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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fed's Williams: The Economic Outlook

by Calculated Risk on 7/28/2011 02:44:00 PM

From San Francisco Fed President John Williams: The Outlook for the Economy and Monetary Policy

Some excerpts on housing:

One of the most important currents holding back recovery has been housing. The collapse of the housing market touched off the financial crisis and recession. In most recessions, housing construction falls sharply, but then leads the economy back when growth resumes. As you well know, that snapback hasn’t occurred this time. Before the crisis, residential investment as a share of the economy was at its highest level since the Korean War. Today, housing construction remains moribund and residential investment as a share of the economy has fallen to its lowest level since World War II.

On one level, that’s not surprising. We simply built too many—in fact, millions too many—houses during the boom and we are still feeling the effects of this overhang. Consider housing prices. From their peak in 2006 until early 2009, home prices nationwide fell by nearly a third. When you exclude distressed sales, prices appeared to bottom out in 2009 and early 2010. New housing starts also appeared to stabilize in 2009, after plummeting some 75 percent during the housing crash. ...

The $64,000 question is when will the housing market finally recover? One daunting challenge for such a recovery is the huge number of homes in foreclosure. Almost 7 million homes have entered into foreclosure since the first quarter of 2008 and some 2 million are still in the foreclosure process. In addition, there is a shadow inventory of homes currently owned by delinquent borrowers. When you add up unsold new houses left over from the boom, homes for sale by owners, foreclosed residences for sale by lenders, and the shadow inventory of houses at risk of distressed sale, you come up with a massive supply overhang.

Over time, more reasonable prices and an improving economy ought to bring buyers off the sidelines and set the stage for recovery. But high unemployment and anemic wage gains are leaving people worried about their income prospects and cautious about buying homes. Also, the dramatic plunge in home valuations since 2006 has made some first-time homebuyers wary about entering the market because of worries that prices might fall further.
These are key points: Usually housing is a key engine of recovery, but not this time because of the massive supply overhang. And looking forward:
It’s only a matter of time before we work off the inventory overhang and construction picks up. How much time it takes will depend in part on what happens with foreclosed properties. If we begin making progress on working down the foreclosure inventory, then single-family housing starts could plausibly rise from their current level of about 400,000 per year to an average level of perhaps 1.1 million per year in three or four years, according to research at the San Francisco Fed.4 To put this in perspective, such an increase would boost real gross domestic product, or GDP, by at least 1 percent.

4 By contrast, if we can't work down the foreclosure inventory, then a return to normal construction levels could be delayed several more years. See Hedberg and Krainer (2011).
This is why I continue to focus on the excess supply. This is a key number for housing and the U.S. economy. See The “Excess Supply of Housing” War