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Posts Tagged ‘housing market

Existing Home Prices Drop 1.5% in September

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NAR just announced that the median existing home price fell 1.5% to $174,900 in September. Sales grew much faster than expected due to the first-time homebuyer tax credit, but this will likely be the highest sales pace for the year due to expiration of the credit and seasonal factors.

Is this the start of the next leg down? Sure looks like it to me.

Written by Myron

10/23/2009 at 10:07 AM

Posted in Real Estate

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Buying A Home In Today’s Market: Reduce Your Risk Exposure

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So you’ve read all of the headlines about how “now is the time to buy” and you see the “For Sale” signs up at some nice looking houses on every block at prices you couldn’t have dreamed of just 2-3 years ago… you can’t let this opportunity pass you by. What’s the catch?

Well, to start with, judging affordability based on a comparison to past prices is a huge mistake. The mainstream media has been trying to convince the American public that a home should not be viewed as an investment but instead as a shelter. That theory works fine for the married household with children who intend on staying in their home for the full term of their mortgage, but unfortunately that is not who homes are being marketed to in today’s market. Today’s home buyer is either an investor or first-time home buyer in the majority of markets. Of these first-time home buyers, many are buying with the intent to stay in this home for the next 5-10 years instead of 15-30 years. Why are these buyers being told that now is the time to buy?

The fact is this: Buying a home IS AN INVESTMENT and it is likely the most important investment that the typical household will make in their lifetime.

Why? Let’s take a look at a few qualified households who are buying homes this month before the FTHB tax credit expires. For the purposes of this exercise, the following assumptions apply to all households:

  • Household income: $100,000
  • Monthly debt obligations: $1,000
  • Cash available for downpayment: $40,000
  • Location: High-cost metropolitan area (>$200,000 median price)
  • Household size: Two adults, both with incomes, and no children
  • Expected occupation of the home: 7 years
  • Property tax rate: 1%
  • HOA fees: $200/mo
  • Closing costs: Paid by seller
  • Qualifying credit score: 690

Household A

Household A has dreams of luxury and wants to get as much house as they can possibly qualify for with a fixed 30 year term, but don’t want their cash tied up in home equity. Household A chooses a 30-yr fixed FHA-insured mortgage at 5.00% interest and elects to pay the minimum 3.5% downpayment. If we qualify them at 31% front-end (PITI) and 43% back-end (DTI), which is the FHA standard, then here is a quick summary of this borrower and their obligations:

  • Maximum monthly payment at 31% PITI: $2,583
  • Maximum monthly payment at 43% DTI: $2,583
  • Sales price: $364,000
  • Downpayment (3.5% FHA): $12,740
  • UFMIP (1.75% FHA): $6,147
  • Loan amount: $357,407
  • Real/effective LTV: 98.2%
  • Monthly PITI: $2,583
  • Cash remaining as reserves: $27,260 (10.5 months)

Household B

Household B is fiscally conservative and believe that they have saved enough for a decent home in a “rough” neighborhood, but hope to upgrade in 7 years to put their children in a district with better schools. Household B chooses a 30-yr fixed conventional mortgage at 4.75% interest and elects to pay a 10% downpayment. If we qualify them at 28% front-end (PITI) and 36% back-end (DTI), which is the conventional standard, then here is a quick summary of this borrower and their obligations:

  • Maximum monthly payment at 28% PITI: $2,333
  • Maximum monthly payment at 36% DTI: $2,000
  • Sales price: $250,000
  • Downpayment (10% Conv.): $25,000
  • Loan amount: $225,000
  • Real/effective LTV: 90.0%
  • Monthly PITI: $1,675
  • Cash remaining as reserves: $15,000 (9 months)

Based on the facts above, we should expect Household B to be the more reliable and responsible borrower. I’m here to say that’s true, but it doesn’t make their decision to buy a home much better than Household A.

So let’s examine a scenario where home prices fall 20% over the next 7 years and each of the above homeowners would like to sell their home to take advantage of the now lower home prices and get more bang for their buck:

Household A: $364,000 sales price – 20% = $291,200

Household B: $250,000 sales price – 20% = $200,000

Household A had $27,260 remaining after the purchase of their home. Adding in the $8,000 tax credit gives them $35,260 in cash after closing. After 7 years, they now owe $314,321 in principal. This means that Household A needs to come out-of-pocket with $23,121 just to sell their home and walk away. This does not include the 6% ($17,472) they will need to pay agents to sell the home, which raises their out-of-pocket total to $40,593. In order for Household A to sell their home and purchase a comparable home at market value for 3.5% down, they will need to have saved an additional $15,525 over the 7 years they lived in their current home. At that point, they would have $0 remaining in savings. Household A has no choice but to remain in their current home and hope that home values rise again substantially over the next few years.

Household B had $15,000 remaining after the purchase of their home. Adding in the $8,000 tax credit gives them $23,000 in cash after closing. After 7 years, they now owe $196,855 in principal. Household B could sell their home and walk away with $3,145 from the sale. However, add in the 6% ($12,000) to pay agents to sell the home and now they must come out-of-pocket with $8,855 to walk away from their home. In order for Household B to sell their home and purchase a comparable home at market value for 3.5% down, they will need to take $15,855 from their savings. That leaves Household B with $7,145 from their original cash after closing plus any additional savings over the 7 years they lived in their current home. Household B would have saved $76,272 more than Household A over 7 years in their respective homes due to having a much lower PITI payment. This savings would likely be enough for Household B to purchase a new home on the market in a better school district for their children.

Household B look like the winners in this one, right? Well that depends on how you look at it. In pure dollars and cents, Household B is the winner. They should clearly have enough money saved to purchase the home they desire. On the downside, however, they sacrificed their safety and quality of life for 7 years and lost $50,000 in equity from the purchase and sale of their first home. The last part of that needs to be repeated… $50,000 lost.  I don’t know any successful investor who would pride themselves on such an investment.

