Tag Archives: mortgage payments

Home Ownership Rate Since 2005

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by Wolf Richter

The quintessential ingredient in the stew that makes up a thriving housing market has been evaporating in America. And a recent phenomenon has taken over: private equity firms, REITs, and other Wall-Street funded institutional investors have plowed the nearly free money the Fed has graciously made available to them since 2008 into tens of thousands of vacant single-family homes to rent them out. And an apartment building boom has offered alternatives too.

Since the Fed has done its handiwork, institutional investors have driven up home prices and pushed them out of reach for many first-time buyers, and these potential first-time buyers are now renting homes from investors instead. Given the high home prices, in many cases it may be a better deal. And apartments are often centrally located, rather than in some distant suburb, cutting transportation time and expenses, and allowing people to live where the urban excitement is. Millennials have figured it out too, as America is gradually converting to a country of renters.

So in its inexorable manner, home ownership has continued to slide in the third quarter, according to the Commerce Department. Seasonally adjusted, the rate dropped to 64.3% from 64.7 in the prior quarter. It was the lowest rate since Q4 1994 (not seasonally adjusted, the rate dropped to 64.4%, the lowest since Q1 1995).

This is what that relentless slide looks like:

US-quarterly-homeownership-rates-1995-2014

Home ownership since 2008 dropped across all age groups. But the largest drops occurred in the youngest age groups. In the under-35 age group, where first-time buyers are typically concentrated, home ownership has plunged from 41.3% in 2008 to 36.0%; and in the 35-44 age group, from 66.7% to 59.1%, with a drop of over a full percentage point just in the last quarter – by far the steepest.

Home ownership, however, didn’t peak at the end of the last housing bubble just before the financial crisis, but in 2004 when it reached 69.2%. Already during the housing bubble, speculative buying drove prices beyond the reach of many potential buyers who were still clinging by their fingernails to the status of the American middle class … unless lenders pushed them into liar loans, a convenient solution many lenders perfected to an art.

It was during these early stages of the housing bubble that the concept of “home” transitioned from a place where people lived and thrived or fought with each other and dealt with onerous expenses and responsibilities to a highly leveraged asset for speculators inebriated with optimism, an asset to be flipped willy-nilly and laddered ad infinitum with endless amounts of cheaply borrowed money. And for some, including the Fed it seems, that has become the next American dream.

Despite low and skidding home ownership rates, home prices have been skyrocketing in recent years, and new home prices have reached ever more unaffordable all-time highs.

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Assisted-Living Complexes for Young People

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by Dionne Searcey

One of the most surprising developments in the aftermath of the housing crisis is the sharp rise in apartment building construction. Evidently post-recession Americans would rather rent apartments than buy new houses.

When I noticed this trend, I wanted to see what was behind the numbers.

Is it possible Americans are giving up on the idea of home ownership, the very staple of the American dream? Now that would be a good story.

What I found was less extreme but still interesting: The American dream appears merely to be on hold.

Economists told me that many potential home buyers can’t get a down payment together because the recession forced them to chip away at their savings. Others have credit stains from foreclosures that will keep them out of the mortgage market for several years.

More surprisingly, it turns out that the millennial generation is a driving force behind the rental boom. Young adults who would have been prime candidates for first-time home ownership are busy delaying everything that has to do with becoming a grown-up. Many even still live at home, but some data shows they are slowly beginning to branch out and find their own lodgings — in rental apartments.

A quick Internet search for new apartment complexes suggests that developers across the country are seizing on this trend and doing all they can to appeal to millennials. To get a better idea of what was happening, I arranged a tour of a new apartment complex in suburban Washington that is meant to cater to the generation.

What I found made me wish I was 25 again. Scented lobbies crammed with funky antiques that led to roof decks with outdoor theaters and fire pits. The complex I visited offered Zumba classes, wine tastings, virtual golf and celebrity chefs who stop by to offer cooking lessons.

“It’s like an assisted-living facility for young people,” the photographer accompanying me said.

Economists believe that the young people currently filling up high-amenity rental apartments will eventually buy homes, and every young person I spoke with confirmed that this, in fact, was the plan. So what happens to the modern complexes when the 20-somethings start to buy homes? It’s tempting to envision ghost towns of metal and pipe wood structures with tumbleweeds blowing through the lobbies. But I’m sure developers will rehabilitate them for a new demographic looking for a renter’s lifestyle.

8 Major Reasons Why The Current Low Oil Price Is Not Here To Stay

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by Nathan’s Bulletin

Summary:

  • The slump in the oil price is primarily a result of extreme short positioning, a headline-driven anxiety and overblown fears about the global economy.
  • This is a temporary dip and the oil markets will recover significantly by H1 2015.
  • Now is the time to pick the gold nuggets out of the ashes and wait to see them shine again.
  • Nevertheless, the sky is not blue for several energy companies and the drop of the oil price will spell serious trouble for the heavily indebted oil producers.

Introduction:

It has been a very tough market out there over the last weeks. And the energy stocks have been hit the hardest over the last five months, given that most of them have returned back to their H2 2013 levels while many have dropped even lower down to their H1 2013 levels.

But one of my favorite quotes is Napoleon’s definition of a military genius: “The man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” To me, you don’t have to be a genius to do well in investing. You just have to not go crazy when everyone else is.

In my view, this slump of the energy stocks is a deja-vu situation, that reminded me of the natural gas frenzy back in early 2014, when some fellow newsletter editors and opinion makers with appearances on the media (i.e. CNBC, Bloomberg) were calling for $8 and $10 per MMbtu, trapping many investors on the wrong side of the trade. In contrast, I wrote a heavily bearish article on natural gas in February 2014, when it was at $6.2/MMbtu, presenting twelve reasons why that sky high price was a temporary anomaly and would plunge very soon. I also put my money where my mouth was and bought both bearish ETFs (NYSEARCA:DGAZ) and (NYSEARCA:KOLD), as shown in the disclosure of that bearish article. Thanks to these ETFs, my profits from shorting the natural gas were quick and significant.

