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Real Estate Disaster
Karl Denninger

Yeah, its coming.

Let's preface a bit: All Real Estate is local.

But -- it got a lot less specifically-local in the last three years, and bifurcated basically two ways: Blue and not-Blue.

The problem is that the dynamic of virus restrictions along with wildly ridiculous fiscal and monetary policy drove a dynamic that was utterly unsustainable and, fundamentally, stupid as a whole although for the people doing it the act looked smart at the time.  There were several elements of this:

  • Work-from-home on a near-universal basis was forced by many employers.  This, in high-cost areas, drove employees to think they could arbitrage their higher salary (a result of the high cost of living where they were, such as in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and similar) and keep it while moving somewhere much cheaper, such as Tennessee or Florida.  For those who pulled this it was a massive windfall, provided they could sell their home in the high-cost place.

  • Forced-low interest rates meant mortgages were extraordinarily cheap.  The brokers of same -- banks, independent shops and similar -- feasted on the fees, both for purchase money (see above for the flow on that!) and refinances.  Many of those refinances were strategically wise, being committed just a few years after origination and not materially-lengthening the amortization clock.  All of them wildly increased available consumer funds for spending, however, by reducing the monthly payment amount.

These two dynamics skyrocketed home prices.  The All-US index went from ~450 to 625, a roughly 40% increase in two years.  That is much greater than the explosion higher during the last couple of years of the housing bubble; that was a mere 14%.  There were plenty of areas, including where I live, that prices of "real" (not AirBNB friendly) single-family homes roughly doubled and some of those "short-term rental opportunities" were even more-obscene with some of them tripling in three years time.

All of this was ridiculously stupid.  The premise that employees operated on -- that they'd never have to set foot in an office again -- was crap.  As the pandemic ended so did the curtailment of occupying office space and the cities could not survive with all that office space empty; the tax revenue plus all the retail business activity associated with those people being in the buildings during the day is utterly essential to their fiscal survivability.

Those who thought they could arbitrage their cost of living while keeping their "bonused up" salary are now getting a rude shock: Come back to the office, which we have leased and have to pay for, or be fired.  Except..... those employees now live hundreds or even a couple thousand miles away!  Worse, they bought houses on <3% mortgages and spent the rest and, while their "price paid" is what it is nothing is moving.

Around here I looked at recent sales.  Among single-family homes there are an effective zero from roughly April forward.  The top of the page for this county comes up with sales from March, February, May, a couple the first two weeks of June and a couple of (wildly-overpriced cabins) recently.  This is the second week of August and Memorial Day to Labor Day, which is a couple of weeks away, is prime closing season here because the kids are out of school and similar.

The market is basically locked up and the reason is quite-clear: Those who bought at the top can't move; they have 3% mortgages and that $500,000 place has a $2,100 payment.  The same $500,000 house at 7% carries a payment of $3,326!

The net present value of that payment on their house today is $316,000, a $184,000 loss!

It would be bad enough if they sold out and made the $180,000 profit, banked it, now have the much lower payment and thus the loss is basically a recapture of the profit they made on the other place.  But nobody did that; you've seen the consumer sales figures, never mind truck prices shooting moon yet nobody seems to have trouble buying them.  How many of those people spent the entire $180,000 and thus its gone?

Never mind wild increases in property tax that have come with those price increases.  Some areas (this being one of them) have had that blunted but not all.  Florida is one of the "not all" and on top of it, Florida has been monkey-hammered with insane insurance cost increases as well -- both in car and homeowners.  The often-used excuse is "climate" but that's BS; hurricanes are not new, but what is new is taking what was a $500,000 house and turning into a million dollar one, so when it gets destroyed the value of the property destroyed and thus the claim size doubles too.  What do you think that does to premiums?  Now contemplate what happens when the $40,000 truck costs $80,000 and they get destroyed in storms as well.  Why have insurance prices skyrocketed?  Uh....... yeah.

If you are stuck you ought to contemplate what happens when the guy down the street is forced to sell.  Someone in your area will be.  One or more of them will be told" come back to work or be fired" and either have to leave irrespective of the financial damage or get fired, find they can't get a job that pays the mortgage anywhere near where they live now (this is an enormous problem here, for example) and thus be forced to puke up the property.

If you think you're immune from that think again.  Once the first person does it all the comps within a few miles immediately fail appraisal if that next person tries to sell.  The next person is then forced to lower their price lest the deal collapse -- and remember, they have to sell because they either have to return to their old area or get a new job -- and the cycle repeats.

The unwind on this is going to be ridiculously vicious; if you think 2008/09 was bad go back and look at the top-line changes over the two years .vs. the last two of the bubble again.  This distortion was three times as bad on a national average basis and double what we saw in many areas during the 05-07 bubble years.

Everyone always tries to tell themselves "oh that can't happen again."

Well, you're right.  It won't happen again.

It'll be three times as bad as it was last time and it is coming whether you like it or not.

Mr. Denninger, recent author of the book Leverage: How Cheap Money Will Destroy the World, is the former CEO of MCSNet, a regional Chicago area networking and Internet company that operated from 1987 to 1998. MCSNet was proud to offer several "firsts" in the Internet Service space, including integral customer-specified spam filtering for all customers and the first virtual web server available to the general public. Mr. Denninger's other accomplishments include the design and construction of regional and national IP-based networks and development of electronic conferencing software reaching back to the 1980s.

He has been a full-time trader since 1998, author of The Market Ticker, a daily market commentary, and operator of TickerForum, an online trading community, both since 2007.

Mr. Denninger received the 2008 Reed Irvine Accuracy In Media Award for Grassroots Journalism for his coverage of the 2008 market meltdown.

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