Friday, January 26, 2007


Soft But Not Dead

Housing markets do not look nearly as bad as anticipated by some.


Looking back to these past few months we get a general picture of falling housing prices, suggesting once more that Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, encapsulated in the dictum "Everything that goes up must come down" is absolutely true and that, furthermore, it applies even to Real Estate. But when it comes to housing prices the real question becomes:"Come down from where?"

According to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight ( the average price of a house rose by only 1.2 percent in the Third Quarter, the smallest gain since 1999 - but a gain nonetheless. OFHEO reports, furthermore, that the past year has seen the sharpest slowdown in the rate of growth since the Office began to keep track of the housing price index all the way back in 1975. Even so, average prices are still up by 10.1 percent compared to a year ago.

This is much stronger than the index published by the National Association of Realtors (, which showed a rise of only 0.9 percent in the year to September. Economic analysts generally speaking prefer the OFHEO index, since it is thought to be more reliable because it tracks price changes in successive sales of the same houses over time and therefore, unlike the NAR index, is not distorted by a shift in the mix of sales to cheaper homes.

All of which, then, brings up to mind the fact that it is not only the foresaid Newton's Law that applies to Real Estate, but also another very important scientific theory as well - Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which can be encapsulated in the dictum "Everything is relative".

‘Stickiness' is a noun used in Economics to describe a situation in which a variable is resistant to change. Price stickiness, therefore, reflects the fact that asking prices of interests in land remain high and even increase at a time when demand lowers. For example, nominal asking prices are often said to be sticky. Market forces may reduce the real value of interests in land, but prices will tend to remain at previous levels. Stickiness normally applies in one direction, which means that a variable that is "sticky downward" will be reluctant to drop even if market conditions dictate that it should.

Price stickiness, in any market, is responsible for and reflects some confusion that exists between nominal and real values and gives rise, moreover, to a particular phenomenon known as the ‘Money Illusion'. Money illusion refers to the tendency of people to think of prices in nominal, rather than real, terms. The term was coined by John Maynard Keynes in the early Twentieth century.

Money illusion does influence people perceptions of outcomes. Experiments have shown that people generally perceive a 2 percent cut in nominal income as unfair, but see a 2 percent rise in nominal income where there is 4 percent inflation as fair, despite the fact that the two situations are almost rational equivalents. The same happens in Real Estate, where the trend is for asking prices to remain high or even increase when selling prices are dropping.

Furthermore, money illusion means nominal changes in price can influence demand even if real prices have remained constant, thus causing what it is normally referred to as ‘market disequilibrium'. Adam Smith maintained that the free market would tend towards economic equilibrium through the price mechanism, that is any excess inventory will lead to price cuts which will decrease the quantity supplied and increase the quantity demanded.

There are, however, exceptions to the rule. One such exception is the situation wherein market participants are always trying to take advantage of the pricing system, thus infusing some dynamism in the market. This situation arises in markets that are ‘imperfect', such as Real Estate, where information about goods is not shared equally and evenly by market participants.

This explains, therefore, the OFHEO price index as above and its increase of 10.1 percent compared to one year ago, which increase is by no means unique to the United States. A similar study conducted by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight to compare markets outside the United States with the domestic ones has found that prices in Canada are up 10.8 percent to a year ago. Denmark tops the list with a staggering 23.6 percent increase, while the lowest index goes to Japan, where housing prices have actually decreased to the tune of - 3.9 percent over the last twelve months.

Luigi Frascati

Real Estate Chronicle


Does Adam Smith still apply in the current economic arena?
Adam Smith is the father of free trade within the context of a capitalistic economy. His early work in pricing through supply and demand has survived the test of time.

Yes, Adam Smith still very much applies in the current economic arena.
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