How To Cripple the Real Estate Market in Five Easy Steps   (March 19, 2012)

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.

If this recession strikes you as different from previous downturns, you might be interested in my new book An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times (print edition) or Kindle ebook format. You can read the ebook on any computer, smart phone, iPad, etc. Click here for links to Kindle apps and Chapter One. The solution in one word: Localism.

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