About 57 million Americans have no emergency savings

According to an article on CNBC’s Personal Finance website roughly 57 million Americans have no savings.  However, according to Bankrate.com, we are supposed to cheer this news, as it is an improvement from last year.  I don’t know about you, but that stat doesn’t get me feeling any better about our economy or its prospects.

What I find most disconcerting is the fact that 32% of 53-62 year-olds haven’t saved anything. Zippo! This is the age group that should be finally able to sock away something for a rainy day, if not for retirement, and a whopping 32% have no savings.

It is not surprising then that another study by United Income would find that “older Americans have also become steadily more pessimistic about their economic prospects.”

Given the poor financial state that our consumer find themselves in, I can’t help but wonder where the consumption will come from that will drive our economy forward, given the fact that roughly 70% of U.S. GDP is driven by the consumer.  GDP growth of >3% seems to be a pipe dream these days.

NYC Mortgage Delinquencies Elevated, Again?

As we’ve done in the past, we are pleased to have the opportunity to share with you another excellent research piece from Keith Jurow.

We’ve recently noticed that real estate related data has been coming in weaker, despite claims that the market it tight.  In fact, U.S. new-home construction declined for the third straight month in May, signaling a softening in home building.  As reported by the WSJ, housing starts dropped 5.5% in May from the prior month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.092 million.

Here is Keith’s article, and please don’t hesitate to check out his deep reservoir of research on his website at: http://www.keithjurow.com

“The Ugly Truth About Mortgage Delinquencies”

With the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) monthly report continuing to show a decline in the delinquency rate, pundits are more convinced than ever that the mortgage crisis is over.

Since I have written extensively about the growing delinquency problem in the New York City metro for more than six years, let me explain my skepticism and how the truth has been hidden from the public.

In 2009, the New York State legislature passed a statute compelling all mortgage servicers to send out a pre-foreclosure notice to all delinquent owner-occupants in the state. The notice warned them that they were in danger of foreclosure and explained how they could get help. Servicers were required to regularly send statistics back to the state’s Department of Financial Services for all notices sent out. The department published two reports in 2010 with a compilation of these numbers. That was the last time these statistics were officially reported. I strongly suspect that the numbers were a little too scary.

Undeterred, I was able to obtain the unpublished figures from the person in charge of compiling the pre-foreclosure notice filing statistics at the department. For six years, I have received quarterly updates from him and have published several articles using them. The actual numbers are mind-boggling and hard to believe. I speak to my contact regularly about them and I am convinced that they are complete and extremely accurate.

The latest update shows cumulative figures through the first quarter of 2017. It covers only the five counties of New York City as well as Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island. Totals for the entire state are also included. Here is a brief summary of what the data reveals.

Since February 2010, mortgage servicers have sent out a cumulative total of 1,034,876 pre-foreclosure notices to delinquent owner-occupants in New York City and Long Island. That’s right – more than one million. This does not include delinquent investor-owners because that was not required under the 2009 law. Approximately 85% of these notices were for delinquent first liens and the remainder were for second liens.

Numerous phone conversations with my contact have made it clear that roughly 40% were second or third notices sent to the same property. These are not duplicate notices. The servicers have been sending repeat notices to owners who have not taken action to cure their delinquency for more than a year and have not yet been foreclosed.

This is confirmed by related figures published monthly in the Long Island Real Estate Report. For the last 18 months, nearly half of the formal notices of default filed in Suffolk County have been repeat notices. Why? In New York State, a default notice (known as a lis pendens) is only good for three years after which it expires. Hence lenders have had to file a new default notice for borrowers who have been delinquent for more than three years.

The Suffolk County statistics reveal how terrible the serious delinquency situation has become in the New York metro area. Although 297,000 cumulative pre-foreclosure notices have been sent to deadbeat borrowers in Suffolk County, less than 1,000 formal default notices have been filed each month on these properties since late 2009.

How is that possible? The answer is simple. Mortgage servicers have been compelled by statute to send out pre-foreclosure notices to all delinquent owner-occupants, but it is entirely up to the discretion of the mortgage servicer whether or not they file a formal default notice on the delinquent property to begin foreclosure proceedings. For almost seven years, the servicers have chosen not to foreclose.

Some of you may argue that these shocking pre-foreclosure notice numbers don’t reveal very much because many of these delinquencies must have been either (1) brought current by the borrower or (2) foreclosed by the servicing bank. That is a reasonable objection. But you would be wrong.

