Archive for the ‘real estate’ Category
Everyone interested in real estate is asking the same question: Is the bottom in, or is this just another “green shoots” recovery that will soon wilt?
Let’s start by reviewing the fundamental forces currently affecting real estate valuations.
Expanding the pool of potential buyers has reached the upper limit
There are two ways to expand the pool of qualified home buyers, and they both rely on expanding leverage: A) lower the down payment from 20% cash to 3%, and B) lower the mortgage rate to 3.5%.
Lowering the down payment increases the leverage from 4-to-1 to 33-to-1, a massive leap.
Increasing leverage increases risk. Over 90% of all mortgages are guaranteed or backed by Federal agencies such as FHA. This “socialization” of the mortgage industry means that losses ultimately flow through to the taxpayers, who are subsidizing the housing industry via these agencies.
Lowering the mortgage rate increases the leverage of income. It now takes much less income to qualify for greatly reduced monthly payments.
With mortgage rates barely above the prime rate and Treasury bond yields negative in terms of inflation, there is simply no room left for lower rates or down payments. The “increase home sales by expanding the pool of buyers” game plan has been run to the absolute limit.
The pool of buyers cannot be expanded any further; that boost to sales is done.
The unintended consequence of enticing marginal buyers to buy homes is that defaults are rising: 1 out of 6 FHA-insured loans are delinquent. This is the “blowback” of qualifying everyone with an income above the poverty line as a homebuyer.
The mortgage industry has escaped any consequences of “robo-signing” mortgage fraud
If the rule of law existed in more than name, this is what should have happened:
- MERS, the mortgage industry’s placeholder of fictitious mortgage notes, would have been summarily shut down.
- All mortgages and derivatives based on mortgages would have been marked-to-market.
- All losses would be booked immediately, and any institution that was deemed insolvent would have been shuttered and its assets auctioned off in an orderly fashion.
- Regardless of the cost to owners of mortgages, every deed, lien, and note would be painstakingly reconstructed on every mortgage in the U.S., and the deed and note properly filed in each county as per U.S. law.
That none of this has happened is proof that the rule of law is “optional” for financial institutions in America.
The $25 billion mortgage fraud settlement turned a blind eye to the fraud, and now the banks are applying losses they have already booked to the $25 billion, mooting the supposed “benefit” of the settlement to consumers.
The Federal Reserve’s purchase of mortgages – over $1.1 trillion in 2009-10 and now another $40 billion a month – is essentially a money-laundering operation in which the Fed exchanges cash for dodgy mortgages.
Analyst Catherine Austin Fitts (QE3 – Pay Attention If You Are in the Real Estate Market) summarized what this means:
“The Fed is now where mortgages go to die.”
“Thousands of mortgages on homes that do not exist or on homes that have more than one ‘first’ mortgage are now going to the Fed to disappear. Thousands of multifamily and commercial mortgages will be bought up as well. With documents shredded, criminal liabilities extinguished and financial institutions made whole, funds can return without fear of seizure.
QE3 proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the extent of the fraud was as bad as I said it was. You can count up the bailouts and QE1, QE2, QE3 the numbers speak for themselves. The fraud was indeed in the many trillions of dollars.”
In other words, the financial sector has gotten away with murder, and the “overhang” of systemic fraud has been erased with Fed connivance.
Banks are restricting inventory
The banks are withholding distressed properties to restrict the inventory of homes for sale.
If supply overwhelms demand, prices decline. That would be a bad thing for banks sitting on millions of defaulted mortgages and distressed properties. Millions of impaired properties are being held off the market so supply is lower than demand.
The strategy has costs; thousands of defaulted homeowners have been living mortgage-free for years. But the gains have been impressive: with supply dwindling, beaten-down markets have seen gains of 20+% this year as strong investor demand has pushed prices higher.
Since the strategy has paid such handsome returns, why change it?
ZIRP has attracted investment
The Fed’s ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) has pushed investors into a “search for safe yield” that has led many to buy corporate bonds, dividend stocks and everyone’s favorite “safe” fixed asset, real estate.
In many markets, one-third or more of all sales have been to investors.
Some are buying distressed properties to “flip” in strong-demand markets, but many are buying the homes as rentals with the plan being to hold them for a few years as prices rise and then sell to reap appreciation.
Anecdotally, every investor class is getting into the act, from Mom and Pop to big players such as insurance companies and Wall Street funds. One of my contacts in the insurance industry told me that his firm was buying large multi-unit apartment complexes, as these rentals generated a yield of 6% to 7%, far above the 1.7% yield of ten-year Treasury bonds.
In a non-ZIRP world, Treasuries and other asset classes would offer similar yields but without the risks and costs of managing rentals. But in a ZIRP world of near-zero yields for low-risk financial assets, rental real estate is a compelling investment: decent yields, relatively low risk, and strong appreciation potential if housing has indeed bottomed.
“The bottom is in” – isn’t it?
Once potential buyers see prices rise and they conclude that “the bottom is in,” they jump in and buy, pushing prices higher in a positive feedback loop. The higher prices rise, the more evidence there is that the bottom is in, and the greater the incentives to jump in before prices once again rise out of reach.
Favorable rent/buy ratio
With mortgage rates well below 4%, the rent-buy ratio is favorable in many areas. It may indeed be cheaper to buy than to rent in some locales.
“Hot money” flowing into real-estate
As economies in Europe and Asia falter, “hot money” is flowing into perceived “safe havens” such as the U.S. and Canada. Some of this “hot money” ($225-$300 billion a year is leaving China alone) is flowing into real estate, a well-known phenomenon in markets such as Vancouver, B.C., Miami, and Los Angeles.
What can we conclude from this overview of fundamentals?
