Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Housing: Part 336 - Incomes and the Housing Market

Long-time readers have probably seen some version of this a number of times, but I have been poking around in the awesome Zillow data, and I don't think I have quite done this before.  I have posted individual cities before, but here, I have run regressions of MSA income against rent, prices, and various combinations of these measures.  I am trying to get a systematic time series representation of the importance of income on the housing market.  Here I have used the largest 64 MSAs.

In cross-sectional regressions against MSA median household income, from the 1990s to 2005, income became a much stronger predictor of both MSA median rents and MSA median Price/Rent.  It remains as strong a predictor today as it was in 2005.

Part of what has happened is that income has become a more important factor in MSA housing markets, and part of what has happened is that variance in incomes among MSAs has increased over time.

In the following graphs, the blue line is the US median.  The red line is the expected level for a city with median household income 1 standard deviation above the US median.  The green line is the expected level for a city with median household income 1 standard deviation below the US median.

There is a graph showing rents over time, price/income over time, and mortgage affordability over time.  This isn't news to any readers here, but:

1) The bubble wasn't driven by low-income markets.  Mortgage affordability was steady in low-income cities from 1995 to 2005 while it shot up nearly 50% in high income cities.

2) Whatever is causing housing starts to top out now, it sure as heck isn't high mortgage rates.  Mortgage affordability in low-income cities is well below any pre-crisis level.



The thing about low mortgage rates is that a low interest environment actually has some redistributive qualities.  Think of the housing market.  Home prices are somewhat sensitive to long term real interest rates.  So, when rates are low, people with wealth must pony up larger sums to purchase a home.  But borrowers shouldn't really care so much about the price.  If they can borrow cheaply, their liabilities and assets get matched up, and they can take out a mortgage with low payments and start to accumulate equity.  (Obviously, buyers must be careful about purchasing homes in low rate environments if they may need to sell the home soon when rates are higher, etc.)  But, this redistribution can't really happen if mortgage rates are low because there are obstacles to lending that correlate with socioeconomic status.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Discounted Pre-Orders for "Shut Out"

"Shut Out: How a Housing Shortage Caused the Great Recession and Crippled Our Economy" is now available for pre-order.  It will be ready to ship in January.

Great news: Enter this code on the Rowman & Littlefield site for a 30% discount: 4S18MERC30

If you know anyone who might be interested in the book, this is a good chance to get it at a better price: $28 instead of $40.



Monday, December 3, 2018

Yield Curve Update

I have written previously about the yield curve.  It appears to me that as interest rates get lower, there is an option value embedded in long term rates because of the zero lower bound.  That means that it is harder for the curve to invert at lower rates.

I suspect this comes from my "Upside down CAPM" way of thinking.  There is a relatively stable expected return on at-risk assets like corporate equity, and fixed income is a way to trade off some of those expected returns in exchange for cash flow certainty.  So, a real 10 year yield of 1% is really a payment of about 6% subtracted from the expected real yield on corporate equities of 7%.  Low real rates are a sign of risk aversion.  They are not stimulative.  It seems that others view them as stimulative.  They are wrong.  And, this gives them a false signal about the yield curve.  It makes it look like an inverted yield curve is less dangerous at lower interest rates, because the low rates are seen as stimulative.  But, an inverted curve at low rates is actually more dangerous, not less dangerous.

Here is a graph of the yield curve slope, my adjusted slope, and forward changes in the unemployment rate.

We have been treading right along the edge of "adjusted" inversion since 2016.  It seems to me that at this point in the recovery, the long term interest rate is a simple and important signal.  If the Fed can keep the yield curve spread between 0% and 1% (or, if my claim that an adjustment is necessary is accurate, then the spread now should be between about 0.75% and 1.75%), then that seems like a great first step in thinking about monetary policy through an interest rate lens.

