The Impending End of the Housing Bubble

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“Bids are drying up. Many potential buyers are simply waiting for lower prices. The word is that ‘it pays to wait.’”

Thus Richard Russell on the impending end of the housing bubble. Readers might notice that he does not call for a bust…yet. Nothing in the data coming out of the housing business, he says, indicates a hard landing. Or a soft one. The jury is still out; he thinks, even in San Diego, the city that has traditionally been the canary in the housing coalmine.

We are regular followers of his Dow Theory Letter, but we are not so sanguine as Mr. Russell. We are much more inclined to pay attention to the experience of the retired couple in California who refinanced last year to an option ARM with a low teaser rate of 2.6%…who are now making minimal monthly payments of $919 on their $180,000 loan that don’t even cover the interest on it.

Since March of last year, when they took out the loan, the principal has grown to more than $183,000 and the interest rate is now 8%. And, according to their loan documents, it can go even higher — to 9.95%. When the principal hits 115% of the original loan, the bank will start forcing them to pay it off. The question is, how does, Louis, a retired worker for Colorado public services, manage to do that on his fixed income? Wiggling out of the loan wouldn’t help because of prepayment penalties — refinancing before the end of three years could cost the couple $11,000. The trap door will have sprung shut.

There are other smoke signals coming out of the coalmine: a leading U.K. pension fund, for instance, is moving as much as 1/3 of its U.K. equity — amounting to $5.6 billion — into alternative investments…including hedge funds and private equity. And, Credit Suisse now believes that the commodity crash is really, really over…

Contra Russell, we are inclined to believe that the ailing avian in the housing mine will soon be thoroughly woozy.

Speaking of woozy…we are enjoying a business get together with our colleagues and friends this week at two elegant old piles south of Paris. The one we are housed in, the Chteau Malesherbes, is richly decorated with tapestries and oil paintings of French royalty including, among others, Louis IV. The Sun King, we learn, was a natty dresser who liked to display his well turned out calves in ballet performances.

Malesherbes, itself, might be translated loosely as “bad weeds.” We don’t know what precisely the term refers to…a noxious tobacco habit or ungainly attire…but knowing the French, we are inclined to believe it is the latter. We have some evidence for our suspicion. It is how a strange contretemps that took place last Friday originated. This has no direct bearing on our financial ruminations…but we reckon it says something indirectly about them…. we leave it to readers to decide.

It began when we boarded car #12 in London for the trip back to Paris on Friday evening. Friday is always a busy time; whole armies of bilingual businessmen make the trip home for the weekend…along with the usual assortment of clumsy, disoriented tourists.

We had changed our ticket at the last moment, so we had to buy a business-class ticket and still had no assigned seat. Thus were we waiting at the door of the car when the drama unfolded, along with a tall, fit and very French man, who looked as though he might be a either a professional golfer or a TV personality…and the Eurostar employee who presided over the carriage.

Along came a group of dark-skinned people — perhaps North African — a mother, her handsome son of about 18, then, perhaps the grandmother along with an older man.

“The definition of elegance,” the Frenchmen muttered, in French, with the kind of diffident sarcasm that only the French can pull off. We did not know whether he referred to the way the group was outfitted or the way they bulled into the car. We were also surprised that he spoke in French. If they were North Africans they would understand what he was saying.

They were dressed in a rich but gaudy fashion and proceeded to enter the cabin as if they had a police escort. In fact, the escort was performed by a trio of Eurostar employees, who quickly led the group to seats…and moved the luggage at the end of the car in order to accommodate the new arrivals’ enormous bags.

When the bags were stashed away, the young man we took for a North African came back and, speaking in broken English, gave one of the porters a tip — which must have been an impressive one, judging by the many thank-you’s he received in return.

Then came another Eurostar man…up to the door of the car…reproaching the car’s attendant for letting the group on.

“Look, I have 10 people in my car waiting for seats…these people jumped the line.”

“What are you yelling about? I didn’t give them their tickets. They just showed up at the door. What was I supposed to do…send them packing?”

“How did they get on here?” asked another Eurostar functionary, running up to get into the fight.

In a matter of seconds, the discussion had turned into a shouting match with arms raised. For a moment, we even thought the two Eurostar employees were going to duke it out right on the platform, one yelling in French, the other in English. Our money was on the former, he looked more muscular and more like a fighter, but you never know in situation like this.

“This is scandalous,” said our companion. “They do this right in front of the clients. Of course, the whole thing is scandalous. We’ve been waiting here for seats and they push these Saudis in ahead of us…it’s obvious that they spread money around everywhere to get seats. They were behind us…and they told me there were no more seats. That’s why we’re waiting. But these people came after us…and they have seats. It’s amazing what you can get away with if you have enough money. But what do you expect? We’re in England.”

Thus is the veneer of Eurocratic rationality spread thin on the wayward irrationality of humanity.

u2022 We love Europe. It is an area as big as the United States, but it has not been homogenized like the 50 states. People speak different languages. They have different ideas about the way things should be done. They jealously guard their cheeses, their beers, and their manners. You can get on a plane in Paris at 8AM. By 11, you can be in one of a dozen different countries — each one with its own particularities. Today, for example, we began the day in Ireland, we then went to London to work in the office, and now we are on our way to dinner in Paris.

Europe is supposed to be united, but we have our doubts. Their chiefs may meet in Brussels, but each tribe feels itself menaced by the eurocrats…and charges its own politicians not to figure out how to go forward hand-in-hand with colleagues from other countries to build a better Europe…but merely to protect the nation against the foreigners! Even in Brussels, the clans don’t really mix when they don’t have to. The French stick with the French…the Germans with the Germans…and the English? Don’t even mention it… “The wogs start at Calais,” the Brits used to say. Now, even though they don’t say it, they still believe it.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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