Posts tagged ‘Housing’

97% Mortgages are 100% Insane

I am not sure there was ever any excuse for considering a 97% loan-to-value mortgage as "sensible" or "responsible."  After all, even without a drop in the market, the buyer is likely underwater on day one (net of real estate commissions).  Perhaps for someone who is very wealthy, whose income is an order of magnitude or two higher than the payments, this might be justfiable, but in fact these loans tend to get targeted at the most marginal of buyers.

But how can this possibly make sense when just 5 years ago the financial markets collapsed in large part due to these risky mortgages?  Quasi-public, now fully public guarantors Fannie and Freddie had to be bailed out by taxpayers with hundreds of billions of dollars.  There are still a non-trivial number of people trapped deep underwater in such mortgages, still facing foreclosure or trying to engineer a short sale after seeing the small bits of equity they invested swamped by a falling housing market.

But, here they go again:  Fannie and Freddie, now fully backed by the taxpayer, are ready to rush out and re-inflate a financial bubble by making what are effectively nothing-down loans:

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt has one heck of a sense of humor. How else to explain his choice of a Las Vegas casino as the venue for his Monday announcement that he’s revving up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to enable more risky mortgage loans? History says the joke will be on taxpayers when this federal gamble ends the same way previous ones did.

At his live appearance at Sin City’s Mandalay Bay, Mr. Watt told a crowd of mortgage bankers that “to increase access for creditworthy but lower-wealth borrowers,” his agency is working with Fan and Fred “to develop sensible and responsible guidelines for mortgages with loan-to-value ratios between 95 and 97%.”

The incredible part is that the Obama administration is justifying this based on all the people still underwater from the last time such loans were written.   The logic, if one can call it that, is to try to re-inflate the housing market now, and worry about the consequences -- never, I guess.  Politicians have an amazing capacity to mindlessly kick the can down the road, where short-term is the next morning's papers and unimaginably far in the distant future is after their next election.

If You Are Still Confused About Public vs. Private Incentives...

Can you imagine a private employer doing this?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it will close its offices at 1:30 p.m. Other agencies, such as the Labor Department, expect most employees to be gone by mid-day, but haven't set a specific time.

Once they head home, furloughed employees are under strict orders not to do any work. That means no sneaking glances at Blackberries or smart phones to check emails, no turning on laptop computers, no checking office voicemail, and no use of any other government-issued equipment.

This is not good management.  This is not good government.  This a the management equivalent of a tantrum thrown by a four-year-old.  We'll show them!  Any private white collar workers who feel they are truly off the clock when they are at home and under no obligation to make sure all is going well in their assigned area of responsibility should tell us all where they work in the comments below.

"Housing Advocate" Celibrates Eviction

Why does supposed housing advocate Bertha Lewis celebrate a man's eviction so his land can be given to a wealthy private developer?

Bertha Lewis, a housing advocate who supported the project, bid Mr. Goldstein "good riddance."

"Low- and moderate-income people had to wait years for housing while he obstructed the Atlantic Yards project," she said.

Maybe because her organization cut a deal to provide the developer a patina of public service in exchange for big bucks for her organization.

Of course, Lewis is much more than just a "housing advocate who supported the project," she was the CEO of ACORN, a group that signed a contract with Bruce Ratner "to publicly support the [Atlantic Yards] Project by, among other things, appearing with the Developer before the Public Parties, community organizations and the media as part of a coordinated effort to realize and advance the Project." In return, Ratner pledged to include a certain amount of "affordable housing" in the project, units that ACORN stood to make a fortune from marketing and managing. As the New York Post reported, "Anita MonCrief, a former ACORN official-turned-whistleblower, estimates the anticipated deal could bring the group $5 million to $10 million annually over multiple years."

And the money didn't stop there. In 2008 Ratner bailed ACORN out to the tune of $1.5 million dollars after the news broke that Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, had embezzled nearly $1 million from the group back in 2000 and the national leadership had covered the crime up for eight years. The financial fallout from that scandal threatened to ruin ACORN until Ratner stepped in with a $1 million load and a $500,000 grant. This desperately-needed cash kept ACORN alive and allowed it to keep providing cover for Ratner's corporate welfare and eminent domain abuse.

Lewis's role reminds me a lot of money laundering.  Call it progressive laundering.  The Brooklyn Yards project is simply a total money grab by a powerful developer who got the state to seize land and hand it over to him for development.  To hide the naked cronyism here, the developer cleverly cut a deal with ACORN such that about 0.1% of the development was dedicated to low-income housing and ACORN was paid off to advocate for the project as a low-income housing project, when in fact it is 99% an upscale development to benefit a politically-connected developer.

More here.

Update: Wow, you have to check out this email from Bertha Lewis.  Just remember, when reading it, that she is talking about a man who just wanted to stay in his own home that he owned, and didn't want to be evicted just so the New Jersey Nets could have a new stadium in Brooklyn at taxpayer expense.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Bertha Lewis <[EMAIL REDACTED>
Date: Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 8:04 PM
Subject: Daniel Goldstein and the 7 year itch
To: [RECIPIENTS REDACTED]

