America stops buying homes

By Felix Salmon
August 24, 2010
said that "the entire housing-finance business in the US would come to a screeching halt. No one could buy, no one could sell, and home values would be entirely hypothetical". What I didn't realize was that we were plunging towards that state of affairs even with the vigorous and active involvement of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

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Earlier this month, talking about a housing market unsupported by Uncle Sam’s billions, I said that “the entire housing-finance business in the U.S. would come to a screeching halt. No one could buy, no one could sell, and home values would be entirely hypothetical.” What I didn’t realize was that we were plunging towards that state of affairs even with the vigorous and active involvement of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The National Association of Realtors said sales dropped a record 27.2 percent from June to an annual rate of 3.83 million units, the lowest level since May 1995.

This number is the lowest that the NAR has ever reported, and I can see why it spooked the markets, sending 10-year Treasuries breaking through the 2.5% level: we’re seeing less housing market activity now than we were even during the depths of the crisis. According to the NAR, there were 4.94 million existing homes sold in 2007, 4.34 million sold in 2008, and 4.57 million sold in 2009. The latest annualized number in that series, for July 2010, is just 3.37 million. That’s a 26% fall from last year’s rate.

The number is so low that it looks like a statistical aberration: let’s hope it is. Because if it isn’t, the news is gruesome. It means that despite record-low mortgage rates, people aren’t able to buy houses: essentially all the benefit from those low rates is going to people who already own their homes and are taking the opportunity to refinance.

The news also means that there’s a big gap between buyers and sellers: the market isn’t clearing. Sellers are convinced that their homes are worth lots of money, or will rise in price if they just hold out a bit longer; buyers are happily renting, waiting for prices to come down. And entrepreneurial types, whom one would expect to arbitrage the two by buying houses with super-cheap mortgages and renting them out at a profit, don’t seem to have found those opportunities yet.

Houses are rarely a liquid asset; they were, briefly, during the housing boom, but now they’re more illiquid than ever. America is a country where two generations of homeowners have learned to consider their houses an asset; they’re rapidly learning that at times like these, a house can look much more like a liability. (And refinancing your mortgage is just liability management.) The enormous repercussions of that change in mindset are only just beginning to be felt.

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