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Signs of a housing bubble are brewing

By Anna Bahney, CNN Business

US home prices have soared to new heights and keep on climbing, and now some researchers and economists are saying they have seen signs of a housing bubble brewing.

Home prices are rising faster than market forces would indicate they should and are becoming “unhinged from fundamentals,” according to a new blog post written by researchers and economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Until recently, the possibility of a bubble wasn’t widely supported. But after looking at housing markets across the US, the Fed researchers said new evidence is emerging.

“Our evidence points to abnormal US housing market behavior for the first time since the boom of the early 2000s,” the researchers wrote. “Reasons for concern are clear in certain economic indicators … which show signs that 2021 house prices appear increasingly out of step with fundamentals.”

Many Americans are still scarred by the last housing crash in 2007, which was fueled by cheap credit and lax lending standards that resulted in millions of homeowners owing more on their homes than they were worth.

But this time, the economists said they are worried about a different scenario.

Just because home prices are rising wildly does not always mean housing is in a bubble. And there are lots of reasons why home prices have risen steadily over the past decade — and shot up even more significantly in the past two years — including supply and demand imbalances in the market, rising labor and construction costs and how high or low the interest rates are for a mortgage, the researchers pointed out.

But they said prices may be rising to a point they call “exuberance,” in which prices become increasingly out of sync with the economic fundamentals underpinning the market.

One possible reason, they suggested, is that buyers may believe prices will continue to climb and fear they will miss out on snagging a lower price on a home now and get stuck paying more later.

This fear of missing out, or FOMO, effect can drive up prices and heighten expectations of higher prices ahead. That can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, researchers said, in which price growth can become exponential.

The consequences of housing market exuberance can include overpriced homes, investments based on distorted expectations of returns and reduced economic growth and employment.

The cycle is interrupted when policymakers intervene, spurring investors to become cautious and causing the flow of money into housing to dry up. This could cause a housing correction or possibly even a bust, according to the blog post.

The researchers recommended policy makers and market participants closely watch local markets for booms in prices in order to better respond, “before misalignments become so severe that subsequent corrections produce economic upheaval.”

Bubble brewing

The behavior of homebuyers and sellers over the past two years has been anything but normal, the researchers pointed out. Prices are at record highs and continue to move higher because there has been record low inventory. Still, homebuyers keep buying. Interest rates fell to record lows during the pandemic, but that does not alone explain the housing market frenzy, they wrote.

Other factors have played a role in pushing the market into bubble territory, the Fed researchers wrote, including pandemic-related stimulus programs and Covid-19-related supply-chain disruptions and associated policy responses. The researchers specifically highlight the role of investors, who are aggressively buying up homes.

Investors now buy 33% of the homes in the US, which is a 5% larger share than the average over the past decade, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting. The business of ibuying — in which a company buys a home for cash to slightly fix it up and resell it again — is only 1.7% of the national housing market in the last quarter of 2021, according to Zillow. But in some cities, the share of homes going to ibuyers is as high as 11%.

The researchers found that as prices have risen signs of exuberance have emerged. The US housing market has been showing these signs for more than five consecutive quarters through third quarter 2021, they found.

Fed researchers also looked at the relationship between home prices and rents. They found that since 2020, the home price-to-rent ratio has rapidly skyrocketed beyond what market fundamentals can explain and began showing signs of exuberance in 2021.

Another indicator the researchers examined was the ratio of home prices to disposable income, which is closely tied to affordability. This home price-to-income ratio is increasing quickly, but not yet exuberant, the researchers said.

Silver linings

A lot was learned from the last housing crash, which has led to better early detection and warning indicators of housing bubbles, the researchers wrote. If these concerning trends continue, banks, policymakers and regulators ought to be better equipped to quickly react to avoid the most severe, negative consequences of a correction.

In addition, they wrote, there is no reason to expect any resulting correction would impact homeowners or the economy as significantly as the last housing crash. Americans are generally in better financial shape, homeowners have stronger equity positions and excessive borrowing is not as rampant as it was in the mid-2000s.

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