Specifically here is the return on invesment for Household B:

$25,000 initial investment + $28,145 lifetime principal paid = $53,145 in equity – $50,000 loss = $3,145 return = -94% return on investment

Negative 94%!

I’d like to propose an alternate choice to Households A and B that most real estate professionals will never tell you about. I’d argue that now is the PERFECT time to buy a home if you’re brave enough and do your education on the investment products I’m going to mention below. If you aren’t familiar with trading in futures and are still interested in the following strategy, then please contact a professional to handle the execution of this strategy.

Household C

Household C knows that the housing market may not be at a bottom, but is afraid that interest rates will skyrocket in the next few years as inflation heats up. Household C believes that high interest rates will likely ruin their chances to live in the neighborhoods they prefer even if house prices are 10-20% lower. Household C is also afraid that house prices may drop too low and force them to sell their home at a huge loss. Household C chooses a 30-yr fixed FHA-insured mortgage at 5.00% interest and elects to pay the minimum 3.5% downpayment. If we qualify them at 31% front-end (PITI) and 43% back-end (DTI), which is the FHA standard, then here is a quick summary of this borrower and their obligations:

  • Maximum monthly payment at 31% PITI: $2,583
  • Maximum monthly payment at 43% DTI: $2,583
  • Sales price: $364,000
  • Downpayment (3.5% FHA): $12,740
  • UFMIP (1.75% FHA): $6,147
  • Loan amount: $357,407
  • Real/effective LTV: 98.2%
  • Monthly PITI: $2,583
  • Cash remaining as reserves: $27,260 (10.5 months)

Based on the above, you’re probably saying to yourself… Household C looks just like Household A, how is this any better?

Well, Household C made the decision to sell S&P Case-Shiller Index futures contracts equal to the value of their home. We’ll examine how this impacts their potential returns below.

Before we get into the technical details of this strategy, let’s discuss what these contracts do. A basic understanding of investing in futures and hedging strategy is assumed here, but for those who need an introduction I’ll place a few links here to get you started:

I’ll repeat this one last time: Do not attempt to execute this strategy on your own unless you have advanced knowledge and experience in futures trading!

S&P Case-Shiller Housing Futures are based on the Case-Shiller Home Price Indexes developed by the economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller. I won’t bore you all with the methodology behind the indexes, but these house price indexes are used to show the changes in house prices for single-family homes that have been sold more than once. They have separate indexes for condominiums, but we won’t discuss those in this post. If you’ve heard in the news that house prices have fallen x% in the last month or year, then it is very likely that they are referencing the data from these indexes. I’d advise anyone to go to the MacroMarkets site to learn more about these widely used home price indexes.

Back to the strategy: How does this impact a potential home buyer? If home prices fall 50% in the next 3 years, then that means these housing indexes will fall 50% in the next 3 years. It also means you’ve lost 50% of the value of your home. The futures products based on these indexes were designed to protect investors and home builders against the risk of volatile home prices by hedging the value of their property against these housing indexes. One of the less publicized purposes of these products was to protect home owners from losses on their homes.

The Case-Shiller Composite Index (Symbol:CUS) for July ’09 is at 155.85 (data is released with a two-month lag). One CUS futures contract is worth $250 times the value of the index, or $38,962 based on current data. The margin required to trade and carry one contract is $1,350.

Example

Let’s take the case of a home owner in Las Vegas where prices are in free fall. They bought at $200,000 before the housing boom and their home is now worth the same as what they bought for. They don’t want to risk losing any more equity and want to downsize to another home in about 2 years. This home owner could sell 6 Nov ’11 CUS futures contracts, currently trading at 149.20 and therefore worth $223,800, which would require at least $8,100 in margin to be placed into a trading account. If house prices fell 20% over the next two years from the current 155.85 index value, then those Nov ’11 futures contracts would be trading at approximately 125 points at expiration. This home owner would have made a profit of $36,300 on his trade and lost $40,000 in home value, thus leaving the home owner with a net loss of $3,700 in the two year period.

Let’s look at the flip side of that trade and say that the home owner incorrectly judged the market and house prices rose 20% over the next two years. Those same Nov ’11 futures contracts would be trading at 187 points leaving the home owner with a loss of $56,700 on his trade and a gain of $40,000 in home value. This same home owner now has a net loss of $16,700 in the two year period.

Some people are probably saying to themselves, how is this good if they lost money in both scenarios?

Well, this is all about eliminating downside risk.

If home prices fall 20%, then they lose $40,000 in home equity. That number is more than 10 times the loss in the hedged scenario.

If home prices rise 20%, then they lose $16,700 in the trade. That number is still less than half of the loss in the scenario where house prices fall.

This home owner was solely concerned with preservation of capital and reducing risk and that goal was accomplished with the above trade.

Household C (continued)

Back to our brave first-time home buyer Household C. They are concerned with home prices falling in the next 2-3 years and plan to sell their home within 7 years. Instead of trading illiquid futures contracts that expire in 7 years, Household C decides to sell Nov ’12 contracts (trading at 150) and will re-examine the housing market at that point to determine if additional risk management is necessary. Household C will need to sell 10 contracts (worth $37,500 each) to fully cover their purchase price of $364,000. This will require Homeowner C to place $13,500 in margin into a trading account, plus an appropriate cushion for additional margin in case the trade begins to go in the opposite direction.

