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August 01, 2014
What's behind Housing's June Swoon?
The housing market appears to have endured a particularly cruel month in June. Fairly good numbers on existing home sales provided some antidote to a second consecutive monthly decline in housing starts and a sharp decline in new home sales. But that palliative is less comforting than it might otherwise be given the fact that existing sales were still 2.3 percent below the June 2013 rate, and budding optimism diminished further with this week's unexpected drop off in the pace of pending home sales.
In her recent remarks before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and before the House Committee on Financial Services, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen took particular note of ongoing weakness in residential real estate:
The housing sector, however, has shown little recent progress. While this sector has recovered notably from its earlier trough, housing activity leveled off in the wake of last year's increase in mortgage rates, and readings this year have, overall, continued to be disappointing.
The statement following the conclusion of this week's meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee provided an exclamation point to Chair Yellen's commentary:
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that ... recovery in the housing sector remains slow.
The housing market was a bright spot in the economy from early 2012 to mid-2013, and there's no shortage of conjecture on why it has morphed into a source of concern. Reasonable hypotheses include reduced affordability brought on by higher mortgage rates and real estate prices, tighter lending conditions and ongoing balance sheet issues for households (think student debt), and supply constraints associated with rising construction costs and lot availability (at least in the most desirable locations, as examples here and here discuss).
In a March post in the Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint, affordability issues—specifically, interest rates and prices—constituted two of the top three explanations given by our broker and builder contacts in the Southeast for recent slower growth in the housing market. Earlier, we had examined the affordability issue in an Atlanta Fed Real Estate Research post. In it, we decomposed the affordability index that the National Association of Realtors (NAR) produces each month. We used our decomposition to show that the rebound in housing prices in 2012 served as a huge drag on affordability and, after six years of contributing to affordability, mortgage interest rates became a drag in mid-2013.
How—and why—has the affordability index changed since we last checked? The chart below provides an update through May 2014 (the latest date for which we have the data necessary for our decomposition):
On a year-over-year basis, affordability has fallen as a result of rising prices and last summer's uptick in interest rates. Still, affordability remains high by precrisis standards. And given that we have recently passed the anniversary of the first "taper talk," the impact of the interest rate component should fade if rates remain stable and thus become similar to, if not below, year-ago levels. Likewise, house price growth has decelerated and will continue to be less of a drag on affordability as measured by NAR.
It may be fair to attribute some of the recent softness in housing to affordability. But in light of the still relatively high readings of our index, it seems likely that the main culprits are one or more of the other factors discussed above.
By Carl Hudson, director of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Real Estate Analytics, and
Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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October 18, 2013
Why Was the Housing-Price Collapse So Painful? (And Why Is It Still?)
Foresight about the disaster to come was not the primary reason this year’s Nobel Prize in economics went to Robert Shiller (jointly with Eugene Fama and Lars Hansen). But Professor Shiller’s early claim that a housing-price bubble was full on, and his prediction that trouble was a-comin’, is arguably the primary source of his claim to fame in the public sphere.
Several years down the road, the causes and effects of the housing-price run-up, collapse, and ensuing financial crisis are still under the microscope. Consider, for example, this opinion by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
...the downturn is not primarily a “financial crisis.” The story of the downturn is a simple story of a collapsed housing bubble. The $8 trillion housing bubble was driving demand in the U.S. economy in the last decade until it collapsed in 2007. When the bubble burst we lost more than 4 percentage points of GDP worth of demand due to a plunge in residential construction. We lost roughly the same amount of demand due to a falloff in consumption associated with the disappearance of $8 trillion in housing wealth.
The collapse of the bubble created a hole in annual demand equal to 8 percent of GDP, which would be $1.3 trillion in today’s economy. The central problem facing the U.S., the euro zone, and the U.K. was finding ways to fill this hole.
In part, Baker’s post relates to an ongoing pundit catfight, which Baker himself concedes is fairly uninteresting. As he says, “What matters is the underlying issues of economic policy.” Agreed, and in that light I am skeptical about dismissing the centrality of the financial crisis to the story of the downturn and, perhaps more important, to the tepid recovery that has followed.
