Home Prices Stagnate, at Levels Similar to Those of 2003

US home prices, Case-Shiller 10-City index, 1987 to 2011

US home prices continue to stagnate, at levels well below the peak reached in 2006 during the housing bubble. They fell sharply in 2007 and 2008 during the last two years of the Bush Administration and then stabilized under Obama, first rising a bit and then falling back a bit, but with no overall trend so far.  Based on the 10-city composite home price index of S&P / Case-Shiller, the prices of single-family homes in September 2011 were 33% below the peak reached in April 2006.

It is useful to view this in the longer term context, as presented in the graph above.  While home prices are fully a third off their peak, they are still higher than they ever were prior to 2003.  The sharp fall in prices is a reflection of the sharp rise in the middle of the decade, as a bubble built up and policy makers decided not to try to do anything to moderate it.  Indeed, many politicians, as well as many existing homeowners, felt quite good about the rapidly rising prices.

Then the bubble burst, and the consequences for the economy have been clear, as the economy collapsed in the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression.  This was then followed by an anemic recovery, with still high unemployment.  Recovery from such “balance sheet recessions” are normally slow, as the entities with the over-extended balance sheets (mortgage holders in the US; the corporate sector in Japan in the 1990s) seek to hunker down and save their way out of their predicament.  Asset prices recover only slowly at best.

If nothing is done, US home prices are likely to continue to stagnate, and may well fall further.  As indicated above, while prices after the bubble burst fell by a third, they are still only at the level seen in 2003.  Yet between 1997 and 2003 they had already doubled.  That home prices have not now fallen further than simply to 2003 levels is therefore even a bit of a surprise.  They could fall more.  And as seen prior to 1997, there can be long periods when prices are basically just flat.

Those households with negative equity in their homes (commonly referred to as “underwater”) face major difficulties, even if they can afford to make continued payments on their homes.  They cannot refinance at the current low rates for mortgages, unless they can come up with extra cash to bring the mortgage down to 80% (generally) of their current lower home value.  And they cannot sell their house to someone else, perhaps to move elsewhere for a new job, without bringing extra cash to the closing to pay off the remaining mortgage balance.  The housing market remains frozen, and with that, the economy remains in the doldrums.

Unless something major is done, this weak housing market will likely keep the economy in the doldrums.  And there is no reason to believe that there will be a jump in housing prices to levels similar to those at the peak of the bubble, with this then curing the problem of the underwater mortgages.   Rather, a comprehensive program, led by government, will be necessary to restructure these mortgages, to unfreeze this market and allow the economy to recover.

New Home Sales Remain Abysmal, But The Potential Should Be Recognized

New home sale figures for October, recently released, remain abysmally low at just 307,000 sales at an annual rate.  They have fluctuated within only a narrow range over the past year, with no clear trend and no signs to be encouraged by.  What is more interesting is the longer term context.

New home sales in the US fluctuate a good deal, but around a rising trend of 1.0% a year (calculated from a regression over the 1980 to 2010 data).  They reached a fairly stable level of approximately 900,000 housing units a year between 1998 and 2001.  But there was then a bubble between 2002 and 2006, reaching a peak of almost 1,300,000 in 2005, and then crashing to a bit over 300,000 in 2010 and 2011, where it now seems to have leveled off.

Only 300,000 new home sales a year is abysmal and a major drag on the economy.  It is only one-third of the 900,000 level of the early part of the last decade, and less than one-quarter of the levels reached in the bubble years.  But it should also be noted that people need homes, and that that need grows over time due to population growth.  The trend 1.0% growth found in the data is consistent with this.  And with new home construction now far below trend, it will be a significant spur to the economy if and when housing construction recovers.  Brad DeLong has made a similar point in his blog a number of times.  Here is one such post.

Keeping things simple and conservative, let’s assume that new home sales will, for the purposes here and over periods of time, on average equal the number of new homes constructed.  All are eventually sold, with very few exceptions.  And while there are figures available for new housing starts, these are consistently higher than sales for reasons that are not clear, but may reflect homes never completed.  Using the 900,000 units sold a year between 1998 and 2001 as a reasonable norm, and for simplicity not even allow for a rising trend in this figure, one can calculate the excess over the bubble years 2002 to 2006 (the area in blue in the graph) and then the shortfall that has developed over 2007 to 2011 and continues (the area in red).  Based on the figures underlying the graph, the excess during the bubble was 1.1 million units, while the shortfall in the subsequent bust through 2011 was 2.2 million units.  There is therefore now a net shortfall in housing supply of 1.1 million, as the excess over 2002 to 2006 has been more than worked off.  And as long as new home sales and construction remain at only 300,000 a year, that shortfall (relative to a 900,000 per year norm) will be growing by 600,000 housing units a year.

This suggests that a major pent-up demand for homes has built up.  It has not been resolved due to continued problems in the housing market and especially in the housing finance market, with many mortgages underwater and hence do not move, mortgages that remain hard to get by potential new buyers, an overhang of houses not sold, and a foreclosure process that has not worked well.  The market remains close to frozen.

But if these housing market problems could be resolved, so that construction could revert to its previous norms, the stimulus to the economy would be huge.  Assuming simply a return to construction of 900,000 units a year (and hence ignoring what would likely be an overshooting of this for a few years to make up for the net shortfall of recent years), implies construction of an additional 600,000 units a year.  At the average new home price of $221,800 in 2010, the aggregate value of such homes would be $133 billion per year.  This is just short of 1% of GDP.  Most of this would add to GDP as there is some, but only limited, “leakage” through some inputs that are imported (housing lumber, fuel for trucks, etc.).

But there will also be indirect multiplier effects, especially in the current depressed economy.  A reasonable estimate of the multiplier on housing construction would be 2 to 3.  A return of new home construction to previous levels would therefore add 2 to 3% of GDP. With actual GDP currently about 5% below potential GDP (estimate for end 2011 by the Congressional Budget Office, page 12), such an addition from housing construction would bring the economy about half-way back to where it needs to be.  But this will not happen until the market for homes and for home mortgage financing begins to function reasonably well.