Fear and Greed, or How Did The Housing Bubble Get So Big?

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One of the occasional questions I get from people has to do with why the housing bubble got so big (or if you're one of those still in denial about it, how prices jumped so far so fast).



This has to do with several factors. Legislation made real estate investments more attractive. Interest rates got low, and nontraditional loans proliferated. People took their money out of the stock market, and wanted to invest it somewhere. The feeling that the housing market could never go anywhere but up. And I will address all of these issues in the coming paragraphs, but the largest factor is and was psychological. People were simultaneously scared that if they didn't buy now, they would be locked out of the American dream, and avaricious in anticipation of buying and flipping properties for multiple tens of thousands of dollars profit.



The first enabling factor happened in 1996. President Clinton sponsored legislation giving huge tax exemptions to the sale of personal residences. There were and are good arguments for doing so, nonetheless it had the effect of making real estate a more attractive investment. When a married couple can make up to $500,000 tax free over their basis every two years, that's a major incentive to start moving into a new house every two years in order to fix it up, or at least hope for a gain in fast growing areas. By itself, this was a minor factor initially, but by making real estate such an attractive investment (literally the best there is, considered in a vacuum), it started the bubble off. Since it hasn't been repealed yet and may never be, the value increase from this aren't really a bubble component, but the value increase for what was a one time systemic shift whetted appetites, even while the dot com boom (itself a fear and greed phenomenon) was going on.



The second enabling factor was that interest rates got low. This meant prices had the leeway to rise, as most people buy homes (and other property) based mostly upon the payment. When 30 year fixed rate loans go to 5 percent, the same payments buys a lot more house than it does at 7.5 percent. If you could have afforded a loan for $100,000 at 7.5 percent, you can afford a $130,000 loan at 5 percent. Instead of a $300,000 loan, you can afford $390,000 for the same payment. $500,000 becomes $650,000. Even though rates haven't been quite rock bottom for almost two years now, this helped start the phenomenon.



The third enabling factor was that people had gotten burned in the stock market as the dot com boom deflated, and the real estate market was doing well. With both sides of "fear and greed" working the equation, this amounted to quite a bit of incentive to chase returns in the real estate market. "I just took a bath in tech stocks, but look at how the real estate market is going!" This is known as chasing last year's returns, but large numbers of people do it. Consequently, quite a bit of personal wealth was dumped into the real estate market. This had negative consequences on the stock market, exacerbating that decline, and for the real estate market, dumping a couple trillion dollars into the demand side of the equation didn't exactly hurt real estate prices. Supply and demand are always working. The important trick is to separate fear and greed, which are real but have mostly short term effects, from real long term changes to the market.



Members of my professions, meanwhile, did absolutely nothing to slow the madness. Indeed, they added as much fuel to the fire as they could. As I have said elsewhere, buying a home really is a fantastic investment, all things being equal. It literally clobbers renting and investing over the long term, with those last four words being the critical part. There are limits, and most agents and loan officers went over them and three states beyond. Anybody who takes any real estate agent's unsupported word for investments and sustainability probably needs a guardian. Reality check: Here's a person who makes thousands of dollars if they tell you you can do something, and nothing if they tell you you can't, and has very little responsibility in the law for telling you lies. They're not financial advisers, after all. What do you think the average person will tell you in this position? (And before anybody sends me email or comments about the "superior ethics of Realtors®" they were just as bad statistically and worse morally, because they were holding themselves out as ethically superior, thus using the propaganda to allay legitimate concerns. I'll believe Realtors® offer some ethical advantage when I start seeing the Boards of Realtors® imposing some real disciplinary measures upon significant numbers of scumbags that the state regulators don't. Aside from advertising to build brand awareness, I haven't seen anything that the Boards of Realtors® contribute to the ethics of real estate practice.)



So there we are, with four factors doing everything they can to drive values up. This goes on for a little while, and now psychology starts becoming a real factor. "They're not making any more land!" making a scarcity argument. "Real Estate always goes up over the long term!", making a safety argument, and ignoring any number of past bubbles and downturns. Heck, I remember four previous ones in southern California! "You can always sell for a profit!", ignoring transaction costs, which are significant, and flat out misrepresenting liquidity. Real Estate can beat anything else, investment-wise, but it is certainly the least liquid class of investment that comes to my mind, as well as being sensitive to many factors beyond your control.



Couple this with a couple of years worth of twenty percent returns, and the feeding frenzy really kicks in. There starts being a real fear factor - people get afraid that if they do not buy now, they are never going to be able to afford a home. When prices rise by 50 percent in two years and wages rise by six, who can really blame them? Most people do not have the economic background to sit back and consider who buys houses, and what controls housing prices. So the mentality of "buy now or rent forever!" took hold, further exacerbating the rise. People were willing to do literally anything they could to qualify for a home, lest they be unable to qualify forever. And with the thinking detailed in previous paragraphs, they were told that "Even if you have to sell in a year, you'll still come away with a huge profit!" Yes, that's greed again, rearing its ugly head.



