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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Fed's Poole on Real Estate and the U.S. Economy

by Calculated Risk on 10/09/2007 01:49:00 PM

From William Poole, President, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis: Real Estate in the U.S. Economy. On housing (emphasis added):

"... recent events suggest that housing will remain weak for several more quarters; stabilization may not begin until well into 2008. Probably the most important statistics in this regard are the number of unsold new homes still on the market relative to their current sales rate and the recent trends in house prices. Figure 7 shows that the inventory-to-sales ratio of unsold new and existing single-family homes has risen sharply since early 2005. The current level of inventories relative to sales is about double the average levels from 1999 to 2005.
Figure 7: Housing Inventory
Some potential homebuyers are no doubt delaying purchase because they expect house prices to fall. As seen in Figure 8, prices have decelerated sharply nationwide. According to the price index published by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), through the second quarter of 2007 prices are still a bit above year earlier levels.(11) However, another measure of national house prices—the S&P/Case-Shiller price index (SPCSI)—actually declined 3 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier. A subset of this measure, indexes based on house prices in the 10- and 20-largest U.S. markets, suggests that prices have declined even more in the third quarter. In July 2007, the 10-city composite has declined 4.5 percent from 12 months earlier and the 20-city composite has declined about 4 percent.
Figure 8: Housing Prices
A decline in home prices on a national average basis is relatively rare. In fact, using OFHEO data, there has been no such decline over four quarters since the inception of the purchases only OFHEO index in 1991 or since 1975 using OFHEO’s total index, which includes refinancings. It appears that we are in uncharted territory, and, given that fact, a forecast of house prices must be regarded as highly uncertain."
And concluding remarks:
"The financial market turmoil that began in August hit hard an already struggling housing market. Financial markets appear to be stabilizing, but they have not returned to normal and are still fragile. Most forecasters have reduced their expectations for GDP growth and believe that downside risks have risen. However, the employment report for September, the latest available at this time, does not suggest that the downside risk is occurring. As an aside, the substantial upward revisions to data released in the August report remind us that it is a mistake to place too much weight on any one report.

Although this episode of financial turmoil is still unfolding, my preliminary judgment is that there are no new lessons. Weak underwriting practices put far too many borrowers into unsuitable mortgages. As borrowers default, they suffer the consequences of foreclosure and loss of whatever equity they had in their homes. It is painful to have to move, especially under such forced circumstances. Investors are suffering heavy losses. There is no new lesson here: Sound mortgage underwriting should always be based on analysis of the borrower’s capacity to repay and not on the assumption that a bad loan can be recovered through foreclosure without loss because of rising property values.

The other aspect of the current financial turmoil that reaffirms an old lesson is that it is risky to finance long-term assets with short-term liabilities. Consider a portfolio of any sort of long-term assets or assets carrying substantial credit risk, such as securities collateralized with subprime mortgages. Financing such a portfolio with commercial paper makes the firm vulnerable to the risk that holders of the commercial paper will refuse to roll over maturing issues. Over the past few months, firms that structured their portfolios this way found themselves faced with exactly this problem. No manufacturing firm would ever finance a portfolio of fixed assets with commercial paper; once market sentiment became distrustful of subprime assets, these assets lost value and became no more marketable than investments in factory buildings.

The Federal Reserve has neither the power nor the desire to bail out bad investments. We do have the responsibility to do what we can to maintain normal financial market processes. What that means, in my view, is that we want to see restoration of active trading in assets of all sorts and in all risk classes. It is for the market to judge whether securities backed by subprime mortgages are worth 20 cents on the dollar, or 50 cents, or 100 cents. Obviously, the market will judge different subprime assets differently, based on careful analysis of the underlying mortgages. That process will take time, as it is expensive to conduct the analysis that good mortgage underwriting would have conducted in the first place. Although there is a substantial distance to go, restoration of normal spreads and trading activity appears to be under way, and we can be confident that in time the market will straighten out the problems. We do not know, however, how much time will be required for us to be able to say that the current episode is over."