My main concern is that if my adjustment is accurate, a positive yield curve of 0.5% or so is actually equivalent to an inversion, and even people on the lookout for an inversion won't notice it until it is too late.  The expected December rate hike puts us into inversion territory, in that case.  I have been early to this worry, and was surprised by rising long term interest rates, so you may want to take this with a grain of salt.  But, it seems like something worth watching.  If the unadjusted yield curve inverts, it seems unlikely that the Fed will accommodate nearly quickly or strongly enough.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Housing: Part 335 - Homebuyers are hedgers, not speculators

I did get a chance to look at the paper I wrote about in yesterday's post.  They do present reasons for why credit conditions were looser in 2005 than the raw SLOOS survey numbers would suggest, and they have other measures of credit markets that suggest a more symmetrical measure of credit conditions before and after the bubble and bust.  They do not show any regressions that I see that only include the boom time, which is the source of my dis-satisfaction.  But, there are probably some correlations in the paper that would still be statistically significant in the pre-2006 data.

So, I stand by my initial reaction, though I suspect the authors would have some responses that would require more detailed critiques than I offered in the post.

In any case, upon looking at the paper, I realized that there was another chart that offers some food for thought.  This is from the University of Michigan's Survey of Consumers.
One of my reactions to papers like this is that there is an extreme case of publication bias on these issues.  At some point, if there are 1,000 papers published on the question of whether credit was an important causal factor in changing home prices and 5 papers on whether supply constraints were, then the consensus is destined to settle on a conclusion that credit was the important causal element.  It's sort of a meta-level exercise in p-hacking.

Another area where the rhetorical presumptions lead to the conclusions is the choice of questions to ask in consumer surveys.  You can choose to survey home buyers or home sellers.  And you can choose to ask them whether they think rents are going up or whether they think prices are going up.  Without changing the actual beliefs of the respondents, the choice of questions and the set of responders can create a deterministic conclusion.

For instance, home buyers may bid prices up because they are seeking a rent hedge, but if surveyors only ask them if they think prices are going up, not if rents are going up, then those buyers will appear to be speculators rather than hedgers.

And, that is what is interesting about this U of M data.  It includes a question about expected home prices, and expected rising prices are never an important factor for potential buyers (the red line).  Furthermore, there is no relationship between whether home prices are seen as low (green line) and whether prices are expected to rise.  If anything, when potential buyers think it is a buyer's market because prices are low, they tend to expect prices to remain low.

In other words, potential buyers are clearly hedgers, not speculators.  They don't see low prices as an opportunity to capture capital gains.  They see low prices as an alternative to renting.  So many analyses of the housing market ignore rental value and treat the market as a purely cyclical and speculative activity.  Highly respected analysts and economists sometimes talk about housing as if the value of the investment is entirely a product of capital gains rather than rental income value.  In reality, in most locations, in real terms, rental income value is the overwhelming source of value for homeowners.  Actual households seem to understand that, even if only subconsciously.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Housing: Part 334 - Credit supply and the housing bubble.

Tyler Cowen links to a new paper today, with this note: "Credit conditions really did matter for the housing bubble." (HT: Tyler)

I haven't looked at the paper yet, but I have looked at a set of slides, here.

My basic point of view here is:

1) Of course credit conditions matter.  This is standard finance.  Credit provides liquidity, and less liquid securities sell at a discount.  But, this is an asymmetric relationship in standard finance.  Liquidity doesn't lead to over-priced assets.  It just leads to asset prices that reflect the market rate of return with a lower liquidity discount.  One reason that homes are a good investment for many households is that liquidity is very constrained.  Transactions costs are high and they must be purchased as a whole, not piecemeal.  Returns on homeownership are highly correlated with the length of tenure, where these costs can be amortized over longer periods.  Developments that reduce the costs associated with those problems should increase home prices.

2) The outcome of the housing bubble and bust matches standard financial expectations.  Prices during the boom were as sensitive to long term real interest rates as we should expect them to be, highly sensitive to local rent inflation trends that were the result of a supply shortage, and sensitive to credit supply where the supply shortage had pushed prices high enough to create obstacles to conventional funding.  Credit supply is an ingredient here, but it is secondary to supply constraints.

