We have seen it for several years: foreclosure sales have become the hunting grounds for investors with two goals: hanging on to these homes until the Fed’s flood of money drives up their value; and renting them out. Thousands of smaller investors have piled into the game. And so have the giants. But now the second half of the equation is collapsing.
I have written about the housing quagmire from different angles, and there hasn’t been a heck of a lot of good news. However, there have been spurts in home prices propagated by the media with enormous hoopla that later turned out to have been sucker rallies, with prices hitting new multi-year lows after each one. And now there is another wave of media hoopla about housing, but once again, something is off key.
Certain central bankers are coming out of the closet admitting that their favorite shenanigans—ultralow interest rates and printing money with utter abandon—can’t solve the very problems they were designed to solve, which has been obvious for a long time. What they’re not yet admitting massively, though some are starting to hand out hints, is just how much havoc these policies are wreaking.
Since the lousy jobs report, there has been a veritable orgy of Fed Speak with juicy morsels and contradictions, interspersed with leaks and rumors, that climaxed today with Chairman Ben Bernanke’s words of wisdom. It whipped markets into a frenzy, drove the Dow up 500 points, knocked yields to historic lows, and caused gold, the safe-haven, to bounce up and down like a rubber ball. And everyone was eagerly waiting for the big lie.
Pundits who have been announcing the imminent turnaround in housing for the last few years were disappointed once again by the Case-Shiller composite, which declined 0.8% for the month and 3.5% for the year. It has fallen to a level last seen in October 2002. Since that time, inflation has eaten up another 27%, which would take the composite back to the 1990s. And now, even a trend that supported housing for decades has reversed.
Germans are euphoric these days—compared to the dour mood that prevailed for nearly two decades when real wages declined in a stagnating economy with high unemployment. This new optimism is joyriding the powerful German export machine and appears to be impervious to the nightmarish scenarios playing out at the periphery of the Eurozone. And now, Germans have something else to be euphoric about: a housing bubble.
There still are some economic numbers that aren’t seasonally adjusted or manipulated with fancy statistical footwork by governmental, quasi-governmental, or non-governmental number mongers. And they give us the true picture of the worldwide economy: beer, wine, mood, and San Francisco real estate—with more predictive power than is allowed by law.
Among the “good” economic news today was private residential construction, up 2%, confirming trends in building permits and housing starts. Construction creates lots of jobs and contributes significantly to GDP. Everyone, from the President down to local politicians, wants it to grow. It gets them reelected. But for homeowners, banks, and tax payers, these trends are costly.
The government forks over another $13.8 billion to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to cover their losses for the last quarter. The regular drumbeat of bailout billions handed to these zombies barely enters the nation’s consciousness anymore, but it adds up: $184.8 billion since 2008. And there is no end in sight. Supercommittee, where art thou?
According to last week’s GDP number, the economy has been growing supposedly at a rate of 2.5% in the third quarter—thanks largely to the inexplicable American consumer, the toughest creature out there. But there are some pernicious trends and unpleasant zigzags that point the opposite way.