Interpreting what Baker has in mind is important, so let me start there. I have not scoured Baker’s writings for pithy hyperlinks, but I assume that his statement cited above does not deny that the immediate post-Lehman period is best characterized as a period of panic leading to severe stress in financial markets. What I read is his assertion that the basic problem—perhaps outside the crisis period in late 2008—is a rather plain-vanilla drop in wealth that has dramatically suppressed consumer demand, and with it economic growth. An assertion that the decline in wealth is what led us into the recession, is what accounts for the depth and duration of the recession, and is what’s responsible for the shallow recovery since.
With respect to the pace of recovery, evidence supports the proposition that financial crises without housing busts are not so unique—or if they are, the data tend to associate financial-related downturns with stronger-than-average recoveries. Mike Bordo and Joe Haubrich, respectively from Rutgers University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, argue that the historical record of U.S. recessions leads us to view housing and the pace of residential investment as the key to whether tepid recoveries will follow sharp recessions:
Our analysis of the data shows that steep expansions tend to follow deep contractions, though this depends heavily on when the recovery is measured. In contrast to much conventional wisdom, the stylized fact that deep contractions breed strong recoveries is particularly true when there is a financial crisis. In fact, on average, it is cycles without a financial crisis that show the weakest relation between contraction depth and recovery strength. For many configurations, the evidence for a robust bounce-back is stronger for cycles with financial crises than those without...
Our results also suggest that a sizeable fraction of the shortfall of the present recovery from the average experience of recoveries after deep recessions is due to the collapse of residential investment.
From here, however, it gets trickier to reach conclusions about why changes in housing values are so important.
Simply put, why should there be a “wealth effect” at all? If the price of my house falls and I suffer a capital loss, I do in fact feel less wealthy. But all potential buyers of my house just gained the opportunity to obtain my house at a lower price. For them, the implied wealth gain is the same as my loss. If buyers and sellers essentially behave the same way, why should there be a large impact on consumption? *
I think this notion quickly leads you to the thought there is something fundamentally special about housing assets and that this special role relates to credit markets and finance. This angle is clearly articulated in these passages from a Bloomberg piece earlier in the year, one of a spate of articles in the spring about why rapidly recovering house prices were apparently not driving the recovery into a higher gear:
The wealth effect from rising house prices may not be as effective as it once was in spurring the U.S. economy...
The wealth effect “is much smaller,” said Amir Sufi, professor of finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Sufi, who participated in last year’s central-bank conference at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, reckons that each dollar increase in housing wealth may yield as little as an extra cent in spending. That compares with a 3-to-5-cent estimate by economists prior to the recession.
Many homeowners are finding they can’t refinance their mortgages because banks have tightened credit conditions so much they’re not eligible for new loans. Most who can refinance are opting not to withdraw equity after the first nationwide decline in house prices since the Great Depression reminded them home values can fall as well as rise...
Others are finding it difficult to refinance because credit has become a lot harder to come by. And that situation could worsen as banks respond to stepped-up government oversight.
“Credit is going to get tighter before it gets easier,” said David Stevens, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Mortgage Bankers Association...
“Households that have been through foreclosure or have underwater mortgages or are otherwise credit-constrained are less able than other households to take advantage” of low interest rates, Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin said in an April 18 speech in New York.
(I should note that Sufi et al. previously delved into the relationship between household balance sheets and the economic downturn here.)
A more systematic take comes from the Federal Reserve Board’s Matteo Iacoviello:
Empirically, housing wealth and consumption tend to move together: this could happen because some third factor moves both variables, or because there is a more direct effect going from one variable to the other. Studies based on time-series data, on panel data and on more detailed, recent micro data point suggest that a considerable portion of the effect of housing wealth on consumption reflects the influence of changes in housing wealth on borrowing against such wealth.
That sounds like a financial problem to me and, in the spirit of Baker’s plea that it is the policy that matters, this distinction is more than semantic. The policy implications of an economic shock that alters the capacity to engage in borrowing and lending are not necessarily the same as those that result from a straightforward decline in wealth.