This slump of the energy stocks also reminded me of those analysts and investors who were calling for $120/bbl and $150/bbl in H1 2014. Even T. Boone Pickens, founder of BP Capital Management, told CNBC in June 2014 that if Iraq’s oil supply goes offline, crude prices could hit $150-$200 a barrel.

But people often go to the extremes because this is the human nature. But shrewd investors must exploit this inherent weakness of human nature to make easy money, because factory work has never been easy.

Let The Charts And The Facts Speak For Themselves

The chart for the bullish ETF (NYSEARCA:BNO) that tracks Brent is illustrated below:

And the charts for the bullish ETFs (NYSEARCA:USO), (NYSEARCA:DBO) and (NYSEARCA:OIL) that track WTI are below:

and below:

and below:

For the risky investors, there is the leveraged bullish ETF (NYSEARCA:UCO), as illustrated below:

It is clear that these ETFs have returned back to their early 2011 levels amid fears for oversupply and global economy worries. Nevertheless, the recent growth data from the major global economies do not look bad at all.

In China, things look really good. The Chinese economy grew 7.3% in Q3 2014, which is way far from a hard-landing scenario that some analysts had predicted, and more importantly the Chinese authorities seem to be ready to step in with major stimulus measures such as interest rate cuts, if needed. Let’s see some more details about the Chinese economy:

1) Exports rose 15.3% in September from a year earlier, beating a median forecast in a Reuters poll for a rise of 11.8% and quickening from August’s 9.4% rise.

2) Imports rose 7% in terms of value, compared with a Reuters estimate for a 2.7% fall.

3) Iron ore imports rebounded to the second highest this year and monthly crude oil imports rose to the second highest on record.

4) China posted a trade surplus of $31.0 billion in September, down from $49.8 billion in August.

Beyond the encouraging growth data coming from China (the second largest oil consumer worldwide), the US economy grew at a surprising 4.6% rate in Q2 2014, which is the fastest pace in more than two years.

Meanwhile, the Indian economy picked up steam and rebounded to a 5.7% rate in Q2 2014 from 4.6% in Q1, led by a sharp recovery in industrial growth and gradual improvement in services. And after overtaking Japan as the world’s third-biggest crude oil importer in 2013, India will also become the world’s largest oil importer by 2020, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The weakness in Europe remains, but this is nothing new over the last years. And there is a good chance Europe will announce new economic policies to boost the economy over the next months. For instance and based on the latest news, the European Central Bank is considering buying corporate bonds, which is seen as helping banks free up more of their balance sheets for lending.

All in all, and considering the recent growth data from the three biggest oil consumers worldwide, I get the impression that the global economy is in a better shape than it was in early 2011. On top of that, EIA forecasts that WTI and Brent will average $94.58 and $101.67 respectively in 2015, and obviously I do not have any substantial reasons to disagree with this estimate.

The Reasons To Be Bullish On Oil Now

When it comes to investing, timing matters. In other words, a lucrative investment results from a great entry price. And based on the current price, I am bullish on oil for the following reasons:

1) Expiration of the oil contracts: They expired last Thursday and the shorts closed their bearish positions and locked their profits.

2) Restrictions on US oil exports: Over the past three years, the average price of WTI oil has been $13 per barrel cheaper than the international benchmark, Brent crude. That gives large consumers of oil such as refiners and chemical companies a big cost advantage over foreign rivals and has helped the U.S. become the world’s top exporter of refined oil products.

Given that the restrictions on US oil exports do not seem to be lifted anytime soon, the shale oil produced in the US will not be exported to impact the international supply/demand and lower Brent price in the short-to-medium term.

3) The weakening of the U.S. dollar: The U.S. dollar rose significantly against the Euro over the last months because of a potential interest rate hike.

However, U.S. retail sales declined in September 2014 and prices paid by businesses also fell. Another report showed that both ISM indices weakened in September 2014, although the overall economic growth remained very strong in Q3 2014.

The ISM manufacturing survey showed that the reading fell back from 59.0 in August 2014 to 56.6 in September 2014. The composite non-manufacturing index dropped back as well, moving down from 59.6 in August 2014 to 58.6 in September 2014.

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Source: Pictet Bank website

These reports coupled with a weak growth in Europe and a potential slowdown in China could hurt U.S. exports, which could in turn put some pressure on the U.S. economy.

These are reasons for caution and will most likely deepen concerns at the U.S. Federal Reserve. A rate hike too soon could cause problems to the fragile U.S. economy which is gradually recovering. “If foreign growth is weaker than anticipated, the consequences for the U.S. economy could lead the Fed to remove accommodation more slowly than otherwise,” the U.S. central bank’s vice chairman, Stanley Fischer, said.

That being said, the US Federal Reserve will most likely defer to hike the interest rate planned to begin in H1 2015. A delay in expected interest rate hikes will soften the dollar over the next months, which will lift pressure off the oil price and will push Brent higher.

4) OPEC’s decision to cut supply in November 2014: Many OPEC members need the price of oil to rise significantly from the current levels to keep their house in fiscal order. If Brent remains at $85-$90, these countries will either be forced to borrow more to cover the shortfall in oil tax revenues or cut their promises to their citizens. However, tapping bond markets for financing is very expensive for the vast majority of the OPEC members, given their high geopolitical risk. As such, a cut on promises and social welfare programs is not out of the question, which will likely result in protests, social unrest and a new “Arab Spring-like” revolution in some of these countries.

This is why both Iran and Venezuela are calling for an urgent OPEC meeting, given that Venezuela needs a price of $121/bbl, according to Deutsche Bank, making it one of the highest break-even prices in OPEC. Venezuela is suffering rampant inflation which is currently around 50%, and the government currency controls have created a booming black currency market, leading to severe shortages in the shops.

Bahrain, Oman and Nigeria have not called for an urgent OPEC meeting yet, although they need between $100/bbl and $136/bbl to meet their budgeted levels. Qatar and UAE also belong to this group, although hydrocarbon revenues in Qatar and UAE account for close to 60% of the total revenues of the countries, while in Kuwait, the figure is close to 93%.

