Monday, November 28, 2011

U.S. government goes after mortgage scammers

It sickens me to see that some people will happily screw over people who are already in trouble:
The federal government is cracking down on scammers who target struggling homeowners looking to lower their monthly mortgage payments.

Hundreds of con artists have been taking advantage of victims through online advertisements on search engines Google, Bing and Yahoo!, promising to help homeowners modify their mortgages through the government-run program known as the Home Affordable Modification Program (or HAMP).

Last week, the agency that investigates fraud, waste and abuse in the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, announced that it has shut down 85 scams that were advertising on Google. Then, on Monday, it announced it had halted another 125 shady advertisers on Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing search engine. ...

Ever since HAMP and other federal aid programs aimed at helping struggling homeowners were launched, scam artists have been finding ways to exploit them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Government auditor: FHA at financial risk

I previously posted about an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) report claiming that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) could be at financial risk. Now it's not just partisan think tanks making the claim. It's the FHA's own government auditor:
Chances are nearly 50 percent that the Federal Housing Administration will need a bailout next year if the housing market deteriorates further, the agency’s independent auditor said in a report released Tuesday.

The F.H.A., which offers private lenders guarantees against homeowner default, has just $2.6 billion in cash reserves, the report found, down from $4.7 billion last year.

The agency’s woes stem from the national foreclosure crisis. In the last three years, the F.H.A. has paid $37 billion in insurance claims against defaulting homeowners, shrinking its cash cushion.

The auditors determined the agency’s level of supplemental cash reserves by projecting losses on its mortgage portfolio and counting them against expected premium revenue. This year, the audit found that the F.H.A. supplemental reserve was less than one-quarter of a percentage point of its current portfolio: $2.6 billion against a $1.1 trillion mortgage portfolio, as of Sept. 30. Legally, the housing agency is required to keep a 2 percent cash buffer, a target it has not met since 2008.
The FHA is paying out $37 billion per year, but they only have $2.6 billion in cash reserves? That $2.6 billion of cash reserves insures a $1.1 TRILLION mortgage portfolio? Really? What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Politicians are as reckless with money as Wall Street bankers

Congress wants to give a near-bankrupt agency a larger role in the housing market:
Taxpayers are finding that there may be a bill to pay one day for the government’s role in backing low down payment mortgages, even as Congress appears ready to double down on the agency backstopping those loans.

On Tuesday, the Federal Housing Administration is set to report annual finances showing that the agency barely has enough cash to cover anticipated losses. Meanwhile, Congress looks poised to take steps that will increase FHA’s role in the housing market.
This can't possibly go wrong!

Friday, November 11, 2011

AEI: Federal Housing Administration at financial risk

The American Enterprise Institute worries that the Federal Housing Administration could be headed for financial trouble:
Concerns are rising that the Federal Housing Administration could run out [of] money if the economy doesn't recover soon, raising the risk the agency would seek a taxpayer bailout for the first time in its 77-year history.

Since the mortgage crisis erupted five years ago, the FHA has played a critical role in housing finance as private lenders retreated. It backs about a third of all new mortgages originated for home purchases, up from around 5% in 2006.

But, as the FHA prepares to release its annual financial report next week, a forthcoming study by Joseph Gyourko, a real estate and finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, estimates that the FHA faces around $50 billion in losses in the coming years.

The study says only a "quick and substantial economic and housing market recovery" can avoid "substantial losses for American taxpayers." The paper was commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

The study says the losses will be spread over a period of many years and are unlikely to bankrupt the agency this year or next.

The study isn't the first to predict the FHA's insolvency.
While reports from partisan think tanks should always be taken with a grain of salt, I have long worried that the federal government's attempts to prop up housing prices could be causing it to under-price the risk of government-insured loans.

The theory is simple: In the first half of the last decade, midsize banks like Countrywide Financial, Washington Mutual, and IndyMac supported a bubble by making bad mortgage loans. After the bubble burst and the financial crisis began, the federal government stepped in to prop up housing prices by... making bad mortgage loans.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Foreclosure filings down 31% year-over-year; up 7% month-over-month

The number of foreclosure filings rose 7% in October vs. September. This could mean foreclosures are starting to pick up again, but it's hard to know for sure because month-to-month numbers are naturally volatile.
The number of foreclosures climbed in October, as mortgage lenders started to work through the paperwork problems that had delayed new filings for much of the last year.

Foreclosure filings were reported on 230,678 properties nationwide in October, a 7% increase from September, reported RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for foreclosed properties. Despite the increase, filings were still 31% below year-earlier levels, though.

RealtyTrac said one in every 563 U.S. homes had either a default notice, a scheduled auction or a bank repossession filing during the month.

"The October foreclosure numbers continue to show strong signs that foreclosure activity is coming out of the rain delay we've been in for the past year as lenders corrected foreclosure paperwork and processing problems," said James Saccacio, RealtyTrac's CEO.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

CoreLogic: home prices down 4.1% year-over-year

According to CoreLogic, home prices have fallen 4.1% from September 2010 to September 2011. Fitch Ratings predicts another 10% drop in U.S. home prices.
Prices fell 1.1% month to month, according to CoreLogic, both in seasonally adjusted and unadjusted terms. This is the second consecutive month of monthly drops, as we head into the slower fall season.

The more concerning aspect of the report is that while home prices including foreclosures and short sales fell 4.1 percent from September of 2010, they still fell 1.1 percent when you exclude distressed sales. ...

While the unemployment picture has weighed heavily on home prices all year, the new uptick in foreclosure starts will likely have a more drastic effect. Foreclosure start rates on severely delinquent loans have increased to over 10 percent a month in the private-label RMBS (residential mortgage backed securities) sector, according to Fitch, which is now estimating another 10 percent decline in home prices before they fully stabilize.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Home-ownership rate ticked up in Q3 2011

The U.S. home-ownership rate had a surprise quarter-over-quarter rise in the third quarter of the year. The year-over-year trend is still down, however:
The nation's home-ownership rate ticked up in the third quarter, suggesting a three-year decline in home ownership may be starting to bottom out. The rental vacancy rate also rose, in a sign that rising rents could be reducing demand.

The Census Bureau reported Wednesday that the nation's seasonally adjusted home-ownership rate stood at 66.1% in the third quarter, up slightly from 66% in the previous quarter, though down from 66.7% a year earlier. The rental vacancy rate was 9.8%, up from 9.2% in the second quarter and down from 10.3% a year earlier.

Industry watchers warn against reading too much into results from a single quarter. The increase is small and the number could begin declining again in the fourth quarter, when colder weather means fewer Americans buy homes.

Paul Dales, a senior U.S. economist with Capital Economics, said he was initially surprised by the increase. "I don't think this alters the long term trends that have been going on," he said. "The overall housing market will remain weak and the rental market will remain strong."
As I've said before, the overall U.S. housing bubble is completely deflated, although we still have large local bubbles in the Northeast and West Coast. With rents rising nationally, I think it won't be long before the U.S. home-ownership rate hits bottom. I don't think we're there yet, though. There is still a large backlog of foreclosed homes we have to get through. Only after we get through the backlog will home builders start building again, and only after builders start building again will we have a true bottom in the U.S. home-ownership rate.