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Boom Bubble Bust

Housing is a Drag: US Student Debt Bubble Made Worse by the Baby Boomer Nanny State

June 16, 2014 | 1:55 pm | fedny |

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I like to say that we never had a housing bubble in the US. It was a credit bubble with a housing as a symptom. The same credit bubble logic applies to college costs which have run unchecked well past the housing bubble “pop” in 2006 and the great recession.  Lately there has been discussion on the student debt crisis by economists and financial journalists that the phenomenon is overhyped – which prompted this post as a college tuition paying parent.

College costs for a 4 year degree are growing at a rate of about 5%, well above inflation. Access to credit has remained easy for students and parents to obtain so there are no real checks and balances (no pun intended) on college costs. Demand is high as students and their parents often fight to gain admission and can worry about paying off the debt later.

It’s been widely discussed that anemic household formation is holding back the housing market and the economy from fully recovering, that student debt has been the key culprit in holding back young people from striking out on their own, resigned to live at home until their finances get better. Speaking as a parent who just finished sending a son through college with more on the way, it’s a hard reality for parents too.

I was standing on the platform the other day waiting for a delayed commuter train (hey, it’s Metro North, who else) and struck up a conversation with a woman who was lamenting about all the debt she and her husband incurred sending their 4 kids to Ivy League schools – only for them to be unable to find a job in their chosen profession or find one that pays a living wage – these factors are often mutually exclusive.

Parents that borrow heavily to finance their children’s education is the sort of thing that is missed in economic data because that debt is in some other form of a home equity loan or other debt.

“Parents are facing an economic crisis because they are borrowing too much for college,” says Rick Darvis, executive director of the National Institute of Certified College Planners. “They’re sacrificing their current lifestyle and robbing their future retirement.” The rising levels of parental debt could ripple through the rest of the economy. By the time parents are in their 50s and 60s, they should be saving for retirement instead of taking on new liabilities, says Joseph S. Messinger, a certified college planner and president of Capstone Wealth Partners in Columbus, Ohio.

We are seeing financial coping strategies emerge like going to a community college for 2 years to save money and transferring to a better school for the remainder – or questioning the value of college all together. The cost/benefit of a college degree is being called into question because of the combination of spiraling costs and tepid job opportunities for many in the current economy.

The baby boomers have taken on significant debt to finance their children’s education. Sure the average student debt is $25k to $29K, the cost of a new or used car, but I contend a large portion of college debt is in the shadows born by the parents.

helicopter house

The average cost for a 4-year degree is about $23K (blended cost of private and public) which suggests that the debt would only cover about 80% of the cost of first year. This would imply that more than 3/4 of the cost of a 4-year degree was paid in cash through savings and working during the four year period. That doesn’t seem plausible to me – actually it seems ludicrous. Parents have to be paying  cash or taking on an inordinate amount of debt to pay for the other 75% of the cost that doesn’t show up in the school related debt numbers.  How common is it to see parents in our helicopter nanny state shoulder little to no financial burden for their children’s college educations? No matter the demographics, I contend it’s quite rare.

And how does this impact the US housing market recovery?

  • Household formation is weak as young adults with high debt, limited job opportunities or both, live with their parents after graduating – for extended periods of time, delaying their entrance into the housing market.
  • Parent’s are burdened by taking on debt for children’s college education, can’t trade up, make a lateral move, or downsize because they can’t qualify for a mortgage to buy a house (and keeps inventory off the market as well, making prices rise).

The tepid economy has exposed the problem – and the heavy debt loads could provide a drag on housing for an extended period of time.

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Spectacular TED Talk on The US Financial Crisis: How it Happened + How to Prevent

May 31, 2014 | 4:59 pm | Favorites |

Wlliam Black, a former bank regulator, made a TED Talk last fall that I wish I had made (but I couldn’t be as eloquent although I have a cooler tie). It should be required viewing by anyone who is connected with the housing industry.

Black’s presentation lays out the financial crisis in the proper context. He provides the recipe for disaster for all to see and it is NOT complicated to understand. Change the perverse incentives and a lot of this goes away. So many opportunities to avoid this crisis were missed.