- The mortgage industry escaped any real consequence from its systemic fraud
- The Status Quo plan to reflate the housing market with super-low mortgage rates and down payments has worked to some degree
- The financial sector’s plan to boost home prices by limiting supply has also worked
- ZIRP has created a “crowded trade” in low-risk investments with attractive yields such as corporate bonds, dividend stocks, and real estate, which is being fueled by a self-reinforcing perception that “the bottom is in”
The question now is will these forces continue pushing prices higher? If so, the bottom may well be in. If these forces deteriorate or lose their effectiveness, then the “green shoots” of investor interest may wither as the U.S. economy joins Europe and Japan by re-entering recession.
Charles Hugh Smith – Of Two Minds
Pursuing opportunities of the past only speeds the dissolution of any Status Quo that depends on spent models of growth.
If we had to summarize the global effort to reflate various debt and asset bubbles to “restart growth,” we might say the Status Quo is pursuing opportunities of the past.
Let’s start with investing in real estate. Retail space is in massive oversupply. Others have done an excellent job describing the overcapacity, high vacancy rates and cannibalizing of sales at existing stores by adding stores: Are you seeing what I’m seeing?
Suffice it to say that an era of deleveraging, declining household income and aging populace is not a good foundation for retail expansion.
The wave of creative destruction unleashed by the Internet has yet to envelop commercial office space–but it’s already reached the front steps. Just as online retail has decimated retail sectors such as bookstores, the Web is busy revolutionizing white-collar work, the mainstay of office towers and business parks.
Real work can now be done offsite/remotely at a home office, café, or anywhere but a cubicle at headquarters, and the cost advantages of this flexibility will not be going away. Yes, there are still powerful reasons to meet in person, but there are equally powerful reasons to permanently downsize travel and office costs.
Structural changes in the economy are increasing self-employment and contract labor and shrinking the scale of new enterprises. Millions of well-educated American workers already work at home, and since the average U.S. house has grown in size over the past 50 years, free-lancers and self-employed professionals have plenty of space rent-free.
High-growth companies which once hired thousands of employees and rented entire buildings are increasingly offer highly automated products and services. New-tech juggernaut Twitter recently leased more space in San Francisco as it was expanding its staff by–gasp!–200 employees. Will Twitter be filling that empty office tower near you? No, because its “service” is largely automated software. It now requires less than 1,000 employees to operate a global tech juggernaut.
Many global companies no longer need a headquarters; their senior staff work just like junior employees, from home, hotel room, cafe, etc. Airbnb, Coursera and Uber: The rise of the disruption economy.
The “recovery” in housing is limited for structural reasons. Household formation is in a multi-decade downtrend, household income is also in a structural decline since 2000 and trillions of dollars in subsidies and giveaways have barely budged the needle of housing sales, starts, etc.
Buy and hold stocks: adjusted for inflation, returns on the “buy and hold stocks forever” strategy since 2000 registered a 14% loss, as we see in this chart, courtesy of master chartist Doug Short:
The “buy and hold bonds” strategy is also running out of air. Now that interest rates are zero or negative when adjusted for inflation, there are limits on how much bond yields can decline. This game may run for for awhile but the returns from here until the day rates rise in a “credit event” are modest. Not only have the low-hanging fruits been picked in the 31-year bond bull market, those buying now are stripping the last fruit from the top of the tree.
What happens to those who buy into opportunities of the past? As a guide, we can see what happened to household net worth since the 2007-8 global financial meltdown ended the financialization era: American Households Hit 43-Year Low In Net Worth.
Pursuing opportunities of the past only speeds the dissolution of any Status Quo that depends on spent models of growth.
Charles Hugh Smith – Of Two Minds
In an admittedly strange twist of timing JP Morgan, the same JP Morgan that just announced a surprise $2 billion loss caused by the “London Whale,” became the first and only of 26 banks disclosing subprime investor data to flip me the digital bird, refusing access to the public loan-level performance data for their Washington Mutual loans. WaMu, one of the most reckless subprime lenders, was swallowed whole by JPM and they’re having serious indigestion.
Nelson D. Schwartz and Jessica Silver-Greenberg of the New York Times verify that the purpose of the Chief Investment Office — the London Whale — is to offset risk caused by the Washington Mutual loans:
Under Mr. Dimon’s leadership, the chief investment office — which was responsible for the outsize credit bet — was retooled to make larger bets with the bank’s money, a former employee said. Bank executives said the chief investment office expanded after JPMorgan Chase’s 2008 acquisition of Washington Mutual, which added riskier securities to the company’s portfolio. The idea behind the strategy was to offset that risk.
It isn’t hard to figure out why JP Morgan doesn’t want anybody looking into and through their garbage. I have not been able to ascertain whether these reports are required under disclosure requirement Regulation AB (the law itself seems to say yes, but the experts I spoke to gave divergent readings). Whether they are or aren’t, JPM’s refusal — when everybody else cooperated speaks for itself.
As those loans sour, and they continue to rot like a dead skunk on a hot July day, the bets needed to offset the losses are increasing. It looks like the bank, peering into that portfolio they refuse to share, is becoming more than a little bit desperate. Like a compulsive gambler after a multi-day bender resulting in crippling losses they decided to double down rather than walk away, leading to their current whale of a surprise and likely a mirror-image follow-up for the WaMu losses this was supposed to offset.
For anybody who believes that JPM’s position is normal .. it isn’t. Twenty-six other banks quickly popped open the doors to their repositories, as they’re required to do. Perennial bad-boy Aurora Loan Services is the only other one that’s ignored my requests, though since it looks like they’ve sold their servicing operations the jury’s out whether their silence is purposeful or whether there’s nobody home on the other side of those requests.
