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Irvine Housing Blog

Irvine Housing Blog

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Contrarian Investing and the Psychology of Deflation

Posted: 14 Sep 2010 03:30 AM PDT

 Contrarian Investing requires the ability to ignore the prevailing mood of the market and buy when the herd is selling and sell when the herd is buying.


Irvine Home Address ... 59 BAMBOO Irvine, CA 92620
Resale Home Price ...... $800,000

Some of it's habitual
Some of it's predictable
sometimes the change is not enough
And in the lost empathy
memories of better days

Lagwagon -- Change Despair 

Bubble Blogs and Deflation Psychology 

The IHB has never been a bubble blog, but it is often labeled as such because I have been bearish on housing for so long. I am still bearish on Orange County (and I am not alone), but I am very bullish on Las Vegas and many other beaten down markets. Someday, I may even be bullish on Orange County -- probably after all the bulls give up.

Bubble blogs resonated with many people because they spoke a truth about greed and stupidity during a period of mass financial insanity. Prices were insane, and bubble bloggers said so. Once prices started to fall, bubble bloggers were heard by a wider audience and they fed into the cycle of deteriorating buyer confidence. Falling prices makes buyers understandably cautious, and it is this caution that creates deflation psychology that often causes markets to overshoot their fundamental valuations during the deflation of a financial bubble.

The article below is one of the finest explanations of deflation psychology I have read.

The Psychology Of Deflation Explains Why House Prices Will Continue To Fall

Edward Harrison, Credit Writedowns | Sep. 8, 2010, 12:22 PM

A great article in this past weekend’s Washington Post highlighted many of the major issues affecting the US housing market and most of those issues point to lower house prices.  In particular, the self-reinforcing psychology of price deflation has already set in. And that means prices will continue to fall.

While the government is doing its best to prop up the housing sector and maintain credit growth, most common metrics suggest house prices are still elevated. This artificial prop buys banks time by preventing banks from taking losses and depleting capital while the yield curve is still steep. Yet, investors are coming to the realization that short-term rates will stay near zero percent for a very "extended period" indeed. Perpetual zero (PZ) is having the perverse effect of flattening the yield curve and reducing the carry trade that is benefiting banks. If banks are unable to restore adequate capital to deal with the loan losses that removing the government prop would induce, the next recession will be very painful.

The psychology of deflation in Japan

I first talked about the behavioural psychology of deflation in 2008 when writing about Japan’s housing bust. The  post "A cautionary tale: story from 1994 Japan" relied on Michael Nystrom’s 2006 tale about a Japanese man buying a house amid the mid-1990s Japanese house price deflation to bring the psychology to life.

Michael wrote:

In spite of the booming economy, my uncle, like many Americans today, was shut out of the housing market. Prices always seemed too high, but a pullback never materialized, so he waited until the right time to buy. While he waited, prices spiraled up and away until at last they were hopelessly out of reach. By the time I arrived in 1990, his family was living in a government-owned, rent controlled flat that was, by any standards, small: Two rooms that were each about 12 feet square, a small kitchen and a tiny bath to serve three adults (including his mother) and his two kids…

My uncle thought that he would never ever be able to afford a house in Japan, and that he would live out his dying days in that little rented flat. In his experience, housing prices went only in one direction: up. But by 1992, two years after the Nikkei peaked, something strange began to happen – housing prices started drifting down…

By 1994, housing prices continued to drift lower until some units started to become, with considerable stretching and creative financing, affordable. So that year, by taking out a two generation, 60-year mortgage — with his 16-year old son on the hook for the remaining years that he might not be able to pay — my uncle bought his first home. The family had to scrimp, and both he and my aunt had to work more hours, but they were finally, proud homeowners. And it was a nice house – larger than their old house (but not much), in a nicer neighborhood, and on a higher floor with a view of the treetops. I even helped them move in. It was a happy day. I don’t recall the exact price he paid, but I remember thinking that it sure was a lot! Somewhere north of half a million dollars. Those were the kinds of details were lost on me at that age.

