The U.S. government is doing its best to convince the American public that there's an economic recovery underway, but is that really true? The economy is being artificially propped up by $1,500 billion in annual debt, and the Federal Reserve has printed trillions of dollars to keep banks afloat. It was too much debt that got the country into trouble to begin with, yet the government is essentially saying that even more debt is needed to fix the problem. This is one of the fundamental pillars of the theory developed by economist John Maynard Keynes in the early 1900s.
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Not everyone agrees with Keynesian economic theory. Free market capitalists believe that markets should be unfettered by government intervention and allowed to reach equilibrium on their own. Their argument is that supply and demand should set asset values and prices without interference by artificial stimuli and freshly printed cash. (To learn more, read Can Keynesian Economics Reduce Boom-Bust Cycles?)
When analyzing whether or not to buy a house in this economic environment, the best approach is to focus on reality, not the talking points offered by politicians. Here are some factors to consider before taking the plunge with a new mortgage.
The housing bubble was caused by a lethal combination of easy credit, low interest rates and rampant speculation. This "perfect storm" reached its pinnacle of power in four states: California, Nevada, Florida and Arizona. The landscape of these states is littered with unfinished housing developments and empty condominiums. Even though prices have dropped 50% or more in some areas of these states, they are all plagued by debt-to-income ratios (DTI) that are still higher than the historical norm of three to one. This will continue to put downward pressure on prices.
Nationwide, the inventory of unsold homes was 3.33 million at the end of October 2011, an eight-month supply at the current sales rate. While this is a positive downtrend from the inventory peak of 4.58 million units in July 2008, the inventory overhang is still having a negative effect on prices. The median existing home price was $162,500 in October for all housing types nationwide, a drop of almost 5% from a year ago.
Prices are also being impacted by the high rate of contract failures, which is almost double that of September, and four times what it was one year ago. These failures represent canceled sales contracts resulting from unqualified mortgage applications, appraisal values below the sales price, unsatisfactory home inspections and unfulfilled contract contingencies. One-third of all sales contracts in October did not make it to closing, causing those homes to re-enter the market and increase the unsold inventory.
Yale economist Robert Shiller, known for the Case-Shiller price index, has calculated that U.S. home prices rose an average of 3.35% per year during the period 1900-2000. This timespan includes extended periods of both falling and rising prices, from the Great Depression up to the bull markets of the late 1980s and late 1990s. (For related reading, see Understanding The Case-Shiller Housing Index.)
In January 1998, just before the bubble started to inflate exponentially, the price index stood at 82.7. If prices had followed the 100-year trendline over the next 12 years, the index would have reached 126.7 in October 2010. Instead the index hit 159, a full 25% above the long-term trend. So, even though prices have already dropped more than 30% nationwide in the past five years, data suggests that the bubble has not been deflated and more price drops could be on the way.
There are many forces at work contributing to instability in home prices:
- Continued high unemployment, with weekly unemployment claims consistently hovering around 400,000
- The possibility of higher interest rates to combat inflation fueled by the increased money supply
- Strategic defaults, foreclosures and short sales all force prices lower
- High levels of underwater mortgages
- A "shadow" inventory of unsold homes held by banks will put pressure on prices when these homes are marketed
- Stricter mortgage qualification requirements, including bigger down payments, higher credit scores and verifiable income
- Lower conforming loan limits as of Oct. 1, 2011
- Continued high levels of government and personal debt
- The threat of more U.S. credit rating downgrades
- The potential for a European financial collapse rippling through the U.S. economy and financial institutions
- Changing demographics, slowing population growth and smaller families are causing reductions in overall demand
- Many baby boomers are downsizing their lives, including the size of their homes
- Possible future actions by the government between now and the 2012 elections: tax policy changes, stimulus spending, mortgage modification programs, etc.
The Bottom line
The evidence suggests that without government intervention, home prices would be much lower than they are now. Record low interest rates, the homebuyer tax credit, mortgage assistance programs and bailouts for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have all softened the freefall in prices. These actions have not changed the fundamentals of a weak economy that relies heavily on consumption for GDP growth and too little on industrial production.
Price stability is not likely to be reached until the excess is wrung out of the bubble that expanded by a breathtaking 19.2% per year between 1998 and 2006. Government policies have slowed the correction, but not stopped it. This has kept wary buyers out of the market because they don't believe the market has hit a true bottom. This has delayed a sustainable housing recovery and prompted potential buyers to wait for lower prices next year. (To learn more, check out The Truth About Real Estate Prices.)