Like I said, I’m not sure whether these disclosures are exempt. There are certainly many marked private, but they seem to be overwhelmingly CDOs and similar more exotic or clearly closely held instruments. I’ve never seen an entire series of MBS from an issuer that is exempt: even a few stray WaMu deals that ended up in other repositories are open to the public.
JP Morgan’s insistence that “[t]he site is maintained for JPMorgan Chase RMBS clients,” only, demanding that I include my JP Morgan Chase contact, may be legal but it is unprecedented. In context of their recent trading losses, the knowledge that those losses were to hedge against the WaMu losses, Dimon’s prior comments downplaying both losses, and strong analysis that the WaMu loans are some of the most impaired MBS it’s fair to conclude that JPM is hiding something in the basin of their loan outhouse.
I’ve spent the past couple months holed away downloading MBS data in bulk to enable investors, analysts, academics, government agencies, or whoever else wants to inspect performance information and project losses for every subprime loan trust. When finished, this week hopefully, I’ll have a veritable ABS MRI machine that can peer into the true health of the housing and housing finance market. It’s harder than it sounds: one of those projects where software engineers emerge from their digital caves after months, bleary eyed and long past due for a haircut but holding game-changing technology.
My database, which includes everything except WaMu loans thanks to Jamie, is finally almost finished. But even in preliminary form it is clear that the AAA-rated senior tranches — the ones that really were never supposed to take losses — are toast that’s burning worse by the day. Servicers, trustees, government officials have been doing anything to delay the inevitable losses but when people don’t pay their mortgages, and housing has declined by over 50% in many of their markets, there’s only so much accounting chicanery they can do: the money just isn’t there.
My suspicious are more grounded than tin-hat delusions we’ve been hearing from the housing is hot again crowd. R&R Consulting, a well-regarded structured valuation expert I work closely with conducted a portfolio-wide analysis of undisclosed (“limbo”) losses on RMBS. In a special in-depth report dated February 2012, long before JPM told me piss-off when asking for access to the more granular WaMu loan-level data, they reported that WAMU had the highest limbo loss level–about $810 million—in just one transaction. Repeat: experienced analysts dug this out even without loan level data. It sounds likely that it won’t be long until Dimon reports another ten-figure surprise that I’m sure he’ll apologetically pawn off on the US taxpayer.
For anybody asking “um — isn’t this over — didn’t all this fall apart back in 2008?” the answer is not really. That mega-meltdown was really a mini tremor caused by the lower and smaller tiers of these securities; last time junior visited to stir things up but this time papa’s walking down the street carrying a mean look and a big stick. That’s because the mezzanine level tranches of most bubble-era MBA are either gone or guaranteed to be gone — finally eaten up by current or pending losses — leaving the lower AAA tranches to take their place as the bearer of losses. This was never supposed to happen. Everybody knew that CDOs created from the lower tranches were risky, even if the ratings agencies said otherwise, but nobody thought the meltdown would last this long that the actual top tranches would be nicked. But the data couldn’t be clearer: those bottom level A-class tranches of yesterday are the new bottom level M-class tranches of yesterday.
All this is surprising because these same MBS tranches have been on fire lately. Hedge funds bought them for very little when nobody wanted them — setting their own price — and now they’re selling them back at steep gains because housing is peachy again, never mind the enormous amount of shadow inventory. Hopefully the buyers of these same securities aren’t being set up, again, because nobody would be stupid enough to fall for that same trick, again. Hopefully.
It is these lower tranches and other derivative products, which are by definition exponentially smaller than the more senior securities like the ones JPM is hiding (well, before the banks multiplied them several times over using credit default swaps) that blew up the world economy in 2008.
I’m guessing that it is the inevitable meltdown of what remains of the AAAs (the amount outstanding has been reduced considerably by refis) that has been at the impetus for the housing cheerleaders. By refusing to move their foreclosures forward, then refusing to take title, then refusing to REO those homes, the trusts don’t have to recognize the losses because, ya’ know, the abandoned and dilapidated properties will magically double in value as long as we hold our breath and wish.
My mountain of data that shows loss severity in excess of 100-percent is not uncommon. When we look at the loans, compare similar loans from those who report them more honestly, multiply the average severity by pending reported and, um, overlooked foreclosures, then it becomes clear that the lowest rated AAA’s are toast. This reaffirms the report by R&R Consulting report that $175 billion of loan level losses had not been allocated to the trusts. Whoops!
Jamie Dimon admitted his $2 billion loss “plays right into the hands of a bunch of pundits out there” on his conference call explaining his stinky. Dimon went on to call the losses “egregious” and “self-inflicted.” In light of the London Whale it is clear that when it comes to sky-high risk, like JPM’s WaMu exposure, the bank has adopted an advanced risk management strategy: telling researchers to piss off then hiding.
By Michael Olenick for Naked Capitalism, creator of FindtheFraud, a crowd sourced foreclosure document review system (still in alpha). You can follow him on Twitter at @michael_olenick or read his blog, Seeing Through Data
Central Planning has crippled the real estate market to “save” their core constituency, the banks.
If you were head of Central Planning (howdy, Ben!) and were tasked with crippling the real estate market, here’s what you would recommend.
1. Choke the market and banking sector with zombie banks. Central Planning creates zombie banks in one easy step: it allows insolvent banks to mark their impaired “real estate owned” to fantasy rather than to market. This enables the banks to survive in a deathless state, propped up by free money from the Federal Reserve and lax regulations that enable fantasy accounting and all sorts of off-balance sheet trickery.
Zombie banks have no incentive to auction off their holdings of real estate with defaulted, underwater or otherwise impaired mortgages, for having the market discover the price of these properties would immediately reveal the insolvency of the bank as properties it held on its books at (say) $400,000 were actually only worth $200,000. Since the mortgage is (say) $350,000, then the bank would be forced to recognize a $150,000 loss (actually more with transaction fees, repair of the derelict property, etc.).
