December Housing Starts and Permits Figures Sag

Building permits and housing starts in
December were both below levels reported in November ‘according to data
released this morning by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
and the Census Bureau.  Both statistics
were, however, well above the levels one year earlier.

Building permits for privately owned
housing units were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 679,000, 0.1 percent
below the revised November rate of 680,000. 
Permitting activity was 7.8 percent higher than in December 2010 when
the pace of permits was 630,000.  The
November figure was revised downward from the 681,000 originally reported.

Permits were issued for single-family
houses at the rate of 444,000, up 1.8 percent from the 436,000 reported in
November.  Multi-family authorizations
(permits in buildings with five or more units) were at a rate of 209,000
compared to 223,000 in November.

The report estimates that there were 611,900
housing units issued during the whole of 2011, a 1.2 percent increase over the
604,600 issued in 2010.

On a regional basis, permitting
increased month-over-month in the Midwest by 5.8 percent and was up 13.4
percent on an annual basis.  Permits in
the West were unchanged from November and down 1.2 percent year-over-year.   Permitting fell 6.5 percent in the Northeast
and was 36.8 percent below that of one year ago while the South had a
fractional -0.6 percent change since November but permitting was still up 31.1
percent for the year.

Building Permits

Click Here to View the Housing Permits Chart

Privately-owned housing starts in
December were at a seasonally adjusted rate of 657,000, 4.1 percent below the
revised November estimate of 685,000 but a 24.9 percent increase from the
December 2010 rate of 526,000.  
Single-family starts were at a rate of 470,000, up 4.4 percent from the
previous month’s pace of 450,000 and 11.6 percent higher than in December 2010. 

There were an estimated 606,900 housing
units for which construction was started in 2011 compared to 586,900 in
2010.  This is an increase of 3.4
percent.

There were strong regional differences
in housing starts.  The Midwest saw a
jump of 54.8 percent in housing starts since November and a year-over-year
increase of 121.5 percent.  The other
regions did not fare nearly as well.  The
Northeast was down 41.2 percent for the month and 1.7 percent since December
2010.  The change in the South was -3.0
percent for the month and 19.0 percent for the year, and the West was down
-17.6 percent since November but up 1.5 percent annually.

Housing Starts

Click Here to View the Housing Starts Chart

Housing completions in December were at
a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 605,000, up 9.2 percent from the upwardly revised
(from 542,000) November figure of 554,000. 
Single family completions were at a rate of 448,000, a -0.9 percent monthly
change.

An estimated 583,900 housing units were
completed during 2011, 10.4 percent below the 2010 figure of 651,700.  At year’s end there were an estimated 78,800
permits that had been issued but for which work had not yet been started.  More than half of these permits (43,100) were
in the South.

…(read more)

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Appraisers say "Don’t Blame the Messenger" for Low Home Prices

The
Appraisal Institute has apparently had enough and has decided to fight back
against what it perceives as unwarranted blame for depressed home prices.  In a press release the Institute says, ” Don’t blame the real estate appraiser if it turns out that
house you’re trying to sell or buy isn’t worth what you thought it was.”

Speaking for the Institute, its
president Sara W. Stephens, MAI said that real estate agents, homebuilders and
others have placed blame for the market’s distressed condition on appraisers
who produce opinions of value that don’t match a home’s listing, contract or
sales price, delaying a recovery in the housing market and called that
accusation “nonsense.”

“The fact is that appraisers are
undertaking the same thorough research and thoughtful analysis that they always
have in order to continue producing reliable, credible opinions of value,”
Stephens said. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

It is unclear why the Institute
decided to refute the claims about appraisers at this time.  We did a search and found a number of
articles with the blame appraisers theme, but none that were more recent than
last summer except for charges from the National Association of Realtors that low
appraisals are among the reasons for recent high levels of sales contract
cancellations.  NAR, however, has been complaining
about low appraisals since at least the spring of 2009. 

