October 5, 2022

The Zero Sum Game Of Lower Interest Rates And Why Mortgage Rates Will Rise

The Federal Reserve has forced long term interest rates to historic lows in a desperate attempt to “stimulate” both the housing market and the economy in general.  The results have been mixed but the benefits of lower rates to borrowers are undeniable.  Lower rates reduce the cost of large debt burdens carried by many Americans and increases the spending power of those able to refinance.

Exactly how much lower the Fed intends to repress mortgage rates is anyone’s guess but as interest continue to decline, the overall benefits diminish.  Here’s three reasons why the Fed may wind up discovering that the economic benefits of further rate cuts will be muted at best, self defeating at worst.

1.  Lower rates are becoming a zero sum game for the economy as lower rates for borrowers translates into lower income for savers.  Every loan is also an asset of someone else and lower interest rates have merely been a mechanism for transferring wealth from savers to debtors.  Every retiree who prudently saved with the expectation of receiving interest income on their savings have been brutalized by the Fed’s financial repression. Even more infuriating to some savers is the fact that many debtors who took on irresponsible amounts of debt are now actually profiting from various government programs (see Foreclosure Settlement Q&A – A Victory For The Irresponsible).

A significant number of retirees that I know have been forced to drastically curtail their spending in order to make ends meet while others have been forced to draw down their savings.  The increased spending power of borrowers has been negated by the reduced spending power of savers.  This fact seems to elude Professor Bernanke who hasn’t been able to figure out why lower rates have not ignited the economy.

2.  Many consumer who would like to incur more debt are often turned down by the banks since their debt levels are already too high.  Those who can borrow often times chose to deleverage instead, considering the fragile state of the economy.  Anyone saving for a future financial goal (college tuition, home down payment, retirement, etc) is forced to reduce consumption and increase savings due to  near zero interest rates.  The Federal Reserve has destroyed Americans most powerful wealth building technique – the power of compound interest.  A 5% yield on savings will double your money in about 14.4 years while a 1% yield will double your money in 72 years – and that’s before taxes and inflation.

3.  As mortgage rates decline into uncharted territory, the mathematical benefit of lower rates diminishes.  As can be seen in the chart below the absolute dollar amount of monthly savings as well as the percentage decrease in the monthly payment diminish as rates race to zero.

Benefits of a refinance on a $200,000 mortgage diminish as rates decline

% Rate Mo Payment Mo Savings % Reduction Yearly Savings
6.00% $1,199.00
3.00%    $843.00 $356.00 29.70% $4,272.00
1.50%    $690.00 $153.00 18.10% $1,836.00
0.75%    $621.00  $69.00 10.00%    $828.00

Closing costs at lower rates also become problematic, making it impossible to recapture fees within a reasonable period of time.  With closing costs of $8,000 on a $200,000 mortgage refinance, it would take a decade to recoup closing costs.

Many astute analysts have made elaborate and compelling arguments that interest rates can only go lower.  From a contrary point of view, I believe that a future rise in interest rates is a high probability event.  This is the opposite of my prediction in March 2009 when I surmised that mortgage rates would decline to 3.5% – see 30 Year Fixed Rate of 3.5% Likely.

The Chart of the Day has a long term chart of the 10 year treasury and notes that the recent sharp decline in interest rates “has brought the 10-year Treasury bond yield right up against resistance of its 26-year downtrend channel.”

 

Optimists On Housing Recovery May Have To Wait Another Decade – Humpty Dumpty Vs The Fed

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Housing prices were never supposed to decline year over year.

Economic depressions were supposed to be a relic of the past.

If the economy weakened, the Fed would fix everything with lower interest rates and Congress would pass some new laws to create new jobs.

If things got really tough, the government would temporarily increase the debt and the magic of Keynesian economics was supposed to quickly “re-stimulate” the economy.

Our children were expected to lead more prosperous lives.  They were not supposed to move back in with Mom and Dad after four expensive years of college – arriving on the doorstep with a diploma in one hand, student loan notes in the other, telling us that they couldn’t find a job.

Day by day, we are discovering that a lot of things that were never supposed to happen are happening and no one seems able to turn things around.

The Federal Reserve and the White House promised to re-inflate the collapsed humpty dumpty real estate bubble with printed money and bailout programs for banks and defaulted homeowners.

