Monday, August 21, 2017

Everything has become expensive in the US

“In the US, everything is expensive. Housing has gotten expensive, bonds are highly priced, and the stock market is highly priced. It kind of suggests to me a willingness to hold assets. And I think it’s partly driven by fear. And this is what’s different with 1999. We’re much more worried about our jobs now or our children’s jobs. We’d like to have a house for our children because they might not be able to afford it."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Housing affordability and social tension

Inequality is usually measured by comparing incomes across households within a country. But there is also a different kind of inequality: in the affordability of homes across cities. The impact of this form of inequality is no less worrying.

In many of the world’s urban centers, homes are becoming prohibitively expensive for people with moderate incomes. As a city’s real-estate prices rise, some inhabitants may feel compelled to leave. Of course, if that inhabitant already owned a house there that they can sell, they may regard the price increase as a windfall that they can claim by departing. If not, however, they may be forced out with no compensation.

The consequences are not just economic. People may be forced out of cities where they have spent their entire lives. Leaving amounts to losing lifelong connections, and therefore can be traumatic. If too many lifelong inhabitants are driven out by rising housing prices, the city itself suffers from a loss of identity and even culture.

As such people depart, an expensive city gradually becomes an enclave of high-income households, and begins to take on their values. With people of various income levels increasingly divided by geography, income inequality can worsen and the risk of social polarization – and even serious conflict – can grow.

As this year’s Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey shows, there are already massive disparities across major global cities (measured by the ratio of median home prices to median household income). A high ratio correlates with high pressure for people to leave.

This year’s survey, which covered 92 cities in nine countries, showed that, as of late 2016, Hong Kong had the least affordable housing, with a price-to-income ratio of 18.1. That means that paying off a 30-year mortgage on a median-price home would cost a median-income buyer more than half of their income – and that is without interest. Mortgage rates are low in Hong Kong, but not zero, suggesting it is just about impossible for a median-income household to purchase a home there without access to additional funds from, say, a parent, or, if the buyer is an immigrant, from abroad.

After Hong Kong, the list continues with Sydney (12.2), Vancouver (11.8), Auckland (10), San Jose/Silicon Valley (9.6), Melbourne (9.5), and Los Angeles (9.3). Next come London and Toronto – at 8.5 and 7.7, respectively – where housing is extremely expensive, but incomes are also high.

Meanwhile, some attractive world cities are quite affordable, relative to incomes. In New York City, the median home price stands at 5.7 times median household income. In Montreal and Singapore, that ratio is 4.8; in Tokyo and Yokohama, it is 4.7; and in Chicago, it is 3.8.

Maybe the figures for these outlier cities aren’t precise. They are hard to check, and there must be inconsistencies across cities, countries, and continents. For example, the geographical boundaries of the areas used to compute median price and median rent may vary. In some cities, higher-priced homes may tend to turn over more rapidly than in others. And some cities may be inhabited by larger families, implying bigger houses than in other cities.

But it seems unlikely that the errors could be so significant that they would change the basic conclusion: home affordability around the world is highly variable. The question, then, is why residents of some cities face extremely – even prohibitively – high prices.

In many cases, the answer appears to be related to barriers to housing construction. Using satellite data for major US cities, the economist Albert Saiz of MIT confirmed that tighter physical constraints – such as surrounding bodies of water or land gradients that make properties unsuitable for extensive building – tend to correlate with higher home prices.

But the barriers may also be political. A huge dose of moderate-income housing construction would have a major impact on affordability. But the existing owners of high-priced homes have little incentive to support such construction, which would diminish the value of their own investment. Indeed, their resistance may be as intractable as a lake’s edge. As a result, municipal governments may be unwilling to grant permits to expand supply.

Insufficient options for construction can be the driving force behind a rising price-to-income ratio, with home prices increasing over the long term even if the city has acquired no new industry, cachet, or talent. Once the city has run out of available building sites, its continued growth must be accommodated by the departure of lower-income people.

The rise in housing prices, relative to income, is unlikely to be sudden, not least because speculators, anticipating the change, may bid up prices in advance. They may even overshoot, temporarily pushing the ratios even higher than necessary, creating a bubble and causing unnecessary angst among residents.

