The Washington Post Still Can't Find Anyone Who Knows About the Housing Market

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Saturday, 24 August 2013 08:35

The Washington Post's housing reporting during the bubble years became world famous for its reliance on David Lereah as its main source for information on the housing market. Lereah, in addition to being the chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, was also the author of the 2006 best seller, Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust and How You Can Profit From It. Somehow it never occurred to the great minds at the Washington Post that Lereah may have any motive other than dispensing information about the housing market.

Apparently the learning process is very slow over at Fox on 15th Street. Today's article on the sharp drop in new home sales in July prominently featured the views of Lawrence Yun, Lereah's successor at the National Association of Realtors. We also got wisdom from the chief economist of the National Association of Homebuilders, as well as the views of several people employed directly by builders. There is no source from outside of the industry.

Among the tidbits of knowledge that readers could not find elsewhere is the news that builders are struggling to keep up with demand. That tidbit comes to us courtesy of Mr. Yun, who according to the Post said, "the pace of building needs to be at least 50 percent faster than it is now to meet demand."

The piece continues:

"Builders say they’re trying to keep up. Economists expect that it will take two years for construction to get back to normal levels — about 1.2 million to 1.5 million homes per year. ...

"Builders are facing three issues borne of the housing crisis: a labor shortage, a dearth of available land and tighter lending standards."

There you have it, there is a shortage of construction workers. What happened to structural unemployment? Believers in structural unemployment would say things like the problem is that we have too many people who have skills as construction workers, but not enough who are trained to do X, where X is supposed to be an unidentified sector of the economy where we have a labor shortage.

Okay, this makes no sense. The idea that builders can't put up enough houses is ridiculous. There continues to be a far higher than normal number of vacant units, indicating that the market is still experiencing excess supply, not excess demand. Excess demand shows up in rising prices, just as shortages of labor show up in rising wages, something that we have not seen in the construction industry in recent years.

There was actually a very interesting story in the July new homes sales numbers. It is the first major data release that reveals the response of the housing markets to the recent jump in mortgage interest rates. New home sales measure contracts signed, most other housing data is based on completed sales. Since there is typically a 6-8 week gap between the signing of a contract and a closing, other data on the housing market are still giving us information about contracts that were signed before the jump in interest rates.

The July data indicate that the interest rate hike had a big effect on the market. Given the extraordinary rate of price increases that we had been seeing, which were threatening to push many markets back into bubble territory, this is clearly good news. But you wouldn't find anything about this issue in Jeff Bezos' newspaper.