U.S. housing boom is biggest since 1890
Increase in home prices may have been psychological, economist says
CHICAGO (MarketWatch) -- The recent housing boom is the biggest the United States has ever seen, but its underlying reasons may have been psychological, economist Robert J. Shiller said on Friday. New data also suggest the market might be at the end of a cycle, he added.
The only time since 1890 that compares to the recent residential real estate market is just after World War II, the Yale University professor said during a presentation on U.S. home prices, held at Standard & Poor's in New York and broadcast to journalists on the Web.
"After World War II, the soldiers came back and they wanted houses and started the baby boom. And when you had babies, you wanted houses with at least two bedrooms -- and that wasn't so common back then. They went on a buying spree and it pushed home prices up," he said.
The recent boom, however, doesn't have the same fundamental variables causing prices to soar, he said, adding that variation in such things as building costs, population and interest rates doesn't adequately explain the reason for the housing boom.
"I don't see why home prices should be shooting up that strongly," Shiller said, adding that speculation may have played a role. "It's a sign of concern."
Shiller was co-author of "Irrational Exuberance," a book that chronicled the stock-market bubble of the late 1990s. He also co-developed the S&P/Case Shiller Home Price Indices, designed to measure the average change in U.S. home prices. The indexes are based on 10 cities -- Boston, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles -- and are now the basis of new futures and options trading at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Within that index, Shiller has noticed a short-term trend of cooling home prices that could signal an end to the cycle of steep appreciation increases. Investing in the index could help homeowners hedge against price fluctuations in their homes, he said.
Shiller said he is not allowed to invest in home price index futures.
During a question-and-answer session, he said that the stabilization of home prices could also have some effect on consumers' means of gaining equity. Low interest rates inspired people to refinance their homes, and the increasing value of their houses allowed them to pad their pockets with spending money; consumers will now have to turn to other means for financing, including credit, he said.
In the future, insurance companies may offer policies to shield consumers from lowering home prices, thanks to the futures now available, said David Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at Standard & Poor's, who also participated in the presentation. He identified the housing market as a continued stable investment.
"If you want volatility, go to the stock market," he said. "If you have any doubts of that, take a look at it over the past six weeks."