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Author(s): Rueben, Kim and Serena Lei
Publication Date: October 2010
6 pages; Inventory ID LLA101003; English
As the U.S. housing market experiences its largest contraction since the Great Depression, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Urban–Brookings Tax Policy Center took a closer look at the consequences of this crisis for state and local governments in a May 2010 conference. A major theme of the discussion was the fallibility of conventional wisdom. For example, some participants questioned whether easy credit was in fact the cause of the housing bubble and thus to blame for the subsequent loss of state and local tax revenues. Papers presented at the conference document the complexities researchers face in determining the causes and lessons of this crisis.
• While easy credit did motivate homebuyers, its effect was not sufficiently strong to fully account for the housing boom.
• The housing market downturn was largely predictable, but only by looking at state-level rather than national data.
• Although state budgets have been battered by fallout from the recession in the form of lower income and sales tax revenue, these declines have been triggered more by the broader economic downturn than by the collapse in housing markets.
• Local governments seem to have been largely spared the severe budget shortfalls plaguing many states. While housing prices have fallen, property taxes have held up fairly well—supporting city budgets while other revenue sources have shrunk. However, there is great geographic variation in these results. The Housing Market Boom and BustAccording to Byron Lutz, Raven Molloy, and Hui Shan, house prices at the national level increased by 64 percent from 2002 to 2006, before falling nearly 30 percent over the following four years. From 2006 to 2009, existing home sales dropped 36 percent and the number of newly constructed homes fell 75 percent. Could we have seen it coming? Was the housing market bust predictable? Yes, according to Yolanda K. Kodrzycki and Robert K. Triest, but only by looking at state-level data.
Conventional wisdom held that while house prices could fall in specific markets, national housing prices would not decline. This had been the historical pattern, although some markets, for example the Boston and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, experienced declines in the 1990s after strong increases in housing prices. Other areas, such as Detroit, had been declining or stagnant even when the country as a whole experienced consistent upward movement in house prices.
Much of the modeling and analysis of the housing crisis has used national-level data, which provided insufficient evidence to measure the peak of the housing bubble. Since economic cycles are more apparent at the state level and can act as early warning signs of housing trouble on a national scale, analyzing state data collectively can improve national forecasts.
Nevertheless, even the ability to recognize a housing bubble does not provide an easy prescription for preventing a crisis. Previous episodes of state-level housing price declines show that booms do not necessarily end in busts, Kodrzycki said. Rather, downturns are closely related to economic cycles. In most cases housing prices did not fall until after a recession had begun within a region—a pattern that is different from the current crisis.
The cause of the housing bubble is a crucial and unsettled question. Many economists have argued that easy credit was responsible, but Edward L. Glaeser disputed that view in a paper written with Joshua Gottlieb and Joseph Gyourko. Widely available credit and low interest rates do encourage more people to buy homes, increasing demand and raising housing prices. “This goes along with an older view,” Glaeser said, “that interest rates are very powerful in determining housing prices. There is some truth to that, but I think…those claims are overblown. Certainly the changes in the credit market can’t explain what we went through.”
Between 1996 and 2006, real housing prices rose by 42 percent, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency price index. Glaeser and his colleagues found that low interest rates can likely explain only one-fifth of that increase. Other factors, including an elastic housing supply and credit-constrained homebuyers, can mute the effect of interest rates on prices. Buyers contemplating future moves or refinancing can take those factors into account when deciding how much to pay for a home. If the link between interest rates and house prices is smaller than expected, that knowledge can inform future federal housing policies and estimates of their effects on the housing market.
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