Let’s look at a few hypothetical scenarios to see how Household C’s decision could turn out:

  1. Home prices drop 30% from now until Nov ’12: Contracts close at 109, profit of $102,500, home value loss of $109,200, now worth $254,800 = Net loss of $6,700
  2. Home prices drop 20% from now until Nov ’12: Contracts close at 124.60, profit of $63,500, home value loss of $72,800, now worth $291,200 = Net loss of $9,300
  3. Home prices drop 10% from now until Nov ’12: Contracts close at 140.20, profit of $24,500, home value loss of $36,400, now worth $327,600 = Net loss of $11,900
  4. Home prices remain the same from now until Nov ’12: Contracts close at 155.85, loss of $14,625, home value gain/loss of $0, now worth $364,000 = Net loss of $14,625
  5. Home prices gain 10% from now until Nov ’12: Contracts close at 171.40, loss of $53,500, home value gain of $36,400, now worth $400,400 = Net loss of $17,100
  6. Home prices gain 20% from now until Nov ’12: Contracts close at 187, loss of $92,500, home value gain of $72,800, now worth $436,800 = Net loss of $19,700

As you can see, this scenario benefits Household C the most when prices drop the most. In the cases where home prices gain by a substantial amount, they will be required to hold a large amount of money in the account to serve as margin against unrealized losses. But hidden among these simple calculations of profit and loss is the fact that they have been paying down their loan balance for 3 years and will have the same low 5% interest rate on their mortgage. The impact of this is enormous as we’ll show below.

If this home owner bought at $364,000 and the home value dropped by 20%, then they have a $63,400 profit from their trade and a $9,300 loss from the hedge. This home owner can then put all of the profits from the trade into a payment of principal on the mortgage which would bring their outstanding loan balance down to $276,866 in December 2012. This home owner now has $14,344 in home equity and the principal per mortgage payment has risen from $497 to $765 due to the huge extra payment. Household C planned to sell their home in 7 years and will have an outstanding balance of $237,238 at that point. In other words, house prices would have to fall an additional 19% from Nov ’12 to Nov ’16 in order for them to have to come out-of-pocket when they sold their home.  Household C could simply elect to open a new futures hedge to protect their equity if house prices were still in sharp decline.

Renting vs. Buying and Hedging

Comparing the above approach to the renting approach shows that renting is not necessarily a more attractive option to those who have the cash available to fully hedge their position. The monthly price to rent ratio is currently around 1.2, but we’ll round down and say that it would cost 75% of the PITI to rent a similar home. In this case, Household C would have paid $1,937/mo to rent the same home they bought. That translates into a $23,256 total savings due to housing expenses from today to Nov ’12 for the renter. Let’s say that housing prices are near a bottom in 2012 and the renter decides that it is finally an excellent time to buy. They could buy the same home at $291,200 and put 20% down ($58,240), but interest rates are likely to be much higher than they are today. We’re going to use 7.5% as the 30-year fixed rate which puts the PITI at $2,072/mo, a savings of $511/mo versus Household C.

This new home owner would have an outstanding loan balance of $223,317 in Nov ’16. Remember that Household C had an outstanding balance of $237,238, however the new home owner put $58,240 into the home as a downpayment while Household C only put $12,740 down.

Here are the areas where the renter has the advantage:

  • Renter’s savings from Nov ’09 to Nov ’12: $23,256
  • Renter’s savings in PITI from Nov ’12 to Nov ’16: $24,528
  • Renter’s outstanding loan balance improvement on Nov ’16: $13,921

TOTAL: $61,705

Here are the areas where Household C has the advantage:

  • Amount saved on downpayment: $45,500
  • Tax savings from Nov ’09 to Nov ’12 at 25% tax bracket: $13,107
  • First-time home buyer tax credit: $8,000

TOTAL: $66,607

As you can see, Household C has actually saved $5,000 more than the renter.

In addition, Household C is paying $926 per month towards principal while the renter pays only $232 in principal. This difference of $694 is greater than the $511 in PITI savings that the renter enjoys and the gap only grows larger as time goes on because Household C is further along in the amortization schedule and enjoys a lower interest rate. Moving the sales date back two years to 2018 would increase Household C’s principal balance by an additional $23,427 while the renter’s balance would only increase $6,017. Household C would have their mortgage paid in full in June 2031 while the renter wouldn’t have their mortgage paid in full until November 2042. This 11.5 year difference also displays the benefits to the buy and hedge strategy for the first-time home buyer who intends to occupy their new residence for a longer period of time.

Here are the amortization schedules for each approach:

Yearly Amortization for Rent and Buy

Yearly Amortization for Rent and Buy

Yearly Amortization for Buy and Hedge

Yearly Amortization for Buy and Hedge

Conclusion

Buying a home in today’s market is extremely risky for those who are putting their faith in the housing market’s recovery. The examples of Household A and Household B have shown the potential downside to any buyer who hopes to take advantage of this year’s advertised “low prices” while the market is still declining. This leaves only three legitimate options, in my opinion, for a potential first-time home buyer right now.

  1. Buy at a reasonable debt-to-income ratio with the intention of holding the home beyond the duration of the mortgage.
  2. Buy and hedge as discussed in this article.
  3. Rent, save your money, and wait it out if the potential risks outweigh the rewards of home ownership.

I don’t have statistics to back up this claim, but I’m fairly certain that most first-time home buyers are not considering option #1 since the days of living in the same home for an entire lifetime are long gone. Option #3 is the most responsible choice for most potential first-time home buyers today. Home prices are going to fall this winter and are projected by nearly everyone to fall through 2010. Perhaps a better deal can be had sometime in the next 2-4 years if sound fundamentals return to the housing market.

