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Commentary: What’s Up (or Down) With Housing?

Housing is recovering…or is it? The recent numbers and headlines offered mixed signals: existing-home sales dropped month-to-month in March as the median price increased, while another report showed new home sales fell as the median price increased. Apologists--some might call them advocates--offer a variety of reasons to explain housing's inability to rebound smartly or smoothly after the sector plunged, plagued by ill-conceived loans and lending policies.

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Commentary: DeMarco Disappoints with New Streamlined Mod Program

Starting July 1, large numbers of non-paying borrowers will have the opportunity to modify existing mortgages through a more streamlined process. This sounds like a good way to reduce foreclosures and prop up home prices, but as we will shortly see the proposed program is oddly risky and likely to encourage additional defaults. The program is open to borrowers who have already modified their loans once, perhaps a few years ago when rates were higher. This, at least, is a good idea. So what's the big difference between the new program and the modifications offered previously?

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Commentary: No Virginia, There is No Santa Claus

What do you do when you find out Santa Claus doesn't exist? That's the situation former vice presidential candidate/House Budget Committee Chair/potential presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) faces now that the study which provided him with the academic support for budget cuts (aimed principally at so-called entitlements) has been undermined. Harvard economists Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in 2010 published a research paper which held that for countries with debt loads equivalent to or greater than 90 percent of annual economic output, ""median growth rates fall by 1 percent, and average growth falls considerably more.""

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Commentary: Defining Compromise

A compromise, certainly in politics, is usually a result which both sides in a dispute find equally unsatisfactory. It usually comes after some protracted negotiations from extreme positions. In the budget unveiled this week, President Obama, as he has in so many policy initiatives, attempted to reshape the political lexicon and landscape by beginning a compromise, not from an extreme, but from the middle. There is a lot for both sides to dislike in the Obama budget plan and there will be more as the document is scoured by both sides. The devil is always in the details.

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Commentary: A Vision for the Future of Fannie and Freddie

The Bipartisan Policy Center's Housing Commission painted an interesting picture of the future role of the federal government in housing finance in a recent report. The report helped to define the gap between a healthy private housing finance system and what we have now. The good news is that many of the elements of a healthy system seem to be just around the corner. However, there is one part of the secondary market that is far from recovered--monoline insurance companies.

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Commentary: It Happens Every Month

The March employment situation report was another in a series of labor reports that had analysts scratching their heads--on the left or right side--depending on their politics. Just as there is no Democratic or Republican way to collect garbage (okay, there might be depending on how much government you want), there should be no Democratic or Republican economic data. The numbers are what they are, not what your political lens tells you they are. That said, when data such as the March report are released--weak job growth, yet a drop in the unemployment rate--conspiracy theorists emerge from the woodwork.

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Commentary: No News Is…

The explanation from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) for the drop in the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) for February has to be viewed with a jaundiced eye. According to the NAR, the PHSI dropped because of the low inventory of homes for sale. Of course, that wasn't offered as an explanation one month earlier, when the inventory of homes for sale dropped to its lowest level since December 1999 and the PHSI increased. But when the PHSI fell in February, and the inventory of homes for sale increased, the still-low inventory became a convenient excuse.

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Commentary: Headlines and Bottom Lines

One of the most interesting results of poring through economic data reports is that the details often tell a different story than the headline. The recent report on retail sales is a case in point. While the vast majority of commentators were impressed with a strong 1.1 percent month-over-month increase in overall sales, those who scratched the surface were rewarded for their efforts by learning more than half of the month-over-month increase came from an increase in gasoline station sales as prices. In addition, coverage of the recent report on housing permits and starts was dominated by the increase in both permits and starts. A closer look at the permit-starts data revealed another important phenomenon: a shift from single-family to multifamily construction.

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Commentary: Budget Pains

It's been two weeks since the dreaded sequester took effect, and so far, the only casualty has been the White House tour. There actually have been some positives, with both parties presenting budgets. However, both the GOP budget and the Democratic plan have one major similarity: Each is dead on arrival and destined to at best be a one-house budget, which leaves the country back where it was. Setting a target for practical balance would bring us closer to reducing the deficit and with less pain.

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Commentary: Go With The Flow

Perhaps the most important piece of economic news in the last few days was not the continued drop in the unemployment rate or the positive blurbs in the Beige Book or even the Dow reaching a new record high, but Thursday's quarterly Flow of Funds report. According to the report for Q4 2012, household assets grew to $79.5 trillion in the fourth quarter, an increase of $1.3 trillion--not too shabby. Household financial assets were up $784 billion to $54.4 billion but home equity (the value of household real estate less loans against that real estate) grew $452.8 billion, the result of two moving parts: real estate values (which increased) and household mortgage liabilities, which dropped.

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