Ten Predictions for the Housing Market

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Construction underway in September at a Lennar Corp. project in Miami.

Last year, David Goldberg, UBS’s home-builder analyst, issued 10 predictions for the housing market.

So, how did he do? “I never pat myself on the back, but I think we were pretty close,” Mr. Goldberg tells Developments. “We had a good year.”

As predicted, tough underwriting standards constrained demand and home prices remained weak. There was indeed a lot of “blustering about” for the need to reform mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the FHA, but not much happened. He said he didn’t expect much to happen with the mortgage-interest deduction — and nothing really did.

Mr. Goldberg says 2012 should include a modest recovery. “I’m more bullish today than I have been in the last five years,” he says. Here are his predictions for this year (along with our thoughts on a few):

Prediction: Single-family housing starts will grow by approximately 5% to 10%, marking the first year in the last seven that starts will have grown meaningfully. Multifamily starts will accelerate at a faster pace.

Developments says: Yes, although it’s worth noting that multifamily starts were down in December.

Prediction: With community-count growth ranging from 5% to 10% year-over-year, builders will see order growth as high as 20%.

Developments says: Some builders have already reported that orders are up — Lennar’s fourth-quarter orders jumped 20% — as buyers slowly move off the sidelines. Remember that these gains come off of low levels.

Prediction: New-home prices will be flat in 2012, while distressed prices have basically bottomed.

Developments says: With some home values down more than a third from the peak, stable prices would be good news. Builders have had to cough up thousands of dollars of freebies to entice buyers.

Prediction: Mortgage standards won’t loosen until 2013 at the earliest; when they do, look for private lenders—as opposed to the GSEs or the FHA—to lead the way.

Prediction: Government support for the new-home market will be slightly better than “do no harm”. … Even if efforts are more robust than expected, they will be focused on the existing-home market.

Developments says: Home builders, which make up a small percentage of the overall sales market, are quietly grumbling that they aren’t receiving much attention these days. Keep in mind, of course, that they received large tax refunds and got a tax credit for buyers.

Prediction: While many believe that record affordability should drive sales, mortgage availability will constrain owner-occupied demand over the next couple of years. (This seems similar to #4.)

Prediction: With volumes growing and prices stable, Mr. Goldberg doesn’t forecast significant book value — essentially the assets minus liabilities — loss in 2012. … In some of the better-positioned companies, book value could increase for the first time since the downturn.

Prediction: Shares of home builders will see higher highs and lower lows as expectations reset.

Prediction: There won’t be public-to-public M&A activity in the coming year.

Developments says: This makes sense — with the exception of the Pulte/Centex debacle — since mergers have been rare. Builders have been more focused on surviving and returning to profitability.

Prediction: There are trends that will work against an acceleration in home ownership in the near term. “We’re often confronted by perma-bulls focusing on long-term demographics—which we actually believe in,” Mr. Goldberg writes.

Developments says: For now, many Americans still don’t have jobs, lenders remain picky with applicants and plenty of people remain afraid to buy homes.

So, how will Mr. Goldberg do?

Follow Dawn @dwotapka

Listing Gone Stale? Extol the Virtues of Ghost-Free Living

Facing a languishing listing, real-estate agent Jake Palmer got creative with his for-sale signs.

Pending Home Sales Rise; NAR Sees Tight Inventory Leading to Price Increases

Pending home sales in May bounced
back to match March numbers which were the highest seen in two years. The
improvement was broad-based, affecting every region in the country according to
the National Association of Realtors® (NAR). 

NAR’s Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI)
rose 5.9 percent in May from 95.5 in April to 101.1, equaling the index level last
March.  This was an increase of 13.3
percent from May 2001 when the index was 89.2. 
The last time the PHSI was higher than the March and May number was in
April 2010 when buyers were rushing to beat the deadline for the home buyer tax
credit.

The PHSI is a forward indicator
reflecting signed contracts for home purchases. 
The index does not include closing transactions which are generally
expected to occur within 60 to 90 days.