The Gulf producers such as the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait are more resilient than Venezuela or Iran to the drop of the oil price because they have amassed considerable foreign currency reserves, which means that they could run deficits for a few years, if necessary. However, other OPEC members such as Iran, Iraq and Nigeria, with greater domestic budgetary demands because of their large population sizes in relation to their oil revenues, have less room to maneuver to fund their budgets.

And now let’s see what is going on with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is too reliant on oil, with oil accounting for 80% of export revenue and 90% of the country’s budget revenue. Obviously, Saudi Arabia is not a well-diversified economy to withstand low Brent prices for many months, although the country’s existing sovereign wealth fund, SAMA Foreign Holdings, run by the country’s central bank, consisting mainly of oil surpluses, is the world’s third-largest, with assets totaling 737.6 billion US dollars.

This is why Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, billionaire investor and chairman of Kingdom Holding, said back in 2013: “It’s dangerous that our income is 92% dependent on oil revenue alone. If the price of oil decline was to decline to $78 a barrel there will be a gap in our budget and we will either have to borrow or tap our reserves. Saudi Arabia has SAR2.5 trillion in external reserves and unfortunately the return on this is 1 to 1.5%. We are still a nation that depends on the oil and this is wrong and dangerous. Saudi Arabia’s economic dependence on oil and lack of a diverse revenue stream makes the country vulnerable to oil shocks.”

And here are some additional key factors that the oil investors need to know about Saudi Arabia to place their bets accordingly:

a) Saudi Arabia’s most high-profile billionaire and foreign investor, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, has launched an extraordinary attack on the country’s oil minister for allowing prices to fall. In a recent letter in Arabic addressed to ministers and posted on his website, Prince Alwaleed described the idea of the kingdom tolerating lower prices below $100 per barrel as potentially “catastrophic” for the economy of the desert kingdom. The letter is a significant attack on Saudi’s highly respected 79-year-old oil minister Ali bin Ibrahim Al-Naimi who has the most powerful voice within the OPEC.

b) Back in June 2014, Saudi Arabia was preparing to launch its first sovereign wealth fund to manage budget surpluses from a rise in crude prices estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars. The fund would be tasked with investing state reserves to “assure the kingdom’s financial stability,” Shura Council financial affairs committee Saad Mareq told Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat back then. The newspaper said the fund would start with capital representing 30% of budgetary surpluses accumulated over the years in the kingdom. The thing is that Saudi Arabia is not going to have any surpluses if Brent remains below $90/bbl for months.

c) Saudi Arabia took immediate action in late 2011 and early 2012, under the fear of contagion and the destabilisation of Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia funded those emergency measures, thanks to Brent which was much higher than $100/bbl back then. It would be difficult for Saudi Arabia to fund these billion dollar initiatives if Brent remained at $85-$90 for long.

d) Saudi Arabia and the US currently have a common enemy which is called ISIS. Moreover, the American presence in the kingdom’s oil production has been dominant for decades, given that U.S. petroleum engineers and geologists developed the kingdom’s oil industry throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

From a political perspective, the U.S. has had a discreet military presence since 1950s and the two countries were close allies throughout the Cold War in order to prevent the communists from expanding to the Middle East. The two countries were also allies throughout the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War.

5) Geopolitical Risk: Right now, Brent price carries a zero risk premium. Nevertheless, the geopolitical risk in the major OPEC exporters (i.e. Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, South Sudan, Iraq, Iran) is highly volatile, and several things can change overnight, leading to an elevated level of geopolitical risk anytime.

For instance, the Levant has a new bogeyman. ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq, emerged from the chaos of the Syrian civil war and has swept across Iraq, making huge territorial gains. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s figurehead, has claimed that its goal is to establish a Caliphate across the whole of the Levant and that Jordan is next in line.

At least 435 people have been killed in Iraq in car and suicide bombings since the beginning of the month, with an uptick in the number of these attacks since the beginning of September 2014, according to Iraq Body Count, a monitoring group tracking civilian deaths. Most of those attacks occurred in Baghdad and are the work of Islamic State militants. According to the latest news, ISIS fighters are now encamped on the outskirts of Baghdad, and appear to be able to target important installations with relative ease.

Furthermore, Libya is on the brink of a new civil war and finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing Libyan crisis will not be easy. According to the latest news, Sudan and Egypt agreed to coordinate efforts to achieve stability in Libya through supporting state institutions, primarily the military who is fighting against Islamic militants. It remains to be see how effective these actions will be.

On top of that, the social unrest in Nigeria is going on. Nigeria’s army and Boko Haram militants have engaged in a fierce gun battle in the north-eastern Borno state, reportedly leaving scores dead on either side. Several thousand people have been killed since Boko Haram launched its insurgency in 2009, seeking to create an Islamic state in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria.

6) Seasonality And Production Disruptions: Given that winter is coming in the Northern Hemisphere, the global oil demand will most likely rise effective November 2014.

Also, U.S. refineries enter planned seasonal maintenance from September to October every year as the federal government requires different mixtures in the summer and winter to minimize environmental damage. They transition to winter-grade fuel from summer-grade fuels. U.S. crude oil refinery inputs averaged 15.2 million bopd during the week ending October 17. Input levels were 113,000 bopd less than the previous week’s average. Actually, the week ending October 17 was the eighth week in a row of declines in crude oil runs, and these rates were the lowest since March 2014. After all and given that the refineries demand less crude during this period of the year, the price of WTI remains depressed.

On top of that, the production disruptions primarily in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico are not out of the question during the winter months. Even Saudi Arabia currently faces production disruptions. For instance, production was halted just a few days ago for environmental reasons at the Saudi-Kuwait Khafji oilfield, which has output of 280,000 to 300,000 bopd.

7) Sentiment: To me, the recent sell off in BNO is overdone and mostly speculative. To me, the recent sell-off is primarily a result of a headline-fueled anxiety and bearish sentiment.

