My turn: Alaska economy will be OK

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2008

Alaska is a safe haven in the U.S. housing market. Investments in homes in Alaska appreciated nearly 2 percent in 2007 and nearly 9 percent in 2006.

With an avalanche of bad news in national housing, busy Alaskans could miss this good news. Fear in the national market could damage our stable Alaska market, so consumers need beware. A national study by PMI ranked Alaska in the lowest risk (2 percent) in the nation for a potential decline in house values. Reversing the telescope means a 98 percent chance of continuing property appreciation.

Alaska contractors wisely cut back on new construction last year and thankfully did not overbuild our market. Inventory selection is the best in years. Marketing takes longer in the high priced end, but overall the market is in balance.

Outside consumers see the impact of overbuilding (Las Vegas), higher energy costs (Northeast) and the subprime wild lending mistakes in California and Florida. As a mortgage underwriter for 30 years, I am delighted that our market held to the safe lending practices of Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Affairs and conventional guides.

The great news is that FHA just raised the Alaska single-family loan limit 62 percent, from $214,000 to $347,500 providing most Alaskans a continued stable means of buying or refinancing with low interest and low or no down payments. Limits for duplexes rose to $444,850, triplexes to $537,750 and fourplexes to $668,250. The VA limit is $625,500 and applies to one to four family housing.

Republican Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young demanded these new Alaska FHA limits. FHA is critical since these loans can now replace what subprime loans were closed here. FHA/Alaska Housing Finance Corporation loans are not FICO dictated, so the potential of defaults in the Alaska markets can be greatly reduced with higher FHA limits.

Thanks to Ted, Lisa and Don and the Bush administration for a critical save for Alaska housing. Alaska and Hawaii now have FHA limits well above most other states.

In business cycles, our local economy goes counter-cyclical to the national economy. Think of the price of oil as the plank on a teeter-totter. As the price of oil rises, our economy rises, with a lot more money for jobs, construction and eating out. Alaska's economy is moving up with the price at $110 barrel. On the other hand, if the price of oil tanks to $10 as in the mid-1980s, we hit the dirt. Economists are predicting high oil prices for the foreseeable future. The reason is that governments, not companies, control 80 percent of oil reserves. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Libya are eight of the top 10 in reserves and therefore control the price.

Alaska consumers should be economic observers. Start by watching the new hires to see the explosion in local engineering jobs. For an even stronger hint, look at our Legislature.

Legislators funded nearly $3 billion in the capital budget. That's mainlining adrenaline to the construction sector. This is the first wave of a construction boom that shortly will have every able-bodied man or woman or teenager, who wants to, swinging a hammer. The Alaska Department of Labor publishes excellent information on jobs, sector by sector, in Alaska Economic Trends. Get it free at labor.state.ak.us/trends/.

With construction strong, continued growth in tourism, a cash-rich oil patch, expanding air freight and military and a big retail expansion underway, conservative projections of slow growth may be understated. We should be revving up our trade and university training programs, especially for engineers, managers and construction workers. Unions have a huge job in training replacements for the large number of Alaska tradesmen soon to retire.

For those who study the economic tea leaves, opportunities abound. For Alaskans not frightened by gloomy national economic and housing news, their knowledge will be rewarded. No recession is happening here. Alaskans can calmly and with confidence plan their future. As the price of oil stays above $100 - and it will - we're going to have that next Alaska economic boom.

These are exciting times for Alaskans.

• Jim Crawford is a real estate developer and commercial mortgage banker. He and his wife, Terri, live in Eagle River. He may be contacted at C21jcrawford@aol.com.



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