Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Wall Street on shaky foundations with housing bubble

Wall Street
Wall Street

As far as horror stories go, the US housing bubble that imploded and sparked the 2008 global economic meltdown was a blockbuster. No one in their right mind wants a sequel.

But, according to those warning that ramped-up US housing stats aren't what they seem, one might be coming, anyway.

On the surface, it seems the US housing sector has some wind in its sails. There were 917,000 new housing starts in February, an increase of 0.8% from January, and 27.7% higher than February 2012.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), last month the national median price for existing homes was $173,600 (£114,250) – a rise of 11.6 % from a year earlier.

There have been 20 straight months of sales gains compared to the same month a year earlier and 12 straight months of year-on-year price increases.

Speaking at the group's Washington headquarters, NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun was bullish about the recovery. He said rising home values are fuelling a "housing wealth recovery" to the tune of $1.4 trillion (£921,390,000,000) in the last 12 months.

Of course, the NRA has a dog in the race. Realtors don't make money when homes aren't selling. And juicing up the stats to make things look better than perhaps they really are would also help the banks trying to off-load some of the huge inventories they've been saddled with courtesy of the tsunami of foreclosures generated by the last housing-bubble collapse.

Some experts fear that the US is already in another housing bubble. They claim that artificially low interests rates (currently 3.67% on a fixed 30-year mortgage) have drawn in a flood of large institutional speculators eager to flip foreclosed homes into rental properties.

And, critics warn, when the Federal Reserve finally starts hiking interest rates, those investors will bail and the housing market will nosedive again.

According to Bloomberg News, Blackstone Group LP has splashed out $3.5bn (£2,303,087,500) to buy 20,000 foreclosed homes in order to turn them into rentals. Last month, David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's budget director, told the Daily Ticket blog that such buyers are fickle. He said a new housing bubble is already here and that the housing recovery can't last, because of the anaemic numbers of first-time buyers and trade-up buyers.

Leaving aside the depressed wages of workers and the new American phenomena of middle-aged, long-term unemployed, who may never work again, evidence mounts that the US economy is slowly recovering.

Although the economy shrank by 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2012, before that there had been steady growth for six straight quarters. Unemployment last month dropped to 7.7% – the lowest level since December 2008's 7.3% tally. Wall Street has been booming on the news. But the real question is: will a housing bubble sequel visit another economic nightmare on Main Street?

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