Monday, September 18, 2017

Hours Worked and Real GDP Growth

Over the long term, growth in real GDP correlates, naturally, with growth in hours worked.  Here, I have graphed the 10 year change in total nonfarm business sector hours worked (relative to population growth) and the 10 year change in real GDP.

There has recently been a decline in hours worked, which is partly demographic (aging baby boomers) and partly economic (the Great Recession).

There seems to be a long-term decline in RGDP growth of about 0.3% per decade.  Regressing real GDP against time and relative hours worked, we get the residual shown in the graph.  The regression suggests that for each additional percentage gain in hours worked, real GDP growth increases by about 0.68%.  I am using rolling 10-year growth rates.

By this estimate, growth in the 1990s was largely related to rising work hours.  Then, in the 2000s, work hour growth declined, but GDP growth continued to be normal.  Then, with the Great Recession, hours worked and GDP growth fell.  Now, growth in hours worked is low.  But, real GDP growth is low, even adjusted for slow work growth.  I suppose that could still be demographic, since older workers are exiting the labor force, and younger workers are entering.  It probably isn't a coincidence that the GDP growth residual declined as baby boomers were entering the labor force, rose for 30 years as they aged, and then started to decline as they began to leave the labor force, although clearly the sharp trend shift is related to the Great Recession.

tl;dr: There was a sharp drop in total hours worked beginning in about 2000.  This would be enough to drop real GDP growth rates significantly, and it probably did.  But, real GDP growth has been even lower than this sharp drop in hours worked would suggest.

PS: Broken record alert: For the past decade, residential investment as a percentage of GDP has been about 1% below long term averages and construction employment as a percentage of total employment has been about 1% below long term averages.  Add 10% to the 10 year measure for both hours worked and real GDP and your within range of normal.  It's about housing..... One might argue that there is competition for scarce resources and you can't just add real GDP growth without accounting for pulling those resources away from other uses.  But, I believe there has been a decade long search for the answer to the mystery of idle labor, long-duration unemployment, and a glut of savings that happens to coincide with this shift.  If ever there was little tradeoff for marginal investment, it has been now.

Friday, September 15, 2017

August 2017 CPI

This month, trailing 12 month inflation remained at about 1.7%.  Core inflation less shelter remained low: 0.1% for the month and 0.5% for the year.  Rent inflation this month spiked, which is mainly what is keeping core inflation above 1%.

On the news, it looks like the odds of a Fed rate hike in December jumped by about 15%, (currently 55%).  I appreciate that the Fed is trying to base their policy on real time data.  The problem is that they seem to have bought into the fear that they are the cause of high equity and home values.  And, they treat high rent inflation as a monetary issue, when it is a supply issue.  So, I think they are sincerely trying to follow the data.  But, the problem is that these conceptual errors bias them toward wanting to raise rates.  So, it doesn't really matter if they are trying to follow the data.  If the data follow some stochastic process, and each time there is data noise, the Fed adjusts their expectations with even a slight bias, the trend of those expectations will still be mainly an effect of that bias.  So, at some point, they will be convinced that we need another rate hike because that is their bias.  Probably just as well that it's December as opposed to next year.  We might as well get it over with if it is inevitable.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Housing: Part 258 - YOU rigged the economy.

Maybe this is repetitious, but I'm not sure if I have written about this is exactly this way before.

Consider two of the most widely and strongly held opinions about the financial crisis:
  1. The system is rigged.  We bailed out the banks who did this to us, and we left Main Street and regular families high and dry.
  2. We have prudently put new safeguards in place in order to prevent the reckless lending and speculating that caused the bubble.  One fortunate result of the federal takeover of the GSEs, the passage of Dodd-Frank, and the collapse of the subprime market, is that lenders are now much more selective about who they sell mortgages to.
Think about that for a minute.  What were the bailouts, really?  There were a few examples of the government basically taking over the equity position in some firms, generally at a profit.  There was general monetary accommodation.  And, there were various emergency loans.  Generally, in panicked markets, the Fed was engaging in one of its core roles - acting as lender of last resort.

Basically, the government loaned money to various firms and financial institutions, to make a liquid market, expecting to earn a return on those loans.  And, in the end, it generally has.

So, if the government had treated both "Wall Street" and "Main Street" the same, then, what would it have done?  It would have funded mortgages in illiquid markets as a sort of lender of last resort, expecting to earn a return.  So, then, why didn't it do that?  The answer: See point two above!

The reason the government didn't "bail out" "Main Street" is because we wouldn't stand for it!  Consider the oddity.  It's like we insist on not having our cake and being upset about it too.

