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.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Housing: Part 354 - Nashville follow up

I wanted to revisit one graph, because I think it tells the story so well about what's happening in many US cities while lending standards are tight.

In the process, I realized that I should have adjusted for inflation, and in the process of doing that, I realized I had a minor excel worksheet error.  Here is the chart with the error fixed and the dollars constant.

In the last post, the linear trendlines were pretty nearly lined up.  But, the things that would affect the price/rent relationship should generally scale with inflation, so this is probably a more accurate portrayal of the Nashville market.  There has been some recovery of price/rent ratios in the low-to-mid part of the market.

At the top end of the market, P/R ratios are up about 5 points since the bottom, which was around 2011.  The bottom should be up at least that much too.

Low tier prices have risen as much or more than high tier prices.  But, as I pointed out in the previous post, this is because of low tier rent inflation, and the positive feedback of units with higher rents moving up to higher price/rent ratios.

That is still evident in this corrected graph.  At the high end, adjusted for inflation, price changes since 2011 are generally due to a recovery in price/rent levels.  That is the part of the market where building is taking place.

At the low end, little building is taking place, and rising prices are largely from rising rents.  Here, we can see that, even adjusted for inflation, the bulk of zip codes have moved from rents typically around $1,100 per month to rents more like $1,300.  P/R ratios in that part of the market have risen by around 2x and the rise in rents led to an additional P/R expansion of another 2x or so.  So, the low-to-mid part of the Nashville market moved from $1,100 rents at a P/R of 10x to $1,300 rents at a P/R of 14x.  The combination of those things was enough to cause those areas to appreciate in price faster than high end Nashville where rents have remained about the same in real dollars and P/R has increased by about 5x.

Some of the increase in rents is due to gentrification and in-fill capital improvements, but the tendency to blame those capital improvements for the increasing problem of unaffordable rent completely misses the point.  Rents won't come down until those segments of the market get as much capital as the top end is getting.  And, the top end is getting a lot.

Friday, July 5, 2019

June 2019 Yield Curve Update

Rates have continued to dip.  Forward markets have already moved much of the way back toward zero.  This has been somewhat surprising to me.  I expected the Fed to maintain the Fed Funds rate at a plateau level, as they did in the last two cyclical reversals.  But they are almost certain to start to lower the target rate this month, and that is great news.

There is still some potential for trading gains in forward rate markets, I think, because short rates are highly likely to return to near zero.  I hope the newly dovish turn by the Fed is enough to give that move some oomph.  I think an important signal will be the long end of the curve.  If it remains low as the Fed lowers the target rate, this is a sign that the Fed is following the neutral rate down, and isn't really inducing nominal growth.  It will be a bullish sign if the long end of the curve moves up.

In fact, using the adjustment I make to the yield curve, at today's levels, the 10 year treasury yield would still be effectively near inverted rates even if the Fed lowers the target rate to zero.  My worry is that mistaken associations between low rates and loose money will prevent the Fed from being aggressive enough.  But, recent Fed communications have been more promising.

The first graph here shows the 10 year rate vs. the Fed Funds rate, and shows my modeled inversion indicator.  By this measure, the curve has been inverted for many months and moved much farther into inversion territory this month.  In some ways, that is a good sign, because it reflects expectations of near-term Fed rate cuts.  But, ideally, it would be better if long term rates held firm.  The fact that long term rates are declining along with short term expectations is a sign that frictions in credit markets were keeping long term rates high.  To me, this is the best way to think about yield curve inversion.  Some set of frictions in the market prevent long term yields from declining to unbiased forecasts of future short term rates when the yield curve is inverted.  I suspect that this causes problems with credit allocation that may be a causal element in the contractions that tend to follow inversions.  If long term rates decline when short term rates are lowered, that suggests that lowering rates has removed those frictions and allowed long term rates to move to a less biased level.  So, the good news is that Fed dovishness is helping to offer relief to markets, but the bad news is that this means an inversion is in effect and that usually leads to a contraction.

The market is currently priced to expect the dots on my scatterplot to move sharply to the left as short term rates are lowered.  But, the key to avoiding a recession is for the upcoming dots to also move up.  If they don't, then I suspect that we will be playing catch-up and economic growth expectations will remain subdued, which will continue to lead capital to safer assets instead of into riskier investments that can trigger productivity and employment strength.  It is hard to tell in real time, but it is beginning to look like real GDP growth peaked a year ago and that the 4 quarter real GDP growth rate will move back down below 3%.  One might expect real growth to level off as unemployment bottoms, but employment growth has been pretty stable since 2012 at 1.5% to 2%, and continues to move in that range as workers re-enter the labor force, so changes in employment growth don't point to a GDP slowdown yet.

The best thing that could happen is the Fed lowers the target rate aggressively, long term rates rise with new real growth and inflation expectations, and then FOMC members and pundits who incorrectly view lower rates as a stimulus to risky investments will interpret higher rates as less stimulative, and they won't pressure the Fed to stop lowering the target rate.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Housing: Part 353 - The Seemingly Strange Case of Nashville

There are two core constructed details that have formed a basis for much of my analysis about the 21st century housing market and the financial crisis.

  • Price/rent ratios tend to rise as rents rise, but at some point in each metropolitan market they reach a ceiling.  This means that (1) excessive price appreciation in low tier homes during the housing boom in cities like LA and NYC was mostly a product of rising rents. and (2) The core error of the FCIC and most analysis of the crisis was missing this fact and blaming rising prices on aggressive credit markets instead.
  • In most cities, rents were moderate enough that there was not an unusual rise in low tier home prices from this effect, but after the boom, when credit was greatly tightened, low tier prices were decimated, frequently falling more than 20% compared to high tier prices.
This first graph basically tells that story (PS: Many thanks to Zillow.com for making so much price and rent data public):
idiosyncraticwhisk.com 2019
Data from Zillow

LA is highly unusual, both for having such high price appreciation and for having such a divergence between the high and low end during the boom.  These are related.  They both come from the extreme shortage of supply relative to demand for housing in LA.

Seattle is more expensive than Atlanta because incomes are higher there and supply of housing is more constrained, though much better than LA.  So, you see a bit of difference between Seattle and Atlanta during the boom, but little difference between the top and low tier of each city.

Then, during the bust, bottom tier home prices in both Seattle and Atlanta collapse, to the point where low tier prices in Seattle had total appreciation that was no more than high tier appreciation in Atlanta.

idiosyncraticwhisk.com 2019
Data from Zillow
I recently had occasion to look up data in Tennessee.  I have gotten so used to seeing this pattern that running the numbers has become rote.  Almost every city looks something like Seattle and Atlanta.  So, I was quite surprised when Nashville looked like this:

Nashville looks like Atlanta before the crisis and Seattle after the crisis, and it doesn't have the lagging low tier price appreciation of either of those cities.  In fact, it is high tier prices that have been lower in recent years.

What gives?

