The recent jump in home prices (near record month-over-month and year-over-year increases reported forMay by the National Association of Realtors) has led to speculation that the rapid surge in home prices could be the sign of a new housing bubble similar to the one that led to the Great Recession.
Is it? The not-so-short answer is, not yet.
Indeed, through May the median price of an existing single-family home has risen by double-digits for seven of the last eight months (and in the eighth, the year-over-year increase was 9.4 percent). For comparison’s sake, note that in the run-up to the collapse in 2006, the median price of an existing single-family home rose by double-digits year-over-year for 11 straight months.
An increase in prices itself does not signal a bubble. An unsustainable increase, not supported by other data, however, would. In the run-up to the 2006 collapse, the higher prices—which had been trending up for four years—led to a sharp uptick in construction wholly unsupported by demographics. Baby boomers were aging, transforming home buyers into sellers, and there weren’t sufficient numbers of “echo boomers” to replace them.
Nonetheless, in the last 12 months, the year-over-year increase in single-family starts has averaged about 26 percent, four times the average year-over-year increase in the 12 months just prior to the bubble bursting in 2006. When housing prices fell when the bubble burst, the construction jobs they supported disappeared along with hundreds of thousands of others as housing wealth vanished, seemingly overnight.
Even though the demographics haven’t changed—the 55-plus population is growing faster than the 25-34 population—builders in the last 12 months have completed 31 percent more single-family homes than they sold. Prior to the housing peak, completions were about 26 percent more than sales, adding to inventories and further depressing home prices.
While the “gap” between completions and sales was wider before the 2006 collapse than today, it has been expanding rapidly, growing in eight of the last 12 months.
So, what happened to the overall economy when the housing bubble burst? As prices and values dropped, so did consumer spending, a function of the “wealth effect.” According to some estimates, the decrease in home values reduced consumer spending by upwards of $400 billion and GDP by about 2.5 percent. That jobs fell as well only made a bad situation worse.
The slowdown in housing prices beginning in 2006 came just as baby boomers—born between 1946 and 1964—were approaching retirement, a time when they might be looking to use their homes as a retirement nest egg, finding themselves with more house than they needed. About a year later, employment began to sag along with wages and salaries, so there were fewer people with less money to spend on buying a home.
Despite the fact we still theoretically have more potential sellers than buyers, which should drive prices down, the inventory of homes listed for sale has remained low. That low inventory, combined with low interest rates keeping affordability high, has driven prices up.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a bubble unless sales increase with the higher prices, and they have even with regulatory changes in the wake of the housing collapse designed to stop banks from making loans borrowers could not afford. Just how effective those changes have been though is still open to question. According to the Federal Reserve’s most recent Senior Loan Officers Opinion Survey, mortgage demand is climbing and more banks are easing lending standards.
Those factors combine to drive prices still higher a cycle which, if incomes fail to keep pace, could inexorably lead to a bursting bubble.
Perhaps more significant than the question of whether we’re in or headed to a bubble and are we prepared for it to burst is what happens if prices again suddenly and dramatically collapse?
Many analysts contend the current prices are justified by low rates, which keep home affordable even as prices rise. This would suggest that as rates rise, prices will move in the opposite direction, a replay of the post-2006 economy. That’s not though what history tells us. If prices fall in response to higher rates, it would mean market behavior has changed, a phenomenon for which we may not be prepared.