Tag: real estate

Washington Booms during Slowest Recovery

Continuing our ongoing series on the wealth of Washington, we bring you the lead story in Friday’s “Mansion” section of the Wall Street Journal:

WSJ DC Boomtown

The Journal reports:

As other American cities have been buffeted by an uneven economy, Washington’s property market has been buoyed two forces specific to the capital city: a surge of federal contractors and a rising tide of government spending. The result: what real-estate agents and developers are calling an unprecedented real-estate surge.

Yes, a rising tide of government spending may be bad for the American economy, but it’s great for the Washington area.

Washington is wealthy and getting wealthier, despite history’s slowest recovery in most of the country. As we’ve said here before, this of course reflects partly the high level of federal pay, as Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven have been detailing. And it also reflects the boom in lobbying as government comes to claim and redistribute more of the wealth produced in all those other metropolitan areas. 

Money spent in Washington is taken from the people who produced it all over America. Washington produces little real value on its own. National defense and courts are essential to our freedom and prosperity, but that’s a small part of what the federal government does these days. Most federal activity involves taking money from some people, giving it to others and keeping a big chunk as a transaction fee.

Every business and interest group in society has an office in Washington devoted to getting some of the $3.6 trillion federal budget for itself: senior citizens, farmers, veterans, teachers, social workers, oil companies, labor unions - you name it. The massive spending increases of the Bush-Obama years have created a lot of well-off people in Washington. New regulatory burdens, notably from Obamacare, are also generating jobs in the lobbying and regulatory compliance business.

Walk down K Street, the heart of Washington’s lobbying industry, and look at the directory in any office building. They’re full of lobbyists and associations that are in Washington, for one reason: because, as Willie Sutton said about why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”

The wonder is why the taxpayers put up with it.

Cisneros Rewriting HUD History

In a recent speech to real estate interests, former Clinton HUD secretary Henry Cisneros preposterously claimed that the recent housing meltdown “occurred not out of a governmental push, but out of a hijacking of the homeownership process by some unscrupulous interests.”

The only criticisms Cisneros could muster for the government’s housing policies over the past 20 years were that regulations weren’t tough enough and it should have focused more on rental subsidies.

The reality is that Cisneros-era HUD regulations and policies directly contributed to the housing bubble and subsequent burst as a Cato essay on HUD scandals illustrates:

  • Cisneros’s HUD pursued legal action against mortgage lenders who supposedly declined higher percentages of loans for minorities than whites. As a result of such political pressure, lenders begin lowering their lending standards.
  • On Cisneros’s watch, the Community Reinvestment Act was used to pressure lenders into making more loans to moderate-income borrowers by allowing regulators to deny merger approvals for banks with low CRA ratings. The result was that banks began issuing more loans to otherwise uncreditworthy borrowers, while purchasing more CRA mortgage-backed securities. More importantly, these lax standards quickly spread to prime and subprime mortgage markets.
  • The Clinton administration’s National Homeownership Strategy, prepared under Cisneros’s direction, advocated “financing strategies, fueled by creativity and resources of the public and private sectors, to help homebuyers that lack cash to buy a home or income to make the payments.” In other words, his policies encouraged the behavior that he now calls “unscrupulous.”
  • Cisneros’s HUD also put Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under constant pressure to facilitate more lending to “underserved” markets. It was under Cisneros’s direction that HUD agreed to allow Fannie and Freddie credit toward its “affordable housing” targets by buying subprime mortgages. Fannie and Freddie are now under government conservatorship and will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.

Cisneros now serves as the executive chairman of an institutional investment company focused on urban real estate. Might that explain why Cisneros is now a fan of subsidizing rental housing?

“Unscrupulous” would be a good word to describe the millions of dollars Cisneros has made in the real estate industry following his exit from government.

From the Cato essay:

In 2001, Cisneros joined the board of Fannie Mae’s biggest client: the now notorious Countrywide Financial, the company that was center stage in the subprime lending scandals of recent years. When the housing bubble was inflating, Countrywide and KB took full advantage of the liberalized lending standards fueled by Cisneros’s HUD. In addition to the money he received as a KB director, Cisneros’s company, in which he held a 65 percent stake, received $1.24 million in consulting fees from KB in 2002.

When Cisneros stepped down from Countrywide’s board in 2007, he called it a “well-managed company” and said that he had “enormous confidence” in its leadership. Clearly, those statements were baloney—Cisneros was trying to escape before the crash. Just days before his resignation, Countrywide announced a $1.2 billion loss, and reported that a third of its borrowers were late on mortgage payments. According to SEC records, Cisneros’s position at Countrywide had earned him a $360,000 salary in 2006 and $5 million in stock sales since 2001.

