaper of Russia’s new bosses — put the Detroit Press story on the front page of its English language edition, just below the news about its shooting war in Georgia and South Ossetia.

Proof We’re in a Recession

Here’s proof that we’re in a recession: Starbucks is closing 600 stores.

According to the New York Times, “Starbucks said Tuesday that it planned to close another 500 underperforming stores and eliminate as many as 12,000 full- and part-time positions. The company, which now plans to close a total of 600 underperforming stores, will take related charges totaling more than $325 million. Most of the stores, which are company owned, will be closed by the end of the first half of its fiscal year, which ends September 2009, the company said. Starbucks estimated that total pretax charges associated with the closures, including costs associated with severance, would be $328 million to $348 million. The nation’s largest coffee chain said 70 percent of the stores targeted for closure have been open since the beginning of fiscal 2006. The job losses would represent about 7 percent of the company’s global work force.”

These closings are clearly fallout from the housing bust.  As the Times noted, Starbucks had “aggressively opened stores in areas like California and Florida, which have been hardest hit by the housing downturn. ”

The next time economists get together to discuss whether we’re really in a recession, they may have to meet somewhere other than the local Starbucks. 

It might be closed.

 

Home Prices Slip Again in Biggest Fall on Record

Home prices in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas fell in April 2008 by the most on record.

The Case-Shiller Index of 20 large cities for April 2008 shows housing price declines are accelerating, and are now falling at a rate of 15.3% from last year’s levels.

The report also showed that home prices fell 1.4 percent in April from a month earlier after a 2.2 percent decline in March.

There’s one bit of “good” news in the report: home price declines were less than expected.  According to economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, the index was forecast to fall 16 percent from a year earlier.

Not surprisingly, the housing bust continues to be most severe in previous boom areas in the West and Florida. 

Here are the markets where prices are falling fastest:

Las Vegas: -26.8%
Miami: -26.7%
Phoenix: -25.0%
Los Angeles: -23.1%
San Diego: -22.4%
San Francisco: -22.1%

Average of 20 large cities: -15.3%

The decline in home prices appears to be spreading.  Chicago showed a 9.3 percent decline and prices in New York City declined by 8.4 percent.  Charlotte, North Carolina, showed a decline for the first time.

According to Bloomberg.com, “One bright spot in the report was that more cities showed a gain in prices in April compared with the previous month. Houses in eight areas rose in value, compared with just two in March. Month-over-month gains were led by Cleveland and Dallas.”

 

Financial Sector Blamed by U.S. Report as Primary Cause of Nation’s Economic Decline

While there is still disagreement among economists over whether the U.S. is in a classically defined recession, there can’t be any doubt that the economy is in serious trouble and has been for quite some time, and that the primary culprit is the nation’s financial sector.

The dismal economic growth figures announced this week by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis underscore just how bad our national economy is, and which regions of the country and sectors of the economy have been hit the hardest.

The new estimates released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) show that economic growth slowed in most states and regions of the U.S. in 2007. Real GDP growth slowed in 36 states, with declines in construction and finance and insurance the leading factor in most state’s economic losses.

Nationally, real economic growth slowed from 3.1 percent in 2006 to 2.0 percent in 2007, one percentage point below the average growth of 3.0 percent for 2002–2006.

According to the BEA report, “The deceleration in growth in 2007 was most pronounced in Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada. Each of these states had experienced faster real growth than the nation since 2003, but slowed dramatically between 2006 and 2007, to rates below the national average (chart 2). In 2006, Arizona and Nevada were in the highest growth quintile, and California and Florida were in the second–highest quintile. But in 2007, Arizona dropped to the third quintile; California dropped to the second–lowest quintile; and Florida and Nevada dropped to the lowest quintile. In Arizona, Florida, and Nevada, construction subtracted more than one percentage point from real GDP growth. In California, construction and finance and insurance combined subtracted one percentage point from real growth.”

Forty-nine states saw losses in the construction industry 2007.  The sole exception was Wyoming with a 6.0 percent increase in construction. Nationwide, the combined drop in construction was 11.0 percent.

The largest drop in construction in dollar terms was in California, down $10.8 billion, which accounted for 1-in-6 of the $67 billion lost in construction work nationwide between 2006 and 2007.

In terms of percentage of construction work losses, the hardest hit states were:

New Hampshire -18.70%
Michigan -16.74%
Delaware -16.34%
Florida -15.96%
Arizona -15.53%
Maine -13.82%
Iowa -13.77%
Virginia -13.55%
Vermont -13.47%
California -13.46%

The BEA clearly identifies the credit crisis, and its domino effect on related industries such as real estate and construction, as the primary cause of the nation’s economic woes. 

BEA noted that “A downturn in the finance and insurance industry group accounted for nearly half of the slowdown in economic growth in 2007.”

“Construction’s value added declined 12.1 percent in 2007 after falling 6.0 percent in 2006. Real estate and rental and leasing value added growth slowed to 2.1 percent in 2007 from 3.4 percent in 2006.”

Four industry groups — finance and insurance, construction, mining, and real estate — “accounted for about one quarter of GDP in 2007. However, they accounted for nearly 80 percent of the slowdown in economic growth.”

