Housing Numbers Err on the Bright Side

Is it time to buy a house?


If you need a place to live and want to own a house, why not? Prices in some areas are fairly reasonable. But if you’re speculating, our guess is that you’ll get a better deal if you wait.

Why? For the many reasons we have given you in these Daily Reckonings. House prices may be firming in some areas – that’s what the Case-Shiller numbers seem to show. But nationwide, they are probably headed down for quite a while longer.

Herewith, four reasons why:

First, as you know, this is a depression. It will probably be long. And deep. You wouldn’t know it from looking at the stock market or reading the news. The Dow went up another 114 points yesterday. Oil rose to $71. And the dollar – anticipating inflation – fell to $1.44 per euro.

But that’s what bounces are supposed to look like. They look good enough so that people mistake them for the real thing…and get suckered into more losses.

This is a depression. Depressions drag down asset prices. Typically, prices become much more reasonable. And then they reach UNREASONABLE levels. House prices have become reasonable. Now they will become unreasonably cheap…

Second, waves of resets and foreclosures are still washing over the housing market. As Barry Ritholz told us in Vancouver, we’re only half way through the foreclosure process. There are more than 18 million empty houses in America. A news report yesterday told of a 32-storey apartment building in Florida with only one lonely tenant. And still coming up are more refinancings…more drowning homeowners …and more people giving up on homeownership altogether. The bubble era created new households at the rate of 1.2 million per year. Practically every one of them wanted to get in on the housing boom. Now, there are only 500,000 new households per year. And few of them still believe that housing is the route to wealth. At the current rate, it will take many years to fill up all America’s empty houses.

Third, incomes are falling. Property crashed because people with average incomes could no longer afford to buy the average house. Now, they can afford even less. Ken Rogoff estimates that the consumer needs 6-8 years to pay his debts down to a more reasonable level. Part of that deleveraging process will mean getting rid of heavy mortgage debt – one way or another.

Fourth, there are too many houses that are too big…and in the wrong places. Big houses were a status symbol in the bubble years. Now they’re a symbol of extravagance and error. Plus, they’re expensive to own. People will want to dump them – even if they can afford them. There was far too much building in the outlying suburbs of the sand states too – Arizona, Nevada, California and Florida. Those houses may have to be abandoned as people are forced to move closer to where the work is.

There are also a couple of more technical reasons why the Case-Shiller numbers may be erring on the bright side: seasonal adjustments and a changing mix of houses sold. But our guess is that real house prices – adjusted for inflation – will continue going down for many more years.

You want to see deflation? Go to Tokyo City in London. The restaurant chain says it is going to give its food away for free. Customers will pay for drinks plus 2 pounds 50 pence for service.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo itself prices are falling – again. The Japanese have had on-again, off-again deflation for the last 20 years…ever since their stock market crashed in 1989.

Hey, what’s the matter with those Japanese? Don’t they know about stimulus?

Hold on there, pilgrim. What the Japanese don’t know about stimulus ain’t worth knowing. They’ve stimulated their economy so much that their government debt now measures 200% of GDP. And what did they get for all that stimulus? Did it get their economy moving?

Are you kidding? Now, the latest news tells us that they also have the highest jobless rate in 6 years. And the latest figures show the inflation rate NEGATIVE. In fact, never has the inflation rate been lower.
In other news, jobless benefits are running out for 1.5 million unemployed Americans, says a New York Times report.

And here a commentary by David Pauly on what Wall Street is doing about low earnings – lying!

“Stock analysts continue to promote corporate earnings lies, insisting that net income isn’t really what investors need to know…

“In analyst speak, Intel Corp. wasn’t hit with a $1.45 billion fine from the European Union in the second quarter for anticompetitive practices.

“After setting aside funds to cover the fine, which Intel is appealing, the semiconductor-maker had a quarterly loss of $398 million, or 7 cents a share. Disregarding the fine altogether, analysts maintain the company earned 18 cents a share, beating their average estimate of 8 cents.

“As Wall Street tells it, the employee stock options Google Inc. granted in the second quarter didn’t cost its shareholders $293 million.

“Google, according to generally accepted accounting principles, earned $1.48 billion, or $4.66 a share, in the period. Not enough for Wall Street, which prefers to say the company earned $5.36 a share, leaving out the cost of stock options.

“Viacom Inc., an entertainment company, this week reported second-quarter net income of $277 million, or 46 cents a share. Analysts had estimated profit as if money Viacom paid out in severance in the period wasn’t the real thing. On that basis, Viacom earned 49 cents a share, beating the average estimate by 1 cent.

“Time Warner Inc., a rival of Viacom for entertainment dollars, said it earned $519 million, or 43 cents a share, in the quarter. Analysts insist Time Warner earned 45 cents, excluding, according to Bloomberg data, costs related to litigation and asset sales. Lawyers must work for nothing.

“By similar Wall Street reckoning, the expense of cutting jobs and selling an asset that reduced McGraw-Hill Cos. second quarter earnings per share by 10 percent was immaterial.

“Analysts also say investors should ignore $129 million that Textron Inc., maker of small airplanes, helicopters and golf carts, charged against net income in the latest quarter. Included was the cost of shutting a plant for an eight-seat jet Textron decided not to build.

“General Electric Co., which makes jet engines and electric power equipment and has a financial services arm, had a second- quarter profit of 24 cents a share. GE and the analysts emphasized earnings from continuing operations, which at 26 cents a share, exceeded their estimate by 2 cents. A $194 million loss from discarded businesses was discarded.”

And so on…and so on…

As You Like It was as we liked it – lively, bawdy, and raucous. It is not Shakespeare’s finest play – or so the critics say. But it has some marvelous dialogue. “All the world is a stage…” is the most memorable.

Our hostess had set up a stage on the lawn and put out a hundred or so chairs for guests. But by the time we sat down it had begun to rain. The chairs were wet. A Frenchman gallantly wiped off Elizabeth’s chair. Your editor sat down in a puddle…and the play began…

The rain continued throughout the performance. Some spectators – perhaps those who listened to the weather forecast – came equipped with parkas and anoraks. We had an umbrella, which we held over our heads throughout the performance.

Despite the drippy conditions in the bleachers, a good time was had by all. The English actors who performed the play were real pros. They enlivened the set with music and acrobatics, moving the story forward four centuries, to the days of Peace & Love and strawberry fields forever. We never quite got the connection…but it seemed to work, somehow.

After the play was over, we retired to a stone barn for soup and dessert. There, we met neighbors whom we only see once a year – in August. Among them was a dear Daily Reckoning reader.

“I’m glad I bought gold when I did,” he said. “It was $600 or so at the time. So I made a gain on the gold. But the important thing was that I wasn’t caught in that sell-off in stocks last year.

“What do you think gold is going to do now?”

“Probably, it will go down,” we replied.

“So, you’re selling your gold?”

“No…we’re holding on… It’s too risky to sell it.”

Until tomorrow,

Bill Bonner
The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning