By NICK TIMIRAOS, The Wall Street Journal Sept 13th 2010
The speed at which house prices fall over the next few months could depend less on mortgage rates and Americans’ appetite for home buying than on how banks decide to manage the huge number of foreclosed homes they own or may take from delinquent borrowers in the near future.
Unlike home owners, banks often are much quicker to slash prices to unload properties quickly.
The upshot is that, the more homes being sold by lenders, the faster prices tend to fall. That pattern was clear over the past two years: Price declines that began four years ago accelerated rapidly in 2008 as banks dumped foreclosed properties at fire-sale prices. By January 2009, the share of distressed sales had soared to 45% of all sales nationally; it was even higher in hard-hit markets such as Phoenix, according to analysts at Barclays Capital.
Even though mortgage defaults kept mounting, housing markets began to stabilize early last year as low prices and government interventions broke the downward spiral. Policy makers spurred demand for homes by holding down mortgage rates, offering tax credits for buyers, and extending low-down-payment loans through the Federal Housing Administration.
The government also attacked the supply problem. Regulators relaxed mark-to-market accounting rules, giving banks more flexibility in valuing certain real-estate assets and removing some of the impetus for banks to quickly foreclose. Meanwhile, the Obama administration put in place an ambitious program to modify mortgages.
The Home Affordable Modification Program has fallen short of its goals. So far, fewer than 500,000 loans have been modified, below the target of three million to four million. Yet the program served as a “closet moratorium” on foreclosures that stanched the flow of bank-owned homes to the market, said Ronald Temple, portfolio manager at Lazard Asset Management.
The result: The share of distressed sales fell by November to 25% of home sales, and prices stabilized. After rising in the winter, the distressed share fell to 22% in June, before bouncing to 30% in July.
The problem is that these measures are wearing off. Demand plunged this summer after tax credits expired, and unsold homes are piling up. More foreclosures could move onto the market as borrowers fall out of the loan-modification program.
“We see the perfect storm brewing with rising supply and falling demand,” said Ivy Zelman, chief executive of research firm Zelman & Associates and one of the first to warn of trouble five years ago. She estimated that distressed sales could account for half of the market by year-end if traditional sales didn’t rebound.
The market does have some tailwinds: Housing starts are at all-time lows. Banks have hired more staff to manage problem loans and government entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that own a growing share of foreclosures are less likely to deluge the market.
The next leg down in prices “isn’t going to be the foreclosure-induced freefall where you just had inventory coming out the wazoo, and it was going to be sold one way or the other,” said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin Corp., a real-estate brokerage.
Prices also have come down so much already they have less distance to fall. During the housing boom, prices inflated much faster than incomes rose, thanks to speculation and lax lending. The ratio of home prices to annual incomes reached 1.6 at the end of June, which is below the ratio of 1.88 from 1989 to 2003, according to Moody’s Analytics.
By those metrics, prices are actually undervalued in markets that have already seen huge declines, such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. But Moody’s data show that prices remain “significantly overvalued” elsewhere, including Boston; New York; Seattle; Orange County, Calif., and Charlotte, N.C. Markets in both camps face supply imbalances that will pressure prices for years.
The fastest cure for housing would be job creation because it would boost demand for homes while putting delinquent borrowers back on solid footing.
But if that doesn’t materialize, policy makers face a thorny question: whether to intervene if price declines accelerate beyond the 5% to 10% that most economists expect. In recent weeks, the White House has been surveying industry analysts on how to manage the inventory overhang.
Analysts at Barclays Capital estimate that some four million loans are in some stage of foreclosure or are at least 90 days past due, down slightly from a January peak.
While more tax credits aren’t likely, policy makers could still attack the supply problem by, for example, taking foreclosed homes off the market and renting them out.
Ultimately, market fundamentals will prevail “and any attempt to get around that will only be short-term,” said Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. But officials should be prepared to intervene anyway, she said, if psychology spurs a downward spiral “where price declines are feeding further price declines.”
That leaves few attractive options. Prolonged intervention could backfire by creating uncertainty that keeps buyers on the sidelines. Extending foreclosure timelines also risks inducing more borrowers to default and live rent-free.
Letting the market take its medicine sounds more appealing than it did 18 months ago. But it risks saddling taxpayers and the banking system with billions more in losses and trapping more borrowers in homes on which they owe more than the house is worth.