Last October, when everyone was jubilant about the housing "recovery," Gary Shilling of A. Gary Shilling & Co., predicted that house prices would fall another 20%.
In the five months since, house prices have resumed their decline.
In his most recent research note, Gary sticks by his "20%" decline prediction. We've included a summary and updated charts from his argument below.
Housing: Great Expectations vs. Reality
Last spring, many believed that not only was the housing collapse over but that a robust rebound was underway. Investors were crowding into foreclosed house sales and bidding up prices in California, often the bellwether state for new trends.
The tax credit of up to $8,000 for new homebuyers that expired in April spurred buyers and promised to kick-start housing activity nationwide. TheHomeAffordable Modification Program was trumpeted by the Administration to help 3 million to 4 million homeowners with underwater mortgages by paying lenders to reduce monthly payments to manageable size and then paying homeowners to continue to make those payments.
But then a funny—or not so funny—thing happened on the way to housing recovery...
Yes, with mortgage rates so low, houses look "cheap."
With low mortgage rates and collapsed house prices, the National Association of Realtors’ Housing Affordability Index has leaped to all-time highs.
But when you don't have a job, old measures of "affordability" no longer apply...
It’s also become clear that the NAR’s Housing Affordability Index in the earlier post-World War II years is not relevant to today’s conditions. Back then, unemployment rates were usually much lower than now and the current threats of layoffs, wage and benefit cuts and being forced into part-time jobs were almost nonexistent. Who ventures into homeownership if he doesn’t know the size of his next paycheck or even if he’ll have one?
Also, with almost a quarter of all homeowners with mortgages under water with their mortgage principals exceeding the value of their houses, many can’t sell their existing abodes even if they wanted to buy other houses.
Unemployment is declining, but job growth has hardly been robust
Mortgages delinquent 30 days, many of which will probably end in foreclosure, have risen lately. They peaked in the first quarter of 2009 at 3.77%, then fell to 3.31% at the end of 2009, but have since risen to 3.51%, according to Tom Lawler.
He goes on to observe that 30-day delinquencies are linked to initial claims for unemployment insurance, which fell last year but subsequently leveled off and are now rising. Also, the delinquencies are rising as weak borrowers with modified loans again miss payments. Fitch Rating believes that 65% to 75% of mortgages modified under HAMP will redefault within 12 months.
And the number of people unemployed per job opening is coming down, but it's still very high
And those who are unemployed have been unemployed for a very long time
True, there are some hopeful signs. The percent of mortgages past due has begun to fall...
And, last spring, thanks to the tax credit, sales of existing homes skyrocketed. Alas, the effect was temporary.
The revival of home sales early [last] year proved to have less follow- through after the tax credit expired in April than did the previous expiration last November.
Existing home sales subsequently fell to a new low, so the tax credits had only “borrowed” sales from future months with no lasting impact.
And since last year's happy uptick, prices have begun to fall again...
Most importantly, the number of houses for sale is still abnormally high... and house prices, like everything else, are a function of supply and demand.
As we’ve stated repeatedly in many, many past Insights, excess inventories are the mortal enemy ofhouse prices. And those excess inventories are huge.
Notice that, over time, new and existing inventories listed for sale have averaged about 2.5 million. So, we reason, that’s the normal working inventory level and anything over and above 2.5 million is excess.
At the peak of 5 million reached in October 2007, that excess was 2.5 million. It subsequently fell but with the recent jump, the total is 4.0 million, implying excess inventories of 1.5 million.
That’s a lot considering the average annual build of 1.5 million houses. So the inventories over and above normal working levels equals one year's average demand. But wait! There’s more!
As noted earlier, as foreclosures pick up with the ending of the mortgage modification-related moratorium on lender takeovers, “shadow” inventory will become visible as many of those bereaved of their abodes join friends and family.
Furthermore, if we take the Total Housing Inventory numbers published by the Census Bureau at face value—and Tom Lawler, a very careful housing analyst concludes that it takes more than the faith of a mustard seed to do so—there are a lot ofhousing units that are likely to be listed for sale as owners give up trying to wait out the housing bust.