At exactly the same time that the federal government was funneling trillions of dollars to "Wall Street", it was knocking the wind out of middle class housing markets at Fannie and Freddie.  After the takeover, the GSEs completely eliminated any growth in mortgages outstanding for FICO scores under 740.  This, coming on the heals of the complete collapse of the subprime and Alt-A securitization markets that had been serving some of that market.

In a panicked market, the federal government turned out the lights, and we cheered for it between our complaints of rigged markets.

Given this situation, what could the federal government have possibly done to mimic on "Main Street" what they had done for "Wall Street"?  We wouldn't dare let them be an actual lender of last resort.  That left a bunch of unlikely and costly second best options that were never going to amount to much.  And, so we complained that they weren't trying hard enough.

The lack of any reason for this becomes more clear as we realize the full picture of the markets of the time.  The new paper from  Stefania Albanesi, Giacomo De Giorgi, and Jaromir Nosal is just one in a line of papers that show the owner-occupier market was not in need of retraction.

This is clear even in basic national survey data, like the American Housing Survey and the Survey of Consumer Finances.  Homeownership had peaked in 2004.  The number of first time homebuyers had been declining pretty steeply since 2005.  There had never been any expansion of homeownership among households with lower incomes who would have difficulty making payments.

And, because the federal denial of a lender of last resort was so targeted at these credit constrained households and neighborhoods, it was the period after this when home values really collapsed in those markets.

There was a housing contraction in 2007 and 2008, and a financial crisis in late 2008.  Then, because of belief number 2 above, there was a third crisis in 2009 and 2010 that was actually more severe than the main housing contraction we all recognize.  That crisis only hit working class neighborhoods.  We rigged the system, and we're still patting ourselves on the back for it and demanding that someone, somewhere, correct this vexxing injustice.

We were nearly unanimous in our opposition to a Main Street bailout.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Housing: Part 257 - Practically everyone predicted a housing bust.

I will chalk this up as one more tidbit of the housing boom and bust that is sort of the opposite of conventional wisdom.

A frequent complaint I hear about the crisis is: How did economists and policymakers miss this?  How did a crisis so severe sneak up on us when the (supposed) excesses of the bubble made it inevitable?

Here is a great graph from Leonard Kiefer of forecasts of housing starts since the late 1990s.

Even as far back as the late 1990s, the median forecast was for declining housing starts.  At that time, housing starts had only just recovered enough from the declines of the early 1990s to get back up to long term averages.  Yet, the consensus was already looking for a downturn.  And, of course, even today, you frequently see people claim that they called the bust as early as 2002 or before.

Calling the bust in 2002 was the consensus!  That's why so many people feel vindicated by the bust.  Most people were calling it, and markets kept defying them.

The problem wasn't that nobody saw a bust coming.  The problem was that there was no need for a bust, but the country had been so bound and determined that surely one was due, that the market's defiance of that expectation in 2004 and 2005 created extreme expectations.  If a bust was due in 2000, imagine how much we needed a bust by 2005!  And, not only had housing starts continued to rise in defiance of expectations, but prices did too.

So, when that terrible collapse started in 2006, the collective reaction was not a demand for stability.  It was a collective demand for letting nature take its course.  Finally, years' worth of expectations were vindicated.  And, the delay it took in coming meant that it might take a mighty correction to unwind the excesses that surely had built up over time.

Even after all that has happened, and after a decade long over-correction, this still appears to be the bias.  I expect that we will see downward expectations again before homebuilding ever reaches a sustainable level again.  We already see reports of overheated markets in the Closed Access cities, where housing starts that can't even accommodate natural levels of population growth look like building booms to locals who have spent a generation or more in deadened cities.  And the high prices caused by the housing shortage only seem to them like further evidence of a mania.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Housing: Part 256 - Your Occasional Reminder. It's Housing.

This is your occasional reminder that the stagnation we are experiencing is housing.  Investment outside of residential fixed investment is basically normal.  Residential investment could be 1% to 2% more of GDP for a generation than it is right now.  We are currently in a regime where people are talking about macroprudential moderation because housing is getting too hot.  So, stagnation will continue for the foreseeable future.

Investment outside of residential investment will probably continue to be normal, and total investment will continue to move along the bottom of the long term range.  And, we will continue to have the "mystery" of low interest rates until this ends.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Housing: Part 255 - Relative Valuations Across MSAs and Across Time

Suppose we start with a basic valuation model such as:

Here, I am using the median home price for each MSA and the median rent for each MSA.  (Both available from Zillow Data.)  Rent, I have reduced by 50%, to arrive at a rough estimate of net rental income estimate, after costs and depreciation.
I have estimated property tax rates from here.
The growth rate here would be the future expected of MSA rent inflation above the general rate of inflation, which is an unknown.
And, the required rate of return is an unknown.  Here I will write in terms of real yields.

