Friday, December 28, 2007

US Homeowners vs. Current Housing Slump

Imperceptibly we wake up to find that the country-wide housing slump has been with us for a good part of the current year. Media has been diligent in holding this critical issue up front in our collective consciousness especially during these times of escalating political campaigns, first for the upcoming primaries and late next year, for the real thing. We ourselves cannot help but see around town, most any town in the USA, the unavoidable signs of this slump with the ominous for-sale signs strategically planted in front of many shuttered houses, both new and old.

Because we pulsate more than just lifeless numbers in statistics, many of us find ourselves emotionally wallowing in the dreary consequences and in fearful straits of the eventual outcome of this slump. Remember the stats bare that most homeowners have families living with them. And most homeowners, whether under the shadows of a looming default or foreclosure, or those who negotiated their mortgages prior to the housing boom peak, or even those who currently hold their homes free and clear, would invariably be affected by what this lingering slump could inflict on the housing markets in the long run.

For those of us who have been homeowners for a while, we have some calming experiences to lean on in making our personal assessments of the current predicament. In 1990 we also witnessed a similar general housing downturn which lasted for a year or two. But we got over that and by 2005 the housing boom was in full bloom anew, in spite of the unimaginable turn of events in the intervening years – the crashing tech bust in 2000 and the ensuing financial letdown caused by the devastating events of 9/11.

As early as 2005, 68.9% of all housing units in the US were occupied by their owners. And the current housing slump is definitely hitting hardest from within that favored group. Divided racially, Whites (Europeans) hold the highest percentage in homeownership at 75%, while Asians trailed behind at 60%. And it should be noted that the other races are not far behind, both African Americans and Hispanics both registering close to 50%.

Clearly by 2007 homeownership had breached the 70% level and regardless of the eventual outcome it has become a singularly significant accomplishment for families latching on to the American dream.

We can now debate ceaselessly what brought about the many challenges in the housing markets, whose visibly glaring results have been the record defaults and foreclosures and family dislocations. Included in the mixed bag of causes has been the following: the easy money brought on by a host of factors, very lax and lenient lending practices, and the two capital human sins of greed and fraud. And throw in there the inaction and/or delayed responses by federal regulators in trying to stem that fast-rising trend that was heading toward what many adjudge as a speculative bubble.

Hindsight speculations, indiscriminate finger-pointing, or inveterate hand-wringing, and etc. will definitely not amount to much for those who are already in the throes of losing their precious homes many of whom were beneficiaries of sub-prime and other exotic mode of lending. And early corrective actions will benefit even those credit-worthy homeowners who will start to see values in their neighborhoods diminishing because of rushed or pressured sales, or even foreclosure auctions. Thus the cascading loss of equity in homes will begin to dry up a good source of increased consumer spending, a critical factor in continued economic growth.

And we are also learning of the spillover effects of this slump into initially, the support industries complementing housing construction like the flooring, carpet, tiles, and landscaping sectors. And in the long run to consumer confidence and spending. And thus ultimately, the broader economy would be affected.

But on the other side, we can continue to be hopeful and there are many encouraging signs pointing toward this direction. The US economy is still very vibrant and growth-oriented, productivity still at enviable levels. And while the slump in housing lumbers on, the broader economy at least is not beset with other potentially-catastrophic weaknesses that might impact on its ability to deal squarely with the housing slump. Even the recurring fears of a recession are being hotly debated on both sides, so it is still a toss-up as to whether we are experiencing the onset of one or not.

Thus while the housing slump has been with us for a long enough time, the broader economy continues to be on even keel, which is unequivocally a good sign. And already, corrective actions in the real estate markets are being felt. 30-year fixed mortgages are back in style while long-term interest rates continue to be attractive and affordable. True, resets in mortgage interest will continue to be a factor for the ensuing years for most of those loans under variable rates, which some estimate could stagger to a total of 1 trillion dollars worth. Again, we are hopeful the US economy can ride this over, over and above dark predictions such as that we have not seen foreclosures this much and this many, coupled with widespread home prices downswings, since the depression years of the 20’s.

Update:

One may wonder what the connection is between Narvik in faraway and cold Norway and the troubled housing slumps in sunny California and Florida. This should explain a bit how extensive the ripples are caused by the latter. And reveals somewhat who the rest of the international players that are involved in all this.