Thursday, September 09, 2010

Those Pesky Bank-Held Mortgages

Andy Kessler, a periodically-published editorialist in the Wall Street Journal and former hedge fund manager, wrote a piece at the end of August entitled TARP and the Continuing Problem of Toxic Assets.

Leaving aside recent better-than-expected housing data, and Kessler's own wacky, unworkable ideas for handling the problem assets, he did a service by reminding readers that the problem remains with us.

In his editorial, he wrote,

"Home sales dropped 27% from a year ago July to a 3.83 million annual rate, which was blamed on the May expiration of the $8,000 home buyer's tax credit. Dig deeper and its even scarier. Existing home inventory (the number of homes for sale) now stands at four million units- that's a 12.5-month supply versus the average 6.2-month supply since 1999. As late as 2005, home inventory was just 2.5 million. Using that as a baseline or normal number, there are now around 1.5 million "extra" homes on the market that are not selling and either empty or soon to be foreclosed.

And those toxic mortgage assets? As far as I can tell, most are still there, valued at "mark to wish" since the Financial Accounting Standards Board's relaxation of "mark to market" accounting rules. Who knows what they're really worth? The stock market is guessing not much, sending finance stocks like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and even J.P.Morgan down close to 52-week lows.

...without a housing turnaround, jobs in construction, decoration, mortgage banking, auto sales and finance will stay in the doldrums. Delinquency rates, which are a leading indicator of foreclosures, are on the rise. According to the latest Mortgage Bankers Association survey, in the second quarter, prime adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) delinquency rates rose to 9.3%, with prime fixed-rate mortgages seeing delinquencies up 4.75%. On the subprime side, ARM delinquencies hit 30.9% with fixed at 22.5%.

This is not good for banks that still own toxic assets of any type of mortgage, subprime or not. If home prices fall further, and I can't see too many scenarios where they won't, these toxic assets are all set to drop in value. At some point, buyers of bank debt will get nervous. If this toxic sludge were sitting on a shelf at the Treasury or Fed, it really wouldn't matter. But, instead, even a small uptick in foreclosures could take down the banking system- again."

Let's recall that major banks halted foreclosures in early 2009 due to coercion by the incoming administration. Having been forced to take TARP funds only months earlier, all the major money center banks were pretty much vulnerable to such intimidation.

That doesn't mean they don't still hold the toxic stuff, as Kessler reminds us. And that, with a continuing weak housing market, the toxic mortgages remain impaired, and could easily become worse.

At this point, I don't really think there are any better solutions than forcing banks back to "mark to market" valuations. None of Kessler's various sleight-of-hand suggestions for fixing the problem seem reasonable or feasible.

To me, this all leads back to employment. Not the construction- and housing-related employment to which Kessler referred, but the simple notion that, without an imminent, healthy expansion of non-government, non-stimulus-sourced, genuine private sector jobs, the housing sector, and toxic mortgages, will continue to ail, then grow worse.

Eventually, if that happens, it's going to affect equity values- again.

There's no long term substitute for letting asset values find their own, real, un-manipulated value. Nearly two years' worth of government subsidies, coercion and other actions to try to wave a magic wand over housing prices and related mortgage values have all failed to fix anything. For that, we'll finally have to just let housing values and their associated mortgages find real, market-based values. Until then, nobody will really believe current 'values' anyway. Certainly not as a basis for long term investments.

No comments: