Home builder Toll Bros. Inc. coupled its fourth-quarter earnings announcement today with a plea for federal action to push fixed-rate mortgages down to a buyer-stimulating 4.5 percent.
For the quarter ended Oct. 31, the Horsham builder of luxury homes said its losses totaled $78.8 million, or 49 cents a share, including $175.9 million worth of pretax write-downs - a bit better than the year-earlier loss of $81.8 million, or 52 cents a share, on $314.9 million in write-downs.
Excluding write-downs, profit totaled 23 cents a share.
Revenue fell to $698.9 million from $1.17 billion a year earlier, more than $7 million higher than the preliminary results of $691 million that Toll released Nov. 11.
Chief executive officer Robert I. Toll said he supported an idea being considered by the government to guarantee mortgage-backed securities, which would bring rates down to 4.5 percent from the current 5.53 percent.
Toll said he believed the federal government should go further, however, and sweeten the pot with a $20,000 tax credit per home buyer.
The decision by the Federal Reserve to spend up to $600 billion to buy Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt and mortgage-backed securities "was a positive first step, and combined with increasing affordability resulting from price declines, will increase consumer demand," Toll told investors and analysts today. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are the government-backed companies that buy and guarantee home mortgages.
"We've been in this down market for 31/3 years," he said. "We need to overprime rather than underprime the pump because when you underprime, you don't get much water."
Houses are more affordable than they have been in a long time, Toll said, so a further initiative - lower rates and the $20,000 tax credit that he proposed - would increase affordability and soak up a lot of inventory.
Toll said that until the economic meltdown of October, "there were preliminary signs of stability" that led the company to believe fourth-quarter 2008 would be close to par with the same period of 2007.
"The longer the year went, the worse it got," Toll said.
With ample cash reserves and 14,000 lots ready to build on once the market turns, Toll is upbeat about his company's future, he said. But, unless the government acts decisively, the pervading lack of confidence could be overwhelming.
The company declined today to provide financial guidance for 2009.
Chief financial officer Joel H. Rassman did say that it is estimating delivery of 2,000 to 3,000 homes in fiscal 2009 at an average delivered price of $600,000 to $625,000 per home.
The average price in fiscal 2008, when it delivered 2,927 homes, was $664,000.
Net signed contracts for the fourth quarter slid 27 percent, to $266.7 million from $365.3 million, while backlog fell 54 percent, to $1.33 billion from $2.85 billion. The cancellation rate dipped to 30.2 percent from 38.9 percent a year earlier, but rose from 19.4 percent in the third quarter.
Bruce Toll, chairman of Toll Bros., also is chairman of Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., owner of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com.