August 4, 2008
-- by Dave Johnson and James Boyce
Look what the Republicans have done to our economy by following their core "trickle down" economic ideology, which really means borrow and spend. They have run up a massive debt which combined with no oversight, a near total removal of regulations on corporate conduct, and watched and let Neil Bush run a savings and loan (oh, sorry, that was that other Bush presidency -- when S&L owners and Republican campaign contributors robbed us blind and bribed Senators like John McCain and then got a massive government bailout.)
We have all been hearing a lot about housing prices falling, and about the effect housing prices have on the economy. The impact to date, while real, is actually overstated. Why? Well, housing markets and their impact are the turtle of economics, they happen very very slowly. Prices have to fall and people have to sell, when they sell they, if they get less than they expected, may not spend as much as they would have if they had reaped a huge profit.
Of course, the lack of higher equity is hurting those home equity lines people were tapping like McCain at an open bar. But ask yourself, honestly, how many people do you actually know who have either been forced to sell or have sold and not made a profit? Not that many -- yet. People are still holding out.
Unquestionably the economy is slowing. Consumer debt is massive, companies are cutting jobs, inflation is rising, unemployment is a full percentage point ABOVE where it was a year ago, and with a work force of 200 million plus, that's 2,000,000 newly unemployed Americans.
Just this morning, we saw that planned July Job Cuts skyrocketed to over 100,000 meaning that unemployment will continue to climb, the economic impact of those layoffs won't be felt till mid-fall at the earliest when severance packages run out and the reality becomes apparent, new jobs are hard to come by.
But now the time is arriving when we will start to see and feel the real impact of the slowing economy -- layoffs will pick up over the next year and the forecast is for increasing and increasing unemployment, it almost surely will be another point or more higher next year than it is now.
Slowing economies manifest themselves in many ways. But the most prominent is in the corresponding fall in housing prices. In every modern recession, the fall in housing prices follows the economy slowing down. What we have yet to see is the falling economy's effect on housing prices. So if you think prices have already dropped, and might even be reaching a bottom, we think it's the other way around: prices are about to start dropping.
Even Alan Greenspan agrees with us. Greenspan Says Housing Prices Not Yet Near Bottom
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said falling U.S. home prices are "nowhere near the bottom'' and the resulting market turmoil isn't showing signs of abating.
How can this be?
How can prices that have fallen 25% in Los Angeles year over year be about to start falling? Well, because unlike every other real estate boom of the past century, this past boom was, in fact, a boom and a bubble. This numbers below, from the Case-Schiller Housing Index showcase that and how the first bubble may have popped, the excess speculation bubble, but the underlying bubble remains, and now will begin to deflate.
Prices in San Francisco were set to an index of 100.00 in January of 2000.
By January 2004 prices had jumped to 155.93, a massive jump by historical standards. This alone is a real estate bubble.
By January 2007, they had already softened a bit but still were at 211.78. This is the second bubble.
Now the index stands at 162.70. Still up 60% since January 2000.
The prices have lost some of the home equity / no money down madness bubble, but have let to be impacted by the slowing economy. And they will be
How far will they go down? Well, economics is ruled by larger trends and post bubble, prices eventually revert to the historical mean.
For example in the ten years from January 1987 to January 1997, prices increased 22%. And, fyi, that's after inflation, meaning a house purchased for $400,000 in January 1987 was actually worth less, in real dollar terms, in 1997, ten years later.
That's not a rant, that's a fact, all of these prices don't include inflation.
In real dollar terms, house prices really don't escalate much. Some studies of ONE HUNDRED YEAR time frames of the US Market show, in real dollar terms, that house prices remain flat.
How can that possibly be?
Well, we've been inundated with ten years of powerful powerful advertising messages that tell us, "housing prices always go up."
We borrowed money and spent it like good Republicans, because housing prices always go up.
We just know we can buy more and more because housing prices always go up.
But they don't.
So how can you estimate what the actual value of a house in San Francisco really is? How far can they fall? Another 40% to historical norms of growth? More? Well, Dave recently calculated how far prices in the San Francisco Bay Area could fall using three different methods.
The first was the rent to price ratio. With this method you take the average rent and calculate the amount of money you need to put into a decent investment to make the same amount. For example, if you are clearing about $833.33 per month ($10K oer year) from a rental property unit (remember to account for maintenance and property taxes and something for your time...) then the price of the property would be around $100,000 for a 10% return ($10K is 10% of $100K) and $200,000 for a 5% return (sufficiently higher than a CD pays right now).
