Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The State of the Markets

If someone were to wake up from a 5-year coma and ask about the state of our country’s economy, the chart below pretty much sums it up.

The past five years in the housing market, the financial market and the economy have been anything but boring.

With respect to the housing market, we are at a critical juncture. Pundits and so-called experts are lining up on opposing sides of the recovery debate. Optimists will point out that after historic price declines, affordability is at all-time highs and government support for the housing market has helped mitigate the negative effects of tightened credit and mounting foreclosures. The bottom, they say, is in.

Meanwhile, pessimists urge caution. Foreclosures continue to rise, more borrowers are falling behind and the government is considering removing some of the programs that have kept interest rates low.

Ultimately, both arguments have merit. But they both miss the point.

Take another look at the graph above. It’s no coincidence that during the time of most uncertainty in the stock market (2008), the housing market experienced its steepest declines. It’s also no accident that the recent bottom in stocks (March 2009) matches almost exactly with the turning point in housing.

The answer to the riddle is simple: Confidence.

In a new book called This Time is Different, economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart dissect hundreds of years of financial crises and try to assess how societies keep getting themselves into the same mess over and over again.

A common thread in the discussion, specifically surrounding debt crises like the one we experienced (and indeed are still experiencing), is the notion that confidence plays a far larger, and far less understood role in economic panics than most people think. According to Rogoff and Reinhart: “Economists do not have a terribly good idea of what kinds of events shift confidence and how to concretely assess confidence vulnerability.”

Since most people equate the stock market with the economy, swoons on Wall Street send the message that all is not well with our economic future. Accumulate enough of these swoons and confidence gets punctured to the point where people start acting differently. As risk aversion grows, consumers delay purchases, businesses delay expansion and banks stop lending.

In March of last year, the housing market was beyond bleak. Liquidity dried up and buyers were terrified. Ditto on Wall Street. But as stocks recovered through the spring, hope emerged that maybe the worst was behind us.

Now, as the recent surge in stocks is tested, so too will the surge in home buying: The two are far more linked than most understand.
This post first appeared in the February edition of: Cirios Trends: In Search of Real Estate Opportunities.

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