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“Winter Is Here” For Housing – Whalen Warns “The Crowd Of Buyers Is Thinning”

August 23, 2017 Tyler Durden 0

Following this morning’s plunge in new home sales…

 

After household formation collapsed in June…

It appears Institutional Risk Analyst’s Chris Whalen is spot on with his mortgage finance update: “Winter Is Here”…

After several weeks on the road talking to mortgage professionals and business owners, below is an update on the world of housing finance.  We hope to see all of the readers of The Institutional Risk Analyst in the mortgage business at the Americatalyst event in Austin, TX, next month.

The big picture on housing reflected in the mainstream media is one of caution, as illustrated in The Wall Street Journal. Borodovsky & Ramkumar ask the obvious question:  Are US homes overvalued? Short answer: Yes.  Send your cards and letters to Janet Yellen c/o the Federal Open Market Committee in Washington.  But the operating environment in the mortgage finance sector continues to be challenging to put it mildly.

As we’ve discussed in several forums over the past few years, home valuations are one of the clearest indicators of inflation in the US economy.  While members of the tenured world of economics somehow rationalize understating or ignoring the fact of double digit increases in home prices along the country’s affluent periphery, sure looks like asset price inflation to us.

In fact, since WWII home prices in the US have gone up four times the official inflation rate.

 “Houses weren’t always this expensive,” notes CNBC. “In 1940, the median home value in the U.S. was just $2,938. In 1980, it was $47,200, and by 2000, it had risen to $119,600. Even adjusted for inflation, the median home price in 1940 would only have been $30,600 in 2000 dollars, according to data from the U.S. Census.”

Inflation, just to review, is defined as too many dollars chasing too few goods, in this case bona fide investment opportunities.  A combination of slow household formation and low levels of new home construction are seen as the proximate cause of the housing price squeeze, but higher prices also limit the level of existing home sales.  Many long-time residents of high priced markets like CA and NY cannot move without leaving the community entirely. So they get a home equity line or reverse mortgage, and shelter in place, thereby reducing the stock of available homes.

Two key indicators that especially worry us in the world of credit is the falling cost of defaults and the widening gap between asset pricing and cash flow.  Credit metrics for bank-owned single-family and multifamily loans are showing very low default rates.  More, loss-given default (LGD) remains in negative territory for the latter, suggesting a steady supply of greater fools ready to buy busted multifamily property developments above par value.  We can’t wait for the FDIC quarterly data for Q2 2017 to be released later today as we expect these credit metrics to skew even further.

Single-family exposures are likewise showing very low default rates and LGDs at 30-year lows, again suggesting a significant asset price bubble in 1-4 family homes.  The fact that many of these properties are well under water in terms of what the property could fetch as a rental also seasons our view that we are in the midst of a Fed-induced investment mania.

For every seller in high priced states that finds current prices impossible to resist, there are several ready buyers. But the crowd of buyers is thinning. Charles Kindleberger wrote in his classic book, “Manias, Panics and Crashes,” in 1978:

“Financial crises are associated with the peaks of business cycles. We are not interested in the business cycle as such, the rhythm of economic expansion and contraction, but only in the financial crisis that is the culmination of a period of expansion and leads to downturn.”

One of the interesting facts about the mortgage sector in 2017 is that even though average prices have more than recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, much of the housing stock away from the desirable periphery has not really bounced.  This is yet another reason why existing home sales at a bit over a million properties annually have gone sideways for months.  The 600,000 or so new housing starts is half of the peak levels in 2005, but today’s level may actually be sustainable.

We had the opportunity to hear from our friend Marina Walsh of the Mortgage Bankers Association at the Fay Servicing round table in Chicago last week.  Mortgage applications have been running ahead of last year’s levels, yet overall volumes are declining because of the sharp drop in refinancing volumes.  We disagree with the MBA about the direction of benchmarks such as the 10-year Treasury bond.  They see 3.5% yields by next year, but we’re still liking the bull trade.  But even a yield below 2% will not breath significant life into the refi market.

Though prices in the residential home market remain positively frothy in coastal markets, profitability in the mortgage finance sector continues to drag.  Large banks earned a whole 15 basis points on mortgage origination in the most recent MBA data, while non-banks and smaller depositories fared much better at around 60-70bps.  But few players are really making money.