And this is the first time I’ve heard someone talk about the unrelenting pressure that banks (and mortgage brokers) placed on appraisers, essentially forcing our industry to either make the number of get out of town. By 2007, 90% of appraisers said they were coerced by banks to make the number. That seems low to me. It had to be 100% or else those 10% of appraisers were living in a cave.

I’ll be returning to this video periodically for the foreseeable future as a reminder.

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We’re at “Peak Anti-Homeownership”

May 21, 2014 | 11:00 am |

Joe Weisenthal, Executive Editor of Business Insider, pronounced we’re at “Peak Anti-Homeownership” after reading Barry Ritholtz’ Bloomberg View piece on homeownership a few weeks ago.

If financial journalists and housing pundits today truly reflect the US sentiment about housing and homeownership, then we’re clearly manic about our largest asset class.

The conversation by a number of financial journalists and a particular Nobel Prize winning economist has morphed into a homeownership-is-a-false-aspiration pronouncement, almost entirely supported by treating this asset class as a stock. Didn’t we learn the hard way that this was flawed thinking during the prior boom? And unless I’m mistaken, the majority of US homebuyers, aside from investors, used leverage for much of the last 50 years. How about we estimate the ROI on what real people actually do and stop thinking about homeownership as a stock transaction? Good grief.

2012-2013 – Last year’s housing market “recovery” pronouncement was based on nothing fundamental, merely Fed policy of QE and years of pent-up demand released after the “fiscal cliff” came and went without a major catastrophe. Pundits caught up in the price euphoria said the housing market was firing on all cylinders. Yet surging price growth was largely based on sales mix-shifting, less distressed sale buying, tight credit causing, lack of inventory inducing, fear of rate rising, double-digit price growth. Positive housing news was refreshing news to many, but there was nothing fundamental driving the market’s performance to such incredible rates of growth. I couldn’t wrap my arms around 13% price growth with tight credit, stagnant income growth and unacceptably high under-unemployment as economic fundamentals.

2014 – This year’s housing market, which is being compared to the year ago frenzy, is showing weaker results. The housing recovery “stall” is being blamed on the weather, falling affordability and weaker first time buyer activity. This has brought some in the financial media to conclude that homeownership is over rated.

An aside about the weather – a homebuyer last January didn’t say “Gee, since it is 0 degrees outside, let’s cancel our appointment with the real estate agent and delay our home buying plans for 5 years.” Of course not – the harsh weather merely delayed the market for a month or two. However since it hasn’t “sprung back” yet, then clearly there is something else going on besides the weather.

Falling homeownership and anemic household formation is the result of a lackluster economy and a global credit crisis hangover. I can’t make the connection how these weaker metrics have anything to do with a flaw in the homeownership aspiration. Homeownership is falling because it rose to artificial highs (Fannie Mae was shooting for 75% during the housing boom) and is now overcorrecting because credit is unusually tight, the byproduct of a lackluster economy, the legacy of terrible lending decisions and fear over additional forced buybacks of flawed mortgages among other reasons.

I’m quite confident that a significant, sustained economic recovery will go a long way to ease credit conditions and eventually revert homeownership to the mean and we can stop with the “cart before the horse” orientation. While homeownership has never been right for everyone, recent calls that it’s not right for anybody is just as flawed.

Then we’ll pronounce “Peak-Homeownership” in our own manic way.

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Canadian Housing Prices Now Pushed Up Same Way as US

May 4, 2014 | 1:28 pm |

gandmUSvCanadaprices

I was reading Tara Perkin’s piece in The Globe and Mail about the record price spread between the US and Canadian housing markets and saw one of the most startling housing charts of late (above). To be clear, this chart doesn’t adjust for the exchange rate but the article says the Canadian/US existing home price spread would be large – closer to 50% than 66% – still huge.

The article cites Bank of Montreal’s chief economist Doug Porter as saying:

“The main takeaway is that, contrary to all expectations, the Canadian housing market has just kept on rolling in 2014 even as the U.S. housing market has paused for breath (after a steep climb out of the dungeon),” he writes in a research note. “Put it this way, how many pundits a year ago were calling for Canadian home prices to rise faster than their U.S. counterparts in any single measure?”

