Opinion

The Great Debate

Deflation pressure not just from housing

By J Saft
April 8, 2010

It will take more than a recovery in housing to reignite inflation in the U.S. economy, a state of play that argues for the continued threat of deflation and a Federal Reserve that is pinned to the mat, unable, even if willing, to raise interest rates.

The strong disinflationary forces in the United States are deeper and wider than a simple, if bloody, aftermath of a housing bubble.

Many took encouragement from a report by Reis Inc that apartment rents in the United States rose in the first quarter for the first time in a year and a half even as the apartment vacancy rate stayed at an all-time high of 8 percent. Besides indicating a possible recovery in jobs and household formation, which tracks jobs, there is a hope that stabilization in housing values and rents would remove a powerful disinflationary force.

However, the downward trend in core inflation, while influenced by weakness from housing, is far broader.

“A close examination of recent inflation data shows that the weakness in housing costs is representative of a broad pattern of subdued price increases across most consumption goods and services and is not distorting the broad downward trend in core inflation measures,” Federal Reserve staffers Bart Hobijn, Stefano Eusepi and Andrea Tambalotti wrote in the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Economic Letter.

“Weakness in the housing market has reduced the inflation rate of the housing components of core inflation. Yet, this very substantial decline in the rate of housing inflation has not been isolated. Rather, it is indicative of a much wider decrease in inflationary pressures observed since the peak of the financial crisis,” they wrote.

Could it be that the same forces constraining housing are also constraining inflation in the rest of the economy?
In other words, our problems lie not just in our houses, but in ourselves, our overstretched balance sheets, our poor job prospects and our constrained incomes.

Housing, on this reading, is not a first cause of the crisis or the deflation which it may bring but simply one more symptom.
Leverage allowed housing to skyrocket and now the destruction of leverage is hurting house prices despite huge efforts by the government to prop up the asset class.

DISCRETIONARY MEANS YOU DON’T HAVE TO

The San Francisco Fed letter looked at the core personal consumption expenditures price index (PCEPI), an indicator closely watched by Fed policy makers which covers what consumers buy but excludes volatile things like food and energy prices. While house prices are an important force in inflation they do not contribute directly to measures of inflation. The PCEPI attempts to capture changes in the price of shelter, as opposed to the investment value of housing, by looking at rents and something called owners’ equivalent rent, essentially an estimate of what a house owner would be paying in rent for a the use of a comparable housing unit.

But while housing inflation within the PCEPI has crashed from a 4.5 percent annual rate in 2007 to 0.3 percent in February, it only represents 18 percent of the entire basket measured. If you strip out housing, core PCEPI has fallen to 1.6 percent in February from 2.6 percent in July 2008. Both measures seemed to have bottomed in September 2009 but have since resumed an ominous downward march.

So, if it is not just housing, what exactly is helping to push inflation lower?

Well, it’s not automobiles, which have seen strongly accelerating prices. That is probably because cash for clunkers helped to bring consumption forward and made buyers less price-sensitive. Given the structural oversupply in auto manufacturing capacity worldwide, that cannot be expected to continue.

The stuff that is suffering is highly discretionary items. Public transportation, which includes airfares, was influenced by the fall in the price of fuel, as well as lower demand by business travelers and holidaymakers. Hotel accommodation, luggage, jewelry and multimedia equipment all have posted large declines in inflation.

Falling inflation outside of housing, therefore, is painting a picture of broad deflationary pressure, and of households struggling to keep their heads above water and cutting back on discretionary spending.

This is not surprising. The housing bubble was the biggest and probably the most important manifestation of a credit bubble and the debt-financed consumption binge that followed. As it burst it had and continues to have a strong downward effect on inflation. But even if you foresee rents recovering, the overall threat will continue to be the deflationary force of debt repayment and destruction.

Whatever you mean by “extended” and whatever you mean by “period”, the Fed’s extended period of very low rates is going to last a long time.

Comments
5 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Oil should be linked to equalisation reserves ?

So you are talking about luxury goods and services.

We have a similar index here, but I always wonder, this housing component, is it capital appreciation/depreciation, interest > <, rent ? Or is it just a buzz word, like the ‘Invisible Hand’, pushing down, that everybody uses, but don’t really know what it means ? Economic existentialism ?

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive
 

Yes, Mr. Saft, I believe you are correct–and it can be summed up in a phrase straight out of Econ 101: “elasticity of demand.” Pull out housing and oil, factor in some G, and things still look pretty bleak in many—if not most—neighborhoods.

That old consumer base is G-O-N-E … and I’d be willing to bet (what little money I still have left) that it ain’t coming back—anytime soon, that is.

It appears that virtually no one anticipated how incredibly elastic consumers’ demand would be in a time of financial crisis. We did see a hint of it during the spring/summer of ’08, when we experienced the artificial run up in fuel prices. It was quite amusing–and totally unsustainable, with the collapse being driven by consumers who stayed put rather than pay $3.25 for a gallon of gas.

Consumers collectively aren’t paying one penny more for anything, though they can still be moved by bargains. And, yes, there still are pockets of wealth around– they just aren’t very deep nowadays ….

Posted by Samdog_07 | Report as abusive
 

I think the problems with America started long before the housing bubble. Over extended American’s who continued to spend rather then save has put them in a bind.
The fact that the recession happened this severely should be of no surprise to anyone.
You cannot continue to run a economy on people just creating more personal debt.
Eventually it will collapse and so will the economy and jobs. All consumer debt should be figured on total real income. People should live within their means and yet that would result in a weaker economy. Everyone knows it and we just do not want to accept it. The trouble is that our desire for so many products has put retail manufactures in a highly competitive market. We want to buy so many things that price drove almost all retail markets. Unfortunately publicly traded companies ended up moving a lot of jobs to other countries with cheaper labor simply to try and keep profits up. The unfortunate thing is that for our recovery to take off consumers will have to go back to taking on more debt. But if their financial situation does not improve that is not going to happen. Even if it does the jobs created will be in other countries and not here.

Posted by jscott418 | Report as abusive
 

Contrary to anything the analysts try to spin at me, as a consumer, price deflation is good for me personally and in this market I know I just have to wait a little while for the price of most things I want to go down, sometimes considerably. Only a fool would look at things obversely. How many markets is this great stimulus program going to try to prop up artificially? The business-owned mindless cretins in US Congress need to quit perpetuating the price myths being lobbied at them so vehemently by their benefactors and let markets determine their own price levels.

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive
 

Can one type of stimulus or another change anything for real, and save the economy?
So far, have things really improved in the real-world US, or is it just investors who are more upbeat?

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •