Lies, Damn Lies, And Government Statistics: Part I

August 19, 2005 | 10:27 pm | |

Well, maybe thats a little harsh. Is it just me or is economic data released each month alternating between panic and calm? A lot of information is being thrown at us and its got me worried.

Over the past several months, the economy has seemingly see-sawed between improvement and decline. A lot of it has to do with revising previously released stats by the Department of Labor.

The factors that are used to seasonally adjust the data are updated annually. Also, seasonally adjusted data that have been published earlier are subject to revision for up to 5 years after their original release.

The first thing I want to (really) understand is seasonal adjustments. I am very wary of their use because the methodologies used by the Bureau of Labor Standards seem complicated and not fully explained. There does not seem to be a standard technique or a way of verifiying their validity.

Now we have concerns over the auto maker data which is important since it is a significant component of core inflation. Prices of cars in June rose 1.5% after a 1% fall in May despite aggressive discounting by automakers [Note: Paid Subscription].



As quoted in the Wall Street Journal…

But the advance in auto prices appears to be inconsistent with the aggressive discounting by auto makers over the past few months.

Another stat bash involves petroleum data [Note: Subscription] which is one of the major factors of CPI.

As quoted in the MarketWatch…

The oil market has always been volatile, but there’s one constant that reliably drives prices one way or another: the weekly reports on U.S. petroleum supplies.

With many home-buying consumers on economic pins and needles and a blind faith in government statistics, there should be concern that we are all getting more accurate information.

Go to sequel to this post Lies, Damn Lies, And Government Statistics: Part II


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Appraisers, Brokers And Buyers: Do Your Homework

August 19, 2005 | 8:35 am | |

Unusual properties require added homework to all parties. [Note: Subscription] Its a good idea for homeowners (or their brokers) with unique properties to do research on similar properties. With the time pressure placed on appraisers these days, they may not have time to look under every rock…of course, unscrupulous clients may not want them too anyway. 😉

Portfolio lenders are less likely to feel comfortable with atypical properties requiring the presentation of a lot more data.

According to USPAP, appraisers are compelled to disclose their competency on a property type they are not familiar with. Here is an article that discusses competency.

One of the most common violations of the competency rule is when appraisers travel to other areas where they don’t understand the nuances of the local market or local neighborhoods. Appraisers who get out-of-area assignments should refer the jobs to local appraisers, get local appraisers to help them select comps or decline the assignment.

It always amazes me how we get calls from appraisers from another market, who ask for comps. More specifically, they ask for three comps (presumably because thats all that is required on the Fannie Mae forms). Thats the extent of their research. And then, they somehow seem to turn around their assignment in 48 hours. Needless to say, we do not share data with appraisers outside of our market.

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The Wealth Effect: Stocks vs. Housing

August 19, 2005 | 8:12 am | |

With the discussion today comparing stocks versus real estate, its worth taking another look at a research paper from a few years ago: Comparing wealth effects: the stock market versus the housing market [Note: PDF] written by professors Case, Quigley & Shiller. In their abstract they state:

We find a statistically significant and rather large effect of housing wealth upon household consumption.

The wealth effect is defined as:

The premise that when the value of stock portfolios rises due to escalating stock prices, investors feel more comfortable and secure about their wealth, causing them to spend more.

The impact on consumer spending is more than double when tied to the value of their home rather than their stock portfolio. This has broad implications for the economy and is likely of significant concern to the Federal Reserve in their recent policy of reigning in the threat of inflation.

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For Keeping the Rain Out, Housing Beats Stocks

August 19, 2005 | 7:36 am |

The article in the NY Times today “In the Long Run, Sleep at Home and Invest in the Stock Market” compared the stock market and real estate as an investment vehicle. The volatility of stocks over the past decade has faciliated a change in the perception of housing as an investment. With significant price appreciation over the past several years, that argument has been made even stronger.

As a pure investment, housing lags behind stocks in a long term window. However, homeowners generally calculate their return on investment off of the change in sales price or from their leveraged initial investment.

But when calculating the returns of both, which is tricky to compare, this quantification of the “use and enjoyment” of the asset makes real estate in this context, a better overall investment.

The use of the asset as a home, is where the return in housing exceeds the stock market. One way to figure the value for the use and enjoyment of the house is to estimate its rent. This quantifies the actual occupancy but falls short since it doesn’t quantify intangibles of pride of ownership, the flexibility to customize the home to your personal needs or style, etc. Therefore, the rental factor likely understates the value of using the home, suggesting that the returns on housing would be even higher.


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Home, Sweet, Condo?

August 18, 2005 | 10:20 pm | |

According to this article from the Real Estate Journal [Note: Subscription], condo prices exceeded single family home prices for the first time ever in early 2005.

Condo Facts
* Condos leapt to prominence after the 1961 Housing Act enabled the FHA to insure mortgages on the units.
* 970,000 condos were sold nationwide in 2004
* 1 out of 7 existing home sales are condos
* national median condo sales price is $223,500
* national median home sales price is $218,600

Why are the overall condo prices higher than houses?

With the resurgence of urban areas and a decline in “nuclear” families (40% in 1970 to 24% in 2000), condos have increased in demand.



Areas of Concern
Now there is concern that the change is more than demographics, that condo prices are rising too fast [Note: WSJ Subscription] as a result of speculators and investors favoring them over housing.

With great investor concentration in condos, could infer that the single family housing market has the potential to be less volatile in a market down turn.

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Well, Maybe The Inflation Threat Is Not That Bad After All?

August 18, 2005 | 2:32 pm | |

Yesterday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the CPI figures for July and while core inflation was relatively flat, energy and housing saw large gains. The concern was that oil was threatening to fan the flames of inflation. The PPI Report

A day later that concern seemed a bit exagerated as…economists expressed little concern [Note: Subscription] that the higher prices producers are paying signal broad inflation.