Option #2 would be my choice. It requires a more carefully planned approach to home ownership, but the risks are contained and the potential rewards far outweigh those in options #1 and #3. Another element of this strategy that I enjoy is the lack of volatility in the Case-Shiller futures contracts. Unlike most leveraged derivative investments, this trade has an extremely low chance of incurring a margin call within a span of minutes, hours, or even days. Therefore, this hedging strategy will require very little monitoring on a day-to-day basis and should be very hands-off as long as a conservative margin strategy is employed. There is no historical precedent for house prices rising or falling 10% in a single month and the largest recorded monthly change in the CSI was the 2.8% drop in Feb ’08. The largest yearly home price increase recorded in U.S. history was 24.1% in 1946 while the largest decrease was 18.3% in 2008 based on Robert Shiller’s research into home prices dating back to 1890. Based on this data, I’d advise keeping a cash balance in the trading account to cover a 5% move against your position ($34,106 in the example given for Household C). If house prices show a strong and sustained move to the upside accompanied by signs of a stabilizing economy (lower unemployment, higher wages, etc.), then the housing market is likely in the recovery process and the hedge can be closed. Closing the trade at the right time (aka calling the bottom) will result in the greatest reward from this strategy, but the conservative household should simply keep the hedge active for as long as the housing market is questionable to protect their equity. Calling market bottoms is more often than not a matter of luck than skill and shouldn’t be the basis of any investment strategy.

I’ve argued against the FHA’s weak downpayment requirements, but those downpayment requirements don’t hurt home buyers directly. Instead they hurt home buyers indirectly by propping up home prices that would otherwise fall. They also hurt the taxpayer as described in previous posts. Getting a home with 3.5% down can be a blessing for a lot of home buyers, especially ones who intend on owning their homes for a lifetime or have a risk management strategy in place. Now is indeed a great opportunity for those who are smart enough and have enough cash to take advantage, but not in the way that the mainstream media is pushing. Do your research before using any of the strategies mentioned in this post. This is not intended for the average American household, but hopefully this gives readers one more option to consider when buying a home in today’s rough market.

Written by Myron

10/12/2009 at 1:00 AM

House Hearing on FHA Capital Reserves

with 3 comments

A panel of economists and real estate industry executives spoke this evening at 2 p.m. about the state of FHA’s capital reserves and the implications of the current housing crisis on the future of FHA policy.

Here is a link to the webcast and prepared testimony: http://www.house.gov/apps/list/hearing/financialsvcs_dem/scmhr_100809.shtml

There have been varying opinions on the significance of the FHA’s announcement that they expect to fall below their 2% reserve limit in the near future, but the one thing that is acknowledged by nearly everyone is the need to mitigate risk given the current economic environment.

One thing that has consistently irked me throughout this housing debacle is how blatantly people employed or subsidized by NAR, NAHB, and MBA have falsely sold the public on the idea that everything is going to be alright and things will be back to normal very soon. It’s also becoming more apparent that the real estate industry as a whole fully believes this propaganda and the public hasn’t seemed to raise even an eyebrow at how counter-intuitive some of this jibberish actually is.

First, let’s start with some blasts from the past:

This annotated housing price chart was created by the blog “Lawrence Yun Watch“, a blog devoted to exposing the absurd propaganda vomited upon the American public by the Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of Research at the National Association of Realtors.

More quotes from a late 2007 interview with Yun (before he was promoted to Chief Economist… I sure wish I could completely fail at my job and get a promotion)

I’ll leave it to the reader to examine the accuracy of those statements and predictions made by the hypeman for NAR, but because this post is not about him in particular I’d instead like to focus on one passage from that 2007 interview:

RM:But what about all those subprime borrowers? Many of these are the first-time borrowers who helped fuel the growth we saw in home sales over the last few years. What are the options for them?

Yun: We certainly won’t see the number of subprime borrowers that we saw during the boom. But borrowers who can’t qualify for prime loans will still have options, particularly if we see enactment of reforms to the FHA that NAR has been championing. The FHA has historically been the safe and affordable financing option for these borrowers. Largely because it comes with a lot of red tape and lacks a big choice in products, lenders rushed to fill the void with their much-riskier subprime loans. So a reformed FHA can go a long way to returning moderate-income and first-time borrowers to the market.

The real estate industry’s “championing” efforts are a large part of the reason that FHA’s market share continues to rise in the face of the worst housing environment since the Great Depression. There can be no doubt from the above comment that NAR’s intentions were for the FHA to help replace the collapsing supply of non-prime mortgage loans since private insurers wanted no part of that market as long as their survival depended upon risk management. The risk to the taxpayer grows greater as long as this trend continues.

Let’s now move on to the prepared testimony for today’s hearing and extract some interesting comments. There is a lot of testimony, so I’ll focus on the few that interested me the most. Everyone should read the full testimony from all participants at the link above. The fun begins here (bolded passages are marked by me for emphasis):

Testimony of The Honorable David Stevens, Assistant Secretary for Housing and Federal Housing Administration Commissioner, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

“A report released by the Federal Reserve last Wednesday, October 1, 2009 states:
Beginning in the early part of 2008, PMI companies started limiting their issuance of PMI insurance and raising prices because of rising claims and binding capital restrictions in certain states. As a consequence, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac substantially reduced their purchases of loans with loan-to-value ratios (LTV) above 80 percent, which by statute require PMI (or other credit enhancement). Both GSEs [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] also raised their credit guarantee fees for such loans at this time as well.
These actions taken by PMIs and GSEs in reaction to losses on their historical portfolios have led to FHA-insured loans becoming relatively cheaper and more accessible to borrowers, compared to PMI-insured loans than they were during the boom. FHA’s increased market share is a result of this countercyclical market dynamic and not in itself a reflection of the riskiness or lack thereof of newly insured loans.

Calling mass risk aversion a “countercyclical market dynamic” is completely dismissive of the factors that led to the current situation and shows a surprising disconnect from the fundamentals of the insurance business. Insurance premiums are by design a product of implied risk. This is the reason that flood insurance has higher premiums in coastal areas, life insurance is more costly for the elderly, and auto insurance premiums lower as driving experience increases.

