Tag Archives: recession

Morals, Money and the Bailout

We’ve heard lots of moralism about the economy recently from both ends of the political spectrum.  Wall Street is guilty of greed and homeowners in trouble are guilty of irresponsibility. Instead of offering a cogent systemic analysis of how we got into this financial mess, and the best way to change our economic and financial system in order to fix it, both parties seem to prefer preaching about the wages of sin. 

But while wagging a self-righteous finger while invoking the Seven Deadly Sins (in particular Greed, Envy, Sloth, and Pride, but we could also make a case for Gluttony and Lust) makes for good politics, it is a terrible way to approach the current crisis. 

We should not expect capitalists not to be greedy.  And we should not expect consumers to want fewer or less expensive goods, including fewer and less expensive homes and cars.

The desire for more, for bigger, and for better is not the enemy of capitalism. 

Unregulated capitalism is the enemy of capitalism.

What we should expect, and what we need, is for the economic and financial system to be structured by law and regulation to channel the desires of both capitalists and consumers for more, for bigger, and for better into productive, sustainable economic growth.

Moralism won’t get us there, and will distract us from seeing the problem for what it is: a matter of systemic, not moral or individual, failure.

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Catastrophe Worsens for Housing Market — Home Prices and Home Sales Fall Again

As Congress meets to bailout the financial industry and George Bush vies with Freddie Krueger for the nation’s archetypal face of visceral terror, the latest report from the Census Bureau shows that the housing catastrophe continues to get worse. 

Here’s the summary of the bad news:

  • New homes sales in August dropped to the lowest level since January 1991.
  • Home prices hit a four-year low. 
  • Inventory continues to rise, creating more downward pressure for home prices.

And here are some of the ugly new numbers:

  • New home sales had a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 460,000, down 11.5 percent from a revised 520,000 in July and down 24.5 percent from a year ago.
  • Only 39,000 new homes were sold in July, the lowest level since December 1991.
  • Prices for new homes were at their lowest level since September 2004.
  • The median price of a new home sold in August was $221,900, down 5.5 percent from $234,900 in July and down 6.2 percent from $236,500 a year ago.
  • 166,000 new homes came on the market in August, bringing total inventory to a seasonally adjusted 408,000, equal to 10.9-month supply, up from a 10.3 month supply in July.
  • New home sales fell 31.9 percent in the Northeast, 2.1 percent in the South and 36.1 percent in the West. Only the Midwest showed an increase in new home sales, up 7.2 percent.
  • Three out of four builders reported having to pay buyers’ closing costs or offer other incentives such as expensive features for free in order to maintain sales.

The housing market is so bad that the main cheerleader for an I-can-see-the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel approach to the real estate crisis – the National Association of Realtors (NAR) – has finally admitted, albeit with NAR’s typical understatement of the obvious, that “the pendulum in the mortgage market has swung too far.”

But if you’re looking for a bright side to the nation’s residential real estate fire sale, NAR’s number one Pollyanna-in-Chief, economist Lawrence Yun, still has a bromide to offer.

“August sales reflect higher interest rates before the government takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and the sudden drop in mortgage interest rates over the past couple weeks is improving housing affordability,” Yun said. “With higher loan limits and a beefing up of the FHA program, all the mechanisms have been falling into place to increase mortgage availability.”

Yeah.  Right.

Fire Sale Continues for American Homes

The fire sale of American homes continues unabated, according to the latest report of the Standard & Poors’ Case-Shiller Index.

All 20 cities measured by the Case-Shiller Index reported annual declines in June, with seven cities showing price drops of more than 20 percent.

The worst losses, both for the year and for the past month, were in the former boom regions in the West and Florida.

Las Vegas lead the nation with the most severe annual decline, with values dropping 28.6 percent in the past year. Prices in Miami fell 28.3 percent, values in Phoenix dropped 27.9 percent, and in Los Angeles prices fell 25.3 percent.

The cities with the least annual declines in home value were Charlotte (-1.0 percent), Dallas (-3.2 percent), Denver (-4.7 percent), and Portland (-5.3 percent).

San Francisco led the nation with the greatest loss from May 2008 to June 2008.  The cities with the biggest drop in the past month were San Francisco (-1.8 percent), Miami (-1.7 percent), Las Vegas (-1.6 percent), San Diego (-1.5 percent), and Los Angeles (-1.4 percent).

Cities showing the greatest price increases for the past month were Denver (1.5 percent), Boston (1.2 percent), Minneapolis (1.0 percent), Dallas (0.7 percent), and Cleveland (0.7 percent).

Given these catastrophic figures, we can take some small comfort in the belief that home prices must eventually stop falling.

After all, American homes can’t be worth zero.

Can they?

“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.

Home Prices Fall Again — Down 15.8% From Last Year

According to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller Index, which measures the sale price of existing single family homes in 20 major metropolitan areas, prices fell another 0.9 percent in May 2008,  and were down 15.8 percent from May 2007.

