Are Higher 'Prime' Mortgage Default Rates Around the Corner?

by: Stephen Hsu

The first figure is from yesterday's WSJ and incorporates data from Q4 2007. The second figure appeared in the Economist some time ago and was discussed previously on this blog. Does anyone care to predict the future for bubble states like California, Florida and Arizona using the Japanese data as a guide?

Lower interest rates will not re-inflate the housing bubble (although they may affect the rate at which it deflates; note the BOJ dropped real interest rates below zero in the wake of their bust). People understand now, as they did not just a few years ago, that home prices can go down. This change in ape psychology (try putting that in your macro model!) makes all the difference.

Below is historical data compiled by Yale economist Robert Shiller showing that home prices have not on average provided attractive real returns (right hand axis is inflation adjusted returns for same house sales over time; previously discussed here -- the real rate of return was 0.4% between 1890 and 2004).

This is yet another example in which market participants (home buyers) made decisions based on faulty assumptions that might have been easily corrected by a modest amount of research. So much for efficient markets!

[]

Finally, it is worth noting that the subprime mortgage meltdown is merely a symptom of the real estate bubble. If home prices continue to fall we will see (as we are already beginning to) higher default rates in so-called "prime" as well as subprime mortgages.


WSJ: ...I assumed, for the sake of calculations, that California prices fell 8% last quarter from the third quarter, a huge number by historic measures but not out of line with Zillow's data. For Florida and Arizona I assumed declines of 5% and 5.5%. You could use other, more modest estimates for the recent declines: They won't change the outcomes much. I also assumed personal incomes in these states rose in line with recent and historic averages."


The results? In all three markets, the prices are well off their peaks when compared to incomes. But they remain far above historic averages.


Median prices in California peaked in 2006 at 13.3 times per capita incomes. Hard to believe, but true. They may be down now to about 11.1 times.


But that's still way above the ground. Throughout most of the 80s and 90s they ranged between six and seven times incomes.


Just to get down to seven times incomes, prices would have to fall 37% tomorrow.


Those who bought at the peak of the cycle may be pinning their hopes instead on "incomes catching up" instead. But they had better be patient. Even if house prices stayed exactly where they are, it would take around 10 years for rising incomes to bring the ratios back into any sort of alignment.