Therefore, it should be easy to determine that rising premiums indicate an elevated level of implied risk by the market. Options traders know this implied risk or volatility as beta and the increasing use of options pricing models in the private insurance industry is a testament to the accuracy of the approach. A business which ignores this implied risk and continues to price premiums at the same rate will have a portfolio that is exposed to greater implied volatility.

FHA market share growth is indeed cyclical as Mr. Stevens suggests, but that is largely due to their implied government guarantee which has resulted in complacency with regards to proper risk valuation. This valuation gap is exposed in times of economic crisis when implied volatility rises and FHA premiums remain cheap in comparison to the rest of the market. This business model does serve to assist demand in housing, but it is not something that any private enterprise would pride themselves on and it can actually hurt home buyers by artificially inflating house prices in times where default risk is elevated.

The bottom line here is that the increase in FHA market share is directly correlated with the decrease in private market share for insurance on non-prime loans. That correlation is not coincidental, but instead is a reflection of how FHA insurance has become the new preferred product for those seeking similar risk to what was seen during the housing boom.

“Today, FHA is critical to the recovery of the housing market for both existing and new homeowners. FHA’s single-family purchase-loan portfolio is currently 80 percent first-time homebuyers, of which 27 percent are minorities. FHA provides opportunities for first-time homebuyers who have good credit histories but may not have a large downpayment to purchase homes, which has a stabilizing effect on home values.

The first sentence explains how the FHA is critical to “homeowners”, NOT home buyers, because home owners stand to benefit far more from the “stabilizing effect on home values” which protects their equity. Home buyers simply want to purchase an affordable home, not buy into an artificially inflated market. Interventionist policies and programs generally have a poor track record and usually come back to hurt those they were intended to benefit in the long run. First-time home buyers, as I described in this post, are advertised to be the primary beneficiaries of these programs intended to derail true price discovery but will end up paying the greatest price.

“The primary reason for this increase in dedicated loss reserves is a new home price forecast produced by IHS Global Insight, which is one component used by the actuarial firm to project future losses, which shows the bottom of the market delayed from 2009 to 2010, and reflects an additional 8.4 percent price decline in the US Single Family housing market.

This was the real eye-opener for me in this testimony. Numerous economists who correctly predicted the collapse of the housing bubble have predicted far greater losses than 8.4% from current levels and nearly all economists have acknowledged that rising foreclosures and inventory pose significant risks to housing price stability in 2010. How can a reserve budget be based upon only a 8.4% decrease, which is one of the more optimistic forecasts that I’ve seen to date? But this is only the beginning… this same forecast model from IHS Global Insight predicts a return to the peak of bubble prices as soon as 2015. This chart below is the visual representation of an asset bubble.

IHS Global Insight Aug09 Home Price Forecast

“The drop in the capital reserve ratio below two percent is anticipated to be for a relatively short period of time and the ratio is expected to return above two percent within the next two to three years, on its own, even if FHA were to make no policy changes at all. The current drop in the capital ratio in no way indicates that FHA is at risk of needing an immediate capital infusion as it currently holds more than $30 billion in total reserves. To the extent that FHA’s newly insured MMI loans are expected to earn revenues in excess of expected losses on a present value basis further strengthens its capital position as new mortgage insurance premiums will continue to add to FHA’s reserves.”

This short-term revenue injection is a direct result of taking a larger market share and therefore increased UFMIPs.  It seems that they are primarily concerned with short-term results based on optimistic projections instead of planning for an adverse scenario. Foreclosure rates will almost certainly rise as FHA’s newly insured loans mature and that will be the period of potential crisis depending on how well the economy has rebounded, if at all.

“As newly insured loans are being underwritten at or close to the bottom of housing prices, there is potentially lower risk that housing values of these new loans will become underwater in the future.”

This is called averaging down… how Kerviel-esque of them! Great if it works… disastrous if it doesn’t. I fail to see how this is much different than selling a naked put option on housing prices and that would truly be a risky endeavor in today’s market.

Despite my disagreement with a lot of this testimony, there were some positive developments that I’ll point out:

“On September 18, 2009, FHA announced that it will be appointing a Chief Risk Officer, for the first time in FHA’s history.”

A long overdue move and hopefully a very risk-averse person is given the position.

“FHA’s appraisal validity period will be reduced to four months for all properties including existing, proposed and new construction.”

This along with the crackdown on cherry-picked appraisers should help mitigate some of the risk exposure when housing prices become volatile.

Testimony of Mr. Edward Pinto, Real Estate Financial Services Consultant

“My purpose in testifying today is to advise you of the growing fiscal crisis facing the Federal Housing Administration (the FHA). Many witnesses over the years have made repeated warnings to this and other congressional committees. By my testifying today, this subcommittee will not be able to say that no one told them of the magnitude of the impending losses at FHA.”

Ouch… not exactly the first thing you want to hear.

He follows up with this chart detailing the rising trend in foreclosure starts for FHA mortgages that precedes even this mortgage crisis.

FHA Foreclosure Start Ratio

“There is no amount of insurance premium that is sufficient to cover the losses incurred by deliberately insuring loans based on poor underwriting standards”

Now here is one place where I’ll disagree with Mr. Pinto. FHA underwriting standards may not be excellent, but they are certainly not poor or very similar to the UW standards seen in the bubble years from the private side. The FHA requires full documentation in all cases and that one step alone removes a lot of the fraud from the system.

Next, he drops the hammer with a startling prediction:

“Back to FHA – I believe it appears destined for a taxpayer bailout in the next 24-36 months”

I’ve already addressed why I don’t believe failure will come that soon for the FHA, but it’s certainly possible if prices plummet beyond their predicted 8%  and/or the employment situation deteriorates faster than expected.