I left Japan in 1994, and didn’t return again for a visit until late 1998. In the intervening 4 years, housing prices had continued to fall, and fall, and fall to the point where my uncle’s house was worth only half of what he had paid for it four years earlier: A couple hundred thousand, up in smoke, just as Japan’s economy was mired in a 13-year slump. But he stuck with his loan, hoping the value will come back. And one day, it just might. So he makes his payments each month faithfully, and when he can no longer make them, his son will take over and pay off the remaining balance. And sometime, in the remaining 48 years on the mortgage, the house may once again be worth more than what is owed on it.

The psychology of deflation hits America

What happened? The psychology of deflation happened. But rather than go into some diatribe of how this works, I will use excerpts of the Washington Post article In struggling housing market, buyers and sellers are out of sync to paint the picture. While reading this, remember that the DC area has been relatively buoyant economically during this crisis compared to other American cities due to federal government largesse. I have highlighted the parts that pertain to deflation psychology.

Jack Donnelly put off selling his Capitol Hill rowhouse for three years until he thought he saw glimmers of life in the housing market this past spring. At $950,000, he said, the red brick Victorian is a "solid deal."

Jackie Wright sees it differently. The row house is one of many homes competing for her attention in uncertain economic times. She’s been looking to buy a home in the District since April but is in no rush to commit, partly because she thinks mortgage interest rates – and prices – could sink even lower.

As with many prospective sellers, Donnelly’s hopes for his rowhouse were forged in the past, before the housing bust, when homeowners assumed that real estate prices would inexorably rise. They expected to reap vast windfalls when their houses sold. But Wright’s eyes are turned to the future. She’s anxious about whether the coming months will bring more gloomy economic news and reluctant to gamble on a major purchase, especially if a flagging market might actually mean better deals ahead.

Notice the disconnect between Donnelly and Wright’s psychology. That’s the interesting thing about this story. The house was bought for $645,000 in 2004. Renovations of $150,000 (excluding labour) put the all-in cost at $850,000.  So, why is Donnelly trying to sell the house for nearly a million dollars? In behavioural economics, this is called anchoring. Donnelly’s price point is anchored to the $1 million he expected to receive during the halcyon days of the housing bubble. See Michael Mauboussin on investor psychology for more on this.

Back in 2004, when Donnelly and his new bride, Roxanne, bought the home, they’d paid $645,000. It was a fixer-upper in a transitional neighborhood. And the finances had been a stretch. But with a child on the way, they had been ecstatic to find a place they could afford.

They converted the space from apartments into a single-family home and installed central air conditioning. The renovations totaled more than $150,000, not including labor costs, Donnelly said. Three years later, after the tremendous run-up in U.S. housing prices, he decided he wanted to sell it for $1 million.

By then, however, the housing market had begun to sour, and he figured the home couldn’t fetch what he thought it was worth.

"I decided to do the conservative thing, collect rent on this place and wait a couple of years for the housing market to improve," Donnelly said.

See, Donnelly bought another house and moved in there. He could have sold his old house. But he was anchored to the prices of a few years back and so decided to rent it out – that isn’t the conservative thing. The thing is house prices are lower today – even in DC. And this presents a classic negotiating problem. H. Raiifa’s "The art and science of negotiation" sets out a framework based on three sets of data (as quoted by Max Bazerman’s "Judgement in Managerial Decision Making"):

  1. Each party’s alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA – Best alternative to a negotiated agreement)
  2. Each party’s set of interests
  3. The relative importance of each party’s interests

In a period of falling house prices, a home buyer’s BATNA is to simply wait. She can rent or stay in her present home. Here’s how the Post puts the conflict.

Hart, the real estate agent, insisted that Donnelly’s house is properly priced. She said five other comparable homes within short walking distance are for sale at similar prices – $900,000 to $974,000. She said others have sold within that range recently.

Donnelly has his doubts.

