Up the down staircase: Fakery, inflation and the housing market

(Published at Counterpunch.com)  The British sitcom, “Upstairs Downstairs” was a comedy of manners, of the rich and their servants, which is come to think of it, how the Federal Reserve and Wall Street’s stylized dialogue on inflation will appear to historians, in retrospect.

Over the past decade we’ve had Wall Street wagging its tail to the Fed’s “growth recession”, “low” inflation, we’ve had “worries about higher inflation”. Meanwhile, Americans in the vast majority are noticeably poorer.

It is not just the pocket book: it is also quality of life. The growth economy based on suburban sprawl–now flat on its face–has been a nation killer, sold like tobacco or sugar as ‘what the market wants’.

But, always, the bottom line is the pocketbook. And there, the incredibly narrow bandwidth on government propaganda on inflation, and the timidity of most economists, Americans for the most part have meekly bought into the rosy scenarios.

Americans on fixed incomes, though, may wonder indeed if they have been inflicted with an unreported kind of disease–because inflation to them has been real and rampant.

“Thanks to 20 years of inflation, $1 million today has just 54% of the purchasing power of $1 million in 1987.” (from The Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Clements, June 27, 2007)

Bingo.

Countless Americans responded to the pressure of inflation, emptied of meaning and relevance by government statistics, by investing far more in housing than historical precedent or reason would prudently allocate.

When a significant percentage of the nation’s homeowners are investing 40 to 50 percent of disposable income on housing, and home values have fallen 30 percent off purchase prices (as they are, in the nation’s most overheated areas), who needs an exogenous shock to threaten the economy?

Until 2005, real and unreported inflation was matched by consumers of mortgages in housing, matching inflation with inflation, sucking up many purchasers of subprime mortgages, but also, hard working middle and upper middle class.

As paper value of individual investments in housing went up, up, up, the real value of mortgages packaged and sliced into financial derivatives disappeared into pension funds, insurance pools, and hedge funds providing leverage for even more speculative investments.

Today there is a slow motion earthquake trembling through markets for financial derivatives, whose cumulative float is approximately ten times the value of stocks traded on public exchanges in the US.

It doesn’t matter whose liquidity is keeping US stock markets uplifted or high: it is an entirely different scene down in the boiler rooms where government economists and statisticians and Fed board members are keeping the engines running: the denial is remarkable.

The picture is similar to the one painted by Nicolas Kristof in his editorial on the victims of climate change, in the New York Times yesterday.

Kristof, who writes frequently on the planet’s most destitute–not the environment–reports that tens of millions of Africans and Asians are already on the march because of global warming that has wrecked substinence farming.

Think of American buyers of subprime mortgages who are now in default as the homeowner equivalent of climate change victims.

Kristof makes the mistake, in his editorial, of suggesting that wealthier nations like those in the industrial West can withstand the impacts of climate change.

To extend the metaphor, as financial markets are doing, mortgage holders with better credit, ie. the middle class and upper middle class, are not going to be sucked into the same problems afflicting subprime borrowers.

But there is no evidence whatsoever that the United States is insulated from the impacts of climate change, any more than purchasers of A rated mortgage credit are insulated from the troubles afflicting subprime buyers.

It is just taking a little longer. It is just a matter of time before blue-chip mortgage holders find themselves going up, the down staircase.

Noriel Roubini puts meat to these bones. In his June 27th blog, Roubini wrote:

“The fallout of this CDO mess is likely to end up into $100 billion plus of losses for banks, financial institutions, hedge funds and investors once these CDOs and subprime mortgage backed securities are marked-to-market rather than being marked-to-a-delusional – misrated-model. Thus, the Bear disaster is only the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger financial mess that will unravel in the next few months: the pile of rising subprime and nearprime delinquencies will take a toll on the toxic waste of mortgage backed securities that a rating “voodoo magic” pretended to turn below-junk securities into A-rated ones. “

No wonder that all these lousy news about housing and gasoline prices sky high have depressed the US consumer with consumer confidence now significantly down. And no wonder that the latest news from retail sales are also lousy. As reported by the International Council of Shopping Centers and UBS in the last two reporting week same store chain store sales have been down (-0.7% in the last week) while the year-over-year growth rate of such sales is now down to 1.7% (i.e. falling in real terms relative to a year ago). Add to that a 2.8% fall in durable goods orders for May and a survey of major CFOs suggesting that they are planning to cut capex spending and accumulate less inventories.