Noting that buyers and sellers often
have emotional value attached to a home or are unaware of the market, Stephens
pointed out that appraisals completed for mortgage transactions are used to
assist lenders, who are the clients, not buyers or sellers, in making lending
decisions – and are not intended to confirm a listing, contract or sales price.
There’s no reason to assume the contract price is the “correct” price simply
because it’s higher than the appraisal, she said.

As to the claim that appraisers are
using distressed sales as comps for market rate properties, Stevens said that
qualified appraisers know how to handle adjustments for distressed properties
and added that in some markets, distressed sales are so prevalent that it would
be improper not to use them as comparables.

The Institute also released two
handouts.  The first explains the process
of conducting an appraisal
in a declining market and includes a discussion of
how an appraiser discounts a distressed comp. The second handout attempts to
explain what an appraisers job really is, making the points that:

  • Appraisals aren’t intended to confirm a home’s sales
    price.
  • Appraisers don’t set the real estate market; they
    reflect what’s happening in the market.
  • Appraisers work not for buyers or sellers, but for
    lenders.
  • Appraisers are independent, third-party experts with
    no motive to be biased.
  • Appraisals sometimes are assigned to the least
    qualified, least competent appraisers, but especially in a distressed market,
    competent and qualified appraisers – such as designated members of the
    Appraisal Institute – should be hired for difficult assignments.
  • Appraisers know how to use distressed sales as
    comparables.

…(read more)

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FDIC Invites Comments on Stress Test Rules

The Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation (FDIC) has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPR) for
comment.  The NPR would require the
larger of the banks it regulates to conduct annual capital-adequacy stress
tests.  The tests are one requirement of
the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act and will affect FDIC-insured banks and
savings institutions with assets of more than $10 billion.  The FDIC currently has 23 financial
institutions meeting that criterion

The proposed rule focuses on capital
adequacy and defines a stress test as a process to assess the potential impact
on the bank of economic and financial conditions (“scenarios”) on the
consolidated earnings, losses, and capital of the covered bank over a set
planning horizon.  FDIC said that these
stress tests would be one component of the broader stress testing activities
conducted by the banks which should address the impact of a broad range of
potentially negative outcomes across a broad set of risk types with impacts
beyond capital adequacy along.  These,
however, are beyond the scope of the proposed rule.

Under the NPR each covered bank
would be required to conduct the test annually using the bank’s financial data
as of September 30 of that year.  Where
the parent company structure of the covered bank includes one or more financial
companies, each with assets greater than the $10 billion threshold, the stress
test requirement applies to the parent and to each subsidiary meeting the threshold,
however the FDIC will coordinate with other regulatory agencies to minimize
complexity or duplication of effort.

As proposed, FDIC would provide each
covered bank with a minimum of three sets of scenarios representing baseline,
adverse, and severely adverse economic and financial conditions and each bank would
use these scenarios to calculate the impact on its potential losses,
pre-provision revenues, loan loss reserves and pro forma capital positions for each quarter end within the
planning horizon.

The NPR also describes the content
of the reports institutions are required to publish, and the timeline for
conducting the stress tests and producing the required reports.

FDIC Acting Chairman Martin J.
Gruenberg said, “Both the FDIC and the institutions being tested will
benefit from the forward-looking results that the stress tests will provide.
The results will assist in ensuring an institution’s financial stability by
helping determine whether it has sufficient capital levels to withstand a
period of economic stress.”

The FDIC’s proposal will be
published in the Federal Register with a 60-day public comment period.

…(read more)

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OIG Finds FHLBanks Corrected Foreign Credit Exposure, more Supervision Needed

The Office of the Inspector General
(OIG) of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) issued a report this morning
that was mildly critical of the FHFA’s oversight of Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBanks)
granting of unsecured credit to European banks.   OIG said that extensions of unsecured credit
in general increased by the FHLBanks during the 2010-2011 period, even as the
risks for doing so were intensifying.

FHFA regulates the FHLBanks and has
critical responsibilities to ensure that they operate in a safe and sound
manner.  FHFA’s OIG initiated an
evaluation to assess the regulator’s oversight of the Banks unsecured credit
risk management practices.

