Existing home sales surprised the markets by rising 7.4% to an annual rate of 6.54 million units in November, the highest since February 2007, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). That's only 10% below the all-time peak in 2005.
What's more is that house prices, as measured by the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index, rose for the fourth consecutive month in September before stabilizing in October when prices were flat.
The NAR is inevitably convinced that the worst is over and that housing is due for a rapid recovery, and that home prices will take out 2006's peaks some time in 2011 or 2012.
Not so fast, guys!
The recovery in housing has been boosted by just about every artificial means imaginable:
- Interest rates have been kept historically low at 0% – 0.25% for a very long time.
- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the bankrupt behemoths of housing finance, have been bailed out with what amounts to a blank check from taxpayers.
- The Federal Housing Agency (FHA) went on making mortgages with 3% down payments when nobody else was, thus very likely landing taxpayers with another bill for some large fraction of $1 trillion.
- And the government has been handing out cash subsidies for refinancing houses that were about to be repossessed and $8,000 subsidies for first time buyers – now $6,500 for all homebuyers.
Of course it looks like the housing market has recovered! The question is what happens when some of these subsidies are taken away?
Even if we wanted to provide gigantic subsidies to housing finance in every form for evermore, we couldn't afford to. The U.S. government is running trillion dollar deficits, and something has to change. So at some point the feather cushions that have surrounded every aspect of the housing market will be taken away.
To see how far housing might fall, look at the Case-Shiller index's bottom after the last housing bust in 1989-90 (as the 20-city index did not exist back then, we used the 10-city index). The index bottomed in September 1993 – more than two years after the U.S. economy had begun to recover – at a value of 75.81. Nominal gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 109% between the third quarter of 1993 and the third quarter of 2009.
However, the population rose by about 20%, so nominal GDP per capita rose by 74%. (Real GDP per capita rose by 27%, a pretty mangy performance over 16 years.) House prices can be expected to inflate about as fast as nominal GDP per capita, in a large country like the United States where space is not yet at a premium.
Thus the Case-Shiller Index this time around might be expected to bottom at 132 (75.81 x 174%). Its current value is 157, so we can expect a further 16% drop, even if you assume the bottom is no lower than after the milder housing downturn of 1989-90. That bottom will probably be reached around the end of 2011 if the 1990-93 post-recession pattern plays out.
To give you an idea of what that might mean, the Case-Shiller 10-city index passed 132 in June 2002. That means, on average, everybody who has bought a house since June 2002 can be expected to be underwater on the deal when the bottom is reached.
Every mortgage with a 10% down payment made since about April 2003 (when the Case-Shiller index was 147 – 90% of which is 132) would be underwater. Every prime mortgage with a 20% down payment – not that many of these were being made in those years – made after February 2004 would be underwater.
Of course, that's an average. In Dallas, there would probably be few foreclosures beyond those we already have seen, because prices didn't go up so much. On the other hand, in Las Vegas, pretty well every mortgage made since Bugsy Siegel started developing the Flamingo Hotel in 1946 would be kaput.
The housing market is unlikely to turn around while there's so much cheap money about, or while the feds are subsidizing home purchases to such an extent. However, at some point next year, reality will hit the U.S. economy and the federal budget – maybe simultaneously.
The house purchase subsidies are likely to be extended for one more six-month period, through December 2010, over the midterm elections, but not beyond that. At some point, the losses on the FHA mortgage portfolio will become large enough that some of them will have to be taken “on budget.” And at some point, either resurgent inflation or soaring commodity prices will force Ben Bernanke to raise interest rates – or crash the Treasury bond market because he won't do so.
At that point, reality will return to the housing market too.