Thursday, March 31, 2011

Today's links

1--LPS' Mortgage Monitor Report Shows Enormous Backlog of Foreclosures; Option ARM Foreclosure Rate Higher Than Subprime Foreclosures Ever Reached, Lender Processing Service

Excerpt: The February Mortgage Monitor report released by Lender Processing Services, Inc. (NYSE: LPS) shows that while delinquencies continue to decline, an enormous backlog of foreclosures still exists with overhang at every level. As of the end of February, foreclosure inventory levels stand at more than 30 times monthly foreclosure sales volume, indicating this backlog will continue for quite some time. Ultimately, these foreclosures will most likely reenter the market as REO properties, putting even more downward pressure on U.S. home values.

February’s data also showed a 23 percent increase in Option ARM foreclosures over the last six months, far more than any other product type. In terms of absolute numbers, Option ARM foreclosures stand at 18.8 percent, a higher level than Subprime foreclosures ever reached. In addition, deterioration continues in the Non-Agency Prime segment. Both Jumbo and Conforming Non-Agency Prime loans showed increases in foreclosures and were the only product areas with increases in delinquencies.

The data also showed that banks’ modification efforts have begun to pay off, as 22 percent of loans that were 90+ days delinquent 12 months ago are now current. Timelines continue to extend, with the average U.S. loan in foreclosure now having been delinquent for a record 537 days, and a full 30 percent of loans in foreclosure have not made a payment in over two years.

2--How low will prices go?, Diana Olick, CNBC

Excerpt: Did I say double dip? Well I'm not the only one.

Today's home price report from S&P Case Shiller proves the point. Remember, this report is based on the sale prices of transactions that closed in January, but it is also a three month running average. That means that at least two thirds of the price deals were struck in October and November, when mortgage rates were at historic lows, providing more purchasing power; they only began spiking in December.

So prices in the top twenty U.S. Markets were down 3.1% in January, year over year, and the slide is accelerating. Eleven of the top twenty hit new price lows on the index. Only San Diego and Washington, DC are showing annual improvements with San Diego just barely out of the red.

“Keeping with the trends set in late 2010, January brings us weakening home prices with no real hope in sight for the near future” says Standard and Poors' David M. Blitzer. "The housing market recession is not yet over, and none of the statistics are indicating any form of sustained recovery. At most, we have seen all statistics bounce along their troughs; at worst, the feared double-dip recession may be materializing."...

Here's one thing we know for sure: Foreclosure inventory volume is outpacing foreclosure sales, and foreclosure sales are already more than one third of the market right now. Distressed properties sell at a big discount, pushing prices down all around them. Banks are pushing to get rid of foreclosed properties now, and pushing to get borrowers in the process out of the process before the state attorneys general and federal regulators come down with some kind of painful settlement. That's more inventory, as consumer confidence continues to fall. You tell me where prices are headed...

3--Friedrich Hayek, Zombie, Paul Krugman, New York Times

Excerpt: Brad DeLong directs us to a 1932 letter by Friedrich Hayek and others arguing that (a) deficits somehow caused the Great Depression (b) deficit spending would drive up interest rates and make the Depression worse.

Truly, nothing ever changes. The insistence that big deficits somehow caused the crisis even thought they actually didn’t appear until after the crisis was well underway — and were clearly caused by the crisis, not the other way around — prefigures the debate in Europe, in which everyone declares that fiscal irresponsibility is the core issue even though both Ireland and Spain had low debt and budget surpluses on the eve of crisis.

And Hayek’s prediction that deficits would drive up interest rates despite high unemployment was, of course, totally wrong. (see chart)

What’s terrifying is the fact that, as Brad notes, the arguments of today’s pain caucus are exactly the same as those Hayek was making in 1932, except that they’re less well expressed. And they’re sticking with their doctrine even though the economic story — deficits mainly the result of the slump, not the cause, and interest rates not rising in the face of those slump-caused deficits — is playing out the same way.

4--The Exceptional Mr. Greenspan, Paul Krugman

Excerpt: Alan Greenspan continues his efforts to cement his reputation as the worst ex-Fed chairman in history; in today’s FT, he comes out for a repeal of financial regulations designed to prevent a repeat of the crisis for which he, more than any other individual, bears personal responsibility.

To be honest, I didn’t know quite how to respond; I was, very nearly, left speechless by the lack of self-awareness on display. But Henry Farrell shows us the way, pointing out that Greenspan’s piece contains this remarkable passage:

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

Henry then asks readers to chime in with other uses of the “with notably rate exceptions” phrase. Among the entries:

With notably rare exceptions, Newt Gingrich is a loyal and faithful husband.

With notably rare exceptions, Japanese nuclear reactors have been secure from earthquakes.

5--Libyan Rebel Council Forms Oil Company to Replace Qaddafi’s, bloomberg

Excerpt: Libyan rebels in Benghazi said they have created a new national oil company to replace the corporation controlled by leader Muammar Qaddafi whose assets were frozen by the United Nations Security Council.

The Transitional National Council released a statement announcing the decision made at a March 19 meeting to establish the “Libyan Oil Company as supervisory authority on oil production and policies in the country, based temporarily in Benghazi, and the appointment of an interim director general” of the company.

The Council also said it “designated the Central Bank of Benghazi as a monetary authority competent in monetary policies in Libya and the appointment of a governor to the Central Bank of Libya, with a temporary headquarters in Benghazi.”

