Sunday, July 31, 2011

Is a U.S. debt rating downgrade the end of the world?

The Wall Street Journal cites example of other rich countries that have suffered debt ratings downgrades:
Japan, Canada and Australia, among others, have suffered the ignominy of being downgraded from top credit ratings.

By and large, borrowing costs remained fairly steady and, in some instances, eventually declined. Stock markets wavered but generally rebounded, while the response in currency markets varied widely.

"When [a downgrade] happened in the past, was it the end of the world?" asks Nick Bennenbroek, head of currency strategy at Wells Fargo & Co. "The reaction wasn't positive, but it wasn't extreme."

For the U.S., history suggests the outcome could even be a long-term positive if a downgrade prods policy makers to get the government's fiscal house in order.

While circumstances and economic paths differed, the impacts of the ratings change itself weren't significant, analysts say. One reason is that ratings changes are usually well-advertised in advance, allowing markets to adjust gradually. But more important for the markets than the ratings moves, analysts say, are the country's underlying economic trends.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What happens if U.S. debt gets downgraded?

In this Wall Street Journal video, note the effect on the housing market:

Friday, July 29, 2011

Realtors fear a national debt default will hurt the housing market

...because it will. In fact, they claim the housing market is already being hurt:
The National Association of Realtors®, on behalf of its 1.1 million members, their clients and customers, and the nation’s 75 million homeowners, urges Congress to resolve the mounting debt ceiling crisis before the August 2 deadline.

Until a resolution is reached, Congress will be unable to address the myriad issues facing the nation’s families, communities, and economy. The indecision in Congress is paralyzing progress on other fronts, and it is harming home buyer confidence and negatively affecting home sales.
Typically bearish economist Paul Krugman puts it this way:
Just to make a point that could be overlooked in the confusing discussion about the effects of default on financial markets: It’s true that nobody really knows what effect failure to make full payment on the debt will have. It could produce calamity, or it could be contained, with borrowing rates for the private sector barely affected.

But what we do know is that if the government is forced to slash spending when the money runs out — if it stops sending out Social Security checks, or stops paying vendors, or whatever — this will have a huge negative impact on the economy. We’ll be doing a 1937 squared.
And yes, it will hurt the Washington, DC metro area.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Who is Anders Behring Breivik, Norway's terrorist?

Anders Behring Breivik, Norway's terrorist who killed at least 76 people on Friday, July 22, was an active member of the website Here is a brief writeup they have about his political beliefs:
He writes mostly about what Americans call the cultural war; focused on immigration, demography, identity, and politics in the broader sense.

His main enemy is not muslims, but multiculturalists and what he calls cultural marxists. This is a term that some on the political right uses. It is vague and can be used about almost anything. ...

Actually there is nothing in Behring Breivik’s writings that indicates that he was violent.

His thoughts about multicultural society are run of the mill on the political right, with some personal eccentric ideas, i.e. the use of the word conservatism. He calls himself and the movement he identifies with national conservatism. He writes positively about Israel and the Jews’ right to defend themselves. He argues against ethnocentrism and says the answer to racism cannot be another form of racism. ...

Behring Breivik uses some terms that indicates a more dubious side: he thinks the cultural marxists are deceitful. They hide their real agenda. Behind a veneer of human rights and humanism they are surreptiously working for the realization of a political utopia of their own design. This utopia means the death of European culture and belief, and finally the subjugation of Europeans. He was convinced the cultural marxists are in cahoots with the islamists.
This is your typical right-wing terrorist in the mold of Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Home sales cancellations spiked in June

The existing home sales cancellation rate, usually under 10%, spiked to 16% in June:
Forecasters expected sales of existing homes to rise in June because the pending home sales index, which measures signed contracts, rose in May. If you consider it takes 1-2 months to close, then there's your indicator.

But that was not the case. Sales fell, not by much...

What Realtors and prognosticators did not even consider was a strange phenomenon: June saw a spike in the contract cancellation rate to 16 percent. Existing home cancellation rates usually run under ten percent, and, in fact, in May were at just 4 percent. Cancellation rates for new home construction usually run higher than that, as buyers of newly built homes tend to be more volatile and put less (often nothing) down when signing a contract.

"I think it's the broader, very slow economic activity," said Lawrence Yun, the National Association of Realtors' chief economist, who earlier told a room full of reporters that he was still trying to find the source of the spike. "The economy is expanding at a very slow pace, job creation is very slow, the consumer confidence has certainly taken hit in the second quarter, so there could have been some buyers who had some second thoughts and just decided to pull out of the contract, but at the moment it's still unclear as to why there was a measurable rise in cancellations."

Monday, July 18, 2011

The failures of the U.S. News college ranking system

The New York Times points out a major flaw in the U.S. News university ranking system. The article is about law schools, but it applies to their college rankings too.
From 1989 to 2009, when college tuition rose by 71 percent, law school tuition shot up 317 percent.

There are many reasons for this ever-climbing sticker price, but the most bizarre comes courtesy of the highly influential US News rankings. Part of the US News algorithm is a figure called expenditures per student, which is essentially the sum that a school spends on teacher salaries, libraries and other education expenses, divided by the number of students.

