Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Dynamics of the Housing Market and Why a Turn-Around Will Not Occur Until 2010

The excerpts below from a WSJ article on the housing market gives a good summary of the dynamics of that market. Basically, if you tighten lending standards you decrease demand. Second, the mortgage resets in the next 18 months will push more houses on the market thereby increasing supply as homeowners cannot afford their new payments and cannot afford to re-finance. Last, those consumers that understand this are sitting on the sidelines waiting for the prices to decline further, thereby decreasing demand. This all adds up to a slow market until 2009 or 2010. Personally, I think a turn around by 2009 is optimistic.

Actually, if the stop and think about it appears that the markets are returning to sanity, the problem is it is no fun to take medicine.

After a binge of lax lending in recent years, the U.S. home-mortgage industry is finally taking the cure, swearing off high-risk loans to people with lousy credit records. The bad news is that this medicine is creating a vicious circle that will make the housing market even weaker, at least in the near term.

As regulators and jittery investors force them to adopt more and more conservative lending standards, lenders are cutting more people out of the housing market. In what would strike most people outside the industry as a return to common sense, lenders now are shunning would-be borrowers who can't make a down payment, prove that they have a reliable income and show a record of reasonably regular bill-paying. They also are turning down refinancing requests from many people trapped by adjustable-rate loans that are proving too expensive after the initial feel-good period of low payments.

These stricter lending standards reduce demand for homes and nudge some people who can't refinance toward foreclosure. Higher foreclosures add to a glut of homes on the market in most of the country. And, completing the vicious circle, a weaker housing market comes back to bite the lenders by wiping out owners' equity in their homes and increasing the risk of even more foreclosures down the road.

Earlier this year, lenders had to cut back on subprime mortgages, those for people with the weakest credit records, because a surge in defaults made investors unwilling to buy so many of those loans. In the past few weeks, stung by losses on mortgage securities at some big funds and clampdowns by rating agencies, investors have grown much more nervous. For good reason: A recent Merrill Lynch report estimates that they face $120 billion to $170 billion of default-related losses on U.S. home mortgages currently outstanding. So investors now are shying away from many more types of mortgages, including those known as Alt-A, a category between prime and subprime.

Because loan standards are now much tougher, at least 10% to 15% of the people who could have qualified for a home-purchase loan last year can't do so now, says Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile, many of the people who would still qualify for a loan don't want to buy a house now because they think prices will fall further. So the housing market is likely to remain weak for at least another couple of years, Mr. Hatzius figures.

One reason is that it takes time to absorb all the houses and condos waiting for buyers. The National Association of Realtors counts about 4.2 million resale homes for sale, along with more than 500,000 new homes on the market. That is enough to last about 8½ months at the recent sales rate; a supply of five to six months generally is considered balanced.

Foreclosures will add to the supply. Moody's Economy.com has estimated that 2.5 million homeowners will default on their mortgage loans this year and next. Some will be able to keep their homes, through "loan modification" agreements that reduce payments or through various refinance packages offered by lenders and state rescue programs. But about 1.7 million of them will lose their homes to foreclosure, the research firm projects.

The U.S. housing boom over the past decade turned about five million renters into homeowners, says William Wheaton, a professor of economics and real estate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But many of the loans that made that possible have proved unsustainable. Dr. Wheaton expects about two-thirds of those people to go back to renting. Eventually, he says, rents will rise, and more people will see owning as a better alternative, helping to revive the housing market, perhaps in 2009 or 2010.

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