File this information under “Tell Us Something We Didn’t Know.”

Actually, we knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.

The Standard and Poors Report states that “For the second straight month, all 20 MSAs posted annual declines, nine of which are posting record lows and 10 of which are in double-digits. Both the 10-City Composite and the 20-City Composite are reporting record low annual declines.”

“Since August 2006, there has not been one month where we have seen overall price increases . . . For the month of May, markets that experienced large gains in the recent real estate boom continue to be the biggest decliners. Miami and Las Vegas were the worst performers returning -3.6% and -2.9%, respectively. On a brighter note, Charlotte and Dallas have recorded three consecutive months of positive returns. These two markets are also showing the smallest annual declines, with Charlotte own 0.2% and Dallas down 3.1% versus May of 2007. From a longer-term perspective, since January 2000, the best performing markets are Washington, Los Angeles, New York and Miami. The value of housing in Detroit is lower than it was in January 2000. Over the month, no region reported gains in excess of 1%. But for those that reported monthly declines, three were in excess of 2%.”

And with the credit market frozen, there is no end in sight to falling home prices and the housing crisis, now rapidly becoming the housing disaster.

Credit Markets are Frozen as Economy Stalls — The Fed’s Efforts to Increase Lending Fail Despite Billions to Banks

Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and his fellow monetary watchdogs have taken unprecedented steps in the past year to increase liquidity in the credit market.  They’ve cut the short-term interest rate seven times since September 2007.  They’ve committeded billions of public dollars to prevent the bankruptcy of Bear Stearns and other major financial institutions, and billions more to prop-up mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The goal has been to stabilize the financial markets and increase liquidity — that is, to make more money available to more people and businesses.

What has been the result of the Fed’s efforts?

The answer is: Not much.

Despite the Fed’s efforts — and the billions of public dollars invested over the past year in the financial industry — the banking business has just about shut down.

In fact, it is harder now for most business to borrow money than it was before the Fed started its rating-cutting.

As the New York Times reports, “Banks struggling to recover from multibillion-dollar losses on real estate are curtailing loans to American businesses, depriving even healthy companies of money for expansion and hiring.  Two vital forms of credit used by companies — commercial and industrial loans from banks, and short-term “commercial paper” not backed by collateral — collectively dropped almost 3 percent over the last year, to $3.27 trillion from $3.36 trillion, according to Federal Reserve data. That is the largest annual decline since the credit tightening that began with the last recession, in 2001.”

The effect of the banks’ tight money policy could be devastating to the economy. 

Mortgage rates will continue to climb, further increasing foreclosures and heightening the housing crisis.  Those industries closely allied with real estate, such as construction, will continue to collapse.  Even successful businesses will be unable to expand, further increasing the jobless rate.  Smaller businesses, which provide a large percentage of American jobs, will be particularly hard hit, since they will be entirely frozen out of the credit market.  Bankruptcies, both large and small, will continue to spiral upward. 

What is the answer?

The Fed’s rate-cutting hasn’t worked, and the piece-meal approach being taken by Congress and the administration (including the new mortgage relief legislation) won’t work either.

What is needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the entire banking and financial system and the credit markets, including the securities laws.

And for that, we’ll have to wait at least until a new Congress and a new administration take over in January 2008.  Even then, comprehensive and systemic change is unlikely.

We need a 21st Century Franklin Roosevelt. 

Unfortunately, that’s probably impossible until we’re in the midst of a 21st Century Great Depression.

New Office Construction Down 91% in Orange County – Dozens of High-Rise Projects Stalled

An ominous sign for the Southern California commercial real estate market – and for the economy in general – is the report this week that office construction in Orange County, California, plunged 90.8 percent in the second quarter of 2008 from last year’s figures.

According to a report from Voit Commercial Brokerage, “The first half of 2008 has been characterized by a significant reduction in office development in Orange County.” 

“The total space under construction in Orange County at the end of the second quarter is 325,276 square feet,” said Jerry Holdner, vice president of market research for Voit Commercial Brokerage. “The total amount of construction is 90 percent lower than what was under construction at the same time last year.”

A drive down the 405 Freeway in Irvine shows dozens of stalled high-rise office construction projects.

Perhaps another indicator of the bust in office construction are the recent closings of several high-end restaurants in the Irvine Spectrum, which had relied substantially on business lunches. 

The slowdown in new office construction in Orange County means that more jobs will be lost in the building sector, and indicates that few companies plan to expand, or move to, this affluent and still high-priced Southern California county, which had served as the epicenter of the subprime mortgage industry.

On the other hand, the lack of new construction will likely mean that the vacancy rate for Orange County offices, which has been climbing steadily, will come down.

The vacancy rate is at 14.46 percent this quarter, which is significantly higher than the 8.95 percent vacancy rate recorded in the second quarter of 2007.