Shocking News: Fannie Mae Is Losing More Money

Yes, I know.  It’s hard to believe.  Fannie Mae continues to lose money and, even more surprisingly, isn’t likely to ever pay taxpayers back for all of the billions that it already has squandered.  Rather, it says it will need more bail-out funds – probably another $110 billion this year alone.

Reports the Washington Post:

Fannie Mae reported yesterday that it lost $23.2 billion in the first three months of the year as mortgage defaults increasingly spread from risky loans to the far-larger portfolio of loans to borrowers who have been considered safe.

The massive loss prompts a $19 billion investment from the government to keep the firm solvent, on top of a $15 billion investment of taxpayer money earlier this year.

The sobering earnings report was a reminder of the far-reaching implications of the government’s takeover in September of Fannie Mae and the smaller Freddie Mac. Losses have proved unrelenting; the firms’ appetite for tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer aid hasn’t subsided; and taxpayer money invested in the companies, analysts said, is probably lost forever because the prospects for repayment are slim.

But the government remains committed to keeping the companies afloat, because it is relying on them to help reverse the continuing slide in the housing market and keep mortgage rates low.

Even as the government bailout of banks appears to be leveling off, the federal rescue of Fannie and Freddie is rapidly growing more expensive. Fannie Mae said that the losses will continue through at least much of the year and that it “therefore will be required to obtain additional funding from the Treasury.” Analysts are estimating that the company could need at least $110 billion.

Freddie Mac, which has been in worse financial shape than Fannie Mae and has obtained $45 billion in taxpayer funding, will report earnings in coming days.

The response of policymakers in the administration and Congress to this fiscal debacle?  Silence.  No surprise there, since many of them helped create the very programs that continue to bleed taxpayers dry.

Alas, this isn’t the first time that the federal government has promoted a housing boom and bust.  Instead, writes Steven Malanga in Investor’s Business Daily:

This cycle goes back nearly 100 years. In 1922, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover launched the “Own Your Own Home” campaign, hailed as unique in the nation’s history.

Responding to a small dip in homeownership rates, Hoover urged “the great lending institutions, the construction industry, the great real estate men … to counteract the growing menace” of tenancy.

He pressed builders to turn to residential construction. He called for new rules that would let nationally chartered banks devote a greater share of their lending to residential properties.

Congress responded in 1927, and the freed-up banks dived into the market, despite signs that it was overheating.

The great national effort seemed to pay off. From mid-1927 to mid-1929, national banks’ mortgage lending increased 45%. The country was becoming “a nation of homeowners,” the Times exulted.

But as homeownership grew, so did the rate of foreclosures, from just 2% of commercial bank mortgages in 1922 to 11% in 1927.

This happened just as the stock market bubble of the late ’20s was inflating dangerously. Soon after the October 1929 Wall Street crash, the housing market began to collapse. Defaults exploded; by 1933, some 1,000 homes were foreclosing every day.

The “Own Your Own Home” campaign had trapped many Americans in mortgages beyond their reach.

Financial institutions were exposed as well. Their mortgage loans outstanding more than doubled from the early 1920s to 1930 — $9.2 billion to $22.6 billion — one reason that about 750 financial institutions failed in 1930 alone.

The only serious option is to close down all of the money-wasting federal programs  and laws designed to subsidize home ownership.  A stake through the hearts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Federal Housing Administration, and Community Reinvestment Act, to start.  Otherwise the cycle is bound to be repeated, again to great cost for the ever-suffering  taxpayers.

Solve the Financial Crisis (and Make Some Serious Money)

Peter Van Doren and I have been puzzling over this very interesting NYT op-ed on home foreclosures by Yale economist John Geanakoplos and Boston University law professor Susan Koniak. If G&K’s story is right, then shouldn’t there be an opportunity for some clever financiers to help struggling homeowners keep their houses, help banks and other investors repair their balance sheets — and the financiers could help themselves to piles of cash in the process?

G&K argue that all three parties to a home mortgage — the homeowner, the lender, and the loan servicer who works as a go-between — currently face grim financial prospects:

  • Many homeowners are “underwater” — that is, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are now worth. According to First American Core Logic, some 20% of mortgages were underwater as of December 2008. The percentage varies greatly from state to state, with 55% of mortgages underwater in Nevada, but only 7% in New York. The homeowners who are underwater include not just those who purchased with little down payment, but also many people who put down the traditional 20 percent when they bought in 2005 or 2006, at the peak of the real estate bubble. According to Case-Shiller index data, house prices nationwide have fallen 27% (as of December) from their May 2006 peak. Some local markets have experienced more dramatic declines, highlighted by Phoenix’s 46% slide. Rental prices are now far below many homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments, and lots of underwater homeowners will have to make payments for years before they have some equity stake in their homes. Many of those homeowners would rather default and risk foreclosure. G&K’s op-ed includes this figure showing that defaults increase dramatically as homeowners sink further and further underwater. Given their current options, default is rational.
  • The mortgage lender faces heavy losses if the home enters foreclosure. According to G&K, ”the subprime bond market now trades as if it expects only 25 percent back on a loan when there is a foreclosure.”
  • The servicer also is at risk. According to G&K, the servicer is obligated to continue paying the lender its monthly payment even if the borrower is in default. That obligation only lifts at foreclosure.

