Uncle Sam's Fire Sale. Minimum Investment: $1 Billion
In my investment letter, Addison Wiggin’s Apogee Advisory, we spend a great deal of time, money and resources looking for new investment ideas that our subscribers can act on independently. Sometimes what we find instead is outrage.
For example, the federal government is about to dump millions of the foreclosed homes at fire-sale prices to hedge funds and private-equity firms with government connections. If you’re an individual investor who might like to get in on the action, forget it! You’re shut out of this deal.
Homeowners who might be interested in buying the foreclosure property next door? Out of luck. And retirees hoping for a return on their money more than 1.8% on a five-year CD find another avenue closed off.
Prior to the calamity of 2008, we might have thought the deal we’re profiling today unthinkable. But now we’re becoming as immune to new instances of blatant cronyism as American babies are to diphtheria.
If you’ve got the hammer for it, we may as well get down to brass tacks: As many as 10,000 properties might be unloaded in a single transaction during the first quarter of 2012 — thanks to a government program so new it doesn’t have a catchy name yet, only the working title “Enterprise/FHA REO Asset Disposition.”
Roger Arnold, chief economist for Pasadena, Calif.-based ALM Advisors, has a different name for it — “the largest transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector.”
As of last September, there were about 800,000 “real estate owned” or REO homes in the United States — homes repossessed and on the market. Close to one-third of these — 250,000 — sit on the books of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration. That is, 250,000 homes are owned by you and me, the US taxpayers.
But that number is about to explode: According to Ken Harney at the real estate industry publication Inman News, “The three agencies face a tsunami-sized shadow inventory that is now heading their way — a combined 1.4 million delinquent loans on their books, at least half of which, they estimate, will end up in foreclosure.”
So now we’re talking that 250,000 number suddenly ballooning to nearly a million. The early-warning waves of the tsunami started lapping at the shore in November, when foreclosure auctions reached a nine-month high. The final numbers might end up even higher: Late-stage delinquencies tallied by Lender Processing Services in January approach 2 million.
Thus, the hypothetical excuse for the fire sale: “Even with heroic efforts,” Harney says, “Fannie, Freddie and FHA won’t be able to handle that level of REO volume using their current systems of individual sales, directed at owner-occupants and small investors.”
Thus, “You and I will not be allowed to participate,” says Roger Arnold of the newprogram. “These [new] investors will come from the private-equity and fund community, Goldman Sachs and its derivatives, as well as foreign sovereign wealth funds that can bring a billion dollars or more to each transaction.
“The US taxpayer will get pennies on the dollar for these homes, and then be allowed to rent them back at market rates.”
The groundwork is being laid right now. During the first week of January, the Federal Reserve issued a white paper on housing: “A government-facilitated REO-to-rental program,” it said, “has the potential to help the housing market and improve loss recoveries on REO portfolios.” Three Fed governors put the word out in speeches the same week.
The big boys can smell the money and they are lining up to play.
Among the players that expect to profit big from this government-sponsored scam are the private firms that already manage properties for the government. The Department of Housing and Urban Development calls them “management and marketing contractors.” Their principal owners and officers tend to consist of former high-ranking officials with HUD, the Treasury, FHA and so on.
There are 20 of these “M&M” firms, according to a list on HUD’s website. On the theory that perhaps you could reclaim some of your tax dollars by investing in these firms — the same theory with which we suggested ITA, the defense and aerospace ETF — we examined whether any of them are publicly traded. None are. Sorry.
No, the only way you’ll be able to make any money off these insider deals will come long after the feast is over and you’re allowed a few crumbs. “Once the privatization has occurred,” one analyst observes, “and the properties are generating rental income for the investors, the initial investors will cash out by forming real estate investment trusts (REITs), real estate operating companies (REOCs) or limited partnerships that will be made available to retail investors.”
Alas, by then, the easy money will have been made…at your expense. Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?
That’s why, increasingly we find ourselves casting our gaze overseas, longing for returns in foreign lands in places where the governments are somewhat less corrupt and the playing field slopes somewhat less directly toward the pockets of crony-capitalists.