Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Coming Housing Boom

The following commentary is also available at The Fiscal Times.

Yes, you read that right. Get ready for the next housing boom. You're probably thinking, "How can that be?" With all the mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures going on, and the record levels of housing inventory, how could we possibly have another housing boom?

It's not going to happen soon. In fact, it may not happen for several more years. Yet despite all the problems we are seeing today, pent up demand will create the next housing boom. This is because demand for housing is closely tied to the rate of household formation. As society creates more households, society needs more houses. Right now, due to the poor economy and the dismal jobs market, household formation is on hold. This is one reason why the housing market continues to remain depressed.

A household is simply a residential unit. It refers to a person or persons living under one roof. Traditionally, a household has been thought of as a nuclear family. Boy meets girl, boy marries girls, boy and girl buy a house or rent an apartment. In this way, marriage creates more households and demand for more places to live. Divorce, too, creates more households and demand for more housing. People who get divorced do not want to continue living together under the same roof. Households are also formed when children grow up and move out. Most kids can’t wait to get their own place.

However, much of this activity is currently on hold. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Karl Case (one half of the famous S&P/Case-Shiller duo) recently said, “The process of generating new households seems to have stopped.” Due to the poor economy, some people are postponing marriage. Others are postponing divorce. And as much as they would like to be independent, many grown children are staying put. Some can't find jobs even after graduating from college, so they are choosing to live with mom and dad just a little longer. Even those lucky enough to be employed are moving in with their parents in order to cut expenses.

Believe it or not, this lack of household formation could be good news for housing in the long run. It means there is a lot of pent up demand for housing, and chances are it is growing. Current household formation may be depressed, yet potential household demand is strong. Once the economy begins to pick up steam and more people start to find jobs, household formation will surge. Once that happens, demand for houses and apartments will also surge.

This is not to say that any of this is imminent. More likely than not, the process could take a few more years. Yet unless you believe the United States is on a permanent trajectory toward economic decline, you have to believe that the housing market will eventually turn around. All that pent up demand for household formation should create a strong rebound in the demand for housing. Maybe this time if we are smart enough to keep our wits about us, we will avoid another housing bubble.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Here's a link to a recent hit I did on FoxBusiness by Skype. We discussed the economy and housing markets.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Interpreting the Fed

The Federal Reserve released the following statement after its meeting on Wednesday. Because people sometimes complain that the Fed's language isn't entirely clear, I have taken the liberty of interpreting the statement for you in what I hope is a more comprehensible form. Below is the full text of the Fed's statement. Following each paragraph, I have written my interpretation in italics of what the Fed really meant to say:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in April indicates that the economic recovery is continuing at a moderate pace, though somewhat more slowly than the Committee had expected. Also, recent labor market indicators have been weaker than anticipated. The slower pace of the recovery reflects in part factors that are likely to be temporary, including the damping effect of higher food and energy prices on consumer purchasing power and spending as well as supply chain disruptions associated with the tragic events in Japan. Household spending and business investment in equipment and software continue to expand. However, investment in nonresidential structures is still weak, and the housing sector continues to be depressed. Inflation has picked up in recent months, mainly reflecting higher prices for some commodities and imported goods, as well as the recent supply chain disruptions. However, longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.

The economy is still stuck in a rut and things are not getting better. Ain't nobody getting jobs. We are hoping and praying that the bad state of the economy improves and that higher food and gasoline prices go back down. We also hope the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear catastrophe in Japan does not prevent that country from making things again. On a positive note, people keep spending more money and companies are buying more things. But don't get your hopes up because nobody is investing and nobody wants to buy a house. Like we said before, food and gasoline prices have gone up. Despite those rising prices, we are still pretending that nobody expects prices to keep going up.

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The unemployment rate remains elevated; however, the Committee expects the pace of recovery to pick up over coming quarters and the unemployment rate to resume its gradual decline toward levels that the Committee judges to be consistent with its dual mandate. Inflation has moved up recently, but the Committee anticipates that inflation will subside to levels at or below those consistent with the Committee's dual mandate as the effects of past energy and other commodity price increases dissipate. However, the Committee will continue to pay close attention to the evolution of inflation and inflation expectations.

Congress wants us to create more jobs and keep a lid on inflation at the same time. We know this is impossible, but we're trying anyway. People still can't find jobs, but we're hoping they will find them soon so that the unemployment rate will continue going lower. Oh wait, the unemployment rate has been going higher. Never mind. Anyway, just in case you didn't understand us the first two times, we want to tell you again that prices are going up. Despite that, we are hoping nobody really notices. But the next time we go shopping, we'll be sure to check if prices are still going up.

