Mar112008

Houses and Commodities Trading

Houses and Commodities Trading

no_money_downCommodities are items of value and uniform quality produced in large quantities and sold in an open market. Although every residential real estate property is unique, these properties became uniformly desired by investors because all real estate prices rose during the Great Housing Bubble. The commoditization of real estate and the active, open-market trading it inspires caused houses to lose their identity as places to live and call home. Houses became tradable stucco boxes similar to baseball playing cards where buying and selling had nothing to do with possession and use and everything to do with making money in the transaction.

In a commodities or securities market, rallies unsupported by valuation measures will fall back to fundamental values. It is very clear the rally in house prices was not caused by a rally in the fundamental valuation measures of rent or income. Many people forgot the primary purpose of a house is to provide shelter — something which can be obtained without ownership by renting. Ownership ceased to be about providing shelter and instead became a way to access one of the world’s largest and most highly leveraged commodity markets: residential real estate.

Commodities markets are notoriously volatile. In fact, this volatility is the primary draw of commodities trading. If market prices did not move significantly, traders would not be interested in the market, and liquidity would not be present. Without this liquidity, hedgers could not sell futures contracts and transfer their risk to other parties, and the whole market would cease to function. Commodities markets exist to transfer risk from a party that does not want it to a party who is willing to assume this risk for the potential to profit from it. The commodities exchange controls the volatility of the market through the regulation of leverage. It is the exchange that sets the amount of a particular commodity that is controlled by a futures contract. They can raise or lower the amount of leverage to create a degree of volatility attractive to traders. If they create too much leverage, trader’s accounts can be wiped out by small market price movements. If they create too little leverage, traders lose interest.

The same principles of leverage that govern commodities markets also work to influence the behavior of speculators in residential real estate markets. If leverage is very low (large downpayments or low CLTV limits,) then speculators have to use large amounts of their own money to capture what become relatively small price movements. If leverage is very high (small downpayments or high CLTV limits,) then speculators do not have to put up much money to capture what become relatively large price movements. The more leverage (debt) that can be applied to residential real estate, the greater the degree of speculative activity that market will see. Also, the smaller the amount of money required to speculate in a given market, the more people will be able to do so because more people will have the funds necessary to participate. When lenders began to offer 100% financing, it was an open invitation to rampant speculation. This makes the return on investment infinite because no investment is required by the speculator, and it eliminates all barriers to entry to the speculative market. In a regulated commodities market, the trader is responsible for all losses in their account. In a mortgage market dominated by non-recourse purchase money mortgages, lenders end up assuming liability for losses in the speculative residential real estate market. This is a fantastic deal for speculators; for the lenders… not so much.