With the debt crisis in Europe still unresolved and economic growth in the U.S. sluggish, the capital markets continue to exhibit elevated volatility. However, this does not mean that no investment opportunities exist. Although the U.S. housing market remains extremely depressed, we believe that given current valuations and demographic dynamics, now may be the time to consider an investment in housing.
Few financial manias in history have had as devastating an economic impact as the American real estate bubble of the 2000s. From soaring boom to dismal and continuing bust, it has shipwrecked the financial plans of millions of American families, led to an absolute collapse in the construction industry and, through the magic of modern financial leverage, led to the biggest global recession since World War II. A few years ago, most Americans believed that there was no better long-term investment than owning your own home. Today, many regard home ownership as a financial ball and chain.
But while the change in attitudes has been dramatic, so has the change in the numbers themselves. Years of falling prices and falling mortgage rates have made home buying more affordable than it has been in decades. Moreover, home prices look downright cheap, not only from the perspective of mortgage rates and income, but also relative to the cost of renting or the cost of constructing a new home.
Meanwhile, continued population growth, combined with lender and borrower caution, has increased pent-up demand. While the inventory of homes both on the market and in foreclosure remains high, minimal home building over the past three years is gradually eating into this stockpile, a process that could quickly accelerate with any pickup in demand.
Home prices play a crucial role in determining household wealth and shaping consumer confidence. In addition, any revival in home building could provide a much-needed boost to overall economic growth and employment. However, beyond the implications for the macroeconomy and financial markets, the numbers on housing have an important message for American families today, and particularly younger families setting out on life's great adventure: Five years ago, at the peak of the home-buying euphoria, it was emphatically a time to rent. Today, when home ownership is depreciated more than ever
before, the numbers tell us it is a time to buy.
Collapse and consequences
The sad saga of the U.S. housing crash is now so well known that it seems almost cruel to rehash the details. Many observers at the time realized that too many houses were being built, home prices were rising too quickly and lending standards were being dangerously compromised in fueling the bubble. While there is much more to the story, the bottom line is that by January 2006, U.S. housing starts reached a peak of just under 2.3 million units annualized, about 50% higher than the average level of starts over the past 50 years, while the price of the average, existing single-family home was up 47% in just five years. Something had to give, and it did - in a big way.
Since then, the collapse in housing has been of historic proportions, amplified by the financial crisis of 2008. Some numbers can help put this in perspective:
In almost 50 years, from January 1959 to September 2008, the lowest annualized rate of housing starts recorded for any month was 798,000, and the average rate was more than 1.5 million units. Since January 2009, the highest rate recorded for any month has been 687,000, and the average rate has been just 575,000.
From their peak in late 2005, nationwide median existing single-family home prices have fallen by 29% in nominal terms and by 37% relative to inflation.
Since the first quarter of 2006, the value of home equity has fallen from $13.5 trillion to $6.2 trillion, a 54% decline.
All of this has had a profound impact on the economic environment, investment environment and even the psychological outlook of Americans.
Since the start of the recession in December 2007, construction employment nationwide has fallen by 1.9 million jobs, or 30% of the 6.6 million jobs lost. This from a sector that even at its peak only ever accounted for 5.7% of U.S. jobs. However, even this understates the impact of the housing slump on employment, as it ignores the ancillary industries that have been impacted by the decline in housing, along with all the employment effects caused by the impact of a collapse in housing market wealth, confidence and the stock market.
Since the middle of 2006, home building has fallen from 5.9% of nominal GDP to just 2.2%.
Falling home prices have also had a profound impact on consumer confidence. Statistical work over the last decade suggests that a 10% change in year-over year average existing home prices tends to move the consumer sentiment index by approximately 6.4 index points in the same direction, even after accounting for feed-though effects of housing on the stock market and employment. For reference, the consumer sentiment index was at a level of 57.5 in early October 2011, almost 30 points lower than its average level of the last 40 years.