These figures support what we’ve been saying for a long time: the real estate market (and related industries like construction) will not recover until the financial markets are stablized.

Pending Home Sales Rise — But Don’t Expect the Housing Market to Recover Soon

There was some unexpected positive news on the housing front today: pending home sales rose in April 2008 to the highest level since October 2007, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

NAR complies a monthly “Pending Home Sales Index” (PHSI), which tracks housing contract activity based on signed real estate contracts for existing single-family homes, condos and co-ops. Modeling for the PHSI looks at the monthly relationship between existing-home sale contracts and transaction closings over the last four years. The PHSI gives figures for the nation and four regions, and includes seasonally adjusted as well as not seasonally adjusted figures.

A reading of 100 on the PSHI is equal to the average level of sales activity in 2001.

April’s PHSI figures show that the seasonally adjusted index of pending sales for existing homes across the nation rose to 88.2 percent from a March reading of 83.0 percent.

March’s figure of 83.0 percent was the lowest since the index was started in 2001.

Moreover, the April 2008 figure of 88.2 percent is still 13 percent below April 2007’s reading of 101.5 percent.

Some regions fared much better than others.

The region that did best was the West — with a seasonally adjusted figure of 98.8, its highest level since June 2007.  The West also showed an 8.3 percent increase from last month and a 4.0 percent increase from 95.0 percent a year ago. 

The Midwest — at a seasonally adjusted rate of 83.7 percent — posted a 13.0 percent increase from last month, but a 13.1 percent drop from last year’s figure of 96.4 percent.

The South — at a seasonally adjusted rate of 88.8 percent — showed a moderate 4.6 percent increase over last month, but that was still a stunning 22.5 percent decline from last year’s figure of 114.6 percent.

The worst region in regard to pending home sales was the Northeast — with a seasonally adjusted rate of 79.3 percent — which indicated both a monthly decline ( -1.9 percent) and a sharp decline (-12.2 percent) from 101.5 percent a year ago.

As usual, NAR strained to see these very modest national gains in the most positive light, claiming that they show that “the underlying fundamentals point to a pent-up demand.”

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun again predicted that an upturn in the housing market is just around the corner.

“Home sales are at about the same level as they were 10 years ago, yet the population has grown by 25 million people and we have over 10 million more jobs,” Yun said. “The housing market has been underperforming by historical standards, partly because buyers were hampered by mortgage availability issues, but that’s improved and an upturn is more likely.”

Other analysts are not nearly as optimistic about the meaning of the PHSI figures. 

They point out that banks are dumping properties at fire-sale prices, and that inventories will continue to grow as foreclosures continue to rise.  NAR’s PHSI does not differentiate between full-market sales, short-sales, and foreclosures.

Even NAR’s economist Lawrence Yun acknowledges that much of the increase in pending home sales comes from “bargain hunters” who have “entered the market en mass.”

The New York Times reports that Mark Zandi, the chief economist for Moody’s economy.com, believes that April 2008 marks the bottom for home sales, but he also believes that home prices won’t bottom out for another year. ”It’s the beginning of the end of the housing downturn, but it will be a long painful ending,” he said.

We think that Zandi is being overly optimistic — when the housing downturn ends depends on many factors, including straightening out the mortgage and credit industries, that are still a very long way off.

 

Housing Meltdown Continues as Home Prices Fall 14.1 Percent

Despite a slight uptick in the sales of new homes, there is new evidence that the U.S. housing slump will not end anytime soon. 

Yesterday the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller Index showed that national home prices fell 14.1 percent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, the lowest since its inception in 1988.

And even though the sales of new homes were up slightly in April, they remained near their lowest levels since 1991.

New home sales were up 3.3 percent from March, but were down a stunning 42 percent from a year ago.

April’s new home sales were the second-lowest since October 1991, behind only March of this year.

The National Association of Realtors, in its typically disingenuous fashion, spins these bleak figures as an “easing” of home sales.

According to the New York Times, “Even markets that once seemed immune to the slump, like Seattle, are weakening. Prices nationwide might fall as much as 10 percent more before a recovery takes hold, economists said. As the home-buying season enters what is traditionally its busiest period, there are simply too many homes in many parts of the country, and too few people with the means to buy them. The situation is likely to get worse because a rising tide of foreclosures is flooding the market with even more homes, while a slack economy and tight mortgage market are reducing the pool of potential buyers.”

Those who can hold on to their properties are not selling at current prices and those who can buy are waiting for prices to fall still lower.

And they will get lower.

With more than 4.5 million homes on the market, and with a rising tide of foreclosures that continues to add dramatically to that figure, prices are certain to continue to fall even further.

There is plenty of money waiting for prices to stabilize, but that won’t happen for quite a while.

First, something must be done to stop the flood of foreclosures that are adding to the nation’s already overloaded housing supply.

Second, the banks and lenders must respond to the Federal Reserve’s lowering of interest rates by passing these lower rates on to more borrowers.

Our guess is that little or nothing will happen on these fronts until after the presidential election.

Meanwhile, the meltdown continues.