When it rains, it pours …

If you’re a mass consumer of financial punditry as we are, you’ve probably heard the term “black swan”. 

In the context of investing, a black swan is some completely unexpected event that has a substantial impact on financial markets and investors …

… like back-to-back mega-hurricanes which wreak many hundreds of billions of dollars of damage.

Even as the millions of affected people are working through the enormous task of sorting through the damage and cleaning up the mess …

… investors far away from the stricken areas are assessing the potential ramifications of these huge and unexpected events.

As we discussed in a recent broadcast, there’s certainly opportunity and a role for investors to play in helping these areas bounce back from disaster.

But it could be the affliction isn’t purely physical.

Consider this recent CNBC headline … 

Harvey’s hit to mortgages could be four times worse than predicted—and then there’s Irma

“As many as 300,000 borrowers could become delinquent on their loans after Hurricane Harvey …”

“The sheer volume of homes hit by Hurricane Irma will likely cause an increase in mortgage delinquencies as well …”

The article references a report produced by Black Knight Financial Services … so we took a look and found these notable excerpts:

More than 3.1 million properties are now included in FEMA-designated Irma disaster areas, representing approximately $517 billion in unpaid principal balances.”

“Harvey-related disaster areas held 1.18 million properties – more than twice as many as with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – with a combined unpaid principal balance of $179 billion.”

That’s $696 billion of mortgages that could potentially go bad because property owners are underinsured, have negative equity, or are owned by displaced people in financial distress.

For context, according to this 2007 article from Associated Press:

“Subprime mortgages totaled $600 billion last year [2006], accounting for about one-fifth of the U.S. home loan market. An estimated $1.3 trillion in subprime mortgages are currently outstanding.”

In other words, the value of outstanding mortgages on ONLY those properties inside the disaster areas is over half of what the TOTAL of ALL subprime mortgages were leading into the 2008 financial crisis.

But, you say, all those mortgages aren’t sub-prime.  Prime borrowers wouldn’t walk on their mortgages … potentially triggering another debt crisis … would they?

Of course, no one knows what property owners affected by the CURRENT crisis will do … or how helpful banks and the government will be this time …

… but thanks to a research report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, we know the REAL reason people defaulted on their mortgages during the 2008 crisis was … lack of equity.

“ … data show that the crisis was not solely, or even primarily, a subprime sector event.”

“… but … a much bigger and broader event dominated by prime borrowers …”

“Current LTV is a powerful predictor of home loss, regardless of borrower type.” (LTV is loan-to-value)

“… the role of negative equity remains very powerful.”

Basically, people who own underwater properties (no pun intended … okay, maybe a little intentional) are more likely to walk on their mortgages.

So if that’s true, and these afflicted area properties lose substantial value, it’s possible the next “storm” will be a surge of bad mortgages … to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

In other words, it’s not just the mortgages on PHYSICALLY damaged properties, but ALL properties in the region whose values are dragged down …

… the way prime borrowers’ properties were dragged down by sub-prime borrowers’ foreclosures in 2008.

Does this mean another bad mortgage fueled financial crisis is looming?

That’s hard to say.  If Wall Street has once again levered to the moon and issued trillions in derivatives against these mortgages, then things could get ugly.

However, this potential crisis is different than last time …

One major problem leading up to the 2008 financial crisis was household debt service payments as a percent of disposable personal income was sky high.

Back then, borrowers across the United States were tapped out.

Sub-prime borrowers were at the margin.  So when teaser rate loans reset higher, mortgage payments became unaffordable and sub-prime borrowers defaulted.

But these defaults were scattered over many markets because it wasn’t a geographic problem … it was demographic. So MANY markets were affected.

When prices fell, they took the values of prime borrowers’ properties with them … and prime borrowers began to default too … not because of affordability, but because of lack of equity.

Each new default put more downward pressure on home values, eroding more equity, and drawing more prime borrowers into default.

Today, at least according to this chart from the St Louis Fed, debt service to income is much lower.

Of course, if interest rates rise, wages fall, or inflation erodes purchasing power,  once again, borrowers at the margin could default … and that could trigger widespread defaults and collapsing prices.

But that’s a worry for a different day. 

As far as the fallout from these hurricanes, our bet is defaults and falling values are likely to happen primarily only in the affected areas.

However, we also suspect any spike in defaults is likely to be mitigated quickly because of the lessons gleaned from 2008.

Lenders know playing hardball with distressed borrowers only makes the problem worse. We’re guessing they’ll be much more flexible with loan workouts and short sales this time.

And because this is a physical disaster, not a financial disaster … government aid is likely to be fast and generous … at least on behalf of homeowners.

Plus, Uncle Sam knows if they don’t put out the fire fast, it could quickly spread and burn up their banker buddies.  We doubt they’ll let that happen.

Better to bail the bankers out BEFORE an implosion by helping afflicted property owners and preventing price crushing foreclosures.

So … with all that said, we think there could be some serious TEMPORARY downward pressure on prices …

…and opportunities for private investors to step in with fresh funds, pick up some bargains, and help distressed property owners out of untenable situations.

That’s because owners of investment properties may not get the same level of help as owner-occupants.  They’ll need to turn to private capital for assistance.

Fortunately, both Houston and most of the affected markets in Florida were strong investment markets before the disasters.

And in spite of the horrific damage, most of the basic market fundamentals remain unchanged.  So when rebuilt, they’ll probably solid investment markets.

Even better, these areas are likely to see a spike in economic activity as money is invested in reconstruction.  A lot of money will be pouring into these regions.

So we’re watching these areas carefully … because when the window of acquisition opportunity opens, it may only last for a short while.

Until next time … good investing!

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