(Now a return to bubbly peak prices? That’ll take a while)
From the NY Times:
Ernest Markey lost his stone-cutting business in 2009. He then sold his home for half a million dollars less than its value at the peak of the housing bubble and moved with his wife, Marie, to a smaller home in a less affluent suburb. They gave up two new cars and bought one. Used.
The Markeys have since patched together a semblance of their old life, opening a new stone-cutting shop. But they do not expect that they will ever recover financially from the loss of equity in their old home.
“For two years I kept thinking that things would get better,” Mr. Markey, 51, said as he stood in his empty store on a recent weekday. “Now I think the future doesn’t look so good.”
The United States has a confidence problem: a nation long defined by irrational exuberance has turned gloomy about tomorrow. Consumers are holding back, businesses are suffering and the economy is barely growing.
There are good reasons for gloom — incomes have declined, many people cannot find jobs, few trust the government to make things better — but as Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, noted earlier this year, those problems are not sufficient to explain the depth of the funk.
That has led a growing number of economists to argue that the collapse of housing prices, a defining feature of this downturn, is also a critical and underappreciated impediment to recovery. Americans have lost a vast amount of wealth, and they have lost faith in housing as an investment. They lack money, and they lack the confidence that they will have more money tomorrow.
Many say they believe that the bust has permanently changed their financial trajectory.
“People don’t expect their home to regain value, and that’s really led to a change in consumer attitudes about the economy that we’ve just never seen before,” said Richard Curtin, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan who directs its Survey of Consumers. The latest data from the survey, released Friday by Thomson Reuters, shows that expectations for economic growth have fallen to the lowest level since May 1980.
Economists have only recently devoted serious study to how a decline in housing prices affects consumer spending, not least because this is the first decline in the average price of an American home since the Great Depression. A 2007 review of existing research by the Congressional Budget Office reported that people reduce spending by $20 to $70 a year for every $1,000 decline in the value of their home.
This “wealth effect” is significantly larger for changes in home equity than in the value of other investments, such as stocks, apparently because people regard changes in housing prices as more likely to endure.
A recent paper by Karl E. Case, an economics professor at Wellesley College, and two co-authors estimated the decline in home prices from 2005 to 2009 caused consumer spending to be $240 billion lower in 2010 than it otherwise would have been. That figure is equal to about 1.7 percent of annual economic activity, enough to be the difference between the mediocre recent growth and healthy growth. And it does not include all the other effects of the housing crash, including the low level of new home construction, that are also weighing on the economy.