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Alaska home foreclosure count shows little sign of recession's effects

Home foreclosures are often the hallmark of a down economy, but that doesn't appear to be the case in Alaska, where last year, in the midst of recession, the number of statewide home foreclosures actually fell.

Foreclosures statewide and in specific markets are also at or close to 10-year lows, according to data released Tuesday by the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

"We were looking for impacts of the recession and we're not seeing them here," said Karinne Wiebold, a state labor economist who specializes in real estate. "It's most interesting in that the data are not showing us what we expected to see."

Statewide foreclosures peaked in 2010 at 1,386, but have come down every year since. In 2016, the statewide foreclosure count was 744.

And what does the foreclosure number reveal about Alaska's recession?

The low number of foreclosures is a bit of good news in an oil economy battered by weak crude prices, but the state's economists see the statistic as a lagging indicator for this particular recession. Put another way, foreclosures haven't increased, but they very well could.

Mass foreclosures were a prominent feature of the Great Recession that crippled the world economy in the late 2000s, but that recession was driven in large part by a U.S. housing bubble.

In contrast, trouble in the oil industry is what started the Alaska recession. And, as expected, job losses in the oil industry were what kicked off Alaska's economic slowdown, with effects on people's ability to make mortgage payments still, possibly, looming.

"The numbers are comforting in that the housing market is holding steady, but they should be interpreted with caution because we have lost about 2 percent of jobs and we expect to lose another 2 percent even in the absence of any significant cuts by the Legislature," said Mouhcine Guettabi, an economist at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "That will add up and eventually make its way into the housing market."

Job losses have not translated to foreclosures for several possible reasons, economists said.

Alaska lost about 9,000 jobs between the third quarters of 2015 and 2016, but many of those jobs had been held by renters or nonresidents. Many other positions were vacated by those with the means to continue paying a mortgage, including retirees and higher-earning employees with severance packages.

"It's possible the number of foreclosures has been affected by how good it has been to refinance mortgages," Wiebold said. "When your rates are good, your payments go down and it's easier to weather a storm."

Bill Popp, president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, offered another explanation. The recession that hit Alaska in the mid-1980s laid the foundation for a conservative banking and mortgage industry.

"What we've seen is a much more prudent mortgage industry that did not do a lot of the goofy loans that others have done in the rest of the country," he said.

There are some small signs that foreclosures could worsen in the coming years. In Anchorage and the Palmer recording district, which includes Wasilla and other Mat-Su communities, the number of foreclosures increased slightly between 2015 and 2016.

Notices of default, which are often a precursor to foreclosure, are up ever so slightly statewide, with the greatest increases coming from the Palmer and Kenai recording districts. Notices of default remained essentially flat in Anchorage.

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