Having said that, it is not so clear how the policy implications are different. One possibility is that diminished access to credit markets also weakens policy-transmission mechanisms, calling for even more aggressive demand-oriented “pump-priming” policies of the sort Dean Baker advocates. But it is also possible that we have entered a period of deep structural repair that only time (and not merely government stimulus) can (or should) engineer: deleveraging and balance sheet repair, sectoral resource reallocation, new consumption habits, new business models driven by both market and regulatory imperatives, you name it.
In my view, it’s not yet clear which policy approach is closest to optimal. But I am fairly well convinced that good judgment will require us to think of the past decade as the financial event it was, and in many ways still is.
*Update: A colleague pointed out that my example describing housing price changes and wealth effects may be simplified to the point of being misleading. Implicitly, I am in fact assuming that the flow of housing services derived from housing assets is fixed, a condition that obviously would not hold in general. See section 3 of the Iacoviello paper cited above for a theoretical description of why, to a first approximation, we would not expect there to be a large consumption effect from changes in housing values.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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March 11, 2013
You Say You’re a Homeowner and Not a Renter? Think Again.
As we’ve said before, we’re suckers for cool charts. The latest that caught our eye is the following one, originally created by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It highlights the relative importance assigned to the various components of the consumer price index (CPI) and shows where increases in the index have come from over the past 12 months.
It probably won’t surprise anyone that the drop in gasoline prices (found in the transportation component) exerted downward pressure on the CPI last year, while the cost of medical care pushed the price index higher. What might surprise you is the size of that big, blue square labeled “housing.” Housing accounts for a little more than 40 percent of the CPI market basket and, given its weight, any change in this component significantly affects the overall index.
This begs the question: In light of the recent strength seen in the housing market—and notably the nearly 10 percent rise in home prices over the past 12 months—are housing costs likely to exert more upward pressure on the CPI?
Before we dive into this question, it’s important to understand that home prices do not directly enter into the computation of the CPI (or the personal consumption expenditures [PCE] price index, for that matter). This is because a home is an asset, and an increase in its value does not impose a “cost” on the homeowner. But there is a cost that homeowners face in addition to home maintenance and utilities, and that’s the implied rent they incur by living in their home rather than renting it out. In effect, every homeowner is his or her own tenant, and the rent they forgo each month is called the “owners’ equivalent rent” (or OER) in the CPI. OER represents about 24 percent of the CPI (and about 11 percent of the PCE price index). The CPI captures this OER cost (sensibly, in our view) by measuring the cost of home rentals (details here). So whether the robust rise in home prices will influence the behavior of the CPI this year depends on whether rising home prices influence home rents.
So what is likely to happen to OER given the continued increase in home prices? Well, higher home prices, in time, ought to cause home rents to rise, putting upward pressure on the CPI. Homes are assets to landlords, after all, and landlords (like all investors) require an adequate return on their investments. Let’s call this the “asset market influence” of home prices on home rents. But the rents that landlords charge also compete with homeownership. If renters decide to become homeowners, the rental market loses customers, which should push home rents in the opposite direction of home prices for a time. Let’s call this the “substitution influence” on rent prices.
Consider the following charts, which show three-month home prices and home rents (measured by the CPI’s OER measure). It’s a little hard to see a clear correlation between these two measures.
So we’ve separated these data into their trend and cycle components (using Hodrick-Prescott procedures, if you must know) shown in the following two charts. Now, if one takes the trend view, there is a clear positive relationship between home prices and home rents. This is consistent with the asset market influence described above. But also consider the detrended perspective. Here, home prices and home rents are pretty clearly negatively correlated. This, to us, looks like the substitution influence described above.
So let’s get back to the question at hand. What do rising home prices mean for OER and, ultimately, the behavior of the CPI? Well, it’s rather hard to say because the link between home prices and OER isn’t particularly strong.
Not definitive enough for you? OK, how about this: We think the recent rise in home prices will more likely lean against the rise in OER for the near term as the growing demand for home ownership provides some competition to the rental market. But, in time, these influences will give way to the asset market fundamentals, and rents are likely to accelerate as returns on real estate investments are reaffirmed.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist, and
Nick Parker, economic research analyst, both in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
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October 19, 2012
Investor Participation in the Home-Buying Market
What is the investor share of the home-buying market, and in what direction is the trend moving? We have been asking ourselves this question for the past few months, because the answer can help to inform what type of housing recovery we are seeing. Is it being driven by owner occupants or investors?
