Trouble, oh we got trouble, Right here in River City!
With a capital “T” That rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool, That stands for pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City,
Right here! Gotta figger out a way
To keep the young ones moral after school!
Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…
– From The Music Man
(Quick last-minute note: I think this (and next week’s) is/will be one of the more important letters I have written in the last 10 years. Take the time to read, and if you agree send it on to friends and responsible parties. And note to new readers: this letter goes to 1.5 million of my closest friends. It is free. You can go to www.frontlinethoughts.com to subscribe. Now, let’s jump in!)
There’s trouble, my friends, and it is does indeed involve pool(s), but not in the pool hall. The real monster is hidden in those pools of subprime debt that have not gone away. When I first began writing and speaking about the coming subprime disaster, it was in late 2007 and early 2008. The subject was being dismissed in most polite circles. “The subprime problem,” testified Ben Bernanke, “will be contained.”
My early take? It would be a disaster for investors. I admit I did not see in January that it would bring down Lehman and trigger the worst banking crisis in 80 years, less than 18 months later. But it was clear that it would not be “contained.” We had no idea.
I also said that it was going to create a monster legal battle down the road that would take years to develop. Well, in the fullness of time, those years have come nigh upon us. Today we briefly look at the housing market, then the mortgage foreclosure debacle, and then we go into the real problem lurking in the background. It is The Subprime Debacle, Act 2. It is NOT the mortgage foreclosure issue, as serious as that is. I seriously doubt it will be contained, as well. Could the confluence of a bank credit crisis in the US and a sovereign debt banking crisis in Europe lead to another full-blown world banking crisis? The potential is there. This situation wants some serious attention.
This letter is going to print a little longer. But I think it is important that you get a handle on this issue.
Where is the Housing Recovery?
We are going to quickly review a few charts from Gary Shilling’s latest letter, where he review the housing market in depth. Bottom line, the housing market has not yet begun to recover, and it is not only going to take longer but the decline in prices may be greater than many have forecast. I wrote three years ago that it could be well into 2011 before we get to a “bottom.” That may have been optimistic, given what we will cover in this letter.
First, existing and new single-family home sales continue to slide, in the wake of the tax rebate that ended earlier this year. We have declined back to the down-sloping trend line. If you are a seller, this is not a pretty picture.
The homebuilding industry, which was the source of so many jobs last decade (aka the good old days), is on its back. This country needs a healthy housing construction market to get back to lower unemployment, and until the overhang in the foreclosure market is cleared out, that is unlikely to happen.
Lending is tighter, as is reasonable. Banks actually expect you to have the ability to pay back the mortgage you take out (solid FICO scores) and want reasonable down payments. Only 47% of applicants have the FICO score to get the best mortgage rates.
(Sidebar: Gary writes, “Furthermore, false appraisals rose 50% in 2009 from 2008. The tax credit for first-time homebuyers cost taxpayers about $15 billion, twice the official forecast, in part due to fraud. Over 19,000 tax filers claimed the credit but didn’t buy houses, while 74,000 who claimed $500 million in refunds already owned homes.” Where are the regulators?)
Shilling thinks prices are likely to fall another 20%. Given what I am writing about in the next section, that is a possibility. There is certainly no demand pressure to push up housing prices.
Finally, two charts on foreclosures. Residential mortgages in foreclosure are near all-time highs, close to 1 in 21 of all mortgages, up from 1 in 100 just four years ago. That’s got to be bad for your profit models.
Anyone who tells you the housing problem is “bottoming” either has an agenda or simply does not pay attention to the data. I really want to see housing bottom and then turn around and the home builders come back; the nation desperately needs the jobs. But my job is to be realistic. When we see 3-4 months of non-stimulus-induced housing sales growth, then we can start talking about bottoms.
But housing sales are not really the issue. Let’s look at the next leg of the problem.
The Foreclosure Mess
OK, in a serendipitous moment, Maine fishing buddy David Kotok sent me this email on the mortgage foreclosure crisis just as I was getting ready to write much the same thing. It is about the best thing I have read on the topic. Saves me some time and you get a better explanation. From Kotok:
“Dear Readers, this text came to me in an email from sources that are in the financial services business and with whom I have a personal relationship. The original text was laced with expletives and I would not use it in the form I received it. Therefore the text below has had some substantial editing in order to remove that language. The intentions of the writer are undisturbed. The writer shall remain anonymous. This text echoes some of the news items we have seen and heard today; however, it can serve as a plain language description of the present foreclosure-suspension mess. There is a lot here. It takes about 10 minutes to read it. – David Kotok (www.cumber.com)
[Here, David Kotok quotes extensively from an article by Gonzalo Lira, which you can read here. Mr. Lira says the extensive quote was not authorised to be reprinted, so we have removed it.]
(I am not sure who wrote this, but if you want your 15 minutes of fame, I will be glad to credit you next week. – John)
Some Foreclosure Takeaways
Let me add a few thoughts. First, I agree, this is very serious. It has the possibility of seriously hurting the housing market, which as we saw in the first section is already on the ropes. But at the end of the day, there is a cure.