3) The problem with analysis of the housing bubble and the financial crisis is that the notion that there was an unsustainable bubble that was destined to collapse was canonized before it was established empirically.  So, evidence that explains the bust is taken as evidence that explains the boom, and vice versa.  But, if the bust was not inevitable, then correlations during the bust don't tell us anything about the boom.  This goes back to points 1 and 2.  The bust is certainly explained largely by a negative credit shock, but this is an asymmetric relationship.  From that, it doesn't necessarily follow that a boom had been created by a positive credit shock.

If I get a chance to see the full paper, I will be happy to retract my comments here.  But, these slides associated with the paper do not appear to avoid these issues.

Here is a graph of credit standards from the slides.

Not only is the relationship between liquidity and yields or prices asymmetrical, but in this particular case, the scale of the negative shock was far greater than the scale of any other shift in lending standards.  The relationship between credit standards and home prices from 2006-2010 will dominate any statistical analysis here.

So, given my priors, what I would like to see from an analysis like this is the relationship for the period up to 2005 or 2006 and the relationship for the period after 2006 or 2007.

Here is a table of results from the slides.  They run regressions from 1991-2017, 2005-2013, and 2007-2017.  Elsewhere, they use 2000-2010.  This is unsatisfying.  There is a clear trend break to a negative shock that starts in 2006.  There is no analysis of the relationship during the boom that doesn't include that period.  For someone who looks at this with the standard presumption that the boom and bust are necessarily related, this might seem like more evidence that a bubble was largely due to loose credit.  I would like to see the regression from 1991-2005.

Here is a chart comparing the one year change in real home prices to the trend in credit standards.  The asymmetrical relationship is clear here.  I have not precisely replicated the regressions shown in the slide.  I have simply done regressions of the two measures shown in my chart.  For the periods analyzed in the slide, I find similar, strong correlations as the authors do over the periods they use.  For the period from 1991-2005, I find no correlation.

When I see the paper, I will update regarding whether this is addressed there.  In the meantime, this seems like another paper that found that collapsing credit markets were highly correlated with the housing bust and concluded that loose credit caused the boom...which is a shame, because the conclusion that does clearly follow from this data - that a negative credit shock led to a housing bust and a financial crisis - is the conclusion that should be motivating current public policy and retrospectives about the crisis.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Housing: Part 333 - David Beckworth interviews Robert Kaplan

David Beckworth recently interviewed Robert Kaplan from the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank (transcript).  They discussed many interesting things regarding monetary policy.  There were a couple of items that I thought might be interesting to get into here.

Here is one spot:

Robert Kaplan: ...The nominal GDP targeting has a lot of appeal in that it takes into account inflation. It takes into account growth. The other thing is we are a very highly leveraged country. It's nominal GDP that services our debt.
David Beckworth: That's right.
Robert Kaplan: In other words, you need to generate nominal GDP to service the debt. There are some challenges though with this approach and others, which I actually would like to see us debate.
What's an example? How to explain nominal GDP targeting, in that there's a catch‑up mechanism in nominal GDP targeting and a lot of other aspects that I think are not going to be easy to communicate. The good news about the current framework is it's relatively straightforward to communicate.

This seems true, on the surface, but I think the more important point is that, in a way, NGDP targeting really wouldn't require communication.  How can I say that?  Well, what I'm thinking of is the countless conversations today about whether the Phillips Curve is useful, whether inflation trends will reverse or accelerate, whether expanding credit is feeding "overheating", etc.  Think of the millions of hours of debate and analysis that go into developing or forecasting Federal Reserve policy choices and their consequences.  The problem with the current dual mandate is that there is too much communication, and all the communication we could muster will never lead to consensus or certainty about near term economic activity.

With a functional nominal GDP targeting regime, there would be little to communicate.  And, what a relief that would be!

The following excerpt is more to the point of the focus of this blog - credit markets and the financial crisis.  As David points out, even this conversation would be less salient in an NGDP targeting world.  Management and regulation of credit markets wouldn't be so important if it wasn't an important ingredient in sudden negative NGDP shocks.  Kaplan's response to that notion is a window into the problem of seeing the housing bubble as a result of excess credit rather than a shortage of housing supply.