If it is being driven by investors, does this signal an emerging aversion to homeownership? Or, instead, does this simply signal that owner occupants are unable access mortgage finance and that, for now, owner occupants will be unable to maintain the share of market they once held? If we see that the owner occupant share is increasing, this observation could offer some support that the housing recovery has legs. The conclusion that the investor share is increasing, then, may suggest that we will see home sales activity fall off once prices rise to the point that it no longer makes sense for investors to continue buying.
To help us pinpoint the share and trend in the investor participation in the home-buying market, we polled our real estate business contacts to get a better sense for our regional portrait of investor market share. When asked to describe the distribution of home buyers in their market, our business contacts from the Southeast (excluding Florida) noted that one-fifth of home sales, on average, were to investors. Once we added Florida into our tally of Southeast contacts, just over one-fourth of sales, on average, were to investors.
Since this was the first time we posed this question to our business contacts, we lacked information on the directional trend. To address this information gap, we asked our business contacts how sales to investors had changed between the second and third quarters of 2012. More than half reported no change or a slight decline in home sales to investors, unless you include the Florida observations. A closer look at Florida reveals that nearly two-thirds of our business contacts reported that sales to investors in Florida have increased over the past quarter. The investor dynamic in Florida all seems to add up, especially given the strong demand from international buyers and cash investors in South Florida. This dynamic was discussed in the latest issue of EconSouth.
We thought it would also be informative to ask our business contacts about their expectations for future investor home buying activity. For the Southeast less Florida, more than half of our business contacts indicated that they did not expect there to be much change in investor market share over the next year. For Florida, more than half of the business contacts continued to indicate that they expected share of sales to investors to increase.
While the intelligence gathered from our business contacts aligns nicely with external data sources, we still had a few concerns that made us question the directional trend of these data.
The first source of concern is two-fold. First, brokers serve as a key input to our business contact poll and others like it. In and of itself, this is not a big deal because brokers are valued business contacts that provide us with a frequent and timely pulse on changing conditions in local real estate markets. What is slightly problematic is that brokers often rely heavily on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), which brings me to my second point. We have also been hearing through business contacts (and this is echoed in the media here) that the composition of the investor pool has shifted from primarily smaller mom/pop-type investors to larger institutional investors that, more often than not, purchase properties at auction or directly from banks. Often, these sales take place before the properties get listed on MLS.
So, how involved are brokers in transactions that take place before MLS? Is this particular slice of investment activity being picked up by our sources? If not, how much do we really know about the share and directional trend of investor participation in the home buyer market?
Media coverage (here, for example) of these institutional investors often describes scenes at local auction in which institutional investors outbid smaller investors and have gone so far as to expand their presence and show up at auctions where properties at the fringe (in less desirable locations) are being sold. This piece of information, alone, leads me to believe that these larger investors have displaced smaller investors. Therefore, it would not necessarily be correct to think of properties acquired by institutional investors as something in addition to the properties purchased by smaller mom/pop investors. Instead, many of the mom/pop investors have been priced out of the market and replaced by institutional investors.
Another related concern involves the timing and strategy of these institutional investors. Why would institutional investors flood local real estate markets at the same time that inventory is tightening and home prices are beginning to stabilize and modestly increase in many markets? Wouldn't this squeeze their yields and make it less desirable for them to continue to ramp up their efforts?
To help provide some insight into the institutional investor, I created a table of information to provide a profile on a few institutional investors often cited by the press. It is important to mention that this table was not intended to be all-encompassing and that the source of information is entirely secondary.
What this table implies is that institutional investors ramped up activity earlier this year and have indeed concentrated their investment activity within a handful of markets that were hit hard by the housing downturn. Acquisition strategies for these larger investors focus on mostly low-priced, distressed properties.
This makes sense. The markets hit hardest by the housing downturn are also the markets where distressed properties make up a significant portion of the available homes for sale. However, data from CoreLogic indicates that the share of distressed sales is steadily declining over time. As the distressed sales share continues to shrink and home prices continue to rise, it stands to reason that investment activity will shrink (or continue to shrink).