But this tendency can be mitigated, if civil society recognizes the importance of preserving lower-income housing. Many of the calls to resist further construction, residents must understand, are being made by special interests; indeed, they amount to a kind of rent seeking by homeowners seeking to boost their own homes’ resale value. In his recent book The New Urban Crisis, the University of Toronto’s Richard Florida decries this phenomenon, comparing opponents of housing construction to the early-nineteenth-century Luddites, who smashed the mechanical looms that were taking their weaving jobs.

In some cases, a city may be on its way to becoming a “great city,” and market forces should be allowed to drive out lower-income people who can’t participate fully in this greatness to make way for those who can. But, more often, a city with a high housing-price-to-income ratio is less a “great city” than a supply-constrained one lacking in empathy, humanitarian impulse, and, increasingly, diversity. And that creates fertile ground for dangerous animosities.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Is owning a home the American Dream ?


“The American Dream is back.” President Trump made that claim in a speech in January.

They are ringing words, but what do they mean? Language is important, but it can be slippery. Consider that the phrase, the American Dream, has changed radically through the years.

Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, have suggested it involves owning a beautiful home and a roaring business, but it wasn’t always so.

Instead, in the 1930s, it meant freedom, mutual respect and equality of opportunity.

It had more to do with morality than material success.

This drift in meaning is significant, because the American Dream - and international variants like the Australian Dream, Le Rêve Français and others - represents core values. In the United States, these values affect major government decisions on housing, regulation and mortgage guarantees, and millions of private choices regarding whether to start a business, buy an ostentatious home or rent an apartment.

Conflating the American dream with expensive housing has had dangerous consequences: It may have even contributed to the last housing bubble, the one that led to the financial crisis of 2008-9.

These days, Mr. Trump is using the hallowed phrase in pointed ways. In his January speech, he framed the slogan as though it were an entrepreneurial aspiration.

“We are going to create an environment for small business like we haven’t seen in many many decades,” he said, adding, “So, essentially, we are getting rid of regulations to a massive extent, could be as much as 75 percent.”Mr. Carson has explicitly said that homeownership is a central part of the Dream. In a speech at the National Housing Conference on June 9, he said, “I worry that millennials may become a lost generation for homeownership, excluded from the American Dream.”

But that wasn’t what the American Dream entailed when the writer James Truslow Adams popularized it in 1931, in his book “The Epic of America.”

Mr. Adams emphasized ideals rather than material goods, a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” And he clarified,

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and recognized by others for what they are.”

His achievement was an innovation in language that largely replaced the older terms “American character” and “American principles” with a forward-looking phrase that implied modesty about current success in giving respect and equal opportunity to all people. The American dream was a trajectory to a promising future, a model for the United States and for the whole world.
In the 1930's and 1940's, the term appeared occasionally in advertisements for intellectual products: plays, books and church sermons, book reviews and high-minded articles. During these years, it rarely, if ever, referred to business success or home-ownership. By 1950, shortly after World War II and the triumph against fascism, it was still about freedom and equality. In a book published in 1954, Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the United States Senate, defined the American Dream with spiritually resounding words: “Religious liberty to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience and equal opportunity for all men,” he said, “are the twin pillars of the American Dream.” The term began to be used extensively in the 1960s. It may have owed its growing power to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, in which he spoke of a vision that was “deeply rooted in the American Dream.” He said he dreamed of the disappearance of prejudice and a rise in community spirit, and certainly made no mention of deregulation or mortgage subsidies. But as the term became more commonplace, its connection with notions of equality and community weakened. In the 1970s and ’80s, home builders used it extensively in advertisements, perhaps to make conspicuous consumption seem patriotic. Thanks in part to the deluge of advertisements, many people came to associate the American Dream with homeownership, with some unfortunate results. Increasing home sales became public policy. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the American Dream Downpayment Act, subsidizing home purchases during a period in which a housing bubble — the one that would lead to the 2008-9 financial crisis — was already growing at a 10 percent annual rate, according to the S.&P. Corelogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price index (which I helped to create). This year, Forbes Magazine started what it calls the “American Dream Index.” It is based on seven statistical measures of material prosperity: bankruptcies, building permits, entrepreneurship, goods-producing employment, labor participation rate, layoffs and unemployment claims. This kind of characterization is commonplace today, and very different from the original spirit of the American dream.

