Thursday, August 31, 2006

"The First Wave of Option ARM Casualties"

From BusinessWeek:

For cash-strapped homeowners, it was a pitch they couldn't refuse: Refinance your mortgage at a bargain rate and cut your payments in half. New home buyers, stretching to afford something in a super-heated market, didn't even need to produce documentation, much less a downpayment. Those who took the bait are in for a nasty surprise. While many Americans have started to worry about falling home prices, borrowers who jumped into so-called option ARM loans have another, more urgent problem: payments that are about to skyrocket...

After prolonging the boom, these exotic mortgages could worsen the bust. They also betray such a lack of due diligence on the part of lenders and borrowers that it raises questions of what other problems may be lurking. And most of the pain will be borne by ordinary people, not the lenders, brokers, or financiers who created the problem.

Gordon Burger is among the first wave of option ARM casualties. The 42-year-old police officer from a suburb of Sacramento, Calif., is stuck in a new mortgage that's making him poorer by the month. Burger, a solid earner with clean credit, has bought and sold several houses in the past. In February he got a flyer from a broker advertising an interest rate of 2.2%. It was an unbeatable opportunity, he thought. If he refinanced the mortgage on his $500,000 home into an option ARM, he could save $14,000 in interest payments over three years. Burger quickly pulled the trigger, switching out of his 5.1% fixed-rate loan. "The payment schedule looked like what we talked about, so I just started signing away," says Burger. He didn't read the fine print.

After two months Burger noticed that the minimum payment of $1,697 was actually adding $1,000 to his balance every month. "I'm not making any ground on this house; it's a loss every month," he says. He says he was told by his lender, Minneapolis-based Homecoming Financial, a unit of Residential Capital, the nation's fifth-largest mortgage shop, that he'd have to pay more than $10,000 in prepayment penalties to refinance out of the loan. If he's unhappy, he should take it up with his broker, the bank said. "They know they're selling crap, and they're doing it in a way that's very deceiving," he says. "Unfortunately, I got sucked into it." In a written statement, Residential said it couldn't comment on Burger's loan but that "each mortgage is designed to meet the specific financial needs of a consumer."


Max said...

Looks like I'm not the only one late. :)

Lander said...

Hat tip Crispy over at The Housing Bubble blog.

Lander said...

Looks like I'm not the only one late. :)

If I don't post daily, I'm might have an insurrection on my hands. :)

Happy in SF said...

Why did he refinance out of a 5% fixed rate? He apparently already qualified for that loan. How stupid. This guy should go pick up his Darwin award and stop blaming other people. I mean, this is one of those tranactions that if you trust the sharks selling these products, and do not do your own homework, you are 100% at fault.

smoggiebakersfield said...

Just antoher flipper, that got stung. Poor Soul. Looks like no more bragging for him!

Anonymous said...
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Max said...

I wonder what the Intel layoffs next week will do to the market?

Intel expected to cut thousands of jobs

Anonymous said...

This could be the biggest problem plaguing a down-turned market. These loans were a significant part of the last two to three years of the boom and soon will reflect a desperate mentality, in order to stop the financial bleeding inflicted on these poor souls. The full brunt of the resets are still off in the future and should two to three years to settle out. Credit institutions lobbied effectively to change tha bankrupcy laws so most that choose the "B" option will be on the hook for some serious money. Not to mention, some are predicting a recession in '07. If this be the case add-in higher mortgage payments with job layoffs, higher energy costs, and this gets ugly. Smart money stays away from buying until things swing back toward equilibriu

Anonymous said...

blood on the streets

Full House

August 30, 2006; Page A10

Looking back at past housing booms, the first sign of the end is when a goodly share of buyers stop making offers and eventually stop looking, seeming to just disappear. In the spring of 1987, during another U.S. housing-market boom that was starting to lose speed, Nora Moran, president of the Greater Boston real estate board, said "someone blew a whistle that only dogs and buyers heard."

Across America today, it is as if the whistle has again been blown. New home sales in July are 22% below July 2005. The decrease is 43% for the Northeast over that same period, and the inventory of unsold new homes is up 22%. Existing home sales are down to 6.33 million in July from over seven million at the end of 2005. Older boomers are cashing out of valuable suburban homes and heading for condos in the city, or out of high-priced regions altogether.

Why is this happening so suddenly? It can't be interest rates alone. The 30-year mortgage rate is up less than one percentage point since this time last year, and is no higher than it was a few years ago when this boom was roaring along.

