The House Bounce?

Houses bounce too…

Not much happened yesterday. The Dow fell 47 points. The newspapers attributed the reversal to surprisingly low consumer confidence numbers. Apparently, consumers aren’t so sure this crisis is over. As we reported yesterday, they’re saving money…maybe even at an 8% rate.

Oil didn’t move yesterday. Neither did gold.

The Wall Street Journal reported that markets were reacting to “mixed data.”

That is to say, some reports were encouraging. Others were not. It was as if one weather forecaster called for a blizzard and the other for sunny skies and warm temperatures. Investors didn’t know how to dress.

Among the dark clouds was an item on the falloff in tax revenues. States are having a hard time balancing their books, because their tax receipts are declining. The WSJ reports that they are running 17% below last year. Since states cannot print money, they’re forced to make cutbacks – typically reducing hours worked per employee as well as the total number of employees. This is a bad thing, says the report, because it increases unemployment and lowers the wage base, leading to less consumer spending.

Another little cloud appeared yesterday (in addition to the consumer confidence numbers): the vacation timeshare market is collapsing at a record pace.

Well, don’t worry about it. We met a guy who explained the timeshare business to us.

“What you’re selling is a dream. You bring them to the property. You make sure they have a good time. And then you do to the numbers with them. You show them how much they save by coming to your property rather than on a typical vacation. And then you show them the other properties that they can exchange for. They think they can buy a cheap property and then exchange with an expensive timeshare. But it doesn’t work that way. They get stuck in the cheap unit and the dream gets a little faded. And then, they stop coming…and then they try to sell the timeshare. Timeshares are rarely a good investment.”

Besides, timeshares are a small, quirky part of the housing picture anyway. The real story is in the regular housing market. There, if you believe the forecasters, it’s sunny skies.

House prices seem to be stabilizing. In some areas, they are going up. Of course, in some places you can get a house at half the price it sold for two years ago. That lures buyers back into the market. If we wanted a house to live in, we might be tempted too. That’s why we like falling prices in housing; we get more for our money. But most people want a rising housing market. They think it makes them richer.

They’re likely to be disappointed. They show up at the beach with their umbrellas and sun tan lotion…just as a winter storm hits the coast.

Forbes lists eight reasons to “remain worried about housing”:

  • The federal tax credit, worth $8,000, is set to expire at the end of November. That will make housing $8,000 more expensive for first-time buyers.
  • The Fed is also ending its $1.45 trillion shopping spree. It has been supporting housing by buying mortgage-backed derivatives. What will happen when it stops?
  • Mortgage lending standards are tightening up generally.
  • Houses are still not cheap. Forbes cites Shiller’s numbers, putting the average house 41% higher than it was in 2000. Incomes did not increase during that period; ergo, houses are still too expensive.
  • Damaged psychology. It will take time for potential homeowners to get over the shock of a bear market.
  • The end of summer has arrived. Housing sales always go up in the summer. People relocate in summer, when school is out. Then, sales fall with the autumn leaves.
  • There are still huge numbers of houses that will be foreclosed. Forbes says only 12% of option ARMs have been reset. More foreclosures will increase the supply of desperate sellers and decrease prices.
  • There’s a ‘shadow inventory’ hanging over the housing market; it could be vast. Everyone knew it would be hard to sell a house in 2009. Many potential sellers held back, waiting for the market to stabilize. As they put their houses up for sale, that too will hold prices down.

Some wiseacre economist has probably already come up with eight reasons why housing prices will go up. But the key thing to recall is that this is a depression…a major restructuring of the economy, not a standard post-war recession. After 64 years, the consumer has finally rung a bell. He has reached his limit. He cannot borrow more. He cannot spend more. He is finally cutting back. That fact will echo through the entire world economy…and through the US housing market…for many years.

Houses, like stocks and corpses, may bounce. But they will not begin a real bull market again for a long, long time.

Our old friend Marc Faber is “highly confident” that things will turn out badly.

“The future will be a total disaster, with a collapse of our capitalistic system as we know it today, wars, massive government debt defaults and the impoverishment of large segments of Western society,” he writes.

“We have a money-printer at the Fed,” he continues, “which guarantees runaway inflation, wholesale debasement of the dollar, and a major lowering of living standards for most Americans and many Europeans as well.

“Meanwhile, Paul Volcker says that China’s rise merely ‘highlights the relative decline of the US.’”

So there you have it: China on the way up, America on the way down.

That’s the drama that we’re watching every day, here at The Daily Reckoning. In our view, the peak of US wealth and power probably came during the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Lehman Bros. But there are probably a lot more shoes to drop before people are fully aware of what is going on.

The way we see it, almost the entire 20th century was a mistake…a dead end.

Europeans were clearly on top of the world when the century began. Then, after WWI the Europeans in America took the lead role. But WWI shook their faith in their evolving political order. Not long after, the German hyperinflation and the Great Depression shook their faith in their economic and financial order. This left a huge vacuum, which was soon filled by ruthless adventurers and ideological schemers. Much of the rest of the century…from ’39 to ’89…was spent in hot wars and cold wars against these Bolsheviks, Fascists, Stalinists and Maoists.

In the end, the more reasonable and consensual societies of the West won the battle. But they, too, were transformed by 50 years of war and nearly a century of bad ideas.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you,” Nietzsche warned.

Looking into the abyss created by Mussolini, Hitler, Tojo, Pol Pot, and the rest, Western societies decided both to fight them…and to join them. Tax rates soared. Regulations multiplied. University professors taught socialism, Freudianism, modernism, cubism, feminism, racism…and every other ‘ism’ they could think of. Parents spent good money to spend their children to universities that turned them into mush-heads.

And – perhaps most ominous – in the United States of America, the military grew into a greedy, grasping goliath…the very thing Eisenhower had warned against.

Then, there were counter-trends in the ’80s…led by Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the United States. But these were mostly frauds. Top marginal tax rates were rolled back. And there were some cuts in regulatory procedures. But government spending tended to go up anyway. Worse, Ronald Reagan mistook the Soviet Union for a genuine threat and increased military spending even further to combat it.

And now, the United States staggers under the weight of its eternal wars…its imperial illusions…and its everlasting efforts to provide bread and circuses. If it kept its books like a private enterprise, it would be broke. If it were a public corporation, it would be de-listed.

Still, it spends and spends…and there is no stopping the spending. Trillions are spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for no apparent reason. But who complains? Too much money is at stake. There are too many lobbyists for too many industries and too many special interests involved. Military spending – even in a time when America faces no substantial challengers – cannot be rolled back. Neither can social spending.

Marc Faber is right. There too, there are too many people with too many dogs in this fight. Both military and social spending will continue to expand until the empire is ruined.

Until tomorrow,

Bill Bonner
The Daily Reckoning