Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Has Utah's housing bubble deflated yet?

Housing bubbles aren't like most price bubbles. Typically, speculation drives up prices (of stocks, crude oil, and back in the 17th century even tulips) like an expanding bubble. Eventually, it becomes obvious that item is extremely over-valued and prices "pop" and collapse. Yes, that's why we call them bubbles.

Remember a couple of years ago when gasoline prices went through the roof? You can blame a bubble market in crude oil. (Some SEC reports indicated that 80 percent of crude oil trading during the height of that price expansion was speculative.) In just seven months, the producer price index (seasonally adjusted) for crude oil went from 339.9 to 108.8. That change represents a decrease of almost 70 percent! Talk about a popping bubble. (And, you might want to note the similarity to the current price increases in oil/gasoline.)

On the other hand, housing bubbles tend to slowly deflate rather than pop. Why? Think about it. If you bought a home at the height of the bubble for $400,000 do you really want to sell it for $250,000? No. Most private individuals aren't able to afford that kind of loss. For many American families, a home is their largest asset. So, if you must sell, you will keep trying to sell at a higher price until the market makes it clear that just isn't going to happen. In other words, home prices are sticky downward, so it will take longer for home prices to deflate after the speculation ends.

It also becomes readily apparent why there is such a foreclosure mess in this country. Obviously, many home-buyers took out loans they couldn't afford in the long run. Then, the recession exacerbated other home-buyers' ability to pay. In addition, even if home-buyers can afford to make their payments, aren't the incentives skewed towards walking away rather than paying off the $400,000 mortgage on a home that is now worth only $250,000?

Well, this housing bubble has certainly taken its time collapsing. However, the market is working her magic and there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel--at least according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency's Housing Price Index (HPI). (For more information on the HPI see this previous post or the Agency's website.)

(Click on image to enlarge.)

The chart that accompanies this posting certainly provides a lovely portrait of a housing market bubble for Utah's Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs)--particularly for my own Washington County. You can watch home prices explode and then collapse (the chart shows the percent change compared with the same quarter a year ago--which eliminates seasonality).

The Logan, UT MSA (Cache County) seemed to participate the least in the run up of home prices and also appears closest to the end of the price declines. As of fourth quarter 2010 (the most recent index available):

  • Logan home prices are down only 1.0 percent compared with prices in fourth quarter 2009.
  • Ogden-Clearfield MSA home prices are down 1.8 percent.
  • Salt Lake City MSA prices are down 2.0 percent.
  • Provo-Orem MSA prices are down 2.4 percent.
  • St. George MSA prices still show the largest price declines--4.8 percent.
However, for all MSA the price declines are getting smaller and smaller. The market is making her adjustments. In fact, given current trends, most if not all of Utah's MSAs are poised to see the end of home price declines in 2011.