I have shown that across MSAs, price appreciation has been highly correlated with rent inflation.  This is true regardless of the sensitivity of home prices to real long term interest rates (which can be used to estimate the required rate of return here).  In that analysis, I used estimates of the required rate of return to solve this equation for the expected rent inflation (growth rate).  That is where I find the correlation (expected rent inflation across MSAs correlates strongly with past rent inflation.)

Here, I want to go the other direction.  Let's plug in various growth rates and see what sort of returns on investment that implies across MSAs at various points in time.  These are 17 MSAs that we have rent inflation data for from the BLS.

Here, I am going to use 1995, 2005, and 2015.

In 1995, rent inflation had been moderate for a decade, generally, across MSAs.  So, for 1995, I am assuming zero expected rent inflation in every MSA.

In 2005, the light red dots here show the required rate of return if there is no expectation of rent inflation.  The dark red dots show the required rate of return if expected future inflation is equal to the excess annual rent inflation for each MSA from 1995-2005.

In 2015, the light blue dots show the required rate of return if there is no expectation of rent inflation.  The dark blue dots show the required rate of return if expected future inflation is equal to the excess annual rent inflation for each MSA from 1995-2015.

In all cases, the large dots are the US median.

In 1995, this puts the US median required return at 3.5%, which is slightly less than real long term treasury yields were at the time.

In 2005, if we assume no expected rent inflation, the US median required return dropped to 2.4%.  From 1995 to 2005, real long term treasury yields dropped by about 2%.  Glaeser, Gottlieb, and Gyourko find that home prices change by about 8% for each 1% decrease in yields.  That is about 40% of the sensitivity of a 30 year bond.

The dark red dots reflect expected rent inflation that is 100% of recent past inflation, which is too aggressive.  On the other hand, the light red dots reflect no rent expectations, and they suggest that home prices are somewhat more sensitive to long term interest rates than Glaeser, et. al. estimate.  The downward slope would also suggest that the supply constrained cities are more sensitive to rates than less constrained cities.

In 2015, we find the same patterns, except that since we triggered a nationwide liquidity crisis in housing, the implied yields for housing are high, in spite of the low yields we see in treasuries.

If we just had the 2005 data to go on, we might come up with decent explanations for why home prices in constrained cities are more sensitive to long term interest rates.  But, this explanation is a little harder to defend in 2015, because yields in general for housing are not low.  What would cause yields in less expensive cities to rise while yields in more expensive cities decline?

If we split the difference with real yields and with rent expectations - so that home prices are somewhat sensitive to yields, but also somewhat sensitive to rent - the 2005 dots would basically settle halfway between the two versions here.  That makes intuitive sense, and it suggests that prices across cities generally reflected reasonable estimates of yield and rent factors.

I think we would expect, with 20 years of established rent inflation, for rent expectations to be stronger by 2015, and with the sharp controls on mortgage markets, yields would be less influential.  So, in 2015, the dark blue dots that reflect a stronger effect from rent expectations are probably a more realistic estimate of implied yields.

An easy quick way to read the graph is that, basically, the vertical difference between a light dot and a dark dot is the expected excess rent inflation.  So, if a light dot is at 3%, that means that the home will provide net rental income equal to 3% of today's price.  If the dark dot is at 4%, then that means the homebuyer is actually expecting to earn a 4% real return.  3% will be in the form of income and 1% will be in the form of annual capital gains as rent increases.

(Considering that mortgages can be attained, for the "haves" who have access to credit in post-crisis America, with real interest rates of about 2%, leveraged ownership of residential real estate seems like a real bargain.  That makes sense.  In a context defined by credit rationing, those with credit access will earn alpha.)

In short, there is nothing about the housing markets across cities over this time that can't be explained by moderate sensitivity to broadly recognized valuation factors.

One more item we can look at here is the effect of different factors.  Once we have plugged in a growth rate and solved for required return, we can adjust each factor to see what effect it has on price.

In this last graph, the blue line is the median 2015 home price for each MSA.  The cities with supply problems and high prices also tend to be cities with low property taxes.  This is probably no accident.  The low tax base means that expanded residential housing is seen as a cost to local municipalities instead of a potential revenue source.  This is quite explicit in housing debates around Silicon Valley.

Here, the red line is the hypothetical home price these cities would have if they raised their property tax rates to the same level that Dallas has.  The green line is the hypothetical home price in each MSA if there was no expected future rent inflation (all else held equal).  And the purple line is the hypothetical price if each city applied Dallas' property tax rates and also had no expected rent inflation.  There would still be some difference between cities, because current rent levels are much higher in some cities than in others.

