Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Example of Banks Destroying the Economy

TEMPE, Ariz. — Dave Brown, one of this city’s best-known home builders, had kept his head above water through the housing downturn, not missing a single interest payment on his loans.

Dave Brown, a builder in Tempe, Ariz., had never missed an interest payment, but his bank shut down his projects anyway.
So he was confounded a few months back when one of his banks, spooked by the decline in his company’s revenue, suddenly demanded millions of dollars in additional collateral to continue carrying loans on his projects.

He was unable to come up with the money, and in October, JPMorgan Chase foreclosed on five of his developments. Shortly thereafter, Brown Family Communities, 33 years in the business, decided to shut its doors.

“They treated me like a deadbeat who missed his car payment,” said an embittered Mr. Brown, 76. “They wanted their money now.”

After riding high on one of the greatest housing booms in American history, the nation’s home builders today face a devastating reversal of fortune.

Although the housing crisis is nearly two years old, many banks had refrained from cracking down on small home builders.

They are starting to do so, and a wide swath of the industry could be forced out of business in the next few years. The trouble is concentrated especially in the Sun Belt, the scene of so much overbuilding.

Not only have new-home sales stagnated, but builders confront a rising wave of foreclosed properties coming to market at prices below the cost of building a new home. To move houses, they have to mark them down to less than the cost of construction.

The convergence of these problems is bringing many small and medium-size builders — who account for about 70 percent of new-home construction in the United States — to their knees.

“The reality is, we’re seeing conditions in home construction and home finance that are the worst since the Depression,” said Steve Fritts, associate director of risk management policy at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the government agency that insures bank deposits.

Life has been difficult for large publicly traded home-building companies as well, where stock prices have collapsed and construction sharply cut back. Yet for now, many of the public companies can meet their obligations.

“They’re better capitalized and they have cash on hand,” said Ivy Zelman, a housing analyst. “They’re in a much better position than the private builders.”

No hard count exists of precisely how many builders have gone out of business since the downturn began. According to an estimate by the National Association of Home Builders, at least 20,000 builders — about a fifth of the total nationwide — have closed up shop in the last two years.

With the industry still owing hundreds of billions of dollars in loans made at the market peak, many more face insolvency in the coming months and years. “Probably north of 50 percent will fail,” Ms. Zelman said.

Much of that borrowed money went to finance land deals that now appear to have been catastrophic miscalculations. In cities like Phoenix, where housing starts are near record lows, demand for undeveloped land has plummeted, and prices have followed.

As defaults and delinquencies rise, home builders, once prized banking customers, have become pariahs. Even builders who are up to date on their interest payments or still managing to sell houses are getting trampled, as in the case of Mr. Brown.

“They’re not distinguishing the track records of one borrower against another,” said John Fioramonti, a real estate consultant in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If you’re a builder, you are a bad risk.”

With the pullback accelerating, complaints among builders of hardball tactics and shoddy treatment by banks are mounting, as is a general sense of betrayal.

“The behavior of the banks is unprecedented,” said Mick Pattinson, a home builder from Carlsbad, Calif. who has organized a national coalition of builders to draw attention to what they regard as unreasonable treatment. “Yes, there was overleveraging in the industry. But the aftermath doesn’t need to have been as brutal as it has been.”

Some experts defend the banks, saying they are starting to do what is necessary to come to grips with the turmoil in real estate. For months, they have been under pressure from federal bank regulators and their own shareholders to curtail lending to a faltering industry.

“The lenders are not operating irrationally or unfairly, generally speaking,” Mr. Fritts said. “They have to protect themselves.”

Access to credit is essential to builders, who rely heavily on borrowed money to finance land acquisitions and home construction.


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