It turns out that in recent years, Nashville has been on fire, economically.  Population growth, in-migration, rising incomes.  Things are going really well there.  Things are going so well that housing supply pressures are making it look more like a Closed Access city.  Well, it's more the case that there are two Nashvilles.  The top half of the housing market operates like an open access city before the crisis.  The bottom half of the housing market operates like a closed access city because new tighter lending standards are preventing owner-occupiers from buying homes in those sub-markets.  This has compressed price/rent ratios so that yields are high enough to induce buying by landlords.  This can happen through lower prices or by rising rents.  In practice, it can be a little bit of both.  In Nashville, it appears that economic success has led especially to rising rents, because pressure for residency in Nashville is pushing up demand for Nashville housing.  At the top end, this leads to more supply.  But, that demand pressure also appears to be seeping into the low tier, where it can only push up rents, because buying pressure is limited mostly to landlords and they are still mostly just buying up the existing stock, apparently at price points that still can't induce much new supply.

Here is a Fred chart of housing permits in Nashville.  The red line is single family homes and the blue line is multi-unit homes.  Both are very healthy.  Pre-crisis Nashville had strong rates of new home building.  It may be unique among cities where building was well above the national average before the crisis and has recovered to those pre-crisis levels.  You just don't see this in other cities.

I presume that eventually, rents will rise high enough to trigger even more building at the low end, putting a stop to excessive rent inflation.  But, it hasn't happened yet.  Though, multi-unit starts are very strong.  To the extent that investors will build new stock, it will tend to be multi-unit.

idiosyncraticwhisk.com 2019
Data from Zillow
Here is a graph of median rent and mortgage affordability in Nashville and in the US over time.  (Again, all hail Zillow.)  The national story here is that rent affordability has been high (though it has moderated recently) but that mortgage affordability has never been better.  There has never been more reason to loosen lending standards.  This is basically why the low tier of most cities is lagging in price and supply with rising rents, because we have financial gatekeepers preventing potential low-tier buyers from closing this financial arbitrage gap.  Price is not the moderating factor keeping mortgage expenses so low.

But, note what the Nashville story is here.  It has traditionally been an exceptionally affordable city, in terms of rent.  But during the housing boom and after, that gap has closed, and Nashville isn't particularly affordable any more.

idiosyncraticwhisk.com 2019
Data from Zillow
Because of these high-tier vs. low-tier supply issues, this affordability problem is especially pronounced in low-tier Nashville neighborhoods.  Zillow only has rent data from 2010, but here is a graph comparing aggregate median rent levels in each zip code in Nashville from 2011 to 2019.  The x-axis measures the starting median rent and the y-axis measures how much rent has increased in that zip code since then.

More affordable areas have experienced rising rents much higher than more expensive areas.  So, the median rent affordability measure above really splits a divide between top-tier areas where rent affordability has remained low and low-tier areas where it has moved up more.  In Nashville, this has been strong enough factor to swamp the compression of price/rent ratios.


idiosyncraticwhisk.com 2019
Data from Zillow
And, this brings us back to the bullet points at the beginning.  The counterintuitive issue at the core of the question of rising home prices is that rising rents cause price/rent ratios to rise.  Here is a comparison of rents and price/rent ratios in zip codes in Nashville in 2011 (blue) and in 2019 (red).  As we can see, the typical pattern holds.  Price/rent ratios rise as rents rise, up to a point, where they level out.  At the top end of the market in Nashville, price/rent ratios have increased since the market bottomed, and top end price/rent ratios now average around 17x or so, up from around 14x in 2011.

One would think that price/rent ratios at the bottom end would have to have expanded at least that much, because prices have appreciated at least as much at the bottom.  I have added linear trendlines here, reflecting the portions of Nashville that are not at the peak price/rent level.  As you can see, that relationship hasn't changed much since 2011.  A typical unit renting for $1,200 has a price/rent ratio that is right at the same level it would have been in 2011.  But, rising rents have pushed all housing units up this price/rent ratio incline.  This is basically the same effect that was happening in places like LA before the financial crisis.

The long and short of it is that there are zip codes in Nashville where rents might have been $1,000 per month and looser lending may have pushed price/rent ratios up from 10x to 12x.  The trend line in this graph would have moved up.  Instead, because of tight lending, rents in those zip codes are more like $1,200 with price/rent ratios around 12x.  The trendline hasn't moved at all, yet this doesn't make housing more affordable.  This is one of many reasons why the focus on affordability should be on rent, not price.  Rent is the coherent source of information for that question.

I have concluded that the relative rise in low-tier prices in cities like LA during the bubble was unrelated to loose lending markets.  That is a tough argument to make, because it coincided with loose lending markets, and it just seems to make sense that loose lending would create new buyer demand that might push prices up.  But, here, in Nashville, we can see the same effect, and here, the effect coincides with tight lending.  In both cases, however, rising rents and rising price/rents coincide with limited supply.

Tight lending standards have created the same context in the rest of the country that supply constraints in Closed Access cities had created before the crisis.  Any positive economic developments will create a side effect of pushing up the cost of living for families with the lowest incomes.  Eventually, I presume, Nashville will hit a rent level that pushes prices high enough to induce enough investor building to level off rent inflation.  There will be a new normal, where the level of rents will be higher for low-tier tenants relative to where they used to be, but once we hit that level, the rate of change in rents should level out.

There is no rule here that points us to the correct place.  Maybe access to mortgages should be tightly regulated and housing should be more expensive than it used to be for low-tier tenants.  An advantage of that market norm would be lower rates of mortgage defaults, etc.  It would be a safer equilibrium with less volatility and less punctuated distress.  But, the cost of that safety comes at the expense of low-tier tenants.  They replace less punctuated distress with more chronic distress.  And, if prices are going to be depressed by limiting access to capital, then that means, mathematically, that we are enforcing a system of inflated returns to those who happen to have capital.  Again, maybe that's ok.  We just need to be honest about the implications of these lending norms.

If this is the new normal, then most cities have a few decades to look forward to that look like Nashville today.  Economic success will mostly simply mean rising cost of living for households with lower incomes.  This will be blamed on all sorts of supposed problems with laissez-faire markets, but most of it lays at the feet of a national consensus that has supported an extreme regime shift meant to make real estate markets less volatile.  Supporting an economic structure that benefits all Americans will require coming to terms with the pros and cons of that consensus.


Follow up.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The next post in my Mercatus series on housing affordability

Here is where you can see the entire series as it is posted:
https://www.mercatus.org/tags/housing-affordability-series

Here is the latest:
"The Myth About Bubble Buyers"

A lot of this particular post will probably be familiar to long-time IW readers.
(F)or households 45 to 54 years in age, the homeownership rate in 1982, when the Census Bureau started tracking it annually, was 77.4 percent. It bottomed out at 74.8 percent in 1991 and then recovered to 77.2 percent at the peak in 2004. By 2017, it was down to 69.3 percent!
…..
Rental expenses as a proportion of incomes (Figure 1), belie the conventional wisdom. The rental value of owned homes was more stable as a portion of owner income than the rental value of rented homes from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. In other words, if there was an increase in relative spending on housing, it was among renters. The rental value of homeowners was rising in line with their incomes. There is no sign of marginal homebuyers being induced into homeownership and overconsumption.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

May 2019 CPI Inflation

Sorry I'm a few days late on this.

