‘Housing Bubble 2’ Has Bloomed Into Full Magnificence

The current housing boom has Dallas solidly in its grip. As in many cities around the US, prices are soaring, buyers are going nuts, sellers run the show, realtors are laughing all the way to the bank, and the media are having a field day. Nationwide, the median price of existing homes, at $236,400, as the National Association of Realtors sees it, is now 2.7% higher than it was even in July 2006, the insane peak of the crazy housing bubble that blew up with such spectacular results.

Housing Bubble 2 has bloomed into full magnificence: In many cities, the median price today is far higher, not just a little higher, than it was during the prior housing bubble, and excitement is once again palpable. Buy now, or miss out forever! A buying panic has set in.

And so the July edition of D Magazine – “Making Dallas Even Better,” is its motto – had this enticing cover, sent to me by David in Texas, titled, “The Great Dallas Land Rush”:

Dallas Land Rush

“Dallas Real Estate 2015: The Hottest Market Ever,” the subtitle says.

That’s true for many cities, including San Francisco. The “Boom Town,” as it’s now called, is where the housing market has gone completely out of whack, with a median condo price at $1.13 million and the median house price at $1.35 million. This entails some consequences [read… The San Francisco “Housing Crisis” Gets Ugly].

The fact that Housing Bubble 2 is now even more magnificent than the prior housing bubble, even while real incomes have stagnated or declined for all but the top earners, is another sign that the Fed, in its infinite wisdom, has succeeded elegantly in pumping up nearly all asset prices to achieve its “wealth effect.” And it continues to do so, come heck or high water. It has in this ingenious manner “healed” the housing market.

But despite the current “buying panic,” the soaring prices, and all the hoopla round them, there is a fly in the ointment: overall home ownership is plunging.

The home ownership rate dropped to 63.4% in the second quarter, not seasonally adjusted, according to a new report by the Census Bureau, down 1.3 percentage points from a year ago. The lowest since 1967!

home ownershipWolf Street

The process has been accelerating, instead of slowing down. The 1.2 percentage point plunge in 2014 was the largest annual drop in the history of the data series going back to 1965. And this year is on track to match this record: the drop over the first two quarters so far amounts to 0.6 percentage points. This accelerated drop in home ownership rates coincides with a sharp increase in home prices. Go figure.

The plunge in home ownership rates has spread across all age groups, but to differing degrees. Younger households have been hit the hardest. In the age group under 35, the home ownership rate in Q2 saw a slight uptick to 34.8%, from the dismal record low of 34.6% in the prior quarter. Either a feeble ray of hope or just one of the brief upticks, as in the past, to be succeeded by more down ticks on the way to lower lows.

This chart by the Economics and Strategy folks at National Bank Financial shows the different rates of home ownership by age group. The 35-year and under group is where the first-time buyers are concentrated; and they’re being sidelined, whether they have no interest in buying, or simply don’t make enough money to buy (represented by the sharply descending solid black line, left scale). Note how the oldest age group (dotted blue line, right scale) has recently started to cave as well:

homeownership ratesWolf Street

The bitter irony? In the same breath, the Census Bureau also reported that the rental vacancy rate dropped to 6.8%, from 7.5% a year ago, the lowest since 1985. America is turning into a country of renters.

This chart shows the dynamics between home ownership rates (black line, left scale) and rental vacancy rates (red line, right scale) over time: they essentially rise and dive together. It makes sense on an intuitive basis: as people abandon the idea of owning a home, they turn into renters, and the rental market tightens up, and vacancy rates decline.

homeownership rate v rental vacancy rateWolf Street

This too has been by design, it seems. Since 2012, private equity firms bought several hundred thousand vacant single-family homes in key markets, drove up prices in the process, and started to rent them out. Thousands of smaller investors have jumped into the fray, buying homes, driving up prices, and trying to rent them out. This explains the record median home price across the country, and the totally crazy price increases in some key markets, even as regular Americans are trying to figure out how to pay for a basic roof over their heads.

This has worked out well. By every measure, rents have jumped. According to the Census Bureau’s report, the median asking rent in the US rose 6.2% from a year ago, and 17.6% since 2011. So inflation bites. But the Fed is still desperately looking for signs of inflation and simply cannot find any.

And how much have incomes risen over these years to allow renters to meet these rising rents? OK, that was a rhetorical question. We already know what has been happening to incomes.

That’s what it always boils down to in the Fed’s salvation of the economy: people who can’t afford to pay the rising rents with their stagnant or declining incomes should borrow the money to make up the difference and then spend even more on consumer goods. After us, the deluge.

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