Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Still No Bubble

Housing prices have declined, but for reasons that have nothing at all to do with bubbles. A quick outlook on 2007.

Prices of residential real estate, both asking and selling prices, have declined steadily in many markets throughout the country these past few months, but for reasons that have nothing at all to do - not even remotely - with the dreaded real estate bubble so many ‘bubbleologists' were so fond to predict. ‘Bubbleologist', it will be recalled, is the term I have coined specifically to encompass those individuals - all of them of majority age - who specialize in the very fine art of wasting my time.

An economic bubble occurs when speculation causes prices to increase, thus producing more speculation and subsequent price increases. The bubble bursts when prices of goods are so absurdly high that consumers either refuse or cannot afford to purchase, thus sending demand tumbling down. In essence, an economic bubble is a particular market condition, wherein prices of commodities or assets increase to levels so high as to no longer reflect the utility of usage of the commodities or assets being exchanged.

The main cause of an economic bubble is speculation. Speculation is one of the many forces that act on capital at any given time. In theoretical Economics, speculation is defined as ‘the acquisition of financial or capital assets made solely to quickly profit from fluctuations in their prices, or of goods or commodities with no real intent to consume or otherwise use them for production'. Speculation, however, does not seem to be the root cause of the price deflation occurring in many real estate markets.

The main cause of price deflation in the buying and selling of real properties seems to be due to the double effect of 1) a tightening of the money stock which, in turn, alters the cost of borrowing, i.e. a shift in interest rates, and 2) an increase in inventory supplies. Specifically the monetary policy initiated by the Maestro, Alan Greenspan and adopted by the new Fed's Chairman, Prof. Bernanke, is now beginning to have an impact on housing markets in the United States and, to a lesser extent by reflection, in Canada. On August 8, 2006 the Rate-setting Committee of the Federal Reserve System voted to halt the interest rate hike, holding the federal funds rate at 5.25 percent. This signalled a reversal in the trend that has characterized US monetary policy for the past seventeen times in a row.

The Fed admitted that core inflation is high at 2.4 percent annualized for the half-year ending June 30, but the expectation is that it will begin to abate in the latter part of 2006. If it does not, they will start tightening the money stock once again. The Fed has long relied on three factors to keep price pressure in check: quiescent labour markets, fat profit margins and its own credibility. It remains sure of the last, but can no longer count on the first two.

This last meeting reflected the fact that productivity grew at an annual pace of just over 1.1 percent annualized in the second quarter, not nearly enough to offset a recent acceleration in wages. Which means that for all the fuss we hear about oil, labour is the commodity with the biggest impact on inflation, accounting for two-thirds of production costs. Exactly for this reason, therefore, Prof. Bernanke has made a reference and has given a warning at the meeting of August 8 of the dangers of what he terms ‘inflationary psychology'. If people suspect that faster inflation is here to stay, they will anticipate it in their wage claims and price-setting, thus confirming their own suspicions.

This warning is very well heeded, if one considers that according to a survey conducted in July by the University of Michigan, American consumers expect the prices they pay to rise by 3.2 percent over the next twelve months. And this includes, of course, housing.

The slowdown in growth evident in the last quarter and reflected in the real estate sector was not an accident. It is due to the rate increases that the Fed has voted consistently over the last seventeen meetings. The Fed's latest projections, unveiled on August 8, forecast growth of 3.25 - 3.50 percent this year and 3 - 3.25 percent the next, slow enough to stop core inflation from rising much further.

Therefore chances are high the real estate market will continue to be generally stagnant for the next few months, with regional exception. Although no bubble is on the horizon.

Luigi Frascati


Real Estate Chronicle


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