As for foreclosures, I have reliable figures from Property Shark that an average of only 1,548 properties were foreclosed annually in New York City between 2012 and 2016. From its 2015 State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods Report, we learn from the well-respected Furman Center for Real Estate at New York University that an average of only 300 properties were foreclosed and re-possessed each year by the lenders annually from 2011 to 2014. This was in a city where more than 531,000 pre-foreclosure notices have been sent to deadbeats since early 2010. The Furman Center report also showed that an annual average of only 12,800 formal default notices were filed on delinquent NYC properties between 2011 and 2015.

What about the idea that many of these delinquent property owners have probably brought their loans current after receiving a pre-foreclosure notice? Remember what I explained earlier – roughly 40% of these pre-foreclosure notices are second or third notices sent to borrowers because they have not paid the arrears owed.

Furthermore, I published an article last November with figures from Fitch Ratings showing that 53% of all delinquent non-agency securitized loans in the entire state of New York had not made a payment for more than five years as of August 2016. New York City alone had roughly 225,000 of these non-agency loans outstanding. As of February 2016, 37% of them were seriously delinquent. That is the worst delinquency rate for any major metro in the nation. This percentage has climbed steadily for the last five years. The notion that many delinquent owners in the NYC metro have cured their delinquency just will not hold up.

Conclusion: Even if my analysis is rock solid, a legitimate question remains. Does it have implications for the delinquency situation of any other major metros? This is important.

No other metro in the nation has delinquency statistics as comprehensive and reliable as those for NYC. I would go so far as to assert that we are really in the dark when it comes to any of the other two dozen metros where the housing collapse was focused.

I would like to suggest two premises for you to think carefully about. One is that the delinquency statistics you read from the MBA’s monthly delinquency report are inaccurate, incomplete and quite useless. To rely on them in order to assess the state of mortgage markets is not a good idea.

My other premise is that the delinquency rate for most of the other major metros which had major housing collapses is much higher than you think. All data firms that claim to have solid delinquency figures are totally dependent on the numbers they obtain from mortgage servicers who are their clients. I have learned from seven years of digging deep for reliable data that numbers from the servicers are notoriously inaccurate, incomplete and often just made up.

If you dismiss these premises out of hand, you risk having your real estate portfolios decimated when the housing crash resumes.


A Picture Is Worth A 1,000 Words

Yesterday we wrote about the typical American family and their economic struggles. Today we share with you a picture (thanks, Coly) that does a much better job of describing the growing income divide in our country so much better than I ever could!

Pretax income growth in the United States

As I stated yesterday, the movement to defined contribution plans from defined benefit plans has failed, and it will continue to fail, as long as a huge segment of our working population continues to be left behind!

What Rate Rise?

Again, markets seem surprised by weak economic releases for retail sales and inflation.  WHY? It seems that every economic statistic released in the last 1-2 months has proven to be below expectations.  Were these expectations too rosy? Given extremely weak first quarter results, should market participants have been this bullish?

The unfortunate aspect of these inflated expectations is the fact that US pension consultants continue to recommend to their clients a significant underweighting in US fixed income product.  This underweight continues to exacerbate the asset/liability mismatch that has existed since US interest rates fell below the ROA roughly 15 years ago.

As we’ve said on numerous occasions, managing a DB plan is not about generating the highest return, but meeting the promised benefits at the lowest cost.  We are one bear market away from the complete devastation of the public DB system. These plans need to be de-risked now, so that funded status and contribution expense can be stabilized before it is too late.

By the way, US 10-year Treasury yields are once again plummeting, as the bonds are up 23/32nds and it currently yields 2.13%.  So much for rising rates!

The Typical American Household

In a recent article in the WSJ, titled “Why Trump Won”, a letter to shareholders of M&T Bank was referenced because of the economic picture that it painted for the “typical” American household.  The note was penned by M&T CEO, Robert Wilmers.  There are many shocking statistics in his note that clearly highlight the economic struggles of middle America.

The economic divide in this country continues to grow, and its long-term implications may be profound.  At a time when we are asking American families to do much more with each $ earned – healthcare, education, insurance, retirement, etc. – there isn’t nearly as much to go around as some of our economists might have you believe.

