Real Estate: Wheres the Bottom?

by : Dane

In recent months, the US real estate market has seen its fair share of turbulent weather as house prices continue to fall. While the Federal Reserve has taken significant steps towards making lending cheaper, interest rates remain artificially high as the troubled financial sector continues record write-downs. So far, only a quarter of the IMF-estimated $1 trillion in sub-prime losses have been reported, which means mortgages won't be affordable for a long while, even if homes continue to decline in value. According to the Case Schiller house price index, which covers 20 major metropolitan areas, house prices are depressing at an annual rate of 12.7%, though its rate of descent is accelerating. As long as homeowners continue to lose equity, loans will become increasingly difficult to obtain.

As this feedback loop works itself out, a regionally dependent phenomenon has begun to emerge. Although home prices averagely dropped in the US the story doesn't end there. Despite lowered economic growth forecasts and commodity-related inflationary pressures, (which are felt much more diffusely throughout the economy) several metropolitan areas have remained more robust, which explains dissenting votes on the past two rate cuts by the regional Fed chairs from Dallas and Philadelphia, respectively. Part of their reasoning is based on working against what they view as a misconception about the scope of the Fed's powers among many investors; namely, that the central bank is the only agent responsible for assisting challenged markets. Political jockeying has and will continue to play a role in their decisions, especially in the charged climate of an election year, but their dissenting votes represent the resilience of many areas of the US that continue to experience growth. From Charlottesville, North Carolina to Austin, Texas, many metropolitan areas continue to develop quickly, seemingly insulated from much of the speculation and predatory lending that has defined tracts of the US. While some of the worst affected markets in the Southwest like Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas will take considerable time to rebound, some price correction was inevitable. This is partially due to property value spirals in recent years, without corresponding increases in infrastructure and demand. In markets where growth had already been steady, home prices have been relatively stable.

If the federal government steps in further to freeze or help re-negotiate more of the estimated two million sub-prime mortgages projected to default over the course of 2008, prices may stabilize more quickly. Politicians, closing ranks in a show of solidarity, will likely be reluctant to make bipartisan efforts a priority while the presidential race remains in the limelight, which makes investment in the near and medium term likely to be more profitable, both in markets where prices have overcorrected and in stable markets. This is because any government-based mortgage interest rates freeze may be less favorable than current rates, which are firmly negative. Moreover, refinancing remains available should climates change. In any case, the worst may not be over for a lot of America, but some places have weathered the past eight months relatively unscathed.