An ex Princeton professor, now Chairman of the Federal Reserve, spent his life studying the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  He was supposed to know how to prevent another one, or so he assured us.

Fast forward to 2022 – housing prices that were supposed to have recovered a decade ago are still at levels seen more than 20 years ago.

Not possible you say?  Optimists and shills for the housing industry might want to consider some inconvenient truths.

Will the U.S. have 20 years of stagnant home prices?

What if real estate prices remain the same for another decade?  As I look at economic trends in our nation including the jobs we are adding, it is becoming more apparent that we may be entering a time when low wage jobs dominate and home prices remain sluggish for a decade moving forward.  Why would this occur?  No one has a crystal ball but looking at the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, growth of lower paying jobs, baby boomers retiring, and the massive amount of excess housing inventory we start to see why Japan’s post-bubble real estate market is very likely to occur in the United States.  It is probably useful to mention that the Case-Shiller 20 City Index has already hit the rewind button to 2003 and many metro areas have already surpassed the lost decade mark in prices.  This is the aftermath of a bubble.  Prices cannot go back to previous peaks because those summits never reflected an economic reality that was sustainable.

Courtesy: doctorhousingbubble.com

The days of “no doc” loans are long gone and not likely to return anytime soon.  Lenders have reactivated a quaint old mainstay of mortgage underwriting and now require borrowers to verify the capacity to service debt payments.  Higher home prices require rising incomes but real incomes for many Americans have been declining for decades.

The income of the typical American family—long the envy of much of the world—has dropped for the third year in a row and is now roughly where it was in 1996 when adjusted for inflation.

The income of a household considered to be at the statistical middle fell 2.3% to an inflation-adjusted $49,445 in 2010, which is 7.1% below its 1999 peak, the Census Bureau said.

The Census Bureau’s annual snapshot of living standards offered a new set of statistics to show how devastating the recession was and how disappointing the recovery has been. For a huge swath of American families, the gains of the boom of the 2000s have been wiped out.

Earnings of the typical man who works full-time year round fell, and are lower—adjusted for inflation—than in 1978.

Gary Shilling, who correctly called the housing bubble collapse, tells the Wall Street Journal that housing prices could decline another  20% or more.

It will take a 22% drop to return median single-family house prices to the trend identified by Robert Shiller of Yale University that stretches back to the 1890s and prevailed until the housing bubble began. (It adjusts for inflation and the tendency of houses to get bigger over time.) And corrections usually overshoot on the downside just as bubbles do on the upside.

The problem is excess inventories. They are the mortal enemy of prices, and we’ve calculated an excess of two million housing units, over and above normal working levels of inventories of new and existing homes. That is huge, considering that before the housing market collapsed, about 1.5 million new homes were being built annually, a figure that shrank to 568,000 in February. At current rates of housing starts and household formation, it will take four years to work off the excess inventory, plenty of time for those surplus houses to drag down prices.

Additionally, our inventory estimate doesn’t even include future foreclosures, some five million of which are waiting in the wings. The 49% drop in new foreclosures since the second quarter of 2009 is a mirage, and was partly due to the Obama administration pressuring mortgage lenders to try to modify troubled mortgages to keep people in their homes. (They were largely unsuccessful.)

We can say that “We are not Japan” but every passing day proves otherwise.  And for those misguided souls who still believe that the government and Fed can put humpty dumpty back together again, don’t you think that if they could have they would have?

The Economic Collapse Continues – Logical Minds See No Signs Of A Bottom

No Signs Of A Bottom

The market continues its massive sell off in a resounding vote of no confidence on the measures being taken to reverse the economy’s downward spiral.  A contrary investor buying the dips over the past two years has seen nothing but huge losses.  Recent news on the economy continues to indicate that things are getting worse, not better. The impact of estimated losses of over $100 trillion in stocks, bonds and real estate over the past two years will not be offset by stimulus plans.

The trillions of dollars being borrowed to prop up the system are being overwhelmed by a loss of confidence and a loss of wealth that many fear may never be recovered.  The massive deficit in the national budget (12% of GDP) is causing a sell off in the long treasury market, with yields rising above 3% today on the 10 year bond.  The scary question in many people’s minds is how many more trillions of government debt and guarantees will be needed to support a collapsing banking and insurance industry?

