Our Bubbles Keep Bursting

David Streitfeld in NYT:

Few believed the housing market here would ever collapse. Now they wonder if it will ever stop slumping.

The rolling real estate crash that ravaged Florida and the Southwest is delivering a new wave of distress to communities once thought to be immune — economically diversified cities where the boom was relatively restrained.

In the last year, home prices in Seattle had a bigger decline than in Las Vegas. Minneapolis dropped more than Miami, and Atlanta fared worse than Phoenix.

The bubble markets, where builders, buyers and banks ran wild, began falling first, economists say, so they are close to the end of the cycle and in some cases on their way back up. Nearly everyone else still has another season of pain.

“When I go out and talk to people around town, they say, ‘Wow, I thought we were going to have a 12 percent correction and call it a day,’ ” said Stan Humphries, chief economist for the housing site Zillow, which is based in Seattle. “But this thing just keeps on going.”

John Ellis at Business Insider:

Everyone thought that when the housing crisis hit, it wouldn’t hit hard in “stable” US cities like Seattle and Minneapolis.  No one thinks that anymore

David Leonhardt at NYT:

When we last listed the price-to-rent ratios in major metropolitan areas, Seattle’s was near the top of the list. Only in the Bay Area of Northern California and in Honolulu were house prices higher, relative to rents.

A sky-high price-to-rent ratio is perhaps the single best sign that an area is in a housing bubble. Real-estate agents, homeowners and even home buyers can tell a lot of stories to justify the bubble — stories about central cities or good school districts being immune to bubbles — but eventually people will realize that renting is a much better deal and more will do so.

There is no such thing as a market price that cannot fall.

Matthew Yglesias:

David Streitfeld writes that “The rolling real estate crash that ravaged Florida and the Southwest is delivering a new wave of distress to communities once thought to be immune — economically diversified cities where the boom was relatively restrained.”

First see David Leonhardt on whether the boom really was all that restrained in Seattle. But the other examples are better and I think this is a reminder that the relationship between the housing market and the economy is push and pull. There was, in fact, an unsustainable bubble in house valuations across much of the country that led to localized unsustainable booms in home building and related activities. That process came to an end in 2006-2007 and we were in recession all throughout 2008 as the unemployment rose and the construction boom unwound. But then came the really giant collapse of aggregate demand in fall of 2008 continuing through the subsequent winter. Now we’re way below the long-term trend level of overall nominal spending:

Overall nominal spending equals overall nominal incomes. And we live in an economy where lots of us have contractual obligations that are nominally denominated. That’s my cable bill, it’s my cell phone bill, and it’s my mortgage, and it’s probably your mortgage too. Fortunately for me, my nominal income isn’t below its pre-crisis trend growth path. But America’s collective income is. So if our nominal income is below where we expected it would be when we signed the contracts, people are going to be unable to pay bills. That means, among other things, serious housing problems even in jurisdictions that never suffered from noteworthy construction booms.

Calculated Risk:

Leonhardt writes:

When we last listed the price-to-rent ratios in major metropolitan areas, Seattle’s was near the top of the list. Only in the Bay Area of Northern California and in Honolulu were house prices higher, relative to rents.

A sky-high price-to-rent ratio is perhaps the single best sign that an area is in a housing bubble. Real-estate agents, homeowners and even home buyers can tell a lot of stories to justify the bubble — stories about central cities or good school districts being immune to bubbles — but eventually people will realize that renting is a much better deal and more will do so.

There is no such thing as a market price that cannot fall.

I agree completely with that last sentence – no place is immune.

Price-to-rent is a great indicator, but some areas have high price-to-rent ratios because of the mix of housing units (rentals units are not perfect substitutes for buying). I prefer tracking price-to-rent over time for a particular city (as opposed to comparing cities), but a high price-to-rent ratio is definitely a warning flag.

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Filed under Economics, The Crisis

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