Housing market slump seen stretching further

July 10, 2008 6:43:35 AM PDT
Signs are emerging that the U.S. housing market's long slump is likely to fester through the summer, and the real estate market may not recover for at least another year. The latest report, the National Association of Realtors' pending home sales index, slipped by 4.7 percent in May to the third-lowest reading on record. The decline "suggests we are not out of the woods by any means," said the trade group's chief economist Lawrence Yun.

The bad news came as the regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac tried to reassure investors that an accounting rule change wouldn't force the government-chartered mortgage finance companies to raise tens of billions in capital to offset losses.

With more negative data about the housing market continuing to emerge as the economy weakens and job losses accelerate, economists are reluctant to say the worst is over.

"Even if housing market activity does manage to bottom out later this year, it is likely that any recovery would be exceedingly slow," Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond said in a speech in Washington.

While home sales are likely to fall to their lowest point late this year or early next year, any recovery is likely to be weak through at least 2010, said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wachovia Corp.

Meanwhile, prices shouldn't hit bottom for another year at the earliest, Vitner said, since the housing market is glutted with unsold new homes and foreclosed properties.

Making matters worse, rates on 30-year mortgages have been above 6 percent since late May, leading to a steep decline in new applications.

The Realtors' seasonally adjusted index of pending sales for existing homes fell 4.7 percent to 84.7 from an upwardly revised April reading of 88.9. The index was 14 percent below year-ago levels. Sales are considered pending when the seller has accepted an offer, but the deal has not yet closed.

Wall Street economists surveyed by Thomson/IFR had predicted the index would come in at 87. The index, which sunk to a record low of 83 in March, stood at 98.5 in May 2007. A reading of 100 is equal to the average level of sales activity in 2001, when the index started.

Pending sales fell around the U.S., sinking the most in the South, and the least in the West.

Despite the negative numbers, "the worst of the hemorrhaging is behind us" and a modest recovery is likely to take shape next year, said Bernard Baumohl, managing director of the Economic Outlook Group.

Homeowners shouldn't get too excited, though, as Baumohl predicts median prices will show year-over-year gains of no more than 6 percent by next year.

By the Realtors' measurement, prices nationwide were down 6.3 percent in May, but are falling faster in big cities. The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index of 20 cities fell by 15.3 percent in April compared with a year ago, dropping prices to their lowest levels since August 2004.

Meantime, shares of mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stabilized Tuesday, a day after plunging to early-1990s levels on worries they might need billions of dollars in new capital if a new accounting rule is put into effect.

Fannie Mae shares rose $1.88, or 11.9 percent, to $17.62 Tuesday, a day after plunging more than 16 percent. Freddie Mac shares rose $1.55, or 13 percent, to $13.46 after sliding nearly 18 percent Monday.

The federal regulator for the two companies, Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight Director James Lockhart, said in a CNBC interview the accounting changes "would really have no impact on the risk of these firms." It would "make no sense" to mandate extra capital due to accounting changes, he said.

While the government is widely expected to stand behind Fannie and Freddie's debt should the companies be unable to meet their obligations, shareholders' interests are not protected.

"The shareholders are the ones who are at huge risk here ... they could potentially get wiped out," said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at Global Insight.

Highlighting those risks, shares of mortgage lender IndyMac Bancorp Inc. plummeted to an all-time low of 34 cents Tuesday morning before recovering slightly, a day after the mortgage lender said it halted accepting new loan submissions in its main mortgage lending divisions and plans to slash more than half its work force.

As the housing market and broader economy continue to sag, Senate lawmakers appeared on track to approve - possibly by week's end -a rescue plan designed to save hundreds of thousands of homeowners from foreclosure.

But it was still uncertain whether lawmakers would reach a deal with the White House, which is balking at key portions of the bill, particularly $3.9 billion included for buying and fixing up foreclosed properties. Democrats argue the money is key to preventing neighborhood blight, but most Republicans call it a bailout for lenders who helped cause the mortgage mess.

Speaking Tuesday to a mortgage-lending forum in Arlington, Va., Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson emphasized the limits of what the government can do to help.

"Many of today's unusually high number of foreclosures are not preventable," Paulson said. "There is little public policymakers can, or should, do to compensate for untenable financial decisions."

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AP Business Writer Stephen Bernard in New York contributed to this report.

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