October 14, 2016

The Policy Is Paradoxical

Some weekend reading from The Whig by Geoffrey Johnston. “Knowledge of past financial crises does not necessarily give policy-makers the ability or wisdom to avoid every pitfall or systemic problem that could lead to a future financial meltdown. However, there is no denying that possessing a firm grasp of financial history could help politicians and central bankers to better understand the perils of lax monetary policy, asset bubbles and mania.”

“‘History shows that even modest financial crises cause horrific pain,’ writes Timothy Geithner in Stress Test, the definitive first-hand account of the financial crisis of 2007 to 2009. Geithner served as president of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the financial meltdown and went on to become President Barack Obama’s secretary of the treasury. ‘Financial rescue, fiscal stimulus and monetary stimulus — along with the president’s efforts to prop up the beleaguered auto and housing sectors — would all have to work together, if they were to work at all,’ Geithner explains in Stress Test.”

“According to Geithner, ‘the long period of low interest rates in the United States and worldwide helped fuel the crises, because it helped fuel the mania that inflated the bubble, encouraging more borrowing, more homebuilding, more risk-taking.’ The stage was set for a catastrophic collapse of the financial system. ‘When the panic hit and the run gained momentum,’ writes Geithner, ‘we did not have the ability to protect the economy until conditions were scary enough to provoke action by Congress.’”

The Daily Progress. “Even though homeowners overall are gaining wealth, the home-ownership rate is at a 50-year low, according to National Association of REALTORS Chief Economis Lawrence Yun. ‘I think that in itself is leading to large anxiety, especially among the younger population, about what does it mean to acquire the American dream,’ Yun said. ‘People have always associated ownership with the American dream, but that is changing because people can no longer become homeowners because mortgage availability is difficult, and home prices are just not affordable anymore.’”

“In 1983, the median net worth of a household headed by someone under 35 was $15,260, and for a household headed by someone over 65, it was $120,500. In 2013, younger households had a median net worth of $10,500, while older households had a median net worth of $210,000.”

“‘You say that’s fine, and maybe that is fine, because it takes time to build wealth,’ Yun said. ‘Younger people are not building wealth at a young age. But look at 2013, for older people it has grown. They have their home, they have some stock. For younger people, it has actually declined, so [there’s] wider wealth inequality now than before.’”

From MarketWatch by Satyajit Das. “In the last few decades, a succession of property booms and busts have been at the heart of financial and economic crises in advanced economies. A central factor is that housing now is no longer considered ’shelter’ but a ‘financial asset’ promoted and encouraged by official policy. In the 1980s, the replacement of company or government-funded retirement plans with self-funded arrangements meant houses became a means for wealth creation. Homeowners began treating their properties as automated teller machines from which they extract cash.”

“Reliance on houses as a store of wealth creates exposure to volatile house prices. As the global financial crisis illustrated, prices can be affected by a confluence of adverse events — economic cycles, the availability of credit and demographics where large cohorts may retire at the same time. Price fluctuations are exacerbated by the illiquidity of the asset.”

“Many economies rely excessively on the housing market. In ‘The Age of Turbulence,’ Alan Greenspan approvingly quotes economics columnist Robert Samuelson’s assessment of his policies in the early 2000s: ‘The housing boom saved the economy…Americans went on a real estate orgy. [Americans] traded up, tore down and added on.’”

“The policy is paradoxical. If it succeeds, higher house prices ironically make housing unaffordable for large portions of the population. Where the policy fails, an unwinding housing bubble is difficult to manage. It leads to several simultaneous adverse outcomes, which feed each other in a difficult-to-control negative spiral.”

“Sadly, policy makers appear to have learned little from the past. Since 2009, government and central-bank policies, especially low interest rates, in countries as varied as the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and China have created conditions for rapid increases in property prices. Surveying the approach, Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at Warwick University in the U.K., observed: ‘We’re stoking up a huge bubble. It’s quite extraordinary. We virtually ruined the Western world by having high house price inflation and now we’re determined to do it again.’”

“Albert Einstein famously observed that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity. The current housing market illustrates this vividly.”

People Are Not Concerned About Getting In Too Deep

It’s Friday desk clearing time for this blogger. “Aaron and Micaela LaJoie are frustrated. The newlyweds have been searching since February for a home to buy in Amherst, but with no success amid the red-hot housing market in Western New York. They’ve made offers on five houses, always in excess of the asking price. Yet they’ve lost out all five times, sometimes by more than $30,000. Hordes of buyers converge on the same homes as soon as they hit the market - like shoppers flocking to doorbuster deals on Black Friday - creating frenetic competition and driving prices skyrocketing. The result has been record levels of home sales in Western New York and near-record prices”

“Meanwhile, other houses languish on the market, because they’re not in the desirable areas, they weren’t kept up, or they’re overpriced for their condition and location. ‘There is really literally nothing my clients like on the market,’ said said broker Greg Straus, the LaJoies’ real estate agent.”

“Bay Area credit unions hit record highs in the second quarter for membership, deposits, loans and home equity lines of credit, according to a report from the California Credit Union League. Home equity loans and lines of credit, also known as second-mortgages, increased by 11 percent from the second quarter of 2015 to reach $3.9 billion. Other loans also hit record highs for the amount of outstanding amounts. First-mortgages reached $19.1 billion in the second quarter, a 16 percent year-over-year increase, while loans for new and used cars hit $3.5 billion and $3.6 billion, respectively. Those represent increases of 33 percent and 20 percent.”