It was recently noted that Och-Ziff Capital Management Group LLC, a large institutional investor (not outlined in the table above), announced that it intends to exit this line of business. Perhaps it is just a matter of time before other large investors follow suit.
By Jessica Dill, a senior analyst in the Atlanta Fed’s Center for Real Estate Analytics
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August 29, 2012
Rising House Prices: The Good Fortune Spreads
On the heels of a rash of pretty good news related to residential real estate—including yesterday's pending home sales report—the June S&P/Case-Shiller report on housing prices checks in with positive monthly gains across all markets in its 20-city composite for the second month in a row. What's more, the index posted its first year-over-year gain since last summer.
The early reviews found little to dislike, from Calculated Risk...
This was better than the consensus forecast and the change to a year-over-year increase is significant.
...to Carpe Diem...
More evidence that the U.S. housing market has passed the bottom and is now in a period of sustainable recovery.
[T]he housing market is steadily improving and is poised to contribute to economic growth this year. Modest economic growth and job gains are encouraging more Americans to buy homes.
The widespread nature of price firming evident in the Case-Shiller index is strikingly confirmed by looking at even more disaggregated data. The following chart shows June year-over-year price growth by zip code, before the crisis hit and since, based on data available from CoreLogic:
The sample represented by the chart covers about 21 percent of all of the zip codes in the nation, and is based (like Case-Shiller) on a repeat-sales methodology.
The striking aspect, of course, is that there haven't been price increases in the majority of the sample's zip codes since before 2007 (although there was improvement evident in 2010, followed by the re-emergence of broader weakness in 2011). Furthermore, the uniformity of the picture becomes even more apparent when you look market by market (across which the experience is not so uniform). Two of the big comeback stories—Miami and Phoenix—were uniform in the breadth of the suffering across their metro areas during the worst of the slump and are now just as uniform in recovery:
Folks in Atlanta, on the other hand—which remains the big negative outlier in the year-over-year Case-Shiller statistics—are just as uniform as Miami and Phoenix, but in the pain rather gain department:
Even so, the Atlanta market has had two consecutive months of Case-Shiller housing price appreciation and experienced the largest monthly percentage gains in the June report. It does appear that the rising residential real estate tide is raising most boats.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director;
Myriam Quispe-Agnoli, research economist and assistant policy adviser; and
Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst, and all with the Atlanta Fed
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September 01, 2011
The pull between spending and saving
In a speech on Wednesday, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart talked about how the economic outlook is being shaped by the process of deleveraging (reducing debt and increasing saving) that is occurring in the economy.
By way of background, President Lockhart emphasized the important role that some amount of debt plays in economic growth: while difficult to measure precisely, research suggests that debt levels that get high enough are associated with extended periods of subpar economic growth.
"Debt is not in and of itself a bad thing. Debt supports economic growth by allowing households, businesses, and governments to smooth their spending and investment over time. Borrowing and lending can help facilitate the allocation of capital to productive uses in the economy. But high debt levels can also result in lower economic growth, a point that Stephen Cecchetti, of the Bank for International Settlements, made in a paper presented at the Kansas City Fed's symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo., last week."
Relative to the 1990s, the last decade witnessed a surge in borrowing by the nonfinancial sector (comprising households, nonfinancial businesses and governments). Indeed, as President Lockhart noted:
"Relative to the size of the U.S. economy measured in terms of GDP, the total domestic debt of nonfinancial sectors of the economy reached 248 percent in 2009, increasing by almost 75 percentage points over the previous decade alone."
While no longer growing, the overall debt position of the nonfinancial sector has barely declined since peaking in 2009.
How did we get to this point? Much of the increase in total debt during the 2000s was in the form of real estate debt, and most of that was by households and unincorporated businesses (mostly sole proprietorships and partnerships). During the 1990s the mortgage debt of households was relatively stable at around 45 percent of GDP, but it increased to a peak of 76 percent of GDP in 2009. Over the same period, mortgage debt for unincorporated businesses increased from around 12 percent of GDP to almost 20 percent.