During our conversations over the past several weeks, we confirmed that the whole residential housing finance industry is suffering through some of the worst economic performance since the peak levels of 2012. The silent crisis in non-bank finance we described last year continues and, indeed, has intensified as origination margins have been squeezed by the market’s post-election gyrations.

Looking at the MBA data, if you subtract the effects of mortgage servicing rights (MSR) from pre-tax income, most of the industry is operating at a significant loss.  The big driver of the industry’s woes is regulation, both as a result of the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and the actions of the states.

Regulation has pushed the dollar cost of servicing a loan up four fold since 2008.  From less that $100 per loan in 2008, today the full-loaded cost of servicing is now $250, according to the MBA.  The cost of servicing performing loans is $163 vs over $2,000 for non-performing loans.

Source: MBA

As one colleague noted at the California Mortgage Banker’s technology conference in San Diego, “every loan is a different problem.” But nobody in the regulatory community seems to be concerned by the fact that the cost of servicing loans has quadrupled over the past eight years.  The elephant in the room is compliance costs, which accounts for 20% of the budget for most mortgage lending operations.

Technology Driving Down Costs

To some degree, technology can be used to address rising costs.  But when it comes to unique events spanning the range from legitimate consumer complaints to a phone call to follow-up on a past request or spurious inquiries, none of these tasks can be automated.  The obsession with the wants and needs of the consumer has led the mortgage industry to some truly strange behaviors, like Nationstar (NYSE:NSM) deciding to rename itself “Mr. Cooper.”

Driven by the atmosphere of terror created by the CFPB, the trend in the mortgage industry is to automate the underwriting and servicing process, and make sure that all information used is documented and easily retrieved. The better-run mortgage companies in the US use common technology platforms to ensure a compliant process, but leave the compassion and empathy to humans.

By using computers to embed the rules into a business process that is compliant, big steps are being made in terms of efficiency. Trouble is, this year many mortgage lenders are seeing income levels that are half of that four and five years ago.  Cost cutting can only go so far to addressing the enormous expense inflation resulting from excessive regulation and revenue compression due to volatility in the bond market.

Avoiding errors and therefore the possibility of a consumer complaint (and a regulatory response) is really the top priority in the mortgage industry today. As one CEO opined: “Sometimes the best customer experience is consistency in terms of answering questions and quickly as possible and communicating in a courteous and effective fashion.”

All of this costs time and money, and then more money.  Our key takeaway from a number of firms The IRA spoke with over the past three weeks is that response time for meeting the needs of consumers and regulators is another paramount concern.

Being able to gather information, solve problems and then document the response to prove that the event was handled correctly is now required in the mortgage industry.  But as one senior executive noted: “Sometimes people are easier to change than systems.”

So in addition to the FOMC, banks and mortgage companies can also thank the CFPB and aspiring governors in the various states for inflating their operating costs for mortgage lending and servicing by an order of magnitude since the financial crisis.  This is all done in the name helping consumers, you understand, but at the end of the day it is consumers who pay for the inflation of living costs like housing.  Investors and consumers pay the cost of regulation.  

Over the past decade since the financial crisis, the chief accomplishment of Congress and regulators has been to raise the cost of buying or renting a home, while decreasing the profitability of firms engaged in any part of housing finance.  We continue to wonder whether certain large legacy servicing platforms — Walter Investment Management (NYSE:WAC) comes to mind — will make it to year-end, but then we said that last year.

Like the army of the dead in the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones,” the legacy portion of the mortgage servicing industry somehow continues to limp along despite hostile regulators and unforgiving markets.  Profits are failing, equity returns are negative and there is no respite in sight.  Even once CFPB chief Richard Cordray picks up his carpet bag and scuttles off to Ohio for a rumored gubernatorial run, business conditions are unlikely to improve in the world of mortgage finance. Winter is here.