Lawrence Yun, NAR
chief economist, said longer term comparisons are more relevant.  “The
housing market is clearly superior this year compared with the past four
years.  The latest increase in home contract signings marks 13 consecutive
months of year-over-year gains,” he said.  “Actual closings for
existing-home sales have been notably higher since the beginning of the year
and we’re on track to see a 9 to 10 percent improvement in total sales for
2012.”

The national
median existing-home price is expected to rise 3.0 percent this year and
another 5.7 percent in 2013.

On a regional
basis, May pending sales in the Northeast increased 4.8 percent to 82.9, 19.8
percent above May 2011.  The pending sales number in the Midwest was 98.9
up 6.3 percent from April and 22.1 percent from a year ago.  The index for
the South increased 1.1 percent month over month and 11.9 percent year over
year to an index of 106.9.  In the West
the index jumped 14.5 percent in May to 108.7 and is 4.8 percent stronger than
a year ago.

Yun said that
low inventory could negatively impact some contract activity.  “If credit
conditions returned to normal and if we had more inventory, especially in the
lower price ranges, more people would become successful buyers.  In an
environment of historically favorable housing affordability conditions, it’s
frustrating to see some consumers thwarted in the process,” he said.

The low
inventory in some cases is because of the numbers of homeowners who are unwilling
to list their homes for sale because they are underwater on their mortgages.  Selling underwater homes requires that sellers
either bring cash to the table or undergo a lengthy and often frustrating short
sale process.  NAR estimates 85 percent
of homeowners have positive equity, with 15 percent in an underwater situation.

“Low inventory
can be cured by increasing new home construction,” Yun said.  He projects
housing starts to rise by 26 percent this year and another 50 percent in 2013.  “If housing starts do not rise in a meaningful
way over the next two years due to the difficulty in getting construction
loans, and barring an unexpected shift in the economy, the steady shedding of
inventory could lead to shortages where home prices could get bid up close to
10 percent in 2013,” Yun said.

…(read more)

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First Horizon’s Buybacks; Buyback Legal Chatter; Basel III and Construction Loans; Congress Snubs Small Business?

I have been subtly warning groups during speeches, and writing in this commentary, about the implications of Basel III. Most of the focus is on servicing & the value of it. But did you know that under the new Basel III rules, construction lending would likely go into the “high risk commercial real estate” category and require a 150% risk weighting? “Lenders would seek deals where a developer would contribute a substantial amount of cash equity; while banks would be less likely to let developers rely just on the equity from appraisals” per American Banker. And the government and the Fed are asking why banks aren’t lending? This is just another reason.

Last month we sold the house where my kids grew up, and I had a handyman remove the doorframe where we marked heights on birthdays. I am not mentioning this to turn the daily into a Hallmark card, but because it reminded me of one thing that the press seems to forget: a house is a home and not a share of stock. And when it comes to that, the popular press seems to forget that people need a place to live, that people want a good school district for their kids, a place to get to know the neighbors, a place to create an emotional attachment. I could go on and on, but there are very concrete reasons why people who are underwater on a house still make the payments, why many who supposedly saw the real estate decline didn’t sell their home, and why so many people don’t care about minute fluctuations in the price of housing based on the latest metric.

I’ll get off my soapbox, and get on with business: I think that the last time the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index went up was during the Eisenhower Administration – until now. Seriously, for the first time in eight months the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices rose over levels of the previous month.  Data through April 2012 showed that on average home prices increased 1.3% during the month for both the 10- and 20-City Composites. Prices are still down 2.2% for the 10-City and 1.9% for the 20-City over figures for one year earlier but this is an improvement over the year-over-year losses of 2.9% 2.6% recorded in March. This report followed Monday’s news that New Home Sales jumped 7.6% in May to 369k and was up 19.8% from a year ago, and last week’s Existing Home Sales, Housing Starts and NAHB HMI which all contained some positive signs.