Finally, the itch that was Daniel Goldstein has been scratched and scratched out.   After almost seven years of flawed strategies, smear campaigns, stupid tactics, disingenuous rhetoric and total disregard for people who have lived in the downtown Brooklyn community for years before he even thought about coming here; finally he got what he really wanted.  A Deal.  Not for the community he claimed to love so much, but for the only beneficiary of his community of one, himself, Double Dealing Danny Goldstein.  How utterly despicable for him to be in the newspaper  today whining that he did not have enough time to move, and had nowhere to go because he was being stiffed by the State and Forest City Ratner, when low and behold, all the time, he was negotiating, not for the community , but for himself.  Well good riddance and don't let the door hit ya'.  Low and moderate income people have had to wait years for housing while he obstructed the Atlantic Yards Project that could have been well over half done by now.  He never had to worry about housing so he did'nt care how long other people had to wait.  Behold, the Gentrifier.  He has slandered and denigrated not only me but my organization and my members relentlessly.  What benefit has he delivered to the community?  None except for his own pocket.   Well, the housing at Atlantic Yards will be built, and the day after he moves out, which I hope will be sooner rather than later, the building that he squatted in these past years should be razed to ground immediately, and salt poured into the soil, so that never again can the likes of one of the biggest shakedown artists in Brooklyn return.  We will still be here, we will still be fighting for the all the people that Danny spurned and used for his own enrichment.  We hope that now everyone in Brooklyn and New York can see him for what he really is and can see what his actions cost Brooklyn.  I hope whatever he settled for was worth the pain and misery he caused to so many people who just wanted a decent place to live in Brooklyn and who just wanted a decent job and a place for their family.  Now that the flim flam man is gone, they can finally see it on the horizon.

--

Bertha Lewis

The CRA and the Mortgage Meltdown

There always have been good, logical reasons to discuss the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) as one contributor to the mortgage meltdown last year.  After all, the act is effectively a prod to banks to lend to people who would not normally meet their lending criteria, and to do so on terms (e.g. no money down) they might not usually offer.

The usual response from supporters is that the numbers are too small to matter.  I tended to agree with this -- until I saw this graph, from Peter Schweizer via Carpe Diem.

chart_398x249

Unfortunately he does not have a source or methodology, so I have to retain some skepticism, but if true these numbers are far from trivial.  He writes:

According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, in the first 20 years of the act, up to 1997, commitments totaled approximately $200 billion. But from 1997 to 2007, commitments exploded to more than $4.2 trillion. (Keep in mind this is more than four times the size of the current health bill being debated in Congress.) The burdens on individual banks can be enormous. Washington Mutual, for example, pledged $1 trillion in mortgages to those with credit histories that "fall outside typical credit, income or debt constraints," and was awarded the 2003 CRA Community Impact Award for its Community Access program. Four years later it was taken over by the Office of Thrift Supervision.

This effort was backed by a parallel effort at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy up these loans:

Beginning in 1992, Congress pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase their purchases of mortgages going to low and moderate income borrowers. For 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave Fannie and Freddie an explicit target "” 42% of their mortgage financing had to go to borrowers with income below the median in their area. The target increased to 50% in 2000 and 52% in 2005.

For 1996, HUD required that 12% of all mortgage purchases by Fannie and Freddie be "special affordable" loans, typically to borrowers with income less than 60% of their area's median income. That number was increased to 20% in 2000 and 22% in 2005. The 2008 goal was to be 28%. Between 2000 and 2005, Fannie and Freddie met those goals every year, funding hundreds of  billions of dollars worth of loans, many of them subprime and adjustable-rate loans, and made to borrowers who bought houses with less than 10% down.

Fannie and Freddie also purchased hundreds of billions of subprime securities for their own portfolios to make money and to help satisfy HUD affordable housing goals. Fannie and Freddie were important contributors to the demand for subprime
securities.

Obama has a personal history with this effort, actually suing banks who would not provide the sub-prime lending that he later, as President, blamed them for undertaking

Obama's battle against banks has a long history. In 1994, freshly out of Harvard Law School, he joined two other attorneys in filing a lawsuit against Citibank, the giant mortgage lender. In Selma S. Buycks-Roberson v. Citibank, the plaintiffs claimed that although they had ostensibly been denied home loans "because of delinquent credit obligations and adverse credit," the real culprit was institutional racism. The suit alleged that Citibank had violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act and, for good measure, the 13th Constitutional Amendment, which abolished slavery. The bank denied the charge, but after four years of legal wrangling and mounting legal bills, elected to settle. According to court documents, the three plaintiffs received a total of $60,000. Their lawyers received $950,000.

Now, Congress and Obama want to strengthen the CRA -- talk about not learning from mistakes.

Now comes Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and 50 other co-sponsors (all Democrats) of H.R. 1479 the "Community Reinvestment Modernization Act of 2009," who want to expand the CRA to include not just banks but also credit unions, insurance companies and mortgage lenders. Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has supported the idea in the past. The SEIU and ACORN, along with a host of other activist groups, are also behind the effort.

President Obama has been a staunch supporter of the CRA throughout his public life. And his recently announced financial reforms would make the law even more onerous and guarantee an explosion in irresponsible lending. Obama wants to take enforcement of the CRA away from the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and other financial regulators who at least try to weigh bank safety and soundness when enforcing the law, and turn it over to a newly created Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). This agency's core concerns would not be safety and soundness but, in the words of the Obama administration, "promoting access to financial services," which is really code for forcing banks to lend to those who would not ordinarily qualify. Compliance would no longer be done by bank examiners but by what the administration calls "a group of examiners specially trained and certified in community development" (otherwise called community activists). The administration says, in its literature about the reforms, that "rigorous application of the Community Reinvestment should be a core function of the CFPA."

Looks like there may be jobs available after all for all those folks who got fired from ACORN.

