ROBERT SHILLER: No Way There’s a Bottom in Housing

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Business Insider’s Henry Blodget interview with Robert Shiller:


BLODGET: A lot of people have just called the bottom in the housing market in the United States, and there’s been some okay data recently. Is that your take? That finally housing prices are bottoming?

SHILLER: When people phrase is that way, they say ‘we’ve reached the bottom.’ That suggests that we have the expectation of a major turning point right now. But I don’t see that. I don’t see any reason to think that prices are going to start heading up dramatically now. We do have some good news. Permits are up. Notably, the National Association of Homebuilders Housing Market Index is up and that’s a forward-looking index. But it’s not up very much. If you look at the rate of change it looks dramatic but it’s still at a low level.

BLODGET: One thing that people are saying is that we have finally absorbed the excess inventory, and with just the general growth of the population and families in the United States, we’re getting close to where we are meeting supply and demand. Is that true?

SHILLER: Well, one simple model of home prices is the construction-cost model. Traditionally, home value was about 15 percent land and 85 percent construction costs. The land component has gotten bigger with the bubble. That might be kind of a long run equilibrium. If you believe that, that’s an oversimplified model, then it probably suggests we’ll just stay where we are.

BLODGET: And where are house prices relative to long-term historical trends? I’ve tracked at a lot of measures and it looks to me like we’re finally starting to close in on fair value. But it’s not as though we’ve crashed way below fair value.

SHILLER: It depends what you mean by fair value. If you take account of the very low interest rates, you might think that housing prices should be higher than historically. But then on the other hand, that model hasn’t worked very well historically. That would be like the Fed model applied to housing. But it doesn’t seem to fit. But I think the construction costs model says that housing should track the costs of construction. It doesn’t depend on interest rates, doesn’t depend on the economy. That’s a model, I’m not saying it’s the only model.

BLODGET: And what about price-to-income and price-to-rent?

SHILLER: Those things have come down a lot. I don’t know exactly where the middle is but it’s not like we’re overpriced anymore. Now the question is whether we’ll overshoot, which is a common thing that happens after bubble burst.

BLODGET: And you’re an expert in bubbles and I’ve looked at some on your work going back several hundreds of years on housing. Have you ever seen a bubble where there wasn’t a major overshoot?

SHILLER: Well, the problem is we’ve never had, in the United States, a bubble like this, of this magnitude before. That’s the problem. That’s the fundamental problem of economics. We’d like to be statisticians but in fact the world is always changing on us. So we end up having to use judgment. We’re not very good at that.

BLODGET: Going back to the point about interest rates… People make a huge to-do about the affordability of houses. In your research on house prices, do interest rates actually matter? Or is mortgage finance such a new concept in the history of home ownership that you just don’t have enough data?

SHILLER:  I think historically, if you look at it, interest rates don’t seem to matter very much in determining home prices. In terms of forecasting, which you’re asking me to do, to forecast the change, the big thing in forecasting home prices is momentum. It’s different than the stock market. So if it’s been going up it will continue going up and if it’s been going down it will continue going down. By that model, which is the most successful forecasting model for home prices, prices will keep going down.

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