Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Housing prices continue to slide

Housing prices continued to edge lower earlier this year, as revealed in the February Case Shiller and Radar Logic housing price indices.

On an inflation-adjusted basis, housing prices have declined by 42% since their mid-2006 high, and are now back to the levels that prevailed in 2001. Sharply lower prices, combined with mortgage rates that are at all-time lows and rising personal incomes, make housing much more affordable that ever before for the average homebuyer. Lower prices have allowed a huge number of homes to change hands, with new buyers absorbing the excess inventory of housing that had accumulated in the wake of the housing bust.

I've been thinking that prices were at or close to a bottom, but it looks like I was premature. Nevertheless, I think it is clear that we have seen the lion's share of the price adjustment, and that the housing market is looking a lot more stable and attractive now than at any time since 2008.

I note that the Vanguard REIT fund (above chart) has rebounded significantly from its 2009 lows, and today is only inches from its post-recession high. VNQ has generated a total return of 238% since the March '09 low, compared to the S&P 500's return of 117%. Avoiding the real estate market has not proved to be a profitable decision, despite the ongoing decline in prices. What this tells me is that in late 2008 and early 2009, the market way over-estimated the degree to which the housing market would eventually collapse. We haven't seen home prices rebound yet, but since prices today are much higher than the market thought they would be, this has been the equivalent of good news for investors.

And so it goes for the economy. I've been bullish on the market because I have believed that the market was priced to an extremely pessimistic view of the future. I haven't been bullish because I thought the economy would be growing by leaps and bounds; I've been bullish because I thought the economy would grow by more than the market expected, and that proved to be a pretty low hurdle. Since the future has not turned out to be as bad as everyone thought it would be, valuations have improved. And since 10-yr Treasury yields are still at a miserably low level (2%), I think the market is still priced to an awfully weak economy (e.g., another recession) going forward. So you don't have to be very bullish on the economy to be bullish on equities. If the U.S. simply avoids a recession and continues plodding along at a very modest rate, that could be good enough to drive further gains in equity prices, and eventually some significant declines in Treasury note and bond prices.

Another way to look at this: lower home prices are not necessarily bad news. What's important is whether markets continue to clear, and whether the economy's scarce resources are being put to more productive use with the passage of time. So far, this looks to be the case.


brodero said...

Using the Radar Logic 25...I predict the housing bottom was on January 23,2012....

Unknown said...

bottom of what? sales? prices? starts? there is still a couple million houses in the foreclosure process that still need to be dealt with. how can we be anywhere near a price bottom with such historically elevated foreclosure rates and such an unbelievable amount of inventory to works through.

we are going to get a seasonal bump this spring getting everyone in a tizzy calling the bottom (this will show up in C/S in a couple months) and rework our way down to new bottoms in the fall/winter. This is probably happen for a few more years.

brodero said...

Price...of course I am have serious with exact date but the lows usually
are established in the first of the year and do believe this will be the low year for this cycle.

Benjamin Cole said...

The Fed is stuck in the 1970s, in two ways: 1) It still has a fixation on inflation, and 2) it still reacts, and is not proactive. In short, the Fed is a profoundly conservative institution.

The Fed now need to anticipate and fight deflationary pressures. Instead, it will obviously wait until the economy is contracting again, and then go to QE3.

Millions of workers, and small businesses will suffer as a result. Needlessly, as inflation is dead---you do not see sustained declines in real estate values in inflationary environments. Or chronic declines in unit labor costs, as we are.

Meanwhile, the US government is still practicing wide-scale socialism, with such huge structural impediments as ethanol (mandated at 10 percent of gasoline) federal milk production price supports, Medicare Part B (a program all alone as expensive as Social Security), a more active Border Patrol to keep out labor, stupid housing programs galore, food stamps, and a national-socialistic Defense-Homland Security-VA complex that consumes 7 percent of GDP.

We even recently had President that liked to dress up in military costumes while radically expanding the size and role of the federal government---to the point that whole industries war nearly nationalized, like banking and automobiles (on top of the already socialized agricultural sector).

Is Obama any better?

Hard to say.

New Deal democrat said...

Check out the seasonally adjusted Case Shiller report, month over month.

Where there is good seasonally adjusted data, focusing on YoY changes misses turning points.

Today's Case Shiller report may have been the most important in five years. Read my post on the Bonddad blog.

Hans said...

Ben Jamin, I like your forth paragraph very much!

Brodero, if you are wrong do I get to spank your bottom?

It was reported that between now and 2016, 6.6 million homes will be repoed...

Benjamin Cole said...


Every once in a while I let it rip.

A bad joke making the rounds: We have two parties in the USA, the socialist party (Obama) and the nationalist-socialist party (Romney).

Cabodog said...

Scott, the bidding wars on "affordable" housing (sub $200k) in our town tell me that prices have bottomed.

Increasing rental prices (10% Y-O-Y increase) in our town yell at me that prices have bottomed.