Because real estate is relatively expensive, it is not surprising that mortgage debt heavily influences the overall debt burden of individuals. Rapidly rising home values from the late 1990s to 2006 supported the notion that housing was a good asset to purchase…until it wasn't. According to the S&P Case-Shiller national home price index, home values have declined by more than 30 percent from their peak in 2006, after having increased by more than 150 percent compared with the previous decade.
From their peak in 2009, debt levels for households and unincorporated businesses have declined relative to GDP notably by a combined 15 percentage points. Reduced mortgage debt accounted for three quarters of that decline. As President Lockhart notes, repairing the balance sheet of the household sector, just as it does for businesses, can occur through some combination of debt reduction and increased savings.
"Household deleveraging has occurred mostly through a combination of increased savings, debt repayment, and also debt forgiveness. At the same time, there has generally been less access to credit for households as a result of stricter underwriting standards. The inability to qualify for home equity loans and other forms of credit has slowed the pace at which new debt is taken on by households replacing paid-down debt. The effect is to reduce their debt burden over time."
In contrast to households and unincorporated businesses, the amount of debt owed by the nonfinancial corporate sector has not declined very much since 2009. Nonfinancial corporations increased borrowing during the second half of the 2000s. But most of the debt growth was from increased issuance of corporate bonds. Since its historical peak in 2009, the total debt of the nonfinancial corporate sector has remained at around 50 percent of GDP, as continued bond issuance has largely offset declines in other types of corporate borrowing.
If individuals are aggressively reducing their debt burden, and corporations haven't increased their overall borrowing, why hasn't the overall debt burden of the nonfinancial sector of the economy declined since 2009? The primary reason is that the amount of federal government debt has increased sharply in recent years—from 35 percent of GDP in 2007 to about 65 percent of GDP in early 2011.
As President Lockhart observes:
"While the private sector—households and businesses—has made notable progress in lowering its debt burden, discussions of how to reduce public debt have only just begun. The government still needs to introduce major policy changes to put public debt on a sustainable path. Demographic trends, which I referenced earlier, will make public debt reduction even more challenging."
How long will the deleveraging process take to play out? I'm pretty confident that nobody really knows precisely, but President Lockhart suggests that we may be closer to the beginning of the process than the end:
"Rebalancing simply takes time. A 2010 report by McKinsey surveyed 32 international periods of deleveraging following financial crises and found that, on average, the duration of these episodes was about six and a half years. U.S. debt to GDP peaked in the first quarter of 2009. So, by that standard we are much closer to the beginning than the end of our deleveraging process."
Lockhart also makes the point that this necessary structural adjustment has consequences for the medium-term outlook:
"When economies are deleveraging they cannot grow as rapidly as they might otherwise. It is obvious as consumers reduce spending they divert more of their incomes to paying off debt. This shift in consumer behavior increases the amount of capital available for financing investment. But higher rates of business investment are not likely to fully offset weakness in consumer spending for some time, as businesses continue to grapple with uncertainties about the future."
From a monetary policy perspective, slower growth as a result of deleveraging raises important challenges:
"To my mind, it's becoming increasingly clear the challenge we policymakers face is balancing appropriate policy responses for the near to medium term with what's needed for the longer term. In other words, we must continue to help the economy achieve a healthy enough cyclical recovery, especially with unemployment high and consumer spending lackluster. At the same time, we must recognize the longer-term need for directionally opposite structural adjustments, including deleveraging."
How does President Lockhart size up the role of monetary policy in this context?
"Given the weak data we've seen recently and considering the rising concern about chronic slow growth or worse, I don't think any policy option can be ruled out at the moment. However, it is important that monetary policy not be seen as a panacea. The kinds of structural adjustments I've been discussing today take time, and I am acutely aware that pushing beyond what monetary policy can plausibly deliver runs the risk of creating new distortions and imbalances.
"We may find, as economic circumstances evolve, that policy adjustments are required. In more adverse scenarios, further policy accommodation might be called for. But as of today, I am comfortable with the current stance of policy, especially considering the tensions policy must navigate between the short and long term and between recovery and the need for longer-term structural adjustments."
By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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May 13, 2011
Just how out of line are house prices?
In Wednesday's post, I referenced commentary from several bloggers regarding the sizeable decline in housing prices reported by Zillow earlier this week. As I discussed yesterday, the rat-through-the-snake process of working down existing and prospective distressed properties is likely far from over, and how that process plays out will no doubt have an impact on how much prices will ultimately adjust.
