Saturday, February 28, 2009

Nobody Could Have Predicted ...

Warren Buffet's 2008 letter to Berkshire-Hathwaya shareholders is out, and by far the most interesting bit is the section on financing as the Oracle of Omaha talks about Berkshire's manufactured homes unit. You see, everything that's happening to day in the wider housing market already happened in the manufactured home market ten years ago:

This 1997-2000 fiasco should have served as a canary-in-the-coal-mine warning for the far-larger conventional housing market. But investors, government and rating agencies learned exactly nothing from the manufactured-home debacle. Instead, in an eerie rerun of that disaster, the same mistakes were repeated with conventional homes in the 2004-07 period: Lenders happily made loans that borrowers couldn’t repay out of their incomes, and borrowers just as happily signed up to meet those payments. Both parties counted on “house-price appreciation” to make this otherwise impossible arrangement work. It was Scarlett O’Hara all over again: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” The consequences of this behavior are now reverberating through every corner of our economy.

Clayton’s 198,888 borrowers, however, have continued to pay normally throughout the housing crash, handing us no unexpected losses. This is not because these borrowers are unusually creditworthy, a point proved by FICO scores (a standard measure of credit risk). Their median FICO score is 644, compared to a national median of 723, and about 35% are below 620, the segment usually designated “sub-prime.” Many disastrous pools of mortgages on conventional homes are populated by borrowers with far better credit, as measured by FICO scores.

Yet at yearend, our delinquency rate on loans we have originated was 3.6%, up only modestly from 2.9% in 2006 and 2.9% in 2004. (In addition to our originated loans, we’ve also bought bulk portfolios of various types from other financial institutions.) Clayton’s foreclosures during 2008 were 3.0% of originated loans compared to 3.8% in 2006 and 5.3% in 2004.
The root cause of the run-up in housing prices was always pretty clear; banks were offering untenable loans just to get the deals done. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with subprime loans; it was the desire to make a big pile of of money off the loans, subprime or not that caused everything to go haywire. Accept modestly lower profits over a longer horizon and you can lend to poor people just fine.
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