Affordable Housing

Thomas Sowell, via Carpe Diem:

The current political stampede to stop mortgage foreclosures proceeds as if foreclosures are just something that strikes people like a bolt of lightning from the blue-- and as if the people facing foreclosures are the only people that matter.
What if the foreclosures are not stopped? Will millions of homes just sit empty? Or will new people move into those homes, now selling for lower prices-- prices perhaps more within the means of the new occupants?

The same politicians who have been talking about a need for "affordable housing" for years are now suddenly alarmed that home prices are falling. How can housing become more affordable unless prices fall?

The political meaning of "affordable housing" is housing that is made more affordable by politicians intervening to create government subsidies, rent control or other gimmicks for which politicians can take credit. Affordable housing produced by market forces provides no benefit to politicians and has no attraction for them.

In the wake of the housing debacle in California, more people are buying less expensive homes, making bigger down payments, and staying away from "creative" and risky financing (see chart above). It is amazing how fast people learn when they are not insulated from the consequences of their decisions.

Mark Perry has a graph showing fully twice as many homes were sold in California in January of 2009 than in January of 2008.

Dead, Unproductive Investments

Well, while I was gone this week, GM asked the government for another $21.6 billion, on top of the $17.4 billion taxpayers handed them just two months ago.   Reading between the lines of GM statements, it is probably not crazy to assume they are burning cash at the rate of $5-$8 billion a month, which means this new infusion would likely get the company only through May or June.  This burn rate should not be surprising, as GM was burning $2.5 billion a month before the recession even really started, and they have really done nothing substantial to restructure the company.  By throwing the company to Congress to help save its managers and equity holders, the company has subjected its restructuring not to hard-headed bondholder representatives in a bankrupcy, but to the vagaries of the political process:

When the president's auto task force meets today to begin trying to fix the broken U.S. auto companies, it must balance dozens of competing demands.

Yeah, I am sure that will go well.  GM can have its money as long as it puts a factory in West Virginia and names it after Robert Byrd. The bondholders are pissed, as well they should be.  The senior debt holders have first claim in a bankruptcy, so another way to look at this political process is that it is the action of all the other constituents of GM (employees, equity holders, managers) who are trying to get Congress to interrupt the typical subordination of interests in a bankruptcy and allow them to get ahead of the senior debt holders in the line for what limited value remains in GM's shell.

I am tired of Keynsians and their assumptions setting the tone of the economic debate.  Here is the question I would ask them:

I understand that you Keynsians think that there are under-employed assets in the country, and that you think the government can redeploy prvate investment capital to more productive use.

Ignoring the individual liberties issues assosiated with this approach, as well as the fact it has never worked in the past, answer me this:  How are we going to turn around the economy by forcing capital to flow to the assets, industries, and management teams that have proven themselves to be the least productive?

We send money preferentially to the industry (autos) that has been showing some of the worst returns on capital in the entire country, and in particular to the company (GM) that has performed the worst in the industry.  If we really wanted to create auto jobs, wouldn't we send the money to the company that has historically invested money the most productively? It would be as if venture capitalists were about to complete their 27th round of financing to keep Pets.com afloat.  I have been in a company that eventually failed and couldn't get new financing.  At the time we were trying to convince the investors that they should give us just one more round, one more chance to prove the thing out.  In retrospect, I am embarrased they funded us as long as they did.  They should have pulled the plug way earlier.  Investors have a saying "your first loss is your best loss."

And don't even get me started on housing.  A deader, less productive investment asset can't possibly be identified.  A million bucks spent on a house produces 30 jobs for 6 months.  A million bucks spent on a factory expansion produces 30 jobs indefinitely.  For years, Democrats have hammered the Republicans over the jobless recovery of this decade, which in fact has shown a fairly unique jobs profile.  I wonder how much of this could be traced to the myriad incentives that were put in place to pour our available capital into these dead assets?  And now, with the bailout and the new mortgage bailout, the government is investing even more money to prop up the value of these non-productive investments.

Hair of the Dog

Isn't this exactly the type of government policy that helped promote the housing bubble and in turn led to our current recession?

WASHINGTON (AP) "” The Senate voted Wednesday night to give a tax break of up to $15,000 to homebuyers in hopes of revitalizing the housing industry, a victory for Republicans eager to leave their mark on a mammoth economic stimulus bill at the heart of President Barack Obama's recovery plan.

Republicans:  We want to prove we can do stupid, populist sh*t too!

Update: Via TJIC, more hair of the dog:

Fannie Mae, the mortgage-finance company under U.S. government control, will loosen rules for homeowners seeking to lower their loan payments by refinancing.

Fannie Mae will drop some credit-score requirements, reduce income-documentation standards and waive the need for appraisals in some cases"¦

In Medias Res

You certainly don't have to spend very long convincing me that a significant government action can be distortive of markets, so I won't argue too much with Kevin Drum that the capital gains tax changes maybe played a contributing factor to the housing bubble  (though it is hilarious that the left considers tax reductions as the only distortive government actions).

However, thinking back on events, its a little hard for me to ascribe the lion's share of the bubble to capital gains tax changes, as opposed to, say, the mortgage interest deduction or Federal Reserve interest rate policies or local zoning controls.

I probably wouldn't have bothered blogging on this, but I found the chart Drum uses from the NY Times to be hilarious:

19tax-graf01-190

Do you see the problem?  I will help by simplifying the chart:

trand

Its a pretty heroic assumption to say that Event B caused Trend A.