8) Jobs versus Russia: According to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist studying the country’s elite at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, top Kremlin officials said after the annexation of Crimea that they expected the U.S. to artificially push oil prices down in collaboration with Saudi Arabia in order to damage Russia.

And Russia is stuck with being a resource-based economy and the cheap oil chokes the Russian economy, putting pressure on Vladimir Putin’s regime, which is overwhelmingly reliant on energy, with oil and gas accounting for 70% of its revenues. This is an indisputable fact.

The current oil price is less than the $104/bbl on average written into the 2014 Russian budget. As linked above, the Russian budget will fall into deficit next year if Brent is less than $104/bbl, according to the Russian investment bank Sberbank CIB. At $90/bbl, Russia will have a shortfall of 1.2% of gross domestic product. Against a backdrop of falling revenue, finance minister Anton Siluanov warned last week that the country’s ambitious plans to raise defense spending had become unaffordable.

Meanwhile, a low oil price is also helping U.S. consumers in the short term. However, WTI has always been priced in relation to Brent, so the current low price of WTI is actually putting pressure on the US consumers in the midterm, given that the number one Job Creating industry in the US (shale oil) will collapse and many companies will lay off thousands of people over the next few months. The producers will cut back their growth plans significantly, and the explorers cannot fund the development of their discoveries. This is another indisputable fact too.

For instance, sliding global oil prices put projects under heavy pressure, executives at Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and Statoil (NYSE:STO) told an oil industry conference in Venezuela. Statoil Venezuela official Luisa Cipollitti said at the conference that mega-projects globally are under threat, and estimates that more than half the world’s biggest 163 oil projects require a $120 Brent price for crude.

Actually, even before the recent fall of the oil price, the oil companies had been cutting back on significant spending, in a move towards capital discipline. And they had been making changes that improve the economies of shale, like drilling multiple wells from a single pad and drilling longer horizontal wells, because the “fracking party” was very expensive. Therefore, the drop of the oil price just made things much worse, because:

a) Shale Oil: Back in July 2014, Goldman Sachs estimated that U.S. shale producers needed $85/bbl to break even.

b) Offshore Oil Discoveries: Aside Petr’s (NYSE: PBR) pre-salt discoveries in Brazil, Kosmos Energy’s (NYSE: KOS) Jubilee oilfield in Ghana and Jonas Sverdrup oilfield in Norway, there have not been any oil discoveries offshore that move the needle over the last decade, while depleting North Sea fields have resulted in rising costs and falling production.

The pre-salt hype offshore Namibia and offshore Angola has faded after multiple dry or sub-commercial wells in the area, while several major players have failed to unlock new big oil resources in the Arctic Ocean. For instance, Shell abandoned its plans in the offshore Alaskan Arctic, and Statoil is preparing to drill a final exploration well in the Barents Sea this year after disappointing results in its efforts to unlock Arctic resources.

Meanwhile, the average breakeven cost for the Top 400 offshore projects currently is approximately $80/bbl (Brent), as illustrated below:

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Source: Kosmos Energy website

c) Oil sands: The Canadian oil sands have an average breakeven cost that ranges between $65/bbl (old projects) and $100/bbl (new projects).

In fact, the Canadian Energy Research Institute forecasts that new mined bitumen projects requires US$100 per barrel to breakeven, whereas new SAGD projects need US$85 per barrel. And only one in four new Canadian oil projects could be vulnerable if oil prices fall below US$80 per barrel for an extended period of time, according to the International Energy Agency.

“Given that the low-bearing fruit have already been developed, the next wave of oil sands project are coming from areas where geology might not be as uniform,” said Dinara Millington, senior vice president at the Canadian Energy Research Institute.

So it is not surprising that Suncor Energy (NYSE:SU) announced a billion-dollar cut for the rest of the year even though the company raised its oil price forecast. Also, Suncor took a $718-million charge related to a decision to shelve the Joslyn oilsands mine, which would have been operated by the Canadian unit of France’s Total (NYSE:TOT). The partners decided the project would not be economically feasible in today’s environment.

As linked above, others such as Athabasca Oil (OTCPK: ATHOF), PennWest Exploration (NYSE: PWE), Talisman Energy (NYSE: TLM) and Sunshine Oil Sands (OTC: SUNYF) are also cutting back due to a mix of internal corporate issues and project uncertainty. Cenovus Energy (NYSE:CVE) is also facing cost pressures at its Foster Creek oil sands facility.

And as linked above: “Oil sands are economically challenging in terms of returns,” said Jeff Lyons, a partner at Deloitte Canada. “Cost escalation is causing oil sands participants to rethink the economics of projects. That’s why you’re not seeing a lot of new capital flowing into oil sands.”

After all, helping the US consumer spend more on cute clothes today does not make any sense, when he does not have a job tomorrow. Helping the US consumer drive down the street and spend more at a fancy restaurant today does not make any sense, if he is unemployed tomorrow.

Moreover, Putin managed to avoid mass unemployment during the 2008 financial crisis, when the price of oil dropped further and faster than currently. If Russia faces an extended slump now, Putin’s handling of the last crisis could serve as a template.

In short, I believe that the U.S. will not let everything collapse that easily just because the Saudis woke up one day and do not want to pump less. I believe that the U.S. economy has more things to lose (i.e. jobs) than to win (i.e. hurt Russia or help the US consumer in the short term), in case the current low WTI price remains for months.

My Takeaway

I am not saying that an investor can take the plunge lightly, given that the weaker oil prices squeeze profitability. Also, I am not saying that Brent will return back to $110/bbl overnight. I am just saying that the slump of the oil price is primarily a result from extreme short positioning and overblown fears about the global economy.

To me, this is a temporary dip and I believe that oil markets will recover significantly by the first half of 2015. This is why, I bought BNO at an average price of $33.15 last Thursday, and I will add if BNO drops down to $30. My investment horizon is 6-8 months.