If the bank’s entire portfolio of phantom-value properties was auctioned off or its price discovered by the market, the bank would be declared insolvent and closed.
So instead the zombie banks’ impaired properties clog the market, unlisted, unsold, indefinitely held off the market until unicorns arrive and valuations return to bubblicious 2006 levels where the bank can unload them with no loss.
Since those valuations haven’t arrived, millions of properties are being held off the market. This “shadow inventory” is well-known (tens of thousands of people are living rent and mortgage-free in homes that the banks have yet to even put in the foreclosure pipeline), so no one has any confidence that “the bottom is in.” Confidence cannot be restored until the market clears the inventory and a real bottom is established.
This destruction of confidence undermines the entire market. Zombie banks create zombie valuations. Who can say valuations won’t decline once the shadow inventory finally hits the market?
Keeping zombie banks alive via bogus valuations and shadow inventory of derelict and defaulted homes has another consequence: banks themselves cannot be confident that prices won’t decline further, so it makes no sense for them to put capital at risk by issuing mortgages on real estate.
2. Have the central bank (the Federal Reserve) buy up $1 trillion in toxic, impaired mortgages. If these mortgages were such a great deal, then why didn’t private buyers snap them up? Exactly: they were fetid garbage no private buyer would touch except at steep discounts that would have sent the banks into insolvency. (That isn’t allowed in crony-capitalist State-run economies.)
The market was thus denied the opportunity to discover the price of all this mortgage debt, and this effectively destroyed the private market for mortgages. Literally 99% of all mortgages in the U.S. are guaranteed by the Central State. Suppressing market price discovery works just as well in the mortgage market as it does in the housing market.
3. Lower the rate that banks can borrow from the Fed to zero, and then pay the banks interest on all funds deposited at the Fed. I wish we had this option, don’t you? We could borrow $1 billion from the Fed at zero interest, then deposit the $1 billion with the Fed and skim risk-free interest.
But the real-estate effect of ZIRP (zero-interest rate policy) is to lower the mortgage rate to such a low level that it makes no sense to take on the risks and unknowns of real estate valuations for such a paltry return. After all, what if the bank loans $300,000 on a $400,000 home, the value subsequently drops to $300,000 and the buyer defaults? The bank will lose capital it can’t afford to lose dumping the property at auction.
Better to avoid the mortgage market altogether by refusing most applicants as risks–and given the high debt levels of most households, they may indeed be poor risks.
4. Try to prop up the housing market by giving poor credit risk buyers loans with only 3% down. This generates a new pool of ready buyers, but since the government is guaranteeing the loan, qualifying is easy and the buyers only have a few thousand dollars of skin in the game. This means defaulting is not very painful, especially if it takes the lender a few years to foreclose on the property.
The net effect of subsidizing poor credit risks to buy houses is that another pool of uncertainty is created, as these buyers are defaulting in droves, dumping inventory that had just been cleared back on the market. (The default rates of FHA loans is skyrocketing, and now the taxpayers will have to bail out the FHA.)
This is what happens when you try to prop up the market with unqualified buyers and 3% down mortgages–those buyers bail out in huge numbers and the homes return to the inventory. The clearing of inventory was as phantom as the real estate valuations on the banks’ balance sheet.
5. Load young people up with the equivalent of a mortgage in student loans. That insures that the majority of potential new homebuyers won’t be qualified to buy a house–they’re already indentured to the banks for student loans. Those fortunate few who get good-paying jobs will qualify for a mortgage when they’re getting grey hair; most will never qualify, having been buried by impossible-to-default student loans.
OK,let’s see how our Organs of Central Planning are doing: check, check, check, check, check: a perfect score! they’re doing everything possible to cripple the real estate market.
Do they care? Of course not; the only goal is to keep the zombie banks alive, regardless of the cost to the nation. Great work, Ben, Barack, Timmy and the rest of the gang at Central Planning: thanks to your policies, the real estate market will never clear and therefore it can never be restored to health.
Charles Hugh Smith – Of Two Minds
The real world revolves around cash flow. Families across the land understand this basic concept. Cash flows in from wages, investments and these days from the government. Cash flows out for food, gasoline, utilities, cable, cell phones, real estate taxes, income taxes, payroll taxes, clothing, mortgage payments, car payments, insurance payments, medical bills, auto repairs, home repairs, appliances, electronic gadgets, education, alcohol (necessary in this economy) and a countless other everyday expenses. If the outflow exceeds the inflow a family may be able to fund the deficit with credit cards for awhile, but ultimately running a cash flow deficit will result in debt default and loss of your home and assets. Ask the millions of Americans that have experienced this exact outcome since 2008 if you believe this is only a theoretical exercise. The Federal government, Federal Reserve, Wall Street banks, regulatory agencies and commercial real estate debtors have colluded since 2008 to pretend cash flow doesn’t matter. Their plan has been to “extend and pretend”, praying for an economic recovery that would save them from their greedy and foolish risk taking during the 2003 – 2007 Caligula-like debauchery.
I wrote an article called Extend and Pretend is Wall Street’s Friend about one year ago where I detailed what I saw as the moneyed interest’s master plan to pretend that hundreds of billions in debt would be repaid, despite the fact that declining developer cash flow and plunging real estate prices would make that impossible. Here are a couple pertinent snippets from that article:
“A systematic plan to create the illusion of stability and provide no-risk profits to the mega-Wall Street banks was implemented in early 2009 and continues today. The plan was developed by Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulson, Tim Geithner and the CEOs of the criminal Wall Street banking syndicate. The plan has been enabled by the FASB, SEC, IRS, FDIC and corrupt politicians in Washington D.C. This master plan has funneled hundreds of billions from taxpayers to the banks that created the greatest financial collapse in world history.