Recently, my wife told me of a friend who finally listed her house for sale right after Labor Day and got nary a nibble in the following three weeks. Then she was further discouraged when two other similar houses in her neighborhood were listed.
And then there's the "shadow" inventory--including the still-massive number of foreclosures.
The Administration’s HAMP initiative, introduced in April 2009, has been a huge disappointment...
But while mortgage modifications were attempted, lenders and servicers were basically forced by the government to suspend foreclosures. Now, as that program unwinds, foreclosures will again jump. Ironically, foreclosure rates have moderated recently because lenders tightened their standards in mid-2008 when housing and mortgages were in free fall. In 2009, two-thirds of all FHA- guaranteed new loans were to borrowers with credit scores over 660, up from 45% in 2008.
Nevertheless, lenders have been loosening in recent months. In January, Fannie initiated a program that allows first-time homebuyers to put down $1,000 or 1% of the purchase price, whichever is greater. In the first half of this year, credit card companies sent out 84.8 million offers to American subprime borrowers, up from 43.7 million a year earlier. In the second quarter of this year, 8% of new car oans were to borrowers with the lowest rank of credit scores, up from 6.2% in the fourth quarter of 2009.
And bank-owned houses (more future inventory)
Already, Real Estate Owned by lenders due to foreclosures—perhaps the most hated term among bankers—is climbing. Estimatesare that a major share of the 7 million houses that have delinquent mortgages or are in some stage of foreclosure, as well as those yet to come, will be dumped on the market, adding to the already huge excessive inventory glut. Some 4.5 million loans are now in foreclosure or at least 90 days delinquent.
And the folks who aren't selling because prices are still weak
Between the first quarter of 2006, the peak of house sales, and the second quarter of this year, the number ofhousing units, net of teardowns, conversions to non-housing uses and other removals, rose 5.7 million.
Of that total, 1.1 million were added to the pool of vacant units listed for rent or sale, 2.8 million were occupied by new households and so on down the list. Of the 1.3 million increase in those Held Offthe Market, the 1.1 million rise in the “Other” category is the one of interest. This component has leaped from the earlier norm of about 2.6 million to 3.7 million in the second quarter.
This rapid rise, coinciding with the collapse in housing, suggests strongly that many of these houses are indeed shadow inventory, units withheld in hopes ofhigher prices but highly likely to emerge from the woodwork sooner or later.
If we assume that half the 1.1 million increase since the housing peak in the first quarter o f2006 are shadow inventory, the total excess jumps from 1.5 million to 2 million at present, and is likely to rise further.
So, the question is, how long will it take us to absorb all that excess inventory? Some analysts think 1-2 years. Gary Shilling thinks 4-5 years. Why? First because household formation is still lower than it was during the boom
Many believe that household formation and, therefore, demand for either owned or rented housing units is closely linked to population growth. A Beazer Homes official said recently that demographics would normally produce household growth of around 1.5 million a year.
But note that those trendless series are extremely volatile, ranging from a peak of almost 2.3 million at annual rates in the current cycle to less than 500,000 recently. Household formation is similarly volatile, not surprising since a household is defined as one or more people living in a separate dwelling unit and not in jail, college, an institution or an army barracks. So household formation is affected by the lust for house appreciation, income growth, employment prospects, family size, mortgage availability and all the other factors that determine the desirability of owning or renting.
The homeownership rate (percent of households that are homeowners) continues to decline, probably headling back to its long-term average.
Back in the salad days of 10% annual price appreciation, a homeowner and/or investor who put down 5% enjoyed a wonderful 200% return on his investment per year, neglecting taxes, interest and maintenance. But that hapless homeowner who bought at the peak lost all of his downpayment six times over as prices fell 30%.
No wonder that the homeowner rate, which spurted from its 64% norm to 69%, is now back to 66.9% in the second quarter and probably on its way back to 64%.
More people are choosing to live with their parents. As they lose their jobs and houses, many Americans are "doubling up"--moving in with friends and relatives. This further reduces demand for housing.
Of course, homeowners thrown out of their abodes by foreclosures can continue to be separate households
by renting houses and apartments, but many of those and other discouraged folks are shrinking
households—and adding to vacant housing units—by doubling up with family and friends.