Update:  Russel Roberts thinks the Times is right, but that they are using the wrong data to prove it.  1997 looks much more like the critical inflection point if you look at prices rather than sales  (chart via Roberts, from a different NY Times article, click to enlarge)

house_prices

Depression Doubt

MaxedOutMamma (an economist somewhere but she seems to only drop tantalizing clues as to where she plies her trade) is concerned:

I was troubled by how many people seemed to feel the economy wasn't in deep trouble.   Profound skepticism and the belief that this is all media/political highjinks seem almost to be the consensus.

I guess you may have to put me in the majority.  I certainly don't doubt that we are headed for a recession.  And it would not surprise me if this is the worst recession that most 20-something Obama voters have experienced, though that is not saying much.  But I am not sure we are even facing the Seventies in this one and we certainly are not facing the 1930s.

Here is the problem that we more casual consumers of economic news must struggle with -- the media has fairly accurately predicted 20 of the last 3 economic downturns.  Everywhere you turn, you see analogies to the Great Depression, a period of time where unemployment topped 25%.  Given the media's track record and the nearly breathless panic about the looming economic disaster, any sane person has to put a divide-by-X filter on economic news.  It is certainly possible that I and other are using too large of an X as a correction factor, but is that my fault, or the fault of the purveyors of information who can't tell any story straight.

By the way, for us Polyannas, here are several interesting posts from Mark Perry

It Took Two Ingredients to Make this Financial Crisis

After having time to think more about the current crisis, I think the reason it is confusing is that it is the result of two parallel but largely independent causes that worked together to create this mess.  I told my mother-in-law in an email last week that the financial crisis would likely be a Rorschach test where everyone sees the crisis caused by all the things they opposed before the crisis.  Conservatives will see government intervention, liberals will see greed and deregulation.

What makes this situation particularly confusing is that of the two causes I believe led to the crisis, each has been embraced by one of the two parties as the only cause.  It's a case where everyone is half right, but the other half is important too.  It's a two part recipe, with neither active ingredient causing much of an explosion until mixed with the other. (special thanks to the folks at Q&O who have had a lot of good posts on these issues).

Cause 1:  Creating the Asset Bubble

The first thing that had to happen for the crisis was the creation of an asset bubble.  We need some type of over-valued asset whose prices crash to earth to spark the crisis.  So we begin with housing.

Home prices have gone through boom-bust cycles for years, just as have many commodities.  There is a whole body of literature on such cycles, so we will leave that aside and accept their existence as a feature of markets and human behavior. 

But this housing bubble had a strong accelerant, in the form of the Federal government.  For years, this nation has made increasing home ownership a national goal and many laws and tax policies have been aimed at this goal.  The mortgage interest deduction on personal income taxes is just one example.

Starting in 1992, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were strange quasi-public / quasi-private entities, came under pressure from the Congress (e.g. Barney Frank) and the Clinton administration to add increasing home ownership to poorer people part of their missions.

Fannie Mae, the
nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under
increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage
loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stock
holders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.

In
addition, banks, thrift institutions and mortgage companies have been
pressing Fannie Mae to help them make more loans to so-called subprime
borrowers. These borrowers whose incomes, credit ratings and savings
are not good enough to qualify for conventional loans, can only get
loans from finance companies that charge much higher interest rates --
anywhere from three to four percentage points higher than conventional
loans.

''Fannie Mae has expanded home ownership for millions of
families in the 1990's by reducing down payment requirements,'' said
Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae's chairman and chief executive officer.
''Yet there remain too many borrowers whose credit is just a notch
below what our underwriting has

The results were astonishing:

Beginning in 1992, Congress pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to
increase their purchases of mortgages going to low and moderate income
borrowers. For 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave Fannie and Freddie an explicit target "” 42% of their mortgage financing had to go to borrowers with income below the median in their area. The target increased to 50% in 2000 and 52% in 2005.

For 1996, HUD required that 12% of all mortgage purchases by Fannie and Freddie be "special affordable" loans, typically to borrowers with income less than 60% of their area's median income. That number was increased to 20% in 2000 and 22% in 2005. The 2008 goal was to be 28%. Between 2000 and 2005,
Fannie and Freddie met those goals every year, funding hundreds of
billions of dollars worth of loans, many of them subprime and
adjustable-rate loans, and made to borrowers who bought houses with
less than 10% down.

Fannie and Freddie also purchased hundreds
of billions of subprime securities for their own portfolios to make
money and to help satisfy HUD affordable housing goals. Fannie and
Freddie were important contributors to the demand for subprime
securities.

Simultaneously, the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act was pushing private banks to make more loans to less qualified borrowers:

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) did the same thing with
traditional banks. It encouraged banks to serve two masters "” their
bottom line and the so-called common good. First passed in 1977, the
CRA was "strengthened" in 1995, causing an increase of 80% in the
number of bank loans going to low- and moderate-income families.

These actions had a double whammy on the current crisis.  First, by pushing up housing demand, they inflated the housing pricing bubble.  Second, it meant that these inflated-price homes were being bought with lower and lower down payments.  In effect, individuals were taking on much more leverage  (leverage is a term that I will use to mean the percentage of debt used to finance a set of assets -- more leverage means more debt and less equity.  The term comes from the physics of a mechanical lever, in that more debt, like a lever, can magnify force.  Profits from assets are multiplied by leverage, but, alas, so are losses.) 

