Just as rising home prices helped fuel the economic expansion of the past six years by making people wealthier, falling home prices could put a big dent in economic growth in the next few years by making them poorer.
At this point, few economists expect the economy to sink into a recession, but almost all of them agree that consumer spending would slow, perhaps significantly, if home prices were to fall.
With the number of excess homes rising amid falling demand, the negatives in the housing market will "continue putting downward pressure on prices," said Seamus Symth, an economist for Goldman Sachs, who says home prices were plunging at a 9% annual rate in the most recent data. Goldman expects home prices to fall 7% this year and another 7% next year.
The path of home prices could be the key to whether the economy grows or stalls.
"A big issue is whether developments in the relatively small housing sector will spread to the large consumption sector, perhaps through declines in house prices," San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Janet Yellen said in a recent speech. "Should the decline in house prices occur in the context of rising unemployment, the risks could be significant."
Economists are forecasting that home prices will decline more than 5% this year and nearly 4% next year, according to the latest survey by Blue Chip Economic Indicators. Those same economists expect consumer spending to slow from 3.1% last year to 2.8% this year and 2.3% next year.
While a cumulative 8% drop in home prices (after nearly doubling in the previous six years) doesn't sound so ominous, such a decline would be the largest since the Great Depression.
Because most owners are reluctant to sell at a loss unless they are forced to, it's extremely unusual to see nominal home prices fall. In economists' jargon, home prices are "sticky" on the downside, but not on the upside.
By comparison, prices in the stock market adjust quickly to new perceptions about values, as investors take their losses and move on. During market corrections, the volume of shares traded doesn't fall, because the market quickly finds a new equilibrium between supply and demand.
The housing market is completely different. Sellers don't quickly adjust their prices to a new market reality. And because prices don't fall to bring demand into balance with supply, the volume of houses sold plunges during a correction. Home sales are now down 23% from the peak more than two years ago. The housing market can take years to find an equilibrium. In most housing corrections, sales remain very weak until excess supply is worked off. Prices can be flat for years.
So why are prices falling now? There's every reason to believe that supply and demand are getting even further out of balance. The number of vacant homes is at a record level, and more new homes are coming on the market every day. Foreclosures are rising, further increasing supply. More adjustable-rate mortgages will reset to a higher monthly payment in coming months, pressuring more homeowners to sell or default.
At the same time, the rationing of credit is reducing demand. The subprime and Alt-A mortgage markets, which represented about 40% of mortgages last year, have almost completely dried up. Lenders are increasing their standards for approving a loan, and interest rates for jumbo loans have risen substantially.
The difficulties in the mortgage market will not only depress home sales, it will also reduce consumer spending. In recent years, consumers have taken advantage of the mortgage market to withdraw and spend some of the equity they've built up in their homes,
"We've given people the ability to spend more, and it's going away now," said Paul Kasriel, chief economist for Northern Trust.
Economists can't agree on how much spending has been boosted by mortgage-equity extraction, also known as MEW.
Some theorize that each additional dollar of wealth (from appreciation in assets such as housing or stocks) boosts spending by about 3 cents. By that account, the $8.1 trillion gain in real estate values since 2001 added about $243 billion to consumer spending over those six years, an insignificant amount compared with the $46 trillion they've spent.
But other economists say extra housing wealth is more likely to be spent than extra stock market wealth. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and Fed economist James Kennedy concluded in a study published in 2005 that consumers spent about half of what they took out of their homes, and invested the other half in home improvements.
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