The following is the executive summary of the Wall Street Examiner Professional Edition Housing Update. The complete report with illustrative charts and analysis is available to subscribers here.
Housing data continues to be mixed. Lagging closed sales data shows prices still declining. However, the most current sales data represents January closings, which were mostly sales that went under contract in November 2011. That tells us nothing about the current market. Real time listings data, which over time has correlated well with subsequently reported sales data, is actually up on a year over year basis. The supply side of the law of supply and demand is working. There’s less supply offered at these low levels and seller asking prices have firmed up because of that. But the demand side is still broken in spite of an apparent increase in buyer “willingness.”
Most demand markers remain extremely weak. The number of buyers may have increased, but huge numbers of sales are falling through because of problems with financing. Appraisers, unwilling and unable to see prices leveling out, continue to apply downward time adjustments resulting in one third of contracts blowing up. The willingness to buy is there, but the ability to finance is not. At the same time, a high percentage of sales being all cash suggests that many buyers are sensing intrinsic value in some markets. Unfortunately for the market, value and price isn’t the same thing.
Demand depends largely on employment. While there are hints that the employment picture may be improving, it has not improved enough to cause a sustained increase in demand that would lead to a sustained rise in house prices.
The supply of existing houses on the market has been radically reduced, while builders continue to build. They got a boost in January with a surge in new home demand. It appears that the dead in the water new house market may have turned a corner of sorts, but it’s not clear yet whether a sustained uptrend will follow. Sales as measured by the Commerce Department are barely above record lows. Based on the current NAHB builder survey, February sales data should show a substantial increase.
Inventories of existing homes are way down, and that has helped inventory to sales ratios based on contracts, but one third of those contracts are blowing up due to low appraisals and credit rejections on other grounds. Appraisers applying downward time adjustments to comparable sales exacerbates a problem that might no longer exist if it were not for the low appraisals. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Appraisers won’t stop adjusting comparable sales down in price until the price downtrend stops, and the downtrend won’t stop until appraisers stop using negative time adjustments.
So while there appears to be an increase in the willingness of buyers to buy, there’s no increase in effective demand, or the ability to close the sale, and hence no real improvement in the supply demand imbalance in spite of sharp reductions in supply.
One half of the problem, that of oversupply, is well on the way to being solved. The problem of financing deals so that they can close is not. The same mortgage lenders who caused the problem in the first place by being too easy for too long, are now exacerbating the problem by being too tight.
Their stupidity and short-sighted self dealing are boundless, in the end only harming the market they are supposed to facilitate in the due course of the conduct of their business. A little honesty would have gone a long way. Unfortunately, that’s a non existent quality among the big mortgage banks. They’re crooks, and they continue to screw the system as they seek to cover their crimes. The only way out of what is in its essence a criminal morass is to punish the guilty. The only solution is to put a few thousand of the industry’s top players in jail. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen. Until there’s punishment of bad behavior, the bad behavior will only be reinforced.
While lenders ironically screw the system by now rejecting deals that they should make, the shadow inventory problem grows like a cancer in the mortgage and banking criminal enterprises. As I have discussed in the past, and have reposted below, it is less of a direct problem for the housing market. A growing portion of that shadow inventory has become, or is in the process of becoming, non marketable. To the market, the shadow inventory boogieman is just that, a boogieman, not a real threat. But to the criminal enterprise itself, it constantly siphons off its lifeblood, and limits the ability of the mortgage mafiosi to skim and divert fictitious profits into their own pockets.
Ultimately, if people lose confidence and the financial system implodes, then it’s game over and prices will collapse again. For purposes of this analysis, I will assume that that’s not going to happen. As long as the Fed and foreign central banks keep their criminal crony zombie banks on life support they can bleed off the losses over a generation or two and the land of make believe will persist. It will never prosper, but it will persist, while those running the scam continue to stuff their pockets.
A real bottom in prices and the beginnings of a housing recovery will require a sustained increase in effective demand coupled with continued reductions in supply. The supply reductions are happening in a real and material way. There are indications of some increase in demand, including large percentages of cash sales and a surge in contracts signed in January, as well as possibly the beginnings of increasing employment. But these seeds of demand growth have to be cultivated and harvested as closed sales, and it’s not clear when or if the dysfunctional criminal banking system will ever be able to fully perform that function. So while there is probably less risk in housing now due to supply reductions that’s a long way from being in a sustained recovery. That requires consistent effective demand, which is being broadly stifled by the massive effort in the industry and in government to sustain the criminal enterprise.
As for the financial system itself, it will remain under pressure for as long as it takes to recognize the reduced value of housing collateral, a process which, in spite of 5 years of declining prices, hasn’t even begun. I’ve long estimated that the collateral value loss is in the vicinity of 30% nationally, and a report out today from CoreLogic more or less verified that. That there will be more foreclosures, and that the banking system will remain a dysfunctional, disreputable cesspool are givens. As long as that’s the case there will be a ceiling on how far prices can rise, even with wave after wave of malfeasant central bank money printing.
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