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REO sales may not peak until 2013

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The sale of properties repossessed through foreclosure may not peak until 2013, keeping home prices from a meaningful recovery for some time, analysts estimated Monday. Nearly half of the more than 552,000 REO properties liquidated in the first half of 2011 were held by private banks. In the years ahead, the government — including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — will begin taking a majority of the activity. In 2013, REO sales could reach 1.48 million properties, according to estimates from Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts, a 10% increase from projected amount in 2012. "We do not expect to see anywhere near the downward pressure on home prices that we had back in 2008, since the expected percent changes in liquidation volumes are so much smaller," BofAML analysts said. "But home prices are starting from a negative point, so the implication is that home prices will continue to decline as the foreclosures transition through the pipeline." Most of the projected increase will come as the government begins to unload its backlog. The government-sponsored enterprises and HUD, analysts estimate, will liquidate roughly 595,000 properties in 2013 alone. Total REO liquidations wouldn't drop below 1 million until 2015, according to BofAML. The Obama administration began work last month developing new strategies for selling this mass of properties, which may involve renting more of them. The Federal Housing Finance Agency is also working on a way to refinance more underwater borrowers to entice them from walking away. "I would essentially rent the house back to those who are living in them now," said Susan Woodward, an economist with Sand Hill Econometrics. "I don't think it makes a lot of sense to push 4 million people out of their homes when they're victims of a slower economy they had nothing to do with." Other analysts were skeptical of anyone who could predict accurately what the GSEs or Washington would do, especially after the elections in 2012. "Do they really think that the government under any administration would let 500,000 homes hit the market and crash prices all over again, six years after the first crash?" said Scott Sambucci, chief analyst at Altos Research. He said even if unemployment improved by a full percentage point or two — which he said would be a stretch — the market would still struggle to meet such a supply influx. "It would crash the market, so no, it'll never happen," Sambucci said. Daren Blomquist at RealtyTrac, which monitors foreclosure filings across the country, said the sale of REO is on track to reach 825,000 by the end of 2011. "We do expect the REOs to pick back up in 2012 as lenders push through some of the foreclosures delayed by processing and paperwork issues," Blomquist said, adding the inventory needed to be sold could reach well into the millions. If half of the 800,000 mortgages currently somewhere in the foreclosure process and another half of the 1.5 million loans in serious delinquency end up REO, it could mean an additional, 1.15 million properties that would need to be liquidated — not including new foreclosures that enter the process, according to RealtyTrac. "That's very possible given continued high unemployment rates and high underwater rates," Blomquist said. RealtyTrac estimates roughly 27% of all outstanding mortgages are worth more than the underlying property. Woodward said refinancing borrowers, in negative equity or not, down to current market rates could result in a total savings for U.S. households at $250 billion annually. When asked if private investors would return to fund the future mortgage market after such a radical change, she said they would. "I think the whole world would see this as a one-time fix. We did similar extreme things during the Great Depression," Woodward said. Investors themselves, though, showed little confidence they would take on such a risk again. In fact, most are trying to keep the government involved in the housing market for the future, to keep risks as low as possible. Otherwise, foreign investors would flee. While the estimates on how many REO will be sold in the future are extremely difficult to nail down, the size of the best projections share a common and threatening scale. Analysts said major refinancing schemes or new strategies for liquidating REO on a local level would need to be completed soon to rescue house prices from the still increasing pressure of mounting foreclosures. "The need for policy support would therefore be considered urgent," the BofAML analysts said. Write to Jon Prior. Follow him on Twitter @JonAPrior.

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