Recently, Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture blog featured an update of a New York Times chart that suggests there will be a significant adjustment going forward:
Prior to the crisis, I was persistently advised that the better way to think about the "right" home price is to focus on price-rent ratios, because rents reflect the fundamental flow of implicit or explicit income generated by a housing asset. In retrospect that advice looks pretty good, so I am inclined to think in those terms today. A simple back-of-the envelope calculation for this ratio—essentially comparing the path of the S&P/Case-Shiller composite price index for 20 metropolitan regions to the time path of the rent of primary residences in the consumer price index—tells a somewhat different story than the New York Times chart used in the aforementioned Ritholtz blog post:
According to this calculation, current prices have nearly returned to levels relative to rents that prevailed in the decade prior to the housing boom that began in the late 1990s.
Of course, the price-rent ratio is not the most sophisticated of calculations. David Leonhardt shows the results from other such calculations that suggest prices relative to rents are still elevated, at least relative to the average that prevailed in the 1990s. But the adjustment that would be required to bring current levels back into line with the precrisis average is still much lower than suggested by the Ritholtz graph.
How much farther prices fall is, I think, critical in the determination of how the economy will fare in the immediate future. Again, from President Lockhart:
"The housing sector also has indirect impacts on the economy. In particular, the direction of home prices is important for the economy because changes in home prices affect the health of both household and bank balance sheets. …
"The indirect influence of the housing sector on consumer activity and bank lending would almost certainly aggravate housing's impact on growth."
Here's hoping my chart is more predictive of housing prices than the alternative.
Update: The Calculated Risk blog does a thorough job and concludes that we don't have "to choose between real prices and price-to-rent graphs to ask 'how far out of line are house prices?' I think they are both showing that prices are not far above the historical lows."
Update: The Big Picture's Barry Ritholtz points me to his earlier argument against reliance on price-rent ratios.
By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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May 11, 2011
Is housing hurting the recovery?
Though the week is only half over, I'm going to nominate Stan Humphries and Zillow as bearers of the week's most distressing economic news:
"Home values fell three percent in the first quarter of this year, marking a pace of decline not seen since 2008 when the housing recession was at its worst. Home values fell one percent between February and March and 8.2 percent from March 2010."
"Previously, we anticipated a bottom in home values by the end of 2011. But with values falling by about 1 percent per month so far, it's unlikely that will happen. We now believe a bottom will come in 2012, at the earliest."
At The Curious Capitalist, on the other hand, Stephen Gandel says he's not so sure:
"To be sure, housing prices have fallen this year. But the Zillow numbers out today make the housing market look worse than it is. The problem is with how Zillow tracks home prices. Unlike other measures of the housing market, Zillow's numbers are not based on actual sales, but on estimates of what its model thinks your house, along with every other house in America is worth. Zillow's model is similar to how an appraiser figures out what your house is worth. It looks at past sales of houses that are similar to yours and then guesses what your house is worth. But by the time those sales are fed into Zillow's system they are months old. … If the housing market is turning, Zillow is going to miss it."
Is the housing market turning, particularly with respect to prices? Tough to say. If you want your glass half full, these words from the New York Fed's Liberty Street Economics might be the tonic for your tastes:
"This post gives our summary of the 2011:Q1 Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, released today by the New York Fed. The report shows signs of healing in household balance sheets in the United States and the region, as measured by consumer debt levels, delinquency rates, foreclosure starts, and bankruptcies…
"Delinquency rates are generally down…
"New foreclosures fell nationally and in the region. About 368,000 individuals in the United States had a foreclosure notation added to their credit report between December 31 and March 31, a 17.7 percent decrease from the 2010:Q4 level. New foreclosure rates fell from 0.19 percent to 0.15 percent for all individuals nationwide…"
What may be the most important aspect of the report is highlighted by the Financial Times's Robin Harding: "…fewer new mortgages going bad, and some bad mortgages getting better." In fact, for the first time since the crisis began, the percentage of mortgages transitioning from 30 to 90 days delinquent to current exceeds the percentage transitioning to seriously delinquent (90-plus days).
