Monday, June 18, 2007

A Busted Slump?

by Tanta on 6/18/2007 09:47:00 AM

The New York Times does us the major favor of helping to define the term "housing bust" as distinct from the less threatening "housing slump"(thanks, Walt!).

Two economists with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Cynthia Angell and Norman Williams, have studied housing cycles since 1978 and have come up with a definition of a housing bust. In a paper published in February 2005, they called it a decline of at least 15 percent in nominal prices, meaning not adjusted for inflation. While economists tend to focus on real prices over time, the authors argue that in housing, nominal prices are a better measure of distress because homeowners, rarely think in inflation-adjusted terms in assessing market conditions.

Other economists, however, argue that 15 percent may be too restrictive a definition. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com, says a better one would be a decline of 10 percent or more from peak to trough. “When you see a decline in home prices of 10 percent, you get significant credit problems and it’s enough to wipe out equity in most cases,” he said.

Mr. Zandi also said that once prices have dropped 10 percent, there tends to be a self-reinforcing downward cycle. If borrowers can’t afford their mortgages and banks foreclose, their homes are generally sold at significant discounts to the market. That creates an added drag on overall prices, resulting in greater numbers of foreclosures, followed by even greater price slides.

Another reason Mr. Zandi argues for 10 percent is the tendency of housing-price measurements to underestimate declines. Sellers often provide discounts that may not show up in the measured price, but are still significant. Today, some homebuilders are discounting the sales price of new homes by an average of 5 percent, Mr. Zandi said.

My own undoubtedly naive view of the matter is that there ought to be a terminological difference between a decline of any appreciable magnitude in the presence of measurable stress to the local economy, on the one hand, and what from all appearances is a housing price decline that has caused itself. I propose a "housing funk."