Yes, true, but this is probably another good reason not to rely on anything published by a lender’s “chief economist” title due to their inherent bias toward the interests of their employer. What I find fascinating about the Canadian housing market is the proliferation of the false rationale that prices are being used as a measure of housing health. For the US counterpart, think Miami and Las Vegas circa 2005 when prices were skyrocketing and sales were falling.

The Canadian government tightened credit conditions a year ago and sales fell sharply:

This time last year it was far from clear when and if the Canadian housing market would emerge from the sales slump that ensued after former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tightened the country’s mortgage insurance rules.

Focus on March 2014 v. March 2012 in the following chart:
canadahomesales3-2014

With Canadian home buyer’s access to credit now reigned in, sales fell sharply yet housing prices continued to rise. But Canadian housing prices are rising now much like they are in the US, based on restricted access to credit that keeps inventory off the market. And we’re not talking about household debt.

New housing inventory entering the market in Canada is now falling which is continuing to goose (sorry, Canadian geese pun) prices higher.

canadahomelistings3-2014

The Greater Fool Theory Applies to the Canadian Housing Market

A theory that states it is possible to make money by buying securities, whether overvalued or not, and later selling them at a profit because there will always be someone (a bigger or greater fool) who is willing to pay the higher price.

Of course from our past experience in the US, it’s not surprising to see every outpouring of Canadian housing market bubble concern met with an equal outpouring of Canadian housing bubble denial.

Please stop using housing prices as a measure of housing health. It was obviously flawed logic when applied in the US during 2003-2006 and now it has become apparent it was flawed during the 2012 to 2013 US run up.

Housing price growth doesn’t reflect good housing market health in Canada either.

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Bloomberg View’s Super Cool Visual: Bubble to Bust to Recovery

February 25, 2014 | 2:09 pm | bloomberg_news_logo |

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Matthew C. Klein does an amazing presentation on the housing cycle (h/t Barry Ritholtz) – think of it as a Kahn Academy presentation on visual steroids.

Bloomberg View’s “Bubble to Bust to Recovery.”

Required viewing.

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The Low Appraisal “Hassle” is a Symptom of a Broken Mortgage Process

September 16, 2013 | 3:58 pm | nytlogo |

Last week we saw a chorus of “appraisers are killing our deals” stories in some major publications:

  • When Appraisal Hassles Tank a Home Sale [WSJ]
  • When Appraisals Come in Low [NYT]
  • Appraisals Scuttle Home Sales Where Prices Rise Fast[IBD]

I’ve long been a critic of my own industry. Like any industry there are terrific appraisers, average appraisers and form-fillers. Post-Lehman there are a LOT more of the latter.

The scenario that prompted these articles and others like them occurs when a sale is properly vetted in the market place and an appraiser enters the transaction and subsequently appraises the property below the sales price. It supposedly is happening in greater frequency now, hence the rise in complaints.

My focus of criticism has largely been centered on appraisal management companies (AMC), who have tried to convert our industry to a commodity like a flood certification or title search rather than a professional service. AMCs serve as a middleman between the bank and an appraiser and they have thrived as a result of financial reform. Most only require an appraiser to be licensed, agree to work for 50 cents on the dollar and turn work around in one fifth the time required for reasonable due diligence. Appraisal quality of bank appraisals has plummeted in this credit crunch era and as a result has prompted growing outrage from all parties in a transaction.

Of course, the market value of the property may not be worth it. But the real estate industry doesn’t trust the appraiser anymore so we point them finger at them automatically.

Yes, it’s a hassle. So let’s decide what the problem really is and fix it.

A long time appraisal colleague and friend of mine once told me before the housing bubble burst:

“Jonathan, you as the appraiser are the last one to walk into the sales transaction. Everyone involved in the sale is smarter than you. The selling agent (paid a commission), the buyers agent (paid a commission), the buyer (emotionally bias), the seller (emotionally bias), the selling attorney (paid a transaction fee), the buyer’s attorney (paid a transaction fee) and the loan officer or mortgage broker (paid a transaction fee) all know more than you do.”

