Friday, August 16, 2019

July 2019 CPI Inflation

Core inflation has recovered a bit in the last two months, but we remain in the context of relatively low non-shelter inflation and high shelter inflation, averaging out to roughly on-target total core inflation.

I will probably continue to do these updates for a while, but I suspect the context is set, and specific shifts in inflation won't affect things much in the near term.  Inflation isn't likely to shift sharply in either direction, and in the time frame that is important for the Fed right now, noise dominates information.  So, effectively, Fed discretion will rule, although it will frequently be cast in language of inflation or interest rate control.

The context in place seems to be that the Fed will loosen.  Not so much to avoid a bit of a contraction, but not so little as to be greatly disruptive.  Excess shelter inflation is part of that context, but other factors will come into play, too.

Here, I think the 2008 event is informative.  The Fed is somewhat forgiven for allowing NGDP and inflation expectations to drop so sharply because at that time inflation was slightly above target.  This makes inflation seem like an important short term element in Fed decision making.  But, I disagree with that analysis.  Inflation wasn't anywhere near a level that would have led any sane regulator to sit aside as one panic after another struck the economy.  And, even as the Fed did that, the overwhelming criticism of them was that they were even daring to try to stabilize financial markets.  Even today, many commentators explicitly complain that selected economic agents weren't made to suffer enough.  The financial crisis in late 2008 happened because it was popular.  Slightly above target inflation is simply one of several justifications that were used to allow it to happen.  For any reasonable observer with a straightforward goal of maintaining economic stability, none of those justifications were plausible excuses for allowing such economic dislocations to occur.

The reality in late 2008 was that any reasonable monetary or fiscal policy would have caused a rebound in housing prices, as a side effect.  That would have been taken as indefensible.

We don't have the same dramatic setup today, so the stakes aren't as high.  But, similarly, inflation and interest rates will be used to communicate short term monetary shifts even though those shifts will have little to do with either.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Part 12 of my Housing Affordability series at Mercatus

Are Property Taxes Regressive?

The conclusion:
A region that allows ample new supply and imposes higher property taxes is friendlier to households with lower incomes than a region with obstructed housing supply and low property taxes.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

July 2019 Yield Curve Update

The yield curve has taken a sudden turn for the worse.

The Fed's tradition of using interest rates to convey their monetary stance is such a constant source of confusion.  The conversation about yields so often seems to hinge on the idea that the central bank is in full control of interest rates and uses them to make it more or less profitable to borrow and invest.  It baffles me how ubiquitous this sort of idea is in both professional finance and economics.

Recent movements in yields are a great case in point.  It is common to hear this shift described in terms of expectations about Fed rate cuts.  But the whole yield curve shifted down.  This is not a sign that the Fed will be loosening monetary policy more aggressively.  This is a sign that they won't be loosening aggressively enough.  The neutral rate just changed, leaving the Fed behind as a victim of institutional inertia.  That is in contrast to recent times when yields did react to clear signals from the Fed that it was going to be more aggressive.  In those cases, short term rates fell and long term rates increased.

I only update my graph of the adjusted yield curve inversion monthly, so the red dot for July is at about the same spot as it was at the end of June.  Of course, the 10-year rate has dropped 25bp since then.  So, unless some sort of economic or political development greatly improves economic prospects in spite of a tight monetary posture, raising 10 year yields back up, then we are already at a point where, even with short-term rates at zero, the yield curve will be effectively inverted.  This will likely lead to complaints about how the Fed is using QE4 to keep long term interest rates low to boost investment and asset prices, including from many otherwise sensible people who are generously paid to manage other people's assets.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Part 11 of my housing affordability series at Mercatus

Low Property Taxes and Obstructed Housing Supply Are a Bad Mix
"It would seem that raising property taxes would make housing more expensive.  They are, effectively, a tax on materials to build homes.  But the binding constraint to affordable and reasonable housing in twenty-first century America isn’t material.  It isn’t a lack of affordable physical space.  It is the political obstruction to placing those materials in dense urban centers."

With a universal expected market return, lower property taxes and just a small expectation of persistently rising rents can lead to much higher housing prices.  That's the first order effect.  But, as a second order effect, the value of homes as assets that are speculative claims on local political cartels, might mean that lower property taxes will be associated with higher rents.  It seems that higher property taxes might lead to lower quantity demanded, but also lower supply, with a net effect of less housing at higher cost, with cartel real estate owners pocketing the profits.  The political implications of that might change when the oligopolists would otherwise have been middle class pensioner grandparents, but the economic implications don't.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Part 10 of my Housing Affordability series at Mercatus

Property Taxes Can Be a Tax on Monopoly Power.

"If politically maintained monopoly power is going to remain, claiming monopolist profits through taxes is an improvement. The fact that the tax doesn’t affect rents is a sign of efficiency. If rents must be elevated, better that they go to local public services than to the real estate cartel."

The series will continue each Monday with discussion of the effect of various regulations and taxes on housing costs.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Housing: Part 356 - Black Homeownership

Here is a new Bloomberg article on black homeownership.  The title is:
"Black Homeownership Falls to Record Low as Affordability Worsens"

The headline, and the article, are wrong.  Affordability isn't bad and that isn't why black homeownership is falling.

Here is a graph in the article, which also has an incorrect headline.  It says, "Over 25 years, the gap between blacks and whites has widened."  What the graph really shows is that from 25 years ago to 15 years ago the gap was narrowing, and then for the past 15 years it has been widening.

Here is a graph that combines old decennial Census data with the more recent quarterly data to provide a little more historical comparison.

