Sunday, March 18, 2007

The LA Housing Bubble

This is an example of a house in my neighborhood, the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. This plot is from Zillow. Can anyone really believe that this rediculous price expansion is not a price asset bubble? In 1997 this was worth $115K. By 2004 it had appeciated to about $200K. That is an 8% annualized price appeciation which is pretty good, about 6% more than the inflation rate of 2%. Then things went crazy. The bubble mentality set in. People decided that prices in this neighborhood were going to accelerate. They were right. Over the next three years the price would increase from $200K to $900K at a 65% annulaized rate. During this time houses became not places to live but things to invest in for short term gains. Failed traders from the dot-com days decided that real estate was the place to be. This house below was traded three times in these three years. The original owner sold in in 2005 for $450K and probably walked away with $350K in profit. It was bought by someone looking for a short term profit. They probably invested no more $10K by buying with an interest only, low or no down payment loan. It would go from $450K to $650K in two months. That is, they multiplied their $10K investment by 20 in two months. That annulized rate of return is over 6 billion percent!!!! By this standard the next owner was down right conservative. This person held it for a whole year and only made a $150K profit. The poor sucker that bought next for $800K may have watched this zillow chart and seen $100K of equity appear about thin air. Unfortunately it is clear to all that this bubble is busting. The poor owner probably has this house sitting on the market at inflated prices and has to bear the horror of watching the prices drop like the hapless NASDAQ in 2000.

Now consider the effects of all of this home equity appearing out of nowhere for millions of people in Los Angeles. How much money was created? Well if there are one million households in LA and if each house recieved $300K of new equity, that is 300 billion dollars. The total amount of new equity created in the US is a few trillion dollars. The effects of a few trillion dollars introduced into the economy can't be ignored. Many of people would pull money out of their homes though a home equity loan. They would use this money for home repairs, new expansions, to buy cars or pay off loans or credit card debt to free up these cards for new purchases. All this new money flooded into the economy. Much of it ended up in bank accounts which helped fuel new lending. As prices rose further and further, houses became unaffordable to most with traditional loans. But banks would not allow the party to stop. New products were dreamed up that allowed anyone to buy a house regardless of credit quality or lack of down payment. These were the interest only loans, the adjustible rate mortgage (ARMs), the negative amortization loans, the option ARM, stated income loans etc. As long as prices were rising, even poor credit buyers could sell at a profit if they couldn't keep up with payments. Banks themselves were not at risk as long as prices rose even if they put their own capital at risk through second mortgages (piggyback loans). Non-bank subprime lenders would originate multitudes of loans to poor credit buyers and sell these loans off to Wall Street banks who would send them along to hedge funds looking for high yield products where they could could make huge profits by buying these with large amounts of leverage, some of which was generated by borrowing yen at near zero rates, selling yen for dollars and buying high yield US mortgage loans. When the bust started, the Wall Street banks stopped providing capital to these risky subprime lenders who collapsed due to this liquidity crisis. This reluctance of banks and non-bank lenders to lend would further add pressure to the collapsing housing market. The end game is now obvious. This housing collapse will be the worst since the 1930s. The bubble is bigger than previous bubbles in the 70s,80s and 90s. The collapse will therefore be worse. Some people still hope that Washington or the Fed can still save housing and save the economy. Unfortunately, the only solution is for prices to come way down. In the meantime this will lead to a miserable economy, higher unemployment and probably a severe banking crisis. The Fed can probably bail out banks if it chooses to to prevent a deflation like the 1930s by lowering rates close to zero which would allow banks to make large enough profits on the spread to cover real estate losses. However it can't make people spend like they did before. It can't restart the boom. It is time finally to face the music and deal with the fact that our economy cannot grow at these unsustainable rates of past years.