“‘People feel good about things,’ said League Chief Economist Dwight Johnston. ‘They feel their jobs are stable, incomes are rising. They’re not concerned about being able to pay back (the loan) or getting in too deep.’”

“Two new reports out from the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division show both the depth of the state’s current economic downturn and its impact on the cost of living here. In her report, economist Amy Bittner said that housing costs in particular have taken a dive in central and northeast Wyoming. Where the state average cost-of-living is indexed to the number 100, the housing cost-of-living indices for counties like Big Horn, Niobrara, Washakie and Hot Springs are in the low 80s or upper 70s. ‘We’ve seen a change in those communities that have mining associated with them,’ economist Amy Bittner said. ‘We’ve had some rental rate declines, and for areas that have a lot of mining and were hit by the downturn, it’s not surprising.’”

“The Downtown Miami condo owned by former Miami Heat guard Mario Chalmers received another price reduction recently, notes Miami Condo Investments, with the 5,475-square-foot residence comprised of two units at the Marquis now asking $2.99 million. It originally listed in August 2014 for $4 million. Chalmers purchased the pad for $2.4 million in 2012. This marks its third reduction.”

“Price cuts are still the order of the day in the sagging luxury residential market. Manhattan luxury listings in the third quarter averaged a 2.9 percent discount, so it’s no surprise that data provided to The Real Deal by StreetEasy for the period between Sept. 27 and Oct. 2 shows significant price reductions on a handful of eight-digit pads. The biggest cut last week was a 25 percent discount on the ‘Kate Spade’ townhouse in the East Village.”

“The penthouse at the Grand Millennium building on the Upper West Side has been steadily discounted since debuting on the market in September 2014 for $42 million. Last week it was dropped to $27.5 million, the third price chop in two years.”

“Dennis Township Committee quickly and unanimously approved two ordinances which residents and committee members had long sought to have on the books. One ordinance addresses abandoned and nuisance properties and notes that recent events in the local housing market have led to a drastic rise in foreclosed homes and notes ‘these homes are frequently repossessed by banks, financial institutions and large real estate conglomerates that have little or no connection with the municipality in which they own property.’”

“During public comment, Albert DiCicco, a former Committee member, speaking as a private citizen and township resident said, ‘This is a great ordinance, since last year we’ve been trying to make this happen, especially since the banks frequently don’t pay attention.’”

“The price of a home in Calgary took a bit of a dip year over year but it wasn’t as sharp a decline as many had feared, says Royal LePage. Corrine Lyall, broker/owner with Royal LePage Benchmark in Calgary, says that no one is surprised to see a drop in prices because of the current situation. ‘We’re getting pressure from people that are obviously in positions where they’re becoming unemployed. Some people are in a position where they can’t purchase a property at this point in time. We’ve got more supply than we do demand.’”

“Rent in Nairobi’s affluent neighbourhoods dropped by about eight per cent on average in June compared to December last year, a periodic property report shows, citing increased supply amid slowdown in demand, consultancy firm Knight Frank says in its Market Update report for the first half of the year. ‘The decline was occasioned by increased supply, giving tenants choice and room to negotiate with landlords,’ the report says.”

“Pramod Varshney shifted to a rented 2-BHK flat in Noida a couple of years back, at a rental of Rs 13,500 per month. The lease agreement specified a 10% hike in rentals, every year. By that commitment, Varshney’s should now pay a rent of over Rs 16,000. However, the amount that he pays today, is Rs 12,500 per month. However, the amount that he pays today, is Rs 12,500 per month.”

“‘Initially, I felt that my rent was reasonable, as I used to shell out Rs 22,000 for a 2-BHK flat in Delhi. Later, I came to know that the neighbours were paying even lesser. Moreover, with the kind of unoccupied flats in the vicinity and the owners looking for tenants, Noida has turned out to be a renters’ paradise,’ says Varshney.”

“There are many tenants like Varshney, in Noida, who are either renegotiating with their landlords for a lower rental amount, or shifting to another flat in the neighbourhood at a lesser rent. Oversupply in a short span of time, has created a unique opportunity for tenants in Noida’s property market. However, this is not good news for the investors, who are stuck with their projects owing to a stagnant resale market and the lack of returns on investment in terms of rental yields.”

“Federal Reserve head Janet Yellen is keeping alive the tradition of her predecessors, Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, by showing she is equally as blind-sighted to the bubbles central banks are blowing in the bond and equity markets. During her September press conference, Yellen stubbornly clung to the misconception that it is only possible to tell if a bubble exists after it bursts. And because of this delusion, in Yellen’s eyes, 96 months of a virtual Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) is merely, and I quote, ‘a modest degree of accommodation.’”

“Her blinders are so opaque that she claims to see, ‘no signs of leverage building up.’ And her feckless ability to spot market imbalances even resulted in this doozy of a Yellen quote: ‘In general, I would not say that asset valuations are out of line with historical norms.’”

“The consequences of these actions has produced, for the first time ever, record bond, stock and home prices that all exist concurrently. Household debt is surging in the U.S. — up to a record $14.3 trillion, according to the New York Federal Reserve. And this impulse to take on debt at record low interest rates has spread across the globe. China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Korea led the way with the largest build-up in household debt per adult since 2010, according to Institute for International Finance.”

“The problem this creates is that you can’t escape these bubbles without destroying the phony economic recovery, which has been predicated on the Fed’s wealth effect.”