By Paul B. Farrell, MarketWatch
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (MarketWatch) — Yes, flipping houses, your big new window of opportunity. Flipping commercials increasing on drive-time radio.
Yes, there’s a window of opportunity for house flipping. But ask yourself: When will the window slam shut? Timing, that’s the trick. You get it? Could be just a few months, like the fall 2008 crash? Or a few years, like the bull of 2004-2007.
Not sure? Timing crucial tracking cycles, picking tops, bottoms and turning points is less of a science than gambler’s coin toss. Over the years we reported on a couple dozen warnings of a bubble blowing before the 2008 crash. And yet, four months before the fall 2008 that tanked global markets and economies, we hesitated. The Lehman bankruptcy was the turning point.
Yes, flipping window will close … in 3 months or in 3 years?
One thing is certain, you will never hear the next crash coming. Wall Street will drown out the warnings with relentless happy talk. But bull or bear, bubble or bust, recovery or recession, every cycle has a natural pattern that ebbs and flows at its own pace.
Investors Business Daily’s Bill O’Neill says market cycles average 3.75 years up, nine months down. But “averages” are old data, not future facts. Happy talk won’t restart a bull. And more warnings won’t puncture an old bubble. Cycles have lives of their own, move up and down when they darn well feel like it. That’s nature.
Still, today’s warning signs like flipping commercials point to housing and mortgage problems. But investors must decide what fits their risk profile, knowing that timing’s the key. Will the flipping market collapse in a few months? Or a few years? And most of all, do you have the stomach of a flipper?
History is the best teacher of all. Take a moment here and review some of the early warnings Americans heard and ignored about a coming market collapse and recession, beginning back in 2000 until the fateful 2008 Wall Street credit meltdown:
2000 to 2005, early prediction of ‘biggest bubble in history’
Fed governor Ed Gramlich was warning Fed chairman Alan Greenspan as early as 2000 about subprime problems. Later he wrote the book, “Subprime Mortgages: America’s Latest Boom & Bust.”
Coming out of the recession in 2004 money manager Robert Rodriguez of First Pacific Advisors told the world a meltdown was coming in the red-hot mortgage market. He began moving money out of equities, into cash.
Economist Nouriel Roubini warned that housing had become a “speculative sport,” would trigger recession. Soros and others started shorting the market, made billions when it collapsed.
In mid-2005, three years before Wall Street’s meltdown, the Economist magazine ran a major cover story with this message: “The worldwide rise in house prices is the biggest bubble in history. … Rising property prices helped to prop up the world economy after the stock market bubble burst in 2000.” Values increased 75% worldwide in five short years, from $30 trillion to $70 trillion. “Never before have real house prices risen so fast, for so long, in so many countries … This is the biggest bubble in history.”
In 2006, new predictions of housing collapse, ‘full-scale rout’
Former Goldman Sachs investment banker John Talbott’s book: “Sell Now! The End of the Housing Bubble.” His statistics covered America’s top 130 metropolitan areas. The top 40 were facing an average 47.2% decline.
Economist Gary Shilling wrote: “The current housing weakness will develop into a full-scale rout … It’s clearly a bubble and is nationwide … The house price collapse will induce a painful recession that will send U.S. stocks into a tailspin … weakness in the U.S. and China will spread worldwide.”
“Correction Time is Here!” was economist Marc Faber’s newsletter headline: “If we combine the overbought condition of the stock market, investors’ sentiment high optimism, equity mutual funds’ low cash positions, and also heavy foreign buying, we have all the ingredients for a stock market correction in the U.S. getting underway very shortly.”
Two years before the 2008 meltdown a Fortune headline: “Can the Economy Survive the Housing Bust?” The NAHB confidence index had “plummeted 54%.”
Harper’s magazine published Michael Hudson’s fascinating “Guide to the Coming Real Estate Collapse.” Hudson analyzed 20 trends: The crash “will further shrink the ‘real’ economy, drive down those already declining real wages, and push our debt-ridden economy into Japan-style stagflation or worse.”
Even Countrywide’s notorious CEO Angelo Mozilo was warning Journal readers: “I’ve never seen a ‘soft-landing’ in 53 years … I have to prepare the company for the worst that can happen.” But he did little.
Neither did the new Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson … Bloomberg Markets later reported that right after becoming secretary in 2006 he told the White House staff: “Over-the-counter derivatives are an example of financial innovation that could, under certain circumstances, blow up in Wall Street’s face and affect the whole economy.” But he never warned the investing public.
By 2007, warnings that a global crash will ‘rival anything in history’
Jeremy Grantham wrote in his GMO quarterly newsletter: “The First Truly Global Bubble: From Indian antiquities to modern Chinese art; from land in Panama to Mayfair; from forestry, infrastructure, and the junkiest bonds to mundane blue chips; it’s bubble time. … Everyone, everywhere is reinforcing one another. … The bursting of the bubble will be across all countries and all assets … no similar global event has occurred before.”
In a mid-2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt wrote: “In terms of market meltdowns and the degree of pain inflicted on the financial system, the subprime mortgage crisis has the potential to rival just about anything in recent financial history, from the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s to the post-Enron turndown in the beginning of this decade.”
Forbes columnist Gary Shilling also warned that “just as the U.S. housing bubble is bursting, speculation elsewhere will come to a violent end if history is any guide. … Richard Bookstaber, who designed various derivative-laden strategies over the years, now fears that financial derivatives and hedge funds, focal points of today’s huge leverage, will trigger a financial meltdown.”
Contagion spreading, but government leaders kept misleading
Our leaders failed us: A year before the banks crashed Treasury Secretary Paulson, a former Goldman Sachs CEO, tells Fortune “this is far and away the strongest global economy I’ve seen in my business lifetime.” Earlier, he and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said the subprime crisis was “contained.” A clueless Bernanke assembled hedge fund managers, asking them to explain the global derivatives market.
And while Paulson and Bernanke were telling us the subprime crisis was “contained,” the chief architect of the subprime-housing meltdown, Alan Greenspan, was on tour making millions hustling his new book, “The Age of Turbulence.” On tour, on “60 Minutes” and then before the U.S. Congress, Greenspan admitted he “really didn’t get it until very late.” Our long-time monetary leader “didn’t get it?” Yet, he still maintains a blind faith in the “free market” mythology, denying any responsibility for the crash.
Still want to be a house flipper in 2013? Can you trust our leaders?
The drama flipped in early 2008 when Bear Stearns was sold to J.P. Morgan Chase for just $2 a share, after trading at $172 a year earlier. Then in September, Lehman filed for bankruptcy and Paulson was begging House leaders for hundreds of billions to bail out the banks on favorable terms, especially protecting his old firm, Goldman Sachs.
But after a couple decades of Greenspan, Paulson and Bernanke misleading America, can you ever trust anything American political leaders say again? Certainly not about the housing market.
Still, you must decide. So begin with the fact that across America’s flipping markets, holding periods are three to four months, after you buy the property. That’s a long time in a volatile market. Yes, listen to all the happy talk and warnings, but in the end, trust your guts, your risk profile, your tolerance for uncertainty. Then scan all the information though your B.S. detector and decide what works for you. Only you can know.
Never, never, never trust what you hear from Wall Street or Washington.