The appraiser in this post-financial reform world doesn’t have a vested interest in the transaction like they did during the housing boom – some could argue they are too detached. The vested interest I speak of occurred during the bubble when mortgage brokers and most banks generally used appraisers who always “made the number.” Incidentally, many of those types of appraisal firms are out of business now.

Let’s clear something up. The interaction an appraiser has with a lender when appraising below the purchase price now is not that much different than during the boom. When an appraiser kills a sale, the appraiser is generally hit with a laundry list of data to review and comments to respond to questions from the AMC, bank or mortgage broker who use the “guilty until proven innocent” approach even though the bank likely won’t rescind the appraisal. The additional time spent by the appraiser is a significant motivator to push the value higher to avoid the hassle if the appraiser happens to be “morally flexible.”

And by the way, sales price does not equal market value.

The sources for most of these low appraisal stories I began this post with come from biased parties so it makes it clear that low appraisals are the problem. In reality, the low appraisal issue is merely the symptom of a broken mortgage lending process. The problem is real and becomes more apparent when a market changes rapidly as it is now. Decimate the quality of valuation experts and you generate results that are less consistent with actual market conditions and therefore more sales are killed than usual. Amazingly the US mortgage lending infrastructure today does not emphasize “local market knowledge” in the appraisers they hire no matter what corporate line you are being fed. This is even more amazing when you consider that most national lenders have only a handful of appraisal staff and tens of thousands of appraisals ordered ever month.

The cynical side of me thinks that rise in low value complaints reflects an over-heated housing market – that the parties are getting swept up in the froth and the neutral appraiser is the voice of reason. The experienced me realizes that financial reform has brought new appraisers into the profession that have no business being here (and pushed many of the good ones out) and that the rise in the frequency of low appraisals has only seen the light of day because housing markets are currently changing rapidly.

Here’s my problem with the mortgage lending industry today as it relates to appraisers:
• Most of the people running bank mortgage functions are the same as during the bubble, only see appraisal as a cost, not as eyes and ears.
• Banks love the current state of appraisals because the values are biased low (banks are risk averse) and they fully control the appraiser.
• Appraisal Management Companies themselves have no real oversight (some are very good, most are terrible).
• Banks no longer emphasize local market knowledge in their appraisers or they pay lip service to it.
• Short term cost savings trumps emphasis on quality and reliability.

Every now and then (like now) everyone seems surprised and feels hassled when appraisal values don’t match market conditions. However the bank appraisal process has largely morphed into an army of robots on an assembly line – either because we are unaware of the problem until it affects us directly or we just want it that way.

Let’s focus on fixing the mortgage lending process or stop complaining about your appraisal.

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Appearing on New York Times’ Page One NEVER Gets Old…But It’s A Process

July 14, 2013 | 4:22 pm | delogo | Charts |

This morning I noticed a quote I had made in an earlier piece this week was one of two quotes selected for “The Chatter” on page 2 of the NYT SundayBusiness section.

“No supply means frenzy, and it means prices rise.”

Forgive this exercise in narcissism but I learned a few things from the process.

Today’s quote mention gave me pause and since I’m midway through our quarterly market report gauntlet I thought I’d take a quick moment to comment on the thrill I experienced this past Tuesday contributing to Liz Harris’ cover story on housing market inventory (lack thereof). It was titled Words to Start a Stampede: New York Apartment for Sale. Liz writes an excellent weekly column with clearly the best title in all of journalism: The Appraisal.

On Tuesday (7/2) I was initially contacted for the piece, beginning a weeklong period of handwringing. At that time I was told it would run on Saturday’s cover (7/6) which seemed like a long time away. However the topic is evergreen (not time sensitive to the day) so it was likely “on the bubble” (pun sort of intended) if any last minute breaking news appeared.

On Friday afternoon (7/5) I learned that Saturday was pushed to Sunday to make room for the crisis in Egypt.

Late Saturday (7/6) evening I learned that Sunday was pushed to Monday to make room for the plane crash at SFO airport.

Late Sunday (7/7) evening I was told that Monday was pulled because former NY governor Eliot Spitzer announced his candidacy for NYC Comptroller and no word on whether it would appear in Tuesday’s edition.

