The old saw suggests that we can tell if a lawyer is lying by watching to see if his lips are moving. Lately, I've been thinking we need to update that joke by subbing in the Realtors.
Truth or dare?
Today, the National Association of Realtors -- America's most widely quoted special interest group -- put out a press release with the cheerful title "Near-Term Sales to Hold in Modest Range." We've come to expect a lot of smoke and mirrors from these folks -- the ones who want their 6% skim off every existing home sale they can get their mitts on -- but this latest missive is especially eye-watering.
Hiding what matters
To begin with, the trade group's updated home-sales estimate is lower than the one it issued last month. Not that it bothers to point that out. But we're watching you, NAR, and the 6.04 million existing home sales you're predicting is a 1.1% drop from what you predicted last month. The new home sales prediction today is 1.5% lower than the one you made last month. And together, those predicted sales numbers come to 8.5% fewer than were sold in 2006 -- something you also didn't bother to quantify for readers. But why would you? A huge drop might sound bad, and it might mean even fewer chances to get that 6% fee.
Of course, there was plenty of space for housing bull. Lawrence Yun, who took over the unenviable NAR chief economist role from the notorious David Lereah, would have made his predecessor proud with media-ready sound bites such as this: "With the population growing, the demand for homes isn't going away -- it's just being delayed."
Never mind that the statement is the dumbest thing I've heard this week, even living in the nation's capital near K Street. I'm surprised he didn't whip out the other, real-estate-bagholder special, "They're not making any more land!" Since when has population ever not been growing? And why does Mr. Yun think population matters in a time when housing supply has vastly outstripped both population growth as well as demand? And finally, anyone who's ever tried to sell something knows that demand "delayed" is demand denied.
Seeing through the sham
Why does Yun do this? How can he look past concepts that even the most hung-over college freshman would take out of Saturday morning Econ 101? The likely answer seems that he doesn't believe any of this, but he must come up with a feel-good story. In other words, I think he's lying because it's his job to do so. It's in the NAR's interest to persuade people to buy, to pretend housing is an investment, and to reassure the flippers still prowling the market that they're smarter than the average bear. "Serious buyers today have a long-term view of housing as an investment -- speculators have left the market."
Only part true. Speculators are off the market? Sure, on the buying side, everyone's getting off the sinking ship. But speculators are still crawling through the rotten woodwork of our housing market. Look at the incredible inventory that remains out there, and continues to be built. Speculators remain by the thousands on the selling side, anchored to their puffed-up purchase prices, unable to accept reality and sell for a loss. And that's why anyone who looks past the NAR's hype ought to realize that things are only going to get worse before they get better, especially when all those ARMs reset.
For the record, except for focused experts who really know what they're doing (and I don't know any who are buying yet), housing is one of the world's worst investments. Worldwide, long-term, all it does is bogey the inflation rate. Really. Guess what happens to those who buy after prices have extended way above the mean? Check your answer here.
Much pain, no gain
If you're a real investor, you already know the truth. You know from the likes of Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL ) , which today reported major drops in both revenue and backlog, continuing a painful trend that's also punishing Beazer Homes (NYSE: BZH ) , Hovnanian Enterprises (NYSE: HOV ) , Pulte Homes (NYSE: PHM ) , and the rest of the industry. You know that lenders are going bankrupt and experiencing liquidity scares out the kazoo. Accredited Home Lenders (Nasdaq: LEND ) or Luminent Mortgage Capital (NYSE: LUM ) , anyone? Big banks like Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) are jacking up rates, and actually (gasp!) cutting back on loans to bad credit risks, meaning the easy money is gone.
If you're a home buyer who's recently had a loan application vetoed or a rate jacked up because banks are (finally) refusing to make stupid loans, you know more than the Realtors have the decency to say: Home demand has been driven up artificially due to cheap money, and it's not going to bounce back until prices have a major correction.
Foolish final word
By then (I can only hope), online initiatives from the likes of Google and Craigslist will crack the Realtor stranglehold on real estate listings, providing a few percentage points of immediate relief to already-overburdened home sellers, and maybe, just maybe, putting an end to the self-serving and endlessly press-parroted tripe from the NAR.
The NAR's home bubble cheerleading has done enough to put Americans into houses they are now having trouble affording. Mainstream media should be doing more to expose the NAR's hypocrisy, and call it to account for its fuzzy math.
At the time of publication, Seth Jayson, a top-10 Motley Fool CAPS player, had no shares of any company mentioned here. See his latest CAPS blog commentary here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.