SPECIAL REPORT: Bernanke Addresses NAHB, Singles Out Limited Capital Availability as Constraint on Recovery of Housing and Economy

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke addressed a special session of the NAHB International Builders' Show.

By Keat Foong, Executive Editor

Orlando, Fla.—Addressing the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledged the critical role the housing sector plays in the economic recovery, and said that the troubles in the single family industry resulted in part from constricted financing availability. He endorsed proposals to enable investors to buy REO single family homes to convert to rentals as one possible solution to the housing crisis.

Bernanke was speaking at a special session during NAHB’s 2012 International Builders’ Show (IBS), in Orlando, Fla. In introducing Bernanke, NAHB Chairman Barry Rutenberg praised the Fed chairman’s willingness to meet with the association regularly to obtain updates on the housing industry, and the importance he placed on the housing industry.

“The state of the housing sector has been a key impediment to a faster recovery,” Bernanke said. “[T]he economic recovery has been disappointing in part because U.S. housing markets remain out of balance.”

Bernanke said “the Federal Reserve, in its supervisory capacity, continues to encourage lenders to find ways to maintain prudent lending standards while serving creditworthy borrowers.” But, he said, “the slow recovery of the housing market and the economy, continued uncertainty surrounding the future of the GSEs and the regulatory environment for mortgage lending, the likely continued absence of a private-label market, and more cautious attitudes by lenders are all barriers to rapid normalization of the flow of mortgage credit.”

Bernanke said the housing industry is suffering from a supply-demand imbalance, and that “[f]or the past few years, the actual and potential supply of single family homes has greatly exceeded the effective demand.” About 1 ¾ million homes are currently unoccupied and for sale, compared to an average of 1 ¼ million vacant homes in the first half of the 2000s. The drop in home prices, “of historic proportions” has been nearly 40 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to peak prices. In the past few years, about 2 million homes have been foreclosed every year, and the “relatively high rate of foreclosures is likely to continue for a while,” putting additional homes on the market, said Bernanke. “A very large number” of foreclosed homes are still positioned to come onto the owner-occupied market, he said.

Bernanke said that housing demand is being constrained by a number of factors: lower household formation, high underemployment and uncertain job prospects, availability of mortgage credit, and the perception that housing is not as secure an investment given uncertainty about home prices and the economy.

He singled out the limited availability of mortgage credit as “an important constraint” on demand for housing and “one important factor” as to why “the recovery in housing has been so slow.” Since its peak in 2007, mortgage credit has declined by about 13 percent in real terms. “In prior recoveries, mortgage credit had begun to grow four years after the business cycle peak—but not this time around,” he said.

“One reason for the very slow recovery in mortgage credit, despite monetary policy actions that have helped drive mortgage rates to historically low levels, is that many lending institutions have tightened underwriting conditions dramatically,” said Bernanke.

Bernanke noted that lenders seem unwilling to lend even to credit-worthy borrowers who meet current GSE underwriting standards. He said the possible reasons include the weakened finances of private mortgage insurance companies, such that borrowers cannot obtain the mortgage insurance as required by the GSEs. Originators also appear uncertain about how their contractual representations and warranties with regards to the quality of the loans will be enforced by the GSEs and other purchasers of loan. As a result, they have been very careful about making loans that are “less than perfect from an underwriting perspective.” Another reason for tight lending standards is that “private label mortgage securitizations have virtually disappeared,” said Bernanke.

Bernanke said refinancing creditworthy borrowers, loan modifications, or other measures to avert foreclosures is not sufficient as solutions because “not all foreclosures can be prevented.” He suggested that “[i]t could make sense in some markets to turn some of the foreclosed homes into rental properties” as a way to reduce the overhang of empty and foreclosed homes. According to the Federal Reserve, distressed sales, both short sales and non-auction sales of foreclosed homes by REO holders, now account for 30 percent of all home sales. Federal Reserve studies show that these homes are usually close to jobs, and located in neighborhoods whose home prices are close to the metropolitan areas’ median home prices. Bernanke said that the Fed calculated that the discounted prices will give better returns to the REO holder compared to continuing to rent the property.

Bernanke added that “appropriately structured programs could help some involuntary renters become owners again by giving them options to purchase the homes they are renting.”

Since November 2011, about 60 metropolitan areas each had at least 250 REO properties for sale by the GSEs and FHA. The largest numbers of such properties for sale by the GSEs and FHA are in Atlanta, with about 5,000 units, followed by Chicago, Detroit, Phoenix, Riverside, California and Las Vegas. Bernanke noted that the number of properties in the foreclosure process is more than four times the number of properties in the REO inventory.

Bernanke cited the use of land banks as a second possible solution to the housing crisis. Properties that are purchased by the government entities may be rehabilitated, or demolished in extreme cases depending on the individual markets. However, Bernanke noted, most land banks do not have the resources to keep pace with the number of low-value properties in the current inventory.

“REO-to-rental programs, land banks and other neighborhood stabilization efforts are just a few examples of the approaches that policymakers could consider to help facilitate the adjustment of the housing market,” said Bernanke.

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