SAN FRANCISCO — While housing has been a bright spot for the economy lately, real estate professionals should not expect runaway growth anytime soon, according to panelists at today’s Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco.
"I think the market we have today is going to be a market that is going to be somewhat sustained," said Joel Singer, executive vice president of the California Association of Realtors. "Time is important, if for no other reason than personal balance sheets get healed. There will be growth in the next couple of years, though it’s obviously not going to be dynamic."
Bill Emmons, assistant vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, emphasized that the economy as a whole was "not too broken to be fixed" but that the recovery is "just going to look a lot different than we’re used to."
"We’re at a slower growth rate, so we’re pretty much always on the verge of a slowdown or a recession. Something coming from Europe or domestic origins can knock us down," Emmons said.
Housing will be one of the better sectors of the economy, Singer said, but he cautioned that the economy as a whole was at risk in the next six months. Calling the downturn "financially created," he said a revamp of the financial system was in order.
"I think we have to be very, very concerned about the policy issues," Singer said. In particular, he noted that some 95 percent of mortgages originated are owned or guaranteed by the federal government.
"We’re the only first-world country with a nationalized housing market," said Amy Brandt, CEO of Vantium Capital.
Patrick Stone, president and CEO of Williston Financial Group, said that uncertainty surrounding two controversial regulations — the qualified mortgage (QM) and the qualified residential mortgage (QRM) — is an impediment to the development of a private secondary mortgage market.
QM would establish standards for borrowers’ "ability to pay" the mortgages they seek, while QRM would establish certain baseline standards for safe underwriting and require lenders to retain a 5 percent minimum ongoing stake in any loans they originate that don’t meet QRM requirements.
The regulations are under the aegis of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which recently postponed action on both rules after protests from Realtors, builders, banks, unions and consumer groups.
"Everything’s on hold until we can get clarity (from) CFPB," Stone said. The bureau needs to define exactly how the regulations will work, the debt-to-income and loan-to-value ratios that will be allowed, and FICO score requirements, he added.
"We are walking off the plank into some deep water. So until these things get resolved there will be no private secondary market," Stone said.
Singer said he expects the transition to a bigger private secondary market will be "very choppy" and will "take a while." The presidential election, another source of uncertainty, is unlikely to bring about any meaningful change, he added.
Uncertainty also surrounds financial markets worldwide, panelists said. The eurozone crisis "is a real and present danger" and could send "shock waves" through the global economy, Emmons said.
"The Fed is worried about Europe," he added.
World economies are now interdependent, Brandt said, and "I don’t think our political systems and financial systems have adapted to that yet."
Nonetheless, turmoil abroad has spurred a flight to the relative safety of U.S. Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities that fund most mortgage loans. That is "one of the reasons we’re able have low mortgage rates," Emmons said.
Real estate itself is now considered a safe bet for many investors, the panelists said, with some adding that they’ve put their own money into properties.
"To me, hard assets are the place to be," Singer said. High affordability and low interest rates mean this is a "once in a generation opportunity in terms of real yields," he added.
Citing Facebook’s sinking stock price since its initial public offering, Brandt said investors are less confident about investing in businesses.
"There has sort of been a fundamental disconnect in how we value companies. There are more investors saying, ‘I don’t know how to value this company, but I can buy this house.’ So much of what drives the economy is people’s perceptions," she said.
For now, real estate is considered "safe," but "how long that persists is a big question," she added.
Emmons cautioned that "we’re going to have a lot of volatility (in the economy) for the next five years or so." He advised agents to "be aggressive, stay focused" and "don’t be in a rush."
While the Fed has made clear that it will keep interest rates low until at least 2014, Brandt questioned the sustainability of the current housing market rally after that point.
"When the Fed starts to raise the rates, how do we sustain the current absorption rate? Without a private market, I think you’re going to have a hard time" maintaining growth, she said.
Both Brandt and Emmons anticipate home prices will remain flat in the next few years, partially because consumers are still in the process of unloading debt and partially because of coming changes expected to disrupt the financial system. Stone anticipates prices will rise, albeit slowly.
On the jobs front, Stone struck an optimistic tone and said that U.S. exports, particularly of grain and petroleum products, are rising and the nation is set to become a net exporter of natural gas in a few years.
The U.S. is "positioned to be a breadbasket and energy center," Stone said.
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