Part two of the master cover-up plan has been the extending of commercial real estate loans and pretending that they will eventually be repaid. In late 2009 it was clear to the Federal Reserve and the Treasury that the $1.2 trillion in commercial loans maturing between 2010 and 2013 would cause thousands of bank failures if the existing regulations were enforced. The Treasury stepped to the plate first. New rules at the IRS weren’t directly related to banking, but allowed commercial loans that were part of investment pools known as Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits, or REMICs, to be refinanced without triggering tax penalties for investors.
The Federal Reserve, which is tasked with making sure banks loans are properly valued, instructed banks throughout the country to “extend and pretend” or “amend and pretend,” in which the bank gives a borrower more time to repay a loan. Banks were “encouraged” to modify loans to help cash strapped borrowers. The hope was that by amending the terms to enable the borrower to avoid a refinancing that would have been impossible, the lender would ultimately be able to collect the balance due on the loan. Ben and his boys also pushed banks to do “troubled debt restructurings.” Such restructurings involved modifying an existing loan by changing the terms or breaking the loan into pieces. Bank, thrift and credit-union regulators very quietly gave lenders flexibility in how they classified distressed commercial mortgages. Banks were able to slice distressed loans into performing and non-performing loans, and institutions were able to magically reduce the total reserves set aside for non-performing loans.
If a mall developer has 40% of their mall vacant and the cash flow from the mall is insufficient to service the loan, the bank would normally need to set aside reserves for the entire loan. Under the new guidelines they could carve the loan into two pieces, with 60% that is covered by cash flow as a good loan and the 40% without sufficient cash flow would be classified as non-performing. The truth is that billions in commercial loans are in distress right now because tenants are dropping like flies. Rather than writing down the loans, banks are extending the terms of the debt with more interest reserves included so they can continue to classify the loans as “performing.” The reality is that the values of the property behind these loans have fallen 43%. Banks are extending loans that they would never make now, because borrowers are already grossly upside-down.”
Master Plan Malfunction
You have to admire the resourcefulness of the vested interests in disguising disaster and pretending that time will alleviate the consequences of their insatiable greed, blatant criminality and foolish risk taking. Extending bad loans and pretending they will be repaid does not create the cash flow necessary to actually pay the interest and principal on the debt. The chart below reveals the truth of what happened between 2005 and 2008 in the commercial real estate market. There was an epic feeding frenzy of overbuilding shopping centers, malls, office space, industrial space and apartments. During the sane 1980’s and 1990’s, commercial real estate loan issuance stayed consistently in the $500 billion to $700 billion range. The internet boom led to a surge to $1.1 trillion in 2000, with the resultant pullback to $900 billion by 2004. But thanks to easy Al and helicopter Ben, the bubble was re-inflated with easy money and zero regulatory oversight. Commercial real estate loan issuance skyrocketed to $1.6 trillion per year by 2008. Bankers sure have a knack for doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing at the exact wrong time. They doled out a couple trillion of loans to delusional developers at peak prices just prior to a historic financial cataclysm.
The difference between bad retail mortgage loans and bad commercial loans is about 25 years. Commercial real estate loans usually have five to seven year maturities. This meant that an avalanche of loans began maturing in 2010 and will not peak until 2013. With $1.2 trillion of loans coming due between 2010 and 2013, disaster for the Wall Street Too Big To Fail banks awaited if the properties were valued honestly. A perfect storm of declining property values and plunging cash flows for developers should have resulted in enormous losses for Wall Street banks and their shareholders, resulting in executives losing not only their obscene bonuses but even their jobs. Imagine the horror for the .01%.
The fact is that commercial property prices are currently 42% below the 2007 – 2008 peak. The slight increase in the national index is solely due to strong demand for apartments, as millions of Americans have been kicked out of their homes by Wall Street bankers using fraudulent loan documentation to foreclose on them. The national index has recently resumed its fall. Industrial and retail properties are leading the descent in prices according to Moodys. The master plan of extend and pretend was implemented in 2009 and three years later commercial real estate prices are 10% lower, after the official end of the recession.
Part one of the “extend and pretend” plan has failed. Part two anticipated escalating developer cash flows as the economy recuperated, Americans resumed spending like drunken sailors and retailers began to rake in profits at record levels again. Reality has interfered with their desperate last ditch gamble. Office vacancies remain at 17.3%, close to 20 year highs, as 12.3 million square feet of new space came to market in 2011. Vacancies are higher today than they were at the end of the recession in December 2009. The recovery in cash flow has failed to materialize for commercial developers. Strip mall vacancies at 11% remain stuck at 20 year highs. Regional mall vacancies at 9.2% linger near all-time highs. Vacancies remain elevated, with no sign of decreasing. Despite these figures, an additional 4.9 million square feet of new retail space was opened in 2011. The folly of this continued expansion will be revealed as bricks and mortar retailers are forced to close thousands of stores in the next five years.
It is clear the plan put into place three years ago has failed. Extending and pretending doesn’t service the debt. Only cash flow can service debt.
Extending and pretending that hundreds of millions in commercial loans were payable for the last three years is now colliding with a myriad of other factors to create a perfect storm in 2012 and 2013. The extension of maturities has now set up a far more catastrophic scenario as described by Chris Macke, senior real estate strategist at CoStar Group:
“As banks and property owners continue to partake in loan extensions amid a softening economy, commercial banks continue to “delay and pray” that property values will rise. Many loans are piled up and concentrated in this year, and at the same time, the economy is slowing. This dilemma has resulted in the widening of what is commonly termed the “loan maturity cliff,” which is attributed to the so called extend-and-pretend loans. During the market downturn, lenders extended the maturity dates of loans with properties that had current values below their balances. Instead, however the practice has resulted in a race for property values to try to catch up with the loan maturity dates.”