Core CPI continues to ride along the 2% target range, bifurcated between shelter and non-shelter prices.  CPI shelter inflation is at about 3.3% over the past 12 months.  The non-shelter core components are now down to 1.0% over the past 12 months.

Inflation isn't that great of a short-term signal.  After all, non-shelter inflation was at or above 2% in 2008 and 2009 while nominal GDP growth was collapsing.  But, the period leading up to that, in 2006 and 2007, had a similar character - high shelter inflation and low non-shelter core inflation.  Yet, when that signal appeared in 2017, it reversed in spite of Fed postures that continued to signal tightening.

All that being said, it certainly seems as though maintaining an inverted yield curve with non-shelter inflation at 1% is clearly too hawkish.  It appears as though the Fed is looking to reverse course, which is very good news.  A couple rate reductions is prudent at this point.  Unfortunately, that is likely to meet the howls of those who claim a low target interest rate inflates prices in capital markets.  But, it seems the FOMC has become more immune to that, which is great.

I have been suggesting that long bond positions would be profitable, and expecting that an inertial Fed would create marginal buying opportunities in other assets as that opportunity played out.  The long bond position is mostly finished because of the zero bound. Mid-to-long term rates aren't able to go much lower.  If the Fed gets ahead of things here, maybe they will curb any pullbacks in equity markets or housing markets.  I'm happy to see that tactical opportunity disappear if it means the Fed doesn't encourage unnecessary contractions.  In fact, maybe that would make those opportunities even more fruitful, without waiting on a pullback, if the economic expansion is allowed to continue, chipping away at risk aversion.

But, the story remains.  Inflation is very low.  To the extent that real wage growth continues to disappoint, this is largely a structural supply issue that creates a transfer from tenants to real estate owners, which is measured as inflation.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Mercatus Series on Housing Affordability

I have a blog series on housing affordability that is slowly rolling out (1 per week) at The Bridge.

I find discussions about housing affordability to be frequently frustrating.  One reason is that homeownership is generally treated as if it is a wholly different type of consumption than tenancy is.  This is odd, because in national accounts, the BEA treats tenancy the same for both owners and renters.  I find it useful to disaggregate our economic activities regarding shelter so that every home has an owner, a financier, and a tenant, regardless of whether those agents are all different or are all the same individual.

There is certainly a risk that comes from becoming an owner-occupier and taking ownership of a single large asset that can frequently be much larger in size than your total net worth.  On the other hand, there is also value that comes from getting rid of the principal-agent problems that come from having various stakeholders who all have competing interests on a single asset.  For owner-occupiers, those conflicts are erased, which seems to lead analysts to act as if these three different relationships to a property disappear when those agency conflicts disappear.

In this series I maintain these three roles as factors for all homes - financier, owner, and tenant - and consider various aspects of housing markets and housing policy.  This process has led me to new points of view regarding these issues, and I hope you find something to think about in each post, also.  In hindsight, I find that the posts have a veneer of dryness, but they are short, and I am hopeful that each one has at least one new idea that will shift you in your seat a bit and help you to take a few moments to deepen your own sense of how these factors play out in the marketplace and in the various public policies that affect that marketplace.

The tl:dr on the first four parts:

  1. Thinking Clearly About Housing Affordability:  "Here is the core analytical error: housing affordability should be measured in terms of rent, but our understanding and policies have erroneously focused on price—to disastrous ends.  From monetary policy to credit policy to regulations on local development, responses to the housing bubble have consistently and explicitly aimed for less residential investment, fewer buyers, and fewer homes.  Limiting the supply of homes has had a predictable effect of increasing rents.  In other words, the problem of affordability, in terms of price, was “solved” after 2007.  Affordability in terms of rent was not.  Understanding the difference between these two measures will be an important factor in correcting the policy errors that led to the crisis and creating better, more equitable, more stable economic outcomes in the future.
    I argue in my book, Shut Out, that the housing collapse and the financial crisis were not inevitable.  They weren’t even useful.  In fact, their very purpose was mistaken.  The fundamental measure for housing affordability is rent, not price.  And, trying to bring down prices instead of bringing down rents inevitably will fail on its own terms.  In the long run, prices will be determined by rents anyway."

  2. What Are Landlords Good For?:  "More efficient markets lead to higher real estate transaction productivity. The resulting higher prices convey that information: owning a home is more valuable now, because it can be done with less hassle. Landlords would be less necessary because transaction costs would be a smaller problem, making homeownership more valuable.  Only focusing on price might tempt one to suggest that transaction cost-reducing innovation should be avoided because it would only increase prices."

  3. Homeowners Make the Best Landlords:  "When considering the benefits of home ownership on the margin, the focus should be on capturing the excess yield that seems to be widely available to owners.  It is this yield that is most important to marginal potential owners, not capital gains... It may be more accurate to think of that excess yield as a form of patronage.  A lucrative wage available to those with access to ownership.  The wage is earned by performing the duties and taking the risks of a landlord. Upon becoming the owner, the wage remains, but the duties of the job can be shirked.  There is no problem tenant to evict.  No vacancies to fill.  No complaints to manage.  It’s a cushy job you can get because your Uncle Sam pulled some strings down at the bank."

  4. Real Estate Investment Doesn’t Increase Spending:  "The housing bust is creating more excess capital income than a housing bubble ever could have."

Sunday, June 9, 2019

May 2019 Yield Curve Update

Good news on the monetary policy front.  The Fed has been signaling a willingness to ease, and currently, futures markets are predicting a 25 basis point rate deduction in July (with some probability even of a 50 bp deduction!).  Initially, this brought the yield curve down out to several years, but in the days since then, the short end of the curve has remained lower while the curve from 2020 onward has recovered back to late May levels.  That's a great sign.  Maybe the Fed will ease enough to avoid a contraction.

The primary thing to look for in the yield curve, I think, is reaction of the long end.  I think we are clearly in inversion territory now, which means that there has been some distortion in long term yields.  As short term yields decline, that distortion will be eased, and long term yields will initially decline along with short term yields.  Eventually, the positive signal will be a divergence between short and long term rates, with a flattening of the short to mid term curve and a slight upward slope.  It seems as though the Fed is willing to be aggressive enough to make that happen.  This is a positive surprise to me.

Expectations have changed so sharply that already, if you look at the December 2020 contract on the Eurodollar curve, half of the gap between the November peak rate of about 3.2% and 0% has already been filled.  In terms of taking a long position on forward rates, the horse is already mostly out of the barn.  If the Fed is aggressive, forward rates may not have that much farther to fall.