Robert Kaplan: If you look at the household sector in this country, the household sector was extremely leveraged. Meaning if you took household debt divided by gross domestic product for the households, there was a very high degree of leverage.
The reason we didn't notice it is if you looked at household debt relative to asset values, it actually didn't look excessive, back to home prices. What the housing crisis exposed is a lot of households were dramatically over‑leveraged, but they were comforted by the fact that there were easy mortgage conditions and home prices were very high.
Obviously, I don't need to remind people when the housing sector collapsed, all of a sudden, the household sector, it was clear, were very highly leveraged. They've spent the last eight or nine years deleveraging.
I think one of the lessons also, which relates to mortgage availability and so on, was we've got to watch the health of the household sector. Even with that, the aggressiveness on mortgage offerings were probably the tip of the iceberg.
It's all the securitizations upon securitizations upon securitizations of those mortgage obligations which magnified those excesses. If we didn't have all the securitizations on top of this aggressive mortgage lending, it still would have been painful, but it wouldn't have been anywhere near as painful as what ultimately happened.
David Beckworth: This goes back to the point you made earlier about nominal GDP targeting. Again, in a different world, a counterfactual world where we did have a nominal GDP level targeted, this would have made that crash a whole lot nicer or less severe.
Robert Kaplan: Truthfully, I wasn't at the Fed. I've been at the Fed only three years. I actually probably have a slightly different take. I think there's a number of things we do at the Fed. One of them is monetary policy, but another big one is macroprudential policy.
I think if you don't have good macroprudential policy, it's very difficult to run a sensible...It makes monetary policy harder. I think we need to do both. You could debate, and I've been part of those debates, to question monetary policy leading up to the crisis, approaches for monetary policy.
I think if you don't have good macroprudential policy for, again, stress testing, monitoring of the non‑bank financials, I think it makes it very hard to avoid instability.
David Beckworth: That's a fair point. If you did have those imbalances build up, let's say, for the sake of argument, you did have that leverage, I think the point you made earlier is that a nominal income target, a nominal GDP target that would make the unwinding of that leverage much more manageable. Is that fair?
Robert Kaplan: Listen, what I've learned is if the household sector gets over‑leveraged, you've got to accept it's going to take a number of years for households to deleverage. They're not like companies, who can sell assets, raise equity, restructure, restructure their debt. Households can't do that.
I think the trick is a little bit of prevention. I think we want to get into a situation where we monitor the household sector more carefully and try to take steps to maybe moderate excessive debt growth at the household sector relative to income. 

Kaplan's comments reflect what I think is considered an uncontroversial set of stipulations:
  • Excessive credit led to home prices and household debt that were bloated.
  • When home prices collapsed, households were left with the excessive debt.
  • Deleveraging from that debt slowed down the recovery.
The solutions to these stipulated risks are:
  • Prevent household debt from rising.
  • Prevent excessive use of multi-level securitizations and financial derivatives.
First, I'll point out a bit of a contradiction here.  Multi-level securitizations and credit default swaps on those securitizations were developed in order to create securitizations that didn't require new mortgages.  High household debt and excessive complex securitizations and derivatives are substitutes, not complements.  They didn't additively lead to a more acute crisis.  In fact, the rise of complex securitizations and mortgage-based derivatives came from having more savers looking for safe assets than there were investors taking the primary risk positions on either securitizations or home equity, itself.  The reason complex securitizations were profitable for their underwriters was because investors were willing to pay a premium for securities with lower expected risk.

I have discussed this many times, so I won't go into it here again in more detail, but this is an important, if subtle, correction to the credit-fueled bubble narrative.  Synthetic CDOs, CDO-squareds, etc. were the first stage of the bust, and they came about because the core cause of the bubble was a lack of housing supply, but the bubble was addressed as if it was due to a lack of fear.  Investors in the CDO AAA-securities were risk-averse.