I think it is interesting that the shift in property taxes has as much of an effect on property values in this model as rent inflation does.

Keep in mind, though, that property taxes don't really make homeownership any more affordable.  It just shifts your payment from the mortgage financier to the local government.  You could think of property tax, really, as a partial public ownership, with a fixed income claim, much like a non-recourse negative-amortizing mortgage.

While property taxes only improve the illusion of affordability as a first order effect, because the public (incorrectly) treats home prices as an affordability signal, the most important effect of higher property taxes would probably be the secondary effect that it would induce municipalities to allow more generous new supply.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Housing: Part 254 - Solutions will be approved and mandated.

I fear I am entering curmudgeon territory, but there are just so many examples of wrong-headed thinking.

Here is an article at Slate: "The Housing Industry Still Hasn’t Realized It’s Building Too Many Homes for Rich People"

That headline really tells you everything you need to know about what will follow, doesn't it?  I mean, what sort of world does the author live in where he can imagine that an entire industry would not notice this?
"(T)his week, we got evidence that one of America’s largest industries may be running into trouble because its products appeal only to the upper crust."
"(W)ith each passing month, the homebuilding industry is pitching its products at a smaller, wealthier demographic slice."

Dozens, if not hundreds, of firms are constantly positioning in various niche markets to gain market share, and this just totally missed their attention.  Where the industry had a massive decline in revenues so that they all continue to have difficult decisions about how much operational downsizing they need to do and where some have debt burdens that are still larger than their new smaller revenue base can support - so that practically any reasonable revenue growth would improve net profit margins - and, gosh darn it, they just can't get it through their thick skulls that there is a low tier market to serve out there.  A market they were all happily serving 10 years ago.

Also, remember that in most cities, even though low tier markets never appreciated more than high tier markets during the boom, they have fallen behind high tier markets by 10% or more since 2008.  If low tier markets were less profitable, one might expect builders to at least raise prices back to those previous relative levels.  Strange that they would lower prices on those homes if the lack of profit is what drives this.
"There’s also evidence that existing homes (about 10 times more existing homes are sold each year than new homes) are getting too expensive for buyers."
One idea I hope to popularize is that we should think of affordable housing consumption in terms of rent.  Homes are getting too expensive because their rents are rising because we have broken the supply conduit.
"To their credit, in this expansion, the mortgage industry has not responded to the rising challenge of affordability by massively lowering its standards or by offering no-money down mortgages and other exotic lending instruments...Of course, there are a limited number of people in the U.S. who have $40,000 or $50,000 in cash lying around to make a down payment."
"Clearly, there is something of a housing shortage in the United States."
"The solution to the problem is for developers to increase the supply of affordable homes, and to bring large numbers of homes to the market that are closer in price to existing homes."
Come on, developers!  You're failing us!  The solution to this problem is for you to provide supply for a market that we are determined to block funding for.  This your moral failing.  Just one more piece of evidence of Wall Street screwing over Main Street.  m'I right?

Of course, at the time I clicked on the article, the highlighted reader comment was:
"I would like to know more statistics about BUYERS in the past 5-10yrs. How many were American full-time residents and how many are foreigners, and of what class of dwelling?"
If there is anything worse than corporations, it's foreigners.  They ruin everything.

The comments at articles like this offer an interesting peak at the fever dreams that drive policy today.  There is one thing going on here - we have nearly universal support for obstructing access to mortgages compared to any previous modern standard - and this clearly has killed demand in entry level housing markets.  This is the obvious reason for the shift in housing markets.  There is nothing subtle about what has happened.

It's a little strange, because everyone that supports this shift should at least be able to come to terms with the effect it would have on the market.  Instead of pretending this isn't a factor, they might say, "Well, homebuilders are only providing supply for top tier markets, but that makes sense, since we have shifted credit policy to decrease activity in lower tier markets."  I think the core of the problem is that everyone thinks standards were sharply weakened during the boom and they have just gone back to normal.  They don't realize that there was little shift in standards during the boom and the shift away from the norm has been during the bust.

Of course, recognizing that explains all of these mysteries about how the housing market has evolved since the crisis.  But, people can't see it.  So, this creates a sort of natural Rorschach test where they fill in the blanks with things that are wrong.  There will always be some sort of perceived evidence in their favor.  But, it is evidence that we know is not decisive because we know it is wrong.  So, the reasons given - near-sighted builders, foreign buyers, a "rigged" economy, poor decisions of homebuyers, etc. give us a clue about what wrong reasons people are drawn to.  They inevitably are about divisions, perceived inequity, in-groups and out-groups, corporate flaws, etc.