In the second chart here, I would expect the typical pattern to happen, where, as the Fed Funds Rate declines, the 10 year rate will decline along with it along the inversion trend line.  At some point, the 10 year will stabilize.  A rule of thumb I would expect to look for is if the Fed has gotten too far behind the 8-ball, then the economy will deteriorate and the Fed Funds rate will continue to decline.  Or, if they get ahead of the ball, then the 10 year will recover.  So, I suppose I would expect the inversion to eventually reverse.  The scatterplot will cross back over the trendline.  It would be a bad sign if the scatterplot crosses the trendline horizontally and it would be a good sign if it crosses it vertically.

It moved vertically in 1996 and 1999.  But, in those cases, the curve wasn't inverted, or the inversion hadn't been in place quite as long.  In cases where it has been inverted for at least this long, recession followed.  In 2001, the inversion was reversed by lowering the Fed Funds rate, so it crossed horizontally.  It seems as though we could go either way.  I have been prepared for the mania about asset prices to drive the Fed to a too hawkish position, but the fact that the market thinks there is a chance for a 50 basis point move in July suggests that the Fed is no longer as hawkish as I thought.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Housing: Part 352 - Building market rate homes helps make housing more affordable

Nolan Gray has a great write-up at CityLab about a new working paper that attempts to empirically measure the process by which substitutions across housing markets work.  This is one process by which new high-end units can help create broad affordability.

Gray's piece is about a new working paper by Evan Mast.

The take-away:
Building 100 new luxury units leads 65 and 34 people to move out of below-median and bottom-quintile income neighborhoods, respectively, reducing demand and loosening the housing market in such areas. These results suggest that increasing housing supply improves housing affordability in the short run.
Keep in mind that the status quo in the Closed Access cities is that tens of thousands of households of lesser means move away each year because of affordability issues.  This work only measures moves up-market, not the cessation of outmigration.

In the extreme, where high-end housing demand is inelastic and low-end housing demand is very elastic, one might expect new supply to lead mostly to an expansion of high-end quantity demanded with little or no expansion of low-end quantity.  That is effectively what is happening on the margin today.  As high-end demand continues to grow, demand at the low end is reduced by substituting out of the metro area.  The migration data tells us this is the state of demand.

So, functional substitution between housing sub-markets could still lead to better affordability even if there was not an expansion of quantity demanded among low-tier tenants.  It would still be an improvement if lower rents simply allowed them to remain in the units they have.  It would be an improvement simply to stop that distressed outflow.

Mast's findings are a bonus.  Not only can the new supply stop the outflow.  It can even lead to low-tier increases in quantity demanded.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The popularity of the nationalistic rhetoric of Trump, Warren, and Sanders is a failure of economics

Elizabeth Warren posted "A Plan for Economic Patriotism" this week.  It begins like this:
I come from a patriotic family. All three of my brothers joined the military. And I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities America has given me. But the giant “American” corporations who control our economy don’t seem to feel the same way. They certainly don’t act like it.
Sure, these companies wave the flag — but they have no loyalty or allegiance to America. Levi’s is an iconic American brand, but the company operates only 2% of its factories here. Dixon Ticonderoga — maker of the famous №2 pencil — has “moved almost all of its pencil production to Mexico and China.” And General Electric recently shut down an industrial engine factory in Wisconsin and shipped the jobs to Canada. The list goes on and on.
These “American” companies show only one real loyalty: to the short-term interests of their shareholders, a third of whom are foreign investors.
As with her other proposals, there is a mixture of good and bad, and a lot of details.  Maybe the rhetoric isn't that important, in the end, to the actual policies.  But, the rhetoric here is chilling.  The history of public movements calling out groups for their supposed divided loyalties is a long and disgraceful one.  Considering the starkness of the rhetoric, and the parallels between Trump, Warren, and Sanders regarding their use of the form, it is interesting to consider how, for all of us, our reactions to each of them differ so much.  The bridge between Warren and Trump voters seems to be increasingly noted.  It seems plausible that this new press release is part of a plan by Warren to build on that.

But, I want to step back from that for now, and just consider the practical issues raised in Warren's statement.  Economics, at the least, should serve as an inoculation against this sort of rhetoric, and in this, it seems it has failed.

Consider the global economy as it might be, full of functional, productive societies with wealthy residents.  In that world, the places we currently consider developed might produce 20% of global goods and services.  Instead, today we produce something more like 70%.  At some previous point, it was more like 80%, and developing economies have been catching up.

That process of catching up is fabulous.  It is all to the good.  The only sustainable way of becoming a developed prosperous place that we know if is to move toward a system of a universally applied rule of law, human rights protections, personal freedom, and self-determination.  With that foundation, people engage in the process of specialization and trade that is the source of economic abundance.

This is the key - specialization and trade.  So, imagining this fabulous development - the whole world becoming civilized, humane, and wealthy until our part of it only produces 20% of that abundance - exactly how does one expect that shift to happen?  As the developing world moves from 20% to 30% of global production, they will necessarily specialize in some additional portion of world production.  It might be apparel or pencils.  It might be something else.  But it will be something. And much of it will be items that used to be produced in the developed economies.

The idea that the Dixon Ticonderoga company has much of a say in this is obtuse.  And, furthermore, the idea that their acquiescence to this global transformation is the result of "the short-term interests of their shareholders" is ludicrous.  There is nothing short term about this.

The reason that this rhetoric doesn't destroy Warren's public credibility is because of the failure of economics education.  The reason this can be construed as a short-sighted decision is that it is almost universally seen as a way to take advantage of the low wages of developing economy workers.  As if this is just a heartless example of exploitation rather than a reaction to epochal shifts in global productivity.

I propose a simple statement as a starting point for remedying this problem: "Production doesn't move to where wages are low.  It moves to where wages are rising."

That is the story of economic development.  This doesn't mean there aren't growing pains that sometimes hit some workers the hardest.  But, it does mean that in the end, all of those gains, on net, go to workers.  Returns to global at-risk capital are about 8% plus inflation.  They were 8% a century ago, they average about 8% today, and they will likely be 8% or less a century from now, if the world continues to grow with a capitalist framework.  But, workers today earn ten times or more what they did a century ago, and in another century - especially in places that are catching up - they will earn at least ten times what they earn today.

It really is ironic that Warren uses the Dixon Ticonderoga company as an example here.  Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education was perhaps most famous for writing the essay, "I, pencil".  An excerpt:
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.
An interesting aspect of that essay is that it contains several practical references to geographical locations of production, many of which I am sure have become dated as global production and specialization have evolved.  The essay is at once a timeless conceptual reminder of the profoundness of the invisible hand and a record of the fleeting nature of its operation.

I found this with a quick google search, which is a nice educational aid used in some New York state elementary school classrooms.  The education is being done.  But, the continued popularity of its absence is a call for ever more.  Godspeed, New York elementary teachers.

(PS; Karl Smith weighs in here with some interesting supporting details about the history of Dixon Ticonderoga.  He also discusses currency manipulation, but I think that is an overstated factor in the American trade deficit.)

