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Keepin' It Real Estate: Treasury Tries to Re-Inflate Housing Bubble


Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.

Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is hoping he's found the magic bullet to solve the US housing market's seemingly never-endless woes.

He hasn't.

By throwing around the weight of recently nationalized mortgage giants Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE), the Treasury Department is considering a plan to push interest rates on purchase money mortgages down to 4.5% - well below the current market rate of around 5.75%.

Artificially lowering rates so buyers can afford more house led us into this mess; it's doubtful the same tactics will lead us out.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the plan is in the early stages of development, but officials expect the initiative to spur buying activity. The aim is to prop up home prices by enabling borrowers to afford more expensive houses. Columbia University economists believe such a program could help between 1.5 million and 2.5 million Americans buy new homes.

In order to qualify for the low rate, borrowers have to meet Fannie and Freddie's now-stricter loan underwriting requirements. But even with more affordable monthly payments -- the lower rate amounts to savings of $150 per month on a $200,000 loan -- precious few prospective buyers are willing and able to pony up the tens of thousands dollars still required for a down payment.

Combined with the Federal Reserve's recent $200 billion lending program for securities backed by newly originated mortgages, bureaucrats are pulling out all the stops to buoy falling property values.

This is the latest in a series of botched attempts to re-inflate the housing bubble. And like the others before it, the plan fails to address the root causes of ongoing home price declines: Negative equity, over-supply and mounting job losses.

The flood of recent loan modification programs championed by FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair and rolled out by JPMorgan (JPM), Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC) also miss the point. Like any distressed market, the housing market badly needs price discovery. And like any other asset class, the true price of a house is only discovered when someone buys it on the open market.

By creating unnaturally low interest rates and allowing buyers to purchase bigger homes than they could normally afford, Paulson and Bernanke are preventing home prices from falling back to where responsible, fiscally minded Americans can buy without the crutch of government subsidies.

These continued distortions of the free market end up running in contrast to their intended goals: As long as the charade continues, as long as the real estate market is prevented from finding a natural bottom, home prices will continue to fall.

The silver lining -- for those brave enough to uncover their eyes and look -- is that just as it overshot on the way up, the housing market will likewise overshoot on the way down.

A protracted period of stabilization will ensue, during which time the opportunity to purchase high-quality residential real estate below its long-term intrinsic value will be extraordinary.
Savvy investors with the ability to identify attractively priced properties will, eventually, have the buying opportunity of a lifetime.
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