Northern Country

How globalization changes capitalism, the economy and politics

The U.S. economy and housing – part II

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foreclosuremapAug09               Foreclosure rates and Unemployment by state

Risky lending practices have led to a stellar rise in home prices and subsequent plunge when the housing bubble started to burst in the so-called sand states of California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona. It is no surprise that delinquency rates for missed or late mortgage payments have spiked strongly in those areas but also around the country.

In the second quarter of 2009 according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) delinquency rates for one-to-four-unit residential properties have reached a seasonally adjusted rate of 9.4 percent of all loans outstanding. These numbers set the record for highest late payments rates ever recorded.

Foreclosed properties are also at record high with 4.3 percent at the end of the second quarter, leading to a total combined 13.7 percent of loans past due, also the highest amount of non-current payments in the history of the MBA survey. A welcomed exception are loans 30 days past due which are still well below the record set in the second quarter of 1985.

A sure sign that mortgage problems are being driven by economic recession rather than non-conforming lending practices is the increase in foreclosure rates with prime fixed rate loans. Foreclosure filings are now spreading to areas hit by the economic downturn. The combined percentage of foreclosure filings in the sand states has decreased slightly to 44 percent from 46 in the first quarter.

The State of Oregon is a good example with its unemployment rate rising to 11.9 percent in July compared to last year, at the same time foreclosures in the state are up a whopping 84 percent. The problem seems to be unemployment rather than toxic loans. Many first time home owners who bought at the peak of real estate prices simply have not enough equity in their homes and cannot afford current mortgage payments due to the weak economy.

Of course the actual foreclosure rates are very hard to predict. Government moratoriums have effectively created a hidden backlog of foreclosures that one day have to be dealt with. There are also more warning sign of homeowners under duress emerging as fewer are catching up on lapsed mortgages.

A report from Fitch Ratings found that cure rates for prime loans collapsed to 6.6 percent in July from an average 45 percent for the years 2000 through 2006. Cure rates have also fallen dramatically for non-conforming loans of Alt-A and subprime category. Fitch looked only at a return to current payment for loans bundled into securities, excluding GSE and non-securitiezed loans. 

This dramatic shift in the recovery of delinquent loans towards current payment is partially caused by the economic recession and fall in home prices, which puts a significant number of homeowners under water with little hope of ever recovering their investments. With toxic loans from non-conforming lending practices on the one hand and economic recession on the other, it is no surprise the outlook for both the economy and housing remains highly uncertain.

Few signs of a turn around in housing are starting to emerge. According to Case/Shiller nationwide home prices are showing tangible signs of improvement month over month in June and May of this year. In some areas where prices have fallen dramatically investors are coming back to the market hoping to snap up properties on the cheap.

The Outlook remains uncertain and yet a recovery will by and large depend on the pace of turn around in the economy. While it is no secret that recessions caused by a slump in businesses of the financial services industry tend to last longer, on average almost five years, the depth of the economic trough and the pace of recovery is still unclear.

Key to answering the question whether we will have a V, W, U, or L shaped recovery lies with the American consumer. In the past abundance of credit fueled conspicuous consumption and a debt driven economy. No wonder many are fearing a new found admiration for frugality that is exemplified by an increased savings rate in the U.S. today.

Even though less consumption in the U.S. would almost certainly have implications reverberating around the global economy, the results of this dramatic shift in behavior would be felt most severely in the U.S. itself. While there likely will have to be some shift towards a more export driven economy it is hard to imagine that policymakers in the U.S. are willing to completely adjust to this new set of paradigms without recourse to pre-crisis conditions.

In fact strong signs of reoccurrence of pre-crisis behavior are starting to emerge. Reports of once-again record compensation packages among employees in the financial services industry have angered critics who see the industry at the center of the economic storm and would like to see more humbleness instead of the same old greed.

Even more daunting is another bad habit that many consider at the heart of the financial meltdown through its manipulative prowess in credit distribution behavior. Many banks still stuffed with risky mortgage loans from frothy days of real estate exuberance are once again engaging in what some call resecuritization of real estate mortgage investment conduits.

At the heart of Wall Street’s newest innovation is the re-remic, an impaired bond that does not necessarily have a natural buyer but by splitting it into two bonds may find a buyer for both of them. Investors who take on a really risky pool of securitized loans agree to lose money first if the deal goes sour. Investors in the safer pool of assets get paid first, therefore securitized loans in this category are slapped with a AAA-rating. Sound familiar?

The financial meltdown shooting out from non-conforming lending practices is in part credited to the failed securitization of mortgage loans deemed useful by false credit ratings. Yet, here we go again relying on financial repackaging of inferior securities dubbed suitable once again by rating agencies.

Sifma and the European and the American Securitization Forums (ESF and ASF) are ambitiously drafting new rules to rebuild confidence in structured credit markets reacting to a call from financial regulators to enhance transparency in this notoriously shrouded over-the-counter market. There is clearly a consensual desire to clean up the securitization markets, no wonder given its impact on the current financial crisis.

Initiatives aimed at standardizing issuer disclosure, facilitating and broadening investors’ access to transaction information and enhancing the usability of information are all welcomed but do they really justify the inherent risks purported by this form of financial engineering? Wall Street’s history and its future always has been and always will be abusive in nature, which should give everyone a moment’s thought, unless the crisis was for naught.

While this initiative has been started more than a year ago it does not seem to get into gears. The first drafts of reform were to be implemented at the beginning of 2009 but new rules are still in the workings and have not taken off ground yet. The MBAs proposal to standard procedures for servicing non-conforming residential mortgage loans and ASF’s Project Restart aimed at the securitization market are now trying to put the squeeze on regulators to let more players get sucked back into this ailing market.

So far the magic wand of enhanced transparency did not help to lift the freeze in in the securitization market. During Goldman Sachs’ second quarter the securitization powerhouse was only able to sell $12.9 billion in securitized loans, with meager $496 million outside of safe government agency bonds. That dwarfs in comparison to upwards of $30 billion at the beginning of 2007.

Inquisitive minds might argue that policy makers are not too successful in their attempt to hawk back to pre-crisis conditions. The emperors new clothes in the form of enhanced transparency seems not sufficient to once again resurrect bad habits from the dawn of the credit crisis.

Nevertheless much will depend on future success of the credit-distribution-lifter in form of securitized mortgage or other asset backed loans. Without it the American consumer might well be maxed out, with it the financial services industry and investors will probably once and for all loose their last shirt over it. Much like the Federal Reserve also Wall Street seems to be damned if they do and dammed if they don’t.

While these contradictions contribute to the overall uncertainty credit markets in general are still not healthy. Recently the Fed extended its Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) for another six months. It was scheduled to expire at the end of 2009.

In the UK, Bank of England governor King detonated a bomb last week when it became known that he voted for an even bigger increase in the bank’s quantitative easing policy. The minutes of the August meeting revealed King wanted to expand the program by 75 billion instead of 50 billion pounds.

In this apparent game of confidence policymakers are hitting the monetary accelerator full throttle to make sure the public can have trust in their abilities to revive the economy. Yet under these strange conditions a sustained recovery in housing, the economy and on Wall Street seems to be still ways off.

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