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Friday, July 29, 2005

Fed's Yellen: Fed Could Manage Housing Price Drop Impact

by Calculated Risk on 7/29/2005 04:15:00 PM

Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President Janet Yellen spoke at a Community Leaders' Luncheon in Portland, Oregon. On housing, Dr. Yellen said:

"... if a sizable reversal in house prices were to occur, it probably would affect the economy mainly through the lagged effects of declines in wealth and increases in interest rates, rather than through widespread financial disruptions."
Her speech was very upbeat, but she did ask:
You might well ask, “What about oil prices?” “What about the record trade deficit?” “What about the possibility of a housing bubble?” “What about the ‘conundrum’ of surprisingly low long-term interest rates?”
Her answer on housing:
Whatever the source of the conundrum, clearly low long-term rates have contributed to the continuing boom in the housing market. The share of residential investment in GDP is now at its highest level in decades. The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is whether this source of strength in the economy could reverse course and become instead a source of weakness. Put more bluntly: Is there a housing “bubble” that might collapse, and if so, what would that mean for the economy? To begin to answer this question, we need to know what we mean by the term “bubble.” A bubble does not just mean that prices are rising rapidly—it’s more complicated than that. Instead, a bubble means that the price of an asset—in this case, housing—is significantly higher than its fundamental value.

One common way of thinking about housing’s fundamental value is to consider the ratio of housing prices to rents. The price-to-rent ratio is equivalent to the price-to-dividend ratio for stocks. In the case of housing, rents reflect the flow of benefits obtained from housing assets—either the monetary return from rental property, or the value of living in owner-occupied housing. Historically, the ratio for the nation as a whole has had many ups and downs, but over time it has tended to return to its long-run average. Thus, when the price-to-rent ratio is high, housing prices tend to grow more slowly or fall for a time, and when the ratio is low, prices tend to rise more rapidly. I want to emphasize, though, that this is a loose relationship that can be counted on only for rough guidance rather than a precise reading.

Currently, the ratio for the country is higher than at any time since data became available in 1970—about 25 percent above its long-run average. Of course, the results vary widely from place to place. For Los Angeles and San Francisco, the price-to-rent ratio is about 40 percent higher than the normal level, while for Cleveland the ratio is very near its historical average.

Closer to home, the figure for Seattle is just over 35. For Portland, it turns out that the price-to-rent ratio is a bit anomalous. Unlike the ratio for the nation and many of the cities I’ve mentioned, Portland’s ratio has been trending up, and this pattern has been going on since the late 1980s. This means that there’s not a stable long-run average ratio to use as a comparison for today’s ratio, so the analysis we did for the other cities wouldn’t be that meaningful for Portland. What we do know is that the pace of home price appreciation in Portland has been close to the national pace over the past few years, lagging behind somewhat in 2003 as the state struggled to recover from the 2001 recession, but mostly catching up in 2004 and early 2005 as economic growth picked up noticeably in the state. As of early this year, home prices in the Portland area were up 12 percent over a year earlier, only a bit below the national pace of 12½ percent. More recently, I’ve heard reports that upscale homes in the Portland area are increasingly being sold at above-asking price—a phenomenon we’re all too familiar with in the Bay Area! So it’s clear that Portland’s housing market has been hot, but I’m sure that’s no surprise to you.

In any event, as I said before, the fact that the ratios for the nation and many areas of the country are higher than normal doesn’t necessarily prove that there’s a bubble. House prices could be high for some good reasons that affect their fundamental value. The most obvious reason is the low level of mortgage rates. This stems both from very stimulative monetary policy and from the conundrum I discussed earlier. Conventional mortgage rates have dropped from around 6 percent in early 2004 to around 5 percent recently.