Mr. Pinto states the reasons for this prediction along with many supporting statistics, but I’ll quickly summarize the few that caught my eye:

  • The FHA and VA now account for over 90% of all loans with 90%+ LTV (high-LTV) being made
  • “Total high LTV lending in the first half of 2009 was equal to 23% of all originations by all lenders. It was only 17% of originations in 2006, a year notorious for its high risk lending”
  • At the end of Q1 ’09, the average equity of all homeowners with a mortgage in the U.S. was only 10% (lowest level ever recorded)
  • FHA’s default rate for loans originated within last 24 months: 5.73%
  • For the month of August, four lenders were responsible for 85% of all FHA loans added: Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Chase, and Citi

Let’s go back to Bernanke’s quote earlier this month: “I think it is undeniable that the FHA loans, because of a low downpayment, are riskier than other mortgages made”. So the question must be asked… Why are 90% of the risky mortgages guaranteed by the government? Clearly this is not in the best interest of the American public, yet all we continue to hear is that the FHA is saving the day for the common American. Sure there are certain low-income households who need some assistance to become homeowners, but they aren’t going to be getting a $700,000 home at 3.5% down. Government entities or agencies stepping in to help the economy in perilous times is not a problem, but when they risk the taxpayer’s dollars to the tune of tens of billions of dollars it becomes hard to justify the decision as beneficial to the nation as a whole. I’m not going to go into much detail about who benefits the most from this economic backstop, but their names are listed above and they are some of the same ones that have been on the winning side of every legislative decision and and economic stimulus package for the past 24 months.

He finishes by giving the following suggestions to possibly avert a crisis for the FHA:

1. Raise the minimum FHA downpayment on purchases to 10% with reduced seller concessions.
2. Limit FHA volume of low downpayment loans to a 5-10% market share.
3. Reduce FHA max loan limits to a level commensurate with low and moderate income housing
4. Establish a coinsurance requirement of 10% for FHA lenders and raise capital requirements.

1. Raise the minimum FHA downpayment on purchases to 10% with reduced seller concessions.

2. Limit FHA volume of low downpayment loans to a 5-10% market share.

3. Reduce FHA max loan limits to a level commensurate with low and moderate income housing

4. Establish a coinsurance requirement of 10% for FHA lenders and raise capital requirements.

I’m not a huge fan of hard limits across the board for #1 and #2 because the FHA’s mission of helping low and moderate income households is something that can help a lot of Americans get their foot in the door. I am, however, in support of the logic behind these suggestions. There should clearly be higher downpayment requirements for higher loan values and such a tiered approach would reduce exposure to the high-LTV market throughout the financial industry until private firms have adjusted their risk pricing models to reflect a stable economy. As for #3, I’m fully supportive of this suggestion. It shouldn’t be possible for banks to give someone a government guaranteed mortgage for $700,000 with only a $25,000 downpayment. It is perhaps even more ridiculous that there is aggressive campaigning by Senator Dodd (can we get this guy out of office already?) and others to have these loan limits permanently extended for all GSE’s and FHA. Lastly, I can’t see the bankers accepting the first part of suggestion #4, although it would help, and the second part won’t matter as proven by the fact that the vast majority of FHA volume is generated by the “too big to fail” entities.

The Numbers Game

Now on to the numbers behind this potential FHA crisis:

FHA reserves stand at approximately $30 billion.

The FHA’s single-family portfolio of 5.8 million loans is $725 billion. ($125,000 per loan)

According to Mr. Pinto, Fannie Mae’s high-LTV defaults are averaging around a 50% loss of principal. It does seem, as he suggests, that it is safe to assume similar results for FHA defaults.

Therefore my basic math says that the FHA can withstand about 480,000 foreclosures before the reserves hit the zero boundary and the “full credit” clause of the government guarantee kicks in. The Q2 ’09 OCC and OTS Mortgage Metrics Report from the Treasury tells us that government guaranteed mortgages, of which FHA accounts for 77 percent, had 93,231 foreclosures in process, 194,934 defaults (90 days delinquent), and another 161,684 seriously delinquent loans (60-89 days or bankruptcies). If we just assume again that 50% of these 90 day defaulted mortgages are foreclosed upon then that brings us to 190,698 total loans to be foreclosed upon in the immediate future. 77% of that should be a fair estimate of the FHA’s share which would be 146,837 foreclosures.

Add that number to the 5.73% rate of default for loans originated in the last 24 months by the FHA (928,000 annual rate reported in May 2009 for FHA loans x 2 years = 1.856 million). Multiplying 1,856,000 x 0.0573 gives us another 106,348 foreclosures.

A rough estimate of 253,185 likely foreclosures based on the 90-day default and foreclosure in progress data from 4-5 months ago doesn’t bode well for the FHA reserves in the near future. The number of foreclosures and the unemployment rate have both continued to rise since Q2 ’09 and house prices are destined to fall again this winter due to seasonal factors alone. The FHA would need a truly immaculate turnaround for the American economy and the housing market to avoid depleting their reserves at this pace. It would be even better if the FHA and our government would instead dare to be proactive in reducing this risk instead of simply crossing their fingers and hoping for an improbable recovery in the near future.

Conclusion

The implications for the real estate industry are huge if the FHA does decide to reduce its risk in the markets. I’m in favor of them reducing market share in such rough economic times, especially in the jumbo and >95% LTV markets, but the FHA could quickly dig their own grave by reducing risk too quickly. If the FHA decided to dramatically cut market share then house prices could plummet for a second time which would increase their current book risk and potentially lead to an even greater loss than if they had stood pat. Such an exit strategy would have to be carefully planned and executed in a similar fashion to the massive stimulus plans of central banks.

Because of the inherent risk involved with exiting the market completely, I’d be in favor of the following changes to protect the taxpayer against risk:

1. Raising downpayment requirements from 3.5% to 5% for loan values above the local median home price.

2. Lowering the loan limits to 125% of the local median home price, up to $417,000 in high-cost areas.

3. Increasing UFMIP from 1.75% to 2% in a declining market.

Hopefully someone wakes up and starts doing something to protect us from another bailout before it is too late, but as Mr. Pinto said… it’s not as if there was no warning.

