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Goldman Sachs Economist on the Bubble

? Housing Markets Are Stable ... Until They're Not |


| Housing Numbers Continue to Surprise ?

September 23, 2005

Goldman Sachs Economist on the Bubble

Peter Coy

Just got off the phone with Jan Hatzius, a Goldman Sachs economist who has written extensively on the housing market. He gave me permission to post a research note that he wrote today about the same academic study that I questioned in a post yesterday.

Hatzius says he's not sure I'm correct that the authors of the study assumed their conclusion. His criticisms are different. The biggest one is that the authors ended their analysis too soon--last year--missing the further inflation of housing prices since then. Here's what he wrote:

Bubble Trouble? Probably Yes

Monday's Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed by Christopher

Mayer and Todd Sinai, two academic real estate analysts, who

argue that worries about a housing bubble are overblown. Their

view is that the increase in metropolitan housing prices relative

to rents and incomes has been fully offset by the decline in real

interest rates and is therefore appropriate.

The op-ed is based on a new research paper issued by the Federal

Reserve Bank of New York (see Charles Himmelberg, Christopher

Mayer, and Todd Sinai, 'Assessing High House Prices: Bubbles,

Fundamentals, and Misperceptions,' September 2005, In

this paper, Himmelberg, Mayer, and Sinai (HMS) calculate the

total cost of owner occupation as the sum of interest,

depreciation, property taxes, and a risk premium for taking on

house price risk, and then adjust these costs for the tax

deductibility of mortgage interest and property taxes as well as

a term for expected capital gains. They call the resulting

measure 'imputed rent,' divide it by an index of actual rents,

and set the resulting ratio equal to 1 for the average of the

1980-2004 period. They then argue that a metropolitan housing

market is overvalued relative to its own history when the ratio

is above 1 and undervalued when the ratio is below 1.

Their main result is that 31 out of their 46 metropolitan housing

markets had values below 1 as of 2004. Of the markets usually

considered 'hot,' New York, San Francisco, and Phoenix had values

below 1, while Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington DC, had values

just marginally above 1; only Portland, San Diego, and Miami

showed some cause for concern. HMS conclude that there is no

evidence for a general housing bubble, and not even much evidence

for a localized bubble.

What do we make of this analysis? Of course, HMS are right that

interest rates matter for valuing capital assets such as

residential homes. It is important to be clear, however, that

interest rates can go up as well as down. Thus, if interest

rates rise from their unusually low current level, house prices

would decline, perhaps sharply. An interest-rate-induced decline

in house prices might have fewer macro implications because the

interest rate increase itself might be the result of strength

elsewhere in the economy. But, the house price decline would

nonetheless be painful.

But even on the narrower point, namely whether house prices are

out of line with rents and interest rates, we are somewhat

skeptical of the analysis. First, the results are sensitive to

minor changes in the assumptions, and there is no way of knowing

which assumption is the correct one. For example, HMS assume

that households require a constant risk premium of 2 percentage

points for owning instead of renting, and that they expect the

rate of capital gains to be equal to the 1940-2004 average for

their metropolitan area. Of course, it is impossible to know

whether these or any other assumptions about unobservable

concepts such as risk premia or expectations are correct. The

problem is that given the way their model is specified, the

precise choice of numbers can make a qualitative difference to

the results -- that is, it can change the assessment of whether a

metropolitan housing market is more or less highly valued than

the historical average.

Second, the analysis uses annual data that end in 2004. This is

unfortunate, because the case for an outright housing bubble was

still quite weak as of 2004 but has grown much stronger since

then. For example, our May 14, 2004, US Economics Analyst noted

that the housing market run-up "...does not look like a 'bubble'

but is easily explained by the decline in mortgage rates." Since

then, however, prices have not only continued to rise very

rapidly but have in fact accelerated further, at a time when

rents have grown slowly and interest rates have been basically

flat. In such an environment, a verdict of 'no bubble' can grow

stale quickly.

