Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan both agree that the housing boom is over and that it will begin an “orderly” decline. We agree that the housing boom is over and that home prices will begin to decline, but we aren’t so sure about the “orderly” part.
“It seems pretty clear now that the U.S. housing market is cooling,” Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently remarked. “[But] our assessment at this point … is that this looks to be a very orderly and moderate kind of cooling.”
Later the same day, the former Fed chief, Alan Greenspan, observed, “This has been quite an extraordinary (housing) boom. The boom is over. I think we can safely say that with a strong degree of confidence.”
However, the famously inoffensive Greenspan continued, “[there is] no evidence that home prices will collapse.” Conveniently omitted was the phrase, “…but there is plenty of evidence that that home prices COULD drop significantly.”
Many homeowners will find comfort in these assurances from the present and former Fed Chairmen. We do not. Greenspan’s impressive resume does not include any awards for market-timing. After warning against the “irrational exuberance” that launched the young bull market of the 1990s, Greenspan became a credulous acolyte of the Nasdaq’s bubble-era valuations. Indeed, he extolled this enormous asset bubble as the fruit of a “productivity revolution.”
And although the Nasdaq bubble and its economy-altering effects danced directly in front of Greenspan’s spectacles, he claimed never to have seen them. “As events evolved,” the Fed Chairmen lamely explained, “we recognized that, despite our suspicions, it was very difficult to definitively identify a bubble until after the fact – that is, when its bursting confirmed its existence.”
We are inclined to take the man at his word. If he failed to recognize the largest asset bubble in history – present company excluded – why should we expect him to recognize any other bubble? In other words, naïve assurances from Federal Reserve chairmen inspire more alarm than comfort.
Home price might indeed dip serenely, like the oars on a lovers’ rowboat…just like Ben Bernanke expects. On the other hand, home prices might become as disorderly as stampeding soccer Hooligans…just like your New York editor expects. No one can say for certain. But your editor’s recent personal experience provides one unnerving data point…and suggests that the “less orderly” portion of the housing cycle might be fast-approaching.
Throughout the seven months that prospective buyers streamed through your editor’s home, it became increasingly clear that the prospective buyers were becoming increasingly price-sensitive…and picky…and arrogant. Before our very eyes, literally, we watched the balance of power in the housing market shift from seller to buyer. To wit: the first individual to bid for our home, offered only 80% of the asking price…and not a penny more. Your editor, who was feeling more fear than greed, did not dismiss the offer out of hand. But after weeks of attempting to reason with this unreasonable party, he dismissed the offer. Fortunately, a second offer arrived…at 90% of the asking price. To which your editor replied, “Sold!”
A home is a wonderful thing to own; but it is also a wonderful thing to sell…especially when prices are slumping and buyers are disappearing…and time is of the essence.
We would not dare to suggest that seller of your editor’s home got a better deal than the buyer; we would only point out that the seller endured many sleepless night before closing the deal. Much of the anxiety stemmed from the fact that your editor had spent two years planning and arranging a move to California – a move that involved children and work and pets and an ex-wife. A non-sale, therefore, was a non-option.
The buyer, however, was pursuing an entirely different agenda: To buy a nice family-friendly home for the long- term. In other words, the buyer’s primary objective had little to do with market-timing or price-sensitivity. The seller’s objective had everything to do with market-timing and price-sensitivity.
“Hey, now that I’ve sold my house,” your editor queried a local real estate agent yesterday, “I’ve gotta ask; what’s really happening in the housing market here?”
“It’s not good…It’s really not good,” came the reply.
“How does it compare to last year?”
“There is no comparison,” said the agent. “Last year we had a typical springtime market. This year we had nothing.”
“So what type of homes are selling?”
“Not much…A few entry-level homes are selling. But nothing over $1 million. If I were you, I’d rent for a while when you’re out in California. This housing market’s gonna get worse all over the place. So I’d just wait it out.”
Hmmm…Sounds like a plan.