Even US Central Bankers Are Worried About the Housing Bubble
It didn’t take long for the world to forget the price of the 2007 housing bubble.
If we did remember what follows a housing bubble, we’d likely be in a state of panic right now because house prices are spiralling out of control once again in all the same places.
Bloomberg summed it up best (emphasis added):
‘Global property prices are rising at the fastest rate since before the financial crisis.
‘Around the world, property markets are going bananas.
‘From the U.S. to the U.K. to China, housing is riding an extended boom. Global valuations are soaring at the fastest pace since 2006, according to Knight Frank, with annual price increases in double digits. Frothy markets are flashing the kind of bubble warnings that haven’t been seen since the run up to the financial crisis, a Bloomberg Economics analysis shows.
‘The drivers for the frenzy are remarkably consistent: cheap mortgages, a post-pandemic desire for more space, newly remote workers taking city cash to regional locations — and, crucially, a pervasive fear that if you don’t buy now you may never be able to.
‘As prices mount, so do the risks for both individuals and society. Even without an outright crash, big mortgages mean borrowers are vulnerable if interest rates rise, have less disposable income to spend in the wider economy and are more likely to retire in debt. For younger people, buying property becomes increasingly difficult, further widening intergenerational inequality.
‘While regulators are starting to get nervous, there are few signs of meaningful action in most countries.’
We’ll dig into all that in a moment — first, some more data. And let’s start with the housing market that triggered the chaos in 2007.
The Financial Times: ‘US home prices rise at fastest pace in more than 30 years’. And the Wall Street Journal: ‘U.S. Home-Price Growth Rose to Record in April’.
The Case-Shiller National Home Price Index rose by 14.59% year-over-year in April — the highest on record, just beating the September 2005 figure.
Wait, September 2005? Isn’t that just before US house prices peaked in 2006? Hmm…
Those who ignore history are, of course…
The UK edition of the Guardian: ‘UK house prices “likely to keep rising despite hitting record high”.’
And, ‘Halifax says average selling price rose by almost £22,000 year on year in May.’
What about Ireland — the other poster child of property price excess last time around?
‘House prices surge 13% as “red hot” demand outstrips supply’ reports the Irish Times. Another annual gain that large will put Irish house prices at their 2007 peak.
Do you remember what happened next?
I suppose some Australians don’t, given they escaped the property price plunges of 2008.
But that might not happen this time around. The Guardian’s Australia edition has a brilliant headline about what they’re doing right now: ‘RBA keeps interest rates at record low of 0.1% as housing prices hit record highs.’
I wonder if any readers connected the dots between interest rates and house prices? And if they did, what do they think will happen when interest rates rise?
Let’s zoom out a bit.
Does the global property boom amount to [another] housing bubble?
Yes, it does, in my view. But that’s not to say it won’t continue for some time yet. Still, the result is always the same — a horrific bust at some point.
But perhaps this time is different? Well, in some ways, it is. Even the central bankers are worried about a housing bubble this time around, after being caught out in 2007: ‘US cannot afford housing market “boom and bust”, warns Fed official’ reported the Financial Times.
Indeed, it can’t. A financial crisis now would be devastating.
So why are central bankers inflating another housing bubble with their low interest rates and QE?
The interesting thing about the comments from the Federal Reserve’s Eric Rosengren is that he connects loose monetary policy with house prices, however tentatively:
‘“It’s very important for us to get back to our 2 per cent inflation target but the goal is for that to be sustainable,” Eric Rosengren, the president of the Boston Fed, told the Financial Times. “And for that to be sustainable, we can’t have a boom and bust cycle in something like real estate.”’
The comments were made with inflation at 5%, but they refer to inflation still being too low and therefore needing very low interest rates…
But it’s the acknowledgement that this is connected to house prices surging out of control, which implies a bust at some point, which is most interesting. Low interest rates push up house prices by making debt cheap. Something that central bankers missed in the early 2000s or denied.
At the heart of all this is the mistake central bankers make by focusing so much on consumer prices, even as the price of everything else spirals out of control.
In their world, as long as consumer price inflation, as defined by them, is near 2%, their policy is spot on. Even if their actions are fuelling a housing bubble, that’s the elephant in the room that nobody mentions. Well, nobody used to mention, now that Rosengren has implied it. He’s also not alone, with two other Federal Reserve presidents echoing the comments in the Financial Times article.
Where were these warnings in 2005?
Even the BBC is onto the case this time around, though. Not because of the boom, but because of the inequality being created, of course:
‘More than five million people became millionaires across the world in 2020 despite economic damage from the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘While many poor people became poorer, the number of millionaires increased by 5.2 million to 56.1 million globally, Credit Suisse research found.
‘In 2020, more than 1% of adults worldwide were millionaires for the first time.
‘Recovering stock markets and soaring house prices helped boost their wealth.
‘Wealth creation appeared to be “completely detached” from the economic woes of the pandemic, the researchers said.
‘Lower interest rates and government support programmes had led to “a huge transfer” of wealth from the public sector to the household sector, they added.’
So it was central banks and governments who drove this transfer of wealth? Is that their job? Make millionaires out of property owners?
In Australia, the connection between central bank interest rates and house prices is especially obvious. Owner-occupied mortgage debt is at record highs, but the ratio of interest payments as a share of household disposable income fell to a 21-year low thanks to record low interest rates.
It is cheaper than ever to borrow and buy a house, despite record debt and absurd house prices. Of course, there’s a causal relation. When debt is cheap, people borrow more and this bids up house prices. It’s a classic case of unintended consequences.
Some central bankers, who acknowledge the problem, as well as the fact that they are part of the cause, are wondering whether it’s time to stop inflating housing bubbles. Newsmax has the key quote:
‘A number of Fed officials, including St. Louis Fed’s James Bullard and Kansas City President Esther George, have suggested that the tapering of bond buying be more weighted toward mortgage-backed securities because surging home prices suggest the market doesn’t need additional central bank support.
‘“Right now the housing market is on fire. They don’t need any other unnecessary support so I would be all in favor of that,” Waller said.’
The trouble is, withdrawing support can trigger a bust. That’s how things go, historically. Central bankers inflate bubbles, burst them by raising interest rates, and get a recession or crisis. And so they lower rates again, fuelling the next bubble.
For now, central bankers are still pouring fuel onto the fire with their low interest rates and QE. So the boom can continue.
Will they get the blame if the bubbles they’ve created go bust?
I doubt it. We’ll be sure to blame bankers, capitalism, deregulation and derivatives instead.
Until next time,
Editor, The Daily Reckoning Australia Weekend
PS: Australian real estate expert, Catherine Cashmore, reveals why she thinks we could see the biggest property boom of our lifetimes — over the next five years. Click here to learn more.