So if houses in your area are renting for about $1400-1500 per month this is a rough way to tell that similar houses might be worth around $150K at best. If you double that and they rent for $2800-3000 then house prices would be $300K. And those prices assume that rental prices are not dropping.
James lives in a rental house in Boston which at market peak might have sold for $800,000 or $900,000 but now rents for $2,400. What does the landlord clear? Not $28,000 because he pays the taxes so more like $20,000. If you had $400,000 in the bank would you be happy with 5% return? Perhaps. But that's the highest amount you can estimate the house is worth in the market. And guess what? 10 years ago, the house was worth about $350,000. So it actually is about the right value.
The next method involved the average person in the area's income affording an average priced property. Look around at prices in your area, and average wages. At what price can the average person (or husband-wife) (or husband-husband/wife-wife in Dave's California and James' Massachusetts) buy a house? Right: uh-oh.
The third method is to look at the historic mean plus inflation. When prices triple in a few years, then when they correct they have to fall to 1/3 of the peak (plus inflation). It's just the way it is.
When Dave calculated these for the Bay Area all three methods came out the same and showed that prices can still fall as much as 30-40%. We say "can" but an economist might say "should."
If it falls 30% from that index where it is now, it only drops to 112. Can't happen? Well, remember that 1987 - 1997 DECADE, it was up 22%. Now, after 8 years, it would be up 12% on that index. That's pretty normal growth to be honest.
And what is cumulative inflation of the past 8 years? Let's make it easy on ourselves, and we'll say an average of 3%. The 100 Index goes from 100 to 126 with the combined effect of eight years of Inflation at 3%.
You see, housing is not the perfect "always goes up" investment. And it is clear that the housing prices in San Francisco and many more places could have 30% - 40% to go down from where they are today.
But, you guessed it, the news is actually worse than this. First, there is a huge amount of excess housing inventory on the market. So this needs to be factored into your thinking about where prices can go. On top of the need for prices to revert to the mean, these extra houses have to find buyers before prices can stabilize. This is supply and demand, nothing more, nothing less.
Next is the effect of gas prices. Many, many housing developments have gone up in areas that are far from city centers and far from non-automobile transportation like light rail or even buses, and buyers are going to be factoring the price of gas now. Along with this, the price to heat and cool the monster homes that developers tended to build will become a consideration and will reduce demand for these houses.
Another factor is that the "boomers" are starting to retire, and will be selling the larger homes in which they raised their families or ended their careers, looking for apartments, condos and even senior facilities. This will also reduce demand.
And, just as the price of energy was not considered when these houses were designed and built but has lately become a factor, one day the implications of global warming will start to sink in. In particular, is the house sufficiently above sea level? Is it located near an area that is experiencing increased fire danger? LOTS of Californians are starting to think about these issues.
But if you think we're wrong, and the above factors are non factors. Consider the recent decline in the stock market, General Motors and their 15.5 billion dollar quarterly loss, that's the recession that's here.
This is the big one: A falling economy always forces housing prices to fall. Even when housing prices are not in a bubble to start with a recession forces prices down. And this hasn't even started acting on housing prices yet -- the falling prices we have seen are not because the economy is slowing, they are causing the economy to slow. The slowing economy will make this worse as people are laid off around the country. The foreclosures we are seeing today are not the result of people losing their jobs, but they are causing people to lose their jobs. THEN the foreclosures that come FROM people losing their jobs will start.
There are no, none, nada, zilch factors that we see driving any hope for a "bottom" in housing prices any time soon.
Thanks Republicans for ignoring the country's problems for so long, refusing to regulate the financial companies, refusing to address the need to find alternative energy sources, refusing to fund mass transit alternatives and refusing to provide oversight and enforcement of our laws. Thanks for bringing us to where we are today.
They borrowed and spent. We borrowed and spent and drove the housing prices up through a double bubble. One bubble may have popped. The next one will soon.
Post-Script: We worked on this post last week and over the weekend. This morning, The New York Times has this article: Housing Lenders Fear Bigger Wave Of Defaults. It echoes many of our arguments in this piece.
Posted by Dave and James at August 4, 2008 11:55 AM
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