Why Home Ownership Is At a 50-Year Low

After eight years of historically low interest rates, and with the unemployment rate having fallen to a point near what experts consider to be full employment, it would be logical for home ownership to be at an all-time high.

It’s not. In fact, it was recently at its lowest level in 50 years.

In 2016, there were nearly a million fewer homeowners in the U.S. then there were in 2006, even while the number of households rose by 7.5 million, according to “Homeownership in Crisis: Where are We Now? a new report from Rosen Consulting Group and the Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics.

If the housing market had returned to normal levels by 2016, according to the report, more than $300 billion would have been added to the national economy, which would have boosted growth in gross domestic product by 1.8%. In other words, instead of the anemic 2% growth we’ve experienced over the past eight years, growth could be exceeding the 3.3% average.

As recently as 2004, 69.2% of Americans owned homes. As of 2016, only 63.4% were homeowners. While there are recent signs of improvement, why has home ownership been so low?

The Housing Bubble

Many factors had an impact, as we noted when we wrote about the housing market a couple of years ago. Ironically, a major one was the government effort to increase home ownership.

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which became law in 1977, was meant to encourage lenders to make more mortgage loans to low-income Americans. While the CRA initially helped many struggling Americans become homeowners, over time it morphed into an abandonment of lending standards.

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Habitat for Inhumanity

The idea was logical enough.

Reduce interest rates, making housing more affordable, which would produce a recovery in the housing market.  The housing market was at the heart of the financial crisis, so bringing the housing market back to health would, presumably, bring the economy back to health.

That conclusion was sound, too.  Housing is a leading economic indicator, so a recovering housing market should mean a recovering economy.

But in economics, as in life, things don’t always go as planned.  The housing market still hasn’t recovered.  And, while low interest rates may have given housing prices a boost, they have not increased home ownership.Home Ownership

In addition, government programs have only made matters worse, while costing taxpayers a bundle.

As Lance Roberts noted on his Street Talk blog, “trillions of dollars have been directly focused at the housing markets including HAMP, HARP, mortgage write-downs, delayed foreclosures, government backed settlements of ‘fraud-closure’ issues, debt forgiveness and direct buying of mortgage bonds by the Fed to drive refinancing and purchase rates lower.”

Yet, as the chart shows, the net result has been that the home ownership rate has dropped to where it was in 1980.

Why did government help” fail would-be homeowners? 

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Economic Dissonance

In today’s economy, the theory of cognitive dissonance is itself dissonant.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger believed that humans strive for internal consistency, and that two or more contradictory beliefs cause mental stress.  Yet in today’s world, it seems that every policy, every vote, every executive order is designed to contradict rationality and add to our collective mental stress.

We’ve given a few examples of economic dissonance in the past:

The stock market.  During six years of quantitative easing (QE), bad economic news caused the stock market to rise and good economic news caused the stock market to fall.  That’s because bad news meant more Fed bond buying and good news made bond buying unnecessary.

Higher inflation.  Lower oil prices have done more to give the economy a boost than trillions of dollars in bond buying – yet the Federal Reserve Board has fretted that the U.S. is headed toward deflation.  Its policies were designed to increase inflation to the magic rate of 2%.  Why 2%?  No one seems to know.College Costs

The unemployment rate.  The widely used U-3 unemployment rate drops when people give up looking for work and leave the workforce.  As a result, we have absurdities such as this latest report from The Boston Globe:

“U.S. employers hired at a stellar pace last month, wages rose by the most in six years, and Americans responded by streaming into the job market to find work.

“The Labor Department says the economy gained a seasonally adjusted 257,000 jobs in January. The unemployment rate rose slightly to 5.7 percent from 5.6 percent.”

So Americans are “streaming into the job market” – causing an increase in the unemployment rate!

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The Economic Recovery That No One Noticed

The average recovery since the end of World War II has been 58 months.  The current “recovery” has just reached that milestone.

So maybe we should be celebrating.  But what’s to celebrate?econ_expansion25_405

If you were to define “recovery” as a period when gross domestic project (GDP) increases from one quarter to the next, yes, we’ve been in a recovery.  But a recovery is typically reflected by a period that also includes, among other things, low unemployment, strong consumer spending, increasing income, higher inflation and strong manufacturing.

Most of those signs of recovery have been either barely visible or missing, and GDP has been growing about as fast as a bonsai tree.

