Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Darkest before the Dawn? Experts Call for another Year of Down Market

Courtesy of RISMEDIA:

By Eugene L. Meyer

RISMEDIA, September 5, 2007–Call it the perfect storm: Declining sales of new and used homes, huge inventories, price reductions, a credit crunch, and foreclosures. What seemed only months ago to be a long overdue and necessary correction, a return to a normal, more balanced market following years of giddy appreciation and home sales fueled by easy money, has turned sour, according to leading real estate industry experts.

And there is no soft landing in sight. Instead, the widely held view is that things will get worse before they get better.

“We’re going to have to live through the pain,” says Mike Bradshaw, Bank of America Senior Vice President for Realtor and Builder Mortgage Services. “We will unfortunately see more fallout of lenders. It will trickle down to both the real estate and the building industry.”

During the era of relaxed credit, many consumers who could not otherwise purchase homes were able to do so by making lower monthly payments for a period of time, after which interest rates and payments would dramatically increase. Such home buyers and the investors who bought such mortgage-backed securities counted on rising incomes and appreciation to offset any increases. While interest rates remained low, refinancing was also an option.

Over time, the number and percentage of such subprime mortgages rose. They were usually bundled and sold on the secondary market to investors seeking higher returns. But the risk was also greater. As the subprime market imploded, the fallout has spread to other sectors. Lenders have tightened eligibility requirements, not just to subprime borrowers but to others with good credit ratings. Jumbo mortgages, for amounts over $417,000, have become more difficult to obtain, with significant consequences for credit-worthy, upper-income buyers as well.

“The last 30 days have been kind of extraordinary, as you watch lenders exit the business and scaling back significantly on products,” says Bill Cary, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Florida-based HFN, a division of Fidelity National Information Services that creates and manages mortgage companies for homebuilders and real estate firms. “Right now, the mortgage market is in a state of shock.”

“The fact that credit is tighter and not as available to as many people under the same terms will make it more difficult for individuals to get loans and could lead to further declines in the real estate market,” says James R. Panepinto, president of Pinnacle Professional Consulting Services, of Red Bank, New Jersey, which advises financial institutions, real estate firms and home builders. “Entire segments of the market have dried up for certain types of home buyers

“I think there’s plenty of blame to spread around, to the investor side of the business that bought the paper, the Wall Street firms that were securitizing the paper, the lending industry that was originating the paper. It’s clearly a situation where many participants were involved in extending credit on terms that were too generous.

“When the economy is strong and values are rising, there are pressures to increase home ownership from a lot of different stakeholders. Appreciation in the market certainly covers up a lot of excesses and practices in loan underwriting and origination. Clearly also in the market were instances where individuals or employees of lenders or various purchasing instruments ignored the rules that were there.”

The long-term good news, Panepinto believes, is that the “higher quality of [loans] being written and the tightening of standards should bode well for the market in general.” Eventually, he adds, “concerns about further deterioration in the quality of loans made, reflected in rising delinquencies and foreclosures, should ease off.”

How long will this take? Bradshaw estimates the real estate and mortgage industry is in for another 12 to 18 months of hard times. Then, he said, “There will be some stabilization and a healthier housing and lending market. The market will move forward on what’s better for the consumers.”

Large lending institutions, such as Bank of America, which retain and service many of their home loans, are faring better than mortgage brokers and others who sell their loans on the secondary market to securities firms, which in turn sell them to investors. The big banks are further cushioned because, having largely stayed out of the subprime market, they are not facing the need to foreclose on delinquent homeowners.

“We decided [subprime loans] were not prudent,” said Bradshaw, recalling a comment by Kenneth D. Lewis, his company’s CEO, that his institution is in the business of making homeowners, not taking homes back from people to whom it has extended credit.

The credit crunch has also affected new homes, with many builders canceling or ratcheting down projects they believe they could not now quickly sell. This, in turn, could have a domino effect, leading to layoffs in the large construction workforce sector.

