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Update: Where is housing market headed?

Every month when we have a uptick on housing price index, there will be a discussion on whether housing price will recover soon.

Following my last update in August, here is another update from two housing experts on recent housing trends.

First, David Levy on housing:

Then, the interview of Robert Shiller on longer-term housing trends.

Q&A: Shiller Sees 5 Years of Stagnant Home Prices

Robert Shiller, the Yale University economist who famously predicted the housing bust, was awarded the Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics today. In this interview, he talks about the state of the housing market and the implications of low interest rates.
Robert Shiller is awarded Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics 2009. (Center for Financial Studies)

Is the slump in U.S. home prices bottoming out?

Shiller: The situation has definitely changed. With our numbers — the S&P/Case Shiller home price index — going up sharply. It looks like a major turnaround. We’ve been watching that for three months now, and we have some concern that it could be an aberration and temporary. But, at this point, it seems to be evident in just about every city in the U.S. That suggests it’s real. But it probably isn’t the beginning of a major boom, just because the economy is in such bad shape. There’s also a chance that it will reverse. It’s still only three months old, so it’s very hard to be sure at this point. The most likely scenario is that it won’t continue at this high rate of increase, but that it will neither go down a lot, nor up a lot.

So the index will move sideways for a while?

Shiller: Yes, for a while, meaning five years.

What are the main factors driving U.S. house prices? What could push them up, or cause another slump?

Shiller: The main factor is the world economic crisis and the efforts of governments around the world to stimulate the economy. Parts of those efforts have been directed at the housing market. In the U.S., there is an 8,000 dollar first-time home buyer’s tax credit which expires at the end of November. That’s a reason for concern, as it comes to an end. Also, the Federal Reserve has a plan to buy $1.25 trillion worth of mortgage-backed securities to support the housing market. They are most of the way through the program and anticipate phasing it out at some time in 2010 – that’s another thing that will go away. We’ve yet to see how the housing market will continue. Part of the problem is that people are buying now rather than later. When later comes, there could be a downturn in the market.

Is there an oversupply of houses in the U.S.?

Shiller: That’s been a problem. The inventory of unsold houses has been high, but has come down a bit. On top of that, there will be more foreclosures, more homes are going to be dumped on the market as people default. Now, that may show down as home prices will start going up again. But I suspect that this isn’t going to happen. Also, banks have more REO, or real estate owned, that they’re holding on to for the time being. But eventually those REOs are going to be dumped on the market. So that’s why it doesn’t look particularly encouraging from a supply consideration.

Turning to interest rates, which are at exceptionally low levels: Is there a risk that this eventually will cause irrational exuberance?

Shiller: There is always a risk of that. Those things are hard to predict. However it seems like the present time is least conducive to bubbles of any time. We’re in what some people call “pretend-and-extend” economy, which means that banks that have commercial loans are often extending those loans and pretending that the property is worth something. That’s because they don’t face reality. This kind of economy isn’t really suited to a beginning of a real bubble. Now, everything could change… It’s surprising how strong the residential, single-family home market looks right now. It makes me think that it’s hard to predict animal spirits.

How long can central banks afford to keep expansive policies in place?

Shiller: In principle we can keep this in place for a long time. That’s what Japan did… But confidence is definitely coming back. The depression scare is over at the moment. So it would be plausible that central banks could be raising interest rates — both in the U.S. and Europe — [as early as next year]. But I just have a worry that this isn’t going to happen and that it’s not going to be so easy to extricate [themselves from the low-rate environment].

Will the sharp increase in global debt levels drive up inflation over the medium to long-term?

Shiller: My best guess is that we won’t have inflation, that central banks will pull it back as inflation starts to begin. But I think that there’s a chance of it; people have to be defensive in their investments. It always amazes me that people are so trusting and that they want nominal debt as much as they do… So a good long-term strategy is to invest a good part of one’s portfolio in inflation-indexed bonds, even though it doesn’t particularly look like the time to worry about inflation right now.

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