On Monday (7/8) I was clearly hoping for a slow news day so the piece wouldn’t get bumped a fourth time so every news alert required my attention. By the time Monday afternoon rolled around, the article suddenly appeared online so I became confident it would never make the cover – but no page number was assigned to a print page.

The online article appeared on the NYT “Most Popular” page, reaching 13th place quickly soon after it was posted and rapidly ascended to number 4, finally surpassing the very popular article about stool.

I assume this was a way for the NYT to test via crowd sourcing how relevant this story was to deserve a spot on page one. The online article jumped to 2nd place, then 1st on the most emailed list so I began to feel confident that this was the feedback the editors needed. …and we were still ahead of the stool article.

Late on Monday evening the online article was appended by the following notation at the bottom of the page:

“A version of this article appeared in print on July 9, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Words to Start a Stampede: New York Apartment for Sale.”

My company and I were both officially sourced (as well as Douglas Elliman for whom I write my report series) on A1 for the 12th time since 2000 (about .9/year).

On Tuesday morning (7/9) my parents texted me at 6:08am to say they saw the printed version in their town drug store. The article actually made both the NY Metro edition and the US edition so I could share the fun with my relatives outside the NYC area, where social norms are a lot less obsessive about real estate.

Ok, back to work.

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BBC TV On Brooklyn’s Soaring Market

May 29, 2013 | 2:16 pm | Videos |


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The word “bubble” is returning to the real estate conversation. Here’s a BBC clip on the rapid rebound in the Brooklyn housing market.

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Money for Nothing Movie Trailer

March 28, 2013 | 5:29 pm | fedny | Videos |

I can’t wait for the documentary Money for Nothing to be released. In fact I donated to IndieGoGo.com because I was so impressed that I wanted my own copy.

This documentary is compelling and so are all the cast members. It includes a who’s who list of current and past members of the Federal Reserve as well as economists and Wall Street experts. Cast members include my friend Barry Ritholtz and Gary Shilling who both have been on my podcast. Todd Harrison of the great site Minyanville.com and John Mauldlin who I have always looked to for insights. Jim Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer who called me at the height of the crisis to get a gauge on the Manhattan housing market.

During the housing bubble I often felt like screaming as I saw the financial world through my appraisal glasses thinking I missed an important math class in 8th grade. Fast growing banks with gigantic mortgage volume and many of my appraisal competitors in bed with mortgage brokers were clearly smarter than me – they could make the numbers work and I couldn’t.

In 2003 and 2004 I remember being absolutely confident as a non-economist that the Fed was keeping interest rates too low for too long. I could see it in the loss of lending standards and the lavish incomes enjoyed by those around me who embraced a world of based on moral flexibility. The froth was simply ignored.

Don’t mean to get sentimental on you dear readers, but this movie struck a chord with me. Enjoy the trailer and watch for the release date announcement.

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Talking Heads: Burning Down The House, S&P Style

February 5, 2013 | 4:48 pm | nytlogo |

As the credit world was unraveling around them, email communications between analysts at S&P seems to be pretty damming to their neutrality position. And finally now the lawsuit. There’s a fascinating re-write of the great Talking Heads song “Burning Down The House” by an S&P analyst.

I’ve got the entire Talking Heads catalogue on my iPhone and I’ll bet that David Byrne and the rest of the ‘Heads never imagined their music would used to describe a global credit bubble.

Here is the S&P email with the revised lyrics – as the credit world was imploding…

“With apologies to David Byrne…here’s my version of “Burning Down the House”

“Watch out
Housing market went softer
Cooling down
Strong market is now much weaker
Subprime is boi-ling o-ver
Bringing down the house

Hold tight
CDO biz — has a bother
Hold tight
Leveraged CDOs they were after
Going — all the way down, with
Subprime mortgages

Own it
Hey you need a downgrade now
Free-mont
Huge delinquencies hit it now
Two-thousand-and-six-vintage
Bringing down the house.”

Wow. Their other songs like “Wild Wild Life”, “Road to Nowhere”, and “Psycho Killer” might have also done the trick.

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