Thursday, September 20, 2018

Housing: Part 321 - What about those naive bubble investors?

There is a story from "The Big Short" where a stripper in Las Vegas explains that she has several highly leveraged investment properties.  This is also a response I have heard and that I see frequently when people take umbrage with my assertions about the housing boom.  "Look, this is all very interesting, but I remember what it was like back then.  The janitor at my office had 7 properties.  It was nuts."  This is especially true of Phoenix and Las Vegas.

This a great example of how some basic factual truths can completely turn your conclusions upside down with just some subtle changes in interpretation.

These people existed - in some significant number.  But, let's think about this.  The housing stock is a big, slow-moving beast.  It doesn't change by more than a few percentage points a year, at most, in a fast growing city.  If you know, say, 4 people that have purchased 5 homes as speculators in the past couple of years, then you should also know about 20 people who have sold homes.  Every home has one owner and every transaction has a buyer and a seller.  So, if you say that you suddenly knew 4 people that each owned 5 speculative properties, then that is basically the same statement as saying you knew 20 people that had sold out of the real estate market.  Two sides of the same coin.

Outside of extreme circumstances, if you know four people that are deep into property speculation and you don't know 20 people who have sold out of properties, then you have stumbled into a deep case of observer's bias.

It happens that in 2006, there were extreme circumstances.  In 2005, annual population growth in Phoenix was over 3% and it was over 4% in Las Vegas.  Between 2005 and 2009, it fell to less than 1% in both cities - a rate of growth slower than either city had seen in decades.  This was a combination of more people moving away and fewer people moving in.  Builders were actually pretty sensitive to this shift, and permits for new construction fell sharply along with population growth.  But, in addition to those migration shifts, tens of thousands of potential new home buyers had entered into contracts to build new homes, and upon seeing the turn in the market, they reneged.  They let the builders keep their small escrow deposits, and they left those homes with the builders.  There was a massive shadow inventory of homes left to builders long before owners were defaulting and leaving homes with the banks.

So, if you knew 4 people who owned 5 homes, you came upon your observer's bias honestly.  Those 20 housing shorts weren't in your frame of vision.  They had either left town or had never moved to town. When you were sitting at the barber shop listening to the guy talking about the seven condos he was flipping, the seven housing shorts that were an integral part of that story were getting their hair cut in LA and Chicago.

This is one reason why migration is such an important corrective to our conception of what happened.

Note that the truth is even there in the conventional telling of the story.  In the scene in The Big Short, when the stripper tells Mark Baum that she has six leveraged properties, he warns her, "Well, prices have leveled off, though."  The trigger for expanding investor share was the negative change in sentiment among homeowners, and the leveling off of prices in the Closed Access cities which reduced the rate of tactical Closed Access sellers.  That scene immediately cuts from the strip club to him making a phone call and saying, "Hey, there's a bubble."  What he had actually just seen  was evidence of the bust, not a bubble.

Were many of those new speculators naïve?  Were they late to the party?  Could we bemoan their lack of judgment?  Sure.  Can we blame them for high prices?  No.  Investor buying was somewhat elevated in 2005.  Maybe it could have added a few percentage points to the average home price at the peak.  Investor buying share was highest in 2006-2007 when prices were stable - and investor buying was, by then, a stabilizing influence on prices.  Investor share declined in 2008 and 2009, and during that period, investor defaults were probably also destabilizing, because investors are quicker to default in declining markets than homeowners are.  Then, investor activity settled in at levels in 2010 that were still above 2004 levels, again providing support in markets where homeowners were now credit constrained.

It's possible to dissect the different types of investors and speculators and to point out where there were more reckless or even fraudulent speculators, which appears mostly to involve investors who claimed to be homeowners, which would cause lenders to underestimate their tendency to default on high LTV loans during a crash.  And it is possible to point to some brief points in the timeline where those investors may have been a bullish force in markets that were rising already.  But, their activity just can't be pushed back far enough in the timeline of events to attribute much of the aggregate national value of real estate to them.

Through the main characters in The Big Short, we can see how easily this can lead public sentiment astray.  There were many people who had been calling the market a bubble for years by 2006.  They identified themselves as people who new the value of things and who could be more wise than the average investor about avoiding poor investments.  That's a great identity to have, and for the main characters in The Big Short, it appears to be plausibly accurate.  But, it is just a short step from that to a posture of attribution error - I do things because of the constraints I face, but other people do things because they are greedy or reckless.  Multiply that by a few million people who sit down and watch The Big Short, and think, subconsciously, "I know value.  I identify with these characters.  We all recognize the greed and recklessness of all those background characters, which created the bubble."

That sentiment was part of a positive feedback loop that led to widespread blame on speculating and lending, and that blame only strengthened with each year of rising prices.  So, when migration stopped and these investors and speculators became a noticeable part of the market, it didn't look like a sentiment shift.  It looked like more of the same.  More of those other people acting on greed and recklessness.  And, the tricky part is, many of them were acting on greed and recklessness.  But, that doesn't change the fact that they didn't cause the bubble and that, in reality, they were a red flag signaling a coming crisis.

Instead of clamping down on credit and money growth, we should have been aiming for stability.  We should have been adding nominal support for these markets that were about to be hit with a migration whiplash.  What about moral hazard, you ask?  I suppose that if we had done that, some of this "dumb money" would have been somewhat better off (although, even a moderately accommodative credit market and monetary policy at the time would not have been likely to reignite the migration event.  Las Vegas and Phoenix would have likely still seen some price retraction.)  But, there is no benefit to punishing the "dumb money".  "Dumb money" didn't cause the bubble.  The bubble drew in "dumb money".  Hurting those late-cycle speculators did nothing to prevent a future bubble.

It seems to most people like it would, because those late speculators just seem like one more fish in a school that includes Alt-A homeowners in San Francisco in 2004, Fannie and Freddie borrowers in 2002, and new young first-time buyers in 1999.  Moral hazard is not why the median home in Los Angeles was selling for over $600,000 in 2006, though.  In fact, it is the opposite.  Prices in LA were that high because anyone who wants to build some housing units must first spend the better part of a decade addressing every single possible objection to building housing units.


  1. Prices in LA were that high because anyone who wants to build some housing units must first spend the better part of a decade addressing every single possible objection to building housing units.--ME

    Well, it is even worse than this. The bulk of the city is zoned for single-family detached, so it is simply illegal to add new housing to meet market demand.

    Further, if one wanted to be cynical, there is a collection of connected developers who work with the city and lenders to "responsibly" develop. based on zoning variances.

    Of course, that essentially means any new housing development is a slam dunk. Which is how the builders and lenders like it.

  2. Everyone misses the line in the movie when one of the protaganists (I forget which one) says that the house price crash will happen once rates start Rising on the ARMs. Of course the rates never rose. The stripper would have been fine if CPI hadn't crashed, resulting in a 0% change from June 2008 to Oct. 2010. Housing prices would have dropped much less if CPI had instead risen 6%. The Fed failed utterly.

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