For instance, since 1973, total median household income from all sources, including wages, which comprise more than 80% of income for middle-class families has increased only 13%.  That seems incredible to me, but over the last 44 years median household income has only increased by this little, and in fact, earnings for the typical family peaked in 1999.

Furthermore, the precipitous decline in interest rates, which initially had a positive impact on families as they were able to reduce mortgage payments, has crippled their ability to save for retirement or the initial down payment on a home for first-time buyers, among other savings needs. In fact, interest income has declined by $44 billion or 68% for families earning <$100,000.  Given that a significant percentage of these households collect little in dividend income, their take of a growing dividend income pie has been only $9 billion.

For those families earning more than $100,000, they have seen 95% of the $162 billion growth in dividend income since 2005 enure to their benefit.  As mentioned earlier, the great income divide is growing rapidly.

Regrettably, most American families are still feeling the negative effect from the 2001 and 2008 recessions, as the impact of lost earnings is still being felt. This has lead to only 51% of American households currently feeling as if they are a part of the middle class when back in 2001 63% felt that they were there.

Given the lack of household earnings growth, it is no wonder why the “average” family finds it difficult to fund a defined contribution plan, let alone manage it.  It truly bothers me that low DC balances are looked upon as a sign of American consumerism run amuck, as opposed to truly what it represents, which is the lack of financial resources in the first place.



Goldman Sachs Mulls The Death Of Value Investing – Uh, Oh!

As a follow-up to our “Crowded Trade” blog post from last week, we offer another potential market top forecast. In a recent article on Bloomberg Markets by Luke Kawa, a Goldman Sachs team led by equity strategist Ben Snider, wrote a note to clients, stating, “Nonetheless, the maturity of the current economic cycle suggests value returns will remain subdued in the near term.”

The article highlighted the fact that Value investing has dramatically underperformed the S&P 500 during the last decade, and they attribute much of the reason to accomodative monetary policy favoring the FANG stocks.  The question becomes, is Value investing truly dead as an investment style?

I sometimes feel as if I’m participating in a remake of the movie “Groundhog Day”.  Having spent 36 years in the investment industry, I have witnessed many equity market cycles, and most times the bottom of a cycle is accompanied by proclamations related to that particular style of management being dead.

As we mentioned the other day, great companies don’t always make for great stocks because valuations do ultimately matter.  Well, that can also be said about finding diamonds in the rough that appear to be poor businesses that offer potentially great value.  It remains critically important to note that these cycles exist, and that it is much better to buy closer to the bottom and sell closer to the top, if possible!

Without sticking my neck out too far, I am fairly comfortable proclaiming that Value investing is not dead!

A Crowded Trade?

It is beginning to feel like 1999 all over again.  Prince, who would have been 59 yesterday, penned his song 1999 in 1982.  Little did he know, or any of us for that matter, that a great bull market for U.S. equities would start in August 1982 only to end badly in March 2000.  Much of the reason for the equity collapse back then was the popping of the great technology stock boon (at one point about 34% of the S&P 500’s weight).

Markets move through cycles, often becoming irrational, and leading to valuations that are extraordinarily stretched.  But, “value” is in the eye of the beholder, and there is no exact timeframe when a stock or sector gets too pricey – it just happens.  Well, it is starting to feel like 1999, as we are currently living in an environment in which 5 U.S. technology companies (Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Facebook) have combined to produce 41% of the market capitalization gain of the S&P 500 in 2017.

Now, this is great news if you’ve invested in either an active growth/momentum fund or a passive large capitalization index strategy, but it is likely putting significant pressure on your value managers.  Caution – if you start seeing your value managers begin to invest in these securities, other than perhaps Apple (P/E of 18.5X) use it as a sell discipline, because it is about to hit the fan!

Just as in 1999, we are hearing that things are different today.  Supposedly, the difference today is that these companies are legitimate businesses, big data firms, etc. Is this the same paradigm shift that we were supposed to experience 20 years ago?  Come on! Great businesses don’t necessarily make for great stocks.  Valuation does matter in the long-term, even if it takes a long time to realize that.

DB pension plans pursuing the ROA as their primary objective may appreciate the recent, short-term performance boost from those five stocks, but it won’t help your funded status and contribution expense when the bubble bursts one more time!  It is never a bad time to take some profits. Can one really justify Amazon’s P/E multiple at 189.3 Xs?