Housing: Part 351 - The downfall of "Pick-A-Pay" loans

Here is a great article on the history of Golden West Financial Corporation and the development and downfall of option ARMs. (Pick-A-Pay or option ARM refers to mortgages where the borrower can choose their monthly payment for some period of time - sometimes at a rate that doesn't even cover the interest, so that the principal amount grows rather than declines.) An excerpt:

Five months after the Times’s “pariah” story ran, the paper’s Floyd Norris wrote a column about Golden West’s loans. The business columnist had entirely missed the original piece on the Sandlers, he says, and knew little about their bank’s history. Like other option ARMs, Norris wrote, Pick-a-Pay loans were racking up big losses. But when reading Wells Fargo’s first-quarter earnings report, he noticed that less than one-third of 1 percent of Golden West’s loans were expected to recast before the end of 2012, meaning that borrowers wouldn’t see large payment increases for many years. “That struck me as an amazing number,” he says. “How the hell could that be?”

It was the ten-year option at work. Over the next few days, Norris researched the terms of Pick-a-Pay loans, and concluded that the loans’ ten-year option and high loan-to-value cap were remarkably generous, and an attempt to do right by borrowers. Yet in a catastrophic market decline, those terms stripped the bank of leverage. Homeowners could pay less than interest-only in the hope that the market would recover, restoring their equity. If prices stayed depressed, however, they didn’t have much to lose, as their payments “could well be less than the cost of a comparable rental,” Norris wrote.

“I understand it makes some people feel better to know that they have identified someone who acted outrageously,” Norris says. “But sometimes it’s more interesting when nobody acted particularly outrageously and things blew up anyway.”

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Housing: Part 350 - Perceptions of reckless lending

I like to get feedback on my work from real estate investors, developers, etc.  Most of the time, they simply see me as na├»ve or silly.  Some doofus with a theory sitting next to you on an airplane isn't going to cause you to stop believing your own eyes.  And, real estate is still mostly local.  Knowing the up and coming parts of town, the best corner for a new building, etc. are still more important than having a fine-tuned perspective on macro trends.  Whatever is driving the macro-level, there will still be apartment buildings sitting half empty in one part of town while they can't get built quickly enough in another.

It is a difficult conundrum, because macro-level work needs to be able to withstand a critique from on-the-ground market experience.  Yet, success on the ground doesn't necessarily require having a coherent interpretation of the market.  The guy with the bustling bagel shop on the corner might be able to do just fine even if he sees the world through a collection of layman's fallacies.  If he makes a decent bagel and manages his staff well, it probably won't affect his livelihood if he thinks the Federal Reserve is controlled by the Rothschilds and that the economy is just being pumped up in a series of fake inflationary bubbles.

So, I try to hear what strangers have to say, even though I realize it is a bit dangerous that I am capable of being stubbornly immune to their criticisms.

Recently, I had a conversation with a woman who is a small-scale landlord.  The kind of street-wise investor that you typically see in that market, who knows how to put their money to work.  It is interesting to talk to people like this because they operate from a different framework than I do.  I have shown how there is a systematic relationship between price and rent within each metro area, and I have hypotheses about why that is - costs of management, access to capital, income tax benefits, etc.

It is rare for people who actually invest in local real estate to have thought about these things, even though you would think it would be important.  Usually they just have some personal rules of thumb: only buy properties with a gross return above x%, don't rent to x, y, and z types of people, don't buy properties in x, y, and z parts of town, etc.  These rules of thumb effectively come to the same result as a quantitative analysis of returns would do.

Typically, these investors simply dismiss out of hand the possibility of investing in high tier single family homes, because they are too expensive.  That will happen in either case, whether looking at the market systematically and quantitatively from a macro level, or using their rules of thumb.  If you recognize that something is too expensive to pay off as an investment property, you don't necessarily need to spend a lot of effort to explain why it is.  But, since they use their rules of thumb, they never confront the oddity that their single largest investment is exactly the investment they dismiss out of hand - the very home they sleep in every night.  To them, that is simply a different category of activity.  That is consumption, not investment.

It is perfectly reasonable that they own their home.  Part of what they are consuming is the act of ownership - control.  But, not fully confronting these conceptual issues leaves many functionally successful investors in a position of misunderstanding macro-level issues and policy issues.  For a start, I think it is common to underestimate how pro-ownership public policy goals unlock value for other households that current homeowners frequently take for granted without having really thought about it.  In other words, it is perfectly rational that they paid more for their house than they would ever have dreamed of paying for an investment property, yet creating markets or public programs that would allow other households to do exactly the same thing seems reckless and dangerous - using public subsidies to feed speculation and over-consumption.

Aaaaanyway, I digress.  The woman I struck up a conversation with had some pointed reasons for dismissing my broad theory of the housing bubble.  One reason, which she explained to me, was that her son bought a house in Wyoming during the bubble while he was finishing college.  As she explained it, she and his father had agreed to co-sign on the mortgage so he could qualify.  But, when it came time to close on the sale, they were out of the country on a trip.  They were preparing to come up with a way to sign the proper documents when her son informed her that the banker said it was unnecessary.  They would approve the loan without requiring a cosigner.  She was aghast.  Her son had very little income at the time.  It was outrageous that the bank would approve the mortgage.  Furthermore, this was during the bubble.  Home prices were elevated, precisely because this sort of recklessness was moving the market.

This is the sort of feedback that I consider interesting.  I have to acknowledge these sorts of excesses properly in order to arrive at a truthful explanation of what happened.  At first blush, this seemed like feedback that I should chew on as a source of caveats.  But, the more I chew on it, the more peculiar it seems.

First, here is a chart of median real home prices in Wyoming, with real home prices in California included for a reference point.  Also, I have included an estimate of conventional mortgage payments on the median Wyoming home.  (Data from Zillow and Fred)

There are some interesting things going on here.  First, I think this is a good example of how the bubble idea has infected our perceptions of the time.  I am sure that her memory of prices in Wyoming isn't technically wrong.  The unit her son was buying was probably 10% or 20% higher than it would have been a few years earlier.  A frugal investor would notice such a thing, and would think twice about buying in such a market.

Yet, prices in Wyoming just wouldn't have led to any sort of notions about a special market that was bloated by recklessness.  Those notions have been planted in our perceptions because of places like California.  As the chart shows, the scale of the market just isn't in the same ballpark.

And, here is a chart of foreclosure sales in California and Wyoming. (Data from Zillow)  This perfectly reasonable woman has a picture in her head of something that happened that just didn't happen.  It was even convincing to me until I sat on it for a while.  If, indeed, there was a rash of reckless lending in Wyoming before 2007, then we should conclude that reckless lending had nothing to do with either a housing bubble or a foreclosure crisis, or at least was far from sufficient as an explanation.

She was explaining to me why lending was responsible for a boom and bust by using a market that didn't have a boom and bust.

Yet, this isn't even the half of it.

