Bubble bubble toil and trouble: Roubini

Nouriel Roubini in recent posts has provided some of the best economic analysis of the housing bubble and debunking of the spin from optimists. Full posts are here and here. Analysis is focused on what is happening in the US. In Canada, we appear to be lagging developments south of the border. What is scary is how quickly the US situation is unraveling.
Some highlights:

[T]he effects of housing on US economic growth and the role of housing in tipping the US economy into a recession in early 2007 are more significant than the role that the tech sector bust in 2000 played in tipping the economy into a recession in 2001. There are three reasons:

  1. The direct effect of the fall in residential investment in aggregate demand will be as high as the effects of the fall in real investment in the 2000-2001 episode. Then, real investment fell by about 2% of GDP. This time around the fall in residential investment alone – let alone the role other components of real investment, such as software and equipment, that are already falling in Q2 – will be as large as residential investment could fall from the peak of about 6.2% of GDP (the highest level since the 1950s) to as low as 4% of GDP at the bottom in 2007.
  2. The wealth effect of the tech bust was limited to the elite of folks who had stocks in the NASDAQ. The wealth effect of now falling housing prices – yes median prices are starting to fall at the national level – affects every home-owning household: the value of residential real estate has also increased to 48.5% of household wealth in 2006 from from 38.7% in 1996. Also, the link between housing wealth rising, increased home equity withdrawal (HEW) and consumption of durable and non durables is very significant (see RGE’s Christian Menegatti brief on this), much more than the effect of the tech bubbles of the 1990s. Last year, out of the $800 billion of HEW at least $150 or possibly $200 billion was spent on consumption and another good $100 billion plus went into residential investment (i.e. house capital improvements/expansions). It is enough for house price to flatten – as they already did recently – let alone start falling – as they are doing now since they are beginning to fall in major markets – for the wealth effect to disappear, the HEW dribble to low levels and for consumption to sharply fall. Note that this year there will be large increases in the borrowing costs for $1 trillion of ARM’s while this figure for 2007 will be $1.8 trillion. Thus, debt servicing costs for millions of homeowners will sharply increase this year and next.
  3. The employment effects of housing are serious; up to 30% of the employment growth in the last three years was due directly and indirectly to housing. The direct effects are job lost in construction, building materials, real estate brokers and sales agents, and employees of the mortgage finance industry. The indirect effects imply that the role of housing is even larger than 30%. The housing boom led to a boom in consumer durables spending on home appliances and furniture. Indeed, in Q2 real consumption of such goods was already negative: as you have less new home built and purchased and less old homes refurbished and expanded, you get less purchases of home appliances and furniture. There are also other indirect effects of the housing bust on employment, even on the purchases of motor vehicles. Indeed, the current auto sector slump is not unrelated to the housing slump. As the Financial Times put recently, the sharp fall in the sales of Ford’s pick-up trucks is related to the housing slump as such truck are widely purchased by real estate contractors. And indeed in Q2 real consumer durables (that include both cars, home appliances and furniture all related to housing) already fell, consistent with the view that we have now have a glut in the stock of consumer durables (durables consumption has a investment-like nature to it as such goods last for a long time). Thus, as housing sector slumps, the job and income and wage losses in housing will percolate throughout the economy.

More generally, note that when demand for housing initially falls relative to a glut of supply, the initial market response is not on price, as it is the case of financial market where prices adjust rapidly, but rather on the quantity of unsold homes and on how long unsold homes stay on the market. Housing prices, unlike financial assets, are sluggish. This market inventory adjustment eventually leads to lower prices once sellers realize that demand is low and that waiting is not going to help.

The housing market has thus followed so far the predicted various stages of adjustment to cycle driven by the initial housing bubble: initially a glut of supply of new homes as high prices (driven in part by speculative demand) led to high and excessive production of new homes; then a fall in demand as speculative high prices and rising rates made the purchases of housing less affordable to many; then, the ensuing inventory adjustment – an increase in unsold homes. Then, the reduction in the production of new homes – lower housing starts – as homebuilders with falling revenues and profits and lower expected demand finally reacted to the growing glut of unsold inventories. Indeed, the value of home builders’ shares on the NYSE has fallen by almost 50% relative to a year ago. Finally, we have now a price adjustment in two directions: a) an increase in rents as housing affordability fell since more and more households could not afford to pay the speculative prices of existing and new homes; this increase in rents is now correctly jacking up owner equivalent rent and increasing headline CPI inflation; b) the beginning of a fall in actual housing prices as the glut of unsold homes is now putting downward pressure on actual prices. …

The evidence on falling home prices is now becoming clearer. Since the end of World War II, there has never been a year on year fall in housing prices. There have been instead several quarters in which housing prices declined. Of course in some regions where there were housing busts prices declined for a while: in Texas during the housing bust of the mid 1980s that led to the S&L crisis; in California in the early 1990s following the recession in that state; in Boston in 1990. Those episodes were all associated with the housing bust that was related to the 1990-1991 recession So, you do not need a persistent year-on-year fall in median housing prices to have a housing bust; such bust can occur even if prices are flattening or falling in some regions, but not nationally. Moreover, such regional bust can be associated with national recession, as in the 1990-91 episode. So, the fact that the latest housing bubble was concentrated on the two coasts (North East all the way to Florida; and West Coast, especially California) does not mean that the coming housing bust in these regions will not have national macro effects. For one thing, the value of the housing stock in those two regions is close to 50% of the total housing stock given the bubble of recent years. Thus, a housing bust in the two coasts can and will have macro effects.

So, the simple conclusion from the analysis above is that this is indeed the biggest housing slump in the last four or five decades: every housing indictor is in free fall, including now housing prices. By itself this slump is enough to trigger a US recession: its effects on real residential investment, wealth and consumption, and employment will be more severe than the tech bust that triggered the 2001 recession. And on top of the housing bust, US consumers are facing oil above $70, the delayed effects of rising Fed Fund and long term rates, falling real wages, negative savings, high debt ratios and higher and higher debt servicing ratios. This is the tipping point for the US consumer and the effects will be ugly. Expect the great recession of 2007 to be much nastier, deeper and more protracted than the 2001 recession.

And the housing bust is not going to be only a US phenomenon. As I will discuss in another blog, housing bubbles festered in many other economies including many European ones. Thus, the combination of high oil prices, delayed effects of rising interest rates and slump of housing that is now leading to a US recession is a phenomenon that is common to many other economies, including several European ones. So, expect the same deadly combinations of three ugly bears (slumping housing, high oil prices and rising interest rates) to hammer Goldilocks and sharply hurt Europe and other economies in the world.


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