One thing is clear: Bringing back the fevered housing dream of a decade ago would not be in the public interest. In “House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes,” published in 2008, Daniel McGinn marveled at the craving for housing in that era: “In many neighborhoods, if you’d judged the nation’s interests by its backyard-barbecue conversation — settings where subjects like war, death, and politics are risky conversational gambits — a lot of people find homes to be more compelling than any geopolitical struggle.”

This is not to say that homes have no appropriate place in our dreams or our consciousness. To the contrary, in a 2015 book “Home: How Habitat Made Us Human,” the neuroanthropologist John S. Allen wrote, “We humans are a species of homebodies.” Ever since humans began making stone tools and pottery, they have needed a place to store them, he says, and the potential for intense feelings about our homes has evolved.

But the last decade has shown that with a little encouragement, many can easily become excessively lustful about homeownership and wealth, to the detriment of our economy and society.

That’s the wrong way to go. Instead, we need to bring back the American Dream of a just society, where everyone has an opportunity to reach “the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.”

Friday, June 30, 2017

High CAPE Ratio is Concerning

The CAPE ratio that John Campbell and I devised 30 years ago is at unusual highs. The only time in history going back to 1881 when it has been higher are, A: 1929 and B: 2000. We are at a high level, and its concerning.

Its not definitive but its concerning. People should be cautious now. We have a high market. That doesn't mean I would avoid it altogether.


Monday, May 22, 2017

What caused the last US housing bubble

There is still no consensus on why the last housing boom and bust happened. That is troubling, because that violent housing cycle helped to produce the Great Recession and financial crisis of 2007 to 2009. We need to understand it all if we are going to be able to avoid ordeals like that in the future.

But the explanations for what happened in housing are not, I think, to be found in the conventional data favored by economists but rather in sociologically important narratives — like tales of getting rich through “flipping” houses and shares of initial public offerings — that constitute the shifting mentality of the era.

Consider the data for a moment. It shows us that extreme changes took place but doesn’t tell us why.

Real home prices rose 75 percent from February 1997 to December 2005, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller National Home Price Index, corrected for inflation by the Consumer Price Index. And then, from 2005 to 2012, real prices reversed course, falling to just 12 percent above their 1997 level. In the years since 2012, they have climbed 29 percent, about halfway back to their 2005 peak. This is a roller coaster in national home prices — it has been even scarier in some more volatile cities — yet we have no clarity on why it happened.

The problem for economists is that these changes don’t correspond to movements in the usual suspects: interest rates, building costs, population or rents. The Consumer Price Index for Rent of Primary Residence, compiled by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics and corrected for inflation, went up only 8 percent in 1997 to 2005, so unmet demand for housing services can’t explain the huge increase in real home prices. It doesn’t explain the 29 percent rise in real home prices since 2012 either, because inflation-adjusted rents increased only 10 percent in that period. So what has been driving the wild ride in home prices?

I believe the price swings have something to do with the changing mentality of the times, changes caused by narratives that have gone viral and swept across the population. Looking for answers in such popular stories contrasts starkly with the prominent approach of modeling people as though they react logically to economic forces. But a less orthodox approach can be quite useful.

One thing is clear: The prevalent narratives of 1997 to 2005 did not include the concept of a housing bubble, not at first. A computer search using ProQuest or Google Ngrams shows that the phrase “housing bubble” was hardly used until 2005, the end of the boom. What is a bubble? It typically includes the notion that, spurred by the public’s expectation of ever further price increases, demand eventually reaches levels that cannot be sustained, and so the enthusiasm wanes and the bubble collapses. But that thought was just not on many people’s minds then, the evidence suggests.