When the economy softened and the housing bubble started to burst, these new mortgage customers the government went out of its way to bring into the system did not have any resources to handle the changes -- they did not have the down payment to cushion them (or the banks) against falls in asset value and did not have the cash flow to cushion them against falling income in the recession and/or rising interest rates. 

The result:  Huge portfolios of failing loans with rapidly falling collateral values.

Cause 2:  Over-leverage of Risky Assets and Related De-regulation of Capital Requirements

I think the word "greed" was used about a zillion times last night in the Vice-Presidential debate.  But what does it mean in this context?  After all, we are all greedy in one way or another, if one equates greed with looking after one's self-interest.

So I will translate "greed" for you:  When you hear "greed on Wall Street", think leverage.  Remember, we said above that as long as the underlying asset values are going up, leverage (ie more debt) multiplies profitability.  [Quick example:  Assume a stock that goes from $100 to $110 in a year.  Assume you pay 5% interest on money.  No leverage, you make $10 on a $100 investment.  With 95% leverage -- ie buying $2000 worth of the stock with $100 equity and $1900 debt -- you would make $105 on the same $100 equity investment.  Leverage multiplied your returns by more than a factor of 10]

Remember that around the year 2000 we had the Internet bubble burst in a big way.  A lot of companies not only dropped, but went to $0 in value.  This was painful, but we did not have a cascading problem.  Why?  In part because most of the folks who invested in Internet companies did not do so in a highly leveraged way.  The loss was the loss, time to move on.  Similarly in this case, if these mortgage packages had been held as a piece of a un-leveraged portfolio, like a pension fund our an annuity, the loss would not have been fun to write off but it would not have cascaded as it has.  The government would have had to bail out Fannie and Freddie, a few banks would have failed, but the disaster would have been limited.

One reason this problem has cascaded (leaving aside blame for Henry Paulson's almost criminal chicken-little proclamations of doom to the world) is that many of these mortgage packages or securities got stuck in to highly leveraged portfolios.  The insurance contracts that brought down AIG were structured differently but in the end were also highly leveraged bets on the values of mortgage securities in that small changes in values could result in huge losses or gains for the contracts.   (Some folks have pointed to actual securitization of the loans as a problem.  I don't see that.  Securitization is a fabulous tool.  Without it, we would be seeing a ton more main street bank failures, as they would have had to keep many more of these on their books.) 

If this all sounds a bit like cause #1 above, ie buying inflated assets with more and more debt, then you are right.  There is an interesting parallel that no one wants to delve into between the incentives of home buyers trying to jump into hot housing markets with interest-only loans and Wall Street bankers putting risky securities into highly leveraged portfolios.  Leverage is really the key theme here.  In a sense, houses were double-leveraged, bought the first time around with smaller and smaller down payments, and then leveraged again as these mortgages were tossed into highly-leveraged portfolios.  Sometimes they were leveraged even further via oddball derivatives and insurance contracts whose exact operation are still opaque to many.

Those who have read me for a while know that I am in the "let them die" camp.  These Wall Street guys have been living high on the extra profits from this leverage in the good times.  They knew perfectly well that leverage is a two-edged sword, and that it would magnify their losses in a bad time.  But their hubris pushed them into doing crazy things for more profit, and I am all for a Greek-tragedy-like downfall for their hubris.  The sub-prime, first-time home buyer can claim ignorance or unsophistication, but not these guys.

During the Bush Administration, these bankers came to the SEC trumpeting their own brilliance, and begged to be allowed to leverage themselves even more via a relaxation of capital requirement rules.  And, in 2004, without too much discussion or scrutiny, the SEC gave them what they wanted:

Many events in Washington, on Wall Street and elsewhere around the country have led to what has been called the most serious financial crisis
since the 1930s. But decisions made at a brief meeting on April 28,
2004, explain why the problems could spin out of control. The agency's
failure to follow through on those decisions also explains why
Washington regulators did not see what was coming.

On that
bright spring afternoon, the five members of the Securities and
Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an
urgent plea by the big investment banks.

They wanted an
exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited
the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle
billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on
their investments. Those funds could then flow up to the parent
company, enabling it to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of
mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for
bond holders; and other exotic instruments.

In part they traded capital requirements for computer models, a very dubious decision in the first place, made worse by the fact that most of the banks were gaming the models to reduce the apparent risk.  The crazy thing is that, in gaming the models, they really weren't trying to fool regulators, who pretty much were not watching anyway, but they were fooling themselves!  Certainly I would not expect government regulators to do a better job of risk assessment in this environment, which argues for a return to the old bright-line capital requirements that are fairly simple to monitor.  Investment banks played a game of Russian Roulette, and eventually blew their own brains out.  Which begs the question of whether the government's job is to protect consumers at large or to protect financial institutions from themselves.

"We foolishly believed that the firms had a strong culture of
self-preservation and responsibility and would have the discipline not
to be excessively borrowing," said Professor James D. Cox, an expert on
securities law and accounting at Duke School of Law (and no
relationship to Christopher Cox).

The Dog that Didn't Bark:  Ratings Agencies

Clearly, ratings agencies have really failed in their mission during this fiasco.  Right up to the last minute, they were giving top ratings to highly risky securities.  But I think folks who want to lay primary blame on the rating agencies go to far.   Ratings agencies are for individuals and state pension funds and the like -- I have a hard time imagining Goldman or Lehman depending on them for risk assessment.  Its a nice excuse, and we may well have very different companies rating securities five years form now, but its just a small contributor.