Nevertheless, all fingers are not the same. All energy companies are not the same either. The rising tide lifted many of the leveraged duds over the last two years. Some will regain quickly their lost ground, some will keep falling and some will cover only half of the lost ground.

I am saying this because the drop of the oil price will spell serious trouble for a lot of oil producers, many of whom are laden with debt. I do believe that too much credit has been extended too fast amid America’s shale boom, and a wave of bankruptcy that spreads across the oil patch will not surprise me. On the debt front, here is some indicative data according to Bloomberg:

1) Speculative-grade bond deals from energy companies have made up at least 16% of total junk issuance in the U.S. the past two years as the firms piled on debt to fund exploration projects. Typically the average since 2002 has been 11%.

2) Junk bonds issued by energy companies, which have made up a record 17% of the $294 billion of high-yield debt sold in the U.S. this year, have on average lost more than 4% of their market value since issuance.

3) Hercules Offshore’s (NASDAQ:HERO) $300 million of 6.75% notes due in 2022 plunged to 57 cents a few days ago after being issued at par, with the yield climbing to 17.2%.

4) In July 2014, Aubrey McClendon’s American Energy Partners LP tapped the market for unsecured debt to fund exploration projects in the Permian Basin. Moody’s Investors Service graded the bonds Caa1, which is a level seven steps below investment-grade and indicative of “very high credit risk.” The yield on the company’s $650 million of 7.125% notes maturing in November 2020 reached 11.4% a couple of days ago, as the price plunged to 81.5 cents on the dollar, according to Trace, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s bond-price reporting system.

Due to this debt pile, I have been very bearish on several energy companies like Halcon Resources (NYSE:HK), Goodrich Petroleum (NYSE:GDP), Vantage Drilling (NYSEMKT: VTG), Midstates Petroleum (NYSE: MPO), SandRidge Energy (NYSE:SD), Quicksilver Resources (NYSE: KWK) and Magnum Hunter Resources (NYSE:MHR). All these companies have returned back to their H1 2013 levels or even lower, as shown at their charts.

But thanks also to this correction of the market, a shrewd investor can separate the wheat from the chaff and pick only the winners. The shrewd investor currently has the unique opportunity to back up the truck on the best energy stocks in town. This is the time to pick the gold nuggets out of the ashes and wait to see them shine again. On that front, I recommended Petroamerica Oil (OTCPK: PTAXF) which currently is the cheapest oil-weighted producer worldwide with a pristine balance sheet.

Last but not least, I am watching closely the situation in Russia. With economic growth slipping close to zero, Russia is reeling from sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. The sanctions are having an across-the-board impact, resulting in a worsening investment climate, rising capital flight and a slide in the ruble which is at a record low. And things in Russia have deteriorated lately due to the slump of the oil price.

Obviously, this is the perfect storm and the current situation in Russia reminds me of the situation in Egypt back in 2013. Those investors who bought the bullish ETF (NYSEARCA: EGPT) at approximately $40 in late 2013, have been rewarded handsomely over the last twelve months because EGPT currently lies at $66. Therefore, I will be watching closely both the fluctuations of the oil price and several other moving parts that I am not going to disclose now, in order to find the best entry price for the Russian ETFs (NYSEARCA: RSX) and (NYSEARCA:RUSL) over the next months.

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U.S. To Ease Repurchase Demands On Bad Mortgages

Mel WattMelvin Watt, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, outlined ways in which his agency would clarify actions it takes against bankers on loans that go bad. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press).

by E. Scott Reckard, John Glionna & Tim Logan

Hoping to boost mortgage approvals for more borrowers, the federal regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac told lenders that the home financing giants would ease up on demands that banks buy back loans that go delinquent.

Addressing a lending conference here Monday, Melvin Watt, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, outlined ways in which his agency would clarify actions it takes against bankers on loans that go bad after being sold to Freddie and Fannie.

The agency’s idea is to foster an environment in which lenders would fund mortgages to a wider group of borrowers, particularly first-time home buyers and those without conventional pay records.

To date, though, the agency’s demands that lenders repurchase bad loans made with shoddy underwriting standards have resulted in bankers imposing tougher criteria on borrowers than Fannie and Freddie require.

A lot of good loans don’t get done because of silly regulations that are not necessary. – Jeff Lazerson, a mortgage broker from Orange County

Those so-called overlays in lending standards, in turn, have contributed to sluggish home sales, a drag on the economic recovery and lower profits on mortgages as banks reduced sales to Fannie and Freddie and focused mainly on borrowers with excellent credit.

Watt acknowledged to the Mortgage Bankers Assn. audience that his agency in the past “did not provide enough clarity to enable lenders to understand when Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac would exercise their remedy to require repurchase of a loan.”

Going forward, Watt said, Fannie and Freddie would not force repurchases of mortgages found to have minor flaws if the borrowers have near-perfect payment histories for 36 months.

He also said flaws in reporting borrowers’ finances, debt loads and down payments would not trigger buy-back demands so long as the borrowers would have qualified for loans had the information been reported accurately.  And he said that the agency would release guidelines “in the coming weeks” to allow increased lending to borrowers with down payments as low as 3% by considering “compensating factors.”

The mortgage trade group’s chief executive, David Stevens, said Watt’s remarks “represent significant progress in the ongoing dialogue” among the industry, regulators and Fannie and Freddie. Several banks released positive statements that echoed his remarks.

Others at the convention, however, said Watt’s speech lacked specifics and did little to reassure mortgage lenders that the nation’s housing market would soon be back on track.

“The speech was horribly disappointing,” said Jeff Lazerson, a mortgage broker from Orange County, calling Watt’s delivery and message “robotic.”

“They’ve been teasing us, hinting that things were going to get better, but nothing new came out,” Lazerson said. “A lot of good loans don’t get done because of silly regulations that are not necessary.”

Philip Stein, a lawyer from Miami who represents regional banks and mortgage companies in loan repurchase cases, said the situation was far from returning to a “responsible state of normalcy,” as Watt described it.

