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The Housing Horror Show Is Worse Than You Think

Despite some upbeat news, key statistics point to years of stagnation

You might be tempted to believe that after four years of brutal declines in home prices, the worst of the crisis is over. The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city index of prices has fallen back to where it was in 2003. Housing prices in Phoenix are at 2000 levels, and Las Vegas is revisiting 1999. Lower prices have made homes more affordable than they’ve been in a generation, and sales have gone up in six of the past nine months. “It’s very unlikely that we will see a significant further decline” in prices, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said in a July 3 appearance on CNN. “The real question is, when will we start to see sustainable increases? Some think it will be as early as the end of this summer or this fall.”

Doug Ramsey of Minneapolis investment firm Leuthold Group is a student of asset bubbles, from tech stocks in the late ’90s to commodities in the late ’70s and railroads in the 19th century. His outlook is very different from the HUD Secretary’s. Ramsey calculates that single-family housing starts would have to soar an unprecedented 60 percent to 70 percent from their current half-century low of a 419,000 annual rate just to hit the average low of the past six housing busts since 1960 (650,000 to 700,000).