What Do We Really Know About the Cost of Living?

In an article on consumers’ expectations for home prices, Robert Shiller writes,

with the median home price under $200,000, according to RealtyTrac…

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

My question is: Where are these homes that are priced at less than $200,000? My niece in LA, my daughter in DC, another daughter in NY, and my third daughter in Boston would sure like to know.

This gets back to the issue of widening differences in income and housing costs within and across metro areas. I mentioned that issue last month, when I cited Joel Kotkin’s finding that much of the population growth in recent years has been in the far suburbs.

Suppose that housing cost is 25 percent of income, and suppose that close to the center of a city housing cost is 5 times what it is in the outer suburbs. That means that the cost of living is 1.25 times as high close in as it is far out. Yes, you should adjust for commuting time and cost, the value of different amenities, and so on. But that is a huge difference.

Consider that, at a national level, economic experts soberly analyze changes in trend productivity growth of 0.5 percent per year. To measure productivity changes, you need to have accurate measures of real GDP. To measure real GDP, you need to have accurate measures of “the” rate of inflation.

But what if inflation is 5 percent higher in downtown LA than it is 30 miles away? Which is the accurate measure of inflation? Even a slight mistake in aggregating across different areas could completely change the picture for national productivity growth.

I find myself thinking that the multiplicity of economies within the U.S. really matters. For example, I could imagine that the minimum wage would have a much bigger effect on employment in the locations with those sub-$200,000 houses than in higher-cost areas, where employers probably have to pay above the minimum, anyway. I can imagine that downward stickiness of wages matters a lot if you have inflation differentials across areas of 5 percent or so.

In trying to view the U.S. economy, I am tempted to drop the macroeconomic lens and replace it with the international trade lens.

My Review of Peter Wallison’s Forthcoming Book

is here.

Wallison’s thesis is that policymakers in Washington underestimated the significance of the surge in nontraditional mortgages. What is perhaps even more deplorable is the way that these mortgages continue to be downplayed in the mainstream narratives of the crisis and in the policy responses that followed.

Meanwhile, CNN Money reports on programs that offer 3 percent down payments.

The new loans will only be doled out to those who buy private mortgage insurance, have a credit score of at least 620 and offer complete documentation of their income, assets and job status. And, to further mitigate risk, the agencies will require borrowers to receive home ownership counseling.

Once again, the government is pushing home borrowership, setting households up to fail and making the housing market more speculative. Of course, when the stuff hits the fan, the government officials involved will blame lenders, not themselves.

Ryan Avent on Urban Housing Supply

He writes,

Housing is more costly in the most expensive cities because so little of it is built. In the 2000s, Houston’s housing stock grew by more than 25 percent while that in the Bay Area grew just over 5 percent. In 2013 Houston approved 51,000 new homes while San Jose okayed fewer than 8,000, despite the booming Silicon Valley economy. Glaeser and Kristina Tobio find that since the 1980s, the extraordinarily rapid growth in the population of Sunbelt cities is due primarily to the receptiveness of those cities to new construction. A strengthening economy in places like Texas and Georgia leads to a construction boom and rapid population growth, while economic booms in coastal cities lead to very little population growth but soaring housing costs.

More Q where construction is allowed, higher P where it is not. Read the whole thing.

A Great Time to Rent

Nick Timiraos writes,

Multifamily construction is now higher than it was during the peak in the previous housing cycle, reached in 2006. But back then, far more of these units were being built as condominiums, not as rentals.

Policy makers see young people reluctant to buy homes, and they respond in the usual way, by proposing government-subsidized lenient mortgage credit. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs respond by building more apartments.

Is Housing a Great Investment?

Robert Shiller has always said no. But Katharina Knoll, Moritz Schularick, and Thomas Steger write,

Real house prices have approximately tripled since 1900, with virtually all of the increase occurring in the second half of the 20th century

Pointer from Mark Thoma. They are looking at house price data from around the world. They say that transportation improved more rapidly before 1950, and that increased the effective supply of land. Since then, the slowdown in transportation improvement and tighter land-use regulations have raised land prices.

I still want to know why their data appears to be so different from Shiller’s.

Elastic Housing Supply?