I think this is a reason why problems like this are so hard to solve, even if our chosen narrative villains didn't have anything to do with our original errors of judgment.  Since our judgments weren't built on actual relevant facts, we end up filling in the holes in our narrative with our chosen villains.  Once we do that, correcting to a more truthful narrative feels like it requires some sort of tribal disloyalty, because we filled the story with our tribe's mythology.

If you can talk yourself into believing that an industry that lost 3/4 of its revenue base has managed to err in leaving whole portions of the market untapped, then really, your narrative is flexible enough to accept any myths you may wish to attach to it.  But, in the end, what choice would you have, if the world is aligned against uttering the truth?

(Another irony here is that the complaint about the pre-crisis market was how profitable it was to sell mortgages and homes to the low tier market.  Everybody making bank on the backs of unsuspecting lower-middle class families.  Now, I guess it's impossible to make profits on the low tier.)


Here is an article at the Financial Times by columnist Rana Foroohar. It is part of a series of posts where FT columnists point to important charts covering the past decade.  Her chart shows that buybacks and dividends have roughly fallen and risen in proportion to equity values.  And, interest rates have declined over the past decade.

That's the chart.  I'm not sure how she expects dividends and buybacks to move relative to broader market levels, but she seems to think this is important.  And, again, through some questionable assumptions about causation, we end up with a tale of dastardly corporations and a rigged economy.

As she tells it:
1) Loose monetary policy leads to low interest rates.
2) Low interest rates lead to binge borrowing by firms.
3) Firms use that cheap debt to buy back shares.
4) Share buy backs push up share prices.
5) This enriches the wealthy, since they own equities.

Let's accept #5.  Numbers 1 through 4 are based on nothing.  There is no mechanism through which the Fed could somehow be pushing long term interest rates well below the neutral rate for years on end.  Monetary policy hasn't been loose, and if it had been, it wouldn't lead to a decade's worth of low long term interest rates.  What were bond rates in 1979?  This shouldn't be difficult.

Borrowing by firms isn't unusually high, either, in relation to enterprise value or to GDP.  In nominal terms, levels get higher over time, though, so you can certainly make a graph that shows lines with positive slopes if you want to make this claim.  One complaint about firms, to the contrary, has been that they are sitting on too much cash.

Total payback ratios equity yields (dividends plus buybacks) have run around 5% of market value, plus or minus, for more than a century, and they continue to run at about that level.  [edit: It appears to me that total payout ratios (dividends plus buybacks as a percentage of earnings) also tend to have a stationary long term mean level of about 60-70%.]  Nothing unusual has been happening, except that regulatory changes in the 1980s led firms to shift some of this return from dividends to buybacks.  If you want to know the reason for this, and you're having trouble getting to sleep, ask an accountant.  It's not nearly as exciting as stories about "Wall Street" and "Main Street", though.

Using buybacks instead of dividends does raise share prices - or more precisely, dividends make share prices decline while buybacks don't.  Basically, shareholders receive $1 in added share value instead of $1 in cash.  But, there is nothing about buying back 2% or 3% of the equity stock each year that can, say, push prices up to 10% or 20% or 30% above some reasonable value they would have had otherwise.

So, a whole lot of nothing here is added up to create a story of an entire economic system rigged to benefit the elites at the expense of "Main St."  And, this is from the Financial Times.  Good grief.

Foroohar's book, alternately titled: "Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business" or "Makers and Takers: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street" has 4.4 out of 5 stars at Amazon.  I'm sure it's a real page turner.  Much more interesting than an accounting textbook about the arithmetic differences between buybacks and dividends.

Foroohar's narrative exists above the plane of empirics.  The system is rigged.  Wall Street got bailed out and Main Street didn't.  How would you even address this claim, empirically?  It can't be.  It is simply a narrative construction and it is naturally satisfying enough that it can be filled with the detritus of our data filled age with little trouble.


Here is even more good stuff from FT.  This time about housing in Silicon Valley.  More rigged economy.  Here, the sin committed by the dastardly firms is...brace yourself...growing businesses that provide many high paying jobs.  I know.  Corporations are the worst.

The entire article is about how these firms create pressures in the Silicon Valley housing market that make it hard for poor residents to remain.
It took a lawsuit from the city of East Palo Alto to get the social-networking company to consider ways to mitigate the effects of its whirlwind growth. The result was an $18.5m grant to build affordable housing for people on low incomes....
...“The narrative that has been preferred by these corporations is that it’s all because of their largesse. But they were coerced to the table,” says Romero. “When all is said and done, it doesn’t address one 150th of the impact that the size of these developments will have.”
Or, there is this:
The rent inflation is a symptom of the speculators who are pouring into the area to cash in on tech money.
So, I guess the reason Dallas has affordable housing is because they have more effective lawsuits against their local corporations?  I guess, if it weren't for "speculators", those apartments would be renting for $600 a month?  Dallas has fewer speculators?

