Opening Bell: Home Prices Plummet

No end in sight; FBI is after Countrywide; factory farms are bad; Citigroup panhandles; etc.

In today’s house-o-rama, home prices fell faster last month than at any time in a key index’s two decades, dropping nearly 14 percent in February from a year earlier, according to the Case-Shiller index of ten major cities (prices dropped 13 percent in the twenty-city index).

The papers quote analysts saying there’s no sign of any turnaround, with The New York Times reporting that rising foreclosures and tighter mortgage-lending standards will further exacerbate “large inventories and a dearth of qualified buyers.” The Wall Street Journal notes that prices are still double what they were in 2000 in places like Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington, D.C.

The KB Home founder Eli Broad said he expects home prices to fall another 20 percent before bottoming, Bloomberg says in its Case-Shiller story. It quotes a Lehman Brothers economist as saying prices will fall through the end of 2009.

Even the Hamptons is getting hit hard, with sales down 29 percent and prices off 7 percent in the first quarter from the previous quarter, according to a different measure, says Bloomberg.

FBI is all over Countrywide

Countrywide reported a $893 million first-quarter loss, and nearly one in ten of all its loans were delinquent. The Los Angeles Times says it was worse than the most-pessimistic estimates, and the WSJ leads its Business & Finance column on A1 with the news, reporting on B1 that a government investigation is finding that sales executives at the company deliberately ignored obviously inflated income statements from borrowers.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into a wide variety of Countrywide mortgages that didn’t require full documentation, not just the Fast and Easy loans. People involved in the inquiry say the FBI has concluded that extensive fraud occurred on the loans, and they are looking into whether the company violated securities law by failing to disclose that to investors.

The LAT notes that part of the $3 billion in charges Countrywide took in the quarter came from investors who bought its mortgages complaining that they were misled or the loans were flawed.

Domicile delinquents

The WSJ reports on B4 that so-called option adjustable-rate mortgages made to borrowers with good credit are going bad at worrying rates, in some cases worse than those for subprime loans.

The Journal inside its Money & Investing section says the subprime delinquency rate has slowed each of the last three months, though that may be because at 36 percent, it just can’t sustain the past growth rate.

The FT reports on a column its op-ed pages run today by the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that calls for the government to issue loans to mortgage lenders to help reduce payments for borrowers.

Go organic!

In one of the other crises, food, the NYT has an interesting report on page one that taps the soaring price of chemical fertilizer as one of the big factors behind the spike in food costs.

Fertilizer prices have tripled in a year, and the paper says that’s causing farmers to cut back on purchases, which in turn lowers their yields, which further exacerbates food inflation. The Times reports that there is severe fertilizer rationing in the Midwest.

The Journal reports on A1, that like oil companies’ windfall profits from soaring energy prices, some agriculture companies, like ADM, Monsanto, and John Deere, are seeing their earnings jump from higher food costs.

Food companies say they’re not to blame for the soaring prices and are committed to working toward a solution. They say bigger profits can be used to develop new technologies that will ultimately help farmers improve productivity…

Flush with more revenue than they have enjoyed in years, and eager to take advantage of the highest grain prices they’ve seen in years, farmers are paying more money for seeds, fertilizer and farm gear. That has translated into huge revenue jumps and handsome profit increases for the companies that sell these products. Growing global demand for food has been a boon to companies that buy, process and transport grains.

But others, like chicken company Tyson, are getting hit by higher grain costs.

The Washington Post continues its front-page food-crisis series, reporting in depth on how the increased demand (and subsidies) for corn-based ethanol is pushing up food prices overall. The piece says there’s even talk of a $3 billion ethanol pipeline in the Midwest.

Breaking news: um, factory farms are bad

The Post also goes big on A2 with a report on a damning independent study that finds that factory farming is bad for rural communities and bad for animals—and, yeah, bad for humans in general. Nice to see folks are finally catching up with Fast Food Nation, released seven years ago.

Several observers said the report, by experts with varying backgrounds and allegiances, is remarkable for the number of tough recommendations that survived the grueling research and review process, which participants said was politically charged and under constant pressure from powerful agricultural interests.

The study recommends ending hard-core caging of animals, banning most antibiotic use in farm animals, and aggressively policing antitrust laws in agriculture.

The WSJ on A4 emphasizes that the study’s authors bemoaned the influence of the agriculture industry “at every turn.”

Repent, America!

The housing bust continues to weigh on consumer confidence, which fell to the lowest level since March 2003, when the Iraq war started (that’s a blip—other than that the outlook was the worst since the early 1970s). Barron’s Econoday called it one of the “most alarming reports on consumer confidence in 40 years of data.”

The LAT takes a look at what this means for the economy and has a hard time just coming out and saying the obvious—it seriously hurts. It also appear not to have realized that a consumer-confidence news came out the morning before its story appeared, but it’s an otherwise good analysis.

It notes that consumers upped their spending in real dollars by more than half over the last quarter of a century. How? By “reducing their savings, taking on debt and relying first on rising stock prices and then on increased housing values to keep them financially whole.” Those veins are clearly tapped out.

“Nothing’s going to reverse a generation of behavior overnight,” said Feldman, the Credit Suisse economist. But “what the markets are signaling is we have to consume less and export more.” Doing so would make for a very different—and considerably less heady—America than that of the last quarter of a century.

Citigroup, hat in hand

Troubled Citigroup went begging for more money yesterday, this time $3 billion in common shares it says it plans to issue. The Financial Times says and the WSJ notes on C5 that the move comes just a week after it raised $6 billion issuing preferred shares and investors will likely have their stakes diluted by the issue.

The sharp-eyed analyst Meredith Whitney, who’s been correct often in the last few months, says it’s a drop in the bucket and that Citi needs to raise more money. Depending on whom you believe, her number is: $20 billion or so (the FT), $15 billion to $18 billion (the <i>NYT), or $10 billion to $15 billion (Bloomberg). What’s a few billion dollars between friends? The Journal doesn’t cover the newsworthy analyst report at all.

It does, however, have our Ya Think? Quote of the Day:

“The market is probably not going to like more dilutive shares being issued,” said Jeffery Harte, an analyst with Sandler O’Neill & Partners.

The mouse that roared

The Journal’s editorial-independence committee squealed yesterday, saying it was unhappy with being left out of the loop on Rupert Murdoch’s decision to kick top editor Marcus Brauchli to the curb. The WSJ puts it on B1 and covers it well, and the NYT reports on C4 that the committee says it “intends to exercise fully its role in the approval of a successor managing editor and to take the steps necessary to prevent a repeat of the process it has just been through.”

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.