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[Tax Credit] Existing Home Sales Up 10.1% M-O-M, 23.5% Y-O-Y

November 23, 2009 | 4:01 pm | |

The National Association of Realtors released their October 2009 Existing Home Sale Report and the news was positive and kind of weird.

Driven by the first-time buyer tax credit, existing-home sales showed another big gain in October with a strong uptrend established over the past seven months, while inventories continue to decline.

It looks like the uptick in sales last month has been eliminated with the downward revision this month.

Existing-home sales

Existing-home sales – including single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops – surged 10.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate1 of 6.10 million units in October from a downwardly revised pace of 5.54 million in September, and are 23.5 percent above the 4.94 million-unit level in October 2008. Sales activity is at the highest pace since February 2007 when it hit 6.55 million.

The number of sales was up 23.5% over the same period last year and up 10.1% from August. Both saw unusually sharp increases, caused by the expiration of the tax credit (and then renewal and expansion), falling mortgage rates, rising foreclosures (falling prices) and improved affordability.

If you remove the seasonality adjustment, the number of sales was up 20.8% over the same period last year and up 6.6% from August, still significant.

“It’s an impressive increase and shows a lot of pent-up demand for housing,” said Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Capital Inc. in New York. “Buyers have enough confidence to take the plunge. The housing market recovery will be a durable one.

I’m not clear how the recovery is durable since it is solely dependent on artificially depressed mortgage rates, federal agency bailouts and tax credits.

Median existing home price

Prices continued to fall as there remained a large market share of foreclosures and lower priced properties and condos receive the most interest from buyers.

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $173,100 in October, down 7.1 percent from October 2008. Distressed properties, which accounted for 30 percent of sales in October, continue to downwardly distort the median price because they usually sell at a discount relative to traditional homes in the same area.

Listing inventory continues to decline.

Total housing inventory at the end of October fell 3.7 percent to 3.57 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 7.0-month supply2 at the current sales pace, down from an 8.0-month supply in September. Unsold inventory totals are 14.9 percent below a year ago.

Whats kind of weird about all of this good news, is that prices are falling,low end sales activity surged, market share of foreclosure sales remains high and high end housing market segments are the weak.

The NAR press release seems to couch readers in their anticipated sharp decline in sales over the winter.


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[The Housing Helix Podcast] Justin Fox, Time Magazine Columnist, Curious Capitalist Blogger, The Myth of the Rational Market Author

October 12, 2009 | 6:04 pm | Podcasts |


In this podcast, I have a conversation with Justin Fox, economics and business columnist for Time Magazine and author of the book The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street.

As publisher Harper Collins says about the book: “Chronicling the rise and fall of the efficient market theory and the century-long making of the modern financial industry, Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market is as much an intellectual whodunit as a cultural history of the perils and possibilities of risk.”

Here’s his interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I first became acquainted with Justin by stumbling on his blog The Curious Capitalist which takes complex economic issues and translates them into everyday speak.

[Click to expand]

[Audio Quality Alert] What began as a 30-minute interview was cut to 18 minutes because of a random recurring podcast issue I have been trying to resolve: audio distortion. About 18 minutes into the interview I had to cut it short. My sincere apologies to Justin. But I got an idea and I set out this past weekend to solve the mystery. I am happy to report: problem solved going forward – I explain how at the end of the podcast – so much for myth of the rational podcast.

Check out the podcast

The Housing Helix Podcast Interview List

You can subscribe on iTunes or simply listen to the podcast on my other blog The Housing Helix.


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[HuffPost] Current Wave of Housing Euphoria May Extend Downturn

July 30, 2009 | 3:02 pm | | Columns |

Here is my latest handiwork for the Huffington Post.

Current Wave of Housing Euphoria May Extend Downturn

The article is below in full if you don’t want to click on the link:

Current Wave of Housing Euphoria May Extend Downturn
Jonathan Miller 7-30-09


The spring housing market is behind us and we are now fully ensconced in summer, able to sit at the beach, sip our drink and watch the waves roll in.