Unsecured credit extensions to European
institutions
and others grew from $66 billion at the end of 2008 to more than
$120 billion by early 2011 before declining to $57 billion by the end of that
year as the European sovereign debt crisis intensified.  During this period extensions of unsecured
credit to domestic borrowers remained relatively static but extensions to
foreign financial institutions fluctuated in a pattern that mirrored the
FHLBanks’ total unsecured lending.  That
is, it more than doubled from about $48 billion at the end of 2008 to $101
billion as of April 2011 before falling by 59 percent to slightly more than $41
billion by the end of 2011.

FHFA OIG also found that certain
FHLBanks had large exposures to particular financial institutions and the
increasing credit and other risks associated with such lending.   For example, one FHLBank extended more than
$1 billion to a European bank despite the fact that the bank’s credit rating
was downgraded and it later suffered a multibillion dollar loss.

During the time period in question OIG
found there was an inverse relationship between the trends in lending to
foreign financial institutions and the Banks advances to their own members.  Since mid-2011 the extensions to foreign
institutions have declined sharply but the advances have continued their
longstanding decline.  OIG said it
appears that some FHLBanks extended the unsecured credit to foreign
institutions to offset the decline in advance demand and that they curtailed
those unsecured extensions as they began to fully appreciate the associated
risks.

At the peak of the unsecured lending,
about 70 percent of the FHLBank System’s $101 billion in unsecured credit to
foreign borrowers was made to European financial institutions and 44 percent
were to institutions within the Eurozone. 
About 8 percent of unsecured debt ($6 billion) was to institutions in
Spain, considered by S&P to be even riskier than the Eurozone as a whole.

Some banks within the FHL System had
extremely high levels of unsecured credit extended to foreign borrowers.  The Seattle Bank’s exposure to foreign
borrowers as a percentage of its regulatory capital was more than 340 percent
in March 2011; Boston was at 300 percent, and Topeka 360 percent.  All three had declined substantially by the
end of 2011 but Seattle and Topeka remained above 100 percent.

OIG said that the vast majority of the
Banks’ extensions of unsecured credit appeared to be within current regulatory
limits (although OIG said these limits may be outdated and overly permissive),
some banks did exceed the limits and OIG found the three banks (which for some
reason it treated anonymously) definitely did so and blamed that on a lack of
adequate controls of systems to ensure compliance.

OIG reviewed a variety of FHFA internal
documents during the 2010-2011 period during which it found the Agency had
expressed growing concern about the Banks’ unsecured exposures to foreign
financial institutions.  But, even though
FHFA identified the unsecured credit extensions as an increasing risk in early
2010, it did not prioritize it in its examination process due to its focus on
greater financial risks then facing the FHLBank system especially their private
label mortgage-backed securities portfolios. 
In 2011, however, FHFA initiated a range of oversight measures focusing
on and prioritizing the credit extensions in the supervisory process and
increasing the frequency with which the Banks had to report on that part of
their portfolios.

OIG believes that FHFA’s recent initiatives
contributed to the significant decline in the amount of unsecured credit being
extended by the end of 2011.

The final findings issued by OIG in its
report are:

  1. Although
    FHFA did not initially prioritize FHLBank unsecured credit risks, it has
    recently developed an increasingly proactive approach to oversight in this
    area.
  2. FHFA
    did not actively pursue evidence of potential FHLBank violations of the limits
    on unsecured exposures contained in its regulations.
  3. FHFA’s
    current regulations governing unsecured lending may be outdated and overly
    permissive.

To correct
these deficiencies, OIG recommends that the Agency:

  • Follow up on any potential evidence of violations of
    the existing regulatory limits and take action as warranted;
  • Determine the extent to which inadequate systems and
    controls may compromise the Banks’ capacity to comply with regulatory limits;
  • Strengthen the regulatory framework by establishing
    maximum exposure limits; lowering existing individual counterparty limits; and
    ensuring that the unsecured exposure limits are consistent with the System’s
    housing mission.

…(read more)

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