The unthinkable future: an economy without a real estate bubble

The Coming Housing Crash

Dean Baker July 31, 2006

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer.

All the economists who missed the stock bubble—this is almost all economists—are just about to be embarrassed again. Several reports released this week provide the strongest evidence yet that the housing bubble may finally be deflating.

Sales of new and existing homes are both down more than 10 percent from their peaks last year. Mortgage applications are down 20 percent. Sale prices have barely risen from the level of last year, and are actually down after adjusting for inflation. Inventories of new and existing homes both stand at record levels, and the vacancy rate for ownership units has also hit a new high.

This is a very different picture from a year ago, when housing was considered the best investment around. At that time, homes in the hottest markets would routinely sell the day they came on the market for more than the asking price.

The result of this frenzy was an unprecedented run-up in house prices.

Ordinarily, house prices rise at roughly the same rate as other prices. Nationwide, house prices stayed virtually even with the overall rate of inflation from 1950 to 1995. However, in the last 10 years they rose by more than 50 percent, after adjusting for inflation. This created more than $5 trillion in housing bubble wealth.

This bubble sustained the economy through the 2001 recession and provided the basis for the recovery. The housing sector directly employs more than 6 million people in construction, mortgage issuance and real estate. The indirect effect of the bubble was even larger, as people took advantage of the rapidly growing value of their homes to borrow huge amounts of money. This borrowing binge supported rapid consumption growth in a period of weak wage and job growth. It also pushed the U.S. savings rate into negative territory for the first time since the beginning of the great depression. But, it was inevitable that the bubble would eventually collapse. The record run-up in housing prices led to record rates of housing construction. With population growth slowing, the country was building homes far more rapidly than the market could absorb them. At some point, excess supply will put downward pressure on prices.

The weakening of the housing market was further assisted by an entirely predictable rise in mortgage interest rates. The Federal Reserve Board deliberately pursued a low interest policy to help the economy recover from the stock crash, pushing interest rates to their lowest level in 50 years. With inflation picking up steam due to the oil price spike, higher import prices, weaker productivity growth, and a stronger labor market, interest rates are rising back to more normal levels.

The exact course going forward will depend to a large extent on how rapidly interest rates rise, but the basic plot is easy to see. With housing construction still far outpacing the growth in households, there will be a further build-up of inventories. In addition, many people who had been holding homes in anticipation of price rises will rush to sell, now that the market is headed downward. The supply of housing will be increased further by duress sales by people who cannot afford the jump in monthly payments on their adjustable rate mortgages. In addition, the rapidly rising foreclosure rate means that many financial institutions will be auctioning off repossessed homes.

The increase in mortgage delinquencies and defaults is likely to put considerable pressure on financial institutions that are heavily involved in home mortgages. Given the poor quality of many recent loans, some collapses of major financial institutions are virtually inevitable.

The decline in housing prices will sharply limit the extent to which people can borrow against their home to support their consumption. This will cause savings to rebound from their current negative rates to more normal levels—at 6 to 8 percent of disposable income—but will be associated with a sharp falloff in consumption.

Together these effects virtually guarantee a recession, and probably a rather severe recession. Even worse, there is no easy route to recovery from a recession that results from a collapse of a housing bubble, just as there was no easy route to recover from the stock crash induced recession of 2001.

Greenspan used the housing bubble to recover from that crash, because he saw no other mechanism. Unless Bernanke can find some other bubble to inflate, the recovery may be a long slow process. It took Japan almost 15 years to recover from the crash of its stock and housing bubbles.

The crash and post-crash world will not be pretty. Millions of people will lose their jobs and their homes. Unfortunately, the economists who led us down this path are not likely to be among the ones who suffer severe consequences.