Tuesday, December 14, 2004

As the Federal Reserve moves to raise short-term interest rates once again, flags are raised about the effect on housing prices. With housing being the largest household asset — and one that has risen sharply over the last several years — a downturn in housing prices akin to the fall in stock prices since 2000 would be devastating to families and the economy.

According to the latest Federal Reserve data, American households owned $16.6 trillion in real estate in third-quarter of 2004, up $2.2 trillion in the last year, an increase of 15.4 percent. By contrast, they owned just $9.4 trillion in corporate equities and mutual funds, which rose $923 billion over the same period, an increase of just 10.9 percent.

The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight reports home prices rose 13 percent in the last year, almost 5 percent in just the last quarter.

This is a very large increase by historical standards. However, some areas have seen much larger increases. Housing prices in Nevada are up 36 percent in the last year. Over the last five years, prices are up 107 percent in the District of Columbia, vs. 48 percent nationally. Since 1980, homeowners in Massachusetts have seen a 566 percent rise. The national figure is 234 percent.

One worry is that mortgage lenders have been too easy about granting mortgage loans. However, service on mortgage debt was only 9.86 percent of disposable personal income in the third quarter, up from a recent low of 9.08 percent in fourth-quarter 1998, but down from a high of 10.41 percent in third-quarter 1991.

A key concern is that mortgage lenders now often lend to homebuyers with no money down. Until recently, they have usually demanded a 10 percent to 20 percent down payment before one could obtain a mortgage, in order to protect themselves from housing downturns. Further, many homebuyers now have adjustable rate mortgages, which rise automatically when interest rates rise, rather than fixed-rate mortgages that remain the same no matter what happens to interest rates.

A number of economists have warned lately that housing prices have increased far more than economic fundamentals would seem to justify, at least in some important markets. Economists at University of California-Los Angeles have concluded that California’s housing market is in a bubble, and economist Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley thinks much of the rest of the country is also experiencing a housing bubble.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco point out that one can get some idea of whether housing prices are out of line with fundamentals by comparing them to rents. This yields a ratio akin to the price/earnings ratio that investors use to gauge stock prices. On that basis, home prices are at historically high levels that appear unsustainable.

Other economists are less apprehensive. Those at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York think fundamentals are mainly responsible for the recent rise in housing prices. They point to rising family incomes and low interest rates. Moreover, they note that even if interest rates rise, experience shows this tends to slow housing price increases rather than lead to a generalized fall.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan also appears sanguine about the existence of a housing bubble. It is worth noting that housing prices aren’t just rising here, they are rising worldwide. According to the Economist magazine, housing prices rose 65 percent in the United States between 1997 and 2004, but they rose 112 percent in Australia, 139 percent in Britain, 149 percent in Spain, 187 percent in Ireland and 227 percent in South Africa.

The rise in housing prices, here and elsewhere, is not surprising, given the decline in interest rates. Housing prices are, to a certain extent, like bond prices. When interest rates fall, bond prices rise. But, when interest rates rise, bond prices fall. Therefore, the critical question is what will happen when interest rates inevitably rise from their current, historically low levels?

Economist Arnold Kling points out that much depends on whether market rates rise because of inflationary expectations or because real rates are rising because of an increased demand for credit. If it is the former, then housing prices can continue to rise even as interest rates rise. But if real rates — the market rate less the inflation rate — rise sharply, then all asset prices are likely to fall.

Prudence suggests that it would be unwise to buy a house in the expectation of future price increases like those we have seen. However, those planning to stay put for a few years should not suffer. In any event, all homeowners would be well advised to get out of ARM’s and refinance into fixed rate mortgages as soon as possible.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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