Housing Economist Sanders: Home Price Growth Rate 'Is Not Sustainable'

Housing Economist Sanders: Home Price Growth Rate 'Is Not Sustainable'

The U.S. housing market appears to be in a nonstop state of upward ascension. The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development found single‐family housing starts in June totaled 1.16 million, 6.3% higher than the revised May figure of 1 million.

Other new data reports from RE/MAX LLC RMAX saw home sales up 14.2% from May to June, the largest month-over-month increase since the company began tracking this data 13 years ago, while June’s median sales price of $336,000 was a new record peak.

To understand where the housing market is headed, Benzinga spoke with one of the nation’s most prominent housing-focused economists, Dr. Anthony B. Sanders, distinguished professor of real estate finance at George Mason University and director and head of asset-backed and mortgage-backed securities research at Deutsche Bank AG DB in New York City.

Sanders’ input has been sought in Congressional hearings and by the Bank of England, European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan.

Q: What role does housing play in today's U.S. economy?

Sanders: Housing has always been important in the U.S. economy, but less so today than during the 2000s.

During the 2000s, housing was an easy way to grow GDP (in the same way China builds massive housing projects to boost GDP). But since the housing bubble burst in 2008, leading to the financial crisis, the federal government could not rely on an easy GDP approach since housing is a consumption good, not an investment good. That is, the U.S. was not building plants to produce goods while China was building plants.

Q: All recent data is pointing to median home prices at or near record highs. Is this feasible? And how long can prices go up before they stall or go down?

Sanders: Particularly in coastal cities, house prices are at record high, exceeding prices during the infamous housing bubble of 2005-2007. This rate of growth is not sustainable, since the ratio of house price growth to earnings growth is even worse than at the peak of the housing bubble. Then, we have the Federal Reserve which is talking about reducing its Agency MBS, which will put upward pressure on mortgage rates.

Q: What impact will the new elevated inflation rates have on home buying?

Sanders: Inflation is a dangerous economic phenomenon. Wages are typically sticky with inflation, but home prices surge during inflationary periods. This makes housing even more unaffordable.

In the past, attempts at inflation-protected mortgage products like PLAMs (price-level adjusted mortgages) failed.

Thanks to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, adjustable-rate mortgages (that offer inflation protection to lenders and mortgage holders) is only at 3.3% of mortgages, leaving a whopping 96.7% of mortgages as long-term, fixed-rate mortgages.

Thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages are particularly sensitive to inflationary pressures and interest rate increases. In other words, the Federal Reserve has boxed the mortgage market into a corner ... of risk.

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Q: Home construction is more expensive than ever, with increased supply costs and a shrinking labor pool. How are home builders responding to this, and what does it mean for buyers?

Sanders: Even though lumber costs have been declining after the spike in price, the cost to build a home is higher than ever. Complicating the federal government's push for affordable housing are local supply constraints, such as zoning laws that discourage new construction.

Q: Speaking of the federal government, what is going to happen to the housing market when the federal moratoriums on forbearance and evictions expire? Will we see a rush of foreclosure filings and tenants kicked out of rental housing to make room for others who can pay higher rents?

Sanders: What will happen when the moratoriums and forbearances have been lifted is hotly debated. Once again, skyrocketing housing prices and sticky wage growth is not a recipe for success when the moratoriums and forbearance programs are lifted.

The Biden administration issued a fact sheet to help stem the anticipated spike in foreclosures.

Q: What is the Biden housing policy? And where is HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge in the policy making? Lately, she seems to be talking about COVID and infrastructure a lot, but what is she doing for housing?

Sanders: Biden and his team look like "deer in the headlights" with regards to housing policy. It is difficult to have a sane "affordable" housing policy with runaway housing prices (which is also inflationary).

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan under President Obama at least conceded that most low-income families were better off renting their dwelling and he focused on multifamily programs, not chasing homeownership rates.

No one knows what Fudge is thinking about housing policy, but the fact sheet from the Biden administration (which was not signed by HUD Secretary Fudge) seems more like "deer in the headlights" policy making. Or sheer panic.

Photo: C-Span screenshot of Dr. Anthony B. Sanders presenting testimony before a Congressional hearing on housing.

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