Monday, December 17, 2007

Fed Rate Cut Isn't Enough to Ease Housing Woes: John F. Wasik

Commentary by John F. Wasik


Dec. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Federal Reserve's quarter-point cut of its benchmark rate to 4.25 percent last week looks like a big lump of coal in the stocking of the U.S. housing market.

While some buyers and refinancers may benefit, home prices may be headed for more declines in the most overheated markets, no matter what the Fed does.

As with most things in the financial world, home prices eventually had to regress to a historical rate of return. This realignment may eventually translate into a 15 percent nationwide decline, and even more in the markets with the highest appreciation and greatest supply.

Buried in the middle of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight home-price report for the third quarter is an article on the relationship between areas that experienced the highest gains over the past half-decade and those facing higher-than-average foreclosures. Ofheo is the regulator of mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

As the U.S. housing market experienced its first quarterly decline in 13 years, Ofheo analysts observed that ``prices fell approximately 5.4 percent over the latest four quarters in the most foreclosure-prone areas, more than double the pace of price declines elsewhere.''

What happened in the most volatile markets? Home appreciation passed the threshold of economic reality, something the Fed can't restore by itself.

Rapid Descent

In 2004, Ofheo's Home Price Index exceeded a 30-year historical average price trend, eventually outpacing it by about 15 percent at the height of the bubble.

Where they were most out of line with average household income, home values are plummeting. The reasons for the rapid descent vary.

-- States such as Arizona, Nevada and Florida were boosted by overbuilding, cheap land, retiree relocations, population growth and rampant speculation.

-- California was burned because thousands of desperate homeowners did anything they could to buy houses in an already expensive market.

-- Ohio and Michigan were hurt by cutbacks in the U.S.- based auto industry.

Then there's the question of liquidity. Nothing will change in housing markets until prime borrowers have full access to credit and until the inventory of about 4.5 million listed but unsold homes drops significantly. Foreclosures also need to be curtailed.

Foreclosures Continue

Many bankers are shell-shocked. They don't want foreclosed properties on their books and have to sell them at steep discounts. That makes the housing market even more prone to price falls.

``As banks' capital needs increase, some may be forced to fire-sale the assets, further pressuring land prices,'' according to a November homebuilding survey by Zelman & Associates, a New York-based research firm.

The worst-rated areas, according to Zelman, are Atlanta; Detroit; Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Tampa and Southeast Florida; and Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties in California.

Little relief is on the horizon. New foreclosures reached a 20-year high in the third quarter, according to the Washington- based Mortgage Bankers Association.

One in five adjustable subprime borrowers fell behind on payments. That number may worsen as more resets are triggered next year.

Subprime Subterfuge

The five-year rate freeze on a minority of subprime loans proposed by President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson two weeks ago will buy some time for a fraction of the estimated 2 million homeowners facing foreclosure.

There's little substance to the Bush plan. It lacks force of law because it's voluntary. It does nothing to change federal-bankruptcy and mortgage-disclosure legislation or pave the way for unrestricted refinancing.

Only about 145,000 households are expected to be helped by the administration's plan, according to the Durham, North Carolina-based Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer group that monitors predatory lending.

Those whose mortgages have already reset to unaffordable monthly rates are trapped. Investors in those loans may not even agree to modifications.

``The heart of the problem,'' said Julia Gordon, policy counsel for the center, ``is securitization. Interests that were formerly aligned are not aligned now and there's no accountability.''

Fractured Dream

Since the highest-risk mortgages created little or no equity, borrowers and lenders had little financial stake in them.

Unless strong legislation gives borrowers the power to modify their loans, refinance, avoid prepayment penalties or stretch out payments, there's no reason to believe that the foreclosure crisis will end soon. These properties will continue to glut afflicted markets, lower prices and ruin neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the Fed's move will do little to restore equity to borrowers stuck in adjustable loans they can't afford, making homeownership a fractured dream.

Without equity creation -- which is essential in building real-estate wealth -- all you have is a very expensive place to rent.

(John F. Wasik, author of ``The Merchant of Power,'' is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: John F. Wasik in Chicago at jwasik@bloomberg.net .

Last Updated: December 17, 2007 00:32 EST

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