The Fix

So you see what is going on.  Republicans are running around saying "the government caused it with the CRA" and Democrats are saying "it was greed and deregulation."  Incredibly, both parties seem to come to the conclusion that sickly mortgage securities need to be pulled out of the hands of the folks who created and bought them and put in ... my hands.  I had smugly thought that I had avoided buying a home with zero-down at the peak of the market, but I was wrong.  Via the federal government, I have bought a lot of them!

I personally would let the whole thing sort itself out, and live with the consequences.  My hypothesis is that much of the current credit squeeze in the money markets is due to Henry Paulson's clumsy public statements and the Fed's busting open the door to overnight borrowing.  Everyone is frozen not by the crisis, but by the prospect of some sort of government action.  Short term borrowers and lenders are doing their business with the Fed, as the government crowds out the private short term markets and causes the very problem it is trying to prevent. 

Without the government bending over backwards to take in short term money from lenders, private firms would be forced to find private options.  Lenders have to lend to stay alive financially, just as much as borrowers have to borrow.  Money may go into the mattresses for a week or two or three, but it can't stay there forever.

I do know that the fix is NOT

Fixing these financial problems listed above does not include:

Sec. 101. Renewable energy credit.
Sec. 102. Production credit for electricity produced from marine renewables.
Sec. 103. Energy credit.
Sec. 104. Energy credit for small wind property.
Sec. 105. Energy credit for geothermal heat pump systems.
Sec. 106. Credit for residential energy efficient property.
Sec. 107. New clean renewable energy bonds.
Sec. 108. Credit for steel industry fuel.
Sec. 109. Special rule to implement FERC and State electric restructuring policy.
Sec. 111. Expansion and modification of advanced coal project investment credit.
Sec. 112. Expansion and modification of coal gasification investment credit.
Sec. 113. Temporary increase in coal excise tax; funding of Black Lung Disability
Trust Fund.
Sec. 114. Special rules for refund of the coal excise tax to certain coal producers
and exporters.
Sec. 115. Tax credit for carbon dioxide sequestration.
Sec. 116. Certain income and gains relating to industrial source carbon
dioxide treated as qualifying income for publicly traded partnerships.
Sec. 117. Carbon audit of the tax code. Sec. 111. Expansion and modification of advanced coal project investment credit. Sec. 113. Temporary increase in coal excise tax; funding of Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. Sec. 115. Tax credit for carbon dioxide sequestration. Sec. 205. Credit for new qualified plug-in electric drive motor vehicles. Sec. 405. Increase and extension of Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund tax.Sec. 306. Accelerated recovery period for depreciation of smart meters and
smart grid systems. Sec. 309. Extension of economic development credit for American Samoa. Sec. 317. Seven-year cost recovery period for motorsports racing track facility. Sec. 501. $8,500 income threshold used to calculate refundable portion of child tax credit.

And, of course, the big one:

Sec. 503 Exemption from excise tax for certain wooden arrows designed for use by children.

All of these, however, are part of the bailout bill approved by the Senate.  Sources here and here.

Interesting Story on Housing and Crime

A reader sent me a link to what was a pretty interesting story on housing programs and crime in the most recent issue of the Atlantic.  In short, federal housing policy over the last 20-30 years has been to blow up central housing projects (fans of the Wire on HBO will have a good idea of this type of place) that tended to concentrate poverty in a few neighborhoods in favor of voucher programs that would spread the very poor around.  The idea was to get the poor into middle class neighborhoods, with the hope that middle class schools, support networks, and values might be infused in the poor.

Some now seem to be worried that exactly the opposite is happening.  As the article relates, city centers are being revitalized by sending the poor and associated criminal elements outwards.  But in turn, certain here-to-fore quiet suburbs are seeing crime spikes, and these crime waves seem to line up well with where the housing vouchers are being used.

A couple of thoughts:

  • [insert libertarian rant on government playing god with poor people's lives, drug prohibition, government schools, etc.]
  • The people of Houston would not be at all surprised by this, and might call it the Katrina effect.  It may well be that the dispersion of poor families will eventually result in reductions in total crime (say in the next generation or two), but hardened criminals of today don't stop being criminals just because they move to new neighborhoods -- certainly Houston has found this having inherited many criminals from New Orleans.
  • I still think that if we are going to give out subsidized housing, that this in the long-run is a better approach.  The authors of the article seem to fear that the poor, having been dispersed, lost their support networks.  But it strikes me that it was this same network that reinforced all the worst cultural aspects of the old projects, and long-term I think fewer new criminals and poorly motivated kids will exist in the next generation if we can break some of this critical mass up. 
  • The article is an interesting example of how new attitudes about race can get in the way of discussion as much as the old ones.  Stories about increasing crime in the suburbs after an influx of black poor is just too similar to the old integration fears held by whites in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Zoning and the Housing Bubble

The Anti-Planner links an article by a Federal Reserve Bank economist on the housing market in Houston and how it is affected by zoning:

"Given that Houstonians had access to the same new types of
mortgages as the rest of the country and that Houston has had greater
population growth than other large metros, we might expect price
appreciation to be stronger in Houston than elsewhere," says the
article. "However, the opposite has been true."

The reason? Houston's lack of zoning and its large supply of land
available for development allowed builders to respond to easy credit by
increasing the pace of construction. Slow and unpredictable permitting
processes prevented builders in many other regions, including Florida
and the Pacific Coast states, from similarly stepping up production.

While some cities and regions have further delayed construction by imposing adequate public facilities or concurrency ordinances, Houston allows developers to create their own municipal utility districts.
Through these districts, the developers install the sewer, water, and
other facilities needed by their developments and charge the property
owners over time.