Into this situation stepped the lending community, particularly the sub-prime lending community. Starting about 1997, more and more lenders started being willing to loan 100 percent of the value of the home. "Hey, why risk your own money when the bank will lend theirs?" This drove market leverage to never before seen heights. Furthermore, in an effort to sustain volume, lenders started a trend of competing ever harder for the most marginal case. Stated Income, Interest Only, and short term hybrid ARMs proliferated (The most common sub-prime loan is only fixed for two years). Finally, lenders started pushing the Negative Amortization loans, for those borrowers who couldn't really make even the payments required on the short term interest only alternatives.



Lest anyone think otherwise, the community of real estate agents was fully on board with this. Always higher, and fast increasing, prices meant they made more money in commissions from selling the same number of homes, and the apparent virtues of real estate as an investment of the moment kept seducing those who did not know any better. Those few voices of sanity were drowned out, and many left the business. There just aren't that many people who really qualify to buy homes these days based upon the tradition metrics, even relaxed as they have become, and if you won't put them into something they can't afford, somebody else will. Furthermore, during this period, more and more real estate agents were starting to do their own loans, further isolating any voices of sanity in the loan community. Speak the truth that a client probably cannot afford a loan once, and the real estate agent will never bring you another client again, and will try everything they can to pry any clients they might have away from you. After all, you cost them a commission once. Interest only, and negative amortization loans further proliferate, as agents try to persuade prospective clients that they "really can afford those payments." Forty year loans start making a comeback, where they were all but extinct. Sub-prime underwriting standards are loosened until they ignore what happens when these hybrids adjust (or Option ARMs recast) and concern themselves only with the minimum starting payment. A larger and larger portion of purchasers is forced into the sub-prime market if they want to qualify. And still property values rose.



Or, more correctly, prices rose. The actual property value certainly wasn't growing that fast, only the common perception of value, aka price. People were getting away with these terrible loans, complete with prepayment penalties, because even though they weren't able to make their payments in many cases, prices were still increasing fast enough such that even if they sold relatively cheap, in order to unload the property in a hurry, and paid a prepayment penalty, they were still coming away with money, further aiding the illusion that there was no way not to make money. When workers are making more money buying a house and holding it for two years then selling than they are at their jobs, that's an incentive to keep doing it. That's an incentive for more and more people to get in on the act. And the feeding frenzy builds. Fear and Greed. When someone holds a house for two years and sells for a huge profit despite the fact that they did nothing to enhance the home's value, that has the appearance of easy money. When people start buying with the intention of short term flipping without doing any work (We call this "Hoping for a bigger fool"), and when they'd call to see if I knew of any such properties and hang up when I'd start telling them about properties that really were good investments but needed work, I knew the end was coming very soon.



The first group to holler "enough!" was not the lower income folks who were getting priced out of stuff even at the lowest end of the market. It might be what you'd expect, but it wasn't the case. My theory is that those people simply don't know any better, and didn't think they could afford to wait. It was the better paid, more economically savvy buyer at the higher end who first called "Bull****!" At least here locally, higher end McMansions and such were the first to start sitting on the market. These prospective buyers made plenty of money, and knew they weren't on the verge of being priced out completely. If they were right, they'd buy a better property when things fell apart. If they were wrong, such is life, and they could still afford something. Meantime, they were going to rent.



Lessons here: Always separate psychological factors from real market shifts. The general rule is that once they find something that appears to be working right now, the crowd always overreacts. Many times you will make more money in the long term by bucking the obvious trend, particularly if that trend is Fear and Greed driven.



If you are in an untenable position with your loan right now, whether because it's negative Amortization or interest only or just about to start adjusting: Either sell now for what you can get, refinance into something fixed for at least five years right now, or be resign yourself to disaster. With the yield curve inverted right now, there is practically no spread between the five year ARM and the thirty year fixed rate loan. Even someone who is as huge a fan of the 5/1 ARM as I am has to admit that, at the moment, the thirty year fixed rate loan is looking very attractive by comparison. When you get a much better guarantee of the rate not changing, for the same price, and the the loans are otherwise identical, what's not to like? As I've said before, you can survive and prosper when you're upside down on your home, as long as you have the right loan for it.



If you can make the real payments on such a loan, I would do it now while appraisers still have the ability to appraise your property for near peak values. If you lose the ability to appraise for near peak values, then you may well be a member of that rather large group in many parts of the country where the market will no longer bear a price greater than the loans on your property. When you owe more on the property than the market appraisal, then for all practical purposes you are stuck in your current loan. If it adjusts, amortizes, or recasts, you're suddenly going to be making much larger payments. If you qualified under one of the less sustainable programs I noted earlier, when this happens you are going to be in a world of hurt, and probably unable to refinance. Most common result: Losing the home, credit ruined for years, and a 1099 from the lender that says "we lost money on you!", for which the IRS will demand taxes. If your loan is going to start asking for higher payments soon, and you can not refinance, or cannot afford to refinance, it's time to sell, right now.



Caveat Emptor (and Vendor)

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on October 5, 2007 7:00 AM.

Investors Aren't The Only Ones Who Can Fix Ugly Properties was the previous entry in this blog.

Translation: Salesgoodspeakian to English is the next entry in this blog.

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