” … subprime delinquencies rising and the credit crunch in the subprime market getting worse. The delinquency rate for subprime mortgages increased to 13.8% in Q1, according to the MBA, up from the already high 11.5% a year before….near-prime delinquencies are rising sharply: late payments of at least 90 days and defaults on 2006 mortgages have increased to 4.21 percent, up from 1.59 percent for 2005 mortgages and 0.81 percent for 2004 mortgages, as reported by S&P. So the subprime carnage is now spreading to near prime mortgages.”

So far, the mainstream media is meekly parroting government statistics and tracking the paw prints of big financial houses, like Bear Stearns, stuck in the tar pits of the subprime mortgage mess.

And it is interesting what is happening on the ground, too, in places like Florida where reams of ink have been devoted to the costs afflicting homeowners from insurance and property taxes–including a much trumpeted special legislative session in Tallahassee to deal with the crises–when suddenly, as though out of the blue, yesterday’s news is that tax receipts state-wide are anticipated to fall at least $1 billion.

The building and construction lobby has been flailing at the promise of tax cuts, as though tax cuts could revive the sharp declines in housing markets. Well, no: not if Florida suddenly finds itself a billion short in tax revenues toward a budget that has already been paired to the bone.

In Miami, you would think there would be some public discussion, as the builders lobby comes calling for new zoning and building permits to plow more suburban sprawl and more condo towers.

But there is not a single elected official (OK, maybe one or two) who will raise the question, why have local legislatures turned into rubber stamps for ill-advised development?

Conceivably, it will take a financial meltdown to knock some reason in their heads: that would be just about the same as Congress and the White House waiting until sea level rise, or, the nation’s breadbasket burns up in extreme summer heat before mandates to compel industries to sharply reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.

Everyone wants things to be the way they used to be, just a few years ago, when the formula for riches and political power was simply twinned by campaign contributions wrapped around votes for residential zoning.

In a Florida Association of Realtors press release, on June 25th, “Harry Millsaps, president of the Emerald Coast Association of Realtos and a Realtor with Prudential Coastal Propertie Inc., says that the area’s economy remains strong and home sales are returning to a more normal pace.” But in Miami and Orlando, year-to-year homes sales for May decreased 44 and 40 percent respectively. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater decreased 42 percent. And state-wide, down 34 percent.

In a Wall Street Journal report, on June 26th, Michael Corkery wrote, “Many analysts believe home supplies will decrease and prices will stabilize, only after builders shed their unwanted land.”

But in Miami-Dade the production home builders and land speculators are still jumping up and down, burning through their cash, and the commissioners are nodding in syncopating rhythm: we need zoning changes and building approvals because more people are coming in to Miami and Florida.

Not now.

All but one of nine Miami-Dade school districts are losing students, a perceptible annual rate on the order of five to ten percent. This is news roundly ignored by Miami city and county commissions.

People are moving, although it hasn’t risen to the threshold of Africans fleeing an angry, unrelenting climate. In Miami, the hissing from the housing bubble bursting is perceptible.

As bad as the decline in school enrollments may be, it is still considerably less than the number of Miami homeowners in the clutch of mortgages they may not be able to afford for much longer, residents who would like to move to less expensive locales and are keeping their kids in public schools, holding on and praying for housing values to reverse.

A more likely scenario that improvement in housing values, though, is that the federal government gradually admits to the inflation that has been rampant in the economy, though unacknowledged.

Could it be that prices will be allowed to rise all around the housing bubble, swallowing inflated values in a dollar worth even less than it is, today? There is no humor, in that.

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