Elsewhere, we have choice phrases like "Facebook and Google have shown themselves adept at buying up whatever dreams they haven’t been able to crush." and Google's headquarters "is spreading like a rash through Sunnyvale". "Instead of contributing to affordable housing, they 'don’t pay their fair share of taxes, they park the money overseas'."  "These companies have a lot of capital that they could invest in affordable housing if they wanted to."

This article really lays it on thick.  Here we have a case of firms that happen to operate in an industry that is geographically captured in some ways by an area with dysfunctional polities.  To suggest that housing in Silicon Valley is a problem because Google and Facebook aren't as community oriented as, say, Delta Airlines or Home Depot are in Atlanta is bizarre.  The companies have nothing to do with this problem.  The article makes a brief reference to Prop. 13.  But, it just keeps circling back to building resentment against these firms.  In any functional city, does it even occur to people to think that employers are supposed to be actively involved in the local housing market?  Yet, when politics leads to dysfunction, we seem to be naturally drawn to a certain type of narrative.

Imagine trying to get away with describing the expansion of any other group of people as "spreading like a rash".  Economic rhetoric, especially since the housing bust, has been quite stark.  When this sort of thing gets pointed out, it is common for people to react indignantly.  Playing up wealthy corporations as victims is unseemly, isn't it?

When the medieval priest declared that local witchcraft was causing the outbreak of fevers, his solutions tended to be terrible for the local witches.  But, you know who else the solution would be terrible for?  The people with fevers!  While our newspapers are filled with heated debates about the use of privileged language or ethnic and racial tensions, they are also filled with rhetoric that is sharply and obviously uncharitable to a predictable target.  It's so strange that we can compartmentalize like that.  I mean, even the language itself sometimes is quite parallel.  How can we become more sensitive to it in some contexts and remain insensitive to it in other contexts.  It regularly deposits scales over our eyes so that we don't notice the most obvious solutions to our problems.  I mean, for anyone who just sits down and looks out at the world for a second, the idea that Silicon Valley housing is more of a mess than housing in Chicago is because Facebook isn't engaged enough with its community, or the idea that share buybacks have led to a rigged economy of haves and have nots, or the idea that homebuilders desperate for revenue are just leaving whole markets unmet - these ideas are nutty.  I mean just fruit loops.  I might forgive the guy at the end of the bar for thinking such things.  He probably thinks I'm an idiot because I wouldn't know how to clean the valves on a '68 Mustang.  There's a lot to know in the modern world.  But, for cripes' sake, I'd like to think if he turned to the Financial Times, he'd have a chance at getting a little smarter about financial matters.


One last one.  Here is an article about an affordable housing proposal in LA.  The headline, "L.A. County’s Latest Solution to Homelessness Is a Test of Compassion" is a testament to our time.  We don't need "tests of compassion".  There is a vast realm of economic interaction and cooperation that might include compassion but doesn't require a super-human core of it at the visible center of everything we do.  That is the realm of human action where most problems are solved.  We have become so enamored with the more visible forms of compassion that exist on the edges of that vast realm, that we have ground the gears of progress and shared well-being to a halt.

So, LA has a homelessness problem, and they have this proposal to raise taxes and then pay individuals $75,000 if they will build an "affordable" backyard unit and rent it to a homeless or needy family.

According to the article:
On top of that, the county will also streamline the permitting process, an arguably attractive incentive considering that most of these “accessory dwelling units” in U.S. cities are illegal.
The article does mention that new laws at the state level might ease some of those restrictions.  But, this is madness.  It's illegal to just build these units with your own funds.  If we rid ourselves of those types of restrictions, housing in LA would be affordable.  Instead, LA is making an exception to those restrictions, but only limited to households who take public money to do it.

This makes sense when we understand that this is not really a solution.  It's a test of our compassion.  Private investors and speculators will not be a part of this process.  That isn't the place they fill in our narratives of the time.

There used to be a time when American corporations made things.  Today, they only serve as villains for our fever dreams.  And, apparently, we'll have it no other way.  That's not just a pithy aside.  Think about the problems these articles are addressing.  There are trillions of dollars' worth of benign economic transactions - the transactions that would naturally take place in an unfettered context - that would solve these problems.  They don't happen because they are effectively illegal.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Housing: Part 253 - Great new paper on subprime lending

Scott Sumner found a great new paper that looks at lending during the housing boom.

