In Depth Analysis: CalculatedRisk Newsletter on Real Estate (Ad Free) Read it here.

Monday, May 03, 2010

More Fed Bubble Talk in 2004

by Calculated Risk on 5/03/2010 08:12:00 PM

There has been widespread discussion of the March 2004 Fed comments and chart I posted on Saturday. To review: in March 2004, Fed associate research director Stephen Oliner presented a chart of rents-to-house prices and commented that "even after you account for the fundamentals, there’s a part of the increase [in house prices] that is hard to explain".

This should have set off alarms. Is there widespread speculation? Are lending standards too loose?

Here are some comments from Minneapolis Fed President Gary Stern at the November 10, 2004 FOMC meeting that answers those questions:

Stern: A little over a week ago, we hosted at the Bank a meeting on housing and residential construction activity. There were several reasons for this. One, of course, was the fact that we hear periodic discussions of a potential bubble in house prices. But second, I’ve been struck, as I’ve watched developments in the Twin Cities and as I’ve traveled around other cities in the last several years, by the absolutely high level of construction activity that seems to be occurring. It’s not only new building, but conversions of all sorts of warehouses, schools, and former office buildings to residential property. A change in mix seems to be occurring as well, with more of the construction and renovation yielding townhouses and condominiums rather than the standard single-family home.
Let me just note three specific issues that came up because I, at least, found them of interest. The first, which it won’t surprise this group to hear, is that they attributed a good deal of the strength in housing to very favorable financial conditions. In this regard they talked not only about low interest rates but also lower down-payment requirements. I might add that a couple of the lenders did say that they thought the credit pendulum had swung too far. They felt that credit conditions had become too easy, and they were anticipating some potential difficulties going forward—presumably in somebody else’s shop! [Laughter] Second, they reported that at least in some markets a significant percentage of the purchases of new units were by investors, where the term “investors” means people who don’t intend to occupy the property, at least not immediately. As best they could judge, in some markets investors were buying up to 30 percent of the new additions to supply. And finally, they noted that there seemed to be some acceleration of purchases by first-time homebuyers who were concerned that they were going to be priced out of the market if they waited longer. The implications of that, of course, are that at some point such sales will slow because people will have acted if they could.

CHAIRMAN GREENSPAN. Shall we take a coffee break and return in fifteen minutes, please.
Loose lending standards, widespread speculation, conversion of all kinds of buildings to residential - and this in flat land!

So in March 2004 a Fed researcher was expressing concern about house prices being out of line with fundamentals, and in November 2004 a Fed President is talking about widespread speculation ... and then there was no further discussion. The 2005 transcripts will be very interesting (to be released next year).

For more see:
  • Paul Krugman: Bubble Denial
  • Matthew Yglesias: Is Our Fed Governors Learning?
  • Annie Lowrey: The Fed Discussing and Dismissing the Housing Bubble in 2004
  • Ryan Grim at HuffingtonPost: Greenspan Wanted Housing-Bubble Dissent Kept Secret