The Federal Reserve, Wall Street banks, Mortgage Bankers Association and the rest of the confederates of collusion will continue the Big Lie for as long as possible. They point to declining commercial default rates as proof of improvement. The chart below details the 4th quarter default rates for real estate loans over the last six years. Default rates in the 4th quarter of 2009 peaked for all real estate loan types. Still, today’s default rate is 450% higher than the rate in 2006. A critical thinker might ask how commercial default rates could fall from 8.75% to 6.12% when commercial vacancies have increased and commercial property values have fallen. It’s amazing how low default rates can fall when a bank doesn’t require payments or collateral to back up the loan and can utilize accounting gimmicks to avoid write-offs.
Real estate loans
Booked in domestic offices
The reality as detailed by honest analysts is much different than the numbers presented by Ben Bernanke and his banker cronies. A recent article from the Urban Land Institute provides some insight into the current state of the market:
Ann Hambly, who previously ran the commercial servicing departments at Prudential, Bank of New York, Nomura, and Bank of America said a wave of defaults is coming in commercial mortgage–backed securities (CMBS). And Carl Steck, a principal in MountainSeed Appraisal Management, an Atlanta-based firm that deals in the commercial real estate space, said property values are still falling.
Noting that CMBS investors booked $6 billion in real losses in 2011 and have already taken on $2 billion more in losses so far this year, Hambly told reporters in a private briefing that “it’s going to take a miracle” for many borrowers to refinance their deals when they come due between now and 2017.
Carl Steck said that lenders who are taking over the portfolios of failed institutions are finding that the values of the loans “are coming in a lot lower than they ever thought they would.” And as a result, he thinks a “fire sale” of commercial loans is just over the horizon.
Analysts expect 2012 to be a record-setting year for commercial real estate defaults. Last week delinquencies for office and retail loans hit their highest-ever levels, according to Fitch Ratings. The value of all delinquent commercial loans is now $57.7 billion, according to Trepp, LLC. If you think the criminal Wall Street banks limited their robo-signing fraud to just poor homeowners, you would be mistaken. The fraud uncovered in the commercial lending orbit will dwarf the residential swindle. Research by Harbinger Analytics Group shows the widespread use of inaccurate, fraudulent documents for land title underwriting of commercial real estate financing. According to the report:
This fraud is accomplished through inaccurate and incomplete filings of statutorily required records (commercial land title surveys detailing physical boundaries, encumbrances, encroachments, etc.) on commercial properties in California, many other western states and possibly throughout most of the United States. In the cases studied by Harbinger, the problems are because banks accepted the work of land surveyors who “have committed actual and/or constructive fraud by knowingly failing to conduct accurate boundary surveys and/or failing to file the statutorily required documentation in public records.”
The Wall Street geniuses bundled commercial real estate mortgages and re-sold them as securities around the world. The suckers holding those securities, already staggering from the overabundance of empty office space, will be devastated if it turns out they have no claim to the properties. They will rightly sue the lenders for falsely representing the properties. Mortgage holders in these cases may also turn to their title insurance to cover any losses. It is unknown if the title insurance companies have the wherewithal to withstand enormous claims on costly commercial properties. It looks like that light at the end of the tunnel is bullet train headed our way.
One of the fingers in the dyke of the “extend and pretend” dam has been removed by the FASB. The new leak threatens to turn into a gusher.
Andy Miller, cofounder of Miller Frishman Group, and one of the few analysts who saw the real estate crash coming two years before it surprised Bernanke and the CNBC cheerleaders sees a flood of defaults on the horizon. In a recent interview with The Casey Report Miller details a dramatic turn for the worse in the commercial real estate market he has witnessed in the last few months. His company deals with distressed commercial real estate. This segment of his business was booming in 2009 and into the middle of 2010. Then magically, there was no more distress as the “extend and pretend” plan was implemented by the governing powers. The distressed market dried up completely until November 2011. Miller describes what happened next:
“All of a sudden, right after Thanksgiving in 2011, the floodgates opened again. In the last six weeks we probably picked up seven or eight receiverships – and we’re now seeing some really big-ticket properties with major loans on them that have gone into distress, and they’re all sharing some characteristics in common. In 2008 and 2009, these borrowers were put on a workout or had a forbearance agreement put into place with their lenders. In 2009, their lenders were thinking, “Let’s do a two- or three-year workout with these guys. I’m sure by 2012 this market is going to get a lot better.” Well, 2012 is here now, and guess what? It’s not any better. In fact I would argue that it’s still deteriorating.”
Why the sudden surge in distressed properties coming to market in late 2011? It seems the FASB finally decided to grow a pair of balls after being neutered by Bernanke and Geithner in 2009 regarding mark to market accounting. They issued an Accounting Standards Update (ASU) that went into effect for all periods after June 15, 2011called Clarifications to Accounting for Troubled Debt Restructurings by Creditors. Essentially, if a lender is involved in a troubled debt restructuring with a debtor, including a forbearance agreement or a workout, the property MUST be marked to market. Andy Miller understands this is the beginning of the end for “extend and pretend”:
“I believe it’s a huge deal because it means you don’t have carte blanche anymore to kick the can down the road. After all, kicking the can down the road was a way to avoid taking a big hit to your capital. Well, you can’t do that anymore. It forces you to cut through the optical illusions by writing this asset to its fair market value.”
