Home Prices Keep Falling, Prolonging Financial Crisis

The financial crisis won't be over until U.S. house prices stop falling, many experts believe, which in short means it won't be over anytime soon.


Despite a long fall that has brought down several major financial institutions and taken the economy as a whole to the brink of recession, housing in the United States is still too expensive relative to incomes, rent and the availability of mortgage money with which to buy it.

And that's before you factor in rising unemployment or oil price inflation that is crimping budgets and making long commutes, and the houses built at the end of those commutes, no longer affordable.

The implications are pretty dire; rising levels of writedowns at banks, more failures of financial firms and lousy economic growth, if any, until six months or so after a base is found.

While the overall disease is a debt bubble, the most debilitating symptom of its unwinding is house price falls.

"It looks to us that at least one half of the peak-to-trough price decline has already occurred and that we should see an outright bottom either late next year or in the first part of 2010," Wachovia economists Mark Vitner and Adam York wrote in a note to clients. "A reasonable first assumption is that a bigger boom will produce a bigger bust."

Looking at housing in relation to income, they found that prices have moved closer to historic norms, but not as far as could be expected given the extent of the boom.

If prices were to moderate back to where they were relative to income in the mid and late 1990s, the S&P/Case-Shiller 20 City index would have to decline 35.1 percent in total compared with its 17.5 percent fall thus far.

Another way to look at housing is how much it costs to buy versus rent.

Vitner and York compared prices with owners' equivalent rent, an exhaustive measure of rental costs computed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rents and sales prices had a very stable historical relationship between the early 1980s and about 1997, at which point purchase prices surged while rental ones more or less kept pace with inflation.

Using the 20 City index, their analysis is that to get back in line with their historic relationship to rental costs prices must fall even further, by nearly 40 percent peak-to-trough.

National Association of Realtors median home price data produces falls that were smaller in total. On an income measure NAR prices could fall 17.2 percent in total, as compared with their 11.2 percent fall thus far.

Regardless of which index you believe, the important measure is that we are only 50-60 percent of the way down. (Help for homeowners facing foreclosure? See video)

When you consider the wreckage that has been manufactured by the first half, that is a sobering thought. You also have to be wary of making comparisons between this housing slump and any other since the Great Depression.

A crucial difference this time may be the availability of finance, especially as continued falls in house prices destroy capital at banks and at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

If you think about the housing slump during the Savings & Loan crisis, credit availability was impaired by busts of regional lenders but never was Fannie and Freddie's ability to play their role imperilled in the way it is today.

Freddie Mac said last week it was considering ways to raise capital, including allowing its portfolio of loans to run down, or selling loan securities it owns.

That is the last thing the mortgage market needs, a point that was probably not lost on Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson when he moved to orchestrate a rescue package for the two government-sponsored lenders.

Barclays Capital mortgage analyst Seth Glasser points out that average mortgage rates spiked by about 60 basis points between mid-May and mid-July.

For borrowers who need large loans or whose situation is unusual rates can be as much as two full percentage points higher.

Given the state of the financial system, rates are if anything likely to be headed higher relative to inflation and many marginal would-be buyers will find they cannot borrow at any cost.

One conclusion you can draw quite easily from all of this is that it is still way too early to see financial shares recovering, despite the recent rally and despite the new rules limiting short selling.

Another is that direct government intervention is more and more likely the deeper the falls become.

That might be via nationalisation of Fannie and Freddie or through lending or subsidies from some new entity.

It may also have to wait until after the U.S. presidential election or until after a new wave of bank failures.