Slower Office Construction Could Mean Higher Rents (Video)

A sector prone to booms and busts, office construction is at its lowest level in a half century, down more than 80% since peaks in the mid-1980s and in 2000. That could mean higher rents are a few years out, as the Journal reports today in the Outlook column and on the News Hub. Photo: Reuters

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

Geithner Outlines Accomplishments, Future of Financial Reform

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told
the Financial Stability Oversight Council that the financial system is getting
stronger and safer and that much of the excess risk-taking and careless
financial practices that caused so much damage has been forced out.  However, he said, “These gains will erode
over time if we are not able to put our full reforms into place.”

He outlined the basic framework has been
laid, with new global agreements to limit leverage, rules for managing the
failure of a large firm and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
up and running, and the majority of the new safeguards for derivatives markets proposed.  Geithner ticked off the major accomplishments
of reform.

First, banks now face much
tougher limits on risk which are critical to reducing the risk of large
financial failures and limiting the damage such failures can cause.  The focus in 2012 will be “on defining the
new liquidity standards and on making sure that capital risk-weights are
applied consistently.”

 The new rules are tougher on
the largest banks that pose the greatest risk and are being complemented by
other limits on risk-taking such as the Volcker Rules and limits on the size of
firms and concentration of the financial systems.  These will not apply only to banks but to
other large financial institutions that could pose a threat to financial system
stability and this year the Risk Council will make the first of these
designations.

Second, the derivatives market will,
for the first time, be required to meet a comprehensive set of transparency
requirements, margin rules and other safeguards.  These reforms are designed to move
standardized contracts to clearing houses and trading platforms and will be
complemented with more conservative safeguards for the more complex and
specialized products less amenable to central clearing and electronic
trading.  These reforms, the balance of
which will be outlined this year, will lower costs for those who use the
products, allow parties to hedge against risk, but limit the potential for
abuse, the Secretary said. 

Third, is a carefully designed set
of safeguards against risk outside the banking system and enhanced protections
for the basic infrastructure of the financial markets: 

  • Money market funds will have new
    requirements designed to limit “runs.”
  • Important funding markets like the
    tri-party repo market are now more conservatively structured.
  • International trade repositories are
    being developed for derivatives, including credit default swaps.
  • Designated financial market utilities
    will have oversight and requirements for stronger financial reserves;

Fourth; there will be a stronger set
of protections in place against “too big to fail” institutions.  The key elements are:

  • Capital and liquidity rules with
    tough limits on leverage to both reduce the probability of failure and prevent
    a domino effect;
  • New protections for derivatives,
    funding markets, and for the market infrastructure to limit contagion across
    the financial system;
  • Tougher limits on institutional size;
  • A bankruptcy-type framework to
    manage the failure of large financial firms.
    This “resolution authority” will prohibit bailouts for private
    investors, protect taxpayers, and force the financial system to bear the costs
    of future crisis.

Fifth, significantly stronger
protections for investors and consumers are being put in place including the
CFPB which is working to improve disclosures for mortgages and credit cards and
developing new standards for qualified mortgages.  New authorities are being used to strengthen protections
for investors and to give shareholders greater voice on issues like executive
compensation.

Geithner pointed to the failure of
account segregation rules to protect customers in the MF Global disaster as proof
of the need for more protections and said that the Council will work with the
SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Council on this problem.   

Moving forward, reforms must be
structured to endure as the market evolves and to work not just in isolation
but to interact appropriately with each other and the broader economy.  “We
want to be careful to get the balance right-building a more stable financial
system, with better protections for consumers and investors, that allows for
financial innovation in support of economic growth.” 

First, he said, we have to make sure
we have a level playing field at home; that financial firms engaged in similar
activity and financial instruments that have similar characteristics are
treated roughly the same because small differences can have powerful effects in
shifting risk to where the rules are softer. 
A level field globally is also important, particularly with reforms that
toughen rules on capital, margin, liquidity, and leverage, as well as in the
global derivatives markets.  “In these areas we are working to discourage
other nations from applying softer rules to their institutions and to try to
attract financial activity away from the U.S. market and U.S. institutions.” 

It is necessary to align the
developing derivatives regimes around the world; preventing attempts to soften
application of capital rules, limiting the discretion available to supervisors
in enforcing rules on risk-weights for capital and designing rules for
resolution of large global institutions.  Also, because some U.S. reforms are different
or tougher from rules in other markets, there needs to be a sensible way to
apply those rules to the foreign operations of U.S. firms and the U.S.
operation of foreign firms.