Written by Myron

10/08/2009 at 11:21 PM

FHA Taxpayer Protection Act of 2009

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Rep. Scott Garrett from New Jersey is introducing legislation to raise the minimum required down payment on Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-insured mortgages from the current level of 3.5% to 5%.

Garrett Introduces FHA Bill Requiring 5% Down Payment

“In addition to the 5% down payment requirement, an increase from the current required rate of 3.5%, Garrett’s legislation would also prohibit financing of closing costs under such mortgages, and require a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of FHA fiscal soundness.”

Garrett questioned Ben Bernanke on the pros and cons of such a change to FHA-insured mortgages at a recent hearing on financial reform and good ol’ Ben didn’t disappoint by showing how much he really cares about the American public.

“I think it is undeniable that the FHA loans, because of a low downpayment, are riskier than other mortgages made and therefore have greater chance of loss which will be made up by the taxpayer and that trade-off is your trade-off in terms of what kinds of risk you’re willing to take.”
– Ben Bernanke

Translation: The Federal Reserve doesn’t pay taxes, so I don’t care how much money you common Americans lose by nationalizing subprime mortgage lending.

This makes Thursday’s House Financial Services Committee hearing on The Future of the FHA’s Capital Reserves all that more interesting. Given all of the money that will be lined up against passage of such legislation, I think this may be a more controversial topic than even the FTHB tax credit. Clearly something needs to be done to save the FHA from a calamitous situation which only gets worse by the day as they continue to hand out subprime mortgages at 3.5% down in an environment of rising unemployment and falling prices.

I don’t think raising down payments to 5% will solve much in the grand scheme of things, but at least it is a starting point considering how much public money is at stake. Then again, I’m sure passage of this act would be immediately followed by an extended home buyer tax credit with a larger dollar figure to lure in more first-time home buyers. When it comes to government, you usually have to give a lot to get a little.

Written by Myron

10/05/2009 at 11:32 PM

Real Estate: The War Behind The Scenes

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The $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit has generated a lot of debate lately as NAR and NAHB have been campaigning (or more accurately, buying support) for the extension of the credit by claiming that it is necessary for stability in the housing market. The sentiment among budget conscious Americans has shifted firmly against the tax credit extension in recent months as the U.S. public debt grows to levels unimaginable just two years ago. Both parties have legitimate arguments, but there will only be one winner…. let’s take a look at who the most likely winner will be.

The argument for: Government programs to buy mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries are scheduled to end in the next 6 months which will likely cause mortgage rates to climb. In addition, the transition into the winter season will surely have a negative impact on the purchase market. First-time home buyers have made up 43% of the purchase market this year and NAR estimates that about 17.5% of those sales would not have happened without the tax credit. Home sales already seem unlikely to recover significantly in 2010 given the increasing unemployment rate, declining wages in many states, and increasing delinquency rates on all loans.

The argument against: Using NAR estimates of 2 million buyers who qualify for the credit, we can come up with a $16 billion cost to the American public (2,000,000 buyers * $8,000 credit). Since the actual tax-credit is the lesser of $8,000 or 10% of the sales price, we’re likely overstating this number for home sales in the lower-end and seriously distressed markets like Detroit and Las Vegas. Either way, an extension of this tax credit likely means another $15-25 billion added to our tab. The question the budget conscious person asks is…. is it worth it? If the tax credit only resulted in 350,000 sales as NAR suggests, then this is a valid question. Bill McBride at Calculated Risk estimated that “this tax credit cost taxpayers about $45,000 per each additional home sold.” To put that number into perspective, the median home sales price in Detroit is $51,600 as calculated by Zillow.

In theory, both sides are absolutely correct. The housing market does need some form of stimulus to maintain a healthy level of demand at current price levels, however an extension or expansion of the tax credit will be a costly and perhaps inefficient method of providing that stimulus. The problem that I have with this back and forth argument is that neither party realizes their true enemy in the battle for stability in the housing markets: financial institutions.

Cause and Effect

Let’s go back to the cause of the housing market collapse to identify who was hurt the most by the collapse of residential real estate prices.  In the early portion of this decade, mortgage lenders were giving unconventional (interest-only, liar loans, option ARM) mortgages to unqualified borrowers with zero money down which led to a huge surge in demand, rampant speculation, and of course increasing home values. Lenders sold these mortgages in bundles as MBS (mortgage-backed securities) which were valued based on credit risk, prepayment risk, and interest-rate risk. The problem was that these securities were given high credit ratings in cases where the default risk was obviously high. Once mortgage defaults began to rise, investors in the securities market closed the door and the game was over. Demand for MBS suddenly disappeared which meant the banks had to actually hold these risky and declining assets on their balance sheets. That was the cause of the credit crisis and it resulted in many bank failures and markdowns due to mark-to-market accounting rules which required a bit of honesty for once in an otherwise dishonest field. So where are all of these securities and assets today?

Bernanke, Paulson, and Co. convinced our government (scared them into believing) that the banks (aka credit market) needed billions of dollars immediately to prevent the American economy from collapsing due to a worldwide credit freeze. We were led to believe that these billions of dollars would be used to restore credit conditions to a healthy level and that the banks would resume their lending as soon as conditions returned to “normal”. The problem with this scenario is that lenders weren’t the true drivers of mortgage credit in this boom, but instead acted as pass-through agents between the American public and MBS investors.

With the MBS investment market completely dead due to risk aversion, who would step up to take on these securities with default risk rising every month? Answer: The government and Fed.