The Security Council adopted a resolution on March 17 that froze the foreign assets of the Libyan National Oil Corp. and the Central Bank of Libya, both described in the text as “a potential source of funding” for Qaddafi’s regime.

Libya holds Africa’s largest oil reserve.

6--CoreLogic: Shadow Inventory Declines Slightly, Calculated Risk

Excerpt: CoreLogic ... reported today that the current residential shadow inventory as of January 2011 declined to 1.8 million units, representing a nine months’ supply. This is down slightly from 2.0 million units, also a nine
months’ supply, from a year ago.

CoreLogic estimates current shadow inventory, also known as pending supply, by calculating the number of distressed properties not currently listed on multiple listing services (MLS) that are seriously delinquent (90 days or more), in foreclosure and real estate owned (REO) by lenders. Transition rates of “delinquency to foreclosure” and “foreclosure to REO” are used to identify the currently distressed non-listed properties most likely to become REO properties. Properties that are not yet delinquent but may become delinquent in the future are not included in the estimate of the current shadow inventory. Shadow inventory is typically not included in the official metrics of unsold inventory.
...
Of the 1.8-million unit current shadow inventory supply, 870,000 units are seriously delinquent (4.2 months’ supply), 445,000 are in some stage of foreclosure (2.1 months’ supply) and 470,000 are already in REO (2.2 months’ supply).....

This report provides a couple of key numbers: 1) there are 1.8 million homes seriously delinquent, in the foreclosure process or REO that are not currently listed for sale, and 2) there are about 2 million current negative equity loans that are more than 50 percent “upside down”.

7--Consumption spending slowing down, James Hamilton, Econbrowser

Excerpt: Guess what: rising energy prices are taking a toll on consumers.

On Monday the Bureau of Economic Analysis released details on personal consumption expenditures for February, allowing us to update our graph of how big a share energy is in American budgets. A 6% expenditure share marked the point at which we started to see significant consumption responses a few years ago. The share in February is essentially there (5.98%, to be exact), the highest it's been since October 2008. For poorer households, energy's budget bite is a significantly larger percentage.

Not surprisingly, overall spending on other items is slowing down. Real personal consumption expenditures grew at a 3% annual rate in February after falling slightly in January. Bill McBride (and you know I don't like to argue with him) thinks this means real consumption spending for 2011:Q1 may only grow at a 1.4% annual rate. That's less than half the rate that many analysts had been anticipating prior to Monday's data.

You probably also know that gasoline prices have been climbing from their average values in February.

8--Core Inflation: Much Ado About Nothing, David Beckworth, Macro and other market musings

Excerpt: Ryan Avent is right that we should not get worked up over the possibility that U.S. core inflation appears to have bottomed out. A potential turn around in core inflation does not negate that fact that the demand for money remains elevated and is hampering a robust recovery in nominal spending. In addition, forward-looking measures of inflation indicate that long-term inflation expectations remain below the Fed's implicit 2% inflation target as seen in the figure below--see chart...

Between the elevated demand for money and below-target inflation expectations, it is hard to see why one should get excited about the recent activity in core inflation. These developments, if anything, indicate that monetary policy may still be too tight.

9--As Obama and Congress fiddle, America liquidates housing sector, Christopher Whalen, Reuters

Excerpt: In many ways, the current national policy mix of more regulation, decreased government subsidies and, to add further urgency, a shrinking banking system, is the perfect storm for the housing, which is now down six months in a row. Despite my long-held desire to see market-based reform in the US housing sector, I think all parties need to be aware of the precarious situation facing the American economy and banks as home prices collapse for lack of credit.

The slide in home prices and receding bank lending footprint is one of the reasons why at my firm we have begun to talk about putting aside structural reform of the housing sector this year and instead increasing the size of the loans guaranteed by the government, even while raising the cost of such “g fees” as they are called by housing market mavens. Without credit, the real estate sector is left with a cash market liquidation with grave implications for financial intermediaries and investors.

We wrote this week in The Institutional Risk Analyst, “Wanted: Private Investors Seeking First Loss Exposure on RMBS, March 28, 2011,” about some of the details of the secondary mortgage market. In simple terms, there is about $11 trillion in financing behind the real estate sector: $4.4 trillion in the portfolios of banks, $5.5 trillion in agency securitizations guaranteed by Uncle Sam, and $2 trillion or so in private label securities.

In order to believe the claims of my conservative friends about “reform” of government agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac you must believe that some of the $5.5 trillion in no-risk agency securities is going to be willing to migrate into the bucket of private label securities, where investors take actual credit risk. It is unlikely that we are going to see any significant increase in the private market home loans unless interest rates rise significantly.

The net, net here is that the available pool of credit available for the housing sector is shrinking and thus prices must also decline to adjust for that supply of credit. This fact of continued decline in home prices is going to have a chilling effect....

I estimate that Fannie and Freddie alone are hiding $200 billion worth of bad loans on their books simply because there is no market for these foreclosed homes. Ditto for the largest servicer banks such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. To clean up this mess with finality is going to cost $1 trillion or so in round numbers. But nobody in Washington wants to go there.

The Obama Administration and the Congress need to put aside their respective fantasy world views and focus on the horrible economic reality ongoing in the housing and banking sectors. It may be that the degree of self-delusion in Washington has reached the point that only another financial catastrophe can wake us from out collective distraction. But if President Obama really believes he can win reelection with housing prices falling from now till November 2012, then perhaps those who liken him to Louis XIV are right.

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