Thursday, May 28, 2009

Buffett Aide Sokol Says Housing, Economy Aren’t Near Recovery

May 28 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. housing market is nowhere near recovery and signs of stabilization are premature, said David Sokol, a top aide to billionaire investor Warren Buffett who oversees the nation’s second-largest real estate brokerage.

Sokol was among money managers who told an investment conference in New York the economy is still deteriorating and they don’t have a lot of confidence in President Barack Obama’s economic policies.

“We’re not seeing the green shoots,” said Sokol, head of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which owns HomeServices of America Inc. “We don’t see improvement.”

MidAmerican is owned by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and Sokol is considered a possible successor to Buffett as head of Berkshire. Sokol spoke before reports today showed new-home sales posted their second increase in three months during April, and mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures rose to records in the first quarter.

Homes in the process of foreclosure are creating a “shadow backlog” of unsold properties that will continue to hang over the market, Sokol, 52, said in a speech yesterday at the Ira W. Sohn Investment Research Conference in New York.

While official statistics show a 10- to 12-month supply of unsold homes, “we believe the backlog of homes for sale is twice that.”

Balance in 2011

Many people who want or need to sell their homes haven’t put them on the market yet because the outlook for sales has been poor, he said. “It will be mid-2011 before we see the market in balance,” with no more than a six-month backlog, he said.

The National Association of Realtors reported yesterday that the number of previously owned houses on the market in April climbed 8.8 percent to 3.97 million, a 10.2 months’ supply.

Sokol suggested government efforts to ease the crisis are actually drawing out the recovery. “We really need to let the economics work through the system,” he said.

It is still difficult and costly for businesses to borrow, Sokol said, creating “headwinds” for recovery. He predicted the U.S. unemployment rate would rise above 10 percent from April’s 8.9 percent.