In other words, we gave away nearly a trillion dollars and STILL had to foot the bill to keep the ponzi scheme alive. But how long can the market support rising default rates and a growing shadow inventory? As long as asset deflation doesn’t kick into overdrive, the ponzi scheme will indeed continue for another cycle since the banks will have shifted some of their credit risk onto the public balance sheet. That’s the fight that’s going on behind the scenes right now and the public is losing the battle against private balance sheets.

Who Wants The Risk Now?

The FHA has stepped in to maintain sub-prime lending by growing from 3.5% of the market share in 2005 to 37% in the 2nd quarter of 2009.  In other words, the same risks that caused the collapse of the banking system in 2007 have been shifted to the FHA. If another wave of defaults and foreclosures occurs for FHA loans, then they will be in a world of pain and will almost certainly request, and receive, a government bailout paid for by the American public.

TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds have been used over the past year and a half to fatten the accounts of financial institutions, but a second portion of the program was designed to purchase distressed securities from them and put the risk directly in the hands of the public. The P-PIP program was designed to eliminate another trillion dollars of distressed assets from bank balance sheets (at about 90% cost to the taxpayer), but the FASB’s ridiculous decision to change mark-to-market accounting rules during economic downturns has allowed banks to continue falsely reporting asset valuations (one of the main causes for the surge in stock prices for financial institutions since March). Financial institutions holding garbage (or as Geithner wants us to call them, “legacy” products) now have no reason to show the public the true value of what they hold when they can lie and claim par value for any asset on their books. I’ll get into P-PIP further in another post since it has the potential to be the final nail in the coffins of the American public.

The Federal Reserve’s program to purchase $1.25 trillion of agency MBS accounts for roughly 80% of gross issuance (projected at $1.5 trillion) for the year 2009. The risk of ending this program is that private investors may not be willing to suddenly assume 500% more of this market at similar cost.

The War Behind the Scenes

The bottom line for the future of housing is that the basic rules of supply and demand will eventually determine future house prices. The FTHB tax credit resulted in a reasonable increase of demand, but the supply side of the equation remained a problem.

The OCC and OTS Mortgage Metrics Report released by the Treasury for the second quarter of 2009 painted a very troubling picture for residential real estate. The number of foreclosures in process rose 79.4% from Q2 ’08 to 992,554 while newly initiated foreclosures have only risen 28% to 369,226 and the number of completed foreclosures dropped 9.6% to 106,007. The backlog of foreclosures has been rising each quarter along with delinquency rates in a sign that the worst of the housing crisis lies ahead, NOT in the past as many would have you believe today.

Programs such as HAMP are simply delaying the inevitable in many cases as proven by the 32% re-default rate within 6 months after loan modifications. Instead of using the now popular figure of 7 million homes of shadow inventory, we’ll instead simply compare expected supply with existing home sales.

Newly initiated foreclosures from Q2 ’09  (369,226) + 32% of Newly initiated home retention actions from Q4 ’08 (293,668 * .32 = 93,973) = 463,199 homes added to the market per quarter at the current pace. That’s an annual addition of 1.85 million distressed homes to the existing home supply. Existing home inventory in July was 4.06 million.

With those kinds of numbers, it’s obvious to most sensible onlookers that prices have nowhere to go but down. However, the media’s message brought to you by NAR is that the creditworthy renter in today’s market should leap headfirst into home ownership due to the huge supply of homes available at distressed prices. At least that would be the case if these houses were actually available, but alas they are not available thanks to the foreclosure moratoriums and HAMP program that have created the “shadow inventory” effect. This shadow inventory serves the purpose of distorting reported supply and demand which artificially elevates home prices.

Who gets hurt the most by shadow inventory? First-time home buyers looking for a good deal.

Don’t be fooled for a moment into believing that either the banks, government, or the real estate industry actually have genuine care for the first-time home buyer. They simply understand that you have to feed a pig before it is ready to be eaten. The $16 billion spent on this tax credit is chump change compared to the amounts being spent to fatten the pockets of the financial industry, but keeping the public focus on trivial matters is a tried and true method of fleecing them behind the scenes.

The main street Americans who benefit the most from this tax credit are not first-time home buyers, who are basically getting a $8,000 loan financed over the term of their mortgage at4-6%. The real winners in this scenario are the baby boomers who watched in horror while their retirement dreams faded away as equity markets and home values crashed. The baby boomers who bought or took equity from their homes in the early to mid portion of the bubble still have hope for a shameless exit from the debacle, but only if house prices remain around current levels. The foolish ones who took all of the equity out of their homes and/or bought into the top of the bubble can only hope and pray that house prices return to previous levels. The middle-class baby boomers hoping to downsize and retire don’t have the luxury of waiting 10 to 20 years for housing prices to recover.

These are the people who the financial institutions are betting on. The banks win as long as the baby boomers continue to believe in and support the Ponzi scheme. The baby boomers win as long as the banks can keep up the Ponzi scheme. The battle lines have been drawn and the sad truth for today’s generation of hopeful first-time homeowners is that nobody is on their side.

The tax credit WILL be extended for first-time home buyers and the general sentiment will be positive, but today’s actions are only sowing the seeds for the next wave of wealth destruction.

My message to first-time home buyers looking to get into the market now: Make sure you have adequate downside protection before you take the risk. Otherwise, stand your ground against the bankrupt banking institutions, baby boomers, and Federal Reserve financiers and declare a stalemate by not buying anything with debt financing until prices reach truly affordable levels. The Fed has reached the zero bound, underwriting standards are under intense scrutiny, and the only buyer left on the market with adequate cash and hope for future earnings is the first-time home buyer. First-time home buyers are the key to the housing market and their decisions will ultimately determine where prices go in the next couple of years. I’m hoping they (we) are the ones who end up winning this war, but all signs continue to point in the other direction.

Written by Myron

10/05/2009 at 12:41 PM