Ben Bernanke and the Wall Street banks are running out tricks in their bag of deception. Wall Street banks created billions in profits by using accounting entries to reduce their loan loss reserves. They’ve delayed mortgage foreclosures for two years to avoid taking the losses on their loan portfolios. They’ve pretended their commercial loan portfolios aren’t worth 50% less than their current carrying value. Bernanke has stuffed his Federal Reserve balance sheet with billions in worthless commercial mortgage backed securities. The Illusion of Recovery is being revealed as nothing more than a two bit magician’s trick. In the end it always comes back to cash flow. The debt cannot be serviced and must be written off. Thinking the American consumer will ride to the rescue is a delusional flight of the imagination.
Apocalypse Now – The Future of Retailers & Mall Owners
When I moved to my suburban community in 1995 there were two thriving shopping centers within three miles of my home and a dozen within a ten mile radius. Seventeen years later the population has increased dramatically in this area, and these two shopping centers are in their final death throes. The shopping center closest to my house has a vacant Genuardi grocery store(local chain bought out and destroyed by Safeway), vacant Blockbuster, vacant Sears Hardware, vacant Donatos restaurant, vacant book store, and soon to be vacant Pizza Pub. It’s now anchored by a near bankrupt Rite Aid and a Dollar store. This ghost-like strip mall is in the midst of a fairly thriving community. Anyone with their eyes open as they drive around today would think Space Available is the hot new retailer. According to the ICSC there are 105,000 shopping centers in the U.S., occupying 7.3 billion square feet of space. Total retail square feet in the U.S. tops 14.2 billion, or 46 square feet for every man, woman and child in the country. There are more than 1.1 million retail establishments competing for every discretionary dollar from consumers.
Any retailer, banker, politician, or consumer who thinks we will be heading back to the retail glory days of 2007 is delusional. Retail sales reached a peak of $375 billion per month in mid 2008. Today, retail sales have reached a new “nominal” peak of $400 billion per month. Even using the highly questionable BLS inflation figures, real retail sales are still below the 2008 peak. Using the inflation rate provided by John Williams at Shadowstats, as measured the way it was in 1980, real retail sales are 15% below the 2008 peak. The unvarnished truth is revealed in the declining profitability of major retailers and the bankruptcies and store closings plaguing the industry. National retail statistics and recent retailer earnings reports paint a bleak picture, and it’s about to get bleaker.
Retail sales in 1992 totaled $2.0 trillion. By 2011 they had grown to $4.7 trillion, a 135% increase in nineteen years. A full 64% of this rise is solely due to inflation, as measured by the BLS. In reality, using the true inflation figures, the entire increase can be attributed to inflation. Over this time span the U.S. population has grown from 255 million to 313 million, a 23% increase. Median household income has grown by a mere 8% over this same time frame. The increase in retail sales was completely reliant upon the American consumers willing to become a debt slaves to the Wall Street bank slave masters. It is obvious we have learned to love our slavery. Credit card debt grew from $265 billion in 1992 to a peak of $972 billion in September of 2008, when the financial system collapsed. The 267% increase in debt allowed Americans to live far above their means and enriched the Wall Street banking cabal. The decline to the current level of $800 billion was exclusively due to write-offs by the banks, fully funded by the American taxpayer.
Credit cards are currently being used far less as a way to live beyond your means, and more to survive another day. This can be seen in the details underlying the monthly retail sales figures. On a real basis, with inflation on the things we need to live like energy, food and clothing rising at a 10% clip, retail sales are declining. Gasoline, food and medicine are the drivers of retail today. The surge in automobile sales is just another part of the “extend and pretend” plan, as Bernanke provides free money to banks and finance companies so they can make seven year 0% interest loans to subprime borrowers. Easy credit extended to deadbeats will not create the cash flow needed to repay the debt. The continued penetration of on-line retailers does not bode well for the dying bricks and mortar zombie retailers like Sears, JC Penny, Macys and hundreds of other dead retailers walking. With gas prices soaring, the economy headed back into recession and the Federal Reserve out of ammunition, Andy Miller sums up the situation nicely:
“Well, I think we’re headed into an economy right now where there’s just not a lot of upside. Do we think, for example, in the shopping center business, that retail and consumer spending is going to go way up? Certainly not. I think that as times get tougher and unemployment remains high, it’s going to have a negative impact on consumer spending. In almost in any city in America right now, it doesn’t take a genius to see how much retail space has been constructed and is sitting there empty. Vacancy rates are as high as I’ve seen them in almost every venue that I visit. I’m very concerned about the retail business, and I think it’s extremely dangerous right now.”
The major big box retailers have been reporting their annual results in the last week. The results have been weak and even those whose results are being spun as positive by the mainstream media are performing dreadfully compared to 2007. A few examples are in order:
- Home Depot was praised for their fantastic 2011 result of $70 billion in sales and $6.7 billion of income. The MSM failed to mention that sales are $7 billion lower than 2007, despite having 18 more stores and profit exceeded $7.2 billion in 2007. Sales per square foot have declined from $335 to $296, a 12% decline in four years.
- Target made $2.9 billion on revenue of $67 billion in 2011. $953 million of this profit was generated from their credit card this year versus $744 million last year because they reduced their loan loss reserve by $260 million. Target is supposedly a retailer, but 33% of their bottom line comes from a credit card they desperately tried to sell in 2009. They have increased their store count from 1,600 to 1,800 since 2007 and their profit is flat. Sales per square foot have declined from $307 to $280 since 2007.
- J.C. Penney is a bug in search of a windshield. Their sales have declined from $20 billion in 2007 to $17 billion in 2011 despite increasing their store count from 1,067 to 1,114. Their profits have plunged from $1.1 billion to a loss of $152 million. Their sales per square foot have plunged by 14% since 2007. Turning to a former Apple marketing guru as their new CEO will fail. Everyday low pricing is not going to work on Americans trained like monkeys to salivate at the word SALE.