Waves of housing statistics that is.

Seemingly everyone from the consumer to the POTUS has been waiting for a rogue wave that will finally bring some good news on housing. In fact most of us are aching from bad news overload and desperately want good news or at least a temporary reprieve from the bad.

Like the closing scene from the 1973 movie Papillion where Steve McQueen’s character–when trying to escape from the island–determined that every seventh wave was big enough to enable him to float past the rip currents that surrounded the island.

The monthly gauntlet of key housing market reports from the past week show a rising tide of better-than-we-have-heard-in-three-years-news on the state of US housing market.

Here’s a recap:

July 22, 2009 Federal Housing Finance Agency news release headline: “U.S. Monthly House Price Index Estimates 0.9 Percent Price Increase from April to May.” This report reflects sales with conforming mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at or below $417,000 plus the high priced housing markets such as the New York City area that have a $729,750 mortgage cap. Housing markets that rely on conforming mortgages are expected to recover first because the that mortgage market has been the target of recent federal stimulus and bailouts. However the month over month price increase of 0.9% touted in the report headline is the first such increase since February. Although 5 of the 9 regions show a month over month increase in prices only 1 of those 5 regions had an increase in the prior month. In other words, this trend is not very compelling.

July 23, 2009 National Association of Realtors Existing Home Sales report headline: “Existing-Home Sales Up Again” The number of re-sale increased 3.6% in June from May, the third month over month increase in activity. The number of sales was only 0.2% below the level of last year’s activity in the same month. This was largely due the 31% market share of foreclosures, assumed to be purchased by speculators plus the impact of the federal tax credit for first time buyers which expires at the end of November. However, this seasonally adjusted sales 3-peat was also seen at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007 before sales activity fell sharply. In other words, this trend is not very compelling.

July 27, 2009 Commerce Department New Home Sale Index headline: “New Residential Sales in June 2009.” This is the report that got everyone excited because of the 11% increase in new home sales month over month and the largest such increase in 8 years. Floyd Norris of the New York Times points out that if you look at the actual number of sales in June, it was the second lowest month of sales on record since the metric was tracked in 1963. In other words, this trend is not very compelling.

July 28, 2009 S&P/Case-Shiller Index “Home Price Declines Continue to Abate.” The 20-City Composite has shown a lower annual rate of decline for 4 consecutive months and 13 of the 20 metro areas posted month over month increases but this is before seasonality is adjusted for. In other words, we expect prices to rise in the spring if they are going to rise at any point during the year. If seasonality is factored in, month over month gains evaporate. In the New York City region, the 20-city composite index doesn’t cover co-ops, condos, foreclosures and new development, more than half the sales activity. In other words, this trend is not very compelling especially after considering that along with the most recent month in the report, the index has declined year over year for 29 straight months.

In a stroke of irony, big media, which was on the receiving end of the real estate industry’s “blaming the media” ire for the past three years–as responsible for making the downturn worse–has taken the positive outlook and run with it. Nearly every major news outlet has begun to report each of these reports by cherry-picking and overweighting the positive elements results in a downright giddy tone. Over the past week, the general sentiment in news coverage is clearly moving towards the positive but mainly confined to the headlines.


As a reporter once told me (and I am paraphrasing) “Negative news only sells for so long – consumers eventually stop reading it as they become become numb to it.”
Perhaps this is best exemplified by yesterday’s kind of thin New York Times page 1 story on housing:

“3-Year Descent in Home Prices Appears At End.”

This was the headline that put me off a bit since the article itself wasn’t very committal to the notion that the housing market has bottomed. Perhaps this is why the web version of the article was titled with a more sedate headline that was more in sync with my view:

“Recovery Signs in Housing Market Stir Some Hope.”

Step back for a second and ask why would the housing market start to improve now to lead the economy?