“When the government talked of modifications in the process, I thought, ‘Oh, this could be good,'” Stein said. “But I don’t feel good about what I heard today.”

Despite overall improvements in the economy and interest rates still near historic lows, the number of home sales is on pace to fall this year for the first time since 2010 as would-be buyers struggle with higher prices and tight lending conditions

Loose underwriting standards–scratch that, non-existent underwriting standards–caused the mortgage meltdown. If borrowers are willing to put down just 3% for their down payment, their note rate should be 0.50% higher and 1 buy-down point. The best rates should go to 20% down payments.

Once-torrid price gains have cooled, too, as demand has subsided. The nation’s home ownership rate is at a 19-year low.

First-time buyers, in particular, have stayed on the sidelines. Surveys by the National Assn. of Realtors have found first-time owners making up a significantly smaller share of the housing market than the 40% they typically do.

There are reasons for this, economists said, including record-high student debt levels, young adults delaying marriage, and the still-soft job market. But many experts agree that higher down-payment requirements and tougher lending restrictions are playing a role.

Stuart Gabriel, director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA, said he’s of a “mixed mind” about the changes.

On one hand, Gabriel said, tight underwriting rules are clearly making it harder for many would-be buyers to get a loan, perhaps harder than it should be.

“If they loosen the rules a bit, they’ll see more qualified applicants and more applicants getting into mortgages,” he said. “That would be a good thing.”

But, he said, a down payment of just 3% doesn’t leave borrowers with much of a cushion. If prices fall, he said, it risks a repeat of what happened before the downturn.

“We saw that down payments at that level were inadequate to withstand even a minor storm in the housing market,” he said. “It lets borrowers have very little skin in the game, and it becomes easy for those borrowers to walk away.”

Selma Hepp, senior economist at the California Assn. of Realtors, said lenders will welcome clarification of the rules over repurchase demands.

But in a market in which many buyers struggle to afford a house even if they can get a mortgage, she wasn’t sure the changes would have much effect on sales.

“We’re still unclear if we’re having a demand issue or a supply issue here,” said Hepp, whose group recently said it expects home sales to fall in California this year. “It may not have an immediate effect. But in the long term, I think it’s very positive news.”

Watt’s agency has recovered billions of dollars from banks that misrepresented borrowers’ finances and home values when they sold loans during the housing boom. The settlements have helped stabilize Fannie and Freddie, which were taken over by the government in 2008, and led many bankers to clamp down on new loans.

Fannie and Freddie buy bundles of home loans from lenders and sell securities backed by the mortgages, guaranteeing payment to investors if the borrowers default.

scott.reckard@latimes.com

john.glionna@latimes.com

tim.logan@latimes.com

Reckard and Logan reported from Los Angeles; Glionna from Las Vegas

US Home Prices Are Rolling Over (in one Chart)

The numerous outfits that attempt to measure home price levels and movements in the US all come up with different numbers, and often frustratingly so, in part because they measure different things. Some measure actual cities, others measure the often multi-county area of the entire metroplex. So the absolute price levels differ, and timing may differ as well, but the movements are roughly the same.

The chart by the Atlanta Fed overlays three of the major real estate data series – the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s House Price Index, the CoreLogic National House Price Index, and the S&P/Case Shiller Home Price Index (20-city). And one thing is now abundantly clear:

Year over year, home-price increases are fading from crazy double digit gains last year toward….?

US-Home-Prices-Atlanta-Fed_2002-2014

Note the great housing bubble that the Greenspan Fed instigated with its cheap-money policies that then led to the financial crisis. It was followed by a hangover.

And the show repeats itself:

The ephemeral bump in home prices in 2010 and 2011 was a result of federal and state stimulus money (via tax credits) for home buyers. It was followed by a hangover.

The hefty home price increases of 2012 and 2013 were nourished by investors, including large Wall Street firms with access to nearly free money that QE and ZIRP made available to them. They plowed billions every month into the buy-to-rent scheme. When prices soared past where it made sense for them, they pulled back. And now the hangover has set in.

There is no instance in recent history when home prices soared like this beyond the reach of actual home buyers, then landed softly on a plateau to somehow let incomes catch up with them. Despite the well-honed assurances by the industry, there is no plateau when home prices are inflated by outside forces. When these forces peter out, the hangover sets in.

How long the current hangover will last and how far prices have to drop before demand re-materializes even as interest rates are likely to be nudged up remains a guessing game. So far, prices are still up on a national basis year over year. But in some areas, price changes have started to go negative on a monthly basis. And the trend has been relentless.

Someday perhaps, governments and central banks will figure out that every stimulus and money-printing binge is followed by a hangover. And when that hangover gets painful, suddenly there are new screams for more stimulus and another money-printing binge, regardless of what will come as a result of it, or after it fades.

Many Seniors Trying To Retire With A Mortgage

http://www.trbimg.com/img-541cd768/turbine/la-baby-boomer-mortgages-20140919/750/750x422 By Andrew Khouri

When Tom Greco bought his four-bedroom home three decades ago, he assumed he’d pay off the mortgage before retirement — just as his parents did.

Things didn’t work out that way.

Instead, his $4,500 monthly mortgage payments — a consequence of several equity withdraws over the years — became a financial drag.

“It’s pretty hard to retire with that,” the Irvine attorney, 66, said.

More and more older homeowners are carrying mortgage debt, a burden that threatens to delay their retirement and curtail spending among the massive baby boomer population.

Nearly a third of homeowners 65 and older had a mortgage in 2011, up from 22% in 2001, according to an analysis from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, using the latest available data.

Tom Greco and his wife are downsizing
Tom Greco and his wife are downsizing from an Irvine house to a Lake Forest condo. To retire, Greco needs to reduce his mortgage payment. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The debt burden also grew — with older homeowners owing a median of $79,000 in 2011, compared with an inflation-adjusted $43,400 a decade earlier.

For decades, Americans strove hard to pay off their mortgages before retirement, an aspiration that when achieved was celebrated with mortgage-burning parties.

