Recent reports have suggested that the US housing market is recovering, with an uptick in the sales of new homes as well as rises in sales at home improvement and appliance firms, suggesting that people are buying homes and sticking things in them. This is being touted as a good sign for the economy, and an indicator that the economy overall is getting better; now people are eagerly watching housing prices and sales on existing homes to see if they rise as well, while keeping a weather eye on foreclosure rates to see what happens with them.
I’ve been struck by the approach to the shift in the housing market, wondering how, exactly, we define ‘recovery,’ and how we distinguish between the development of yet another real estate bubble and a legitimate stabilisation in the housing market. It’s hard to identify bubbles in the making; they only become apparent when they pop. But housing does seem to follow a pattern of dropping catastrophically, then slowly rising, building up speed, rapidly inflating, hovering on the bubble for a while, and explosively failing again.
The seesaw of housing prices in the US has contributed to a number of economic slumps, though the collapse of the market in 2008 was particularly remarkable for the depths it managed to plunge the US economy into. In part, that was of course because of all the derivative products based on housing. Suddenly, it wasn’t just that houses and their linked economic partners (construction supplies, appliances, etc.) were struggling, but that the financial industry was taking a blow because investors had made bad bets on dubiously structured financial products intended to exploit the housing market.
Developers of financial derivatives bet on housing, looking at bubble prices and basing their decisions on those prices as though they were stable and reflected some kind of actual market, instead of an artificial one. Some bet bigger than others, but we all lost out when the bubble started to implode. As is often the case with overvalued financial products, once the fall started, it accelerated rapidly, leaving the US economy at the bottom of a heap of collapsed cards. As we struggle to recover, housing is only one of the metrics being used to measure economic progress, but it should be examined more closely, and people should be asking hard questions about how housing is being used in economic assessments, and who is deciding what ‘good’ housing numbers look like.
People buying up and flipping foreclosures, for example; are they contributing to inflation, or are they doing a public service in their communities by repurposing housing, unloading it from banks, and boosting the market? How, exactly, can you tell which is which when you’re looking at events in real time rather than having the advantage of hindsight? What about the jump in new construction? Does it reflect a genuine improvement in the market, or another bubble that has the potential to swell until it bursts and rains down more economic fire on a battered country? How about those appliance sales? The result of a genuine uptick in homebuying and remodeling, or replacement of old models and purchases spurred by incentive programmes?
What about the rise of new financial derivatives based on the housing market? Has Wall Street learned nothing from its prior mistakes? The answer to that question would seem to be ‘yes,’ and the people who will pay the price will be, again, those least in a position to take action on Wall Street’s current abuses. When examining financial indicators like a rise in new home starts, I want to see more of the picture, and I also want to know what the risks are that these numbers are really contributing to yet another bubble.
The economy is cyclical, moving through an endless boom and bust cycle. Those with the money and the skills to ride it out can do well whether it’s booming or busting, but what about the rest of us? What exactly does a stable housing market look like, and what kind of growth target is actually realistic? Housing must be considered in larger discussions of economic recovery, but it’s striking to see that most reports focused on it are extremely superficial, looking at only the most basic information and shying away from deeper explorations.
Maybe, just maybe, housing shouldn’t be so expensive. Maybe the radical fall in prices was a correction to a more reasonable level, especially considering the fact that even as it was, many people in the United States still couldn’t afford to buy and maintain a home; what used to be a US value, the American dream, something that was supposed to be a marker of middle class status, was flying out of reach of all but the most wealthy in society. Maybe the collapse of subprime loans and other exploitative practices should have been a message that housing prices were out of control, and should stay at a less extreme range.
Perhaps the rise in prices isn’t something to celebrate as an indicator that the economy is recovering. Maybe it’s a warning that the bubble has picked itself back up again and started slowly reinflating, getting ready for another stratospheric rise and catastrophic fall. For those ready to ride on the coattails of that bubble, these prices may indeed represent the prospect of recovery in the form of a chance to profit big time from savvy investments and skilled use of funds, but what about for the rest of us? What about the average person in the US who would kind of like to buy a house who is being told the economy is recovering while she can’t find a job with reasonable pay, hours, and benefits and house prices are slipping out of her grasp?