Housing Won't Drive Recovery: Pros
Housing is good but not great, and unlikely to fulfill Wall Street's expectations that it will be a leading force in a robust recovery, according to a group that is one of the industry's most prominent voices.
Despite data points that in some cases are at multiyear highs, Robert Shiller, Karl Case and David Blitzer believe there are multiple headwinds that will keep a lid on housing gains.
Among the obstacles are a low level of new housing starts, an unexpectedly slow migration of so-called shadow inventory onto the market, and continued difficulty for buyers to secure financing.
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"You've got a lot of breathless commentary in the media," said Shiller, a Yale University economist. "All this talk that we're in this great recovery—we probably are in the short run, the longer run doesn't look so terrific to me."
Those who keep close track of the ins and outs of the housing market know the names of Case and Shiller for the monthly home price index they release along with Standard & Poor's. Their most recent report showed a 9.3 percent price gain.
Blitzer is managing director of S&P's Index Committee and helps analyze the data as the figures come through.
They spoke this week at a roundtable discussion with select media regarding their views of the housing market going forward. Many Wall Street economists have cited the industry as the linchpin for economic recovery expectations.
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None of the trio could be called a housing bear, but Shiller is the most cautious of the group.
Ironically, shortly after the discussion, the National Association of Realtors said its figures indicated that existing home sales hit a three-year high and are up 9.7 percent over the past year.
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"People are worried about housing as a risky asset," Blitzer said. "All the things that looked like they were going to snap back aren't snapping back, but some of them are."
One of the areas that took a recent downturn was housing starts, which plunged 16.5 percent to 853,000 in April.
Though permits surged to a nearly six-year high of 1.017 million, Case said starts is the more important metric.
Gross domestic product, which was a below-consensus 2.5 percent in the first quarter, gets a much bigger boost from starts, which represent fresh capital, than sales, which represent primarily a transfer of property. Permits, he said, are an unreliable gauge as they do not represent actual building.
"You build a house, you're adding $300,000 to the capital stock," Case said. "That's a lot of GDP just in the direct effect of housing starts. It's been the perfect instrument of housing policy."
Though he said "I believe there is a recovery," Case added that he is also dismayed at the lack of inventory on the market, in part because of a slower-than-expected foreclosure process.
"We thought the shadow inventory would be pouring on the matter as trends changed," he said. "That never happened."
What the economy is left with then, is a market that has, as Shiller said, merely returned to normalcy from extremely depressed levels.
Case said areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco actually could be in bubble territory, but the rest of the market will see more incremental gains.
"There is momentum in the housing market," Shiller said. "Momentum suggests increases in the next six to 12 months." Longer term, he added, "I'm not so optimistic. It's not going to be another big up and down."
_ By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter