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Keepin' It Real Estate: Homebuilders Facing Extinction

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Consolidation necessary for recovery to take hold.

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For as bad as things are in the housing market, it's remarkable that none of the country's big homebuilders have gone bust. The industry's resilience is a testament to how much money the firms raked in during the boom.

Just ask guys in charge.

The Wall Street Journal reports many homebuilder CEOs socked away such obscene amounts of cash over the past 5 years that they out-earned their Wall Street counterparts. As profits soared, Toll Brothers (TOL) CEO Robert Toll and his brother Bruce together took home $773 million, while Dwight Schar, chairman of Virginia-based NVR (NVR) earned more than $625 million from stock sales.

By contrast, vilified Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo earned a mere $471 million during the same period.

Sitting on huge -- but dwindling -- stockpiles of cash, big builders like DR Horton (DHI), Lennar (LEN) and Ryland Homes (RYL) have thus far ridden out the bloodletting. According to JPMorgan analyst Michael Rehaut, these 3 may yet see positive cash flow in 2009.

Their smaller rivals, however, may not be so lucky.

Rehaut predicts that Pulte Home (PHM) and KB Home (KBH) could see negative cash flow next year - and some analysts believe 2009 could finally be the year that weaker hands start to fold. Credit protection for Hovnanian (HOV), Standard Pacific (SPF) and Beazer Home (BZH) is trading like the companies' failure is a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, one key characteristic of market bottoms is notably absent: Consolidation.

Just as strong American banks have swallowed up the weak, no meaningful housing market bottom will be found until homebuilders begin to feast on one another.

Let's face it: We don't need 10 different multi-billion dollar companies churning out indistinguishable cookie-cutter "mansions" on tiny lots in cramped subdivisions miles from the nearest grocery store. We've got our hands full already, thank you very much.

Yesterday, the Commerce Department said October housing starts registered the lowest reading since 1959. Since just 4 of the 10 builders mentioned in this article existed 50 years ago, it looks like 6 are pretty much dispensable.
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