Because of the servicer’s obligation, the servicer has strong incentive to push for quick foreclosure. However, the homeowner and the mortgage lender would likely benefit from a loan modification — even a significant write-down of principal — because that would keep the homeowner in his house and it would deliver a better return to the lender than the 75% loss from foreclosure. G&K thus argue that government, instead of continuing to bail out the banking industry and struggling homeowners (and putting taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars), should simply require that the lenders write down the mortgage principal.

But is government action needed? Couldn’t some private actors accomplish the same thing — and make some serious scratch in the process?

A financial wizard with sufficient backing could approach a troubled lender and offer, say, 50% of the original loan amount in order to take some of the toxic mortgages off the lender’s hands. Now, the lender won’t be happy with selling at a 50% loss, but that certainly beats a 75% loss, so the lender would grudgingly agree. The financial wizard would then approach the homeowner and offer to write down the mortgage principal to, say, 60% on condition that the homeowner purchase mortgage insurance. The homeowner should jump at the offer because it would put him back above water, purchasing a home that’s worth more than its debt. Finally, the financial wizard would get the servicer to release its control over the loan, because the servicer would want to be freed from the risk of having to cover the payments to the lender. The financial wizard would then pocket a cool 10% of the original mortgage’s value.

That is not chump change. G&K estimate some 8 million homes could be foreclosed upon in the coming years. Assume the original mortgage on each of those houses is $199,025 (95% of the median sale price of new U.S. homes in January 2004, about halfway up the bubble); that 10% would represent almost $160 billion.

Of course, if the bank proves recalcitrant and demands more than 50%, or the homeowner demands a write-down of more than 40% or he’ll walk away, that would cut into the profits. And the financial wizard would have to cover his costs and possible risk premiums. Still, at least in theory, there would seem to be a significant pile of money on the table.

So why isn’t this happening? Are there no money-loving financial wizards out there?

To some extent, they are. Last week, the NYT reported that some former Countrywide executives have formed a firm called PennyMac that, with financial backing from hedge funds and other investors, purchases toxic mortgages from insolvent banks at low prices, modifies the loans to increase homeowners’ likelihood of making payments, and profits from the rekindled mortgage revenue stream. In the particular case reported in the NYT, PennyMac paid 38 cents on the dollar. But PennyMac seems like very small potatoes compared to the $160 billion that may be on the table. And the banks were forced to sell the loans because they had been taken over by the FDIC.

So why aren’t there more firms doing what PennyMac is doing, or following the strategy that Peter and I have laid out above? And why aren’t banks lining up to offload their toxic mortgages (or to do the write-downs themselves and pocket the 10%)? Peter and I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. As G&K note in their op-ed, banks and other investors who’re currently saddled with toxic assets may be waiting for some form of government rescue that would enable them to recoup far more than the 50% or so that would be offered by our financial wizards.
  2. Banks are keeping bad mortgages on their books at values much higher than the 25 to 40 cents on the dollar observed in the rare sales of troubled assets, and so the banks are unwilling to sell the assets for 50 cents on the dollar. (Remember that PennyMac is purchasing assets from banks that have been taken over by the FDIC — in other words, these are forced sales.) The banks (and their managers) may strongly prefer to keep the assets on their books rather than sell them at a 50% loss.
  3. The transaction costs involved in this scheme (e.g., analyzing the toxic assets to determine which ones to buy, negotiating with the delinquent and at-risk homeowners) are prohibitively large.

Government can address (1) by committing not to bail out the investors. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how reliable that commitment would be, especially given government actions so far in this financial crisis.

Fixing (2) is difficult. Accounting rules could be changed to force the banks to lower their book values for bad mortgages, but it would be difficult to get that accounting change passed quickly. Besides, some accounting experts argue that, in stressful times, accounting rules should have more wiggle room rather than less.

As for (3), the PennyMac guys claim that the work is difficult. But c’mon, there could be a $160 billion payday for the guys who can figure it out.

So, come on you money-loving financial wizards: your country needs you!