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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pessimism overstated?

Seeking Alpha has a useful round-up of stats and news items on the US housing debacle.

I shall try out a contra-contrarian position here.

It's obvious that adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) will pose a problem for American borrowers as they emerge into a variable and now-higher interest rate environment. We are approaching a peak in this process around October/November and again, that's known about, so with all the belated hoo-ha in the media now it should be factored-in to the market.

The packaging of mortgages into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and their sale to perhaps naive institutional investors, is now better understood and has started a bout of worry that has spread to prime lending, too. So we have a reasonable dose of pessimism in the mixture, with Michael Panzner and Peter Schiff ensuring we're taking the medicine regularly.

One of Michael's posts last week included a detail of a "charming colonial" house in Detroit going for $7,000. Over here in the UK, somebody screwed a 0 to the side of our house prices over recent years, and if I was shown a residential property fund that would snap up streetsful of properties like the one in Detroit and wait for the turnaround, I'd be tempted.

When recession hit the UK in the early 80s, house prices plummeted in Consett, a Northern steelworking town where the local works - the main employer - closed and unemployment rose to 36%. Now the median price is £152,000. This was a working-class town, not a fashionable area, and at that time (1981) the national average house price was £24,188. So even if you'd bought a house in Consett at that price (and because of unemployment and deep pessimism, it would have been far less), you'd have made a 7.3% compound pa capital gain in the 26 years since - plus income from rent, less expenses.

I don't think the housing market runs the economy, it's the other way round. When we have a real economy, our wealth will be more secure. Perhaps the USA needs to wait for a fresh President who can take tough decisions early, in time for the fruits of his/her labours to show and be rewarded with a second term.

It's early days, but the pessimists in my Dow poll (see sidebar) have the upper hand. I still think there may be a small bounce by the end of the year, when we've digested all the bad news and are ready for a sweet. Please cast your vote!

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