The result is that housing prices did not bubble, and they are not
significantly declining today. As of the fourth quarter of 2007, in
fact, they were still increasing. Anecdotal evidence from local
realtors and developers indicates that the tightening credit market has
soften the demand for homes under $200,000, but homes above that price
are still selling well.

Whatever correction Houston faces, says the article, "takes place in
the context of prices that are squarely in line with local construction
costs and without the painful supply-induced downturn under way in many
other markets." This leaves Houston relatively immune to the ups and
downs of housing prices experienced in regions with planning-induced
housing shortages.

I need to think a bit about how that relates to this.

If Only Abuse of Power Was Considered Worse Than Sex

In a previous post I lamented that Eliot Spitzer was lauded by the press as "Mr. Clean" despite (or because of) abuse of power, but was forced to quit within days of revealing an episode of consensual sex.  If only abuse of power had such an immediate impact on politicians as sex:

The Justice Department and the housing department's inspector general
are investigating whether the [HUD] secretary, Alphonso R. Jackson,
improperly steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in government
contracts to friends in New Orleans and the Virgin Islands.

On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers also raised concerns about
accusations that Mr. Jackson threatened to withdraw federal aid from
the director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority after he refused to
turn over a $2 million property to a politically connected developer.

Update:  More on the press and its support for prosecutorial abuse of power, in Spitzer's case and others.

The Health Care Housing Project

The looming federal government takeover of health care as proposed by most of the major presidential candidates will be far worse than anything we have seen yet from government programs.  Take this example:  In the 1960's, the federal government embarked on massive housing projects for the poor.  In the end, most of these projects became squalid failures.

With the government housing fiasco, only the poor had to live in these awful facilities.  The rest of us had to pay for them, but could continue to live in our own private homes.

Government health care will be different.  Under most of the plans being proposed, we all are going to be forced to participate.  Using the previous analogy, we all are going to have to give up our current homes and go live in government housing, or least the health care equivalent of these projects.

Think I am exaggerating
?

One such case was Debbie Hirst's. Her breast cancer had metastasized, and the health service would not provide her with Avastin,
a drug that is widely used in the United States and Europe to keep such
cancers at bay. So, with her oncologist's support, she decided last
year to try to pay the $120,000 cost herself, while continuing with the
rest of her publicly financed treatment.

By December, she had
raised $20,000 and was preparing to sell her house to raise more. But
then the government, which had tacitly allowed such arrangements
before, put its foot down. Mrs. Hirst heard the news from her doctor.
"He looked at me and said: "˜I'm so sorry, Debbie. I've had my wrists
slapped from the people upstairs, and I can no longer offer you that
service,' " Mrs. Hirst said in an interview...

Officials said that allowing Mrs. Hirst and others like her to pay
for extra drugs to supplement government care would violate the
philosophy of the health service by giving richer patients an unfair
advantage over poorer ones.

Patients "cannot, in one episode
of treatment, be treated on the N.H.S. and then allowed, as part of the
same episode and the same treatment, to pay money for more drugs," the
health secretary, Alan Johnson, told Parliament.

Here is the poll question I would still love to see asked:

Would you support a system of
government-run universal health care that guaranteed health care
access for all Americans, but would result in you personally getting
inferior care than you get today in terms of longer wait times, more
limited doctor choices, and with a higher probabilities of the
government denying you certain procedures or medicines you have
access to today.

Housing: Not At The Bottom

Here is a public service announcement for those of you who might be younger or who did not live through past housing bubbles (such as the mid-80's bubble in Texas).  Housing bubbles take a long time to sort out.  The typical pattern is that one sees a big build-up of yard "For Sale" signs around town, but no real movement or sales.  What happens is that people selling their houses resist accepting that a change in pricing levels has occurred, and list the homes at the old, higher price levels, particularly when any price cuts would put them underwater on their mortgage.

Eventually, the dam breaks, as sellers are forced to accept lower pricing because they can no longer bear the holding costs any longer.  In Texas, I had at least two friends who just left the keys in the mailbox and walked away, leaving it all to the bank to sort out.  But it can take a really long time for this to play out -- I am talking years, not months, depending on how inflated the bubble got.  From my experience (confirmed in the futures markets here) the bottom will not come until at least a year from now.  In Texas in the 1980's, it took as long as five years for the whole thing to play out and for prices to start recovering.

The Battle Against Freedom of Association

Freedom of Association is not explicitly listed in the First Amendment, but the Supreme Court has never-the-less upheld association rights in expressive organizations and for intimate associations, such as the family and more broadly in private social clubs.

The State of California continues its attack on Craigslist and Roommates.com trying to make these organizations liable for California Fair Housing Law violations when they publish a classified ad that breaks the law.  In short, it is illegal in California (and some other states) to advertise for a roommate who is a specific gender or race or religion, even if there are strong compatibility reasons for doing so (As in most states, it is A-OK to discriminate against smokers).

I won't get into the whole legal argument about these listing services, except to say that it is absurd to hold third parties accountable for other people's speech.  I want to ask a more general question.  How do laws that prevent me from choosing a roommate (however I want to) pass constitutional muster?  Taking on a stranger for a roommate is a scary proposition, especially in states like California that make it well nigh impossible to evict someone once they have moved in.  Short of marriage, it is hard to imagine a more intimate relationship -- in fact, many roommates probably see more of each other than some spouses.  On average, most people are probably not a compatible roommate for me.