I have been working with various sources of information that demonstrate how there was no marginal increase in homeownership during the private securitization boom, rates of first time homebuyers were actually declining in 2004-2007, and mortgages throughout the boom were going to young professionals with college degrees and high incomes.

Frankly, this information isn't a secret.  It's clear in basic Census Bureau data, Survey of Consumer Finances, etc.  But, since a flawed premise regarding the housing bust was broadly accepted early, all of this data is generally simply ignored.  It's kind of absurd that I have any business being associated with its discovery.  It's unfortunate that it has been left to me to complete this new narrative of the boom and bust, and I do not have the full set of statistical skills and knowledge to make the best case for some of this work.  I am grateful that others have been filling in these gaps in knowledge.

In any case, this paper, from Stefania Albanesi, Giacomo De Giorgi, and Jaromir Nosal, digs into mortgage data with various methods to control for the effect of age among homebuyers, and finds some direct corroboration for these other sources.  There was no shift in risk-taking to homeowners among mortgage lenders.  And, in fact, they find that much of the rise in delinquencies was among financially secure investors.

Now, the consensus has coalesced around the idea that everything was reckless.  So, rising homeownership and expansion of lending to financially insecure buyers can be the reckless cause of the bust.  Or, falling homeownership and expansion of lending to financially secure investors can be the reckless cause of the bust.  Heck, in the decade's worth of a housing depression we have imposed on ourselves since then, many people have convinced themselves that there is a new housing bubble fed by institutions paying all cash for existing homes.  At this point, I'm convinced that if there was a surge of new housing units being built, by hand, by the owners cutting down the trees on their own land with hand saws, and thatching their own roofs, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times would post articles about how this calls for tighter monetary policy.

This paper provides support that the crisis had little to do with reckless lending, but detractors can still argue that investors tend to default more in the face of collapsing prices, so that even that lending was reckless.  That's all well and good.  We can have that debate.  But, we need to be clear that this was not the story that filled newspapers in 2007 and 2008 when everyone was standing blithely aside as home prices dropped by 1% per month, for months on end.  The story that led us to accept a crisis was that millions of buyers never had a chance at making their mortgage payments, and that was the cause of the inevitable collapse.

What really happened was that new homeowners were already in decline, long before we got serious about imposing a collapse on ourselves.  We determined that speculators and lenders needed some discipline.  There were a large number of recent young new owners and investor buyers who tend to be more prone to default when prices collapse, and we engineered that collapse, all the while complaining that they did this to us.  And, as time passes, the idea that lenders were throwing caution to the wind seems to be losing to the evidence.

To be fair, there is clearly much evidence that in 2006 and 2007, in some respects, there were sharp shifts in underwriting.  But, if you look closely at many of these complaints, they are complaints about a lack of documentation or complaints about investor buyers engaging in various sorts of misstatements.  This was a strange period, though.  The number of buyers was collapsing, which is a strange thing to see if underwriters are being extremely lenient.  I think, oddly, what we were really seeing was an exodus of previous owners out of the market, and the buyers that remained tended to be more leveraged and more likely to be investors.  This should have been obvious, since, by the time prices were collapsing, housing starts were already at recession levels.  The reason prices collapsed after mid-2007 is because the housing market had already absorbed as much decline as it could without breaking.

Selections from the paper:

Our analysis also reconciles the pattern of borrowing at the individual level and at the zip code level, showing that though mortgage balances grows more in areas with a larger fraction of subprime borrowers, within those areas, debt growth is driven by high credit score borrowers.

Using zip code level data, Mian and Sufi (2009) show that during the period between 2001 and 2006, the zip codes that exhibited the largest growth in debt were those who experiences the smallest growth in income. They argue that the negative relation between debt growth and income growth at the zip code level over that period is consistent with a growth in the supply of credit to high risk borrowers. We show that this negative relation does not hold for individual data. The differences in credit growth between 2001 and 2009 are positively related to life cycle growth in income and credit scores. Moreover, debt growth for young/low credit score borrowers at the start of the boom occurs primarily for individuals who have high income by 2009, and the growth in income is associated in a growth in credit score.

The positive relation between income growth and debt growth during the credit boom casts doubt on the notion that there was an increase in the supply of credit, especially to high risk borrowers. Instead, it is more likely that the rise in house prices caused an increase in mortgage balances. This is confirmed by the fact that the fraction of borrowers with mortgages did not rise for any quartile of the credit score distribution(.)

(T)hough the fraction of investors with prime credit score is very similar across quartiles, in quartiles with high share of subprime, investors exhibit larger increases in mortgage balances during the boom and a more severe increase in foreclosures during the crisis. This difference in behavior for prime investors may be driven by the behavior of real estate values.
(KE: In other words, investors who were prime borrowers were a large source of delinquencies in zip codes with a high proportion of subprime credit scores.  So, more volatile prices probably were the cause of higher default rates in those zip codes.  My work has shown that those zip codes were located in specific areas, and the volatility comes from a systematic behavior of Price/Rent that is probably unrelated to credit markets.)