Bernanke Confident – Reality Denied

Chairman Bernanke of the Federal Reserve recently expressed his optimistic view that the recession would be over this year – see Do Bernanke and Obama Talk To Each Other? Many others with far superior track records do not agree with Bernanke.

Paul Volcker – former Federal Reserve Chairman – “I don’t remember any time, maybe even in the great depression, when thing went down quite so fast, quite so uniformly around the world”.

George Soros – successful hedge fund investor – the financial system “was placed on life support, and it’s still on life support.  There’s no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom”.

Nouriel Roubini – economist who correctly forecast the financial collapse – “We are still in the third and fourth innings and it’s getting worse”.

Logical minds would have to strongly doubt Bernanke’s optimistic view, especially in view of his previous calls that proved to be ridiculous, such as:

“We will follow developments in the subprime market closely.  However, fundamental factors—including solid growth in incomes and relatively low mortgage rates—should ultimately support the demand for housing, and at this point, the troubles in the subprime sector seem unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system.”
—June 5, 2007

Horrific Economic News Continues – Notable Links

California’s Jobless Rate Exceeds 10%

California’s unemployment rate climbed to 10.1% in January, the highest since 1983, as employers in the nation’s most-populous state cut 79,000 jobs in the month.

There were 3.3% fewer jobs in January 2009 compared to January 2008. The report said there were 1,863,000 unemployed Californians in January, up by 754,000 a year earlier.

The first half of 2009 will continue “to be pretty ugly,” said Howard Roth, the chief economist for the state’s finance department.

The state is threatening to pass the 11% jobless rate of late 1982, the highest since the Great Depression. “All we need is another month like this,” Mr. Roth said.

The Dangers Of Turning Inward

Yet if historians look back on today’s severe downturn, with its crumbling markets, rising unemployment and massive government interventions, they could well be busy analyzing how globalization — the spread of trade, finance, technology and the movement of people around the world — went into reverse. They would likely point to the growth of economic nationalism as the root cause.

The last time we saw sustained economic nationalism was in the 1930s, when capital flows and trade among countries collapsed, and every country went its own way. World growth went into a ditch, political ties among nations deteriorated, nationalism and populism combined to create fascist governments in Europe and Asia, and a world war took place.

It’s no accident that the European Union has called an emergency summit for this Sunday to consider what to do with rising protectionism of all kinds.

There are a number of reasons why economic nationalism could escalate.

As happened in the 1930s, economic nationalism is also sure to poison geopolitics. Governments under economic pressure have far fewer resources to take care of their citizens and to deal with rising anger and social tensions. Whether or not they are democracies, their tenure can be threatened by popular resentment. The temptation for governments to whip up enthusiasm for something that distracts citizens from their economic woes — a war or a jihad against unpopular minorities, for example — is great.

Economy In Worst Fall Since 1982

A broad measure of the U.S. economy plummeted in the fourth quarter — to levels far worse than previously thought — underscoring how quickly the economy has soured and casting doubt that things will get better this year.

With falloffs in consumer spending and exports, gross domestic product declined at a 6.2% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to a Commerce Department report Friday. The agency’s first estimate for GDP, reported in January, was for a 3.8% decline. GDP is a key measure of a country’s economic performance.

Big Numbers

Does $65.5 trillion terrify anyone yet?

As the Obama administration pushes through Congress its $800 billion deficit-spending economic stimulus plan, the American public is largely unaware that the true deficit of the federal government already is measured in trillions of dollars, and in fact its $65.5 trillion in total obligations exceeds the gross domestic product of the world.

Failure To Save Eastern Europe Will Lead To Worldwide Meltdown

The unfolding debt drama in Russia, Ukraine, and the EU states of Eastern Europe has reached acute danger point.

If mishandled by the world policy establishment, this debacle is big enough to shatter the fragile banking systems of Western Europe and set off round two of our financial Götterdämmerung.

Austria’s finance minister Josef Pröll made frantic efforts last week to put together a €150bn rescue for the ex-Soviet bloc. Well he might. His banks have lent €230bn to the region, equal to 70pc of Austria’s GDP.

“A failure rate of 10pc would lead to the collapse of the Austrian financial sector,” reported Der Standard in Vienna. Unfortunately, that is about to happen.

