Housing: Part 324 - Commercial Real Estate, Dean Baker, Etc.

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Includes: BBRE, CLAW, DRA, DRN, DRV, FREL, FRI, FTY, HOML, IARAX, ICF, ITB, IYR, JRS, KBWY, LRET, NAIL, NRO, PKB, PPTY, PSR, REK-OLD, RFI, RIF, RIT, RNP, RORE, RQI, RWR, SCHH, SRS, URE, USRT, VNQ, WREI-OLD, XHB, XLRE
by: Kevin A. Erdmann
Summary

Bernanke points to the post-crisis drop in non-residential investment as evidence of the importance of the financial crisis in creating the deep recession.

Baker counters that the drop in non-residential investment was mostly a drop in non-residential construction, and was simply a part of the same bubble that had infected residential building.

The national multi-family market reflects a price level that is not credit constrained, but is supply constrained.

The national home price reflects a price level that is credit constrained, which is a mixture of cities like LA, which is supply constrained, and Atlanta, which is especially credit constrained, and is only supply constrained now because it is credit constrained.

Arnold Kling points to this post by Dean Baker. The last paragraph of the Baker post gives Baker's basic conclusion:

The basic story is that demand plummeted first and foremost because of the collapse of the housing bubble, along with the collapse of the bubble in non-residential construction that arose as the housing bubble began to deflate. The financial crisis undoubtedly hastened these collapses, but a steep drop in demand was made inevitable by these unsustainable bubbles that had been driving the recovery from the 2001 recession.

He is arguing against Bernanke's recent posts where Bernanke claims the recession was deepened more by the financial panics than by the housing bust. (I basically agree with Bernanke, and I would say that the panics were largely caused by Fed policy choices in 2006-2008, and the losses were made permanent/justified by the extremely tight lending standards imposed by the post-conservatorship GSEs and CFPB.)

Bernanke points to the post-crisis drop in non-residential investment as evidence of the importance of the financial crisis in creating the deep recession. Baker counters that the drop in non-residential investment was mostly a drop in non-residential construction, and was simply a part of the same bubble that had infected residential building.

I'm not sure if I have that much new to add here. The entire thing pivots basically on this comment by Baker: "Again, the collapse of Lehman hastened this decline, but the end of this bubble was inevitable." Whether the bust was truly inevitable or not is beside the point. The bust was inevitable because the zeitgeist had deemed it inevitable. The conclusions are a product of the presumptions.

And, looking at the CEPR paper that forms the basis of Baker's post, we can see the source of the false presumptions. In the bullet points that summarize the paper, he notes, among other things:

The decline in residential construction during the downturn was mostly just a return to trend levels of construction, along with a predictable reduction due to the overbuilding of the bubble years. Any impact of the financial crisis was very much secondary.

….

The bubble and the risks it posed should have been evident to any careful observer. We saw an unprecedented run-up in house prices with no plausible explanation in the fundamentals of the housing market. Rents largely rose in step with inflation, which was inconsistent with house prices being driven by a shortage of housing.

Unfortunately, these assertions are broadly accepted as canon. Obviously, taking opposition to the overbuilding issue is central to my work. In the paper, Baker includes figures for residential construction as a % of GDP, which begins at 1980, and for non-residential construction as a % of GDP, which begins at 2002. Here is a graph of those two measures, dating to 1960.

I agree with Kling that Baker seems to be an independent thinker. But his choice of start dates seem especially useful for magnifying the level of these measures during the "bubble" years. I don't think he is trying to be misleading. The bubble is canonized and setting the time frame to maximize the apparent excess is part of the public hypnosis in support of the false canon.

In addition to the long-term view, there are a couple of points that might be made about these measures, which it is possible that Baker missed. Within the non-residential category, "mining exploration, shafts, and wells" increased from 0.3% to 0.9% of GDP from 2003 to the end 2008.

Also, the residential category includes brokers commissions on real estate transactions. From 2000 to 2005, that increased from 0.9% to 1.4% of GDP. If you subtract that from the residential investment measure, the peak level is at about the same % of GDP as the peaks in the 1970s. Brokers commissions have nothing to do with building. In fact, they were bloated specifically because of under-building. They were bloated because of existing homes in coastal California selling for a million dollars.

But, nonetheless, building was strong at the same time prices were rising, which brings us to the second canonized false presumption that Baker references above: the idea that rising prices were unrelated to rising rent. This is, again, a product of the public hypnosis on this issue. Even looking nationally, rent inflation had been above non-rent core CPI inflation for the entire period from 1995 to 2008 - far above non-rent inflation for much of that time. From the end of 1994 to September 2008, non-shelter core CPI averaged 1.8% and shelter CPI averaged 3%. But, the problem is even worse when you look at the MSA level instead of the national level. Generally where prices increased, rents had increased. So, it's more like there were many places with moderate prices and normal rent inflation and places with high prices and rent inflation persistently well above general inflation. And, those were places that definitely were not over-investing in construction. At the MSA level, rent explains almost everything. And, on this point, the public hypnosis is striking. Open coastal urban newspapers or twitter and the topic is high rents in the coastal metropolises. It isn't as if this is a secret. But, hypnosis is strong enough to create mental silos on this issue.

