From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Tis the season….

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Intriguing mixed messages from the economy. Employment continues to lag, but holiday shopping was up. Go figure?

Two or three things may be in store. First, I’m sure that some of the more profitable businesses, fearing future tax increases, were holding off spending tax-deductable money until 2011 rather than 2010. The key lesson for lawmakers — get some stability and predictability into the tax system.

Second, while “on-line” shopping went up, the unmeasured impact of on-line was the ability to target shopping. Lots of holiday shopping went at bargain prices, and I’m interested to see how much sustainability there will be in the increases. It’s very difficult to imagine, with the underlying instability in economic fundamentals, just how long the shopping bubble can be sustained.

But, on to real estate. What looks good right about now? What looks bad? We continue to be doom-sayers on housing construction into 2011. Normally, in a recession, there’s a build-up of excess supply (construction in the pipeline pre-recession get unsold DURING the recession). However, past recessions rarely have a contemporaneous melt-down in homeownership rates (see the following).

Note that since we began keeping records in 1960, ownership rates have inexorably trended upward but for two instances — this one and the 1980-84 period. After 1984, it took until the mid-1990’s for rates to start trending upward again, and many would suggest that this up-trend was only the result of Greenspan’s “easy money” policies. In a more cautious lending environment, it’s hard to say where the true equilibrium might lie. However, it’s intriguing that the run-up in the 1970’s is often blamed on the high levels of inflation (making home ownership the favored “inflation hedge” for families) and that in the post-recession, low-inflation period of the late 80’s and early 90’s, rates seemed to hover around 64%.

If in fact that’s where the equilibrium lies, then the U.S. has about three more percentage points in owner-occupied homes to absorb. This absorption occurs in one of three ways — growth in the population, conversion of homes to other uses (usually rental in lower-end or transitional neighborhoods), or demolition. Whatever the reason, with the current slope of the trend-line (which, intriguingly, matches the slope of the 1980-84 period), we see that it took about 5 years (2004 through 2009) to get from about 69% to about 67%. At this rate, getting to 64% will take another 7 – 8 years, suggesting a best case scenario of stability in the 2016 range.

This scenario, interestingly enough, matches some of the employment-growth scenarios I’ve seen, which suggest we’re looking at the mid-to-late teens for unemployment to get back down to pre-recession levels.

So, if owner-occupied housing stinks, what looks good on the menu? Apartments. In very rough numbers, we WERE building about 1.5 million homes per year prior to the recession (year-in, year-out, with a HUGE amount of variance from year to year). Now-a-days, we’re building about a third of that or less, suggesting an un-met demand for housing of about a million units per year, more or less. Apartment construction also flat-lined during the recession, primarily because banks simply didn’t have the money to lend for construction financing. (Permanent money comes from other sources, and it’s available, but the construction financing problem is still with us.)

As credit continues to ease — particularly with the recent announcements by the FED in that regard — we can see some strong lights at the end of that tunnel. Good news for construction workers — their unemployment rates have been huge lately, but the same folks who drive nails for owner-occupied homes can also drive nails in apartment complexes. Easing credit in this area will thus fuel job growth, which also fuels consumption, home purchases, etc. Thus, addressing the housing demand/supply problem may be the most important single thing policy makers can do to restore the economy to good health.

Written by johnkilpatrick

December 16, 2010 at 9:57 am

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