Government intervention delays housing market recovery

I have repeatedly made the argument that government intervention is counterproductive. However, politicians and federal reserve policy makers either don’t accept this simple fact, or they don’t care. Politicians need to look like they are trying because doing nothing — which is the proper course of action — makes them look helpless and inept — which they are. The same is true for the federal reserve, but they also have a mandate to keep their member banks solvent. Most of the meddling in the markets has been done for that reason. Perhaps a few loan owners were saved along the way, but the real reason for most interventions is to keep the banks alive.

I am not the only one who noted the counterproductive efforts of policymakers. Today’s featured article is an interview with Sam Zell, billionaire investor.

Government Bailout Actually Hurt Housing Recovery: Zell

Published: Wednesday, 8 Feb 2012 | 8:56 AM ET

By: Jeff Cox — CNBC.com Senior Writer

Government intervention has prevented the real estate market from healing, with the commercial sector hit especially hard, investor Sam Zell said.

As sales languish and prices continue to fall, the head of Equity Group Investments and numerous other ventures pinned the blame on policies that refused to allow market forces to take hold.

Rather than let the elements of the business world take care of the problems, we basically stopped the process of creating market clearing,” Zell said in a CNBC interview. “Had we allowed the market to clear without trying to stop reality…we would have a healthy housing market today.”

The delinquent mortgage squatters are dead weight. They pay neither rent nor a mortgage. Perhaps politicians find some economic benefit from the squatter stimulus, but with so many homes producing no viable income stream, the housing market is mired. We will not have a healthy housing market until the squatters are cleared out, lenders and investors recover their capital, and the house is put to productive use either by an investor receiving rent or an owner occupant making payments.

Since the financial crisis began in 2008, Washington lawmakers and President Barack Obama have launched a counterattack against the housing market’s collapse.

Most prominently, the administration implemented the Home Affordable Modification Program, aimed at helping as many as four million distressed homeowners refinance their mortgages at affordable terms. However, the program has reached only about one-fourth its original goal.

In his state of the union address, Obama pledged to expand the efforts to include even those buyers whose mortgages are not owned by government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

Policymakers are committed to failure. They will continue to attempt one foolish manipulation after another which will simply prolong the crisis. What’s worse, when its all over, they will point to their various manipulative policies as the cause of the improvement rather than the reason it took so long for the improvement to happen.

“It’s putting off facing up to reality,” Zell said in describing the efforts to halt foreclosures. “The longer we avoid clearing the longer we’re going to be living with this problem.”

Zell drew a distinction between the housing programs and the bailout efforts for big Wall Street financial institutions that he said were necessary to save the national economy.

“If our banking system didn’t work, the calamity is almost immeasurable,” he said. “So to try and equate coming in and in effect protecting the banking system with protecting the housing market is apples and oranges.”

The bailout he benefited from is okay, right?

While the foreclosure robo-signing scandal is played out in the courts and the housing market languishes, Zell said banks should take action.

“The first thing I would do is I would encourage lenders to move forward and exercise their legal rights, literally — not so much to hurt anybody but to resolve the issues,” he said. “Remember, we’re different from any other country in the world. We are the only country in the world where you can borrow money on a house and walk away from it.

Zell said he likely won’t be making any big investments in housing soon, as “execution” remains a problem when dealing with so many homes. Commercial real estate, meanwhile, remains problematic as well.

Don’t be surprised if he changes his mind when bulk portfolios become available. The main reason large private equity funds like his haven’t been buying up single-family homes in beaten down markets is because it is difficult to put large sums of money to work. Imagine trying to buy a billion dollars worth of $100,000 homes one at a time.

During the downturn in the early 1990s, Zell said he advised “stay alive until ’95.” Now, his mantra is “come clean by ’13.”

“Commercial real estate still has another couple years to get its act together,” he said. “That’s literally the point at which all of these extensions and other stuff get cleared out. Because otherwise you’re going to have a commercial real estate market that doesn’t work.”

Nowhere has the amend-extend-pretend dance been more ridiculous than with commercial real estate. Many private equity funds formed in 2008 and 2009 to be ready to clean up the debris from the collapsing credit bubble, and many of them had to shut down for lack of properties. Rather than clear out the market, banks launched amend-extend-pretend, and they are still dancing today. Nobody’s quite sure how this will work out in the end, but everyone knows the market is totally dysfunctional, and values on everyone’s books are a complete fantasy. Will they be able to maintain denial long enough for the market to come back? History is not on their side.