What she is perturbed about is the fact that the bank was engaging in such reckless underwriting.  Yet, her son didn't have trouble making the payments.  He ended up doing fine.  I mentioned to her that this was interesting, because even though there was an expansion of lending, in hindsight, it was focused on more qualified borrowers - those with college educations, professional career tracks, higher incomes, etc.  And, Stefania Albanesi, Giacomo De Giorgi, and Jaromir Nosal found that, even where loans went to borrowers that appeared to be less qualified, they were borrowers who had bright prospects.  Their incomes, FICO scores, etc, improved after getting their loans.  And, her son seemed to fit that profile.

No, she replied.  Underwriting isn't based on wishful thinking.  It's based on whether the borrower can make the payment today.  It was reckless.  Not only is this good advice, but she has built a sizable and durable nest egg by being careful about the prices she pays for investment properties and the tenants she fills them with.  To suggest otherwise would be foolish and, really, offensive to everything she identifies with.

But, notice, she isn't upset that he got the mortgage.  She expected him to get the mortgage.  She was willing to vouch for him in order that he could get the mortgage.  She was in the best position to decide if he was worthy of the loan, and she was willing to take financial responsibility for the loan in order to help make it happen.  She is just upset that the bank's underwriting came to the same conclusion she did using methods that were not conventional.  And, after all, the bank was right to make that decision.

Yet, understandably, considering the way that perceptions have developed concerning the bubble, there is no way I could ever convince her that conventional wisdom about the bubble is wrong.  She has personal experience that clearly seems to confirm the conventional wisdom.  Reckless lending led to bubble prices that were bound to collapse.  And the evidence for this is that a bank agreed to make a loan that she, herself, having more information than the bank had, would have made.

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when she described the ravings of this fool to her husband that night.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Uber and wages in a free economy.

Here was a recent article about Uber and Lyft drivers in Washington, DC, colluding to game surge pricing at the airport.
Every night, several times a night, Uber and Lyft drivers at Reagan National Airport simultaneously turn off their ride share apps for a minute or two to trick the app into thinking there are no drivers available---creating a price surge. When the fare goes high enough, the drivers turn their apps back on and lock into the higher fare.
It's happening in the Uber and Lyft parking lot outside Reagan National airport. The lot fills with 120 to 150 drivers sometimes for hours, waiting for the busy evening rush. And nearly all the drivers have one complaint:
“Uber doesn’t pay us enough, what the company is doing is defrauding all these people by taking 35-40 percent,” one driver told ABC 7.
There is a lot going on here.  Really, these drivers aren't colluding against Uber and Lyft.  They are colluding against the customers, who must pay surge pricing.  Uber and Lyft must compete against each other for riders, which drives their fares down to the competitive level.  The drivers are actually colluding so that they and the firms can claim monopoly profits from airport customers.

Their complaints are against the firms, but really, the culprit is competition, which prevents both them and the firms from boosting their incomes at the expense of riders.

In fact, their complaint against the firms is even more misguided than that.  The firms are charging riders a competitive rate and they are overpaying the drivers.  This is a classic economic problem.  There is a queue at the airport.  Those drivers are choosing to go sit in line at the airport instead of driving around the rest of the city picking up riders on the go.  And the reason is that, at standard rates, airport rides are more lucrative for them.  The reason for a queue, conceptually and in this particular case, is that the price is too high.

If the price was too low, you would have a queue of customers, like during the oil shocks of the 1970s when price controls were put in place.  Here, the price Lyft and Uber pay to the drivers at the airport is too high, so the producers (the drivers) are queuing.

Paying drivers more would only make this problem worse.  If they are waiting for an hour to get a fare now, then if the typical fare doubled, drivers would wait for two hours.  Uber and Lyft aren't determining the hourly wage for these drivers.  They are determining it by deciding to wait in line.

The only other way for Uber and Lyft to solve this problem would be to ration the supply of drivers in some other way.  In a way, this is one reason drivers might want to be classified as employees instead of contractors.  If Uber and Lyft treated drivers like employees, they would manage how many drivers there were and where they drove.  They could eliminate the queuing, which would raise wages and reduce the waste of queuing, but it could only happen by being a gatekeeper.  The only way to get rid of the queue would be to tell some of the potential, qualified drivers that they aren't invited any more.  They aren't "hired".

This is similar to the issue of minimum wages.  The way this raises the wages of some is by eliminating the wages of others.

That isn't all bad.  Here, it would lead to less waste by eliminating over-long queues.  But, small scale gains due to monopoly power or economic rents don't add up to social gains.  Everyone can't earn more than the competitive income by using market power to impose exclusion.

The queue is wasteful, but I'm not sure there is a solution.  The economics of driving basically will always come down to queuing.  Whatever rate Lyft and Uber pay, whether drivers are sitting at the airport, or driving around town, the economic breakeven for the drivers will be a function of queuing in some way.  It will determine when and where they drive.  In any given part of town, how long do they need to wait to get a rider, how long do they need to drive to pick up the rider, and how long will the average ride be?  That equation comes down to how much time is a rider in the car versus how much time is the car empty.  There are several supply and demand variables that lead to an equilibrium level for any particular location, but in the end, that equilibrium will be driven by the willingness of drivers to queue in order to get a fare and it seems that some queue, such that it is, will remain wherever Uber and Lyft set their fares and their driver reimbursement levels.  Limiting the number of drivers at the airport queue, where the extra 50 or 100 cars in line has little effect on the quality of service, may seem like a no-brainer.  But, trying to reduce queuing out in the marginal markets around a city will change the supply and demand dynamic in a way that will lead to deadweight loss on the margin.  Reducing the number of drivers will necessarily increase wait times for riders, changing demand for drivers.

I am sure there are teams of economists working on this problem at Uber and Lyft.  I suspect they don't so much mind being tricked into surge pricing at the airport.  They certainly aren't going to raise driver payments in an attempt to address the issue.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Brigham Burton and Carly Burton have been arrested.

I used to have a little signage subcontracting business which I sold in 2010.  I sold it to a fellow named Brigham Burton (formerly Kent Burton.  He also has used many LLCs, such as Burton Partners, Rockline Equity, Greenwood Equity, Funding Now, Drive Executives, Eleava Services, and others).

I had to sue him in civil court in order to get fully paid for the business.  The judgments I was granted against him included fraud and conversion.  He appealed the rulings, and the appeals court upheld them, including the punitive damages that were assessed.  The appeals court confirmed that "based on the record in this case, the jury could have found by clear and convincing evidence that Burton’s conduct was aggravated and outrageous, evincing an evil mind. Therefore, we decline to set aside the punitive damages awards."

The criminal justice system has taken notice of the Burtons now.  They were just arrested.  I'm not entirely sure of the details, but I think some of these charges relate to what they did to me.  Really, all I know is that the state has me registered as a victim who is notified when something happens in the case, like the Burtons being arrested.

Here are their mugshots.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

FEECon 2019

I will be at FEEcon 2019 in Atlanta on June 14 for a panel on housing markets.

Looks like lots of fun and interesting things are happening there.

