One Of The Biggest Housing Bears Around Explains Why The Recent Bump Is Going Nowhere

I attended the Zillow housing forum in San Francisco on Friday. The first panel discussed “Is it a Good Time to Buy in California?: The Housing Market’s New Normal”.

The participants were John Burns, CEO, John Burns Real Estate Consulting, Bert Selva, President and CEO, Shea Homes, Eric Gutshall, President and COO, Haven Realty Capital and Mark Hanson, Mark Hanson Advisors. And the moderator was Colleen Edwards, Owner, EMC Creative.

John Burns has turned positive on housing (he commented that some of his colleagues have been calling him a “raging bull”). Bert Selva said that sales are up about 40% this year for Shea Homes the year, and Eric Gutshall talked about their single family rental program (REO-to-rental) and also that they’ve seen house price increases in the markets where they are active.

Note: I had an offline discussion with Bert Selva and John Burns, and I asked about the possibility that some new home builders will be land constrained next year (that they may not have enough finished lots to meet demand in some locations). Selva said it probably depended on the builder, but there could be a period next year were sales are limited by lack of lot supply – although he seemed to think that would be resolved by 2014. John Burns shared his 2013 new home sales forecast with me, and it was around 450 thousand (he was close for 2012).

I was very interested in the comments of Mark Hanson since he has a different view on housing than me (I think prices bottomed earlier this year and that residential investment will continue to increase). Hanson thinks we are just seeing a stimulus bounce and that prices will start falling again. Here are a few of Hanson’s comments (from notes and memory – Zillow will have a video of the forum available this week).

Hanson argued there is a substantial “shadow inventory” that will come on the market. He talked about the number of homes with negative equity (CoreLogic puts the number at 10.8 million, Zillow put the number at 15.1 million). Hanson also mentioned 6 million delinquent mortgages (LPS puts the number of properties delinquent or in foreclosure at 5.45 million).

And Hanson also mentioned the 6 million recent modifications (he called modified loans the “new subprime” because he thought a large number would default again). Hanson talked about the high “Back-End Debt-to-Income Ratio” even after modification. What Hanson was referring to was the HAMP programs were the borrowers have substantial debt payments in addition to their mortgage payment (student loan, car, other instalment loans). In the most recent HAMP report, the back-end DTI was 53.6% after modification, and the front end DTI (principal, interest, taxes, insurance and homeowners association and/or condo fees) was 31%. With these high back-end ratios, Hanson argued many of these people would default (that is why he called it the “new subprime”).

Hanson also discussed low mortgage rates (he called “stimulus”), and asked what would happen when mortgage rates increase.

Let’s take a deep breathe.

Hanson mentioned several big numbers: 15 million with negative equity, 6 million modifications (more counting other retention programs), 6 million properties currently delinquent. No question there are significant issues for borrowers with negative equity, as an example they will have difficulty moving for a new job, and, as Hanson noted this limits the move-up market. But we can’t add these numbers together because that would mostly be double counting. Most (but not all) of the seriously delinquent borrowers have negative equity – and if they don’t, they can sell their homes and avoid foreclosure.

And most of the modifications have negative equity. And probably all of the listed (visible inventory) contingent short sales have negative equity. So when we are talking about unlisted inventory that will be forced on the market over the next 2 to 3 years, we can mostly ignore negative equity and focus on current and expected delinquencies.

As far as modifications, Hanson focused on the HAMP data (about 1.08 total permanent modifications so far, and about 23% have defaulted). And I agree that many more of these HAMP modifications will default over the next couple years. But there are another 4.6 million proprietary modification programs completed too (these are lender specific programs). Some of this data is available from Hope Now. The lenders also offered additional retention plans. The redefault rates for these proprietary plans are much lower than for HAMP (the lenders put the highest risk loans in HAMP if they qualified), and most of these programs have low fixed rates for at least 5 years. These borrowers may redefault when the mortgage rates adjust, but that is several years from now – so this isn’t imminent forced inventory on the market.

The most important short term numbers are the 2.02 million properties currently in foreclosure pre-sale inventory (in the foreclosure process) and the 1.52 million properties that are 90 or more days delinquent, but not currently in foreclosure. Many of these properties will be sold as short sales (many are already listed as “short sale contingent”). A large number of these properties that are in foreclosure are located in judicial states, and that means there will not be a huge wave of foreclosures, but a steady stream in those states as the foreclosures work through the courts (and that could keep house prices from increasing).

Two months ago I wrote: House Prices and a Foreclosure Supply Shock. In that post I argued the peak of the foreclosure supply shock is behind us, and that suggests prices have probably bottomed. I think the coming modification redefaults and current delinquencies will keep prices from rising quickly, but I don’t think this will push house prices to new lows. There are still large problems to work through, but nothing in Hanson’s discussion changed my views on housing.

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