Monday, June 29, 2009

Real Estate and the Global Recession

Now it can be said – the US is officially in a recession, and other countries around the globe are very quickly following suit. Predominating the country’s financial headaches is the real estate meltdown, or subprime crash, as experts call it. The question being asked is, was overinflated real estate the cause of the US and ultimately the global recession? If so, how?

New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt explains it this way: In 1998, Wall Street started making it easier for home buyers to apply for loans, and packaged those loans to global investors as CDOs, or collateralized debt obligations. To make these investments even more enticing, Wall Street introduced the idea of subprime mortgages - ARM (adjustable rate mortgage) loans with high interest rates packaged in the guise of low initial interest rates.

High interest rates for the borrowers meant higher returns for the investors, while low credit score borrowers now had the opportunity to buy homes despite their normally unacceptable credit picture. The lax lending policies allowed people to borrow as much as 50% more than the real value of the house with a minimal down payment even as the high interest rates pushed prices up, resulting in grossly overpriced home prices. A case in point is San Francisco, where the median home price is currently 11.6% of the median annual salary.

Investors sought to accelerate their earnings by borrowing funds to invest. The extremely high loan interest rates caused many of the borrowers to default on their loans, and as home prices reached the point where borrowers couldn’t afford to pay their loans anymore and people stopped buying because prices were just way too high, the financial village came toppling down, one by one in a domino effect.

First to fall were Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, the country’s two largest mortgage finance lenders that had bought the loans from the mortgage originators, repackaged them as mortgage-backed securities, and sold them to the global investors. Next came the banks and investment companies with heavy exposures on these sub prime loans such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and as the banks fell so did the global investors who had invested in these mortgage investments. As the companies fell, investors panicked and engaged in a wave of selling, causing the stock markets to crash.

Industry insiders say that unless the number of foreclosures goes down, home prices will continue to decline and it will take longer before the real estate crisis bottoms out.

The S&P/Case-Schiller Home Price Indices show that home prices continue to fall – as of May, Phoenix reported an annual decline of 31.9%, Las Vegas was down 31.3%, San Francisco down by 29.5%, Miami down by 28.4%, Los Angeles down by 27.6%, and San Diego 26.3%.

With more and more companies downsizing workforces, it looks like we’re in for quite a long wait. In the meantime, here’s our advice: if you’ve got a home, hold on to it. If you’re in the market to buy a house, do your due diligence and homework – compare prices, read the fine print, and make sure you can afford to pay before you sign that loan.

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