Instead, during the 1997 to 2005 boom there were multitudes of narratives about smart investors who were bold enough to take a position in the market. To single out one strand, recall the stories of flippers who would buy a house, fix it up, and resell it within months at a huge profit. These stories appear to have been broadly exciting to people who didn’t flip houses themselves but who appear to have begun to think that stretching a little and buying a house with a large mortgage would make them wise investors.

In his book “The Complete Guide to Flipping Properties,” published in 2004, Steve Berges extolled what he called “the O.P.M. principle,” meaning “other people’s money.” He wrote, “Your objective is to control as much real estate as possible while using as little of your own capital as possible.” In other words, borrow as much as you can. He wrote about the upside of leverage but not about the perils of leverage during the kind of big price drops that were just around the corner.

It can take a long time for narratives like this to grip the popular imagination. Flipping was “a thing” in the condominium conversion boom of the 1970s and ’80s. The idea then was this: Big-time converters with deep pockets would buy apartment buildings and convert the rental apartments to owner-occupied condos, selling units to diverse individuals, some of them flippers. For public relations purposes, converters would offer to sell at reduced prices to renters already living in a building, and typically to some outsiders, too.

This generated buzz. When renters and speculators flipped their purchase contracts at a big profit, sometimes using borrowed money for down payments to flip multiple units without actually even closing on the condos, it was thrilling. It seemed that anyone with energy and initiative could get rich doing this.

Some people eager to make quick profits bought Donald J. Trump’s well-timed 2004 book, “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know About Success, Real Estate, and Life,” written with Meredith McIver. Some enrolled in the less well-timed Trump University, which emphasized real estate investment in 2005, at the very end of the housing boom; it shut down, amid lawsuits and recrimination, in 2010.

Narratives about flipping weren’t restricted to real estate. Just after the time of the condo boom, stories of rapid buying and selling of initial public offerings took off as well. As with the condo promoters, I.P.O. underwriters would sell some shares below market prices to customers, who might then flip the I.P.O. for a quick profit.

The promoters of condo conversions and I.P.O.s were onto something. By giving discounts to buyers who would make a high return, they captivated the nation with tales of people who had no advanced degrees or hefty résumés but made fortunes anyway.

By now, the notion of getting rich by flipping houses is entrenched. I searched Amazon for books on “flipping houses” and came up with 328 hits, most written in the past few years. Buying and rehabbing existing houses for resale is a legitimate business. But many of these books make extravagant pitches and seem aimed at inspiring amateurs to plunge into risky ventures.

The public fascination with speculating in housing has been held in check by regulators empowered by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, but that restraint is tenuous with the election as president of a real estate promoter intent on reducing regulators’ power. These narratives are still potent and could easily spur further spirals in the housing market.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The recession was a consumer boycott

Robert Shiller, in a discussion paper few months ago, laid out the argument for economists paying closer attention to the "narratives" surrounding economics. To Shiller, popular narratives drive more of the fundamental economic outcomes than economists are typically willing to admit.

For example (one provided by Shiller), the 1921 recession following the end of World War I was, in part, driven by narrative. In contrast to the typical explanation of why it occurred (a central banker went on a long vacation), there are more fundamental reasons for the downturn, including a 50% increase in the price of oil (with wide-spread fear that oil production would peak in a few years) and-probably the most important-deflation expectations. Because consumers believed that prices would fall, they held back from making purchases.

This was the era of the "profiteer", the word used to describe price gouging. Thrift became a virtue, and there were calls to avoid buying anything other than the essentials. Consumer spending plummetted, leading Shiller to describe the recession as a "consumer boycott" lead by narrative, not by a traditional business cycle.

While the example above is buried deep in history, there is applicability to the present. Specifically, the rise in central bank communications. There have never been more speeches given by representatives of central banks than today. In a recent speech given by the Chief Economist of the Bank of England Andrew Haldane,  he calls for less complex and more accessible communication of monetary policy. Ostensibly, this is to increase transparency and trust with the public and describe their actions and intentions to markets.

Being clear and transparent about the goals and sought after outcomes is a legitimate strategy being pursued by central banks around the world, the "forward guidance" policy tool. That is meant to build trust and utilize that trust to instruct outcomes. In some ways, build and maintain a narrative of economic conditions.