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Watch live: Trump speaks to the American Legion

August 23, 2017 Adam Button 0

Trump speaks in Reno, Nevada
No one moves the market more than Trump lately. The thing to watch is whether he sounds more centrist or like Candidate Trump. Even a small ebb is moving markets at the moment.
The post Watch live: Trump speaks to the Ameri…

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Images Emerge Of Kim Jong Un Inspecting New Missiles After Mattis Applauds “Restraint”

August 23, 2017 Tyler Durden 0

Kim Jong Un is once again showing the US exactly how disinterested he is in negotiating any settlement – particularly one that ultimately forces North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons: To wit, Kim ordered more rockets and warheads during a televised visit to a local munitions factory just hours after Secretary of Defense James Mattis praised Kim’s “restraint” for not having launched any new missile strikes since the latest round of UN sanctions took effect on Aug. 5. Mattis also reiterated that the Trump administration would be open to talks.

Here’s Mattis (via the Wall Street Journal):

“I am pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past,” Mr. Tillerson said in a news briefing in Washington. “We hope that this is the beginning of this signal that we have been looking for.”

To be sure, if the “Mad Dog” was looking for signs of a détente from North Korea, he’s bound to be disappointed. Though the date of Kim’s visit to the munitions factory wasn’t disclosed, the North Korean leader could clearly be heard ordering the program to press ahead with its quest to develop a nuclear warhead that could reliably target the Continental US. He also showed off two new additions to his arsenal.

“Mr. Kim’s visit, the date of which wasn’t disclosed by Pyongyang in its report Wednesday, underscores North Korea’s continued investment in its ability to threaten the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped long-range missile.”

As WSJ notes, while Kim’s temporary discontinuation of the missile tests has been perceived as an encouraging sign by some, the real issue is the North’s nuclear program, and any progress their engineers might be making. US intelligence agencies believe the Kim regime possess the capability to reach the US with an ICBM.

From Mattis, any statement connoting positivity regarding the relationship between the US and North is indeed rare. The general has typically backed his boss’s aggressive tone when speaking about the isolated nation publicly, like he did during an appearance on Fox & Friends earlier this month…  

“Defense Secretary James Mattis warned North Korea in stark terms on Wednesday that it faces devastation if it does not end its pursuit of nuclear weapons: “The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Mattis said in a statement adding “The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

Photos published by the KCNA along with Wednesday’s report showed Kim inspecting what looked to be two new missiles.

“Photos published alongside Wednesday’s report by the official Korean Central News Agency showed Mr. Kim and other officials standing in front of diagrams. Missile experts said the diagrams appeared to show at least two never-before-seen missiles, including one that looked to be a variant of a solid-fueled missile that North Korea launched from a submarine last year.

 

Pyongyang in February launched a land-based version of the solid-fueled missile, known as the Polaris-2. Solid-fuel missiles, unlike traditional liquid-fueled ones, don’t need to be fueled on the launchpad—a laborious process that makes the weapon vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike.”

The photos represent a clear message to the US: North Korea has no intention of halting its nuclear weapons program.

“’Pyongyang’s release of photos indicating yet two more new missiles in development shows it has no intention of halting its continuing quest to threaten the U.S. and its allies with nuclear weapons,’ said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

 

“A two-week adherence of North Korea to U.N. prohibitions against missile tests hardly counts as a significant indicator of benign intent by the regime,” he added, referring to the United Nations Security Council’s newest round of sanctions earlier this month.”

Another of the WSJ’s “expert” sources said the missile program is probably “untouchable” for now, but that diplomacy could still be worth pursuing.

“’The missile-building program is unstinting,’ said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

 

“Diplomacy cannot touch that for now.”

 

But Mr. Cronin argued that the U.S. should continue to pursue diplomacy with Pyongyang, and encourage any signs of progress — including the recent dearth of missile tests.

 

North Korea hasn’t launched a missile in 26 days, though the launch of its first ICBM on July 4 came after a 35-day pause.

 

“North Korea has shown glimmers of restraint for now and the U.S. seeks to encourage more, but is ready to move in the opposite direction as well,” Mr. Cronin said.”

In summary, the Pyongyang report was of a kind with what North Korea has said from the beginning: It will not give up its weapons. End of story.
 

