theory full of hot air
Duncan, senior staff vice president/chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association
of America, wrote this commentary for Bankrate.com.
since the NASDAQ meltdown some folks have been waiting for the next big bad equity
story. Since most equity is found in peoples' homes, that's where pundits have
been focusing. They face disappointment however as they watch and wait for the
"house-price bubble" to burst.
It's not going
to happen -- there isn't one.
There has not been a single year
since World War II in which house prices across the United States have declined;
local markets, yes, but the whole United States, no (see
chart). Homeowners know this intuitively and view housing as a solid, if conservative,
investment. After all, you get to live in your house, you can't live in your stock
portfolio, and you do have to live somewhere. Since there are more and more of
us living in the good old United States, we will need more and more places to
live. And the number of us is growing faster than the number of houses. Ergo,
OK, let's look at the issue a bit more systematically
to see why from the economist's point of view the issue is overblown. I work for
the Mortgage Bankers Association whose members make about 70 percent of all the
home loans in the country, so it is important that you see the logic in the argument
against the "price bubble" to overcome any suspicions of an inherent
bias based on who I work for.
with the bubble
First, let's define the term bubble. The Oxford
English dictionary defines it as "a gas-filled cavity in liquid or in solidified
liquid." One might say it has form but no substance -- the outward appearance
of something substantial, but once the outside is pierced it is revealed to be
based on a false impression. In the case of home prices, the interpretation would
be that current home prices or price increases will be revealed to have been based
on a false impression and when the surface is pierced we will see a substantial
fall in prices.
About the only way an economist can find agreement
with that argument is by discussing the role of expectations in decision making
by consumers and investors. That is to say, consumers and investors might engage
in speculation that prices will continue to rise as they have been (50 percent
over the past six years), thus bidding house prices above the level indicated
by the current supply-and-demand fundamentals. This speculative bidding would
be for the purpose of capturing gains unrelated to their need for housing. To
confirm that this is happening, there would need to be evidence that there was
a growth in the number or share of residential home sales that were sold to purchasers
not intending to live in them. It is difficult to find any confirmation of such
a trend in the current market.
Another way an economist would
accommodate your thought that home prices might unexpectedly fall is if you argue
that interest rates will rise rapidly and far enough to make people stop buying
houses. The economist would call this an affordability issue, not a price bubble.
Roughly nine out of 10 people who buy a house do so by borrowing money. When interest
rates rise, the monthly payment on a given amount of borrowed money rises also
and can exceed the maximum size payment the family budget can support. This can
change the balance between the cost to rent and the cost to buy. The attached
chart shows the recent relationship between average monthly rent and average
monthly after-tax mortgage payments and gives a good picture of why people are
Outsmart rising mortgage
Several strategies can offset the effects of rising interest
rates and keep the housing markets strong. People can use adjustable-rate mortgages
that typically have lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages and therefore
lower monthly payments. Another mortgage product that assists in overcoming the
affordability problem is the interest-only mortgage. Also, the family can adjust
the kind or size of house they are buying or the amount of down payment they are
That said, if interest rates were to rise above 8 percent
in the near term there would definitely be at least a temporary slowing in home
sales and price appreciation though the economist wouldn't call it a price bubble,
but rather an affordability problem.
It is exceedingly hard
to tear an economist away from the concepts of supply and demand when discussing
price changes whether you are discussing houses or oranges. To really convince
the economist that there is a house-price bubble, you will have to convince him
or her that somehow price has decoupled from the intersection of supply and demand.
demand than supply
Housing supply in the United States is growing
slower than housing demand. That means prices will rise; not in every individual
market but across the whole national market.
Supply is growing
more slowly because it is constrained by local growth control ordinances, increased
environmental cost, time requirements for land development and by the fact that
construction lenders have been more conservative recently in lending terms. In
addition, a higher percentage of homes are being built by companies who are owned
by stockholders, which makes them more conservative in attempting to prevent oversupply.
will grow faster because demographic factors like population growth, household
formation rates, immigration, employment growth and income growth are all going
to push demand forward more rapidly.
Contrary to the view
of some observers the "boomers aren't yet done buying." Also, there
were 11 million immigrants to the United States over the past decade that will
create 4 million new home buyers over the next two decades. Recent gains in the
economy's rate of productivity mean that income growth will be strong for probably
the next decade. When placed in the context of conservative supply growth, this
is a recipe for real price increases, not collapse.
Yes, there will almost certainly be some communities
in which they will, perhaps because the biggest employer in the town closes down
thus reducing jobs and demand. Is there any evidence that is will happen across
the United States as a whole? None. The equity in their home is the single largest
source of wealth for the median income family in the U.S and it will remain so
for the foreseeable future. No fear where bubbles are concerned.