This is where it becomes interesting for modern central bankers.

First, it is not quite that simple to construct a narrative. Note that the accessibility of monetary policy is low. The primary piece of material used by the Fed to communicate its strategy, the FOMC minutes, has an exceedingly low accessibility. This makes the communication outside of it far more important to the broader public and the maintenance of a given narrative.

Second, while the Fed (or other central banks) may wish to control the economic narrative, it may not be capable of doing so. Narratives, as pointed out by Shiller, have a life of their own.

What does this have to do with anything? One of the critical elements embedded within both the "narrative economics" theory and "forward guidance" is that the ability to avoid a repeat of a 1921 style, narrative driven retreat. It also shines a light on the need to carefully deconstruct popular narratives for their potential economic consequences. Further, it points to the potential consequences of shifts in the efficacy of forward guidance from central banks.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

You should own European stocks


We're living in very volatile times. We don't know what to expect.

Most Americans are not well-diversified globally. When we're talking about the 'Trump effect,' that is primarily a U.S. effect. You can solve that problem by diversifying around the world.

Europe should be a big thing in one's portfolio. Their price-to-earnings ratios are much lower. It looks bad because they've been through troubles recently. But people sometimes exaggerate those troubles.

We have a lot of bad narratives about Europe. But you have to think back at the long history. Europe has done quite well.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

High CAPE ratio making me nervous

It's already high enough to make me nervous ... the CAPE ratio is one of the best indicators, or I might say the best indicator, if you look at one alone, for the outlook in the long run for stocks. It's high now; and in the past when it's been this high, it hasn't done well.

I'm just playing the game a little bit here, and thinking, in the shorter run, this rally — I can start to see reasons for it, and I'm thinking about those reasons.

This is not a typical bull market with a lot of excitement. It's more of an anxious market where people are afraid of secular stagnation, of losing their jobs to foreigners, or to computers. And they have kind of a wishful-thinking bias about investments like stocks. It's the only way I can understand it. 

I'm not going to plunge into the market. I'm holding steady; I'm not pulling out, either. If I was giving you advice: Do nothing. Don't pull out. Don't go in," the Nobel laureate economist said Tuesday. "I'm sounding very standard right now. I still suspect there is more left in the Trump rally. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Long term investors could reduce risks by selling some stocks

Long-term investors ought to use the recent market rally to cut back on their equity holdings, according to Yale professor of economics Robert Shiller.

The S&P 500 forward price-earnings ratio, a common measure of market valuations that compares the index's current price to analysts' consensus expectation for earnings over the next year, is now at the highest level since 2004, according to information from S&P Global.

The cyclically adjusted price-earnings (or CAPE) ratio developed by Shiller shows even greater overvaluation; that metric, which compares current prices to average earnings over the past 10 years adjusted for inflation, is more elevated than it's been since 2002.

The CAPE ratio, which aims to measure earnings over the course of an entire business cycle, is "high enough to worry about," Shiller said Thursday on CNBC's "Trading Nation." "At this level, it suggests that the expected returns for stocks might be negative, but only slightly so."

Shiller is quick to add that since short-term moves are nigh impossible to forecast, the metric "is not suggesting, necessarily, any imminent disaster."

Still, the current level of the CAPE ratio "would suggest reducing your holdings of stocks, especially for a long-term investor. We can't time the market accurately, but we know that when it's this high, over the long term, it usually doesn't do great."

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Monday, January 23, 2017

US inflation objective of 2 percent

Speculative markets have always been vulnerable to illusion. But seeing the folly in markets provides no clear advantage in forecasting outcomes, because changes in the force of the illusion are difficult to predict.

In the US, two illusions have been important recently in financial markets. One is the carefully nurtured perception that President-elect Donald Trump is a business genius who can apply his deal-making skills to make America great again.

The other is a naturally occurring illusion: the proximity of Dow 20,000. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has been above 19,000 since November, and countless news stories have focused on its flirtation with the 20,000 barrier – which might be crossed by the time this commentary is published. Whatever happens, Dow 20,000 will still have a psychological impact on markets.

