Declining House Prices Weigh Heavily on Underwater Homeowners

It is still unclear which way the market is going. If only they made it easier for us!

But yesterday, the Dow took a 279-point hit. Oil lost $2, closing at $100. Gold rose $6.

And look at this… The yield on the 10-year note sank below 3%. Go figure. Inflation is at 5%…and people still lend the feds money for ten years at only 3%.

Why? Are they stupid? Are they crazy? Maybe. But interest rates go down in a correction. And we’re in one.

Now, it’s official. Everybody knows. There is no recovery. QE2 is a failure. And housing is in a double-dip. The feedback loops are all turning vicious, and nasty. The Great Correction is beginning to bite harder. The rich don’t feel the pain…and the poor are used to it. But the middle classes suffer; they’ve had it too easy for too long.

Mobs are out on the streets of Barcelona and Athens. Will they soon be out in Atlanta and Baltimore?

Maybe. They’ve got as much reason as anyone. How many Americans lack decent jobs? How many are underwater? How many are on food stamps?

But who will lead the revolution?

Remember those people who were tempted into buying a house with an $8,000 tax credit? Alas, another government program backfires. Many buyers also used the handy services of FHA financing, with just a 3.5% down payment. Housing is now below its 2009 low. So what happened to those new homeowners? They’re underwater!

Thanks a lot, feds!

The best report on the housing market we’ve seen so far comes from the “Campbell Real Estate Timing Letter.” Robert Campbell cites three studies – from Clear Capital, Zillow, and Case-Shiller. The numbers are a little different in each one. But the conclusion is unmistakable and unanimous:

Housing is going down. And with it goes America’s middle class.

First, Mr. Campbell draws our attention to the connection between bank- owned house sales and house prices. In a nutshell, the more houses sold by the banks…the lower prices go. So you have to ask yourself a question: will the number of bank-owned properties on the market go up or down?

He does not make us wait long for the answer. Loan delinquencies are falling. But they are still nearly double the 1995-2005 average. And there are more than 2 million houses in the foreclosure pipeline already – that is, more than 90 days overdue on their mortgage payments. Add those 2 million (most of which will end up as bank-owned sales) to the 2.2 million already in inventory and you have the makings of a glut.

“The data…points to the simple fact that the foreclosure pipeline is bloated…” he says, with as many as 7 million properties hitting the bank re-sale or short sale market in the months ahead.

What will this do to house prices?

They will go down.

Then, what will happen?

Then, the feedback begins to circle around…biting down hard on middle class derrieres.

First, those who are already underwater sink deeper. Many, who have been holding onto to the flotsam and jetsam of the housing disaster, give up. They turn into renters.

Then, as housing prices go down, as many as 4 million more homeowners go under the waves too.

The single factor that influences foreclosures most is negative equity – more even than losing a job. Once submerged, some owners have no choice; they run out of air. Others make a business decision: it is better to let go of the heavy house weight…they reason…and swim for safety.

Interestingly, even many owners who are still ABOVE water will move to higher ground. As prices go down, they will put their houses on the market, trying to rescue the little bit of equity they have left. This – combined with the seizures, foreclosures and ‘walk-aways’ – will greatly increase the inventory of ‘for sale’ properties. You know what happens next. More sales lead to further price declines, provoking more defaults and walk-aways, and generally making the entire middle class writhe in pain and disgust.

Shiller thinks housing will fall back to its 110-year mean. This would require another 5% to 10% drop in prices, which would leave as many as 20 million homeowners underwater.

In Atlanta, 55% of homeowners with mortgages are already underwater, according to Zillow. In Phoenix, the figure is 68%. Imagine how many would be underwater if prices fell another 10%…or more.

But don’t stop there. Use your imagination. If housing overshot on the way up…won’t it overshoot on the way down? Housing prices in Japan dropped 80% – and they’re still near the bottom. So far, in the USA, housing is only down to 2002 levels. It has much further to go – probably another 20% or 30%, at least…taking prices back to levels last seen when Monica Lewinsky was still welcome in the White House.

And more thoughts…

Here’s a thought. This double dip in housing occurs even while:

1) Interest rates are as low as they’ve been in three generations

2) The Fed is pumping about $100 billion a month into the financial system

3) The federal government is running a deficit of nearly $150 billion a month

How could the financial situation be more favorable? And what will happen when mortgage rates rise?

Oh…now…the teeth are getting sharp.

*** In the interest of full disclosure, we should add to yesterday’s comments with an admission: we have a grudge against the SEC. Our company was once the target of an attack by the agency. The feds charged us neither with stock manipulation nor trading on insider information. Instead, they pointed an accusing finger in our direction and charged us with a novel faux pas. (It was the first time in history, we believe). The SEC charged us with NOT having inside information. Our analyst talked with a company representative. He published the company man’s remark, along with a recommendation to buy the stock. Then, the insider denied that he had said it! The SEC said we had claimed to have inside information and didn’t really have it.

Normally, the matter would have stopped there. Reporters make mistakes. Under pressure, sources regret and retract their statements, especially with the SEC breathing down their necks. Editors distort. People lie. That’s life in the financial press.

A Maryland court, hearing these facts, ruled in our favor. But the SEC made a federal case out of it! They pursued this trivial ‘he said/she said’ case – at a cost of millions of dollars to the agency and to us – at the very time Bernard Madoff was making off with billions. Even Harvard Law School and The New York Times came in on our side; taking no position on who said what, they recognized that the agency had overstepped its bounds and that the First Amendment was in jeopardy. Alas, that didn’t stop the SEC. They kept at it until they won the case. Then, the Supreme Court refused to re-examine it. Though our company was found innocent, our analyst had to pay a fine.


Bill Bonner
For Markets and Money Australia

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.
Bill Bonner

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