Other factors could also be raising housing’s fundamental value. For example, recent changes in tax laws may be having an effect. In 1998, tax rates on capital gains were lowered and the exemption from capital gains taxation for housing was raised to $500,000. Both of these changes would reduce the potential tax bite from selling one home and buying another. Another development, which may be making housing more like an investment vehicle, is that it’s now easier and cheaper to get at the equity—either through refinancing, which has become a less costly process, or through an equity line of credit. Both of these innovations in mortgage markets make the funds invested in houses more liquid.

So there are good reasons to think that fundamental factors have played a role in the unusually high price-to-rent ratio. But the bottom line here is fuzzy. It’s very hard to say how big a role these factors have played, so we don’t know how much remains unexplained. Frankly, even the best available estimates are imprecise, and they don’t definitively answer the question: Is there a bubble, and if there is, how large is it?

Given this uncertainty, my focus as a monetary policymaker is on trying to understand what kind of risks a drop in house prices would pose for the economy. One of the classic ways to do this is to ask “What if…?”—in other words, to pose a purely hypothetical question. In this case, the “what if” question might be, “What’s the likely effect if national house prices did fall by 25 percent, enough to bring the price-to-rent ratio back to its historical average?” Before going any further, I want to emphasize that I’m not making any predictions about house price movements, but instead, simply discussing how a prudent monetary policymaker could assess the risk.

First, there would be an effect on consumers’ wealth. With housing wealth nearing $18 trillion today, such a drop in house prices would extinguish about $4½ trillion of household wealth—equal to about 38 percent of GDP. Standard estimates suggest that for each dollar of wealth lost, households tend to cut back on spending by around 3½ cents. This amounts to a decrease in consumer spending of about 1¼ percent of GDP. To get some perspective on how big the effect would be, it’s worth comparing it with the stock market decline that began in early 2000. In that episode, the extinction of wealth was much greater—stock market wealth fell by $8½ trillion from March 2000 to the end of 2002. This suggests that if house prices were to drop by 25 percent, the impact on the economy might be about half what it was when the stock market turned down a few years ago.

Moreover, the spending pullback wouldn’t happen all of a sudden. Wealth effects—positive or negative—tend to affect spending with fairly long lags. So, a drop in house prices probably would lead to a gradual cutback in spending, giving the Fed time to respond by lowering short-term interest rates and keeping the economy steady.

Now let’s complicate things. Suppose house prices started falling because bond and mortgage interest rates started rising as the conundrum was resolved, say, because the risk premium in bonds rose due to concerns about federal budget deficits or other factors. Then we’d have the cutback in spending because of the wealth effect, plus there’d likely be further spending cutbacks, as borrowing costs for households rose. Furthermore, a rise in long-term rates would have effects beyond just households—it also would dampen business investment in capital goods through a higher cost of capital.

How manageable would this scenario be? Like the wealth effect, these added interest-rate effects operate with a lag, so, again, there probably would be time for monetary policy to respond by lowering short-term interest rates. This obviously would not be a “slam dunk,” but in many circumstances it would seem manageable.

A matter of more concern is whether this scenario would lead to financial disruptions that could cause spending to slow sharply and quickly. One issue that receives a lot of attention is the increasing use of potentially riskier types of loans, like variable rate and interest-only loans that may make borrowers and lenders vulnerable to a fall in house prices or increase in interest rates. I believe that the odds of widespread financial disruption on this count are fairly slim, although, clearly, some borrowers are vulnerable. First, the shift to these new instruments appears relatively modest overall. Second, the equity cushions available to both borrowers and lenders still seem, on average, to be pretty substantial. This is evident in looking at loan-to-value ratios, which have fallen, on average, as home valuations have risen faster than mortgage debt. In addition, most financial institutions enjoy comfortable capital positions, so they’re better able to weather any problems with their mortgage portfolios. Finally, some of the risk associated with mortgages has been transferred from banks to investors, as banks have sold off securitized bundles of mortgage debt. These investors may be in a better position to handle the associated risk. So, while there undoubtedly would be some fallout from a substantial drop in house prices, the financial system and consumers appear to be in reasonably good shape to handle the situation.