From Robert Shiller and the NYT:
WHAT’S the outlook for home prices over the next decade? It’s not easy to tell. We need to confront the basic fact that near the beginning of the 21st century, the market for homes in much of the world suddenly became more speculative than ever.
This enormous housing bubble and burst isn’t comparable to any national or international housing cycle in history. Previous bubbles have been smaller and more regional.
We have to look further afield for parallels. The most useful may be the long trail of booms and crashes in the price of land, particularly of farms, forests and village lots. Those upheavals may give some insights into the present situation, and some guidance for the next decade.
In the 19th century and most of the 20th, speculation in land was a powerful phenomenon. There was little speculative activity around homes, however, which were usually viewed as rapidly depreciating assets whose value was to be found almost entirely in physical buildings, not the land beneath them. Eventually, the buildings were expected to be torn down and replaced, so there was little bubble psychology for housing on any large scale. People generally didn’t think about housing as an investment.
There have been many highly localized land price bubbles in the United States over the last couple of centuries, although bubbles over large areas have been rather rare. Those with the biggest national impact were in the 19th century, when speculators found opportunities that had been created by government land sales and by shifts in land prices set off by construction of canals and railroads. Stories of fortunes in land speculation captured the imagination, and led to bubbles. (That is typically how bubbles form, by titillating the public imagination.)
Ultimately, bubbles are impossible without extreme public enthusiasm. Opinions about housing seem to change in rather trendy ways, but investor enthusiasm for housing has now been down for more than five years — a decline that started well before the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007.
With Karl Case of Wellesley College, who developed the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices with me, I have been surveying opinions of home buyers in the United States on and off since 1988. We have found a fairly steady downtrend since the early-to-mid-2000s in a number of speculative attitudes. On questionnaires, people are less likely to report that they think of housing as an investment, or to express the view that real estate is the “best investment.”
As an investment, in fact, they are more likely to see housing as risky. Although they still have solid expectations of home price increases over the next 10 years — a median of 5 percent annually, in nominal terms — those expectations have been declining and are not nearly as extravagant as they were before the market peak.
IT will take a while for the housing market to recover fully. Still, many people continue to think of housing as an investment, and so it does seem that we are in danger of encountering another whopper bubble someday. Even so, both the history of land bubbles and the slowness of shifts in public opinion suggest that such bubbles will be fairly rare.
Add the new policy restraints, and a new national housing bubble looks even less likely anytime soon.