Europe’s governments are making matters worse. Some are pressuring their banks to pull back, undercutting subsidiaries in East Europe. Athens has ordered Greek banks to pull out of the Balkans.

The sums needed are beyond the limits of the IMF, which has already bailed out Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus, Iceland, and Pakistan – and Turkey next – and is fast exhausting its own $200bn (€155bn) reserve. We are nearing the point where the IMF may have to print money for the world, using arcane powers to issue Special Drawing Rights.

The New Depression

We are living through a crisis which, from the collapse of Northern Rock and the first intimations of the credit crunch, nobody has been able to understand, let alone grasp its potential ramifications. Each attempt to deal with the crisis has rapidly been consumed by an irresistible and ever-worsening reality.

Yet what if such a crisis were to be no longer confined to the peripheries of global capitalism but instead struck at its heartlands? Now we know the answer. The crisis has enveloped the whole world like an uncontrollable virus, spreading from the US and within a handful of months assuming global proportions, at the same time mutating with frightening speed from a financial crisis into a fully fledged economic crisis.

As General Motors Goes, So Goes The Nation

General Motors was founded in 1908 in Flint, Michigan and grew to be the largest corporation in the world. Its market capitalization reached $50 billion in 2000. In the past week its market capitalization dropped below $1 billion to levels last seen during the 1920’s. The story of General Motors is the story of America.

“I think it is important to recognize that General Motors is a canary in this country’s economic coal mine; a forerunner for what’s to come for the broader economy. Their mistakes have resembled this nation’s mistakes; their problems will be our future problems. If the U.S. and General Motors have similar flaws and indeed symbiotic fates, they appear to be conjoined primarily by the un-competitiveness of their existing labor cost structures and the onerous burden of their future healthcare and pension liabilities. Perhaps the most significant comparison between GM and the U.S. economy lies in the recognition of enormous unfunded liabilities in healthcare and pensions.

Bernanke Predicts 2010 Recovery In Stocks, Housing & Economy

Bernanke Predicts Recession To End In 2009

The stock market jumped over 200 points today, partly due to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s optimistic comments to the Senate Banking Committee.  Some selected comments by the Chairman follow:

“If actions taken by the administration, the Congress and the Federal Reserve are successful in restoring some measure of financial stability — and only if that is the case, in my view — there is a reasonable prospect that the current recession will end in 2009 and that 2010 will be a year of recovery”.

Mr. Bernanke also sounded optimistic on housing as well, although without a specific time projection for recovery.

“I would anticipate some stabilization in the housing market going forward.”

Mr. Bernanke seemed to dismiss the need for bank nationalization stating that:

“I don’t see any reason to destroy the franchise value or to create the huge legal uncertainties of trying to formally nationalize a bank when that just isn’t necessary”.

Better financial market performance was also seen by the Chairman:

“I do believe that once the economy begins to recover, we will see improvement in the financial market.”

Mr. Bernanke also stressed his commitment to provide ample amounts of credit for all purposes:

“Our objective is to improve the function of private credit markets so that people can borrow for all kinds of purposes.”

Mr. Bernanke did temper his optimistic statements by noting that his forecast

“is subject to considerable uncertainty, and I believe that, overall, the downside risks probably outweigh those on the upside.”

Conclusion?

If the downside risks outweigh those on the upside, how can Bernanke be so optimistic for a recovery in stocks, housing and the economy??  Based on the confusion and conflicting signals, let’s examine some previous comments by the Chairman for perspective on his batting average as an economic prophet.

Previous Forecasts By The Chairman

“At present, my baseline outlook involves a period of sluggish growth, followed by a somewhat stronger pace of growth starting later this year as the effects of monetary and fiscal stimulus begin to be felt.”
—February 14, 2008

The U.S. federal budget deficit has declined recently and is officially projected to improve further over the next few years. Unfortunately… the United States has already reached the leading edge of major demographic changes that will result in an older population and a more slowly growing workforce. A major effort to increase public and private saving is needed to prepare for the economic consequences of this demographic transition and to address external imbalances. As the global perspective makes clear, the reduction of the U.S. current account deficit also requires efforts on the part of the surplus countries to reduce the excess of their desired saving over desired investment.
—September 11, 2007

“Overall, the U.S. economy appears likely to expand at a moderate pace over the second half of 2007, with growth then strengthening a bit in 2008 to a rate close to the economy’s underlying trend.”
—July 18, 2007