This has been, and will likely continue to be, the recovery that no one noticed.  It’s a recovery in name only, as for most Americans it doesn’t feel much different than a recession.  Consider what’s been happening:

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No Records This Month

Markets go up and markets go down, so maybe it’s not surprising that January’s stock market performance has less exuberance to it than the performance to which we’ve become accustomed.

As of yesterday’s market close, the S&P 500 was down 0.13% year to date, which is not a big deal, especially considering that the S&P 500 Index finished 2013 up 32.4%.  Even with the recent downward trend, the S&P 500 is up 25.35% for the past 12-month period.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has been a bit creakier, down 0.96% year to date, but still up 21.51% for the past year.

It’s doubtful, then, that the markets will break any records this month.  But if you believe the hype, good things are headed our way.  The unemployment rate has slimmed down to 6.7%, gross domestic product (GDP) was revised upward to 3.6% for the third quarter of 2013 and, with Janet Yellen’s appointment to head the Federal Reserve Board, quantitative easing can continue ad nausem.

So why worry?

To begin with, as we explained last week, the falling unemployment rate is an illusion.  The rate dropped only because so many people have stopped looking for work.  The number of non-working Americans exceeds 102 million, which is a record.

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The Unnoticed Recovery

It seems that every day we hear about a stronger economy with real jobs, a recovered housing market and renewed manufacturing strength being just ahead.

We hear about it.  We just don’t see it.

The economy’s been growing for four years now, yet its growth has been so stunted, most of the country still thinks we’re in a recession.  The McClatchy-Marist Poll this week found that 54% of adult Americans think the U.S. in still in a recession, while only 38% think it’s not.

In an economy with a 7.6% unemployment rate (but really more than 14%), any sign of improvement is good news, so we can be thankful that the number of people who think we’re still in a recession is down from 63% in March and 75% in 2011.

Only 29% of those surveyed think their family finances will improve in the coming year, while 19% think they will worsen.  More than half think they will remain the same.

Lee M. Miringoff, Director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, treats the poll results as good news and notes that “President Obama plans to refocus his second term agenda on the economy.”

Well, that should save the day.  Except that a separate poll finds that Americans have little faith in their political leaders.

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House of Cards

The current housing recovery is not a house of brick, but a house of cards.

The cards came tumbling down this week, as the U.S. Commerce Department reported that housing starts in June fell to their lowest level in almost a year.  At June’s pace, new housing starts would total 836,000 for the year, down 9.9% from May’s 928,000 pace.  Multi-family projects plunged 26.2%.

The announcement blunted the stock market rise initiated on Wednesday by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose warm-and-fuzzy comments (more fuzzy than warm) can be summarized as “we have no idea when quantitative easing will end and, even if we did, we wouldn’t say.”

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The Second Housing Bubble

“Demand is artificially high … and supply is artificially low.”
                                                                         Fitch Ratings

We’ve written frequently about the disconnect between the real world and the stock and bond markets. Now the housing market has drifted into its own false reality.

While Gluskin Scheff’s David Rosenberg has referred to the stock market’s recent climb as a “Potemkin rally,” what’s happening in housing is Potemkin in reverse.

Russian minister Grigory Potemkin created a fake village to impress Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea, giving us the term “Potemkin” to mean an illusion, reality propped up to look bigger and better than it really is.

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Follow The Fed At Your Own Risk

If you think Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has a firm grasp of the economy, you may change your mind after listening to Bain Capital co-founder Coleman Andrews quoting Chairman Bernanke in the accompanying video.

Andrews cites three quotes that show The Fed czar was out of touch with economic reality during the run up to the Great Recession.  And now, he asks, “would you trust your life-savings to an institution with that recent record of completely missing what happened in the housing sector and more broadly in the economy?” read more

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Housing Recovery Continues … Sort Of

For the economy to recover, the housing market must recover.  When consumers can barely pay their mortgages, they’re unlikely to spend money on other things – and when consumers don’t spend money, the economy stagnates.

There have been signs of recovery in the housing market in recent months, as we’ve reported, and now there’s more good news:

  •  The Case-Shiller Index, a composite of statistics from 20 cities, showed that housing prices rose 4.3% from October 2011 through October 2012.
  • It appears that housing prices will see their first gain for the year since 2006.
  • The National Association of Realtors’ Pending Home Sales Index is at its highest level in five years and has risen for 18 consecutive months.  At the end of October, it was at 104.8, up 13.2% from a year earlier.

While these are positive trends, statistics can be misleading.  Many current buyers are investors, who are purchasing homes to rent out, not to resell.  If investors believed that housing prices were going to continue rising, they would buy and resell.

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