Rising Orders Lift Home Builders’ Spirits

Several major U.S. home builders reported improving results for their latest quarters Thursday and executives expressed optimism about 2012, a change in tone for a sector that has spent five years mired in the worst housing downturn in generations.

Investors applauded the shift in orders and attitude, with MDC Holdings Inc. rising 6.4% to $21.70 and Beazer Homes USA Inc. climbing 4.3% to $3.30.

There have been “increasingly positive signs for the health of the housing market overall and for our individual markets, which lead us to believe that our industry has stabilized and may begin to recover in 2012,” MDC Chief Executive Larry A. Mizel said in the premarket release.

Shares of PulteGroup Inc. stood out with a 2.6% decline to $7.62, as investors reacted to an unexpected $40 million charge for future mortgage putback obligations.

Even so, the company, one of the nation’s largest builders by market cap, remains bullish. “Favorable long-term demographic drivers and improvements in a number of underlying housing data reports provide reasons for optimism heading into 2012,” Chief Executive Richard Dugas said in a statement.

The sector continues battling anemic demand, tight lending requirements from lenders and competition from bargain-priced foreclosures. But, for the most part, builders say orders are picking up, which should lead to increased sales during the all-important spring selling season.

To be sure, they haven’t sold many homes in recent years, making any comparisons easy. Last year, new-home sales fell to the lowest level since record keeping began in 1963.

Still, given the last few years, any improvement has the sector giddy. Pulte saw orders climb 8%, while Beazer’s orders spiked 36%. “I am pleased with our results,” said Allan Merrill, Beazer’s chief executive. “While we have a lot of work in front of us to return to sustainable profitability, we are committed to delivering higher orders and closings.”

Other builders acknowledge more work lies ahead. They continue working to strengthen margins, minimizing cancellations and making sure their selling communities are well located. “We’re not relying on higher demand to improve our results,” Pulte executives said in a conference call with analysts and investors.

Pulte swung to a fourth-quarter profit of $13.8 million, or 4 cents a share, compared with a year-earlier loss of $165.4 million, or 44 cents a share. Beazer managed a small profit: For its fiscal first quarter ended Dec. 31, it earned $739,000, or 1 cent a share, compared with a year-earlier loss of $48.8 million, or 66 cents a share. MDC reported a fourth-quarter loss, albeit a narrowed one. The company lost $18.8 million, or 40 cents, compared with a prior-year loss of $30 million, or 65 cents.

Readers, what do you think? Has the sector hit bottom?

Follow Dawn @dwotapka

Good Riddance 30-Year Fixed Mortgage? Not So Fast…

Peter
J. Wallison’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal on government support
of the residential housing market (“What’s So Special About the 30-Year
Mortgage?
“) is an interesting academic exercise but it has no relevance to
the reality of the U.S. housing market.

While
it is true that, for many years over the life of a 30-year loan, most of the
payments go to interest and not principle, if we were to remove the tax
deductibility of the interest paid
(regardless of the term of amortization) as
some have suggested, we would remove another 33% of value from the American homeowner,
based on the marginal rate at the Federal level of 28% and the average State
and local tax rate of 5%.

 

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Citi Exits Broker Biz; Fed Addresses Sticky Second Mortgage Situation

Yesterday,
as I was standing in line at Franklin’s BBQ in Austin, Texas, my head began to
spin. Not because of the great smell, or from wondering why all these people
weren’t working at 11AM instead of standing in line, but from trying to keep
track of all the continued government
intervention in the housing market
– not that it hasn’t always been there.
As I tell folks, nothing is going to happen to Freddie and Fannie until 2013,
if at all, and the way Congress and the president keep using the agencies
to try to accomplish policies they certainly are not going away.

The HARP
2.0 initiative aimed at helping agency homeowners to refinance. Then came HAMP
2.0 (this past Friday), aimed at helping to encourage more modifications.
Yesterday Obama unveiled a separate refinancing program (discussed below) targeted
at non-agency homeowners (making refinancing easier for mortgages not backed by
Fannie or Freddie). Finally, in the coming days/weeks we could get a final
foreclosure settlement as well as a plan to sell foreclosed homes in
bulk.  In aggregate, all these policy moves could help at the margin but
most believe they fall short of some grand Fannie/Freddie automatic refinance
plan for which some investors had hoped. Maybe we’re done with government
initiatives for the year? Perhaps not – don’t forget chatter out there about
the foreclosed properties sitting on the agency’s balance sheets, and large scale
plans of selling them to investors. And we have some type of possible
settlement between the state’s AG’s and large servicers…

Regarding President Obama’s election year housing
plan
, which is probably going to require Congressional approval, and is
therefore highly unlikely…there are fact sheets ranging from 7-10 pages. It
certainly gave investors something to talk about yesterday, even if it will
take many months, if at all, to roll out. There is too much to reproduce here,
check out the original.
Most believe that this plan will not pass through Congress, given the level of
political polarization. And it is difficult to understand why the
Administration thinks it can get this proposal through Congress when it cannot
get the parts that do not need Congressional approval through the GSE’s and
FHFA (a federal agency). If rising pressure on the GSEs does lead to them to
adopt the agency components of this plan, there will be an enormous effect on
agency MBS.