 The U.S. also needs to move
forward with reforms to the mortgage market including a path to winding down
the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs.) 
The Administration has already outlined a broad strategy, Geithner said,
and expects to lay out more detail in the spring.  The immediate concern is to repair the damage
to homeowners, the housing market, and neighborhoods.  The President spoke this week about the range
of tools he plans to use.  Our ultimate goals
are to wind down the GSEs, bring private capital back into the market, reduce
the government’s direct role, and better target support toward first-time
homebuyers and low- and moderate-income Americans.

Geithner said the new system must
foster affordable rentals options, have stronger, clearer consumer protections,
and create a level playing field for all institutions participating in the
system.  For this to happen without
hurting the broader economy and adding further damage to those areas that have
been hardest hit, banks and private investors must come back into the market on
a larger scale and they want more clarity on the rules that will apply. 

Credit availability is still a problem
and there is a broad array of programs in place to improve access to credit and
capital for small businesses.  As
conditions improve, it is important that we remain focused on making sure that
small businesses, a crucial engine of job growth, have continued access to
equity capital and credit.

Many Americans trying to buy a home
or refinance their mortgage are also finding it hard to access credit, even for
FHA- or GSE-backed mortgages.  The Administration has been working closely
with the FHA and FHFA to encourage them to take additional measures to remove
unnecessary barriers and they are making progress.  They will probably outline additional reforms
in the coming weeks.

Bank supervisors, in the normal
conduct of bank exams and supervision, as well as in the design of new rules to
limit risk taking and abuse, must be careful not to overdo it with actions that
cause undue damage to the availability of credit or liquidity to markets.

Geithner said the U.S. financial
system is getting stronger
, and is now significantly stronger than it was
before the crisis.  Among the achievements:

  • Banks have increased common equity
    by more than $350 billion since 2009.
  • Banks and other financial
    institutions with more than $5 trillion in assets at the end of 2007 have been
    shut down, acquired, or restructured.
  • The asset-backed commercial paper
    market has shrunk by 70 percent since its peak in 2007, and the tri-party repo
    market and prime money market funds have shrunk by 40 percent and 33 percent
    respectively since their 2008 peaks.
  • The financial assistance we provided
    to banks through TARP, for example, will result in taxpayer gains of
    approximately $20 billion.

The Secretary said the strength of
the banks is helping to support broader economic growth, including the more
than 3 million private sector jobs created over 22 straight months, and the 30
percent increase in private investment in equipment and software.  
Broadly, the cost of credit has fallen significantly since late 2008 and early
2009.  Banks are lending more, with commercial and industrial loans to
businesses up by an annual rate of more than 10 percent over the past six
months.  

He concluded by saying that no
financial system is invulnerable to crisis, and there is a lot of unfinished
business on the path of reform.  The reforms are tough where they need to
be tough.  “But they will leave our financial system safer, better able to
help businesses raise capital, and better able to help families finance safely
the purchase of a house or a car, to borrow to invest in a college education,
or to save for retirement.  And they will protect the taxpayer from having
to pay the price of future crisis.”

…(read more)

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The State of the Mortgage Industry According to MBA

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) provided its annual
assessment of The State of the Mortgage Industry in a press conference Wednesday
afternoon.  Michael Young, MBA Chairman
said that the states that have been hardest hit by the housing crisis are and
will continue to deal with the aftermath but there are signs that in much of
the nation 2012 will bring a recovering market.

One bright spot, Young said, is that the turmoil in the
single family market has actually helped the multi-family sector; the rental
market has tightened and more lenders have moved into the sector, especially
life insurance companies.  In the
residential market, he said, the one topic that is discussed everywhere is the
lack of financing and what can be done about it.

David H. Stevens, MBA President and CEO said that lack of
financing
can be traced to a single factor, market uncertainty.  Part of it is uncertainty about international
markets and how they might ultimately impact the domestic situation but there
is also a tremendous amount of uncertainty about regulation.  Dodd-Frank, he said, has 300 regulations that
have yet to be fully promulgated and the new Consumer Financial Protection
Bureau (CFPB) and other regulators all have or are considering regulations
about how loans can be provided and serviced. 
There is uncertainty surrounding repurchases as well and while MBA
believes lenders should be held accountable for their mistakes, they should not
be held accountable for the loans performance if it failed solely due to
changing economic circumstances.  For
that reason MBA supports a time limit on the repurchase obligation.

