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"Publication: Mortgage Banking
Publication Date: 01-JUN-05
Delivery: Immediate Online Access
Author:
Full Article:
THE GOOD NEWS: THERE IS NO NATIONAL housing price bubble. On that much leading housing economists agreed--but that is where the consensus ended.

The bad news: Experts at the Washington. D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders' (NAHB's) Spring Construction Forecast Conference in May in Washington, D.C., could not come together on ruling out the possibility of a sudden, dramatic fall in home prices in some pockets of the country.

While talk of an impending house price bubble has been overblown for the last several years while the housing market posted record sales and starts, new concern about the direction of home prices dominated talk among NAHB's panel of experts throughout this recent conference.

The inability to pinpoint where all of the current housing demand is coming from, coupled with reports from builders of residential real estate speculators, is "disquieting," said David Seiders. NAHB chief economist.

Seiders related reports from some of the nation's larger home builders, who, he said, are concerned about speculators scooping up large numbers of homes and the potential impact on the local real estate market should investors decide to unload those homes en masse.

One cannot automatically conclude that a price bubble is imminent or probable because of the presence of speculators in the real estate market. But it could suggest the sizable increase in home prices relative to incomes is based on a dramatic increase in investment activity, said Thomas Lawler, senior vice president of risk policy at Fannie Mae.

"You cannot say we're going to have a [housing price] bust. You cannot say that," said Lawler. "You could say the probability of a bust occurring in certain parts of the country has risen sharply." In fact, he said, traditional data does not allow for a definitive forecasting of a housing bubble until after the fact.

"It is absolutely true that conditions in the housing market in parts of the country, not most of the country, mirror past conditions that preceded busts," said Lawler. "But in almost all cases, those busts were associated with a regional economic downturn."

In addition to increased speculative behavior, Lawler noted concern about similar patterns within the last year that were also visible during the late 1980s, before the last real estate bust.

Lawler's concerns include unrealistically high consumer expectations for home price appreciation; creative, riskier financing to surmount home affordability concerns; and much higher adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share than interest rates and spreads would have suggested.

James Glassman, managing director and senior policy strategist with J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., New York, noted most housing markets in the country are not seeing the type of real-estate boom that buyers and sellers on the coasts are experiencing.

Glassman pointed out California as a real estate market "with issues," as well as Las Vegas and South Florida as markets with potential problems on the horizon.

Glassman disputed the notion of excessive home prices, citing a lack of evidence in income and real estate trends. Instead, he said, prices are catching up to a "reasonable benchmark of real rates of return" following a lag in home prices throughout the 1990s.

"Not everybody is seeing the same exact thing as you are in the really hot real-estate markets," he said. "Worry if you want to. I would take most worries with a grain of salt, and just get back to business."--C.W."