"Frankly, I don’t know what number makes sense anymore," he said. "It’s not a normal market. . . . Some houses are gone, and some in the same price range are not going. I can’t gauge what’s real and what’s not."

He acknowledged that he’d been thinking of reducing his asking price, lowering his goal for a second time.

In fact, by Saturday he’d dropped the price to $895,000.

And while that may narrow the expectations gap with prospective buyers, it might not be enough. If he fails to attract a buyer soon, Donnelly said, he would take the house off the market, possibly refinance it at lower rates and keep on renting it out.

That would be one more sale that never took place.

Lower home sales presage lower prices

This last sentence is the crux of the article.

In any negotiation, the two parties have a "reservation point" beyond which they will refuse to negotiate and will simply walk away and accept their BATNA. The art of negotiating is finding a price higher than the seller’s reservation price that is also lower than the buyer’s. In a market panic, sellers reduce price quickly because markets are more transparent, the assets transacted assets are fungible, transaction costs are low and volume is high. All of this means a bottom comes more quickly because a seller’s reservation price becomes unanchored very quickly as market prices fall.

In a housing market selloff, markets are more byzantine,  properties are unique, transaction costs are high, and sales are infrequent. This means that, in assessing one’s set of interests and their relative importance, many sellers decide not to transact because their reservation prices are still anchored to in bubble psychology.

So the first thing to give way in a housing bust is volume. Lower transaction volume is prelude to lower prices. If volume is falling, you can be sure it has done so because sellers have not lowered their reservation prices and are waiting for prices to rise again. But, of course, if the psychology of deflation has set in for buyers, they are not going to pay more. And that means prices and sales volumes drift lower as forced sellers dominate the marketplace.

Moreover, the psychology of price deflation is also the reason markets tend to overshoot to the downside. Buyers are saying, "wow, those prices sure have come down. Maybe they will come down even more. I think I will hold off on buying and see." This type of psychology is self-reinforcing and almost always takes markets below fair value when value players snap up bargains and change the psychology.  In my view, the government can slow but simply will not be able to overcome this dynamic. That means a slow and inexorable decline for house prices.

And since housing usually leads recoveries, that spells a weak recovery and perpetual "extended period" language from the Fed.  Eventually, the U.S. yield curve will flatten as it did in Japan if PZ takes hold. PZ is toxic for banks because when the next recession hits, the central bank cannot lower rates to induce a steep yield curve and bail them out. Therefore, loan losses will have to be taken without the benefit of the carry trade and that spells bankruptcy for the weakest.  This is what happened in Japan and what is likely to happen in the U.S. 

I agree with everything that author has written. Well done.

Notice that it is the value players that snap up bargains and form a durable bottom. Who are the value players? Cashflow investors. That is why I am so enthusiastic about Las Vegas. The market is in despair. Deflation psychology is in full force, but as individual buyers do a own versus rent analysis (at least the ones who understand how) they quickly see that ownership saves them a huge amount compared to renting, and they buy. Further, cashflow investors see the same disparity, and they buy. It is these buyers that stabilize prices and change deflation psychology. 

Hard Landing Las Vegas

Understanding deflation psychology gives cashflow investors an edge. They can see the true value of a property when others are afraid to buy. If there are any enduring lessons the bubble blogs have taught readers, it is how to identify bubble psychology, and hopefully, how to identify the opposite: deflation psychology. Smart money is not buying in safe havens. Smart money is taking advantage of deflation psychology and obtaining undervalued cashflow properties in markets like Las Vegas.

Now is a safe time to quit paying your mortgage

Obviously, I watch the trustee sale market closely. Over the last two months, lenders have slowed the rate at which they allow properties to go to auction. I can only speculate as to their reasons, but a burgeoning MLS inventory is likely the cause. Of the few properties that have gone to auction, almost none of them have been priced over $500,000. That isn't likely to change considering we are still in a recession, there is too much inventory, and few buyers are stepping up to buy overpriced local properties. Any struggling property owner considering accelerating their default should do so now. There is little or no change a lender is going to begin foreclosure proceedings over the next 6 months or more. For anyone already squatting, they too will likely get through to next spring.

