The NYT Gives Space to Bubble Deniers

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Wednesday, 05 May 2010 10:24

Casey Mulligan is on the loose again. The notorious University of Chicago economist is arguing that there was no housing bubble in the NYT Economix section. The centerpiece of his argument is that inflation-adjusted house prices have not returned to their pre-bubble level. This means that the price rise must be driven by the fundamentals of the housing market rather than an irrational bubble.

It's hard to know where to begin on this one. I guess the first point would be that he is using the wrong series to find anything about the bubble. He is using the new house price series from the Census Bureau. This series controls for neither quality nor location. If the price of all homes doubled, but the price of new homes built further from city centers remained the same, this index would show no increase in prices. This is why almost everyone in this debate uses one of the repeat sales indices, such as the FHFA House Price Index or the Case Shiller national housing index.

Of course the good part of the story is that Mulligan's case would hold even more strongly with these indices (they are further above their pre-bubble level), but it is important that we at least look at the right picture. The NY Fed put out a paper back in 2004 claiming that there was no bubble, the only problem was that people like me were using the wrong price index.

But, let's get back to the issue at hand. House prices have certainly not deflated to their pre-bubble level. They are about 15-20 percent higher in real terms. Why is this the case?

I would point out three factors that may have escaped Professor Mulligan's attention. First, until last Friday the government had an $8,000 first time homebuyers tax credit. This is a bit less than 5 percent of the median house price. Even at the University of Chicago an $8,000 tax credit would be expected to have an upward effect on house prices.

The second factor is that we have had extraordinarily low mortgage interest rates. The weakness of the economy and the Fed's policy of buying $1.25 trillion in mortgage-backed securities pushed the 30-year mortgage rate below 5.0 percent. Interest rates are at their lowest levels since the early 50s. Again, even at the University of Chicago, low interest rates would be expected to have a positive effect on house prices. We might see a different picture if interest rates creep up to near 6.0 percent over the next year, as they are widely expected to do.

The third factor unusual affecting house prices in the last year was the expanded role of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). The FHA guaranteed almost 30 percent of purchase mortgages in 2009. Many of these homebuyers would not have been able to get a mortgage without the government's support. Again, even at the University of Chicago they probably think that government guarantees for mortgages will have a positive effect on house prices. It is worth noting that the FHA is rapidly cutting back its role because it lost lots of money and is now below its minimum capital requirement.

Finally, real house prices are falling -- currently at a rate of between 0.5-1.0 percent a month. Economists generally do not expect to see instantaneous price adjustments, so it should not be surprising if it takes another year or two for house prices to get to a stable level, once the bubble has fully deflated. (Over-correction is a real risk.)

So, if anyone thought that the housing bubble would immediately deflate and bring prices back to their fundamental level -- in spite of massive efforts by the government to prop up prices -- then Professor Mulligan has the evidence to show that they were wrong. But for everyone else, this piece is probably not very enlightening.