Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A mysterious demand for housing

By postulating that there is a demand for housing, in an economy rapidly shedding jobs, tightening credit requirements, and casting a huge number of citizens into the 'no-credit-at-all' category (bankruptcy/foreclosure), Hubbard and Mayer conclude:

A reduction of mortgage interest rates to 4.5% (or, given yesterday's Fed action, to a lower level) is superior to other proposals that focus only on stopping foreclosures, or on reforming the bankruptcy code to keep people in their homes. Stopping foreclosures, however meritorious, may not limit the dangerous decline in house prices as much as proponents claim. It could work the other way. Stripping down mortgage balances in bankruptcy would likely raise future mortgage interest rates and lower the availability of mortgages, reducing house prices.

Loan modifications are a reduction in interest paid, right? They also directly and quickly affect the structural challenges. An interest-rate only mechanism could extend the 'debt-depression' for years.

There is a realtor-survey Businessweek data point going around that some 40% of existing home sales are foreclosures. You have to bet that is because of price, not quality or location, right?

Given the problem is so serious, why 'bet the farm' that an artificially reduced rate will bring the desired equilibrium? Given all the hope-for-the-best approaches that have already failed, across a range of problems, wouldn't the direct approach, modifying some loans, actually be more robust?

The Businessweek study:

That's especially true in California. In the second quarter of 2008, seven in 10 existing-home sales in San Joaquin and Merced counties were of properties that had gone through foreclosure in the previous 12 months, according to DataQuick, a La Jolla (Calif.) real estate information company. In Sacramento County, six in 10 sales involved foreclosures.

It's no wonder that prices in these markets are tumbling: Distressed sales have a way of dragging prices down for entire communities. Aaron Smith, senior economist at Moody's, says markets in which foreclosed homes dominate listings suffer from a kind of "negative feedback loop."

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