Disclaimer: The following is speculative. I have no non-public information on current banking conditions whatsoever and am very likely wrong, or at least I hope the worst does not come true.
The Royal Gazette picked up a real estate story… just in time for me to finish another – somewhat speculative piece about real estate markets of the future.
The value of a bond is dependent on the amount of the regular interest (coupon) payments and the prevailing interest rates. When interest rates rise the interest payment amount of a bond stay the same, but it’s possible to get new bonds that make a higher interest payment, so the value of the old bond falls.
So for real estate: if interest rates rise, the amount that can be borrowed falls for any given payment amount.
The more that debt is used as a tool to buy property, the more that property will behave like a bond, rising as interest rates fall and falling as they rise. With increasing use of 100% financing and other “innovative” financing methods this part of what happened in the United States. Incidentally, this is why we should be very wary of any government initiative that simply serves to increase the amount of debt that consumers are able to take on to buy a property, such as giving away down payments. They tend to raise house prices in the short run, but if house prices fall and someone has borrowed all the money to buy it then the lender has immediately lost money. If the lender is the government then it’s the taxpayer who is in trouble – which in the USA is exactly what will happen as the US government is ultimately backing much of the mortgage industry.
What I missed is that the lender’s use of Mark to market accounting adds another dimension to the dynamic. And was the driver of the first waves of the credit crisis. Banks are highly leveraged – they often have leverage of on the order of 15:1, which is to say they have large amounts of assets and debt that are based on a fairly small amount of equity. When the value of their assets falls they then have to reduce their lending or raise capital to return their leverage (which they call “reserve ratio”) to more normal levels. As the credit crisis continues it is now appearing quite likely that some major financial players will (or already have) reached the point where their liabilities (debts) exceed the values of their assets, making them effectively insolvent. The US Federal government is then going to start to take these risks onto its balance sheet – as has begun with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both of which would otherwise be sliding into bankruptcy, and if the Fed is not able to stem the decline in confidence those two will in all likelihood be joined by a variety of other financial institutions.
U.S. banks can lend $12 for every dollar raised through the securities, so $100 million of the preferred shares may become as much as $1.2 billion in credit, based on Basel I banking rules.
When prices fall, the bank’s risk of loss in a foreclosure increases. Under the old paradigm with a 20% down payment on a house, it’s rare for banks to take a bath and the bankers are far less sensitive to downturns in the real estate market. This has previously been especially true, where large down payments and substantial discounts on valuing rental income have kept Bermuda banks safe from market declines. However, with first time buyers in Bermuda now being offered the ability to borrow more than 100% provided they live in a property for period, the banks have essentially made an economic loss the instant they write these mortgages (they have origination expenses). Accounting rules determine if banks need to show a loss on their income statement/balance sheets, and so the dynamic in Bermuda may be different if the banks don’t need to start taking huge write downs when prices do start do decline.
The problem is that the sale price of real estate is dependent on the bank’s ability to lend.
*cue ominous music*
Once a bank starts to lose money as house prices decline and credit starts to be constrained then they can’t lend as much so house prices decline and credit becomes more constrained so the banks can’t lend as much so house prices decline… and so on. A vicious cycle. The newest and most greatest loan/value ratio mortgages lose money first – and as prices decline successively older vintage mortgage holders find themselves underwater.
That’s essentially what has been happening in the USA. As house prices have declined mortgage rates have gone up, reflecting the unavailability of credit, which has effectively increased the cost of ownership.
In the US (and to a vastly lesser degree in Bermuda) bankers have decided to abandon risk controls because they have been in an almost generation long bull market for real estate that began with the taming of inflation in the early 1980s and which last had a major shakeup almost 20 years ago. The world has changed and there’s a very real risk that the USA will face massive financial stress as layers of debt unravel, what began with sub-prime mortgages issued by 22 year old Las Vegas mortgage officers has now spread because the growth of the US economy has for most of the past 6-8 years been dependent upon debt creation. The crisis has the potential to be truly crippling for America as the US Federal Government is in terrible financial shape after years of neo-Keynsian policy under Regan and Bush II and may be unable to produce a policy response to restore confidence, which in a worst case scenario will result in a truly spectacular recession and possibly a depression.
In theory, we in Bermuda should have been taking note and creating a sovereign wealth fund during the boom times instead of abandoning financial control in the government and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on farcical projects, and we DEFINITELY should not be spending like drunken sailors now.
Some time ago Bank of Bermuda head Phil Butterfield remarked in his sweeping style that “We have never lost money on Bermuda mortgages.” Sorry Phil, you have lost money on mortgages before and you’re about to again. However, the margins are so large on Bermuda mortgages that we probably don’t have to fear the kind of financial mass destruction that is happening in the United States (all bets are off for Bermuda banking if some major insurers go bankrupt, the government starts talking about exchange control, and a hotel or two closes at the same time).