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Are Housing Fundamentals Still Deteriorating?

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Making sense of the mixed signals.

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There's a good amount of buzz surrounding the Wall Street Journal's piece on the staggering number of homeowners underwater on their mortgages. This, on the same day the Case-Shiller Home Price Index posted its fourth consecutive month-over-month increase.

Mixed signals? Possibly. But in reality, these two seemingly disparate data points suggest that even as foreclosure moratoria continue to keep bank-owned properties off the market -- which is artificially limiting supply and creating the illusion of a tight housing market (the supply of existing homes is back to historical norms) -- behind the scenes, more and more borrowers are falling behind, and staying that way.

The number of mortgages in the "90+ delinquency but not yet foreclosed" bucket is still growing and the rate of change is yet to slow. The looming backlog of foreclosures not yet completed is growing much faster than banks can (or are allowed to) push them through the system. Lender Processing Services (LPS), a spinoff of Fidelity National Information Services Inc. (FIS) estimates that 710,000 mortgages are more than six months delinquent but not yet in foreclosure. A year ago, that number was "just" 203,000.

So what does all this mean?

While another leg down in housing is certainly in the cards, another cliff-dive isn't the likely scenario. Rather, a continued slow bleed, with increasing localization as certain markets recover while others languish. Second home and jumbo markets are still under pressure, even as investors feast on low-priced homes in some of the country's seedier neighborhoods. But as long as the US government dominates the secondary market for mortgages (FHA/Fannie Mae (FNM)/Freddie Mac (FRE)/VA, etc), mortgages will be available to qualified (and unqualified, in the case of the FHA) buyers.

Betting on another all-out collapse in residential housing prices is akin to betting on the bankruptcy of the US government. Could it happen? Sure, but that certainly isn't the base case.

A much more interesting (and profitable) bet is to find areas that have fundamental (ie, demographic) drivers for demand, and looking for affordable submarkets where demand is strong and not driven by the FHA. Are there a ton of these neighborhoods around? Nope, but they're out there if you know how and where to look.

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