The latest data on growth suggest that the economy may again be faltering, just when President Bush desperately needs good numbers to make the case for his re-election. As bad as the Bush economic record is, it would be far worse if not for the growth of an unsustainable housing bubble through the three and a half years of the Bush Administration.
The housing market has supported the economy both directly–through construction of new homes and purchases of existing homes–and indirectly, by allowing families to borrow against the increased value of their homes. Housing construction is up more than 17 percent from its level at the end of the recession. Purchases of existing homes hit a record of 6.1 million in 2003, more than 500,000 above the previous record set in 2002. Each home purchase is accompanied by thousands of dollars of closing costs, plus thousands more spent on furniture and remodeling.
The indirect impact of the housing bubble is at least as important. Mortgage debt rose by an incredible $2.3 trillion between 2000 and 2003. This borrowing has sustained consumption growth in an environment in which firms have been shedding jobs and cutting back hours, and real wage growth has fallen to zero, although the gains from this elixir are starting to fade with a recent rise in mortgage rates and many families are running out of equity to tap.
The red-hot housing market has forced up home prices nationwide by 35 percent after adjusting for inflation. There is no precedent for this sort of increase in home prices. Historically, home prices have moved at roughly the same pace as the overall rate of inflation. While the bubble has not affected every housing market–in large parts of the country home prices have remained pretty much even with inflation–in the bubble areas, primarily on the two coasts, home prices have exceeded the overall rate of inflation by 60 percentage points or more.
The housing enthusiasts, led by Alan Greenspan, insist that the run-up is not a bubble, but rather reflects fundamental factors in the demand for housing. They cite several factors that could explain the price surge: a limited supply of urban land, immigration increasing the demand for housing, environmental restrictions on building, and rising family income leading to increased demand for housing.
A quick examination shows that none of these explanations holds water. Land is always in limited supply; that fact never led to such a widespread run-up in home prices in the past. Immigration didn’t just begin in the late nineties. Also, most recent immigrants are low-wage workers. They are not in the market for the $500,000 homes that middle-class families now occupy in bubble-inflated markets. Furthermore, the demographic impact of recent immigration rates pales compared to the impact of baby boomers first forming their first households in the late seventies and eighties. And that did not lead to a comparable boom in home prices.
Environmental restrictions on building, moreover, didn’t begin in the late nineties. In fact, in light of the election of the Gingrich Congress in 1994 and subsequent Republican dominance of many state houses, it’s unlikely that these restrictions suddenly became more severe at the end of the decade. And the income growth at the end of the nineties, while healthy, was only mediocre compared to the growth seen over the period from 1951 to 1973. In any event, this income growth has petered out in the last two years.