U.S. housing activity remains weak despite six years of federal government aid, strong interest from overseas buyers, rock-bottom interest rates and massive purchases of mortgage bonds by the Federal Reserve. Does this mean housing may never spring back to its pre-recession levels? Many signs point to yes.
Don’t blame the Chinese, who are showing an abundance of interest. Their share of foreign purchases leaped to 16% in the year ending March 2014, from 5% in 2007. They paid a median price of $523,148, higher than any other nationality and more than double the $199,575 median price of all houses sold.
The value of home sales to all foreigners rose 35% last year to $92 billion, up more than 50% since 2007 and accounting for 7% of all existing home sales. Foreigners view U.S. homes as safe investments and U.S. schools as good places to teach their children English.
But such robust foreign purchases can’t overcome what ails the U.S. housing market. Activity is weak even now that banks are no longer tightening mortgage-lending standards, according to a Fed survey. Banks are searching for new lines of business since the Dodd-Frank reform law and regulations are depriving them of revenue from proprietary trading, derivative origination and investing and off-balance sheet activities. The end of the mortgage refinancing surge has added to the pressure on banks.
By necessity, banks remain selective about the mortgages they’ll underwrite, having paid huge penalties for originating and selling bad mortgages pre-crisis. Banks are also being careful to avoid the high cost of mortgage defaults now that they must repurchase loans with underwriting defects. The result can be seen in foreclosure data: In the third quarter, banks began foreclosure proceedings on only 0.4% of mortgages, far below the 1.4% level in the peak of the financial crisis.