Someone borrowed money for a mortgage. Some entity is cashing a check if that person is paying. That entity should have the title until it is paid off. If someone is not making their mortgage payments, they should be removed from the house and it should be sold to the benefit of the ultimately correct and what everyone thought was the proper title holder.
If you took out a mortgage and now the title is in some doubt because the investment banks and mortgage banks and all the middle guys screwed up (big-time!) because they wanted to save some bucks and make some commissions, you did not win the lottery. That is not America as I know it. You can’t pay the mortgage, I am sorry. But you do not get to keep the house. The people who (thought) they bought the mortgage in a fair deal need to end up with that mortgage.
If you pay your mortgage, you get to have the American Dream.
We CANNOT allow this debacle to continue. It will bring the system down. Who will want to buy a mortgage that is in a securitized package with no clear title? Who will get title insurance? Some judge somewhere is going to make a ruling that is going to petrify every title company, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.
Let’s be very clear. If we cannot securitize mortgages, there is no mortgage market. We cannot go back to where lenders warehoused the notes. It would take a decade to build that infrastructure. In the meantime, housing prices are devastated. Whatever wealth effect remains from housing gets worse, and the economy rolls over.
This is beyond my pay grade, but there have to be some adults who can make everyone play nice in the sandbox. Ideally, someone in authority at the Treasury, with bipartisan support steps in and says everyone follow these rules, whatever these rules need to be.
I had a very spirited conversation with good friend Barry Ritholtz today (of The Big Picture). Barry runs money but is also a lawyer and has a somewhat different perspective. He thinks we do not need any legislation and there is a legal cure. He says that real trained people (lawyers and paralegals) need to look at each mortgage and figure it out, and that it can get resolved. It is expensive to the banks; but I agree, if it is just dollars I don’t care. Fix it.
But that is a maybe. Other people I talk to disagree. Some think we need some regulatory fixes. Some think we will need a legislative cure. But if we need to, there need be no finger pointing, no partisan BS. This needs to get solved.
Someone took out a mortgage. Some entity thinks they are owed money. Fix the damn paper trail so that happens, whether in a legal if time-consuming manner, in a regulatory fix, or with legislation.
Now, that is not to say the people who did this stuff did not commit felonies and such. We can sort that out over time. The longer we wait the worse it will get. Fix the problem and then go round up the bad guys. There are bigger issues in play here. (I know this will be somewhat controversial. Oh well.)
I get the fraud being done here. I am regulated by FINRA, the NFA, various states, the British FSA, and ultimately the SEC. If I did something in my business like the stuff described above, someone would come in and justifiably shut me down, fine me, and ban me from the securities business. Oh, wait. These guys ARE regulated by the above groups.
Finally on this topic, I shake my head when I think that the FDIC is now running several of the banks (think IndyMac) that are part of this foreclosure crisis. These are the guys who are supposed to be preventing something like this. Again, where are the adults?
The Subprime Debacle: Act 2
OK, this letter is already getting too long. I am going to finish it next week, as the next topic needs a lengthy treatment. But I will not leave you hanging. A quick preview.
All those subprime and Alt-A mortgages written in the middle of the last decade? They were packaged and sold in securities. They have had huge losses. But those securities had representations and warranties about what was in them. And guess what, the investment banks may have stretched credibility about those warranties. There is the real probability that the investment banks that sold them are going to have to buy them back. We are talking the potential for multiple hundreds of billions of dollars in losses that will have to be eaten by the large investment banks. We will get into details, but it could create the potential for some banks to have real problems.
And all this coming as European banks are going to have to sort out their own sovereign debt problems. Shades of 2008. I hope I am wrong, but it’s all connected.
Yankees, Rangers, and The Endgame
I travel on Monday to New York, where good friend Barry Habib is going to take me to the Yankees-Rangers game. I will be the guy on the second row behind home plate, behind the mayor, wearing the Rangers jacket. Barry assures me I will be safe. Cliff Lee pitching. Can the Rangers hold up to the pressure against the best there is? Stay tuned.
My book, The End Game, is coming along. It is out for comments from friends, and then I will sit down with my co-author in London for four days and we will finish this the first week of November, and then Wiley will push as fast as they can to get it out.
This has been a very tumultuous week for a host of reasons. It’s all good, but exhausting. I am more than ready to hit the send button. I just turned on the TV to watch the last few innings. The Rangers have gone from up 5 to zip to losing 6-5. Can we say disheartening?
Your really wanting to see a World Series analyst,
Copyright 2010 John Mauldin. All Rights Reserved
John Mauldin, Best-Selling author and recognised financial expert, is also editor of the free Thoughts From the Frontline that goes to over 1 million readers each week. For more information on John or his FREE weekly economic letter go to: http://www.frontlinethoughts.com/learnmore
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