This is part of the story on rising prices. Before the mid-1990s, if rent affordability got worse in a city, it tended to revert to the mean. But, beginning in the 1990s, the economy became characterized by this new regime, where urbanization has new value, the urban centers that would create that value do not grow, and workers must segregate by skill and income into and out of those cities. So, now migration patterns exacerbate the rent inflation problem rather than causing rents and incomes to revert to the national mean. Prices in 2005 reflected this regime shift.

But, the bubble was canonized before this realization was made. One might argue that rents should still revert to the mean and that bubble prices still reflected over-optimism, even if rents had been rising for a decade. (That would be wrong, as rent inflation has resumed after the crisis, but at least it would be an argument that addressed the facts.) Instead, a false reality is invoked, rent inflation is ignored, and discussions of housing market sentiment revolve largely around price expectations, which, by presumption, leads to behavioral explanations. Again, I don't say this to be harsh regarding Baker. To treat rent correctly would be a radical, contrarian position. Until this correction gets made in the zeitgeist, you might as well complain that he references gravity without engaging in an experimental proof. It's canon, and the canon is wrong.

Regarding prices, here is a graph of various property types.

The thick orange line is non-residential commercial real estate. The thick blue line is residential commercial real estate (multi-family buildings). These are from CoStar.

Figure 5 in Baker's CEPR paper, published in September 2018, shows commercial real estate prices from 2002 to 2010 in order to show how strong the bubble was in commercial building. He writes:

The plunge following the collapse of Lehman is not a surprise. Non-residential construction is largely dependent on bank credit, and when this dried up with the financial crisis, it was inevitable that it would take a serious hit. But the financial crisis was only the proximate cause of the drop in non-residential construction. The bursting of the bubble was inevitable in any case, the only question was the timing and specific events that set it in motion.

I do not disagree about the importance of credit. This is all about presumptions. This entire discussion hinges on one word: "inevitable".

A diversified basket of multi-family real estate bought at the peak of the "bubble" at the end of 2006 would have returned 44% of capital gains in addition to rental income over the following 12 years. In the 9 years since the nadir at the end of 2009, it would have returned 124%.

In the graph above, I have also included the national Case-Shiller home price index (black), price levels from Zillow for the top and bottom of the Atlanta market (gray) and the LA market (red/orange). Maybe I am confusing matters by including LA. Many will see the clear signs of a credit-fueled bubble in the low tier prices in LA, but the truth of the matter is too complicated to go into here. But, these measures tell a more complete story about what happened.

Once we recognize that rising rents are the main difference between LA and Atlanta and that credit at the extensive margin was not an important factor in the boom (which is clear in Atlanta and most other cities where price appreciation was not very different between top and bottom tier homes during the boom), we can see a different story.

Remove "inevitable" from your presumptions. The consensus around "inevitable" led to acceptance of, even demands for, a negative credit shock in owner-occupier housing markets that continues to this day. Nothing was inevitable. Residential housing markets look like they track along with commercial markets for the entire period. But, they are a chimera. They contain open markets and closed markets. Before 2007, prices in most markets, like Atlanta, were benign, and prices were very high in housing constrained markets. Sentiment and credit access began to turn in a series of trend shifts and events from the end of 2005 to 2008. Housing starts started to collapse in 2006 and prices eventually fell sharply after mid-2007. This happened in Atlanta and LA and everywhere in between. Since intrinsic value remained strong, commercial building, even in residential, remained strong until 2008, and rent inflation across the country spiked in 2006 and 2007 as new single family supply dried up.

Then, we imposed the "inevitable" bust on the owner-occupier housing market. Instead of looking for ways to stabilize mortgage markets, lending was largely cut off to the bottom half of the market from 2008 on, and we can see the devastating effect if we look within cities, most of which look like Atlanta, where low tier prices took a post-crisis hit to valuations, frequently of 30% or more. This has caused the market price of low tier homes to drop below the cost of construction, causing new building to dry up in low tier housing markets. The lack of supply in those markets has been a boon to commercial residential builders, who have access to equity and borrowed capital. Ample building is happening there, but it can't make up for the tremendous hit that owner-occupied single family homes have taken, and it can't create ample coastal urban supply. So, the boon to multi-family builders continues for the same reason prices were high in 2005: there aren't enough units, especially where demand is greatest.

The national multi-family market reflects a price level that is not credit constrained, but is supply constrained. The national home price reflects a price level that is credit constrained, which is a mixture of cities like LA, which is supply constrained, and Atlanta, which is especially credit constrained, and is only supply constrained now because it is credit constrained.