We find that most of the increase in mortgage debt during the boom and of mortgage delinquencies during the crisis is driven by mid to high credit score borrowers, and it is these borrowers who disproportionately default on their mortgages during the crisis. The growth in defaults is mostly accounted for by real estate investors.  

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The premise determines the conclusion

One of the features of my recent research that I find fascinating and frustrating is the reality that, when it comes down to it, just making a few subtle shifts in our priors can completely flip our conclusions.

This is the problem I have with behavioral explanations for recent phenomena.  Behavioral explanations are basically explanations that presume inefficiency of some sort - mispricing that an omniscient or reasonably rational collection of traders would avoid.  But, how do you falsify that?  So, there is a certain amount of presumption involved in those explanations.  But, once you accept that presumption, then explanations fall into place.  Mortgage debt is bound to scale with real estate values, so if there is a presumption that mortgage credit can lead to inefficient or unsustainable prices, then it can always appear to be causal.

So, then, every sign of rising prices is taken as a signal of unsustainable demand, whether it is or not.  I think this reached an extreme in 2006 and 2007, when, amid a sharp downturn in housing starts, mortgage growth, homeownership rates, and residential investment, the consensus view was that the economy was characterized by excess.  And, the heavy demand for AAA securities, of all things, was taken to be evidence for risk taking.  That's because, by that point, these presumptions had taken so many people so far down the road toward that conclusion, in a way that wasn't really justified by the evidence, that it was difficult to square evidence of extreme risk aversion with the consensus that had already developed.

So much analysis of the business cycle falls into this category.

Here is a recent Financial Times article by John Auther that is an example of this.  He claims that rising equity prices are being propped up by easy money.

From the article:

"The central bank has bought bonds to try to push down their yields and so push up the valuations that people will put on stocks - and they have been phenomenally successful."

I would question whether Fed bond buying pushes yields down over this time frame and scale and I would also question the effect that long term yields have on equity prices.

Here is the main chart he references:

My question is, What's the counterfactual?  Let's say that we had gotten ourselves into a case where interest rates had fallen to zero because monetary policy had been too tight, so that the QEs were a move toward a more optimal policy.  The economy needed cash, and to a certain extent, the QEs led to some money creation.  If that's the case, then what would this chart look like?  Wouldn't it look just the same?

So we have competing priors. Auther's prior, which seems to be commonly held, is that the values of homes or long term bonds or stocks can be regularly pushed far from any normalized value by central bank activities even while consumer prices move along at roughly 1-2% inflation rates.  My prior is that at this scale, prices of all of those assets are much more influenced by real economic factors.  The stock market moved higher because our collective economic future had improved.

Is that na├»ve? Maybe.  But, let's say either of us is wrong.  In that case, which premise is more of an offense?  Can I suggest that if you will only be satisfied with contraction and deprivation, that you might require a higher standard of confirmation?  If core inflation hasn't even touched 3% for more than two decades, can we shelve the endless complaints of Fed largesse?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

More about leverage and the business cycle

What is the actual evidence for the Austrian business cycle/Minsky idea that businesses are induced to leverage up during expansions, which becomes unsustainable, and eventually must lead to a disciplining contraction?

The evidence seems to me to loudly proclaim the opposite.

Here is a chart of corporate leverage and changing profit margins.

The red line is nonfinancial corporate debt as a proportion of operating profits, net of tax.  The grey line is the YOY percentage change in real operating profits.

It seems clear to me that firms tend to deleverage through expansions.  Where leverage rises, it is generally associated with falling profits that are usually a leading indicator of a coming recession.  The explanation for this seems obvious.  Firms confront negative profit shocks, which cause their balance sheets to shift out of equilibrium.  They cut back on investment in order to try to pull leverage back down to the comfortable level, which over time seems to have moved between about 4x to 6x operating income.  After the contraction, profits rebound, and firms use that expansion to finally allow their leverage to decline.

Here is a graph of these same two series.  Here I have converted the leverage measure so that it also is a measure of the YOY change.  Then, I created a scatterplot of these two series.  Could this be more clear?  Firms clearly deleverage when profits rise.

The change in profit is on the x-axis and the change in leverage is on the y-axis.

Notice where zero is on the x-axis.  There are only a few quarters where leverage as a proportion of operating profit increased moderately during periods of moderate profit growth.  Overwhelmingly, during expansions, firms deleverage.