If more people are losing their jobs and credit remains tight, how can we expect the number of sales and housing prices to over come this. Unemployment is still rising and is expected to continue rising through next year even though the recession could be over right now or close to it. Housing inventory is still high and the number of sales, exclusive of distressed asset sales is still low. Speculators may be on their way to becoming a force again in the market. Mortgage rates are expected to trend higher over the next few years with all the new debt taken on by the federal government. Credit is still very tight, and while there has been some discussion of loosening in mortgage underwriting, banks still aren’t enthusiastic about lending. There appears to be some easing on conforming mortgage underwriting but a chokehold remains on jumbo and new development financing.

Here’s the problem.

Sellers tend to “chase” the market when it is falling, unable to respond to the decline in values as quickly as the market does. If sellers take this positive news too seriously and don’t focus on the realities of their local markets, they may end up being over confident when negotiating a sale, losing the buyer and falling even further behind the market than they would have otherwise, eventually selling for less.

Luxury condo developers and especially the lenders behind them, many of whom are facing stalled projects, could experience a sense of renewed optimism from the recent depiction of the housing market, causing them to miss the market, eventually realizing a larger loss.

So let’s be clear. While I am hopeful that we will see a housing recovery at some point in the future, I’d rather it be real.

In the meantime, I’ll sit at the beach and count the waves.


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[The Housing Helix Podcast] [Interview] Alison Rogers, Author, CBS MoneyWatch Columnist, Real Estate Agent

July 24, 2009 | 3:09 pm | | Podcasts |


I had a fun time interviewing Ali Rogers of CBS MoneyWatch where she writes a column Ask The Agent. She’s a very smart chronicler of issues related to housing. A few years ago, she authored a book: Diary of a Real Estate Rookie to good reviews and wrote a column for Inman News for three years of the same name. She is also into the Twitter thing and is a successful real estate agent.

I often tell her – she’s no “Rookie”.

Check out the podcast.

The Housing Helix Podcast Interview List

You can subscribe on iTunes or simply listen to the podcast on my other blog The Housing Helix.



[How New York Became Safe] A Catalyst For A Thriving Housing Market

July 21, 2009 | 9:12 am | |

One of the untold stories of the success of the NYC housing market of the last decade (obviously separate and apart from the credit boom) was the attention to detail. In the early 1990s my relatives in the midwest saw NYC as a scary place with tourists getting stabbed on the subway, graffiti, homeless everywhere, city services a mess and public spaces in disrepair. I grew weary of “New York Bashing” in the media. In 1991, my father was mugged twice in broad daylight on a weekday afternoon outside of my old office on 45th and Fifth Avenue.

There is a great article by George L. Kelling in City Journal called: How New York Became Safe: The Full Story A citywide effort, involving many agencies and institutions, helped restore order.

New York City figured its way out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Young families were fleeing to the suburbs in droves. I always viewed this success through the lens of the efforts by NYC government, but thats only a party of the story. Many individual organizations focused on their own turf and made a difference.

I feel that this laid the ground work to stem the exodus from the city, improve city revenues and encourage residential development.

In sum, a diverse set of organizations in the city—pursuing their own interests and using various tactics and programs—all began trying to restore order to their domains.

My concern now is that severe budget cutbacks and a weak economy could undo many of the gains in the improvement in the quality of life many living in the city have experienced. This was a phenomenon also seen in other metro areas, but in my limited travels, more of the improvements of the past decade were a result of the credit boom whereas the boom in NYC began in the late 1990s.



Lobster Prices And Subprime Lending

July 5, 2009 | 11:51 pm | Favorites |

lobster header

This weekend I ripped through a terrific book The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson written back in 2004. Even if you’re not a lobster fan, I marveled at how he could take a mundane subject and weave an interesting (true) story on how the lobstermen of Maine have kept the production elevated for the past several decades, despite consistent claims of overfishing. (Incidentally my lobster pots were stolen this weekend, lines probably cut by commercial fisherman, plus we had 30 family members over to our house for the 4th for a lobster/clam bake.)