“We will follow developments in the subprime market closely.  However, fundamental factors—including solid growth in incomes and relatively low mortgage rates—should ultimately support the demand for housing, and at this point, the troubles in the subprime sector seem unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system.”
—June 5, 2007

“We at the Federal Reserve will do all that we can to prevent fraud and abusive lending and to ensure that lenders employ sound underwriting practices and make effective disclosures to consumers. At the same time, we must be careful not to inadvertently suppress responsible lending or eliminate refinancing opportunities for subprime borrowers.”
—May 17, 2007

“The information, expertise, and powers that the Fed derives from its supervisory authority enhance its ability to contribute to efforts to prevent financial crises; and, when financial stresses emerge and public action is warranted, the Fed is able to respond more quickly, more effectively, and in a more informed way than would otherwise be possible. “
—January 5, 2007

No need to assign a grade letter to the Chairman, but maybe we should hold off on celebrating the economic recovery.

What has Bernanke learned?

The Wall Street Journal reports on the lessons that Chairman Bernanke,  a student of the last depression, learned from his textbooks and  studies in school.   According to the Chairman, “The experience of the Depression helped forge a consensus that the government bears the important responsibility of trying to stabilize the economy and the financial system, as well as of assisting people affected by economic downturns”.

This theory no doubt has been the impetus behind the efforts to provide massive amounts of liquidity and loans not only to the banking industry but also to scores of non banking related entities as well.  These operations have been criticized for their apparent ineffectiveness so far but I have no doubt that eventually,  the Federal Reserve will succeed in “stabilizing” the banks and the economy by providing oceans of credit in such great quantity  that only the most ridiculously inept companies won’t survive.  If you have an inquisitive mind, however, and analyze why we are in a financial crisis, one might conclude that it was brought forth by excessive credit creation and leverage on a scale never seen before by the same government entity now attempting to save us.  The great credit bubble did not start overnight- it began in the 1980’s and has grown exponentially ever since, propelled in large part by the Federal Reserve, which reacted to every mini crisis of the past two decades by simply providing more credit at lower rates.  Every event that might have caused a ripple in the economy was papered over with more credit instead of letting the creative destruction forces  of a capitalist system purge itself of poorly run,  financially reckless companies.  A recession, which is the mechanism by which excesses are cured and capital allocated more wisely next time, was viewed with horror and an end of the world event.

So here we are today, again, apparently left with no options to save the system, except by increasing the leverage again.   Will it work one last time or will our lust to borrow in excess once again this time be tempered by the reluctance of our foreign creditors?  My vote is that since we cannot apply fiscal discipline on ourselves, let us hope that China, Japan and the rest of the future bag-men for our treasury paper will limit our attempts at financial self destruction.

What Does This Man Do All Day???

What's an economy?

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the President expressed surprise that the bailout bill did not pass. Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Tony Fratto had predicted that the vote would pass. One has to wonder what kind of indifferent involvement there was by the White House if they had no idea how many members of their own party were not going to go along with the President’s plea to pass the bail out bill.

Someone not familiar with the structure of our government and reading the financial press for the past year, could easily be pardoned for assuming that our country was being ruled by Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson, whose decision making powers seem to be unlimited yet still have had no ability to forestall the deepening loss of confidence and the rapidly escalating meltdown of the world financial system. Is it possible that the President did not want to get engaged, believing that his Treasury Secretary and the Federal Reserve would solve all our financial problems in short time? I think the more likely answer is that President Bush never had and still has no comprehension of the magnitude and dangers of the financial crisis that has been unfolding in ever more frightening ways over the past two years. Apparently aroused from his slumber a week ago by dire forecasts of an imminent meltdown, he gave a national speech that was so dumbed down and ineffective, you have to wonder what audience he thought he was speaking to. Obviously, the President wasn’t even able to convince members of his own party, that the bailout made sense and could never overcome the popular notion that the bailout was simply another handout to Wall Street.

My own perception is that even if the bailout is passed, it will not accomplish what the powers to be were expecting. Confidence worldwide has been shattered by huge losses on virtually every asset class. The perception that loss avoidance is better than taking any risk for a gain will remain with us for some time, especially with the daily collapse of large institutions. Few saw this collapse coming and none know how it will ultimately end.