Many have named a U.S. housing recovery as a bright spot in a so-called broader domestic economic recovery.
And data seems to support this analysis, despite a slowdown in sales momentum at the end of the year. Existing home sales in December were up 12.8% from the same time in 2011, with the total number of sales in 2012 rising to the highest level in five years, according to the National Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, the annual price for existing homes also jumped to the highest level since 2005, with the median price of a home up 11.5% in December from the same period in 2011.
But David Stockman, former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan Administration sees little to get excited about.
He tells The Daily Ticker, “I would say we have a housing bubble…again.”
Stockman argues a combination of artificially low interest rates and speculation are to blame, not unlike the last boom and bust cycle in real estate.
“We don’t have a real organic sustainable recovery because in a world of medicated money by the central bank, things aren’t what they appear to be,” Stockman argues.
And according to Stockman, it’s this medicated, cheap money being put to work by investors that’s driving the apparent healing in some of the hardest hit real estate markets in the country.
“It’s happening in the most speculative sub-prime markets, where massive amounts of ‘fast money’ is rolling in to buy, to rent, on a speculative basis for a quick trade,” he contends. “And as soon as they conclude prices have moved enough, they’ll be gone as fast as they came.”
By ‘fast money’, Stockman is referring to professional investors like hedge funds and private equity firms. To his point, global investment firm Blackstone (BX) has spent more that $2.5 billion on 16,000 homes to manage as rentals, according to Bloomberg. It’s now the country’s largest investor in single-family homes to manage as rentals, with properties in nine markets. And Blackstone is joined by others like Colony Capital LLC and Two Harbors Investment Corp. (SBY) in trying to turn this market into a new institutional asset class, Bloomberg reports.
Stockman argues the problem in housing is the two forces needed for a recovery, first-time buyers and trade-up buyers, are missing. With the combination of 7.9% unemployment and staggering student loan debt, he doesn’t see a young generation of new home buyers coming into the market. And with baby boomers heading for retirement with less than adequate savings, he thinks they’ll be trading down with their homes, not up.
Stockman sees a rise in interest rates as the trigger for any kind of bust. He says you can’t have zero rates forever, referring to the Fed’s ZIRP and quantitative easing policies of the last several years.
“As soon as the Fed has to normalize interest rates, housing prices will stop appreciating and they’ll probably head down,” he explains. “The fast money will sell as quickly as they can and the bubble will pop almost as rapidly as it’s appeared. I don’t know how many times we’re going to do this, and the only people who benefit are the top one percent – the hedge funds, the LBO funds, the fast money people who come in for a trade, make a quick buck, and move along to the next bubble.”
Mortgage rates, for their part, rose from an average 3.42 percent to 3.53 percent on Thursday, the sharpest increase in 10 months, according to the weekly survey of 30-year mortgages by Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage company. Even still, mortgage rates are hovering around their lowest levels in more than 30 years.
As for the “American Dream” of home ownership, Stockman argues the past model where the government was trying to get to 69% home ownership was a huge policy mistake that led to no-downpayment loans, liars loans, and a degradation of lending standards. He says the government should have no dog in the hunt when it comes to ownership versus renting.
“Let the market decide,” Stockman says.