From the Weekly Standard (in print next week):
Housing Bubble Trouble
Have we been living beyond our means?
WITH NEW HOME SALES DOWN 10.5 percent in February, and with home prices declining for the fourth month in a row, it’s high time for a sober look at the consequences of a major housing correction. The Federal Reserve, Wall Street economists, and other observers of the U.S. economy are closely watching the housing market because it has been a key driver of economic growth over the past several years.
Roughly a quarter of the jobs created since the 2001 recession have been in construction, real estate, and mortgage finance. Even more important, consumers have withdrawn $2.5 trillion in equity from their homes during this time, spending as much as half of it and thus making a huge contribution to the growth the U.S. economy has enjoyed in recent years (consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of GDP).
But consumers cannot keep spending more than they make. Eventually, home prices will flatten, the flood of “cash out” refinancings will become a trickle, and consumer spending will slow, as will job creation in housing-related industries. The big question is this: Will the housing sector experience a soft landing and slow the economy or a hard landing that pushes us into recession?
THE CRUX OF THE DEBATE IS HOUSE PRICES. If the inflated prices are justified by economic fundamentals and sustainable, then the 82 percent increase in mortgage debt since 2000 will probably turn out to be innocuous and the risks to the economy minimal. If, on the other hand, prices are out of whack, painful adjustments lie ahead.
Unfortunately, the weight of the evidence strongly suggests a bubble. The price of the median home is up an inflation-adjusted 50 percent during the last five years, an unprecedented national increase. It is true, as Alan Greenspan and others have observed, that real estate is regional, and much of the country has not experienced significant price gains. However, prices are overextended in enough areas that a real estate correction would have national fallout. The mortgage insurance company PMI estimates that regions accounting for more than 40 percent of the nation’s housing stock are overvalued by more than 15 percent. Other estimates of overvaluation are much higher.
Just as cheerleaders of the high-tech bubble of the late 1990s developed ever more creative explanations for why traditional metrics of valuing stocks no longer applied, the same has been true during the housing bubble. Housing bulls point to immigration, building restrictions, Baby Boomer demand for second homes, and other seemingly plausible justifications for skyrocketing home prices. But examining the value of housing using time-tested and common-sense metrics such as price-to-income and price-to-rent ratios suggest the gains in the bubble areas can’t be explained by economic fundamentals.