Here's a link:
https://www.feecon.org/

And here is more about FEE:
https://fee.org/

If you will be there, be sure and say hello.  And, if you will be in the Atlanta area, check it out.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Progress means giving up what is sacred today for sacred unknowns of the future

Arnold Kling has a link to a study on education with this abstract:
Can schools that boost student outcomes reproduce their success at new campuses? We study a policy reform that allowed effective charter schools in Boston, Massachusetts to replicate their school models at new locations. Estimates based on randomized admission lotteries show that replication charter schools generate large achievement gains on par with those produced by their parent campuses. The average effectiveness of Boston’s charter middle school sector increased after the reform despite a doubling of charter market share. An exploration of mechanisms shows that Boston charter schools reduce the returns to teacher experience and compress the distribution of teacher effectiveness, suggesting the highly standardized practices in place at charter schools may facilitate replicability.

 A key point here: "An exploration of mechanisms shows that Boston charter schools reduce the returns to teacher experience and compress the distribution of teacher effectiveness..."

That sounds terrible, doesn't it?  I think this is key to fundamentally different approaches to progress. It seems like supporting the current providers is key to improving current institutions.  But transforming institutions sometimes means making current providers less important.

There was a time where having a creative, problem-solving blacksmith was key to having effective transportation.  Replacing that blacksmith with impersonal, monotonous factory work seems wrong.  It involves losing something sacred.  Yet, making blacksmiths unimportant was key to the transportation revolution.  You would not set foot on an airplane to take a vacation or a business trip halfway around the world if the airplane depended on a team of blacksmiths using experience and tactile expertise to create the engine parts.  The sacred act of visiting the Egyptian pyramids in person, or coordinating with an Asian businessperson could only be possible by eliminating the sacred role of learned and expert craftsmen.

The extreme version of this transformation is in telecommunications. Barely a human hand touched the phones we carry in our pockets with millions of circuits and parts.  Yet, those phones are only possible because new forms of creative work have been created.

To an extent, the need to unleash the creativity of teachers in the classroom is required because that creativity has to overcome the shortcomings of the institution it is embedded in.  It seems like it would be losing something sacred to create a more effective institution that would make that creativity unimportant.  Yet, what if a better institution leads to better education, even without creative teachers constantly bustling and working to overcome an ineffective institution?

A Silicon Valley designer can use creative work to improve the effectiveness of a million circuits in a phone that will be used by a million people.  That is a lot of leverage that the blacksmith couldn't have.  An institution that requires an immense amount of effort to effectively educate kids a roomful at a time is using an awful lot of sacred effort.  Wouldn't it be great to educate those kids with teachers that didn't need to be so creative?  And, wouldn't it be great to move to a world where the effort going into that creativity was leveraged beyond a room full of 20 kids?

So often, the difficulty in supporting progress comes in losing the known sacred in exchange for the unknown sacred.  In the end, progress depends on faith in emergent change.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

An interesting juxtaposition of issues.

There is this:
AOC & Bernie Sanders talking about limiting interest rates on unsecured debt to 15%.

Then there is this:
A story about a new type of loan to help people meet rent.

Then there is this:
A story about households who can't get mortgages for small amounts.


There has been some pushback on the AOC/Sanders proposal.  But, it seems clear to me that those homeowners in the third story could get an unsecured loan of some sort with very high rates more easily than they could get any sort of mortgage.  That is odd.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

April 2019 Yield Curve Update

Sorry, I'm a little slow to this update.

The yield curve inversion remains in place.  The curve as of Thursday looked very similar to the levels at the end of March and April.  This seems to be a trading opportunity.  I consider a yield curve to be a signal rather than a cause.  During inversions, there is a bias in forward rates.  Something keeps forward rates from moving as far below short term rates as they should, which means that there appears to be potentially persistent profit available by shorting forward rates when the yield curve is inverted.

It seems like the trading position to take is to position for reversion while the Fed keeps the short term rate stable.  Forward rates will move up and down within a range.  Then, when the Fed moves the short term rate, forward rates will move out of the trading range.  If it lowers the rate proactively, forward rates will move up.  If it lowers the rate reactively, forward rates will move down.

It seems to me that the probable outcome here is that, on the first chart, 2019 will look like 2006 and 2007.  A brief vertical period eventually with a breakout to the left and down.

Keep in mind that I am actually a cocker spaniel and my master doesn't even know that I maintain this blogspot account, so I can't legally be responsible for your trading gains and losses, and you really shouldn't even be reading this nonsense.

Me


You taking actionable advice from this blog

Friday, May 10, 2019

April 2019 CPI Inflation

We appear to be seeing a rebound in shelter inflation and a decline in non-shelter inflation.  The inverted yield curve, stabilizing home prices, declining residential investment, and a peak in existing and new home sales all suggest parallels to 2006.  This is now three consecutive months with core non-shelter deflation.  (Caveat: there were some parallels to 2006 two years ago, too, so follow my logic with a grain of salt.)

As in 2006, these conditions are generally related to marginally contractionary monetary policy.  In 2006 and 2007, consumption was able to continue growing in spite of monetary contraction because the housing bubble had provided trillions of dollars in home equity to draw upon for liquidity.  The housing ATM postponed our self-imposed recession.  There isn't much of a housing ATM available today.  On the other hand, what made the recession Great was the late and extreme tightening of credit access that created a post-2008 default crisis and wealth shock targeted among low tier home owners.  You can't kill a dead horse, so on that front, there is safety relative to 2006.  There's a good slogan for proponents of macroprudential credit controls.  "You can't kill a dead horse!"  Though, as rising rent inflation makes clear, you can continue to kick it.

As has been the case for most of the last 20 years, rent inflation for tenants has been running higher than rent inflation for owners. Additionally, credit markets have been suppressed for the last decade, pushing prices down.  This created a wealth shock for owners during the transition to the new normal where housing markets are characterized by federal exclusionary rules.  But, as we move away from that one-time effect, the low price of homes for families that are "qualified" under the new regime becomes something of a rent subsidy for "qualified" owners.  The rental value of their homes is rising, but since credit suppression provides them with excess returns on their investment, those rising rents aren't reflected in rising mortgage payments, so that their spending isn't as constrained in other types of consumption.  In spite of this, inflation in non-shelter core components is still barely running above 1%.

It continues to appear to me to be the case that we have finally entered the period of time where the Fed will keep the target rate steady, creating a plateau period where the yield curve is inverted.  The curve will fluctuate somewhat during this time, but it will remain inverted.  It is unlikely to un-invert unless the Fed proactively lowers the target rate.  Eventually, the target rate will be biased enough toward contraction that the Fed will have to start chasing the neutral rate down, and everyone will declare those rate cuts to be stimulative, even though they will really reflect a Fed policy that is just walking backwards more slowly.

In the recent press conference, Fed chair Powell said, "Overall inflation for the 12 months ended in March was 1.5 percent. Core inflation unexpectedly fell as well, however, and as of March stood at 1.6 percent for the previous 12 months. We suspect that some transitory factors may be at work. Thus, our baseline view remains that, with a strong job market and continued growth, inflation will return to 2 percent over time and then be roughly symmetric around our longer-term objective."

