RealMoney by TheStreet.com Don't Buy Housing Bubble Propaganda Thursday May 26, 2:04 pm ET By Barry Ritholtz, RealMoney.com Contributor The old saw is true: Every general fights the previous battle. And after missing the tech and telecom bubbles, the generals of the financial media are now battling more bubbles than we can count: There are bubbles in debt, credit and interest rates. There is the oil bubble, the import bubble, the China bubble and the current account deficit bubble. In short, we have a veritable bubble in bubbles. Indeed, it is astonishing how many people who failed to either acknowledge the tech bubble in the 90s -- or at least failed to act on it -- now have no hesitation to declare real estate to be a bubble. This despite their lack of expertise or past track record in spotting bubbles on a timely fashion. The bubble du jour though is the housing bubble. From Greenspan's testimony to CNBC's Housing special to (uh-oh) this month's Fortune magazine cover, it seems to be all anyone wants to talk about. My position is that housing is not in a bubble -- yet. But it is an increasingly extended asset class that may be subject to a significant correction in the future. But a 25%-35% retracement is a very different situation than a bubble (recall that the Nasdaq dropped 80%), primarily because there are very different consequences for both homeowners and investors. Not Your Grandson's Bubble That said, comparing real estate with other true bubbles -- most especially the tech/telecom/dotcom bubble of the 1990s -- is imperfect, due to several factors. Homes are illiquid assets that take several months to sell; stock can be liquidated instantly. The housing market is regional, with an uneven distribution of asset appreciation: Equities are national, and even global. Lastly, there is an intrinsic value of a house as a place where you can live; Compare this with a company whose only asset was a sock puppet -- the tulip bulb of its day -- and it's clear why a profitless, assetless, publicly traded company can go to zero. Barring an external disaster like Love Canal, houses will not. When we compare what the key drivers are for price appreciation between these two asset classes, other crucial differences appear. What Drives Housing Prices We can look at three key drivers for equity price appreciation over different time lines: Longer term, it's a function of earnings. Higher profits support greater prices at historical P/E ratios. Multiple expansion and contraction occurs as a function of our next two drivers. Intermediately, macroeconomic conditions (aka the business cycle) drive the entire market. I expect the cycle, which began post-2001 recession, to end in early 2006. If that's correct, then prices will retreat as revenue and earnings slow. Over the short term, sentiment -- especially when it gets to extremes -- is a key mover. Housing is driven by very different factors. First and foremost are mortgage rates. Something I have yet to hear the pundits opine on is that most home buyers don't care what they pay for a house. That's right, you read that correctly -- purchase price doesn't matter. What they do care about is the monthly carrying costs. For the vast majority of home purchasers, the biggest variable in that will be their mortgage rates. The first house I owned had a $300,000 mortgage. Back when interest rates were near 10%, the monthly payment would equal $2,632.71. If a buyer today were to finance the purchase of that home for $500,000, at a 6% mortgage (and you can get lower rates today), the monthly payment is $2,997.75. That house appreciated 67%, yet the mortgage payments went up only 14%. This helps demonstrate why a big drop in mortgage rates drives prices much, much higher. And that's not counting the buyers who made larger than 10% down payments via the accumulated equity from the sale of their prior homes. (See this mortgage calculator to run your own numbers.) The second factor is demographic trends. Here's a little-known fact: The U.S. has the fastest population-growth rate of any industrialized nation. According to NPG, the U.S. average fertility rate is currently 2.1335 births per woman -- the highest fertility rate since 1971. For comparison, the U.K.'s fertility rate is 1.7, Canada's 1.4 and Germany's 1.3. If this rate is maintained, the U.S. population will double every 35 years. Further, the kids of the baby boomers -- the echo generation -- are now at home-buying age. Thanks to the intergenerational wealth transfers, they can buy bigger and more expensive homes than their parents could at the same age. Their purchases also have been impacting the housing market. (Some analysts believe that the life cycle of the boomers has been a key driver in equities also -- so on this point, there may be some parallels between the two asset classes.) Take this organic increase in U.S. population, add to it a healthy supply of legal immigration, and that's a formula for a rising demand for housing. And, there are no warehouses stocked with homes awaiting more births and naturalized citizens. Muy Caliente Furthermore, the hottest price appreciation in real estate is directly correlated with population shifts within the U.S.: Las Vegas and South Florida are growing at two to three times the national rate, so it's no surprise that their home prices have been appreciating rapidly. The third driver is speculation. In many regions, speculative activity has risen dramatically. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported that speculative purchases in 2004 had risen to 23%, from 16% the prior year. However, if we define speculation as flipping a home within one year, that number drops dramatically. According to an NAR survey, "only 3% of all home buyers sell their home in a year or less." That is not exactly the picture of excess speculation. Even if you use the 23% number, compare that with the speculative foment we saw in 1999. I would surmise that somewhere north of 80% of all stock purchases and trading were purely speculative in nature. If these two asset classes are each bubbles, then they are very, very different kinds of bubbles, hardly comparable to each other. The last, and in my opinion, potentially most damaging factor, is the employment situation. As long as most people are gainfully employed, they will be able to service their mortgage costs. (For those of you who are buying a home you can barely afford, then let me suggest buying mortgage insurance -- just in case your main income source falters). The biggest risk to the housing market is not just rising interest rates -- rather, it's a significant decrease in national employment. Why? It's not the leverage, but the ability to service the debt that causes problems. A potentially negative scenario is the Fed tightens too far, inducing a recession. Something else goes wrong - theoretically, China stops buying our Treasuries, and that forces the Fed to become a buyer of last resort (think Bernanke's printing press). Next thing you know, we have hyperinflation, large-scale unemployment, and a housing market off 50%. While I don't believe this is a likely scenario, it certainly is within the realm of possibility, and it's one of the few ways I can foresee a major drop in home prices. The most recent asset bubble saw prices drop 80% from peak to trough. That was the Nasdaq from March 2000 to October 2002, and those losses are very comparable with the Dow crash in 1929, or the Nikkei collapse in 1989. How likely is it that real estate will suffer from similar distressed sales in the U.S.? In my opinion, not very. But real estate is an extended asset class, and it's likely to come in -- eventually. After the 1987 crash, many of my peers rushed out of equities (big mistake) and into New York real estate. Anything purchased between 1987-89 was underwater for the better part of the next decade. By the late '90s, they were back to break even, and since then, it's been a strong move upwards. We shouldn't be surprised if purchasers at present prices see a similar price sequence over the next decade. As the rate cycle plays out, prices will slide. I'm looking at a slow asset depreciation of 10%-30% over the next several years as a realistic possibility. Perhaps 2008 will be the next great entry into real estate -- assuming you are insulated from rates (i.e., paying cash). After the next market washout -- my work suggests 2006-07 will not be a period of equity outperformance -- I can foresee a gradual economic strengthening in the 2010s, with a new bull equity market beginning mid-decade (2012-15). Then the whole movie starts all over again. But a 1999 dot-comlike bubble? I hardly think so.