Are today’s home prices in a bubble?

by 17 Nov 2015
by Jeanna Smialek

An ongoing rebound in U.S. home prices is different from the credit-fueled run up that fanned the financial crisis and tipped the nation into recession when the real estate bubble burst, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco find in new research.

The distinction matters: San Francisco Fed President John Williams has recently warned that it’s important to monitor for asset price bubbles, saying that preventing imbalances from building is one argument in favor of raising interest rates off near-zero, where they have been held for seven years. Williams said in October that he was "starting to see signs of imbalances emerge in the form of high asset prices, especially in real estate," and that once such issues grow large, they are difficult to tackle.

Williams noted then that the market isn’t yet at a "tipping point," and the researchers uphold that conclusion. They find that today’s market lacks many of the riskiest characteristics that were evident in the run up to the late-2000’s housing collapse.

"The increase in U.S. house prices since 2011 differs in significant ways from the mid-2000s housing boom," economists Reuven Glick, Kevin Lansing and Daniel Molitor find, noting a "less-pronounced increase in housing valuation together with an outright decline in household leverage -- a pattern that is not suggestive of a credit-fueled bubble."

Since bottoming out, the median house price has recovered to just 8 percent below the prior peak, according to the paper.

This time, however, the ratio of home prices to rent stands at about 25 percent below its mid-2000s high, the researchers find. The number is analogous to the price-to-dividend ratio for stocks and provides insight into whether price matches up with the fundamental value of the underlying asset.

"As house prices have recovered since 2011, so too has rent growth, providing some fundamental justification for the upward price movement," the researchers write. What’s more, the mortgage debt-to-income ratio, which reached an all-time high in 2007, has continued to decline.

"The red flags are not evident in the current housing recovery,” they write. Even though this cycle is different, they say that "given that housing booms and busts can have significant and long-lasting effects on employment and other parts of the economy, policy makers and regulators must remain vigilant to prevent a replay of the mid-2000s experience."




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