As a concrete example, take the Washington DC market, whose

valuation ratio for 2004 HMS report as 1.02. While this is 2%

above the historical average, it is far below the 1980-2005 peak,

which HMS calculate as 1.24. However, as of the second quarter

of 2005, house prices in Washington DC were up 26% year-on-year

according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight

(OFHEO), the house price measure used by HMS. Over the same

period, rents only rose 4%, while interest rates were roughly

stable. A rough calculation using the formulas provided by HMS

shows that these price and rent changes should have boosted the

valuation ratio to somewhere between 1.2 and 1.3, i.e., far above

the long-term average and very close to the prior historical

peak. Thus, an analysis along the lines of the HMS paper that

used more up-to-date inputs would probably come to a considerably

more cautionary conclusion.

Of course, comparing the economic costs of owning with the

economic costs of renting is not the only way of adjusting house

prices for changes in the fundamentals, including interest rates.

Our own preference remains with an 'affordability' concept that

asks what percentage of their disposable income households must

expend to cover mortgage payments on the median-priced home.

This approach not only relates house prices to incomes --

compared with rents, probably a more meaningful comparison for

most US households residing in the suburbs -- but it also

recognizes that the vast majority of households are unable to

borrow as much as they want and therefore cannot engage in the

theoretically 'pure' arbitrage considerations assumed by HMS.

As we described in detail in the May-June Pocket Chartroom,

housing affordability is deteriorating quickly. In hot markets

on the coasts, such as Los Angeles, the income share required for

mortgage payments on a newly purchased home already matches the

previous two peaks seen in the early 1980s and the late 1980s.

More recently, even affordability in the country as a whole has

started to deteriorate quickly. For example, the National

Association of Realtors -- not an organization known for

excessive bearishness on the housing market -- reports that their

US affordability index now stands at the lowest level since 1991.

Thus, housing valuations are stretched, and are becoming more

stretched the longer the current boom continues.

Jan Hatzius

Thanks to Jan Hatzius for allowing us to reproduce the above note.

12:47 PM


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It's really funny how the arguments that this glaringly obvious and historically unprecedented bubble is not a bubble have become so abstract and contrived. I'm sure when the affordibility index in California shinks below 15% based on unsustainably low interest rates and 80% or mortgage originations being Interest Only Loans and option ARMs (not terribly far from the current state of affairs) someone will come up with some absurd formula to show that the average house price of 14 or 20 times average household income is perfectly justified and not a bubble! Inventories in my neighborhood (median home price $1.1M) are rising rapidly. It's wonderful fun to sit in my newly rented apartment and watch this unfold. Er, implode.

Posted by: DaveInCA at September 24, 2005 01:41 PM

I have to agree with Dave. Housing prices are a joke - Who the hell does anything in the bay-area anymore. It is a giant house of cards in total denial of the poor foundation. Realitors toot their own horn by stating "Housing is a good investment - in the long run the value of land always goes up" That's a great line if you are trying to promote your own business. And then their is the appraisal business which most definately has conflicts of interest. The banker wants to make more loans so he hires an appraiser they know whom is encouraged to appraise at a value on the higher end. It is very similar to the accounting problems and reporting of false profits during the last stock bubble to increase their value. The federal government needs to do something about the appraisal industry.

Posted by: Scotchie at September 27, 2005 03:47 PM

What are your thoughts on the real estate bubble specifically in the northern california greater sacramento area? We have seen cities like Lincoln, Roseville, and even cities like Stockton just explode with real estate. Do you think that it is a bubble or a solid example of supply and demand?

Posted by: Real Estate King at September 28, 2005 08:14 PM

Seems strange that the boom in second homes are not mentioned very often in these articles. The Baby Boomer cycle is about to happen and many of them have set aside for, or are buying vacation homes. The two home per family are reminding me of the beginning of the two car family. How much do you think this is effecting what were seeing in housing prices?

Posted by: T J Smith at October 19, 2005 08:44 AM

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