From the Great Depression to the late 1960s, white homeownership rose as a result of Federal programs that explicitly excluded black families.  Then homeownership for black families increased, but then fell back again in the 1980s, for reasons I am not familiar with.  Then, in the late 1990s, it recovered back to the levels of the late 1970s, relative to aggregate US homeownership rates.

Then, homeownership peaked in 2004 for black families as well as for the US in general.  And the drop in ownership since then has been stronger among black families than among others.

To describe these trends with "Over 25 years, the gap between blacks and whites has widened." obscures what is important.  Black homeownership was recovering and expanding when mortgages were more available.  Note, however, that the recovery in ownership peaked near the beginning of the private securitization boom that lasted from roughly 2004 to 2007.  Since then the relative homeownership rate collapsed.

The disparate impact of the recession, the crisis, and the subsequent sharp tightening of lending standards on black households has been strong.  But, who would dare to claim that the pre-crisis housing market was good and that post-crisis lending market has been detrimental?

Here are the Zillow measure of mortgage and rent affordability - the portion of the median household's income required to pay the rent or the mortgage on the median housing unit.  It would be more accurate to say that it has been especially unaffordable not to be a homeowner in recent years.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Housing: Part 355 - Homes and population growth

I noticed that housing units per adult has actually started to level off.  This is interesting because total permits and total starts are still below past averages.

So, maybe the new neutral run-rate for new units is less than 1.5 million annually.  Maybe the need for new units is less acute than I have been saying.

But, there is a problem of causation here.  More people means we need more homes, but also, a lack of adequate housing can lead to less people - both by limiting migration and by limiting family formation.

And, it is true that population growth has slowed.  Before the financial crisis, it tended to run at 1-1.2%.  Since the crisis, it's more like 0.7%.  So, in a way we solved the housing shortage, in part, by reducing population growth.  If this is the new normal, then maybe 1.2 million units a year isn't an unsustainably low peak.  But, if population growth, either through immigration or through family formation, returns to anywhere close to historical norms, then housing starts probably need to catch up a bit and then settle at something closer to 1.6 million units annually.  (Ignore the big drop in housing/adult in 2000.  I haven't taken the effort to try to account for the discontinuity in the data there.  I suspect that mostly that discontinuity comes from an overestimate of the housing stock in the late 1990s, but it isn't central to the main trends I am discussing here.)

Certainly an argument can be made that population growth through family formation has been naturally slowing, so that we shouldn't expect population growth to continue at historical norms.  On the other hand, there are many good reasons to counter that decline with more generous immigration policies.  And, while there is a long term down trend in natural population growth, there was a sharp downshift that appears to have been related to the economic turmoil of the crisis and to the lack of housing growth since then.  Even without immigration, it seems likely that natural population growth has declined more than it otherwise would have after the crisis.

Also, there is always the important signal here of rent inflation, which has persistently run high for the past 25 years and returned to high rates during the post-crisis recovery.  That is not a signal we would see in a country where housing was being depressed by natural declines in population growth.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The latest posts in my Mercatus Housing Affordability Series

The last two posts in my series were:

"Tight Lending Regulations are a Wealth Subsidy".  An excerpt:

Thinking in terms of rental value, public policies and market innovations that lower mortgage interest rates can be broadly beneficial to consumers, even if those benefits don’t accrue to the actual borrowers who use those low rates.  That is because higher mortgage interest rates have a similar effect on price as exclusionary lending standards.  Downward pressure on price creates a rental subsidy for home buyers who don’t require a mortgage.

"Property Taxes Are Rent to a Public Landlord" An excerpt:
If there is concern that the net effects of government policies, in total, favor housing and lead to market volatility, a return to higher levels of property taxation can be a useful tool for countering it.

Writing the series helped clarify my thinking on several issues.  I hope you find some nuggets of interest in it too.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

June 2019 CPI Inflation

Here is my monthly inflation update.  We continue along in the same pattern.  This month there was a bit of a bump in non-shelter inflation, but the trailing 12 month rate remains about 1.1% and shelter inflation remains about 3.4%.

Going forward, I think inflation may become a less important indicator.  The Fed has shifted to a more dovish posture and they are not insisting on holding the target rate at a plateau.  It would be a shock if they don't lower rates this month.  So, I am happy to say that my worst fears appear not to have come to pass.  Monetary policy is on the margin of neutral.  Unless the Fed reverses course, I suspect there will either be a slight contraction or a continuation of the expansion.  For now, I will call that a tentative prediction, but it seems to be where we have moved.

We are probably near the point in time where a tactical long position in fixed income should shift into more of a long position in equities and real estate, either now or over a few months as this plays out.

In terms of broader influences, I'm more worried about nominal growth rates in Australia and Canada than things like the tariff issue, but I'm no expert on those issues.  That's just my hunch.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Squeezing "Unqualified" Borrowers

The latest post in my Mercatus bridge series.

More on how recognizing the key importance of rent as the measure of affordability - for both owners and renters - helps clarify the issue.  Tight lending is making housing less affordable for renters.

Considering this set of circumstances, the idea that housing affordability is getting worse because prices are high and that the solution is even higher interest rates or tighter credit access is a disastrous misreading. It will lead to a vicious cycle of segregation between households that can qualify under today’s standards (and who then can buy ample units at favorable terms) and households that cannot qualify (and who must keep economizing while a large portion of their wages is transferred as rent to the ownership class).

There are two options. Re-opening credit markets to entry-level buyers will return the market to a more equitable equilibrium. Maintaining the market as it is will continue down the path of settling at a new equilibrium where certain households live in smaller, less adequate units, either because of size, amenities, or location.
Please read the whole thing.

Here is the link to the full series.