However, cautions Panepinto, “Certainly, new home sales are very, very significant, but trends in existing home market are really the key thing to watch. Let’s remember that close to 90 percent of homes sold in this country are re-sales of existing homes. That’s really what drives the market.”

Says HFN’s Cary: “I think the light at end of the tunnel for everybody is when inventory gets back in line with demand. The markets have way of correcting themselves. This is not the first time we’ve gone thru a real estate downtown, and it won’t be last.”

The current crunch has underscored the importance for brokers of offering a multitude of core services to consumers, not just selling properties but also providing title insurance, home warranties, appraisals, and even mortgages. As with any investment portfolio, diversification can soften the blow if one sector falters, said Jeff Mandel, president of Prism Professional Solutions, a Charlotte, North Carolina firm advising financial services and real estate companies.

“Broker-owners used to like to talk about how it would be nice to have these value added services–such as mortgage, title, escrow,” Mandel says, “but the real estate market has slowed so rapidly, faster than brokers are able to shed fixed assets and expenses, that it’s absolutely essential.”

For brokers already facing lower revenues from declining sales, the credit crunch has hit hard. “Their need for positive returns out of these [other] services such as mortgages has never been more important to sustain their operations,” Mandel says. “But all of a sudden the money doesn’t exist in their mortgage operations. Many have seen either their partners go out of business or profits eroded to the point where they’re not deriving the returns expected or needed. The constituents I represent are having tough times…

“Number one, on the real estate side, companies need to buckle down, focus on their core strengths, make hard decisions to eliminate fixed overhead unnecessary for current market conditions, and apply fiscal discipline in ways not done before, to position themselves not only for today but for the future. They have to change what they can control.”

As with any economic upheaval, there will be winners and losers. While more than 100 mortgage loan companies have folded, large banks that have traditionally held onto most of their loans are getting more referrals from real estate brokers who had previously relied on less substantial lenders.

At J.P. Morgan Chase Home Loan Lending, loan originations are up 41 percent since July, and up 30 percent during the first two quarters of 2007, according to Sue Barber, senior vice-president for business development.

“We are seeing a good news story out of this current environment,” she said, “There is a very serious need for a lender who can still provide a full array of mortgage products, who has ability to directly lend as well as sell to the secondary market, a partner who has financial strengths and liquidity. Certainly we are receiving lot of inbound calls from lot of the national real estate companies, and there are a lot of the large regional independents reaching out to us.

“We are certainly happy Chase has the balance sheet and liquidity to fund directly, because conditions in the secondary market are challenging today. A lot has to do with the Chase brand. It signifies stability, financial strength. I think the consumer and real estate community are recognizing now more than ever they really need that. I think consumers are realizing they really want a long-term lending relationship.”

That is not to say that Chase hasn’t tightened its lending requirements. It has. “The main focus of all the tightening of credit standards we’ve done and the focus on strategy with sales force is to educate our consumers,” Barber said. “We are working on a simplified disclosure so customers completely understand how [their loan] works, how affects their monthly payments…

“I think the overall industry impact of tightening of credit standards will take some consumers out of the market. But tightening standards certainly will result in better performing mortgages and in turn have a more positive effect on the housing market.”

The subprime mortgage meltdown has had the paradoxical effect of bolstering some intermediary companies that can provide brokers with several lending sources.

“We run a multi-lender mortgage platform, so if you do business with us you’re not tied to just one lender or source of money,” said HFN’s Cary. “We have six [lending sources], including American Home Mortgage, which went bankrupt last month. We were able to take loans placed by our customers there and within a week we had those loans placed with other investors. So we were able to provide a solution.

“We kind of look at the market right now and say there are going to be winners and losers,” Cary said, “and we’re trying to become winners.”

Eugene L. Meyer is a former Washington Post reporter and editor who freelances from Silver Spring, Maryland.

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