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Foreclosures Sting Even Best Builders

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Banks return to prudent lending; speculators cry foul.

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Foreclosure: It's not just for those "subprime" people anymore.

Besieged by collapsing home prices and frightened banks scrounging for cash, even the real-estate industry's brightest stars are finding there's no place to hide. According to the New York Times, small and mid-size homebuilders who thrived during the housing boom are seeing credit lines pulled even before they miss a payment.

Banks like JPMorgan (JPM) and GMAC, the financing arm of General Motors (GM), loaned builders hundreds of billions of dollars -- even as the housing market began to falter -- to buy up vacant land. Now that demand for new homes has plunged (and buyers in some areas can pick up previously constructed homes for less than it costs to build a new one), builders' ability to turn a profit has been effectively eliminated.

It's estimated that over 20% of the nation's homebuilders have closed their doors, even as big builders like D.R. Horton (DHI), Lennar (LEN) and Toll Brothers (TOL) limp along, bleeding cash and fighting for survival.

Lenders, for their part, are scrambling to mitigate risk.

Collateral, the term used to describe the assets against which loans are given out, protects lenders in the event of borrower default. As the value of collateral rises, banks become better protected since their loans are now backed up by a more valuable asset. In a downturn, however, falling collateral values means risk increases with each passing day.

In response, banks may ask borrowers to send in cash to make up for the lost value of their investment. These margin calls, as they're known, can quickly force small firms into insolvency.

Such was the case for Brown Family Communities, a well-known builder in the Phoenix area. The Times reports the firm's lender, JPMorgan, demanded millions in cash for land on the outskirts of town that had fallen in value. Brown balked, since he was yet to miss a payment and had been a longstanding client of the bank with an impeccable record. Ultimately, Brown lost the property and closed his doors, complaining "The real estate market is gone."

Other builders have suffered a similar fate, proving that despite extensive government-led efforts to minimize losses from investments gone awry, the fundamental tenets of capitalism remain intact.

Bad investments should yield losses, period. Savvy new buyers, able to handle the risk inherent in buying distressed properties, can make bets that have the potential to reap huge rewards. This cycle of profits and losses fuels economic expansion. By forestalling losses, intervention delays recovery.

The speculative buying of vacant desert land on the edges of the Phoenix city limits in 2005 and 2006 certainly qualifies as a poor use of borrowed money. That builders are being asked for cash to cover banks' potential losses should be seen as nothing more than prudent lending -- something builders and other real-estate investors spent the boom years conveniently forgetting.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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