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Russia Keeps Top Spot As China’s No.1 Crude Supplier

August 23, 2017 Tsvetana Paraskova 0

Russia continued to be China’s biggest crude oil supplier in July for a fifth consecutive month, while Chinese refineries have been taking in more Brent-price-linked West African crude at the expense of sour Middle Eastern varieties as OPEC’s cuts led to narrower price differentials making African oil more attractive for buyers. China’s crude oil imports from Russia averaged around 1.17 million bpd in July, a 54-percent surge compared to the same month last year, according to data by China’s General Administration of Customs…

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El-Erian Warns Vexed Central Bankers “The Lowflation Demon Is Real”

August 23, 2017 Tyler Durden 0

Authored by Mohamed El-Erian via Bloomberg.com,

Persistently low inflation, or “lowflation,” is vexing lots of people. According to the recent minutes of policy meetings of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, central banks on both sides of the Atlantic have been trying to identify the causes — but with limited success so far. This complicates monetary policy decisions and undermines the range of institutional solutions that have been proposed by academics. Until this changes, central banks may need to think more holistically about the objectives of monetary policy, including the unintended consequences for future financial stability and growth of being too loose for too long.

Four facts stand out in reviewing recent inflation data:

  • Inflation rates have been unusually and persistently low.
  • This is primarily an advanced-country phenomenon.
  • Inflation has not responded to the prolonged pursuit of ultra-low interest rates and huge injections of liquidity by central banks through quantitative easing. 
  • This has coincided with a period of notable job creation, especially in the U.S., thereby flattening the “Phillips curve” that plots unemployment and inflation rates.

Many economists worry that such lowflation frustrates the relative price adjustments that are critical to a well-functioning market economy. And if the inflation rate, and related inflationary expectations, flirt with the zero line for too long (as had occurred in Europe), there is an increased risk of actual price declines that encourages consumers to postpone their purchases, weakens economic growth, and undermines policy effectiveness (as had been the case in Japan).

The many reasons that have been put forward for the lowflation phenomenon range from benign measurement errors to worrisome structural drivers, with a host of “idiosyncratic factors” in the middle. Indeed, the Fed minutes released last week contain a list of possible drivers. These also note that a few central bankers are questioning the usefulness of traditional models and approaches in explaining and predicting inflation behavior. The recent ECB minutes also refer to “a number of explanatory factors” for lowflation and the importance of monitoring “the extent to which such factors could be transient or more permanent.” (And that is not the only issue vexing central bankers and economists more generally — productivity and wage formation have also been puzzles to an unusual extent.)

Turning to solutions, some economists have suggested that central banks increase their inflation targets, typically set at 2 percent currently. Others have proposed that the monetary authorities should pursue a price level target so that shortfalls in meeting the desired inflation rate in one year would require aiming for a higher rate in the subsequent year.

As attractive as they may sound to some, these solutions are operationally challenged, particularly if structural factors are depressing inflation. 

Having failed to meet the 2 percent target despite aggressive monetary policy, it is far from obvious that central banks would be able to meet a higher objective. And no one is quite sure how the political system would respond to a central bank that pursues much higher inflation as it tries to offset the shortfalls of prior years. Indeed, until we have a better understanding of how the transmission mechanism has evolved, there is no guarantee that a change in policy approach would do anything more than threaten even greater collateral damage and unintended consequences.

Already, economies on both side of the Atlantic must contend with the risk that a loose monetary policy approach may have overly repressed financial volatility, excessively boosted a range of asset prices beyond what is warranted by economic fundamentals, and encouraged too much risk-taking by non-banks. Indeed, in the Fed minutes, the central bank staff noted that “since the April assessment, vulnerabilities associated with asset valuation pressures had edged up from notable to elevated.” Robust job creation, financial conditions, and the overall health of the economy should guide monetary policy formation rather than the excessive pursuit of a still-misunderstood lowflation.

The lowflation demon is real and, in the case of the U.S., the market now believes that it will likely dissuade the Fed from delivering on the next signaled step in the gradual normalization of monetary policy, including an interest rate hike in the remainder of 2017. Yet a lot more work is needed to understand the causes and consequences of persistently low inflation. Until that happens, central bankers may be well advised to stick with the demon they know rather than end up with one of future financial instability that undermines prospects for growth and prosperity.

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