The dynamics for housing moving forward point to a very bleak future and a potential lost decade yet again from 2010 to 2020. Housing has a treacherous path moving forward and deep down demographic shifts will keep a lid on any significant housing appreciation moving forward. The economy is in the process of deleveraging from a market highly dependent on real estate. Wall Street and the government are doing everything they can to bring back the economy of yesterday but have had little success. This recession has shrunk the middle class so those looking to buy homes have declined simply because many can no longer afford to purchase a home even at today’s lower prices. Focusing on housing first was a big expensive policy mistake where we should have focused on creating sustainable jobs. The market is slowly shifting to a new housing paradigm. Family growth rates, employment trends, baby boomers, and wages will all keep a lid on housing prices moving forward.
First we should break down the entire housing market:
The U.S. has a large number of homeowners. A total of 75 million Americans can lay the claim to owning their home. 23 million of this group (31 percent) actually owns their homes outright with no mortgage. Of course not having a mortgage does not mean that these homeowners have no housing associated cost. They still need to pay yearly property taxes, insurance, and all the cost in maintaining a home. Another 37 million American households rent. These are the basic dynamics of the housing market.
Of those homeowners with a mortgage, 7.2 million (14%) are in foreclosure or 30+ days late on their mortgage. This practically guarantees a few years of cheaper housing hitting the market in a steady trickle. This puts a herculean hold on any significant home building going forward.
From the recent Federal Reserve Flow of Funds Report, we find that current outstanding mortgage debt is $10.334 trillion. We have to break out the renters and the homeowners with no mortgage and find that the average mortgage debt for homeowners is:
$10.334 trillion / 51.575 million mortgaged households = $200,374
The current median home price comes in at approximately $170,000. Now some would argue that housing will regain traction and go on to rising to new levels. Yet this assumption assumes that middle class wages will be growing moving forward. If we look closely at the data the only real winner so far in this economic crisis is Wall Street but average Americans have seen very little benefit from the current bailout measures. Now those with big investment bank salaries can afford their piece of prime real estate in Manhattan or the Hamptons but this does not make up the bulk of the housing market. The bulk of the housing market is highly dependent on how middle class Americans are doing.
If we look at the current unemployment levels by age group, we see that those in the household forming age ranges or those entering into these categories, are taking on the brunt of this recession:
You can see that up to age 34, the unemployment rate is trending much higher than the total national average. These are prime age groups for forming households and if a family is not feeling safe financially, they will delay on purchasing a home. The middle class young family is also delaying on having children so the necessity for a bigger home is also being pushed out. This demographic shift is happening at the same time that baby boomers start entering retirement age and many will want to downsize.
And many of these people have a buffer for equity to sell since they bought prior to the housing bubble. Take for example data on current owner households:
Moved in before 1989: 20.5% of all homeowners
Moved in before 1990: 40.9% of all homeowners
It is highly likely that in this group, you have many baby boomers that will sell to downsize in the years coming forward and the current decline in prices will only cut into their equity but not put them underwater given the decade long bubble. They purchased before that. Those that moved in before 1989 will have a much larger cushion. So there is a large group of people that will sell regardless of market trends because they will have to simply because of life changing events.
And then on the other hand we have the fact that one-third of homeowners in certain states are underwater on their mortgages. Take for example California:
California has a large renting population and most that own a home carry a mortgage (77 percent). Of those that carry a mortgage a stunning one-third are underwater. In other words 1.76 million mortgages in California are attached to homes that are worth less than the actual balance of the mortgage creating a large incentive to walk-away. Many of these loans come from Alt-A paper and option ARMs. These loans will impact the market at least until 2012 and hurt the state. California isn’t immune and other states like Nevada, Florida, and Arizona have similar dynamics. In fact, here is the amount of mortgage debt in a negative equity position according to a recent Deutsche Bank analysis:
California: $969 billion
Florida: $432 billion
Arizona: $140 billion
The only way that things would improve for banks is if prices moved higher. But how can prices move higher if middle class Americans are dealing with high unemployment and stagnant wages? The Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury have really reached the end of options in terms of what they can do. Even the 30 year fixed mortgage is at all time lows in the midst of all this turmoil:
The 40 year average for 30 year rates is closer to 9 percent. Today it is under 5 percent. That is unsustainable and as we move forward with insurmountable levels of national debt, the rate will have to rise. I know this seems impossible for many but as we have seen with other debt ridden countries, the market can turn on like a tornado and quickly change the dynamics of the situation. For the housing market, this will mean even more pressure to keep prices muted.
The only way home prices can rise in a healthy manner is if we start seeing wage inflation. We saw some of this in the 1970s where wages went up in tandem with home prices. In the last decade, wages moved sideways while home prices went into a bubble. As far as the economy going forward, the big job sectors seem to be in low paying service sector jobs. Certainly someone can purchase a house with these jobs but not at current prices even though they appear to be solid.
The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury have done everything to slam the dollar and create some level of inflation. Yet other central banks are doing the same. So what happens is easy money flows to Wall Street for gambling while the real economy stagnates. It is hard for many to believe that we will have another lost decade in housing but there is little reason to believe that prices will soon start to outpace inflation. In fact, in the last year or two we have been dealing more with aspects of deflation. We need to keep an eye on the real value of home prices adjusting for inflation/deflation.