The Haunted Housing Market

House prices haven't fallen enough to tempt buyers, despite sales incentives and rebates.

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How much longer will house prices keep falling? That collapse is a larger threat to our economic well-being than even the headline-grabbing problems of our increasingly frozen financial system. We've had half a century of rising home values, capped by an inflation-adjusted rise of 85 percent from 1997 to 2006. Now the loss of value tops $1 trillion, and the financial world has incurred hundreds of billions of dollars of losses on the premise that U.S. home prices would never fall. The median price of a new home is at $206,500, receding to where it was in November of 2003, thus wiping out more than three years of price appreciation. It takes 6.3 months to sell a finished home compared with 4.3 months a year ago. The ratio of inventory to sales is the highest since October 1981—there's an unsold extra backlog of a million single-family homes and condominiums. Builders have cut their housing starts by approximately 40 percent over the past year. David Rosenberg of Merrill Lynch estimates construction will fall from a million units to approximately 700,000 units, an all-time low since World War II.

House prices, though, haven't fallen enough to tempt buyers, despite sales incentives and rebates. According to the Conference Board, fewer Americans plan to buy in the next six months than at any time since 1994. The decline in conventional mortgage rates has failed to spark sales because it has been trumped by tighter lending standards. Speculators, who helped fuel the bubble, have virtually disappeared from the market.

No loans. New mortgages are harder to get now than at any other time in the 17 years that the Federal Reserve has been surveying senior loan officers. Lenders have disqualified thousands of potential buyers. A third of planned home sales were canceled or delayed last fall, in large part because the buyers could not get the loans they needed. Those who do qualify are being asked to make substantial down payments, sometimes going back to the old rule of 20 percent down, with monthly payments that are high enough to pay down the debt. No longer are there interest-only loans or quick mortgage refinancing that used homes as an ATM and produced over $1.2 trillion of free cash for homeowners during the past seven years.

There's also the fact that many who do qualify have lost the desire to buy since nobody can be sure of how far real home prices will decline. But decline they will. Merrill Lynch estimates that home prices could sink an additional 20 to 25 percent over the next two to three years. This would mean that many homeowners, including two thirds of those who bought homes in the past 18 months, would owe more than their homes are worth. It would also wipe out some $5 trillion on the balance sheets of households. Goldman Sachs sees prices declining by 10 to 12 percent this year. Home prices are on track to recede to a more conventional multiple of family income at 2.8 times, declining from the national average today, which is 3.9 times. That would return values to 2000 levels in inflation-adjusted terms, an unprecedented decline.

Lower rates can help those with adjustable-rate mortgages, but they cannot stop the deflation of the housing bubble or prevent a tidal wave of mortgage defaults. This is partly because mortgage rates reflect the 10-year treasury bond yield more than the federal funds rate. That rate has dropped, but the spread of both fixed- and adjustable-rate mortgages over treasuries has widened, which means smaller declines in mortgage rates. Then there are those many borrowers who got mortgages in 2003 and 2004 when the federal funds rate was 1 percent; they're not going to get a better deal than that. And if they now have zero or negative equity in their home, they won't be able to refinance in any event.

We are facing the largest increase in loan defaults in postwar history. As William Gross, head of the PIMCO investment fund, points out, "To revive the housing market, the rates on 30-year mortgages are going to have to come down significantly—no small challenge when inflation is rising." He suggests an expanded Federal Housing Administration program to offer below-market 30-year mortgage refinancings with minimal down payments. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd suggests a variant of having the government buy mortgages in or near default and refinancing them at easier terms so the borrowers can keep their homes.