To promote the ongoing economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate, the Committee decided today to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee continues to anticipate that economic conditions--including low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run--are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate for an extended period. The Committee will complete its purchases of $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of this month and will maintain its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings. The Committee will regularly review the size and composition of its securities holdings and is prepared to adjust those holdings as appropriate.

All you old folks out there who were hoping to earn more interest on your savings account, well you can forget about that. We're not kidding. You really can forget about earning more interest in your bank account because we're going to make sure interest rates stay low. We told you we would complete QE2 and we meant it. And just in case you don't like it, tough. Get used to it because we might even do QE3.

The Committee will monitor the economic outlook and financial developments and will act as needed to best foster maximum employment and price stability.

We'll be watching CNBC just like the rest of you so don't be surprised if we do something stupid just to spite Rick Santelli.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Oil Prices Should Ease on OPEC's Failure to Reach Agreement

A cartel is a formal agreement among competing firms to control the price and supply of a particular good or service. In order to promote competition, U.S. companies are prohibited from forming cartels. In theory, cartels should not last anyway because there is too much incentive to cheat.

That hasn’t prevented OPEC, the world’s best known cartel, from defying theory. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, currently consisting of a dozen nations, has been thriving since it was first formed in 1960. OPEC operates under a system of production quotas agreed to by its members. Saudi Arabia, the largest producer by far, is also the most influential.

That didn’t stop Ali Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum and Resources, from calling Wednesday’s OPEC meeting in Vienna one of the worst ever saying, “In my 16 years as a minister, I have not seen as obstinate a position without move like this meeting.” He was referring to the hard line taken by Iran and OPEC’s subsequent failure to reach agreement to increase supply. Oil prices immediately surged on the news.

They shouldn’t have. Naimi went on to explain that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates “are able and willing to supply whatever the market needs,” which he currently estimates as an additional 1.5 million barrels per day. He made it clear that there would be no shortage of supply.

Does this portend the end of OPEC? Probably not. Yet cheating on production quotas has been going on for a long time. Most oil producing nations would love to sell as much as possible at the current $100 per barrel. Now that OPEC has failed to reach an agreement, the spigots should open wider. It shouldn’t take long before oil falls to $90 per barrel.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Stocks Suddenly Losing Favor

The following commentary was released today to subscribers of the Forbes Special Situation Survey.

Stocks have suddenly exhibited weakness with the S&P 500 down about 6% since its April 29 high. Housing, employment, and energy continue to present the greatest headwinds. The latest S&P/Case-Shiller figures indicate that existing housing prices have double-dipped, setting new lows since their 2006 highs; nonfarm payroll figures have weakened once again with the unemployment rate jumping to 9.1%; and although energy prices have backed off their recent highs, the high cost of gasoline continues to present a significant challenge to most consumers.

Furthermore, high levels of debt remain a serious concern. Some economists argue that government debt as a proportion of GDP is not out of line, at least when compared to WWII era levels. However, if we include unfunded liabilities (i.e., social security, Medicare and Medicaid), state and local government debt, corporate debt, and consumer debt, total debt as a percent of GDP is at record levels. Government’s inability to properly address the debt and deficit is becoming an increasingly worrisome issue for the economy and investors.

One concern not often discussed is the increasing amount of programmed trading taking place in the markets. Programmed trading was behind the “flash crash” of May 6, 2010 when the Dow plunged 600 points in a matter of minutes. As institutional investors increase their reliance on computerized algorithms to execute orders, fewer human beings are involved in the actual decision-making process of buying and selling stocks. This is exaggerating the movements in stock prices. Investing, as opposed to trading, becomes more challenging in this kind of market. While it is still safe to assume that relying on fundamentals makes sense over the long term, irrational behavior can dominate the markets over the short term. Just as bubbles often get larger before they burst, undervalued stocks can get cheaper before investors come to their senses. Research in Motion (RIMM), one of the stocks on our buy list, is getting hammered by this kind of activity. A combination of irrational behavior and programmed trading appears to have contributed to the stock’s decline.

Given the serious problems in the economy, there really was no justification for the market’s strong rally from last September through April. Although some stocks appear to be extremely cheap, investors should remain extremely cautious about the overall market’s prospects. I recently had the opportunity to meet with several experienced investors including Forbes columnists Gary Shilling and Ken Fisher. Shilling continues to be bearish on stocks. That’s no surprise. Fisher, who is usually bullish, says he now expects stocks to finish relatively flat for the year. Given the serious challenges that must be overcome, it’s starting to look as if even a flat year might be too optimistic of a forecast.