Saturday, February 28, 2009

Buffett's Letter to Shareholders

by Bill McBride on 2/28/2009 08:27:00 AM

Here is Buffett's Letter to Shareholders

There are several interesting sections, but for housing I think the section on Clayton Homes (Buffett's manufactured home division) is especially interesting. Here is a brief excerpt (starts on page 10). First Buffett describes the lending debacle in the manufactured home industry in the 1997 to 2000 period:

Clayton is the largest company in the manufactured home industry, delivering 27,499 units last year. This came to about 34% of the industry’s 81,889 total. Our share will likely grow in 2009, partly because much of the rest of the industry is in acute distress.
[In 1998] much of the industry employed sales practices that were atrocious. Writing about the period somewhat later, I described it as involving “borrowers who shouldn’t have borrowed being financed by lenders who shouldn’t have lent.”

To begin with, the need for meaningful down payments was frequently ignored. Sometimes fakery was involved. ... Moreover, impossible-to-meet monthly payments were being agreed to by borrowers who signed up because they had nothing to lose. The resulting mortgages were usually packaged (“securitized”) and sold by Wall Street firms to unsuspecting investors. This chain of folly had to end badly, and it did.

... industry losses were staggering. And the hangover continues to this day. This 1997-2000 fiasco should have served as a canary-in-the-coal-mine warning for the far-larger conventional housing market. But investors, government and rating agencies learned exactly nothing from the manufactured-home debacle.
And now Buffett draws a parallel to the national housing bubble:
[I]n an eerie rerun of that disaster, the same mistakes were repeated with conventional homes in the 2004-07 period: Lenders happily made loans that borrowers couldn’t repay out of their incomes, and borrowers just as happily signed up to meet those payments. Both parties counted on “house-price appreciation” to make this otherwise impossible arrangement work. ... The consequences of this behavior are now reverberating through every corner of our economy.

Clayton’s 198,888 borrowers, however, have continued to pay normally throughout the housing crash ... This is not because these borrowers are unusually creditworthy ... Why are our borrowers – characteristically people with modest incomes and far-from-great credit scores – performing so well? The answer is elementary, going right back to Lending 101. Our borrowers simply looked at how full-bore mortgage payments would compare with their actual – not hoped-for – income and then decided whether they could live with that commitment. Simply put, they took out a mortgage with the intention of paying it off, whatever the course of home prices.

Just as important is what our borrowers did not do. They did not count on making their loan payments by means of refinancing. They did not sign up for “teaser” rates that upon reset were outsized relative to their income. And they did not assume that they could always sell their home at a profit if their mortgage payments became onerous. Jimmy Stewart would have loved these folks.
Homeowners who have made a meaningful down-payment – derived from savings and not from other borrowing – seldom walk away from a primary residence simply because its value today is less than the mortgage. Instead, they walk when they can’t make the monthly payments.
The present housing debacle should teach home buyers, lenders, brokers and government some simple lessons that will ensure stability in the future. Home purchases should involve an honest-to-God down payment of at least 10% and monthly payments that can be comfortably handled by the borrower’s income. That income
should be carefully verified.

Putting people into homes, though a desirable goal, shouldn’t be our country’s primary objective. Keeping them in their homes should be the ambition.