Impact of Housing Price Declines

When housing prices fall, consumers are more likely to default on their home loans, causing banks to lose money. Also, home equity dries up, meaning that consumers have fewer funds available for spending, saving, investing, or paying down their debts. Sometimes, banks are even forced to shut down.

According to an FDIC study of regional real estate booms and busts in the 1980s and 1990s, banks in states that experienced major housing price declines also suffered high loan default rates and, consequently, low profits and high failure rates. Usually, but not always, these declines followed some sort of an economic shock, such as a fall in commodity prices or a cut in government spending.

Key Takeaways

  • When housing prices fall, consumers are more likely to default on their home loans, causing banks to lose money.
  • The housing crisis of 2008 was highly precipitated by a decline in housing prices, causing a huge number of defaults on mortgages and also a leading indicator of a drop in U.S. stock prices.
  • Although another drastic decline in housing prices would certainly impact banks adversely, banks today are better capitalized, and regulators are keeping a keen eye on the sector.

Case Study: Housing Crisis of 2008

A decline in housing prices was the precipitating factor in the financial crisis that rocked the world in the autumn of 2008. In fact, "the total government share of the mortgage market remained stable for many years after the housing crisis, but expanded to 29 percent in 2015 and 28 percent in 2016, up from 25 percent in 2014."

Regulations passed in the United States had pressured the banking sector to allow more consumers to become homeowners. As of 2020, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets the annual low-income home purchase housing goal benchmark level at 24 percent. This holds accountability standards for loans issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and ensuring that there is affordable homeownership through the housing finance market.

Beginning in 2004, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought up huge numbers of mortgages and mortgage assets characterized by dubious underwriting standards, including Alt-A mortgages which came with high loan-to-value or debt-to-income ratios. In issuing risky mortgages, they charged huge fees and enjoyed high margins; during the same time frame, they used collateral from subprime mortgages to snap up private-label mortgage-backed securities (MBS). When prices on U.S. housing declined and the number of loan delinquencies, defaults, and home foreclosures increased, the housing market bubble finally burst.

Until that time, a decline in housing prices was usually a leading indicator of a drop in U.S. stock prices. U.S. house prices peaked in the first quarter of 2006, but the U.S. stock market kept rising until the fourth quarter of 2007. The one-two punch of a fall in two major U.S. asset markets produced a liquidity crisis that froze up interbank lending markets around the globe.

Under a scenario like this, banks typically decrease their investments and lending. Consumers can find it more difficult to obtain home equity loans. In the U.K., for example, equity withdrawals put an extra 14 billion pounds into the economy before the financial crisis. In contrast, they amounted to negative 8 billion pounds by the end of 2008.

It is unclear, however, how consumers use the money obtained from home equity loans. While some of the extracted equity is used for consumer spending, others use the money for either investment or to help pay down debt. According to a Bankrate survey, almost 75% of those surveyed indicated that improvements and repairs were "good uses" of home equity loans.

Meanwhile, 44% indicated that consolidating debt was a good reason to withdraw cash from their home equity, and 31% said the same for paying for tuition or other educational expenses.

The Bottom Line

Although another drastic decline in housing prices would certainly impact banks adversely, banks today are better capitalized, and regulators are keeping a keen eye on the sector in an attempt to minimize the damage that might be spawned by a collapse of the real estate market.