Employment Trends Index Edges Up

Indexes show employment and CRE values continuing to incrementally improve, and FDIC is considering new rules for home equity loans.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

The Conference Board said on Monday that its Employment Trends Index increased in December for the third consecutive month, thus closing 4Q10 on a positive note. The index now stands at 99.3, up from November’s revised figure of 98.5; the index is also up 7.6 percentage points from a year ago.

Positive trends in five out of the eight components of the index spurred the December increase. The improving indicators included Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance, Percentage of Firms with Positions Not Able to Fill Right Now, Number of Temporary Employees, Industrial Production, and Real Manufacturing and Trade Sales. “The improvement in the [index] in recent months suggests employment growth is likely to accelerate moderately in the first half of 2011,” Gad Levanon, associate director, macroeconomic research at the Conference Board, notes in a statement.

Moderate is good, but it isn’t robust, which is what the economy needs. “While this is a welcome improvement, we don’t expect employment to grow fast enough for the unemployment rate to dip below 9 percent for the rest of the year,” Levanon continues.

CRE values edge upward too

In other index news, Green Street Advisors said on Monday that its Commercial Property Price Index ticked up another 1 percent in December. CRE values have now risen by more than 30 percent from the ’09 trough, according to the company, which means that half of the decline that occurred from 2007 to 2009 has been erased.

“Pricing on transactions that have recently closed or that are in the works continues to move higher, although momentum seems to have slowed in light of the recent increase in interest rates,” says Mike Kirby, Green Street’s director of research, in a statement. “The rebound in pricing that began in earnest about a year and a half ago has been impressive in terms of both its vigor and durability.”

The essential reasons for the creep-back in prices have been that sellers have felt little pressure to act; the outlook for fundamentals has improved; and well-capitalized buyers have been plentiful, noted Green Street. Prices have now returned to late-2005 levels, a fact that should lessen, but not eliminate, the adverse consequences as aggressively underwritten 2005-07 vintage mortgages come due.

FDIC considers rule change on home equity loans

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is reportedly mulling new rules that would require banks to disclose, before mortgages they service are packaged and sold to investors, what would happen to second-lien loans–mainly home equity loans that the banks own–should the first loans see default. That bit of information was often conveniently undisclosed by banks in both the mortgage servicing and home-equity loan business during the heyday of lax lending in the mid-2000s.

Arguments in favor of disclosure hinge on the belief, neither confirmed nor denied by the large banks that hold most of the $11 trillion in second liens, that a key stumbling block to modification of primary mortgages is that banks don’t want their secondary liens crushed by the process. That idea might explain why–other than banks being banks–there has been much resistance to modifications, even in cases in which mortgage-backed bondholders have been willing to go along with them.

Even if the FDIC implements these kinds of rules, it isn’t clear whether that would affect bank behavior, especially in the short term. More radical proposals kicking around in Congress–but unlikely to see action under the new majority–call for forcing banks to divest mortgage servicing units if they are heavily invested in secondary liens as well.

Wall Street turned in yet another mixed day on Monday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average off 37.31 points, or 0.32 percent, and the S&P 500 down 0.14 percent. The Nasdaq gained 0.17 percent.