There is, of course, plenty of material for the housing-price bears. For example, the flow of seriously delinquent mortgages is quite elevated.
According to estimates from CoreLogic, the supply of "distressed" homes is greater than 15 months at the current pace of sales:
"Most analysts now expect that the housing market won't bottom out until sometime next year. Until that happens, it's unlikely that that the sluggish economic recovery we're seeing right now will improve much."
The view here at the Atlanta Fed—and the answer to the question posed in the title of this post—was provided earlier today by our president, Dennis Lockhart, in a speech given to the Atlanta Council for Quality Growth:
"…can we have high-quality growth while the residential real estate and commercial real estate sectors continue to be so weak? Not completely, in my opinion. The recovery will progress, but it will not be robust until we work through the economy's serious imbalances, including those in the real estate sector.
"As I look ahead, I think the most reasonable assumption is that improvement of the real estate sector will lag an otherwise improving economy. But I am encouraged by the fact that the economy is increasingly on firmer footing."
I will let you decide whether that glass is half-empty or half-full.
By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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March 30, 2011
A disturbing trend: No growth in total business establishments in U.S.
The last Atlanta Fed poll of small businesses in the Southeast suggested an uptick in confidence late last year. A similar upturn has been noted in the National Federation of Independent Business's survey of its members conducted in February of this year and released in March. This upturn is good news for the U.S. economic outlook, as small firms are one group that has lagged the economic recovery.
It's also good news, given the continuation of unimpressive readings from last week's release of the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) for the second quarter of 2010. As we have noted previously and highlighted in this recent Wall Street Journal blog post,
"The recession caused a sharp decline in new business start-ups, intensifying job market losses and potentially putting future economic growth at risk."
The QCEW data also showed that the number of business establishments with payrolls in the United States has remained stuck at around 9 million since late 2007. By comparison, in the early 1990s there were about 6.5 million establishments, a number that rose to close to 8 million in 2000 before peaking at 9 million 2007.
The net creation of business establishments—that is, physical locations for conducting business such as manufacturing plants, retail stores and business offices—has in the past been a key ingredient in job growth in the United States. This growth is driven partly by demand from newly created businesses and by mature firms expanding their footprint by opening additional locations. The demand for physical space is also clearly important to the commercial real estate industry, which has been burdened by elevated vacancy rates in many markets and generally low demand for new space.
Another trend from the QCEW data is striking—the number of employees per establishment is much lower than it used to be. The average size of U.S. establishments was relatively stable during the 1990s, at around 16.5 employees per physical location. The 2001 recession was associated with a decline in the average size to about 16 workers per establishment, and the average size continued to track lower during the last decade, moving down to about 15 employees per establishment in 2007. The latest reading for the second quarter of 2010 was 14.3 workers per establishment, up from 14 workers in the first quarter.
Several possible explanations exist for these declines in average establishment size. First, there is a cyclical response to weak demand as firms cut their payrolls. Second, productivity gains over time allow a plant, store, or office to support the demand for its goods or services with fewer workers. Third, there is a secular trend away from industries that have a large average establishment size, such as manufacturing.
If one digs into the data, only one major sector has experienced a rise in average employment per location over time—health care. This growth is likely a result of increased demand for health care services, and those services are primarily embodied in the staff at doctors' offices and hospitals. Manufacturing, on the other hand, has witnessed dramatic declines in average plant size. During the 1990s, average plant size was relatively stable at around 43 workers. The average size then declined to about 38 workers following the 2001 recession and remained around that level through 2007 before declining again and reaching an average size of 33 workers per plant in the second quarter of 2010. This trend appears to primarily reflect a combination of secular shifts away from labor-intensive types of manufacturing where productivity gains have already played out—some apparel manufacturers, for instance—and sharp cyclical downturns.
Of course, something will have to give if there is employment growth—primarily more and/or larger establishments. Consider the following thought experiment: if the average size of establishments returns to the prerecession level of 15 workers per location, and private-sector jobs are added around a pace of 2.4 million a year pace (or 200,000 jobs a month), then we would see establishment growth return to the 1992–2007 average of about 160,000 per year. Clearly, we are currently far below that trend.
By John Robertson
Vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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