Many people and much of the media are pointing to recent improvements in home prices as a sign that the single family home market is bottoming and starting to recover. It seems to me that an alternative way to look at recent changes in the housing market might be to look at things a bit differently.
How about reading the tea leaves this way:
Several institutional asset managers have convinced investors that buying single family homes ‘in-bulk’ and then renting the houses or flipping them is a good business that will provide better yields than most other investments currently available (in The Bernanke Economy). However, it seems the institutional asset managers that are doing this have ignored that single family home property management and single family home ‘flipping’ are generally not ‘scaleable’ activities. That is, the operational costs of single family property management and single family home 'flipping' are very high, and the activities involved usually cannot reach economies of scale.
Meanwhile, the media is reporting a recovering market in housing. And, some homeowners who have discretion about the timing of selling their homes make a discretionary decision not to list their home and to wait for a better price – because all indications and the media say home prices are rising. This reluctance to list reduces the LISTED inventory, which further creates the appearance of a recovering housing market.
Then, in a few months, the investors in the institutional funds that have purchased homes 'in-bulk' begin to realize the institutional managers are not reaping the expected returns and they begin to cash-out of the institutional home buying funds. This cashing-out forces the institutional funds to sell the homes they bought ‘in bulk’ at the best price they can get.
Many very smart institutional investors have mentioned the operational difficulty and lack of ‘scaleability’ as reasons bulk home buyers may not succeed at single family home property management and / or single family home ‘flipping’.
Private Equity Has Too Much Money to Spend on Homes By John Gittelsohn | pub. Bloomberg News - Jun 12, 2012: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-13/private-equity-has-too-much-money-to-spend-on-homes-mortgages.html
Institutional Investors Are Turning to Residential Foreclosures Investing in single-family rental market in its infancy By Arleen Jacobius | Pensions & Investments April 2, 2012: http://www.pionline.com/article/20120402/PRINTSUB/304029978
Insight: The Wall Street Gold Rush in Foreclosed Homes By Matthew Goldstein & Jenneifer Ablan - Forbes Magazine 3/20/2012, at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/20/us-usa-foreclosures-investors-idUSB...
Investors Flock to Housing Looking to Buy Thousands of Homes in Bulk By Morgan Brennan - Forbes Magazine 4/3/2012, at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/morganbrennan/2012/04/03/investors-flock-to-housing-aspiring-to-own-thousands-of-homes/
Och-Ziff Calls Top Of "REO-To-Rental", And Distressed Housing Demand, With Exit Of Landlord Business Submitted by Tyler Durden on 10/17/2012 http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2012-10-17/och-ziff-calls-top-reo-rental-exit-landlord-business
The Housing Bet Warren Buffett Wishes He Could Make By Steve Shaefer pub. Forbes Markets 3/29/2012: http://www.forbes.com/sites/steveschaefer/2012/03/29/the-housing-bet-warren-buffett-wishes-he-could-make/#
Critics Question Investment Fund’s Sacramento Rental Venture By Hudson Sangree and Philip Reese Sacramento Bee – Monday April 8, 2013 http://www.sacbee.com/2013/04/08/5323832/critics-question-investment-funds.htm
Lower Rates Push Yield Seekers to Higher Risk By A. Gary Shilling – Bloomberg News - Jan 29, 2013, at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-29/lower-rates-push-yield-seekers-to-higher-risk.html
Warren Buffett Says, “Buy Real Estate Now!” at the same time he mentions the problem of “scaleability” see video from CNBC Squawk Box pub. February 27, 2012: https://youtu.be/XOGP6hd0B24
I find that, when discussing The Shadow Inventory, almost all real estate specialists, lawyers, regulators and many financial analysts can’t tie one very significant cause into the conversation.
The very significant cause that is missed is a rational explanation of why banks and other mortgage investors are so reluctant to liquidate (or renegotiate) bad investments.
Why do they hold significant amounts of mortgage investments which have little hope of being profitable (over the long term)? When a mortgage is in serious default, why don’t mortgage investors accept a ‘short sale’ - and why do they allow a property to go into the potentially higher loss alternative of foreclosure?
I believe the key to understanding why mortgage investors appear to be behaving irrationally, is to understand the implications of the delay in the implementation of Financial Accounting Standard #157 (mark-to-market accounting).(1)
To understand the implications of the delay in the implementation of FAS #157 read an article from the Wall Street Journal titled, Congress Helped Banks Defang Key Rule By Susan Pulliam & Tom McGinty | pub. 6/3/2009.(2)
Then watch Georgetown University Law Professor, Adam Levitin’s Congressional testimony titled, Federal Regulators Don’t Want to Know . . . (3)
The point that I believe most commenters miss:
The postponement of the implementation of mark-to-market accounting (FAS 157) gives banks and other mortgage (product) investors the opportunity to delay recognition of their market losses until legal ownership of the property changes (foreclosure). Thus, for the investor, the hoped for offset of losses against future revenue is 'the gating factor’ for the liquidation of the shadow inventory.
Most mortgage investors are institutions. These institutions want to delay the recognition of, and the reporting reporting of, any losses to their investors - and to their regulators - for as long as possible.
As Professor Levitin explains in his Congressional testimony, these institutional investors hope to offset losses against income (fees and penalty revenue) over the next decade.
So, the shadow inventory seems to be a consequence of the rational ‘work-out’ in a world in which institutions can carry (and report) highly depreciated assets at (fantasy) origination value.
P.S. I believe in creative destruction.(4)
1. See Wikipedia Mark-to-Market accounting scroll to, Effect on subprime crisis and Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark-to-market_accounting
2. Congress Helped Banks Defang Key Rule By Susan Pulliam & Tom McGinty | pub. 6/3/2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124396078596677535.html
3. Georgetown University Law Professor, Adam Levitin’s Congressional testimony titled, Federal Regulators Don’t Want to Know . . . at: http://youtu.be/ibgdgl0PoBw
4. Creative Destruction (Shumpeter) see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_destruction
End Note: Even some fairly sophisticated observers can’t put the delay in the implementation of FAS 157 into its proper perspective. Why do mortgage investors prefer foreclosure over a short sale? Watch Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) question a panel of mortgage professionals asking, ‘Are there things in accounting principals that we need to change to get everybody to do what’s in everybody's best interests?’at:
Then listen to Thomas Cox, of Main Attorney’s Saving Homes Project, answer Rep. Scott. Mr. Cox emphasizes a different point (the conflict of interest created by servicer fee revenue) in The Short Sale Conundrum - Misaligned Incentives of Mortgage Servicers, at: and when James Kowalski, a Florida Trial Attorney for Saving Home Project, gets his turn he moves to The MERS Mess. Mr. Kawolski explains the increase in the shadow inventory as a documentation problem rather than an accounting problem, at:
My comment on the article, Foreclosure Machines Still Running on ‘Low’ By Robbie Whelan in The Wall Street Journal [Developments Blog] – pub. July 31, 2012 at: http://blogs.wsj.com/developments/2012/07/31/foreclosure-machines-still-running-on-low/?blog_id=36&post_id=21215
The shadow inventory and the large inventory of bank ‘Real Estate Owned’ (REO’s) is a phenomenon which I believe has been caused to a significant extent by the decision to delay the implementation of FAS #157 [commonly known as ‘fair value accounting’ or ‘mark-to-market accounting’].
The delay in the implementation of mark-to-market accounting allows mortgage investors to report (on books and records) the value of their mortgage investments at the investment’s origination value rather than requiring these assets be valued at an estimate of current market value. See article, Congress Helped Banks Defang Key Rule By Susan Pulliam & Tom McGinty - pub. Wall Street Journal June 3, 2009 | at: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB124396078596677535-lMyQjAxMTIyNDMzMTkzNjEwWj.html?mod=wsj_valettop_email
For further insight into the implications, and one of the likely consequences of the delay of mark-to-market accounting watch a brief video-clip of a portion of Georgetown University Law Professor, Adam Levitin's U.S. Congressional testimony titled, Federal Regulators Don't Want to Know at:
The shadow inventory and bank REO's (not under current listing contracts) represent an historically significant supply of housing which in many ways is not transparent or adequately disclosed, and therefore is not fully-factored into the ‘market's pricing” of homes (supply and demand).