Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Building Permits, Construction Drops

A report by the Commerce Department says that construction of new homes dropped 5.5% in November to the lowest level in 16 years. Applications for building permits fell 1.5% to the lowest level since 1993. Meanwhile, construction of multi-family homes increased 4.4%. The builder sentiment index remained at 19 in December for a third straight month, the lowest reading in more than two decades. And now the question is, can it really get any worse? Naturally, builders are worried: after all the Real Estate speculation, those who got burned no longer have the finances or credit rating to buy a new home. As an interesting aside, a survey by Countrywide Bank showed that getting financially fit is the top New Year’s resolution this year. Physical fitness comes second - households consider sound finances more important than healthy bodies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Al Greenspan’s version of “helicopters”

Suggesting to “drop money from helicopters” to prevent a financial crisis was what initially earned current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke his nickname “helicopters”. However, his predecessor Alan Greenspan has just suggested and equally radical idea. He said the government should provide “direct financial assistance” to strapped homeowners, essentially depositing free money into their bank accounts. Another solution Mr. Greenspan suggested was temporarily lowering taxes. In his opinion, although this would create a “short-term fiscal problem”, it would save the economy. Hm… this sounds pretty risky, and did anyone mention moral hazard? Or have we retired the term already? And finally, the ex-Fed chairman doesn’t even know “if it would work”, but he firmly believes it will be good for the people. So much for common sense.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Job Cuts At LendingTree

Mortgage lender LendingTree couldn’t think of a better holiday gift for its employees: job cuts. Unlike Freddie Mac, which took its employees to a party at Ritz-Carlton, LendingTree will be eliminating 220 jobs, which leaves it with some 1,000 employees. This is the third time this year that the company conducts mass layoffs. According to a spokeswoman for the lender, the layoffs were prompted by pessimistic forecasts for the industry. LendingTree posted a third-quarter loss of $5.6 million, compared to profits of $15.2 million a year earlier. The company saw its loan sales plunge due to lower demand by the secondary market, lower revenue per loan and the closing of fewer loans. Since the beginning of the credit crunch in the summer, profits have plunged for mortgage lenders as they tightened their lending standards to prevent future delinquencies and foreclosures. A report by the Labor Department showed that the Consumer Price Index rose 0.8% in October, the biggest jump since September 2005, which will negatively affect the consumers’ ability to make timely mortgage payments, meaning more trouble for lenders. I guess Christmas won’t be very jolly for some companies.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Countrywide’s Loan Production Plunges

Countrywide’s home loan production dropped 40% year-over-year in November, the lender announced Thursday. Loan fundigs were up 5% compared to October’s results, quite a feat amid all the trouble the mortgage lending sector is experiencing currently. Countrywide almost eliminated origination of subprime home loans and significantly reduced adjustable-rate mortgages. Delinquencies rose from 4.57% in November 2006 to 6.34% last month. In October, 5.89% of Countrywide loans were delinquent.

Mortgage interest rates climbed up from record lows after the Fed’s rate cut, and this week 30-year mortgage rates averaged 6.11% - still some of the lowest rates for this year, but above 6% nevertheless. The rate dropped below 6% briefly last week. 15-year fixed-rate loans were at 5.78%, up from 5.65% a week ago. 5-year ARMs averaged 5.78%, compared to 5.75% last week. Interest on one-year adjustable home loans increased from 5.46% last week to 5.50%. Which way rates go from here will depend on a number of factors, including the market for Treasuries and the job market.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fannie, Freddie: More Gloom Ahead

The CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-chartered financiers of mortgage loans, recently voiced concerns about the housing market’s future. Freddie Mac’s Richard Syron said his company will likely suffer another quarterly loss of about $2 billion, with credit losses totaling $10-12 billion. The worst is not over yet, however: he expects home prices to drop further before the market stabilizes. The company is in “hiring freeze” in order to control costs while it struggles with losses. Fannie Mae’s CEO Daniel Mudd expects 2008 to be “very tough”, with a gradual recovery in late 2009. He expects home prices to fall 12% by next year and hopes Fannie’s recent efforts to raise capital will be enough to help the company deal with the situation. As the housing slump unfolds, it turns out even the two GSEs are not immune to trouble. Both have slashed their dividends in recent weeks and issued stock to raise capital.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Another Fed Rate Cut