Economists also pointed to Tuesday’s consumer-price report, which showed a modest 0.5% advance in July, with the core rate increasing a benign 0.1%.

In addition, the producer-price index for intermediate goods rose 1%, largely because of energy-cost pressures, and the core intermediate index fell 0.1%, the third consecutive monthly decline.

What is the Producer Price Index? In other words, CPI measure price changes to the buyer while PPI measures price changes to the seller.

Rising oil prices appear to be slowing economic growth and placing investor concerns of inflation at ease for now.

Economic stats seem to be more volatile than ever. For example, core cpi would have been even lower had it not been for the rise in auto prices, yet this does not correlate with recent record auto sales due to aggressive discounting. Economists have long complained about the reliability of auto sales and later revisions. Accounting for about one-sixth of US jobs, so the impact of these stats affects the reliability of the overall numbers significantly.

What does all this mean? Many believe the Fed has at least 3 more increases in it before the end of the year. This doesn’t seem to mean that mortgage rates are bound to increase.

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Apparently, We’re Flush

August 17, 2005 | 1:08 pm | |

CNN just ran a story on incomes of appraisers. This survey stikes me as a bit overstated. Specialization is key, especially if the focus is on complex properties.

IMHO, I think the appraisers on the residential side that are generating a lot of income, own very large operations with a lot of trainees and are tied in tight with wholesale lending channels. Its going to be interesting to see how these firms do when or if refi or sales business drops off significantly. On the commercial side, its the firms tied in with conduits. With capital in abundance these days, demand for these appraisers is high.

A study on appraiser incomes [Note: Abstract], done in 1999 at Washington State University, was reported to be the first of its kind.

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What Else is New? Existing-Home Sales Hit Records, But…

August 17, 2005 | 8:40 am | |

The recurring theme across the US is an increase in the number of sales and sales prices. NAR’s existing home sale report saw a record pace in the number of sales. West Virginia drew top honors with the largest gain in sales activity over the past year.

In addition to volume, housing prices have been rising nationwide. Condos seem to be leading the way in Massachusetts [Note: Subscription].

Around the country housing prices and exist-home sales are setting records or near record levels but the rate of appreciation seems to be easing across the country.

Regional articles: Wisconsin
Minneapolis
California
Southern California
Wisconsin
Upstate New York


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Bond Market Likes Core Inflation Stats

August 17, 2005 | 7:49 am |

The US Labor Department released their CPI report which indicated that U.S. CPI was up 0.5% in July, largely on energy costs. CPI (Inflation) is up 3.2% over the past year, as compared to 2.5% over the prior year. Still historically low but a cause for concern. Housing accounts for 40% of overall CPI.

CPI7-05

It is interesting to note that the previous [table from the BLS.gov site] the year over year change in CPI was actually much higher in February through March.

bankrate8-05

Core inflation, which excludes food and energy costs however, was virtually flat at 0.1%. With core inflation rates so low, the bond market now seems to view rising energy costs as predictive of softer future spending, and less of a red flag for inflation.

This may influence long-term mortgage rates to stay at low levels since bond investors still don’t appear to be overly concerned about inflation at this point. Mortgage rates have actually trended down since the end of the first week of August.

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From Rubble to Rubles

August 16, 2005 | 10:07 pm | |

There is a housing boom in Russia where prices in an exclusive area of Moscow known as Ostozhenka, housing exceeds $10,000 per square meter. That translates to just under $1,000 per square foot. After New York, Moscow has the highest concentration of billionaires.

Mortgage financing is a relatively new concept in Russia and is helping fuel the boom. Lack of supply, is also fueling the boom, but as little as 6 months ago, the government was saying there was no housing boom.

Like Russia, China and Korea are seeing lack of supply and ready credit is very similar to the US situation. The housing boom pattern seems to be similar around the globe, however, the disparity between the entry and luxury segments as well as investor speculation in China, Korea and Russia are at a higher level than seen in the US.


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Will Oil Grease The Inflation Wheel?

August 16, 2005 | 9:31 pm |

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s chief economist, Douglas Duncan said that the trigger for price declines is always the loss of jobs and doesn’t see a slowdown in employment, “not until 2006.” He predicts that 2005 will set records “and only an unexpected roadblock of monumental size will slow its pace”

Well, we may have a potential roadblock, sort of. Oil Prices have often been a trigger for inflation and higher long term rates such as mortgages.

Then why isn’t it happening now?

Well, here’s a thought…after adjusting for inflation, we are still well below inflation-adjusted oil prices that peaked at $94 per share in 1980. Core inflation is still within the Fed’s confort zone but energy prices are rising.


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Residential Mortgage Standards Hold; Non-Traditional Mortgage Use Increases

August 16, 2005 | 2:03 pm | |

There has been a lot written about how lending standards have eased which has help promote the rise in housing prices with non-traditional loans. The Federal Reserve released a report that said US banks eased terms for commercial and industrial loans while residential loans remain unchanged. [Note: Subscription] 20% of domestic banks saw increased demand for mortgages.

The good news is that restrained lending requirements, especial on investor properties, will help keep price growth in check. However, The Fed report seems to contradict the recently released report by the Mortgage Bankers Association [Note: Subscription] which said that lending standards continued to slide.

The Fed Report also said that use of non-traditional mortgages continues to rise.
[Matrix] piggyback loans

Nontraditional mortgage products include adjustable rate mortgages with multiple payment options and interest-only mortgages.

Interestingly, the lenders reported that less than 15% of the mortgages were non-traditional, which is less than the impression given in the media right now. Still, its of concern because highly leverage buyers are less able to weather a market downturn if one were to occur.

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