The Census Bureau reports that in the last two years, multi-family households jumped 11.6% while total households rose a mere 0.6%. Those aged 25-34 living with parents—many of them “boomerang kids” who have returned home—increased by 8.4% to 5.5 million. Not surprising, 43% of those were below the poverty line of $11,161 for an individual.
And now everyone knows that house prices CAN actually fall, so they're no longer rushing to get in on the the most amazing investment ever.
Most of all, the NAR’s Housing Affordability Index is largely irrelevant today because in contrast with the earlier post-World War II years, prospective buyers know that house prices can, and do, fall.
Who wants to buy an expensive asset with a big mortgage that may be worth much less shortly? And the financial leverage created by a mortgage magnifies the risk tremendously. Someone who buys a house with 5% down sees their equity wiped out if the price falls only 5%. So the fall in house prices and mortgage rates, which have driven up the NAR’s measure of affordability, have been offset by stronger forces.
So, too, will any future increases in the affordability index in all likelihood. The Fed may embark on further purchases of mortgage securities, which could reduce mortgage rates further, but the central bank will probably only act in response to additional economic weakness that will discourage homebuyers. The further declines in house prices we foresee will make them cheaper, but also convinces prospective owners that they are even worse investments.
The rebound in house prices is also suspect and may have peaked out. Furthermore, both the previous decline and subsequent reversal probably overstate reality. Earlier, the many sales of foreclosed houses or by distressed homeowners tended to be lower-priced houses and, therefore, depressed average prices. The recent swoon in Los Angeles house prices compared with the early 1990s drop suggests this is true. Conversely, the recent rebound may be overstating reality since, as our good friend and great housing analyst Tom Lawler has noted, the homebuyer tax credit may have induced some to pay up to beat the deadline and to favor higher priced “traditional” house sales over “distressed” homes.
Tom also points out that the Case- Shiller price index for July, which showed increases in 13 of the 20 metro areas (not seasonally adjusted), was based on transactions from April to June and, therefore, included tax credit- related settlements in May and June. Also, seasonally-adjusted data reveals declines in 16 of 20 metro areas and a small 0.1% fall from June to July. Another Home Value Index compiled by Zillow reports that prices nationwide fell in July from June, the 49th consecutive monthly fall. That puts them down 24% from the May-June 2006 peak, similar to the 28% drop in the Case-Shiller index.
On a positive note, housing starts are still at a startlingly low level, which means less new inventory to absorb.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Gary Shilling thinks house prices probably have another 20% to fall.
This huge and growing surplus inventory of houses will probably depress prices considerably from here, perhaps another 20% over the next several years. That would bring the total decline from the first quarter 2006 peak to 42%.
This may sound like a lot, but it would return single-family house prices, corrected for general inflation and also for the tendency of houses to increase in size over time, back to the flat trend that has held since 1890.
We are strong believers in reversions to the mean, especially when it has held for over a century and through so many huge changes in the economy in those years—two world wars and the 1930s Depression, the leap in government regulation and involvement in the economy, the economic transformation from an agricultural base to manufacturing and then to services, the post- World War II population shift from cities to suburbs, the western and southern transfer of population and economic strength, the movement from renting to homeownership and the accompanying spreading of mortgage financing, etc.
Furthermore, our forecast of another 20% fall in house prices may be conservative. Prices may well end up back on their long- term trendline, but fall below in the meanwhile. Just as they way overshot the trend on the way up, they may do so on the way down, as is often the case in cycles. Furthermore, another big house price decline will spike delinquencies and foreclosures leading to more REO sales by lenders,
Even prices in New York City have resumed their fall!
If house prices DO fall another 20%, a lot more homeowner equity will be wiped out. And that's not good news for banks. Or the economy. Or, for that matter, future house prices.
At that point, the remaining home equity of those with mortgages would be wiped out on average. That, in turn, would impair already-depressed consumer confidence and their willingness and ability to spend, to say nothing of residential construction.
The essay was excerpted from the latest monthly research of Gary Shilling of A. Gary Shilling & Co.