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Local economist: Real estate will unfreeze slowly

By   /   Monday, September 14th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Local economist: Real estate will unfreeze slowly

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Luxury home prices are likely to remain frozen at current levels for a long time, a lingering effect of the panic that disrupted financial markets a year ago, a top economist said in Santa Barbara.

Speaking on the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, California State University Channel Islands economist Sung Won Sohn said the economy has come a long way back from the brink of another Great Depression.

But he said it’s not clear whether the combination of economic stimulus, rising stock prices and more liquidity in financial markets will lead to sustained economic growth. “We may have a period of sluggish recovery,” he said during an interview prior to a speech to the Channel City Club on Sept. 14.

Sohn, formerly chief economist at Wells Fargo and president of Hanmi Bank in Los Angeles, said that while Lehman Brothers marked the culminating moment for Wall Street’s troubles a “confluence of events” led to last fall’s market panic.

Since then, he said, banks have returned to profitability and manufacturers have liquidated billions of dollars in excess inventory, prompting a small bounce in activity. “There’s some life in the auto industry,” he said thanks to the Cash for Clunkers rebates and extremely low dealer inventories.

But Sohn said it was too early to declare that the economy is out of the woods. One particular area of weakness, he said, was the high end of the home market, where so-called jumbo mortgages of more than about $729,750 in California are extremely difficult to obtain.

After his talk, Sohn said the absence of jumbo financing means that most transactions of $1 million or more are taking place for cash only. “That can lead to steep discounts,” he said.

Sohn said he had several “worries” about the future of the economy. First, he said, the Obama administration’s stimulus program will stop bolstering the economy after mid-2010, adding that fears of a “a double dip recession” are a real issue for employers who are reluctant to add jobs.

Second, he expressed concern about how the Federal Reserve will exit its more than $1 trillion worth of investments to keep financial markets liquid. He also said he was concerned about consumer spending and the commercial real estate market.

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