How’s this to grab one’s attention: “Congressional Subcommittee REFUSES Small Business Brokers and Appraisers a Seat at the Table.” The notice from the NAIHP goes on, “For the second time in a week, the Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity, Chaired by Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Illinois), refused small business housing professionals the right to be represented during Congressional testimony.” Here you go: http://www.naihp.org/.

Yes, there are plenty of rumors that the agencies are hotly pursuing buybacks to recoup taxpayer losses, and that the agencies are losing personnel except for QA & auditing. But that reasoning doesn’t help companies like First Horizon National Corp. It “cited new information it recently received from Fannie Mae as the basis for incurring the $272 million charge this second quarter. About $250 million will go to repurchase loans made with “inadequate or incorrect” documentation, and $22 million is being charged to address pending litigation.” I don’t make this stuff up.

Last week I received a legal question about buybacks. “I was asked by a former customer of a major investor’s correspondent lending group about how others are handling repurchase/make-whole requests on older vintage loans.  His experience has been that the investor will ask to be reimbursed for losses associated with loans that have been foreclosed and disposed of without being given an opportunity to refute the alleged rep and warrant deficiency.  He has had to hire a law firm to argue each of these requests and the major investor has backed off each time. Normally, when a correspondent is still active, there is obviously leverage against the correspondent under an implied or actual threat of being terminated as a customer if a make-whole is not made, and when an investor is no longer in the correspondent business, I’ve heard rumors of it being more inclined to back down but sometimes taking a former customer to court or ‘saber rattling’. Needless to say, it is expensive to have a lawyer prepare a rebuttal to a make-whole request, just to have the investor ultimately back-off – what to do?”

I turned this over to attorney Brian Levy, who wrote, “Your question about investor willingness to sue originators over repurchase claims is difficult to answer with specificity.  My clients have been able to settle and/or avoid litigation in every engagement that I have undertaken in this area. That does not mean, however, that the threat of investor repurchase litigation over individual loans is not real or that litigation is not occurring, but it has been my experience that these disputes can be resolved (or dismissed) through extensive and detailed settlement negotiations and information exchange.  Litigation over individual repurchase claims may be fairly unusual now, but so were repurchase claims entirely prior to 2007-2008. Due to the unique nature of each originator’s position and the facts around applicable repurchase claim(s), however, it would be reckless to assume one will not be sued on specific claims based on what is generally occurring in the industry or based on what may have been past investor appetite for litigation (although these are important elements to consider in one’s strategy).”

Brian goes on. “For example, much depends on the facts and circumstances of the loan(s) in question, whether there are any other relationships between the parties that can be leveraged (loans in the pipeline, warehouse lines etc.) the overall quality, stability and reputation of the originator and, significantly, the parties’ tolerance for risk, availability or need for reserves and the desire for finality.  Moreover, investor and originator appetite for lawsuits may change over time as strategies can change in organizations and as the few cases that have been filed begin to yield decisions that are more or less favorable to one side or another. Even the tenor of discussions or lack of attention to the matter can impact a party’s willingness to file a lawsuit. All of these issues should be explored with legal counsel as part of an originator’s comprehensive repurchase management strategy.” (If you’d like to reach Brian Levy with Katten & Temple, LLP, write to him at blevy@kattentemple.com.)

Here are some somewhat recent conference & investor updates, providing a flavor for the environment. They just don’t stop. As always, it is best to read the actual bulletin.

Down in California, it is time again for the CMBA’s Western Secondary conference. (I’ve been wandering around that San Francisco conference since 1986 – if those halls could talk…) The CMBA has presentations on “QM, QRM, the CFPB, Agency Direct Delivery – Reviving the Lost Art of Servicing Retained Execution, Compliance issues Facing State Licensed Mortgage Banks Today and How Regulatory Change will Impact Your Business and the Secondary Market, Manufacturing Quality – Steps to Produce a Quality Loan (Operation Focus),” and several other topics. Check it out.

