Trying to make sense of housing

by
housing_big

There were two interesting stories in this weekend’s New York Times. One pointing out that mortgage lawsuits are still weighing on banks, and thus lending. The other talking about how large investors are moving into the real estate market.

Let’s take a closer look at the situation. Here’s the consumer and banking side, according to the Times.

The nation’s largest banks are facing a fresh torrent of lawsuits asserting that they sold shoddy mortgage securities that imploded during the financial crisis, potentially adding significantly to the tens of billions of dollars the banks have already paid to settle other cases.

Regulators, prosecutors, investors and insurers have filed dozens of new claims against Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and others, related to more than $1 trillion worth of securities backed by residential mortgages.

Estimates of potential costs from these cases vary widely, but some in the banking industry fear they could reach $300 billion if the institutions lose all of the litigation. Depending on the final price tag, the costs could lower profits and slow the economic recovery by weakening the banks’ ability to lend just as the housing market is showing signs of life.

The banks are battling on three fronts: with prosecutors who accuse them of fraud, with regulators who claim that they duped investors into buying bad mortgage securities, and with investors seeking to force them to buy back the soured loans.

The key to that is that it might hamper their ability to lend to individuals. But the Times also published a story that said large investors where increasing their bet on housing using the example of financier David N. Miller.

Today, he has slipped back through the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. This time, he has gone the other way, in a new company, Silver Bay Realty, which is about to go public. He is back in the investment game and out to make money with a play that was at the center of the financial crisis: American housing.

As the foreclosure crisis grinds on, knowledgeable, cash-rich investors are doing something that still gives many ordinary Americans pause: they are leaping headlong into the housing market. And not just into tricky mortgage investments, collateralized this or securitized that, but actual houses.

A flurry of private-equity giants and hedge funds have spent billions of dollars to buy thousands of foreclosed single-family homes. They are purchasing them on the cheap through bank auctions, multiple listing services, short sales and bulk purchases from local investors in need of cash, with plans to fix up the properties, rent them out and watch their values soar as the industry rebounds. They have raised as much as $8 billion to invest, according to Jade Rahmani, an analyst at Keefe Bruyette & Woods.

The Blackstone Group, the New York private-equity firm run by Stephen A. Schwarzman, has spent more than $1 billion to buy 6,500 single-family homes so far this year. The Colony Capital Group, headed by the Los Angeles billionaire Thomas J. Barrack Jr., has bought 4,000.

Perhaps no investment company is staking more on this strategy, and asking stock-market investors to do the same, than the one Mr. Miller is involved with, Silver Bay Realty Trust of Minnetonka, Minn. Silver Bay is the brainchild of Two Harbors Investment, a publicly traded mortgage real estate investment trust that invests in securities backed by home mortgages.

The story goes on to say that Silver Bay is going to become a publicly traded REIT focusing on properties in some of the hardest hit states like Nevada and Arizona.

So taken together, banks could have less reason to lend to consumers, while big time investors are putting money into the sector. That means that in five years, we could have a lot more people renting homes from large investment firms and fewer loans on banks’ books. The downside is the loss of a generation of homeownership and the equity they could potentially earn.

Either way, the housing market is still trying to find its new normal.