Zombie Houses - The Daily Reckoning
The Daily Reckoning by Bill Bonner
On This Day - 7 March 2014
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Baltimore, Maryland

Dow up 61 yesterday. Gold up $11.

Michael Milken was in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. We talked about his contributions to the junk bond market on Tuesday. He helped create it in the early '80s and then went to jail. He 'understated the risks,' said the newspapers.

Thirty years later, the junk bond market is 10 to 20 times bigger...and the risks are greater than ever. But now, the risks are not understated by Milken, but by central bank policy. Prices are guided by the Fed. And speculators believe they barely have to worry about losing money, not as long as the Fed provides an unlimited line of credit at near-zero cost.

But Milken never mentioned junk bonds yesterday. Instead, he was concerned with another grotesquerie perpetrated by the feds.

We wondered about it while we were driving back up from South Carolina. The old houses we passed - setting aside the mansions - were small. Often charming. Some were even elegant. Newer houses - especially those built in the last 10 years - were much bigger. But most had lost all grace and charm. Instead, they were ungainly...clumsy and supersized, like someone with a glandular disorder.

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The typical house grew by 50% over the last 30 years, says Milken. But during this same time the average family size was falling by 25%. Fewer people, more space.

And much more expense. First, the cost of construction goes up with the square footage. Then, it costs more to furnish it. And to heat and cool it. And to maintain it.

Is more space really better? It's not for us to say. But Elizabeth had an opinion:

"I wouldn't want to rattle around in a big, empty house," she observed, as we drove past a field full of recently-planted McMansions.

"They must have put up these houses during the housing boom. But they must regret it now. They have to heat them. And who's going to buy these white elephants?"

Let's go back to the question of why they bought them in the first place. Mr. Milken has the answer: the housing market became another of the feds' distortions.

"...in the housing-boom decade before 2007, many buyers decided that the largest-possible house (with an equally large mortgage) was a better idea than a retirement fund or their children's education," he writes.

Houses were ATM machines. The bigger the house, the bigger the line of credit. Homeowners 'took out' the equity as fast as it accumulated.

But what was this equity? Where did it come from? Like the bounty of today's stock market, the pre-2007 housing market was a monster created by the feds:

"U.S. mortgage holders receive bountiful tax benefits, loans that include no recourse against borrowers' non-residential assets if they walk away, and loans that offer no protection for the lender if the borrower refinances the loan for a lower rate, Milken says.

And now the monster has become a zombie...unwanted and unnatural, kept alive by the Fed's artificial interest rates. Norbet Michel, of the Heritage Foundation, adds:

"The government guarantees we've had in the U.S. housing market have distorted housing prices, encouraged debt, left taxpayers on the hook for trillions, and provided the is impetus for millions of home foreclosures

The poor homeowners are stuck with millions of ATM machines that no longer work. Despite a robust bounce last year, it is unlikely that increases in house prices will continue to exceed increases in the CPI. In other words, houses will go back to acting like they always did, shuffling along with the economy.

Both America's landscape and its economy have been blemished and distorted. Risks have been seriously understated. So far, no central banker has been hauled up on charges. But we're looking forward to it.

Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.

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