In light of the increasing number of non-conforming transactions where the departure residence is retained by the borrower and is in a negative equity position, Wells Fargo issued a reminder that underwriters must weigh any and all risk factors evident in the loan file.  Each case should be weighed individually, as there are only so many situations underwriting guidelines can predict.  The Wells Seller Guide now states that, in a case where the departure residence won’t be sold at the time of closing and is in a negative equity position, paying down the lien or using additional reserves to cover the negative equity may be required to reduce overall risk.

Wells has issued another reminder that a signed Borrower Appraisal Acknowledgement is required for all loans.  The Acknowledgment, whether it’s the Wells-issued form or a custom document, must include the property address, complete lender name, borrower name, borrower signature, and borrower signature date.  If the form has checkboxes where the borrower can make a choice, these boxes must be ticked.

Due to changes to FHA Single Family Annual Mortgage Insurance and Up-Front Mortgage Insurance Premiums announced by HUD back in March, one of which requires lenders to determine the endorsement/insured date of the FHA loan as part of a Streamline Refinance transaction, Refinance Authorization results will need to be submitted to Wells with the closed loan package.  These results are necessary to ensure that the accurate MIP was applied.  This applies to all FHA Streamline Refinances with case numbers assigned on or after June 11, 2012, while loans purchased through Pass-Thru Express are excepted.

Wells’ government pricing adjusters are set to change on July 2nd.  For VA loans with scores between 620 and 639, the adjuster will go from -0.750 to -1.500.  The adjuster for loans with scores between 640 and 679, currently at -0.250, will change to -0.500.  This affects Best Effort registrations, Best Effort locks, Mandatory Commitments, Assignments of Trade, and Loan Specified Bulk Commitments.

How sensitive are our markets to European news? Sure, instead of buying our 10-yr yielding 1.65% you could buy a Spanish 10-yr yielding 6.74%. But there is instability, evidenced by this note from an MBS trader yesterday: “News of Merkel stating Europe would not have shared liability for debt ‘as long as she lives’ caused Treasuries to immediately surge higher, only to be met by better real money selling of 7s.  While the selling did help to stall the rally, the true relief didn’t come until Reuters posted a correction to its initial release, re-quoting Merkel as having said Europe would not have ‘total shared’ liability for debt as long as she lives.  The amendment took Treasuries off the highs ahead of the 2yr auction…”

Say all you want about the market, bond prices and yields are not doing a whole heckuva lot. Tuesday the 10-yr closed at 1.63%, very close to where it’s been all week, although there was some intra-day volatility blamed on Europe. (European problems will be with us for years, and paying attention to intra-day swings can become wearisome after years…) For agency mortgage-backed securities, volume has been around “average” all week, with the usual buyers (the Fed, hedge funds, money managers, overseas parties) absorbing it. Up one day, down another – yesterday was down/worse by about .250, which was about the same as the 10-yr T-note. We could have been helped by the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence index which dropped for a fourth straight month, to 62 from a revised 64.4 in the prior month, but nope.

No one is getting any younger… (Part 1 of 2)
I very quietly confided to my best friend that I was having an affair. She turned to me and asked, “Are you having it catered?” And that, my friend, is the definition of ‘OLD’!

Just before the funeral services, the undertaker came up to the very elderly widow and asked, “How old was your husband?”
“98,” she replied. “Two years older than me.”
“So you’re 96,” the undertaker commented.
She responded, “Hardly worth going home, is it?”

Reporters interviewing a 104-year-old woman:
“And what do you think is the best thing about being 104?” the reporter asked.
She simply replied, “No peer pressure.”

I feel like my body has gotten totally out of shape, so I got my doctor’s permission to join a fitness club and start exercising.  I decided to take an aerobics class for seniors. I bent, twisted, gyrated, jumped up and down, and perspired for an hour. But, by the time I got my leotards on, the class was over.

…(read more)

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To Fix Housing, Don’t Break It, Executive Says

What’s needed to fix the housing market right now? Maybe nothing, says Re/Max Chief Executive Margaret Kelly.