Megan McArdle writes,

Over the past few years, developers have rectified the situation; a great deal of new housing is coming on the market. Which means the end of double-digit rent increases and housing appreciation in those cities. But we seem to have reached the end of “making up for lost time” and headed toward “glut.”

She speaks of the NY city and DC markets in particular. I admit I have wondered about the wisdom of developers treating Bethesda like beachfront property, with all the high-rise condos they are building.

But I am skeptical of her view that the shortage of housing in these urban markets is about to abate. Nationally, the rate of housing construction remains well below the normal rate of family formation. When I talk to people involved in real estate, they say that it’s not local demand that is driving prices anyway–all the talk is of “foreign money.”

But the main thing is that I do not believe that the supply of housing is really elastic in NY, DC, LA, or SF. The restrictions on development are still formidable.

Housing Re-Bubble?

Nick Timiraos reports,

the [Federal Housing Agency home price] index shows U.S. prices now standing just 6.4% below their previous peak in April 2007.

…The Case-Shiller national index, which is set to report its own measure of July home prices next Tuesday, showed that home prices in June were 9.9% below their 2006 peak.

Some comments:

1. Overall, consumer prices have risen about 15 percent since 2007, so you might say that on an inflation-adjusted basis home prices are more like 20 or 25 percent below their 2007 peak.

2. However, even on an inflation-adjusted basis, house prices are higher than they were in late 2003, by whichi point cries of “bubble” already were being heard.

3. If I were Scott Sumner, perhaps I would say that this suggests that the 2007 prices were not really a bubble. Indeed, the real anomaly was the crash in house prices in 2008-2009, due to tight money. But I am not Scott Sumner.

4. The case that we are in another bubble strikes me as weak. It is certainly is not a sub-prime lending phenomenon. Two phrases that I hear a lot in casual conversation with real estate folks are “all-cash deal” and “foreign buyer.”

5. Even if house prices were to fall sharply again, my guess is that there would be many fewer loan foreclosures. Lenders are taking on much less risk, and instead home buyers are taking on more of it.

6. It seems to me that we are much closer to full recovery in the housing market than we are to full recovery in the labor market. Does that not pose a problem for the theory that the recession was mostly an aggregate-demand phenomenon caused by the loss of housing wealth?

7. Again, today’s economy feels so much like 2003 and 2004. Very low r, seemingly below g. Last decade, Bernanke labeled this a “global savings glut.” This decade, Larry Summers calls it “secular stagnation.”

8. In June of 2004, I wrote Bubble, Bubble, is there Trouble? arguing that low r was the central economic puzzle, and that given low r, housing prices were not out of line. I have been excoriated since then for failing to call the housing bubble. In 2009, that excoriation seemed warranted. Today, it seems like you could change the date to June of 2014 and re-print it.

There is No Free-Lunch Mortgage

Ed Pinto is pushing something he calls a “wealth builder home loan.” Here is his thought process:

1. With a 15-year mortgage, the borrower accumulates equity faster than with a 30-year mortgage. However, by the same token, the monthly payment is higher, which creates a hurdle for low-income home buyers.

2. With an up-front payment, you can buy down the interest rate on a 15-year mortgage, making the monthly payments more affordable.

3. Therefore, a 15-year mortgage with an interest-rate buydown is a way to help low-income borrowers afford mortgage payments and build up equity rapidly.

(1) and (2) are true. However (3) is false. The problem is that the interest-rate buydown undermines the borrower’s equity. Consider two cases.

Case 1: the borrower pays for the buydown. As this article describes it,

let customers of modest means use a down payment of up to 5 percent to “buy” a lower interest rate

So, if you buy a $200,000 house and you have $10,000, you use that $10,000 to buy down the rate. But you could have used that $10,000 as a down payment on the house! That would have given you 5 percent equity to start with, instead of starting with zero.

Case 2: the seller pays for the buydown. If the seller pays $10,000, then the transaction price will be $10,000 above what the house would sell for without a seller concession. So if the borrower makes no down payment, the borrower starts out with $10,000 in negative equity.

There is no free lunch in mortgage lending. People with low incomes and little money to put down on a home are home speculators. There is no reason to encourage them to become home speculators.

Help people save for the down payment. That is the only “affordable housing” approach that does not foster speculation.