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Unintended Consequences

New US housing starts are down 75% from the peak. More trouble will follow...

may already know, here at Casey Research we are not optimistic about the outlook for real estate, that lynchpin of the US economy, writes David Galland, managing editor of Doug Casey's newsletter stable.

This pessimism is evoked by a number of factors, starting with the simple fact that the supply of residential housing increased by about 50% between 1992 and 2007, massively outpacing population and income growth over the period. As you absolutely know, much of that excess inventory is in the hands of individuals who simply can't afford to pay the mortgage or rent.

Then there is our hardened belief that the equivalent of an express train wreck is about to happen in the $4 trillion US commercial real estate market. There will be a lot less in the way of Ho! Ho! Ho! this holiday shopping season, and a lot more Oh...Oh...Oh's instead.

None of this is helped by the inevitable rise in interest rates, which are today at near 50-year lows. While we might not be quite at the bottom, we're close...after which we expect a persistent rise as the government bailouts flow through the inflationary pipeline.

And of course, wounded housing markets react about as well to rising interest rates as I do to the prospect of my taxes going up in the next administration.

Unfortunately for the housing market – and by extension the US and global economy – we are already seeing the ghosts of what's to come. This just in from Bud Conrad, our chief researcher...

"The US government's conservator status of Fannie and Freddie was supposed to lower mortgage rates, which it did for a few weeks. But we have now started to see the unintended consequences of guaranteeing the banks – namely that investors are moving away from higher risk housing-related debt, and investing it in government-guaranteed bank debt instead, pushing mortgage rates up.

"My sense is that movement by foreigners away from agency (Fannie/Freddie) debt contributed to the half-point rise in mortgage rates, too. The TIC data [showing foreign capital flows to and from the US] confirm that shift. The result is that housing will be further hurt with the higher rates and will continue to fall in price."

On the same topic, the news is out that in September, single-family US home starts fell to the lowest level in 26 years. Just 544,000 new homes would be built over the next 12 months if the trend were to stabilize here (which it won't). To give you perspective, at the peak of the bubble, annualized housing starts in the US were running at 2,265,000 units, so we're seeing about a 75% decrease.

By the time this is over, it wouldn't surprise me to see housing starts fall to 10% of the peak. Of course, housing is far more than just "another" economic stat. In addition to the tragic financial and emotional implications of coming up short on the mortgage, there are direct consequences for the broader economy, too.

No more excess equity to borrow against to fund shopping sprees. None to allow for a comfortable retirement for far too many.

This is, and will continue to be, a big problem for the United States' economy. While there is no soft solution at this point, the best we could hope for is that the damage will be quick to come, and so quick to pass. But the only real way for that to happen is for house prices to fall to the point where ready buyers are available. And that entails workouts between lenders and borrowers, or outright foreclosures, to clean up the mess and allow the market to function as it certainly can, and will again...if left to its own devices.

Unfortunately, the plans now being bandied about by the government envision pretty much the polar opposite of letting the market clean itself up. Rather, they involve taxpayers buying defaulting mortgages and even the imposition of a moratorium of some duration on foreclosures. Most people read news such as that and shrug it off. It may help to view these ideas through a narrower spectrum.

For example, imagine you are the president of a small bank and you had lent money in good faith to someone in the neighborhood. We'll call him Joe, as that seems to be a popular name for such examples these days.

For reasons only known to him, Joe has stopped paying on his mortgage, leaving your little bank on the hook for $200,000. Following procedure, you have Mrs. Smith down in the lending department send Joe a nice letter asking him what's up, to which she receives no response. So you personally send him another letter, this one asking him down to the bank to have a chat and see if you can work things out.

No response, no payments.

Uncomfortable at having to perform the duty, you give Joe a call and he admits he is in over his head. When you offer to help him work out a payment plan, he calls you a blood sucker and hangs up on you.

Pained by the outcome of your loan, because you'd rather be getting paid back on the agreed-upon terms, you call up your lawyer and reluctantly authorize the expense of beginning the foreclosure proceeding. At that point, you know you will likely spend thousands and the better part of a year trying to get back your property (and it is your property). But what choice are you left with?

And then you hear – as does Joe – that Congress is seriously considering passing a moratorium on foreclosures, and you reach into the locked drawer of your desk for the flask you keep there for just such occasions. Joe, meantime, heads down to the local deli for a six-pack to celebrate free rent for the foreseeable future, perhaps paying for his purchase by selling off the copper pipes he's ripped out of the guest bathroom.

This exercise is, of course, little more than the morning musings of a sleep-deprived mind, and I am well aware that the circumstances surrounding the defaulting on loans are as varied as humanity itself. Even so, the underlying principles are the same. There is a contractual agreement between a lender and a borrower that no one had to be waterboarded to sign. In the event of a failure to perform on the part of either party, it is up to the two parties alone to resolve – with the help of an impartial judiciary if an impasse occurs.

Interjecting an overreaching government solution – dreamt up by perfect-worlders – into the process can only gum up the works. And, I would contend, it will result in just the sort of unintended consequences now being reflected in jumping mortgage rates.

For that matter, it's worth recalling that the entire housing mess in the first place was very much an unintended consequence of Alan Greenspan ratcheting down interest rates instead of pouring himself a nice cup of tea and watching as the participants in the dot-com mania received their just desserts.

Personally, I am shocked by the rising cacophony of calls for more, not less, government regulation. Given the widespread chanting now going on in favor of elevated levels of oversight, retribution, taxation, meddling, and outright nationalization, it is clearer than ever that the laissez faire view I just expressed is in the minority. And the situation is only going to get worse as the next wave of well-intentioned government operators step up to the controls...controls that are being firmly bolted onto the machinery of markets.

We are about to enter a dark period for the free markets. That's the bad news. The very good news is that, seeing it coming, you can anticipate where the next unintended consequences will occur and position yourself to profit.

Doug Casey is a world-renowned investor and author, whose book Crisis Investing was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 29 consecutive weeks, a record at the time.

He has been a featured guest on hundreds of radio and TV shows, including David Letterman, Merv Griffin, Charlie Rose, Phil Donahue, Regis Philbin, NBC News, and CNN; and has been the topic of numerous features in periodicals such as Time, Forbes, People and the Washington Post.

His firm, Casey Research, LLC., publishes a variety of newsletters and web sites with a combined weekly audience in excess of 200,000, largely high net worth investors with an interest in resource development and international real estate.

See full archive of Doug Casey articles

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