Regarding the other points, what if high home prices are generally due to an urban supply shortage, and rising mortgage levels are a side-effect of that problem?  Then, what will happen as a result of the proposed solutions?
  • Home prices will remain somewhat elevated because of high rents.
  • Since credit is a side effect of high prices, there will be natural pressures pushing up demand for household debt.
  • To reduce that demand for household debt, taxes or non-price constraints will need to be implemented to reduce the quantity of household debt.
  • In order to keep household debt at a normal level as a percentage of income, debt will have to be held low as a percentage of home values and/or homeownership will have to be lowered.
  • Regulatory obstacles to home ownership will raise the yield on home equity - to some extent through lower prices and to some extent through higher rents.

So, the policy that seems like the prudent policy for the Federal Reserve to follow is a policy that will create high yields for a set of households who meet regulatory approval and that will create high costs for households who do not meet regulatory approval.  Over the past several years, this has been the case.  Using BEA data on housing value added and Fed data on mortgage and real estate values, the past few years have been unique in providing real returns on home equity that are higher than nominal yields on mortgages outstanding.

And, it is highly likely that regulatory approval will fall sharply along socio-economic status lines.

I am not arguing here that high debt levels are not systemically destabilizing.  I am not arguing that we shouldn't be concerned about them.  I am simply pointing out that the only realistic way to enforce this macroprudential policy is to enforce higher-than-market returns for select Americans while limiting access to those returns.  To be honest about that means being clear-eyed about the cause of high levels of household debt.

Or, to put this another way, there are many sources of value in an economy.  A marketable college degree creates value, in the form of human capital, but it is difficult to have liquid markets in human capital.  So, there isn't a ZillowPeople.com where you can see the current market value of college graduates and their current market wage.

Yet, in a way, housing sort of serves as a substitute for the market in human capital.  If a banker feels confident enough in your earning ability, she will allow you to take out a mortgage to commit to transferring some of the high wages you can earn to future payments.  The potential to foreclose on the house serves as a financial tool that facilitates this trade in human capital.  The banker serves as an intermediary, using the liquidity of the mortgage market and the stability of the housing market to facilitate trading activity in the human capital market.

That is what was happening before the crisis.  In most places, the mortgage and housing markets have developed to the point that more than 80% of households can complete that trade at some point in their lives.  This is a testament to the development of human capital (broad access to above-subsistence wages) and of real estate and mortgage markets.  But, our economy was hamstrung by a political limit to urbanization, which created a dichotomy: places that were exclusive and places that weren't.

That exclusivity is rationed through housing, and by happenstance there is a liquid market that measures the value of that exclusion.  There is a Zillow.com for houses.  Before the crisis, this trade in human capital and housing was still functioning, but in the Closed Access cities, this meant that only those with a large excess of human capital could engage in that trade.  They had to transfer a large stake in their future earnings over to the existing real estate owners to claim their place in exclusive labor markets.  In order to fully accrue the full potential of their human capital, they had to pay the toll to access the markets where wages were highest.

Home prices reflected the value of that exclusion, and homes traded at a value at reflected their claim on that earning power.  Certainly, the existence of these credit markets facilitated the market that revealed those values.

By focusing on credit as the cause of high prices, these transactions between human capital and the housing stock have been hobbled.  The undiscounted total value of future rents on properties has not been reduced.  "Macroprudential" management on mortgage markets has just added a significant premium to the discount rate that is applied to those future rental incomes.  This has lowered home prices in Closed Access markets from where they would have been, and it certainly has reduced household debt from where it would be in this Closed Access context.  But, because this is a misdiagnosis of the problem, where its effect has been the worst has been to block access to low tier housing markets in cities across the country that were never out of whack.  (I touched on this in the previous post.)

Macroprudential management has effectively been a step backwards to a less sophisticated economy, where access to ownership of real property requires a pre-existing stockpile of wealth, and those who have wealth earn higher returns on it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Housing: Part 332 - The problem in a picture

I came upon some old data recently that I thought was worth sharing.  Sorry, this isn't updated past 2014 data, but the story hasn't changed that much since then.  Maybe real estate values have recovered another 10% or so, compared to personal income.