- The death spiral of Sears/Kmart is a sight to see. As the anchor in hundreds of dying malls across the land, this retail artifact will be joining Montgomery Ward on the scrap heap of retail history in the next few years. Its eventual bankruptcy and liquidation will leave over 4,000 rotting carcasses to spoil our landscape. The one-time genius and heir to the Warren Buffett mantle – Eddie Lampert – has proven to be as talented at retailing as his buddy Jim Cramer is at picking stocks. He has managed to decrease sales by $10 billion, from $53 billion to $43 billion in the space of four years despite opening 247 new stores. That is not an easy feat to accomplish. At least he was able to reduce profits from $1.5 billion to $133 million and drive the sales per square foot in his stores down by 15%.
- Widely admired Best Buy has screwed the pooch along with the other foolish retailers that have massively over expanded in the last decade. They have increased their domestic sales from $31 billion to $37 billion, a 19% increase in four years. This increase only required a 444 store expansion, from 873 stores to 1,317 stores. A 51% increase in store count for a 19% increase in sales seems to be a bad trade-off. Their chief competitor – Circuit City – went belly-up during this time frame, making the relative sales increase even more pathetic. The $6 billion increase in sales resulted in a $100 million decline in profits and a 13% decrease in sales per square foot since 2007. It might behoove the geniuses running this company to stop building new stores.
- The retailer that committed the greatest act of suicide in the last decade is Lowes. Their act of hubris, as Home Depot struggled in the mid 2000’s, is coming home to roost today. They increased their store count from 1,385 to 1,749 over four years. This 26% increase in store count resulted in an increase in sales from $47 billion to $49 billion, a 4% boost. Profitability has plunged from over $3 billion to under $2 billion over this same time frame. They’ve won the efficiency competition by seeing their sales per square feet fall by an astounding 21% over the last four years. I’ve witnessed their ineptitude as they opened four stores within 10 miles of each other in Montgomery County, PA and cannibalized themselves to death. The newest store, three miles from my house, is a pleasure to shop as there is generally more staff than customers even on a Saturday afternoon. This beautiful new store will be vacant rotting hulk within three years.
Do the results of these retail giants jive with the retail recovery stories being spun by the corporate mainstream media? When you see some stock shill on CNBC touting one of these retailers, realize he is blowing smoke up your ass. These six struggling retailers account for over 1.1 billion square feet of retail space in the U.S. One or more of them anchor every mall in America. Wal-Mart (600 million square feet in the U.S.) and Kohl’s (82 million square feet) continue to struggle as their lower middle class customers can barely make ends meet. The perfect storm is developing and very few people see it coming. Extend and pretend has failed. Americans are tapped out. Home prices continue to fall. Energy and food prices continue to rise. Wages are stagnant. Job growth is weak. Middle and lower class Americans are using credit cards just to pay their basic living expenses. The 99% are not about to go on a spending binge.
As consumers reduce consumption, retailers lose profits and will be forced to close stores. It is likely that at least 150,000 retail stores will need to close in the next five years. Less stores means less rent for mall developers. Less rent means the inability to service their debt as the value of their property declines with the outcome of Ghost Malls haunting your community. Maybe good old American ingenuity will come to the rescue as we convert ghost malls into FEMA prison camps for uncharged Ron Paul supporters, Obamacare death panel implementation centers, TSA groping educational facilities, housing for the millions kicked out of their homes by the Wall Street .01%ers, and bomb shelters for the imminent Iranian invasion.
Debt default means huge losses for the Wall Street criminal banks. Of course the banksters will just demand another taxpayer bailout from the puppet politicians. This repeat scenario gives new meaning to the term shop until you drop. Extending and pretending can work for awhile as accounting obfuscation, rolling over bad debts, and praying for a revival of the glory days can put off the day of reckoning for a couple years. Ultimately it comes down to cash flow, whether you’re a household, retailer, developer, bank or government. America is running on empty and extending and pretending is coming to an end.
Banks, accelerating efforts to move troubled mortgages off their books, are offering as much as $35,000 or more in cash to delinquent homeowners to sell their properties for less than they owe.
Lenders have routinely delayed or blocked such transactions, known as short sales, in which they accept less from a buyer than the seller’s outstanding loan. Now banks have decided the deals are faster and less costly than foreclosures, which have slowed in response to regulatory probes of abusive practices. Banks are nudging potential sellers by pre-approving deals, streamlining the closing process, forgoing their right to pursue unpaid debt and in some cases providing large cash incentives, said Bill Fricke, senior credit officer for Moody’s Investors Service in New York.
You mean like, for example, Nevada deciding to actually treat perjury as the felony that it is, and issue a 606 count indictment (along with materially beefing up laws that criminalize this practice.)
It seems to me that perhaps — just perhaps — banks are coming to the conclusion that recovering something on an improperly-documented loan beats recovering nothing, and the latter is becoming increasingly likely.
The better question however is what sort of title is something who buys such a short sale getting? Is the chain of title any good and did they actually get marketable title? If not, and they bought owner’s title insurance, is that insurance able to pay (and is the defect not excluded)?
For homeowners who are dramatically underwater and not paying, however, these sorts of “bribes” do make sense. Recovery value is going to be dramatically impaired if the person in the house is uncooperative and simply sits and waits for the sheriff to show up. It’s also often that person’s best move if their credit is already trashed, and if they haven’t paid in a year, it is.
One item I’ve noted in the local area is that banks are stringing along short-sale buyers for months, often allegedly telling them they’ll approve a deal in 60 or 90 days and then when there’s a week or two left they ask for more time — usually another month. Not only does that prevent the house from becoming part of the “cleaning” in the market it also holds the proposed buyer off the market — they are neither a homeowner or looking for another, conventional deal!
To the extent that we’re actually getting decisions and clearing of the market, even as a small incremental step, this is a positive development — even if the motive of the bank making the offer is questionable at best.