  • Today's featured property belongs to a Northwood II squatter. The property was purchased on 11/10/2004 for $924,000. The owners used a $738,940 first mortgage, a $92,300 second mortgage, and a $92,760 down payment.
  • On 7/19/2005 they refinanced with a $801,000 Option ARM with a 1% teaser rate and obtained a $53,400 HELOC.
  • On 8/15/2005 they obtained a $146,850 HELOC.
  • On 2/8/2006 they got a larger HELOC for $279,000.
  • Total property debt is $1,080,000.
  • Total mortgage equity withdrawal is $248,760.
  • Total squatting time is about 30 months (off and on).

Foreclosure Record
Recording Date: 05/01/2008
Document Type: Notice of Default

The received a loan modification on 5/20/2008, but they received a NOT shortly thereafter.

Foreclosure Record
Recording Date: 05/21/2010 
Document Type: Notice of Sale (aka Notice of Trustee's Sale) 
Click here to get Foreclosure Report. 

Foreclosure Record
Recording Date: 05/04/2010 
Document Type: Notice of Sale (aka Notice of Trustee's Sale) 
Click here to get Foreclosure Report. 

Foreclosure Record
Recording Date: 08/11/2008 
Document Type: Notice of Sale (aka Notice of Trustee's Sale) 

It looks as if they are still in the property wating for the bank to accept a short sale. $250,000 in free money and 30 months of squatting. Not bad... for them. 


Irvine Home Address ... 59 BAMBOO Irvine, CA 92620

Resale Home Price ... $800,000

Home Purchase Price … $924,000

Home Purchase Date .... 11/10/2004

Net Gain (Loss) .......... $(172,000)
Percent Change .......... -18.6%
Annual Appreciation … -2.4%

Cost of Ownership
$800,000 .......... Asking Price
$160,000 .......... 20% Down Conventional
4.36% ............... Mortgage Interest Rate
$640,000 .......... 30-Year Mortgage
$153,792 .......... Income Requirement

$3,190 .......... Monthly Mortgage Payment

$693 .......... Property Tax
$267 .......... Special Taxes and Levies (Mello Roos)
$67 .......... Homeowners Insurance
$142 .......... Homeowners Association Fees
$4,358 .......... Monthly Cash Outlays

-$755 .......... Tax Savings (% of Interest and Property Tax)
-$864 .......... Equity Hidden in Payment
$254 .......... Lost Income to Down Payment (net of taxes)
$100 .......... Maintenance and Replacement Reserves
$3,094 .......... Monthly Cost of Ownership

Cash Acquisition Demands
$8,000 .......... Furnishing and Move In @1%
$8,000 .......... Closing Costs @1%
$6,400 ............ Interest Points @1% of Loan
$160,000 .......... Down Payment
$182,400 .......... Total Cash Costs
$47,400 ............ Emergency Cash Reserves
$229,800 .......... Total Savings Needed

Property Details for 59 BAMBOO Irvine, CA 92620
Beds: 4
Baths: 2 full 1 part baths
Home size: 2,460 sq ft
($325 / sq ft)
Lot Size: 3,799 sq ft
Year Built: 2004
Days on Market: 33
Listing Updated: 40423
MLS Number: S629433
Property Type: Single Family, Residential
Community: Northwood
Tract: Came
According to the listing agent, this listing may be a pre-foreclosure or short sale.

Almost Brand New Home in Northwood II. Beautiful hardwood floors throughout downstairs.Upgraded carpet in great room and upstairs. Gourmet kitchen w/ stainless steel appliances, incl. extra convection oven, white Euro Cabinets,custom Caesarstone Countertops incl. butler pantry w/ full back splash and center island. Built in desk and addt'l cabinets in study alcove. Custom two tone paint & wood blinds/shutters throughout. Central vacuum & much more!

Apparently, in realtorspeak, a six year old property is "almost brand new."

real estate home sales


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