Here is the problem.  There are two housing markets in the US.  A closed one and an open one.  The closed market gives you access to the best economic opportunities in NYC, LA, Boston, and San Francisco (Closed Access cities).  It's limited to about 50 million people.  You want in, you gotta pay.

Sources: BEA and Zillow
Here is a graph of total real estate value as a percentage of total personal income.  In 1998, in the Closed Access cities and in the rest of the country, the ratio was about 2:1.

Then, as we entered the post-industrial economic era, competition for access to the Closed Access cities pushed real estate there up to close to 350% of income.  In the rest of the country (which includes the Contagion cities, Seattle, Washington, etc.), it didn't break 250%.  Even that increase can be effectively explained with low long term real interest rates.

By 2014, in the Closed Access cities, it was 248%, while the rest of the country was down to 166%.  Now, this is with very low long term real interest rates, so, if anything, it should be above 250% even outside the Closed Access cities.

Keep this in mind when you read countless articles complaining about affordability.  Homes are more affordable than ever, really, for owners.  It's just that some homes have a premium attached to them that is unrelated to the value of shelter.  Imagine how backwards economic and monetary policy is right now, that it is not unusual to hear people call for or accept contractionary monetary or fiscal policy because home prices are getting too high again, and macroprudential policy is called for.

Also, consider the countless articles and conversations that complain about how we bailed out the banks but left regular households hung out to dry.  You know what really killed those households?  Maybe it was the fact that they lost wealth, on average, that amounted to nearly a year's income.  When real estate value outside the Closed Access cities collapsed from 236% or incomes in 2006 to 157% in 2012, how many of these moral crusaders were demanding more monetary support because home values had clearly fallen too low?

Don't get me wrong.  It isn't the job of the Fed or the government to prop up home prices.  But, it is their job to allow markets to function.  The "bailouts" were only a very poor substitute for reasonable federal macroprudential and monetary policy.  But, any reasonable policy would not have led to such drops in real estate values, especially after 2007.  How many bailout critics would have supported those policies?  That would have created moral hazard.  Right?  Because everyone knew that homes were too expensive.

One more thing about that graph.  It shows less recovery than some other measures of price/income do.  I think the main reason is that normally, price/income is based on the price of the median home compared to the median income.  Since we have been in a decade-long housing depression, the aggregate value of real estate has risen less than the value of individual properties.  This is an important part of what is happening, but it is difficult to understand it with "bubble" thinking.  Bubble thinking presumes that more building is triggered by money and credit, so that more building equals rising values.  That has it backwards.  The red line rose much higher than the blue line precisely because that relationship is very strongly in the opposite direction.

Closed Access real estate rose in value so much because there are not as many new Closed Access homes.  And, even on a national level over time, aggregate real estate value has little to do with the rate of building.  The reason that real estate value has declined along with lower rates of building since 2007 is that credit and monetary policy pushed home values well below the value that could trigger new building in many markets.  The decline in value led to lower rates of building, not the other way around.

The way to reduce things like median price/income levels so that homes become affordable again is to build many, many new homes.  That will have very little effect on the aggregate value of real estate.  In fact, if we do it well enough, it will reduce the aggregate value of real estate.  But, it will be hard to trigger new supply until credit is loosened enough and prices rise enough that more new construction can be justified.

There seem to be many macroeconomic issues that have this strange, contradictory type of causation.  In this case, rising prices cause more building, but more building causes declining prices.  Clearly, more building could cause prices to decline so sharply that more building would cause total value to decline, even after adding new real supply to the housing stock.

Housing prices need to rise so housing prices can fall.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Housing: Part 331 - More on Mortgages and Homeownership

Here are a couple more graphs on mortgages and homeownership.  The first one is from the Survey of Consumer Finances, which is conducted every three years.

From 2004-2007, homeownership declined somewhat, but mortgaged homeownership increased.

The second graph has the number of mortgage accounts from the New York Fed and the number of owner-occupied homes from the Census.  Owner-occupiers topped out around the end of 2005 when housing starts peaked.  But, oddly the number of mortgage accounts shot up in 2006 and 2007.

