Call Bob Toll passionate. Maybe just shy of obsessive. To practice law–a calling he educated and trained himself dutifully to do more than 40 years ago–he could not tolerate. Other enthusiasms he pursues with abandon–skiing, tennis, world history, golf, his day job running the seventh-largest home building company in the nation, and the opera. Minus traffic, it's about a 60-minute ride from his home in Bucks County, Pa., to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City. One early February evening, he relished the thought of a marathon evening, transported via the baton of Maestro Lorin Maazel directly into the apocalyptic throes of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre.
As his car sped north on the turnpike bound for Manhattan, the moment's irony could hardly be lost on Toll, who's weathered four or five real estate cycles and as many Ring Cycles. The sturm und drang clash of massive oversupply and beleaguered demand in housing, an epic lending crisis flashing peril across the global economic firmament, and government's role–if any–in restoring reason for calm and hopefulness, all very nearly oblige Toll to wax Wagnerian about what's happening and what it means. Toll's voice, as one might assume, typifies many peers' belief that free-market forces must run a painful course for the cycle to resume an upward sine curve. However, he also thinks that the government and its monetary policy-setting agencies must act to head off possibly even more debilitating consequences.
What's clear as Big Builder hears from Toll and a handful of business colleagues is this: The troubles that afflict the industry and the economy redound differently to each player in the drama. Regional differences, business model differences, even differences in the health of the balance sheet sway each executive's ranking of priorities. So, for instance, as parts of the real estate industry got fully behind the recently-passed $160 billion economic stimulus package cobbled together by Congress and the Bush administration, many others–including many big builders–felt that the program fell far short.
Prior to its passage, the National Association of Home Builders proffered a six-point package lobbying Congress to include a tax carryback provision that would have allowed the write-off of losses going back five years instead of the current 24 months. It also sought federal approval for cities and states to issue tax-exempt mortgage bonds to refinance existing loans and help troubled borrowers. Additionally, it bid for a two-year increase in conforming loan limits for Fannie, Freddie, and FHA. All three provisions were stripped from the version of the bill drawn up by the Senate Finance Committee and left out of the final bill, with the latter provision reduced to a one-year increase in conforming loan limits. The choices now are to retaliate--withholding PAC money–or regroup.
Due to a lack of unity, home builder demands fell mostly on deaf ears. But as 2008's Presidential election enters its home stretch, housing's leaders may get another shot at influence. Most of the CEOs interviewed by Big Builder doubt that $600 rebate checks will do much to help.
"Consumer confidence will still be low, and the money may not be spent at all," says Suresh Gupta, CEO of Orlando, Fla.-based Park Square Homes.
What may matter critically in the weeks and months ahead is how focused industry leaders can get on where a fix for housing needs to fit in the overall economic agenda of a newly-elected administration.
Six CEOs, private and public, talked about what kind of help the U.S. government could lend to the industry and the economy. In their words, presidential possibles might detect an agenda for housing as each attempts to consolidate his or her voting base. Curtain, lights, orchestra.
Sagging consumer confidence and deflation of home prices are two of the biggest problems the industry faces, says Toll. Proposals such as a tax credit for buying a home could go a long way toward improved consumer confidence. Falling home prices are a big danger because, when a homeowner perceives he owes more on a home than he could sell it for, he can lose the will to make payments, causing defaults, which rocket through the debt markets further.
Home buyer tax credit:
"It's the housing market that has the economy in a tail spin. ... The main reason mortgages are going bad is not because people can't pay the mortgage, not because the teaser rates are resetting. ... It's because housing prices are going down. There is no incentive for the guy to continue to pay the mortgage."
Loss Carry Back to 5 Years:
"If a great number of builders crash and burn, that will destroy the confidence further. ... That could set us back all the way to 1929. ... I don't think people realize the seriousness of the problem."
Expand Mortgage Revenue Bonds:
"I'm not sure that the government needs to do that."
Conforming Loan Limits:
"Increasing limits on Fannie and Freddie is a great way to spur the market. The primary impediment to selling homes today and yesterday and last year and two years ago is not the mortgage rate, it's not the availability of funds, it's not the general state of the economy. It's confidence."
Learn more about markets featured in this article: New York, NY.