No one really knew whether cyclical declines in the number of pounds caught were natural or induced by man.

In other words, this is all about subprime lending.

While trying to find my interview on NPR about last week’s market reports (I was unsuccessful) I stumbled upon a WNYC interview with the Trevor Corson last week (the day our report was released) without using keywords such as “lobster,” “fishing” or “Maine”.

He correlated the sharp drop in Lobster prices this year with the collapse of the Iceland banking system via subprime lending. It’s worth a listen.

And here’s his related piece in The Atlantic magazine. Fascinating.

Basically, lobster prices have maintained a high price level for the past decade. A large portion of the catch was diverted to processing plants in Canada keeping supply of fresh lobsters restrained in the U.S. The Canadian plants shipped lobster products all over the world and were mainly financed by Icelandic banks who provided them revolving lines of credit. When the subprime crisis hit, these banks collapsed because of their heavy investment in financially engineered subprime mortgage products. As the lines of credit dried up, so did the processing plants and the excess harvests were stuck in the U.S. driving down wholesale lobster prices.

Sound familiar?

Oversupply of housing driving down prices correlates to the “V-notch” technique to increase the lobster population. I won’t even bring up the V-shaped recovery“, since I’m still full from our lobster bake.

Somehow it all comes back to lobsters.

UPDATE On a side note, the wholesale cost to restaurants has fallen sharply but the consumer is largely unaware of the drop, so restaurants have enjoyed a larger spread between what they charge you and what it costs them. Have you ever noticed how many lobster related items appear on a typical mid to upscale restaurant menu? It seems to be 4-5 items now have lobster in them. Menus used to contain one lobster item, a whole steamed version. Now lobster mac & cheese is a popular favorite. Thank synthetic CDOs for that.


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Real Estate Mass Delusion Necessitates Consumer Protection

June 30, 2009 | 10:51 am |

Two interesting articles for Matrix readers to take a look at…

In the current issue of the New Yorker, there’s a terrific article by James Surowiecki called Caveat Mortgagor who discusses the potential legislation to create a consumer protection agency for financial products comparing it to the birth of the FDA.

Bankers and Wall Street won;t like it because it hampers their ability to be innovative. Of course some innovation got us where we are here today. However, innovation is not bad per se and I’m realistic in that such regulation will not eliminate financial collapse, but rather, I see it as a way to reduce the odds of such a collapse.

I do worry that consumers will develop a false sense of security with investing since many can’t figure out a simple interest rate.

In finance, third parties—like debt-management services and mortgage brokers—are often conflicted at best and corrupt at worst. And buying a house is far more complex, and confusing, than picking out a refrigerator. This doesn’t mean that a consumer-protection agency could have averted the current crisis—given the widespread conviction that house prices would rise forever, disaster was probably inevitable—but it might have saved some from the financial equivalent of Elixir Sulfanilamide.

More important, negative-amortization loans, prepayment-penalty mortgages, and option ARMs all made it easier for people with low incomes and poor credit to buy houses, and for people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise could have. Serious regulation will mean that fewer people can buy homes.

He concludes with “a simple lesson: if you don’t understand the deal you’re making, don’t make it.”

Alyssa Katz, author of “Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us” is interviewed in Salon.com today in a piece called Who’s to blame for the housing crash? …good intentions and mass delusion that led to the real estate boom.

Here’s the first two questions of the interview:

Isn’t homeownership actually good for you? I thought it was the panacea for almost all social ills, it drove the crime rate down, educational achievement up, and so on.

Yes, well, homeownership is only as good as the amount of home you actually own, and I think the big problem in the last generation or so is that Americans have turned to more and more and more debt to reach for the American dream…

Does this mean that we shouldn’t actively encourage homeownership, using government money or government policy?

