(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)
… how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions…
– Alan Greenspan, Dec. 5, 1996
“Irrational exuberance”, “unrealistic expectations” accurately describe some of the reports about the alleged rebound in the housing market, such as this report on the increase in housing prices:
Home prices rose in nearly all major U.S. cities in April from March, further evidence that the housing market is slowly improving even while the job market slumps.
The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index shows increases in 19 of the 20 cities tracked. That’s the second straight month that prices have risen in a majority of U.S. cities.
And a measure of national prices rose 1.3 per cent in April from March, the first increase in seven months.
San Francisco, Washington and Phoenix posted the biggest increases. Prices fell 3.6 per cent in Detroit, the only city to record a drop.
The month-to-month prices aren’t adjusted for seasonal factors. Still, prices in half of the cities are up over the past 12 months.
Then there was this news in Bloomberg about the increase in demand for new homes:
Purchases climbed to a 369,000 annual rate, the most since April 2010 and up 7.6 percent from the prior month, the Commerce Department reported today in Washington. The median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey of 67 economists was 347,000. The number of houses on the market held near a record low.
The problem with this rise in housing prices and an increase in new home sales is that its a poor indicator of the real “health” of the housing market. Even Yale Prof. Robert Shiller, co-creator of the quoted Case-Shiller house price index, takes a cautious view of these optimistic predictions of a housing recovery:
MUCH hope has been pinned on the recovery in home prices that began about a year ago. A long-lasting housing recovery might provide a balm to households, mortgage lenders and the entire United States economy. But will the recovery be sustained? [..]
The most obvious reason for hope is that, unlike stock prices, home prices tend to show a great deal of momentum. Correcting for seasonal effects, home prices as measured by the S.&P./Case-Shiller 10-City Home Price Index increased each month from June 1995 to April 2006, then decreased almost every month to May 2009. Since then, they have risen through January, the latest month for which data is available.
So, because home prices have been climbing of late, isn’t it plausible that they’ll keep doing so?
If only it were that simple.
Home price booms and busts do end, sometimes quite suddenly, as was the case for the boom of 1995 to 2006 and the bust of 2006 to 2009. Today, we need to worry about strong headwinds, as the government begins to withdraw its support of a still-troubled lending industry and as foreclosures are dumping millions of homes onto the market.
Michael Olenick explains at naked capitalism:
Yale Prof. Robert Shiller, co-creator of the well-known Case-Shiller house price index, takes a more sober approach. Shiller argues in the New York Times until meaningful principal reductions are put in place that house prices are hosed. Pricing may bump up on artificial scarcity caused by the relatively low number of foreclosures after the robo-signing scandal, but in the long run underwater borrowers are likely to drown. Further, because of sky-high loss severities in foreclosures – my own data shows it is not at all uncommon for investors to lose the entire face value of a mortgage in a foreclosure – principal reductions make good business sense.
Shiller embraces an idea being floated about lately; having municipalities use eminent domain to “take” mortgages at fair market value. Databases like the one I’ve been compiling clearly show the loss severity of similar mortgages in similar ZIP codes, allowing municipalities to ascertain fair market value of the mortgages, as opposed to the houses. In bubble-states, where negative equity issues are most pronounced, fair market value of most mortgage would be no more than 20-percent of the face value of the first mortgages – and oftentimes far less; no more than a few cents on the dollar – while second liens would be worthless.
Assuming this approach is only used with the consent of the homeowner, I’d suspect that one last call the servicer before implementation would magically result in an almost immediate modification: no lost paperwork, no transfers to the offshore call center, no capitalized interest.
That’s too rational for anyone to heed.