Monday, November 1, 2010
Strategic Default - the stealth stimulus
Weitz: A terrific article in the WSJ today about ‘the stealth stimulus’.
The mortgage-foreclosure mess could prove expensive for banks and investors. But in some states, it will also prolong an unintended economic stimulus: free housing for millions of defaulters.
Across the U.S., banks are running into problems foreclosing on homes because of flaws in their paperwork. Their main transgression involves the use of so-called robo-signers, bank employees who signed foreclosure affidavits without properly checking the required loan documentation. Major loan servicers—including Bank of America Corp., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Ally Financial Inc.'s GMAC Mortgage—have at least temporarily stopped some foreclosure sales as state attorneys general probe their practices and loan servicers check to make sure their papers are in order.
The problems will be expensive for banks, and for investors in mortgage bonds, in terms of added processing costs and lost interest income. But for the millions of U.S. homeowners who have stopped making mortgage payments or who are already in the foreclosure process, the upshot is that they'll get to stay in their homes a bit longer. Given that they're not paying rent, that time has value.
Defaulters living in their homes are getting a subsidy worth about $2.6 billion a month, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis based on mortgage data from LPS Applied Analytics and rent data from the Commerce Department. That's 0.25% of U.S. personal income, roughly equivalent to the benefit top earners receive from Bush-era tax breaks.
The longer defaulters stay in their homes, the longer the stimulus lasts. The average borrower whose home is in the foreclosure process hasn't made a payment in nearly 16 months, according to LPS.
Weitz - 16 months of free living expenses - that is incredible. My concern is what happens when the well runs dry. Hopefully, folks have utilized this money and placed it in savings.
It's hard to know how much of that money will find its way into the economy through consumer spending. Some defaulters sock away their mortgage payments, in hopes that they'll strike a modification agreement with their bank and get current again. Others have lost their jobs and hence most of their income, though the free housing might allow them to make purchases they otherwise would have to forgo.
Some homeowners who have defaulted on their mortgage payments are cashing in by renting out their homes. Joe Mayol, a real-estate agent in Palmdale, Calif., estimates that in his area about two-thirds of houses with defaulted mortgages are occupied, and half of those by renters. "People are getting money out of these houses," he said.
Ms. Zelman says her research suggests defaulters do spend much of the money on consumer services and goods. "People are taking what they would have been spending on a mortgage and spending it somewhere else," she says.
To be sure, while the free rent might help some people through periods of unemployment, it's not particularly encouraging to people who keep paying their mortgages, and it's not going to drive a recovery. It's also painful for local governments and school districts, which typically can't collect property taxes from defaulters. The foreclosure troubles can also add to uncertainty in the housing market and delay its return to healthy growth.
Weitz - exactly. When will we have a true bottom? Probably not until the foreclosure cycle works itself out.
"I don't think that's the kind of consumer recovery we want, if the only reason they're spending a bit more is that they're not paying their other bills," said Joseph Carson, director of global economic research at AllianceBernstein in New York.
Another question is what might happen in the housing market if banks caught up in robo-signing controversy can't put as many foreclosed homes up for sale. By taking some supply off the market, it could help support prices at a time when demand has been exceedingly weak.
Given the number of foreclosed homes that have already piled up in their inventory, though, banks already have more ready-for-sale houses than the market can bear. As of September, banks owned nearly a million homes, up 21% from a year earlier. That alone would take 17 months to unload at the most recent pace of sales, and doesn't include the 5.2 million homes still in the foreclosure process or those whose owners have already missed at least two payments.
Weitz - these numbers are staggering, and the main reason why I believe there will be downward pressure on the real estate markets for the considerable future.
Meanwhile, banks and investors suffer. (Weitz - its really sad that the banks have to suffer...they will just have to make do with their on-going accounting fraud and free money from the Federal Reserve...its hard to feel sorry for them given the perks they have received to the dismay of taxpayers.) It's hard to estimate how much it will cost to fix the paperwork problems. But the interest they could earn on the money from selling all the homes they own, together with the ones attached to delinquent mortgages, amounts to more than $10 billion a year.
Still, at least some of the banks' loss is the borrowers' gain.
at 2:18 PM