But for the latest retirees, reaching that goal, if they ever had it, is increasingly less likely.

Baby boomers bought homes later in life, and with smaller down payments, than previous generations, said Stacy Canan, deputy assistant director of the consumer bureau’s Office for Older Americans. Many also refinanced during the housing bubble and used cash from their equity withdraws to pay off other debt, take vacations or put children through college. Surging home prices and low interest rates made that possible.

Then the recession hit. Job losses delayed attempts to pay off mortgages. And many baby boomers took in their adult children after the collapse, refinancing to help their kids weather a brutal job market, said James Wells, a housing counselor with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions.

“Before, the children could take care of themselves,” he said. “Now, not so much.”

The number of mortgage-holding households headed by someone 65 or older rose from 3.8 million in 2001 to 6.1 million a decade later, the consumer bureau said.

Rising debt levels also reflect a psychological shift among Americans, financial advisers and economists say.

“People who lived through the Great Depression came out of that period with a great aversion to debt,” said Lori Trawinski, director of banking and finance with AARP’s Public Policy Institute. “As a culture we have loosened our opinion of debt.”

As baby boomers enter retirement age — 10,000 per day, according to one estimate — the decisions that once supported an easier lifestyle could make later years tougher. Some may have to keep working to pay their mortgage, and others will have to cut back on other expenses to retire, the bureau’s Canan said.

“People will indeed have to do some juggling of their budgets,” she said.

Jacqueline Murphy is doing just that. The former clerical worker for the New York City Police Department retired in March, thinking her pension and Social Security, coupled with a part-time job, would allow her to live comfortably and cover mortgage payments on the Bronx town home she bought for $375,000 during the housing bubble.

But the 63-year-old hasn’t yet found a part-time gig, and a large chunk of her income is going to the $2,200-a-month mortgage.

So she’s cutting back. She keeps the lights off as much as possible, has cut back on gardening to reduce the water bill, and sometimes gets help from family to buy groceries.

“I thought retirement was going to be wonderful,” she said. “Now that I am retired, I am sorry that I did. I am focused on how I am going to make it to next week, how am I going to make it to the next mortgage payment, and I am constantly worried.”

Wells, the housing counselor, said those he counsels often didn’t budget for reduced retirement income when they refinanced to help their children, fix a car or take a vacation. They were working then, so the payments seemed reasonable.

“They are not really thinking long term at that point,” he said.

Greco, the Orange County attorney, said he took a “shortsighted view.” Enticed by dropping interest rates, he refinanced his Irvine home four times.

He then used the money from the cash-out refinancings to pay down credit card debt and finance home renovations, including a pool he himself designed.

“A foolish move,” he said of the refinancing, but one that many others, including friends, did as well.

A recent study from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies showed that of mortgage holders ages 65 to 79, nearly half spent 30% or more of their income on housing costs. Of mortgage holders 80 or older, 61% pay that amount on housing.

And the debt carries further risks.

Sudden changes in expenses, such as those stemming from health problems, can expose seniors with mortgages to greater financial peril, the consumer bureau’s study said. And if another downturn comes, retirement savings and investments are likely to take a hit, raising the chance of foreclosure.

One option is to downsize.

That’s the choice Greco made. In August, he and his wife sold their Irvine house. Next month they plan to move into a Lake Forest condo, knocking down their mortgage payment by thousands of dollars. Even after downsizing, Greco said, he simply can’t retire as he wishes. There’s the condo mortgage and other debt he must pay.

So instead, he plans to gradually work less and less. He started this month, a day after his 66th birthday, by working half-days on Fridays.

In five years, he hopes to have paid down the condo loan enough to get a reverse mortgage that will allow him to only take on cases that interest him.

Reverse mortgages allow people at least 62 years old to receive payments based on the equity in their homes. But unlike a traditional home equity loan, a reverse mortgage does not require monthly payments. The loan, which is easier to qualify for than a home equity line of credit, doesn’t come due until the home is sold or the borrower moves out or dies.

Having to still work is not the ideal situation, Greco said, but retirement will be far easier without the Irvine house as an anchor.

“I needed to get out of that mortgage,” he said.

andrew.khouri@latimes.com  Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

We All Agree: We want to keep people in their homes if possible… sort of.

Re-posted From: Mandelman Matters

I have a long-time reader by the name of Arthur Pritchard.  He’s a really smart guy in his mid-70s, who lives in San Francisco.  He purchased the lot in 1978, and then designed and built his home on Howth Street, right near San Francisco City College, in 1988, with the help of a carpenter and the like.

In 2005, at 66 years young, and getting ready to retire or at least re-tread, he wanted to take some cash out of his home’s equity and the nice people at World Savings were standing by ready willing and able to put him right into an Option ARM mortgage, which I think even the most predatory of the predatory lenders would agree would have been about the most inappropriate choice for him in his stage of life… but, no matter.  We can always come back to that later if it makes sense.

Next, we all know what happened… the world blew up, as the housing market melted down, and the financial crisis ended the rich histories of every single investment bank on Wall Street.  Like millions of others, soon Arthur couldn’t keep up with his mortgage payments and faster than you could say, “don’t worry, you can always refinance,” he found himself headed for foreclosure.

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So far, there’s nothing that’s the least bit surprising or even unusual about Arthur’s story.  I mean, other than the people at World Savings being predatory shitheads that should probably have gone to jail or something close, everything is as it should be, right?  Of course, right.

Well, Arthur vacillated a bit on whether he should fight the loss of his home.  He tried to get a modification, to no avail, which was also not a surprise in the least.  He filed bankruptcy, tried again, and then seeing the writing on the walls he had built himself, he decided to move out and give up the fight.

The problem was that he didn’t have anywhere to go, and with his income a mere shadow of its former self, he ended up in one of the Bay Area’s finest shelters for the poor, the elderly, the people who at one time were abducted by aliens, and several drummers from bands who had hit singles during the 1960s.