The market spoiler was in place some two years ago. At that time, we felt that the spectacular price increases could not be justified. The psychology of that time could not continue indefinitely, and indeed it has not.

In the summer of 2004, the annual rate of increase for home prices in major U.S. cities reached its peak. According to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller Composite Home Price Index, based on 10 major metro areas, housing inflation reached 20.4% in the 12 months ending in July 2004. Now, the latest numbers announced yesterday show only an 8.2% increase in the 12 months ending June 2006, and most of that increase was in 2005. Six of the 10 cities actually fell between May and June. By simple extrapolation, if housing price changes continue to decline as they have, inflation will turn into deflation, and 12-month price changes might be squarely in negative territory by some time in 2007.

Talk is part of what changes the mood and actions of buyers, and the air is now full of talk of a bust. The covers of the New Yorker, the Economist, The Wall Street Journal and virtually every news magazine and newspaper in America has heralded the bursting of the "housing bubble."

Part of what has focused the spotlight on the housing market has been the sheer size of the boom. Ten years ago, U.S. household holdings of real estate were valued at just under $8 trillion, about 40% as large as household financial wealth. At the end of 2005, real-estate holdings were $21.6 trillion, 56% as large as financial wealth. Just in the last five years, the total market value of residential real estate alone has increased by nearly $10 trillion.

New construction, initiated in response to high home prices, has reached unprecedented levels, and new houses are still hitting the market just as demand is dropping. Between 2000 and 2005, housing starts were over two million per year, existing home sales were over six million per year, and home-improvement spending hit $162 billion in 2005. All of this generated income for millions of brokers, builders, bankers, appliance dealers and construction workers, and kept the economy growing at a strong clip. But the housing construction boom can't go on forever.

This incredible boom has been fueled in part by favorable demographics, low interest rates, a very liquid mortgage market with low down payments and borrower-friendly underwriting (option arms, interest-only, stated-income, etc.), a baby boomer generation with a special taste for housing, a substantial volume of foreign demand, and the poor overall performance of the stock market.

But beyond all these factors there is the simple psychology of expectations that is part of any speculative boom. These expectations can turn suddenly when alert home buyers get the sense that something might be amiss. Among respondents to our questionnaire survey of home buyers in April and May of this year, the median expected 12-month home price increase in Los Angeles was only 5%, compared to 10% in early 2005. In Boston, the median expectation was down to 2% from 5% last year.

Long-term expectations for home price appreciation have fallen much less. Americans haven't changed their basic views on housing as a great long-term investment. Not yet, at least. That won't happen unless there is a protracted housing price decline.

While our surveys indicate that relatively few expect prices to actually fall, buyers do not want to pay prices that are significantly higher than a year ago. Buyers are waiting and low-balling. Sellers want to get a price increase of the kind they've observed in the recent past. The result is that fewer agreements are reached, and sales fall. If the housing market were like the bond market and all houses for sale were auctioned every day, prices would indeed fall precipitously. But they are not. The aggregate indexes based on repeat sales have decelerated markedly but are not yet falling.

The U.S. now has a futures market based on home prices. The market that opened in May at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is now showing backwardation in all 10 metropolitan areas trading. The backwardation can be expressed as implying a rate of decline of 5% a year for the S&P/Case-Shiller Composite Index by May 2007. Since the margin requirement is only about 2.5%, an investor who is sure that prices cannot actually fall by next May has, on that assumption, a sure return of at least 200% from buying a futures contract, and even more if prices rise at all. But there can't really be so much "money on the table." It must be that people really no longer see it as a sure thing that prices won't start falling across the metro areas.

As always, the future is uncertain. Many of the underpinnings of the boom are still strong, and the soft-landing scenario so widely promoted by economists and industry leaders is a possibility if the U.S. can avoid a generalized inflation, if long rates don't rise a lot, and if the rest of the economy stays strong. But that possibility is not enough to give great comfort to all those who worry today about the housing market.

Unfortunately, there is significant risk of a very bad period, with slow sales, slim commissions, falling prices, rising default and foreclosures, serious trouble in financial markets, and a possible recession sooner than most of us expected. Deterioration in that intangible housing market psychology is the most uncertain factor in the outlook today. Listen hard and watch out.

Mr. Case is professor of economics at Wellesley. Mr. Shiller is professor of economics at Yale and chief economist at MacroMarkets LLC.

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