Sonoma Housing Bubble

Pulling the cork out of Sonoma's bubbly housing foolishness

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Bubble... What Bubble?

Great Commentary on MSN Money From: Bill Fleckenstein

"Reports of falling sales and investors stuck with properties they can't sell are just the beginning. Property owners should worry; so should their lenders."

"To me, it's not debatable that the real-estate bust is starting to gather steam. The top was approximately when Time Magazine published its June 12, 2005, cover story: "Home $weet Home: Why We're Going Gaga Over Real Estate".'

"(For more, check out my June 13, 2005, column, "Straight talk on what the Fed has wrought," and my Aug. 29, 2005, column, "It's RIP for the housing boom.")"

"After having leveled off for a while, the real-estate market is now starting to slide. We're seeing signs of sales slowing and inventory accumulating, which are all quite classic, even though the timing of when this would begin was not possible to predict in advance."

"A recent story in the Wall Street Journal, "Hot Homes Get Cold" (subscription required) offered lots of its useful vignettes that serve as a microcosm of manic markets -- starting with the bravado-cum-denial displayed by a medical-equipment salesman in Stuart, Fla."

"Concerned about his real-estate investment apparently going sour, he can't afford to reduce the price to what homes now sell for in his neighborhood -- which is about $100,000 less than he's asking. Says the salesman: "If I got in a jam, I would have to drop the price, but I am not at that point." His game plan: Rent the house, so as not to "lose my shirt."'

"That's the mentality often seen in manic markets -- the belief that you can't possibly lose, and, when the price goes against you, you don't have to deal with it, because it will come back. This fellow (and millions more like him) is going to find out that his belief is a mistaken one."

"This mentality is an example that many real-estate "investors" seem to share -- heads we win, tails the bank loses. (Some people are sanguine these days because, as the article notes, "while sales are slackening, they aren't collapsing." To that, I would add: "Yet." They will.)"

"It is indeed the financial institutions that are most at risk in the real-estate market (which is not to say that consumers and speculators won't get hurt). The lenders will bear the brunt of the pain, because in many cases, they loaned the entire purchase prices of many homes. As I have said often, the housing bubble has been more a lending bubble. It will be the impairment of the financial institutions that will stop the flow of credit to the real-estate market. In turn, that will accelerate the collapse in house prices somewhere along the way."

"The story went on to note that many formerly hot markets in California, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Florida are now "languishing without buyers or even prospects. Many once-booming markets are seeing double-digit declines in sales." The magnitude of the drop in Florida home prices (once the frothiest market in the country) is striking. Single-family home sales declined 20% in February, year-over-year."

"Similarly, California sales dropped 15%. Some of the hottest towns in those states were off twice as much."

"I loved the point that what seems to be really alarming is how "real-estate agents in some of these formerly red-hot markets have been surprised at how suddenly (my emphasis) market conditions have deteriorated in the past few months." Of course, that's what happens when manic markets and bubbles turn. Prices change radically and, seemingly, for no reason."

"The story closed with a description of how slow the market has recently become in Florida -- via the following comments in an e-mail by real-estate broker Mike Morgan:"

"We went three days this week with not a single showing. That's incredible. I have 35 listings. We usually get 2-6 showings a day. ... I received more desperate calls from sellers than ever."

"One lady broke down into tears. Her husband bought two investment properties, and they are now going to lose their 'life savings' if they sell the homes in today's market."'

"Ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately, a lot of people around the country are going to be badly hurt as this bubble unwinds. And, after they have taken their losses, the financial institutions that were the engine behind this folly will take their own hits. 'Easy Al' Greenspan at the Fed tried to bail out one bubble with another bubble. While it bought some time, it will end in far-worse pain."

Bill Fleckenstein is president of Fleckenstein Capital, which manages a hedge fund based in Seattle. He also writes a daily "Market Rap" column on his Fleckenstein Capital Web site. His investment positions can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any security.


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