Beyond this, most of the people who run afoul of the housing law do so with their speech, not the actual selection of a roommate.  Most fair housing complaints are against people's advertisements or public statements.  This strikes me as a double violation - the banning of speech about my association preferences. 

More on the Housing Bubble

I can't check the guy's methodology, but Robert Shiller claims in the NY Times to have built a better, more accurate measure of housing prices.  You might ask, don't we already have that - I always see things like "median home sales price" in the paper?  The problem with existing metrics is that they don't correct for mix.  If a lot of large houses in the pricey part of town sell, median home prices will rise just given the mix shift of the sample.  What you really want is a price index for equivalent home sales, something that corrects for things like square feet, inflation, and perhaps zip code.  This is what Shiller claims to have done, and the results are dramatic.  He shows that real housing prices have been flat for most of the century, right up until the last decade, where they have increased dramatically.

Housingprices

I can't think of any structural change that would explain this (except maybe a change in relationship between mortgage rates and inflation) so it certainly creates a flashing red light saying "bubble". 

By the way, isn't it interesting that people can see the graph above and immediately think "prices are due to crash" but when they see this very similar chart:

Oilprice1947

...and think that prices will keep going up and up and up.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.  Other posts on housing prices here, here and here.  More on oil prices here.

More on Statism and the Housing Bubble

In a followup post to the impact of "smart growth" policies on housing prices and availability, Tim Cavanaugh has this in Reason:

What's weird is how rarely, in San Francisco media, you'll hear the above
argument made at all. The "crisis" in housing prices is almost invariably
described as an inexplicable force of nature (in the local TV news) or as a
conspiracy by developers (in the alt.weeklies). You'd think, in a city full of
progressives who can talk all day about how they wish they could afford a home,
somebody might have started to wonder whether there's a connection between
political decisions and the fact that the city is remarkably segregated and
prohibitively expensive.

He has more, as does Thomas Sowell:

That fact has much to do with skyrocketing home prices. The people who vote on
the laws that severely restrict building, create costly bureaucratic delays, and
impose arbitrary planning commission notions need not pay a dime toward the huge
costs imposed on anyone trying to build anything in the San Francisco Bay area.
Newcomers get stuck with those costs...

People who wring their hands about a need for "affordable housing" seldom
consider that the way to have affordable housing is to stop making it
unaffordable. Foster City housing was affordable before the restrictive land use
laws made all housing astronomically expensive. Contrary to the vision of the
left, the free market produced affordable housing -- before government
intervention made housing unaffordable.

Smart Growth and the Housing "Bubble"

The other day, I wrote fairly tongue-in-cheek about dentists, their investment choices, and the housing "bubble".  In that article I linked to several much weightier analyses, if you are interested in the topic.  The Commons Blog has chimed in today with an interesting point about "smart growth" policies (which I have derided in many other posts):

But few reporters have bothered to ask why some markets have a bubble while
other fast-growing markets do not. The usual answer is that the bubbles are on
the coast because everyone is moving there, but many fast-growing regions in the
West and South do not appear to have a bubble.

The answer appears to be that "smart growth" and other growth-management
policies restrict housing supply. Since housing is an inelastic good, a small
restriction on supply leads to rapid increases in prices. This brings
speculators into the market -- and a large percentage of homes today are being
purchased with no-down-payment, interest-only loans by people who don't plan to
live in the homes; in other words, speculators.

A list of regions that are suffering bubbles reveals that a very high
percentage have implemented some form of growth management such as urban-growth
boundaries, greenbelts, or restrictions on building permits.

More on smart growth and housing bubbles here.  More smart growth resources via Cato.

 

OK, There May Be A Housing Bubble

I don't have access to the right kind of data to decide whether there is a housing bubble in the US, though a lot of people are writing about it

In the Phoenix / Scottsdale area, housing values have really starting going up, up, up in the last 18 months, though whether this is just a catch-up to other desirable metropolitan areas (Phoenix real estate has been pretty sluggish for years, and way cheaper than other resort-type destinations) or a true bubble, I can't tell.  Certainly speculation activity is way up, with a lot of homes being bought and renovated by investors, but again, I could argue that Scottsdale was behind other suburban markets in the whole tear-down thing. 

So, to date, I have been unconvinced about the housing bubble, at least as it applied to our community.  After all, demographics over the next 20-30 years are only going to support Scottsdale area real estate. 

However, over the weekend I had a disturbing experience:   At a social function, I heard a dentist enthusiastically telling a doctor that he needs to be buying condos and raw land.  The dentist claimed to be flipping raw land parcels for 100% in less than 6 months. 

For those who don't know, this is a big flashing red light.  When doctors and dentists start trying to sell you on a particular type of investment, run away like they have the plague.  At Harvard Business School, I had a great investment management class with a professor who has schooled many of the best in the business.  If an investment we were analyzing turned out to be a real dog, he would ask us "who do you sell this to?" and the class would shout "doctors!"  And, if the investment was really, really bad, to the point of being insane, the class would instead shout "dentists!"  Marginal Revolution has another potential bubble indicator.  Angry Bear has a lengthy analysis.

Postscript: By the way, just so you doctors and dentists won't feel like I am picking on you, we small business owners are considered to be almost as bad, which is I why I get so many boiler room calls.

Update:  OK, in one of those great moments in timing, my wife just called me to say that one of the moms at school was trying to get other moms to invest with her in some condos, and should we join in?  Eeeek!