Addressing three areas in particular, he said, would
decrease a lot of the insecurity.  New
regulations regarding Qualified Mortgages (QM) and Qualified Residential
Mortgages (QRM) are eminent and QM will in effect, define what loans get
made.  Mortgages which do not meet QM as
laid out by CRPB will simply not get made because lenders will feel there is
too much liability involved.   MBA supports certain parts of the QM such as
the requirement for full documentation but other parts such as the point and
fee cap lack flexibility and will disproportionately affect the pricing of small
loans.  

Most of all, he said, the proposed regulations are too general.  There needs to be specificity in the
underwriting standards such as in the definition of what constitutions “ability
to repay.”  Without a bright line in the
regulations that enable a safe harbor for lenders, he said, any lending is
going to be restricted on the margins and any loans that fall into the gap
between QM and QRM will see significant price adjustments to reflect the
liability.

While MBA also supports risk retention and much of the
intent of the QRM such as eliminating no-docs and interest only and other
exotic loans, regulators are going beyond the intent of Congress by adding debt
to income and loan-to-value ratios.  The
requirement for a 20 percent down payment will create a dual class system under
QRM, with lower income borrowers, unable to amass the down payment; forced into
FHA loans while there will be a private market for upper income borrowers.  Stevens said MBA will be “very aggressive” in
making sure these changes to QRM are pulled back.

Another area of uncertainty is the 50-state settlement with
servicers
.  Borrowers don’t care about
their servicers until they get into trouble with their mortgages but then the
multiple state and federal laws that govern servicing cause stress for the
borrowers and for servicers and investors as well.  The settlement may provide a framework for
national standards which would remove some of the uncertainty in this area.  In the same vein, Stevens said that President
Obama’s new fraud task force must be careful to avoid redundancy with other
investigations and carefully measure how it impacts borrowers or it could
create trepidation among lenders and further reluctance to lend.  

The present structure of the mortgage market with 90 percent
of lending having some government involvement through the GSEs or FHA is simply
unsustainable, Stevens said.  The private
sector must be brought back into the market and the major players in the
industry are close to agreement on what the future of the secondary market
should look like.  This is very close to
a model proposed by MBA some years ago which would have the following
characteristics:

  • Transactions would be funded with private
    capital from a broad range of sources.
  • The federal government should have a role in
    promoting stability and liquidity in the core mortgage market. This role should be in the form of an
    explicit credit guarantee on a class of mortgage-backed securities and the
    guarantee would be paid for by risk-based fees.
  • Taxpayers and the system itself should be
    protected through limits on the mortgage products covered, the types of
    activities undertaken, strong risk-based capital requirement, and actuarially
    fair payments into a federal insurance fund.

In answer to a reporter’s question about the chances of
President Obama’s streamlined refinancing program being approved, Stevens said
it would be an uphill climb.  FHA is
legislatively limited to loans with a maximum LTV of 97.5 percent so to go as
high as 140 percent which Steven’s said he expected the legislation to attempt
will require full approval of Congress.

Jay Brinkmann, Senior Vice President and Chief Economists said
he expects jobs to be created at about a 150,000 per month pace in 2012 but
this will be uneven by location and dependent on an individual’s education.  The length of unemployment hit a record high
in November and persons with a high school education or less are remaining
unemployed longer than those with a college degree.

According to Brinkmann, mortgage originations will drop from
$1.26 trillion in 2011 to $992 billion in 2012 with most of the loss coming in
refinancing.  The purchase market will be
largely unchanged or will rise slightly. 
This does not, however, reflect any changes that might be made in the
HARP program or any unforeseen outside events.

…(read more)

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GSE Reform: The Future is Ours to Shape

We are coming to the close of a watershed year in the financial services field. The most far reaching financial legislation since the era of reform under Franklin D. Roosevelt passed; the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act and creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Every sector of the federal government dealing with the financial services industry will be affected by this far reaching legislation. In addition the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) released its regulations implementing Basel III. These domestic and international acts will, after full implementation, provide the stage for the complete overhaul of the financial services industry not only in America but the World over the next ten years. Still to be decided is the future of the GSE's, Fannie and Freddie. How…(read more)

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