The Fed cut its benchmark interest rate again, by 0.25% to 4.25%. The discount rate was lowered accordingly to 4.75%. Economists who had expected a half-point cut in the Fed Funds Rate were disappointed, as recent bad news was expected to prompt more aggressive action by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). The Dow Industrials dropped nearly 300 points after the cut. Stocks of mortgage lenders and large banks suffered, including those of Countrywide Financial, Wells Fargo, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and others. Shares of home builders Pulte Homes, Toll Brothers, Lennar and Beazer took a hit as well. The Fed’s statement suggested that they’re worried about the economic slowdown and lower consumer spending, while “some inflation risks remain” too. Meanwhile, holiday shopping has slowed down, and the holiday season’s start wasn’t that impressive after all. Analysts believe the Fed may cut again in January if holiday shopping data is weak and the financial markets remain in freeze mode.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

As The Year Ends

2007 is drawing to its end, and between holiday shopping and baking cookies, some are trying to analyze the housing market trends and forecast its future behavior. While predictions range from mildly gloomy to disastrous, the NAR produced an amusingly optimistic home sales forecast for 2008. After reducing their home sales forecasts for 9 straight months, they now revised their 2007 forecast upwards, to 5.67 million from 5.66 million. Chief economist Lawrence Yun said an optimistic job market report and the government’s help for troubled homeowners influenced the improved outlook. The group believes home sales will rise to 5.7 million in 2008. A Global Insight economist forecasts 4.7 million home sales in 2008.

Merrill Lynch predicts a gloomy 2008 for the U.S. economy with high energy prices, weak employment, tight credit and falling home prices. And by the way, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are introducing tougher requirements for mortgages they securitize.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Analyst Downgrades Lennar

Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. analyst Nishu Sood cut his rating on Lennar Corp. from “Buy” to “Hold”, citing concern over the home builder’s joint-venture agreements. Tighter credit and a glut of homes on the market have resulted in declining demand and a high rate of cancellations, which eat into home builders’ bottom lines. Sood cut his target price for Lennar stock from $36 to $17. The stock traded at $18.72 on Thursday.

Home builders and sellers, desperate to sell homes, are offering ever bigger incentives, ranging from trips and car leases to exotic pets. Sellers are willing to make deep discounts because they fear that home prices may fall further as forecast. However, the market is so bad right now that the chances to sell a home at all are really slim. And while most owners can afford to sit and wait for better times to sell their houses, home builders are suffering losses every day a new home sits empty.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Mortgage Bankers Association: Record Foreclosures In Q3

Home foreclosures hit an all-time high in the third quarter, according to a report released by the Mortgage Bankers Association. 0.78% of all mortgages nationwide were in foreclosure, up from 0.65% the previous quarter. Delinquency rates increased from 5.12% to 5.59%, the highest level in more than 20 years. 4.72% of subprime ARMs entered the foreclosure process, compared to 3.84% in the second quarter. The association’s chief economist, Doug Duncan, said that the situation is likely to get even worse, an opinion shared by analysts at Moody’s. Moody’s predicts that housing prices will drop 30% before the crisis is over. They believe the recession will last until early 2009 (!), with home prices falling 13%, maybe more if we factor in homebuilder incentives. The hardest-hit markets will see prices drop more than 30%, in the “most severe housing recession since the post-World War II Period”, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Home sales are expected to hit bottom in early 2008, which makes me wonder what is going to spur sales – maybe buyers will finally get bored of waiting on the sidelines?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Mozilo On Housing Reform

It seems the idea of “freezing” interest rates will be implemented after all, despite its flaws and the fact that it will only help a small number of borrowers. Perhaps top economists are spooked, but why do something that is certain to fail? Even Countrywide’s Mozilo noticed how bad the idea is. He said the better solution would be to raise the conforming loan limits and to allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to keep more loans on their books – an idea rejected by the Bush administration recently. There may be some conflict of interest on Mozilo’s part, but his arguments are reasonable. Freezing interest rates will help some homeowners, but it will hurt lenders and investors, and leave the rest of the borrowers to struggle with increasing mortgage payments. He also noted that the industry needs clear lending standards that will create a sense of certainty and lure investors back into the housing sector, pumping liquidity and spurring mortgage lending (Bingo! But maybe we should leave the conforming loan limits alone, cos they’re pretty high right now anyway).

The worst may not be over yet for the mortgage industry: Banc of America and Fannie Mae both predicted significant home price drops in 2008. Fixing the interest rate on a small portion of mortgages will not prevent foreclosures, especially with borrowers willing to walk away from their “upside down” mortgages.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Fannie Mae Will Cut Dividend, Too

Fannie Mae announced that it will cut its quarterly dividend by 30% from 50 cents to 35 cents a share, beginning the first quarter of 2008. In an attempt to raise capital, the company is planning to issue $7 billion of non-convertible preferred stock this month. The announcement comes after similar moves by sister company Freddie Mac, which issued $6 billion in preferred shares last month. Demand for Freddie stock was 5 times greater than the total amount of stock issued, according to the mortgage giant. Freddie Mac posted a loss of $1,5 billion, and Fannie took a $2 billion hit in the third quarter.

Fannie Mae said its 2008 financial results will probably be disappointing, due to turmoil in the housing markets. Shares dropped 3% on the news. Analysts believe the two GSEs may face significant losses related to subprime and Alt-A securities in the months to come. Unlike many banks, Fannie and Freddie have so far avoided large writedowns, but they are not immune to losses.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Citigroup’s Chief Economist Forecasts Large Rate Cuts

Lewis Alexander, Citigroup’s chief economist, said he expects the Fed Funds rate to drop 1 percentage point by mid-2008. He believes the Fed will not be concerned about the dollar’s stability because the currency’s value doesn’t affect consumer prices. Alexander, who’s worked at the Fed before joining Citi, is also optimistic about oil prices and the housing market, and believes the U.S. will not go into recession.

All of this is highly debatable, given all the evidence to the contrary we’ve seen so far. Recession is probably around the corner, or already beginning in some local markets, and the dollar’s weakness does affect the prices of imported goods. While a weak dollar benefits the GDP and the job market, its advantages do not offset all the trouble it causes. While a 3.5% Fed Funds rate is not impossible, a great many companies and financial structures will need go under before the Fed cuts this deep. They’ve seen what happened the last time they cut interest rates too low, and they’ll probably look for other ways to prop up the economy. Alexander said energy prices are unlikely to rise from now on, but should the Fed cut, as it is expected to, on Dec.11, oil may well skyrocket beyond $100/barrel, despite the recent drop in prices. Perhaps Alexander is being optimistic, or perhaps he knows something most of us don’t. However, we’ve already seen too many top economists denying the obvious to believe in things the just seem illogical.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Consumer Spending Slowed In October

Growth in consumer spending slowed to the lowest level in 4 months in October, the Commerce Department reported Friday. Spending increased a mere 0.2%, the smallest increase since June. This is slightly below the expected increase of 0.3%. Individual incomes grew by 0.2% as well, which is the slowest pace in 6 months and slower than expected. Gross domestic product increased by 3.9% in Q3, but economists believe the current quarter will not be as robust, with growth possibly slowing to 1% annual rate.

Construction dropped 0.8%, in the 20th consecutive month of declines for the industry and the biggest decline since July. The slowdown in the housing industry may lead to more layoffs, and even weaker consumer spending. Rising inflation is scaring off consumers and, despite a relatively strong beginning, retailers are bracing for a tough holiday season this year.