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Now, Arthur’s truly a stand up guy, and when I say he’s smarter than your average bear, I’m not just whistling Dixie.  But, living in a shelter in San Francisco and later in San Jose, had to be a lousy way to look at living through his golden years, and after a while, since his home was still sitting there, he moved back in and decided to continue his fight to try to keep his home… or if not, then short sell it.

Either way, at least he wasn’t sleeping in a shelter anymore, so life was better than it would have been otherwise.  And, as is commonly the case, Wells Fargo Bank didn’t seem to be in much of a rush to foreclose and send him packing, so why not keep trying until all avenues had been exhausted?

Besides, since it had been over a year since Wells had filed a Notice of Default, they would have to start the foreclosure process over again from the beginning, so he had some time to stall if nothing else.  He rented the bottom floor of his home to a woman who had lost everything in a bankruptcy and foreclosure, in part because he wanted to help, and also to give him some walking around money and provide some protection against Wells Fargo being able to get him out in a hurry, if that’s what they decided to do.

In fairly short order, he found a lawyer who said that he could probably help him get Wells Fargo to approve a short sale, and sure enough, that’s what happened.  Wells, at least in principal (pun intended) agreed to take $375,000 for the home, the short sale process began in earnest, and being in a desirable area of San Francisco, perhaps the country’s hottest housing market, several buyers appeared on the scene.

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But wait… there’s more.

Quite predictably, another lawyer materialized saying that he could sue Wells Fargo, and get them to settle, which could mean Arthur would get to keep his home.  Having heard similar claims every day for the last six years, I wasn’t totally paying attention… that is, until yesterday.

So, that’s where things stood, at least until last night when Arthur called me to tell me of the latest developments affecting his picture perfect retirement years.

Apparently, the lawyer would not take his case to court unless Arthur could come up with some serious coinage, yet another entirely unsurprising development to my way of thinking, so Arthur was back to the short sale path, and that meant he’d be back in a shelter at some point in his future.  And, I’m sorry, but that just sucks and now my mind was connecting dots.

Okay, so maybe a lawsuit over the predatory use of the now illegal Option Arm loan would have been the best answer… maybe Wells could be pressured to settle with a guy in his mid-70s, who never should have been offered such a volatile solution.  But, regardless… Wells was already approving a short sale at $375,000…

… and having recently done a lot of research into reverse mortgages, it occurred to me that I could help Arthur get a reverse mortgage for right around $375,000 too. 

So, if Wells Fargo was now willing to allow Arthur to sell the home he’d built and lived in since 1988 for $375,000… why not sell the home to Arthur for $375,000, and Arthur would use a reverse mortgage for the purchase.  That way, he’d be able to live in his home as long as he wanted to without having to make a mortgage payment… while Wells Fargo would still be getting the exact same amount for the property they already said they were fine with receiving.

Now, I’ve known for some time that both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have strict policies against such transactions.  They approve short sales, but only if the current homeowner moves out… the new buyer or renter has to be a stranger to the property.

The first time I heard about Fannie and Freddie’s policy about post-short sale strangers, I thought it sounded stranger than fiction. Banks approve short sales because doing so makes more financial sense than foreclosing as re-selling the property at auction.  Absent any fraudulent intent on the part of the borrower, why would anyone care who was renting or buying a home after it was short sold?

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But, I remember clearly, the day I called Fannie’s spokesperson to inquire about the thought process behind the policy, and was told… sure enough, the current homeowner had to move out, or the short sale would not be approved.  It seemed to me that the policy was intended to punish the borrower who could no longer afford his or her mortgage payments, and that punishment was to lose the home as either owner or renter.

I do understand, under more normal circumstances, why such a rule would be in place.  I mean, you wouldn’t want borrowers capable of paying their payments to be able to simply decide to pay some lesser amount, while remaining in their homes.  But, come on… these are not “normal” circumstances, by any stretch of the imagination.  And again… Arthur’s is NOT a Fannie or Freddie loan anyway.

So again, the operative question would seem to be: Can we all agree that we want to keep people in their homes if possible… or aren’t we in true agreement about that?

Just consider once more the facts of Arthur’s situation:

  1. He built his home in 1988.
  2. He’s now in his mid-70s, and can’t keep up with the increasing payments on his Option ARM mortgage, courtesy of World Savings.
  3. Wells Fargo has agreed to short sale the property for $375,000 and with an appraisal of roughly $600,000, at his age, Arthur could get a reverse mortgage for, let’s just say, $375,000 and that way, remain in his home for the rest of his life without having to make a mortgage payment.
  4. After his death, the home would be sold and the $375,000 lien (plus interest) would be paid from the proceeds of that sale.
  5. Anything left over after that, would go to Arthur’s heirs.

But, Wells won’t take the $375,000 from Arthur.  They’ll only take the money… even though it’s the same amount… from a stranger.  Wells is not protecting the investor with this policy, the investor would get the same amount either way.

All Wells Fargo’s refusal to accept the money from Arthur would accomplish is to force a 75 year-old man into a homeless shelter.  Everything else would remain the same either way.

So… do we agree that we want to keep people in their homes if possible or don’t we?

Surely, there aren’t people at Wells that would prefer that Arthur have no home to live in for his remaining years.  Surely, there aren’t investors that care where the $375,000 comes from, right?  Doesn’t it seem obvious that there’s some way to make this situation have a much happier ending than it will if everything is left status quo?

Are we trying to keep people in their homes, if it’s possible to do so?  Or are we more concerned with punishing borrowers who fall upon hard times, as in the worst “hard times” in 70 years, as is the situation today?

Surely, we can all see that desperate times call for desperate measures, or at least unusual times call for unusual measures… and no one benefits from putting a 75 year-old on the streets of San Francisco.  Arthur is 75… is someone honestly concerned about “moral hazard,” here?

If so, that’s just stupid.  This is a common sense solution to an obviously undesirable outcome that will occur without it.  Do we want to keep people in their homes if possible?  Or are we punishers first, who are more concerned with leaving a nickel on the table?

I’d like to say that I know the answer to that question.  I used to think I knew… but now, I’m not at all sure.