Though it accounts for just 9.75 percent of the algorithm, it gives law schools a strong incentive to keep prices high. Forget about looking for cost efficiencies. The more that law schools charge their students, and the more they spend to educate them, the better they fare in the US News rankings.
So, basically, universities are rewarded by U.S. News for not being cost-efficient. If they are cost-efficient, they get punished.

I have recently come to the conclusion that rewarding universities for being "selective" is another major flaw in the U.S. News college rankings. Taking smart students in and spitting smart students out is no great educational accomplishment. What should be rewarded is taking dumb students in and spitting smart students out.

By rewarding selectivity, universities get rewarded in the rankings for limiting access to education, rather than expanding it. Harvard, for example, has an endowment in the tens of billions of dollars. They could use that money to build university campuses throughout the U.S. or the world like the University of Phoenix does, but instead they invest their excess money in what is essentially a massive hedge fund. By restricting access to education, Harvard boosts its ranking. By expanding access to education, the University of Phoenix hurts its ranking.

I am certainly not suggesting that the University of Phoenix should be considered a highly-ranked school. I have no idea what the actual quality of their education is, but I am suggesting that universities should not be punished for taking the Bruce Lee approach of teaching anyone who wants to learn.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Real estate fraud is alive and well

It appears fraud didn't just exist on the up side of the bubble, it exists on the down side as well. CNN Money explains short sale fraud:
The scam artists, usually real estate agents, will secure a legitimate bid on a home, one where the borrower owes far more on the mortgage than the home is worth. Then they arrange for an accomplice investor to make a lower offer on the home.

The agent then presents the lower bid to the lender and asks them to forgive any remaining balance owed — without disclosing that there was a higher bid made on the home. Once the short sale is approved, the scammer then sells the home to the higher bidder, often on the same day. ...

Such transactions are expected to cost lenders more than $375 million this year, up more than 20% from last year, according to CoreLogic. ...

To get the banks to approve low bids, appraisals or broker price opinions are manipulated. ... Sometimes, said Hagberg, fraudsters bribe appraisers or brokers to get the prices they want but they can employ sneakier methods as well. ... Sometimes an agent will point out every defect in the home to get appraisers to reduce their values, according to Hagberg.

The impact of short sale fraud goes well beyond the direct losses to banks. These frauds have become so common, it has become more difficult for legitimate short-sale transactions to go through. That hurts sellers because it forces more of them into foreclosure.
Just one more reason not to trust Realtors®.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bubble illusion

University of Oregon economics professor Mark Thoma writes:
A couple of recent conversations have convinced me that many people have "bubble illusion." When they talk about how much they have lost on their houses and in the stock market, and how that has affected their feelings of economic certainty, etc., the losses are almost always expressed relative to the peak bubble value rather than to a realistic assessment of what the house or stock was actually worth during the bubble years.
It does seem to me that whenever asset values are below their peak, people compare them to the peak. When the peak was a bubble, they're not thinking rationally.

Friday, July 8, 2011

More government help for homeowners

The Obama administration has yet another plan to help homeowners:
The Obama administration has announced yet another initiative to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.

Earlier this week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it would extend the period of time unemployed homeowners with Federal Housing Authority-backed mortgages could skip or make smaller mortgage payments to a minimum of 12 months, up from a minimum of four.

The extension should help solve a persistent problem with FHA's existing forbearance program: Even though servicers of FHA-insured loans were able to offer borrowers longer grace periods before, most opted to limit offers to the minimum period of four months, an inadequate timeframe, according to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.

"Providing the option for a year of forbearance will give struggling homeowners a substantially greater chance of finding employment before they lose their home," he said. Under the program, borrowers are expected to make up the skipped payments once they return to work.
I don't mind this plan nearly as much as Obama's earlier plans, because this plan focuses only on people who are actually unemployed. Most previous plans were designed to help people whose hopes of getting rich quick through real estate didn't pan out. Most previous plans focused on the value of the house, rather than the employment status of the homeowner.

That said, there are two things I don't like about this plan:
  1. It sounds like homeowners under the plan will have higher mortgage payments after they return to work than before they lost their jobs. Although it's better than having to pay a mortgage when unemployed, homeowners may still have a financial burden that is too difficult to handle. Thus, they may still end up losing their homes.
  2. The utter unfairness that homeowners are still treated better than renters by the government. A homeowner who loses his job gets to stop paying his mortgage, but a renter who loses his job still has to pay his rent. America's poor are much more likely to be renters than homeowners, so this is a regressive plan.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Where the price declines are (and aren't) in the DC area

Click on the map to see the full-size version. Each circle represents a zip code. Red circles show places that fell more than the DC metro area average since the peak. Green circles show places that fell less than the DC metro area average.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Which investments pay the most?

From David Leonhardt, via Greg Mankiw:
The Hamilton Project, a research group in Washington, has just finished a comparison of college with other investments. It found that college tuition in recent decades has delivered an inflation-adjusted annual return of more than 15 percent. For stocks, the historical return is 7 percent. For real estate, it’s less than 1 percent.