Employment is a lagging indicator.  Neither rent nor shelter were mentioned in the press conference.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Housing: Part 349 - Homeownership rates

The Census Bureau recently published the 2019 first quarter numbers on the housing stock.  Homeownership rates had bottomed out in 2016 at 62.9%.  That was one quarter which was probably an anomaly.  Generally, the bottom appears to have been about 63.5%.

It had generally risen since then, up to 64.8% last quarter.  However, this quarter, it moved back down to 64.2%.

I have been watching this number because there have been mixed signals on the housing market.  As the analysts at AEI point out, by some measures, mortgage standards have been easing.  However, according to the New York Fed, there hasn't been any loosening to pre-crisis standards in terms of originations by FICO score.

At the same time, the low rate of building has been levelling out along with prices and resales in some markets.  It seems unlikely to me that homeownership can continue to recover without easing in terms of borrower quality.  My interpretation of this mix of data is that the various factors that are causing a shortage of housing supply are pushing up housing costs, which leads to the use of riskier mortgage terms, and that part of the problem is that the constraints on lending to financially marginal households who would have been buyers in previous generations is one factor that is causing the shortage.  Looser lending would help pull up prices in low tier markets, back to price points that make new building profitable.  That's what needs to happen to lower housing costs in general.

However, my hypothesis would need to be reconsidered if homeownership continued to rise while borrower-based lending standards remained tight.

This quarter is an interesting number, because it presents the possibility that my point of view is correct.  On a noisy measure like homeownership, it is hard to tell what is noise and what is signal until some time has passed.  It could be that the 62.9% number and the 64.8% number were just noise, and that homeownership bottomed out at about 63.5% and only very slightly rose to about 64.2% where it will remain.  If it is still in this range in a year, that is plausibly the case.  If this quarter turns out to be the outlier, and homeownership is up to 65% next year, then perhaps a recovery is possible in homeownership without expanding lending to more marginal borrowers.

Time will tell.


On High Tier vs. Low Tier Prices

I want to discuss tier price levels for a moment.  There has been some recent recovery in low tier prices vs. high tier prices, which appears to lend credence to the idea that lending is loosening substantially, in spite of the FICO score data.  There are a couple of caveats to note here.

First, there is a bias in the way some analysts use Case-Shiller indexes.  As with so many factors on this topic, it is purely a function of priors.  It isn't a bias at all if the conclusion that credit markets were the main cause of rising low-tier prices before the crisis is already taken to be true when the data is analyzed.  However, it does appear to be a bias if you question that conclusion.

Case-Shiller has 20 city-specific indexes, which includes all 5 Closed Access cities.  Be careful looking at analysis of low- versus high- tier prices that uses those indexes. If the data is heavily populated with Closed Access data, it will not be indicative of national markets.  Low-tier vs. high-tier prices act differently in those cities than in other cities.  I go into that a little bit here.  Or, better yet, buy Shut Out to read about it(using code 4S18MERC30 for a discount).

Furthermore, even in national stats there is a bias here.  The problem is the extreme nature of the walloping we handed to low tier housing markets.

Imagine a city where high tier markets bottomed out at a 20% decline and low tier markets bottomed out at a 50% decline.  As a proportion of the peak price, that's a 30% additional decline in the low tier.  In spite of conventional wisdom to the contrary, in most cities, that wasn't undoing anything.  Low tier prices hadn't risen significantly higher than high tier prices had.

The bottom came around 2012.  Now, if someone uses 2012 as a baseline, they may find that high tier prices have recovered by 25% since then, while low tier prices had recovered by a whopping 40%.  If one treats the 2012 market as the benchmark, it would seem that low tier prices are 15% overvalued.  But, if we treat the pre-crisis level as the benchmark, then there has been no catch up.
  High Tier 80% x 1.25% = 100%
  Low Tier  50% x 1.4% = 70%

In other words, low tier prices are still 30% undervalued compared to high tier prices, and there has been no catchup at all.  Because conventional wisdom has been so blind to the fundamental causes of the crisis, this sort of bias is very common among academic papers, policy papers, and general journalism.  It's fascinating how an innocent shift in priors can create these self-fulfilling biases in the analysis.  There are clues about these biases though, once your frame of reference moves to a place where useful questions aren't obscured by priors.  On this issue, for instance, it would seem to be a mystery why low tier building rates are still dead if prices are 15% inflated.  But, it isn't really a mystery at all if those prices remain relatively low.

Keep in mind, this is a hypothetical example, although it is a realistic number for many cities.  There has been some low-tier recovery. Maybe the post 2012 appreciation rates have been more like 50% compared to 20%.  But, in this example, for instance, to completely re-attain previous norms, low tier prices would have to double from their lows while high tier prices only rise 25%.  Even though this is arithmetically the case, it would be quite a difficult point of view to sell to someone who is convinced that excess lending or speculative buying is the ever-present monster under the bed that needs to be thwarted.  As Russ Roberts of EconTalk fame frequently laments, data isn't as powerful as we would like it to be in these debates, because the issues are just too complex and too bound up by differing premises.  Isn't it striking?  There is a stew of ever evolving priors informed by data, informed by priors, etc. etc. which leads us to a point where it isn't possible to come to agreement about whether low tier prices are overvalued at  a 100% appreciation level vs. 20%.  How do we ever come to know anything?

Monday, April 22, 2019

IW on the web

Tech entrepreneur David Siegel has an interesting and thorough post up at medium.com that is a sort of reference point to cutting edge or wise thinking on a vast array of topics.  One reason I am posting a link here is because David kindly includes the work of Scott Sumner and myself on the financial crisis and the housing bubble, prominently, as work that should be read and understood.

Regarding our work, he begins with:

Understanding the Great Financial Crisis

A good way to see the storytelling effect is to look at the “common wisdom” of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008/9, an event that impacted every person on earth and destroyed a billion jobs. Almost everyone got the story wrong. Michael Lewis’s book and movie, The Big Short, was popular but completely missed the true cause and effect. So did Niall Ferguson and many experts.
In reality, two people — Kevin Erdmann, an investor and Scott Sumner, an economist — have shown that the “common wisdom” does not fit the facts. Using the scientific method and hard evidence, they show that the GFC was a result of bad reactions to scarce resources

I appreciate David's support and his willingness to consider this new point of view.  But, in addition to that, his post can be fruitfully used as a starting point into inquiry in a number of topics.

He lists my book "Shut Out" as an "advanced" reading.  For those visiting IW from David's post, if you don't want to dive into a long tome of "advanced" reading on the topic, here are a couple of shorter pieces that may get the ball rolling.  I'm not sure they are any more accessible, but they are much shorter, and introduce the basics.  (My writing tends to be analytical rather than narrative, but I don't think you will find any of my work to be nearly as difficult as, say, the typical academic article in an economics journal.)

Housing Was Undersupplied during the Great Housing Bubble

The Danger in Using Monetary Policy to Address Housing Affordability