I think there’s nothing wrong with using government money, policy, pressure, all those tools to make homeownership more of a possibility than it would otherwise be in the marketplace, simply because the market left to its own devices discriminates aggressively. It rewards people who already have wealth, who have already had a leg up economically, and it’s great to give other people the opportunity as well.

The problem is that homeownership is the only housing policy that this country has ever shown any commitment to. Renters are treated miserably.



[Brookings’ MetroMonitor] 1Q 09 Tracking the Recession and Recovery

June 22, 2009 | 9:38 am | |

To figure out how to fix it, you’ve got to understand what’s going on.

Brooking’s has a created a quarterly series of interactive reports on the 100 largest metro areas called the MetroMonitor:

The Metropolitian Policy Program has launched a series of interactive quarterly reports, the MetroMonitor, a barometer of the health of America’s metropolitan economies, ranking the nation’s 100 largest metro areas—which generate three quarters of U.S. output—on key economic indicators.

They look at a number of metrics in the largest 100 US metro areas.

My only criticism is their use of FHFA data which will overstate the recovery of housing since it only covers Fannie and Freddie data, while comprising 80% of current mortgages being issued, is outperforming the remainder. FHFA doesn’t address higher priced housing, often found in metro markets and are usually financed with jumbo mortgages. Only conforming mortgages have been addressed in the stimulus and federal bailouts. The secondary mortgage market for jumbo financing is essentially gone.

Still, its interesting to see how various metro areas stack up. For example, New York:

Regional employment has fallen 2.1%, compared to 2.9% in the US and ranked 34th out of 100 (1 being the strongest). However, wages have fallen 1.5% compared to +1% in US and ranked near the bottom at 97.


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[The Housing Helix Podcast] Robert Shiller PHD, Yale Professor of Economics, Case Shiller Index, Irrational Exuberance

June 14, 2009 | 10:46 pm | | Podcasts |


Professor Robert Shiller took time out from his busy schedule when he was in New York to pay me a visit and let me interview him for The Housing Helix Podcast.

I invited him after I read his recent Op-ed piece in the New York Times, Why Home Prices May Keep Falling.

Dr. Shiller is well known for many things, including his New York Time’s bestselling book: Irrational Exuberance and his widely referenced monthly state of the housing market tool, The Case-Shiller Index. But he also continues to write about the housing market, having released two books over the past two years:

Last year’s The Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do about It

and this year’s

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism

I hope you enjoy his insights.

Check out this week’s podcast.

You can subscribe on iTunes or simply listen to the podcast on my other blog The Housing Helix.


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[The Housing Helix Podcast] Barry Ritholtz, Bailout Nation, Fusion IQ & The Big Picture Blog

June 12, 2009 | 10:34 am | Podcasts |


I had the pleasure of speaking with Barry Ritholtz of Fusion IQ and The Big Picture weblog. He’s a wealth of information and never pulls any punches in his characterizations of the current economic mess we find ourselves in. Listening to Barry speak about this whole situation and reading his book is much pretty much required.

The Big Picture is the leading financial weblog with must-read content and it boasts a huge following (self-included).

Barry recently released a terrific book: Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy. I highly recommend it.

Check out this week’s podcast.

You can subscribe on iTunes or simply listen to the podcast on my other blog The Housing Helix.


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[Interview] Barry Ritholtz, Bailout Nation, Fusion IQ & The Big Picture Blog

June 11, 2009 | 10:17 am | Podcasts |

Read More

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Ritholtz’ Anatomy (of a Crash)

June 9, 2009 | 12:01 am |

Next week, my guest on The Housing Helix will be Barry Ritholtz of Big Picture (check out this week’s podcast with Dan Gross of Newsweek). He’ll be discussing his book, Bailout Nation.

Source: Big Picture

Click here for full sized graphic.

Barry does a great job at laying out how this crisis evolved.

Systemic.


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