Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Plunge in Housing Must Continue

Last spring, we saw some strength in the housing market. I warned at the time that the strength may not last once the tax credits expire. That turned out to be quite an understatement.

If you recall, in order to help prop up the sick housing market, the government began offering tax credits to first time homeowners. It soon decided that wasn't enough. So it extended the tax credits to all home buyers. Basically, the government did everything it could to boost demand for houses.

What government officials did not realize is that they could not prevent the housing market from reaching equilibrium. They could delay the process, but could not prevent it.

The housing market is sick for a good reason. There are simply too many homes in America and not enough demand. Home builders went absolutely nuts during the turn of the century. They were building houses like crazy. Back in 2004, I took part in a panel discussion about housing. Much to the chagrin of the other panelists, I questioned the wisdom of buying stocks of home building companies. Home ownership rates were at all time highs and home prices were reaching levels I believed were unaffordable for most Americans. I asked, "Where is all the demand going to come from for new homes? Will everybody in America own a second or third home? How can people afford to buy these homes?" Demand, I was told, would come from immigration. As for financing, I was told that new kinds of mortgages would make money available for just about anybody who wanted to buy a house.

Well, we know where that kind of thinking got us. Today, we found out that the housing market's long delayed march toward equilibrium is back on path. Existing home sales in July plunged 27.2% from June and 25.5% year-over-year to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.83 million. Single family home sales plunged to their lowest level since 1995. Inventory surged to a twelve-and-a-half month supply. Of course, the inventory figures do not account for the so-called shadow inventory. Think of all those people who would like to sell their houses, but haven't listed them because they don't think they could get a good price right now.

It's truly amazing to think that the housing market could be so troubled at a time when mortgage rates are at all-time lows. Here's a news flash for policymakers: People cannot afford to buy houses when they don't have jobs. Even if mortgage rates turn negative, many people would not be able to make the monthly payments necessary to service the mortgage.

There are only two possible solutions to this problem: Either the employment market must start improving tremendously, or housing prices must go lower than they already have. Given the misguided government policies already implemented to try and address the economic recession, I suspect the latter is the most likely outcome.