Housing Gets Ugly, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Bubble, bubble, Toll’s in trouble. This week, Toll Brothers, the nation’s premier builder of McMansions, announced that sales were way off, profits were down, and the company was walking away from already-purchased options on land for future development.
Toll’s announcement was one of many indications that the long-feared housing bust has arrived. Home sales are down sharply; home prices ... are now falling in much of the country. The inventory of unsold existing homes is at a 13-year high; builders’ confidence is at a 15-year low.
A year ago, Robert Toll, who runs Toll Brothers, was euphoric about the housing boom... In a New York Times profile ... published last October, he dismissed worries about a possible bust. “Why can’t real estate just have a boom like every other industry?” he asked. “Why do we have to have a bubble and then a pop?”
The current downturn, Mr. Toll now says, is unlike anything he’s seen: sales are slumping despite the absence of any “macroeconomic nasty condition”... He suggests that unease about the direction of the country and the war in Iraq is undermining confidence. All I have to say is: pop!
Now what? Until recently most business economists were predicting a “soft landing” for housing. Even now, the majority opinion seems to be that we’re looking at a cooling market, not a bust. But this complacency looks increasingly like denial, as hard data — which tend ... to lag what’s actually going on ... — start to confirm anecdotal evidence that it is, indeed, a bust.
Why the sudden crackup? ...[W]ith prices falling in many areas, the speculative demand for houses has gone into reverse, as people try to get out with a profit while they still can. There’s now a rapidly growing glut of unsold houses. This is a recipe for a major bust, not a soft landing.
Moreover, it could be both a deep and a prolonged bust. Since 2000, much of the nation has experienced a rise in home prices comparable to the boom in Southern California during the late 1980’s. After that bubble popped, Los Angeles house prices began a slow, grinding deflation, eventually falling 20 percent (34 percent after adjusting for inflation). Prices didn’t begin a sustained recovery until 1996, more than six years after the downturn began.
Now imagine the same thing happening across a large part of the United States. It’s an ugly picture, and not just for people and companies in the construction business. Many homeowners — especially those who bought their houses with interest-only loans or with minimal down payments — will find themselves in financial distress. And the economy as a whole will take a hit.
As far as I know, Nouriel Roubini of Roubini Global Economics is the only well-known economist flatly predicting a housing-led recession in the coming year. Most forecasters consider his call alarmist, and many Federal Reserve officials remain optimistic. Last week, Richard Fisher, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, dismissed “Eeyores in the analytical community” who worry about a possible recession.
Call me Eeyore. While I don’t share Mr. Roubini’s certainty, I see his point: housing has been the main engine of U.S. economic growth over the past three years, and with that engine now going into reverse, it’s hard to see how we can avoid a serious slowdown.
Update: In Money Talks, Krugman adds:
Just a wonkish note about how bad the macroeconomics of all this could be:
If you look at the most leading of the indicators on housing, stuff like new home sales and applications for permits, they're off more than 20 percent from a year ago. If that translates into an equivalent fall in residential investment, we're talking about a fall from 6 percent of the G.D.P. to 4.8 percent. And this may be only the beginning; I wouldn't be surprised to see housing investment drop below its pre-bubble norm of 4 percent of G.D.P., at least for a while.
Add to this the likely effect of a housing bust on consumer spending and you've got a direct hit to G.D.P. of, say, 2.5 percent or more. That's bigger than the slump in business investment that led to the 2001 recession. And the main reason the 2001 recession wasn't as deep as some feared was that the Fed was able to engineer... a housing boom. What will the Fed do this time?
Maybe rising business investment and a declining trade deficit will soften the blow. But it's remarkably easy, playing with the numbers, to come up with scenarios in which the unemployment rate rises above 6 percent by the end of 2007. That's not a prediction, but it's well within the range of possibility.
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