One statement
noted, “… believe these steps are within the existing authority of the
FHFA. However, to date, the GSEs have not acted, so the Administration is
calling on Congress…” Most of the
proposals for the plan do not need Congressional approval but the
Administration is implying that the main reason to send these proposals to
Congress is that the Administration cannot get the GSEs (and presumably FHFA)
to do what needs to be done “in the taxpayer’s interest…”

Consequently, this public proposal seems to be a way to put pressure on the
GSEs and FHFA to do what the Administration wants. I guess this is how modern
government functions…

So please
dig into the fact sheet noted above – that is what the market knows.
Originators should probably not become too enamored or bogged down in the plan,
as it will take, if it happens at all, several months to sort out, digest, and
implement. And who knows which agencies or investors will still be around to
originate or buy those loans, which leads me to…

“Dear
Broker Mortgage Lending Clients: Over the last four years, the Broker Lending
community has shown great resilience during continued consolidation of this
market segment.  We appreciate your partnership, your willingness and your
ability to adapt to the ever-changing regulatory environment. After careful
consideration, Citibank has decided to
transition away from our Broker lending business
and sharpen our focus on a
customer-centric channel strategy…In an effort to effectively manage the
Broker Mortgage Channel pipeline for you and your customers, we will manage the
transition as follows: We will no longer accept new registrations from our
Broker Mortgage Channel clients after the close of business on Wednesday,
February 8, at 11:59 pm CST. All locked pipelines must be funded and closed by
April 30.”

And with that, Citi exits the wholesale business. Although Citi had scaled back
from its broker channel some time ago, and tended to be more focused on certain
geographic areas than others, it is yet another piece of bad news. Brokers have
to be thinking about the old saying, “Death by a thousand cuts.” Of the major, top 4 or 5 investors who had
wholesale divisions a few years ago, or bought loans from correspondents who
dealt with brokers, who is left?
Uh, Wells Fargo. BofA is gone, Citi is now
gone, GMAC/Ally has scaled back, Chase won’t buy TPO business. SunTrust is
going through a massive retooling. That being said, there are plenty of
investors and lenders willing to step into this arena, and already have. I am
not going to make a list of them here, but brokers
do have many homes for their loans
.

(Ally’s results came out this morning.
The bank suffered a loss of $250 million for the 4th quarter, and
the mortgage Origination and Servicing segment reported a fourth quarter 2011
pre-tax loss from continuing operations of $237 million. “The fourth quarter
2011 pre-tax loss from continuing operations included $125 million of pre-tax
income from originations, an $81 million pre-tax loss from servicing and a $270
million charge recorded during the quarter for penalties expected to be imposed
by certain regulators and other governmental agencies in connection with
foreclosure-related matters.  In addition to the foreclosure-related
charge, fourth quarter 2011 Origination and Servicing results declined on a
year-over-year basis due to a lower net gain on the sale of mortgage loans,
lower net financing revenue due to a decline in production and higher
noninterest expense.” Refinancing was 80% of volume.)

There is
discussion about, “will the U.S. become a nation of renters?” A decent chunk of
private equity is certainly moving that way, buying up inventory to rent out.

This leads
into whether or not the U.S. is much different from other nations when it comes
to housing and interest rates. Just how does the U.S. stack up? Part II of a
write up on international housing comparisons can be found at www.stratmorgroup.com.

There are
many questions about how 2nd mortgages fit into refinancing plans,
and how institutions should handle the potential losses on the write-downs.
This week the Board of Governors of the Fed, the FDIC, the National Credit
Union Administration, and the OCC “issued supervisory guidance” on allowance
for loan and lease losses (ALLL) estimation
practices associated with loans and lines of credit secured by junior liens on
one- to four-family residential properties.
This serves as a message to
institutions to keep a careful eye on credit quality indicators relevant to
credit portfolios, including junior liens (i.e. second mortgages, home equity
lines of credit).  To view the full release, visit: http://www.fdic.gov/news/news/press/2012/pr12015a.html.

And many
mortgage insurance companies know about losses. Standard & Poor’s
downgraded the credit ratings of several U.S. mortgage insurers, and said the
outlook is negative. On Monday Fitch Ratings dropped its ratings on Old
Republic International Corp. (ORI) by three notches, sending the ratings into
junk territory. S&P downgraded MGIC Investment Corp. and its mortgage unit
a notch to B, Radian Group and three of its units, and Genworth Mortgage
Insurance Corp. and Genworth Residential Mortgage Insurance Corp. of North
Carolina by two notches to B.

For market
activity, traders reported that mortgages did exceptionally well despite making
new record highs on lower coupons (Fannie 3.5’s, containing 3.75-4.125%
mortgages are at a four point premium!) and the constant chatter about government
sponsored refi programs. MBS “spreads” (their yields versus Treasury
yields) closed tighter, which is good for mortgage prices in spite of
higher-than-normal selling volumes by originators. Normally the refi plan news
would shock higher coupons (they’re going to refinance!) but the market
believes it to be primarily a re-election ploy since the makeup of Congress
would make it difficult to get legislation passed. For the lower, rate-sheet
production, we saw strong buying from money managers, banks, hedge funds, and
the usual Fed. In terms of numbers, MBS prices Wednesday were basically
unchanged but the 10-yr T-note was worse by about .375, closing at a yield of
1.85%.

Tomorrow
is the big unemployment number, but we have today first. We have some testimony
from Ben Bernanke before the House Budget Committee on “The Economic
Outlook and the Federal Budget Situation.” (I think we all know the
story.) We’ve had Initial Jobless Claims for last week (-12k to 367k), along
with the preliminary Q4 reading on Productivity and Unit Labor Costs (+.7% and
+1.2%). This is hardly market moving news, the
10-yr is at 1.82% and mortgage prices are roughly unchanged so far.

 

 

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Mortgage Plan Draws GOP Opposition

Obama is betting his latest proposal to aid the housing market will fare better than earlier efforts, despite congressional opposition.

Mortgage Plan Draws Republican Opposition

President Obama, in announcing a program to help struggling homeowners refinance their mortgages, is betting this plan will fare better than his administration’s earlier efforts to fix the housing market. He also may be betting that it’s good politics, setting up a contrast with Republicans.