It appears that there were three factors at work in 2006 and 2007:

1) An increase in the number of unmortgaged owners selling their homes and transitioning to renting while a declining but somewhat stable flow of first time buyers that were naturally leveraged continued.

2) Unmortgaged owners - mostly older households - taking on new mortgages.  (Most homeowners under 55 already have a mortgage.)

3) Increasing investor activity.

It is interesting that the sharp increase in mortgages in 2006-2007 is not associated with rising ownership or rising prices, and it is associated with sharply falling housing starts.  For all of those reasons, I think it has been incorrect for so many people to treat the late rise in mortgages, which performed terribly, as if they were responsible for the housing bubble.  They had nothing to do with it, and if anything, they were propping up a housing market that would have otherwise been in unnecessarily deep decline.


In my feistier moments, I wonder if this was actually a sign of a need for liquidity.  Interest rates were at their cyclical peak.  These weren't mortgages taken out at low rates.  Currency growth was very low at the time.  This was expensive debt taken out when cash was relatively scarce.

Source
Would it be too crazy of me to say that there was already a liquidity crunch, and that the only reason nominal GDP growth was still limping along at rates that were only marginally recessionary was because households sitting on recent real estate gains tapped those properties for cash?  Were those households, on net, speculating, or were they getting cash wherever they could get it, and currency from the Federal Reserve wasn't where they could get it?

Maybe I'm wading into waters that are over my head here.  Please tell me if I am.  But, it seems to me that causation could go either way here.  Mortgage debt could rise in a search or liquidity, or the Federal Reserve could contract the growth in the money supply as a way to counter excess liquidity coming from a speculative bubble.  Wouldn't one clue about the direction of that causality be the direction of housing starts.  If the causal trigger was a flood of debt into hot housing markets, then housing starts would be rising.  If the causal trigger was a lack of liquidity, housing starts would be collapsing.  It seems like the evidence is pretty clearly stacked against the idea that the Fed needed to be counteracting the rising mortgage levels.  Housing starts and currency growth were both contracting.

In the narrative that treats everything as excess, each step along the way is just one more facet of the bubble.  So, the mortgages originated in 2006 and 2007 were just the last gasp of that process - a continuation of the excesses that preceded them.  It seems perfectly reasonable to say, "They did this to us.  They caused this to happen.  They created the bubble, and the bust was inevitable."

But, what if the "bubble" was primarily the result of a supply shortage?  There were still trillions of dollars of home equity to be harvested, even if those trillions weren't unsustainable paper profits created by a credit bubble.  So, that wealth was available to tap for liquidity as nominal economic activity contracted.

Instead of saying, "They did this to us." we should say, "They delayed the tragedy we imposed on ourselves, but we would not relent, so the tragedy happened eventually anyway."  Those borrowers in 2006-2007 might have saved us.

Source
Rentiers - Closed Access real estate owners who were capturing monopoly profits - were claiming an outsized portion of new production.  In order to use their property values to claim that production they either had to sell them (to a new owner that was likely more leveraged) or they had to take out debt that was collateralized by them.  This accounted for more than 100% of new personal consumption expenditures during the boom.  Eventually, the collapse of sentiment and, eventually, property values, in real estate, caused that debt-funded consumption to collapse, and there was little monetary accommodation until the end of 2008.  Nominal consumption collapsed until that happened.

The borrowers and investors were maintaining the growth of the nominal economy until they couldn't anymore.  This is a good example of how fundamental our priors and presumptions are about what happened.  Priors that say debt is unsustainable, lender and speculator driven, and reckless, would lead to a conclusion that collapse would bring discipline.  That bad things are good.  But, changing those priors, recognizing that debt-funded consumption was the product of a deep inequity in our economy, that it was sustainable and natural as long as that inequity remains, leads to a conclusion that what Americans needed was relief.  Discipline was abuse.

