Rage Against The Machines

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 |  Includes: ITB, PKB, XHB
by: Michael Ashton

The explosion Tuesday wasn't at the White House. That was a false report, put out when the Twitter account of the Associated Press was hacked. But that report immediately led to immolation at some high-frequency trading (HFT) fund, somewhere, almost certainly. The S&P immediately dropped 16 points as some news algorithm (or algorithms) scraped the tweet and immediately converted it into sell orders. As they say in the circus, "whoops!" And, as in the circus, that utterance is almost immediately followed by the sound of ambulances. In an otherwise very quiet market, there was a five minute period of very active trading, punctuated by swearing so loud you could almost hear it.

Somewhere, there is a fund that was founded on the basis of its smart algos that can "react faster than humans can react," which took losses faster than a human could have taken losses. Ouch, I say. Ouch. But my sympathy for HAL is tempered by the fact that HAL has no sympathy for me.

I am pretty sure that the rapid movement in housing prices has nothing to do with HFT algorithms, although the violence of the move is starting to be vaguely reminiscent. Fortunately, home sales documentation is still not effected in microseconds, so we all still have a chance to beat the machines. Over the last few days, we have seen Existing and New Home Sales data, and the FHA's Home Price Index; the more stable two of these confirmed that home prices continue to accelerate. In fact, as the chart below shows, the year-on-year rise in Existing Home median prices is more than 10% faster than core inflation for only the second time since the data has been kept. The first time that happened was in the midst of the housing bubble.

Housing is nowhere near bubble territory yet, and as the chart also shows the rise in home prices can persist at better than 10% over CPI for at least a little while. However, it can't last too long because of the reflexivity of it: eventually, no matter what happens to home prices, the increases will pass into core inflation and the spread will be eaten away from the bottom.

This isn't even necessarily a negative sign of a re-inflating bubble. In principle, if home prices had gotten overextended on the downside in a "negative bubble," this could simply be a snap-back and just healthy. However, that doesn't appear to be the case. I showed here that median existing home prices as a multiple of median household income are right on the average for the last 36 years or so - certainly not cheap. The chart below shows a similar relationship for New Homes. Note that with new homes, one would expect an uptrend since the average new home has grown in size over the years and loan qualifications have also allowed lower-income borrowers to dedicate larger shares of their incomes to buying new homes.

(This is a much smaller effect with existing homes, since the average square footage of the homes existing in the entire nation changes much more slowly; also, many existing homes are move-up homes so the marginal-borrower effect, which I suspect is pretty small anyway except for the bubble years, is less pronounced.)

The simple implication of the fact that home prices continue to accelerate higher is that core inflation is absolutely going to head higher. I think that Owners' Equivalent Rent will turn higher in the next couple of months; PIMCO recently wrote a piece saying they think the upturn takes until late this year; but it will happen. And it will happen regardless of whether the "shadow inventory" of homes hits the market or not, although if there really is a large unsold shadow inventory of homes, that will moderate the advance. My question is: where is this shadow inventory? Existing home prices are 10-20% off the lows depending on what series you use. Are sellers waiting for a return to the peak?

Some observers have noted that homes are now suddenly appearing on the market, and they divine a supply response. This is possible, but what is more likely is that this is the normal seasonal pattern: people put their homes on the market in the spring, not in the winter. This is why the sales data are seasonally-adjusted, so don't trust your anecdotal evidence! The chart below shows the nonseasonally-adjusted single family Existing Home Sales (source: NAR) for the last few years. You can see that the data mavens fully expect home sales to be picking up now, which is why there are many more homes on the market suddenly. There are every year at this time.

Click to enlarge

So I think we are still left with the conundrum. Where are all of those shadow homes? We know where the new homes are - they were never built, because the market was awful. That inventory will respond as builders build new homes. But as for the shadow inventory of existing homes…maybe they don't exist?

From the standpoint of inflation, the question of shadow inventory only matters to the trajectory of future inflation, not to the question of how much CPI will rise in 2013 and 2014. Those OER increases are virtually baked in the cake, unless something very strange is happening. While an important lesson of the last few years is that very strange things happen all the time, we're talking about a specific very strange thing: the possibility that the price of a good (a home) rises, and the price of a close substitute (a rental) does not. While those can diverge from time to time, I have great confidence in the economic verity that the prices of substitutes tend to move together.

The only way there might be a big divergence is if home prices are rising because the investment value of the home, and not its value as housing, is what is increasing (although in the bubble years, rents eventually rose as well). But if that is the case, wouldn't that in itself be a sign that there is concern about inflation, so that people are seeking real assets wherever they can find them? Concern about inflation need not lead to inflation, but it may be a contemporaneous indication that inflation is rising and it merely hasn't shown up in the data yet.

The rise in home prices is the biggest single alarm being sounded about inflation at the moment, and it seems to me that it pays to listen to it, and check that the doors and windows are locked…just to be sure.