Don't Be Fooled by the Housing Market's False Bottom

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Existing home sales surprised the markets by rising 7.4% to an annual rate of 6.54 million units in November, the highest since February 2007, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). That's only 10% below the all-time peak in 2005.

What's more is that house prices, as measured by the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city Home Price Index, rose for the fourth consecutive month in September before stabilizing in October when prices were flat.

The NAR is inevitably convinced that the worst is over and that housing is due for a rapid recovery, and that home prices will take out 2006's peaks some time in 2011 or 2012.

Not so fast, guys!

The recovery in housing has been boosted by just about every artificial means you can imagine:

Of course it looks like the housing market has recovered! The question is what happens when some of these subsidies are taken away?

Even if we wanted to provide gigantic subsidies to housing finance in every form for evermore, we couldn't afford to. The U.S. government is running trillion dollar deficits, and something has to change. So at some point the feather cushions that have surrounded every aspect of the housing market will be taken away.

To see how far housing might fall, look at the Case-Shiller index's bottom after the last housing bust in 1989-90 (as the 20-city index did not exist back then, we used the 10-city index). The index bottomed in September 1993 - more than two years after the U.S. economy had begun to recover - at a value of 75.81. Nominal gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 109% between the third quarter of 1993 and the third quarter of 2009.

However, the population rose by about 20%, so nominal GDP per capita rose by 74%. (Real GDP per capita rose by 27%, a pretty mangy performance over 16 years.) House prices can be expected to inflate about as fast as nominal GDP per capita, in a large country like the United States where space is not yet at a premium.

Thus the Case-Shiller Index this time around might be expected to bottom at 132 (75.81 x 174%). Its current value is 157, so we can expect a further 16% drop, even if you assume the bottom is no lower than after the milder housing downturn of 1989-90. That bottom will probably be reached around the end of 2011 if the 1990-93 post-recession pattern plays out.

Oops.

To give you an idea of what that might mean, the Case-Shiller 10-city index passed 132 in June 2002. That means, on average, everybody who has bought a house since June 2002 can be expected to be underwater on the deal when the bottom is reached.

Every mortgage with a 10% down payment made since about April 2003 (when the Case-Shiller index was 147 - 90% of which is 132) would be underwater. Every prime mortgage with a 20% down payment - not that many of these were being made in those years - made after February 2004 would be underwater.

Of course, that's an average. In Dallas, there would probably be few foreclosures beyond those we already have seen, because prices didn't go up so much. On the other hand, in Las Vegas, pretty well every mortgage made since Bugsy Siegel started developing the Flamingo in 1946 would be kaput.

The housing market is unlikely to turn around while there's so much cheap money about, or while the feds are subsidizing home purchases to such an extent. However, at some point next year, reality will hit the U.S. economy and the federal budget - maybe simultaneously.

The house purchase subsidies are likely to be extended for one more six-month period, through December 2010, over the midterm elections, but not beyond that. At some point, the losses on the FHA mortgage portfolio will become large enough that some of them will have to be taken "on budget." And at some point, either resurgent inflation or soaring commodity prices will force Ben Bernanke to raise interest rates - or crash the Treasury bond market because he won't do so.

At that point, reality will return to the housing market too.

Meanwhile my advice is: Don't get sucked in!

[Editor's Note : There's a reason Martin Hutchinson is building a reputation as one of the sharpest prognosticators in the investment world today: He can see things that "the system" is trying to hide from individual investors. Today's analysis of the new U.S. healthcare bill is a case in point: Hutchinson sees the costly pitfalls.

But that same vision allows him to spot the top profit opportunities available to individual investors. And Hutchinson scours the globe in search of the "hyper-profitable" investment plays that he recommends for his Permanent Wealth Investor trading service.

Hutchinson's experience as an international investment banker has taken him to major markets such as Great Britain and the United States - and to smaller ones such as Macedonia. Wherever he traveled, Hutchinson found one fact to be the same: No matter the market's size, he was always able to uncover the most profitable investment opportunities.

In a new report, in fact, Hutchinson not only uncovers the very best profit opportunities available today, he guarantees triple-digit gains. To check out this report - and these new investment picks - please click here.]


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About the Author

Martin Hutchinson is the Global Investing Specialist for Money Map Press. A British-born investment banker with more than 30 years of experience, Martin has worked on both Wall Street and Fleet Street. He is now the editor of the Permanent Wealth Investor, where he focuses on "Alpha Bulldog" stocks that pay high dividends covered by earnings. In his Merchant Banker Alert, Martin uncovers the fastest-growing companies in the fastest-growing economies and brings those ideas back home to you. For more information about these services, call our VIP Services group at 855.509.6600 or 410.622.3004.

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