Trump has never been clear and consistent about what he will do as president. Tax cuts are clearly on his agenda, and the stimulus could lead to higher asset prices. Lower corporate taxes are naturally supposed to lead to higher share prices, while cuts in personal income tax might lead to higher home prices (though possibly offset by other changes in the tax system).

But it is not just Trump’s proposed tax changes that plausibly affect market psychology. The US has never had a president like him. Not only is he an actor, like Ronald Reagan; he is also a motivational writer and speaker, a brand name in real estate, and a tough deal maker. If he ever reveals his financial information, or if his family is able to use his influence as president to improve its bottom line, he might even prove to be successful in business.

The closest we can come to Trump among former US presidents might be Calvin Coolidge, an extremely pro-business tax cutter. “The chief business of the American people is business,” Coolidge famously declared, while his treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon – one of America’s wealthiest men – advocated tax cuts for the rich, which would “trickle down” in benefits to the less fortunate.

The US economy during the Coolidge administration was very successful, but the boom ended badly in 1929, just after Coolidge stepped down, with the stock-market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, the 1920s were looked upon wistfully, but also as a time of fakery and cheating.

Of course, history is never destiny, and Coolidge is only one observation – hardly a solid basis for a forecast. Moreover, unlike Trump, both Coolidge and Mellon were levelheaded and temperate in their manner.

But add to the Trump effect all the attention paid to Dow 20,000, and we have the makings of a powerful illusion. On 10 November 2016, two days after Trump was elected, the Dow Jones average hit a new record high – and has since set 16 more daily records, all trumpeted by news media.

That sounds like important news for Trump. In fact, the Dow had already hit nine record highs before the election, when Hillary Clinton was projected to win. In nominal terms, the Dow is up 70% from its peak in January 2000. On 29 November 2016, it was announced that the S&P/CoreLogic/Case-Shiller national home Price index (which I co-founded with my esteemed former colleague Karl E Case, who died last July) reached a record high the previous September. The previous record was set more than 10 years earlier, in July 2006.

But these numbers are illusory. The US has a policy of overall inflation. The US Federal Reserve has set an inflation “objective” of 2% in terms of the personal consumption expenditure deflator. This means all prices should tend to go up by about 2% per year, or 22% per decade.

The Dow is up only 19% in real (inflation-adjusted) terms since 2000. A 19% increase in 17 years is underwhelming, and the national home price index that Case and I created is still 16% below its 2006 peak in real terms. But hardly anyone focuses on these inflation-corrected numbers.

The Fed, like the world’s other central banks, is steadily debasing the currency to create inflation. A Google Ngrams search of books shows that use of the term “inflation-targeting” began growing exponentially in the early 1990s, when the target was typically far below actual inflation.

The idea that we actually want moderate positive inflation – “price stability,” not zero inflation – appears to have started to take shape in policy circles around the time of the 1990-91 recession. Lawrence Summers argued that the public has an “irrational” resistance to the declining nominal wages that some would have to suffer in a zero-inflation regime.

Many people appear not to understand that inflation is a change in the units of measurement. Unfortunately, though the 2% inflation target is largely a feelgood policy, people tend to draw too much inspiration from it. Irving Fisher called this fixation on nominal price growth the “money illusion” in an eponymous 1928 book.

That doesn’t mean that we set new speculative-market records every day. Stock-price movements tend to approximate what economists call “random walks,” with prices reflecting small daily shocks that are about equally likely to be positive or negative.

And random walks tend to go through long periods when they are well below their previous peak; the chance of setting a record soon is negligible, given how far prices would have to rise. But once they do reach a new record high, prices are far more likely to set additional records – probably not on consecutive days, but within a short interval.

In the US, the combination of Trump and a succession of new asset-price records – call it Trump-squared – has been sustaining the illusion underpinning current market optimism. For those who are not too stressed from having taken extreme positions in the markets, it will be interesting (if not profitable) to observe how the illusion morphs into a new perception – one that implies very different levels for speculative markets.