Thursday, January 04, 2007


Honey, I’m Home!

Housing prices and The Great North-American Spending Addiction


The housing boom has been the main engine of America's economic growth in recent years, and second to energy in Canada. Indeed, the housing boom is the main reason why the North-American economy held up better than expected, after the Stock Market bubble burst at the start of the Millennium. Since 2000 the real wages of most North-American workers, measured in terms of disposable income, have barely budged, yet surging house prices have allowed consumers to keep spending - on credit.

Over the past five years, according to the National Association of Realtors, the cumulative total market value of American homes has increased by more than USD 9 trillion to reach a record-shattering USD 22 trillion. These gains have helped to offset both the slide in stock prices as well as the feeble wage growth. In real terms, home prices have risen at least three times as much as in any previous housing boom. Not too long ago, in the Fall of 2005 to be exact, appreciation of housing value was a hefty 15 percent annualized and most analysts thought that average prices were unlikely to fall across the nation.

Readers of my articles on Real Estate Economics know that I was one of the few lonely voices anticipating a drop in pricing levels and a slowdown in real capital appreciation which, far from being the beginning of the dreaded bubble burst that many were so fond of predicting, would have instead the beneficial effect of consolidating market wealth achieved thus far. Allowing the economy to get an even footing through a slowdown of real capital appreciation and, at the same time, allowing real wages to catch up - I reasoned - was exactly the tonic needed for a healthy foundation.

America's housing boom, though as impressive as it has been, looks far more modest than booms elsewhere. Since 2000, in fact, average selling prices in the United States and Canada have almost doubled but all this is dwarfed, for example, by the gain of almost 180 percent in Britain throughout the same period.

The real estate boom has lifted the economy in three major ways:

[ ] it has boosted residential construction and, as a direct and proximate result, it has benefited also all related fields such as banking, brokerage and insurance;

[ ] it has made people feel wealthier and has encouraged them to spend more;

[ ] it has allowed homeowners to use their real properties as a gigantic cash machine, taking out money by borrowing against their capital gains.

Merrill Lynch estimates that the three foregoing factors, taken together, accounted for more than half of America's GDP growth in 2005. Counting construction, banking and real estate agency firms, the housing boom has also been responsible for one-third of all jobs created since 2001.

Fuelling consumerism is both good and bad. Consumerism is good for the economy, as it promotes trade and the exchange of money. It is also bad, as it fuels inflation. Particularly when spurred by investment stimulated by a property boom, there is very little base to boost long-term growth. In the overall national flow of capital, expensive houses merely redistribute wealth to homeowners from non-homeowners. Worse still, exaggerated real capital appreciation and the rush on the part of everybody to invest so as not to miss the boat has diverted resources away from productive sectors, thereby causing households to save even less and thus exacerbating America' economic imbalances.

Additionally, too much consumerism is bad in trade and finance as it creates too much dependence on imports and thus generates large trade imbalances. The flip side of these imbalances has been a sharp rise in the net foreign liability position of the United States and a massive accumulation of foreign exchange reserves especially by Asian countries such as China and India. China has amassed reportedly more than USD 450 billion of reserves. India too has seen a marked rise in international reserves, to roughly USD 150 billion. Even more striking, as of the end of 2004, all of Asia (including Japan) had accumulated USD 2.1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Subtracting this quantity of dollars from the economic monetary cycles forces the U.S. Government to borrow more and the Federal Reserve System to print and lend more money, with the deleterious effect of diminishing the purchasing power by weakening the strength of the currency.

For all these reasons, therefore, it is sure better for Americans in particular, but also for Canadians to a lesser extent, to start saving in the old-fashioned way, that is by spending less of their real income rather than relying on rising asset prices. This will lift inflationary pressure on prices and will help stabilize US monetary policy by allowing the Federal Reserve to slash interest rates. Which, in ultimate analysis, will not only save the economy from a recession, but will also contribute to the consolidation of real estate market wealth I was referring to a few months ago.

Luigi Frascati

Real Estate Chronicle


Great Article. I think I have become a regular reader.
Thank you. I appreciate your comment.
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