The homeowners with growing equity are the monopolists that need to be tamed.  But, in 2006-2007, the borrowers were the only thing keeping us afloat.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Housing: Part 330 - Mortgage Originations by Age

The New York Fed now reports mortgage originations by age in its quarterly Household Debt and Credit report.  After the 3rd quarter of 2007, mortgage originations for households under 50 years old dropped by nearly half, and the number has remained stable at that level since then.  Households above 50 years of age have continued originating mortgages at about the same rate as before.

This chart really helps highlight the generational aspect of the housing bust.

Here, I have created a chart that shows the scale of the decline for each age group.  There was a bump in originations in 2003 due to tactical refinancing, so for this ratio, I used 1Q 2004 - 3Q 2007 and 4Q 2007 - present.

Keep in mind, homeownership rates were not increasing from 1Q 2004 to 3Q 2007.  The denominator for this ratio is a rate of homebuying in a static ownership context.

This is an example of how relentlessly overzealous the rhetoric about housing is.

One example of how rhetoric is overzealous is how homebuyers' expectations or hopes are always described in terms of their price expectations.  This creates an image of speculation.  But, rent is highly correlated with price, both in terms of the level and in terms of the rate of change.  So, hopeful homebuyers could just as accurately be described as having high expectations about rising rents.  This paints an image of hedging.  In fact, in my experience, homeowners and homebuyers more often fit the image of hedgers than of speculators.  Even when they express their expectations in terms of price, they are generally thinking about costs.

Analysts and researchers, whether from the credit supply school, the passive credit school, or any other school of thought regarding the housing boom, invariably impose the speculative image on homebuyers.  When academics ask homebuyers what their price expectations are, their choice of question is the key ingredient in the conclusion they will reach.  The answers they receive would correlate highly with the answers to the question of what rent expectations homebuyers have.  Do academics ever ask homebuyers about their rent expectations?

The age data highlights another area where housing rhetoric is overzealous.  Homeownership rates were pretty close to 64% for years, then they increased from 1994 to 2004 to about 69%, then they fell back, and are now lower than 64%.  Firstly, that flat trend at 64% before 1994 was misleading.  Homeownership was being balanced by two opposing forces.  By age, homeownership was declining, but at the same time, baby boomers were aging into age groups that generally own their homes.  The flat ownership rate was a mirage.  After 1994, the shift change was mostly among younger families, and it was simply a return to the homeownership rates of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Among working age households, no age group was rising into unprecedented territory for homeownership.

But, many people believe that, essentially, 64% of Americans were qualified to own homes, then we recklessly made mortgages to 5% of Americans who had no business owning homes, and finally, after 2007, we came to our senses when those Americans started defaulting on their mortgages, and homeownership dropped back down to the reasonable level.

That description bears little resemblance to anything that happened.

But, passing around homeownership charts with a y-axis from 60% to 70%, that isn't disaggregated by age, creates another image of overstated excess.  It is more accurate to think of homeownership in terms of age.  The more reasonable way to think of it is that 80% of Americans will eventually own their homes.  In 1993, those households might have been making their first purchase at, say, 33.  And, by 2004, they were making that first purchase at 32.  The shift really is that small.  For instance, for 35 to 44 year olds, in 1994, the homeownership rate was 65% and by 2004 it was 69%.  In any post-WW II housing market, all of those marginal new homeowners were going to be homeowners by the time they were in their 50s in any case, and the shift required in the age of first time buyers to change the ownership rate by 4% is nothing.

The shift in imagery is enormous here.  Rather than beating the bushes for unsuspecting new suckers to take on unsustainable mortgages, mortgage lenders were lending to (1) more households in their 50s and 60s who had ownership rates that never shifted significantly over decades and to (2) households who were generally going to become homeowners anyway, but they were making those mortgages now somewhat earlier - in a shift, in the aggregate, that literally could be measured in months.  It amounts to practically nothing.

What has happened since then doesn't amount to nothing.  Ownership among all working-age age groups is well below previous HUD era lows.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

October 2018 CPI

Shelter inflation had another moderate month, bringing the trailing 12 month shelter inflation rate down a little.

Core CPI still running just over 2% and core CPI excluding shelter still running at about 1.4%.  Still in tight but not problematic territory.