Modifying mortgages is just a band-aidThe flurry of announcements by the government and major banks that they are engaging in a massive campaign to modify mortgages that are in or are hurtling toward default and foreclosure will certainly give rise to predictions that the housing market has been stabilized and disaster averted. If only it were so.
But anyone hoping that this synchronized effort to modify millions mortgages that are in trouble is likely to be disappointed. Because behind the splashy headlines, there are limits to what the government and banks can hope to achieve. And trying to slow the free-fall in housing markets is akin to the government trying to put its finger in the dike.
The fact is that despite the double-digit declines in housing values in most cities, housing remains significantly overvalued in many markets by all of the traditional benchmarks: One key ratio – the median cost of a new home vs. median income – suggests that home prices nationwide still need to drop another 15% to 20% on average, as you can see in this chart compiled by money manager Barry Ritholtz. And the equilibrium price is far more than that in bubble markets like southern California and Florida. According to this “fair value” calculator, one suburban neighborhood outside Washington, D.C. that I checked (Alexandria, Va., where I lived in the mid-1990s) is now 47% overvalued. Ditto for a few communities in Los Angeles that I surveyed.A second measure – home prices to average rent –also remains out of whack, and would require another 20% to 25% plunge in home prices to make it more advantageous for the average apartment dweller to buy a home instead, particularly now that few homeowners have any illusion that their house is an “investment” that’s going to soar in value in coming years.
Providing relief to current homeowners who are in trouble is a politically expedient move, but at the end of the day, prices are still far too high for the next generation of buyers – particularly now that lenders have reverted back to demanding hefty down payments and using more conservative underwriting standards. Which means that the current imbalance in supply and demand will remain a problem and help push prices down for years to come.