How Real Estate Impacts the US Economy

by on October 22, 2013 | Updated October 29, 2013

Despite appreciating more than 10% over the past year, home prices still look reasonable and housing affordable. However, while there is little risk of another housing bubble, a significant pickup in interest rates could dampen housing activity and by extension, the recovery.

Be careful what you wish for. With home prices rebounding strongly, many investors are now starting to wonder whether we’re back in another housing bubble. Fortunately, I think the answer is no, although housing still poses a risk to the economy and markets, albeit for different reasons.

Starting with housing affordability, despite the recent gains it is hard to argue home prices are out-of-line with the fundamentals. Today, the median price for a new home is around $200k. While this is up by a third from the ’12 lows, home prices are only back to where they were in 2004. The situation looks even better after accounting for the rate environment. In the summer of 2004 a 30-year conventional mortgage was around 6%. Today it is roughly 4.5%. For this reason, housing affordability – an index tracked by the National Association of Realtors- is still close to the 20+ year peak reached in early 2012.

However, even without a crash, housing still poses a risk. Here are three ways housing can impact the economy:

ishares1024Consumer Confidence – To some extent the recovery has been a confidence game. Rising consumer confidence has helped spur spending and support growth. During previous recoveries, this rise in confidence was mostly driven by an improving jobs market. Unfortunately, following this recession the recovery in the labor market has been lackluster, at best. Instead, consumers have become more confident as household wealth has risen. Between Q2 2012 and Q2 2013 household wealth increased by over 10%, hitting a nominal peak of nearly $75 trillion. Much of this is due to a rising stock market, but housing has also played a key role, particularly for lower and middle-income households where homes represent the majority of wealth.

Mortgage Refinancing – In addition to confidence, homes can also be a source of cash flow. While investors are no longer taking equity out of their homes, as they were for much of the 1990’s, lower rates allow home owners to refinance their mortgage, thus freeing up cash-flow for other spending. In recent years, the surge in refinancing helped support consumption, even as wage gains proved elusive. More recently, as rates have risen refinancing activity has slowed. An index tracking the volume of mortgage activity is down by more than 50% since September of last year.

Construction and New Homes – While housing represents a small part of the overall economy, there are knock-on effects. New homes need to be furnished and old ones fixed-up. Since rates began to rise in the spring, housing starts and building permits are both down by roughly 10%.

For investors there are a few implications. First, as I’ve discussed in other pieces, the Fed will be sensitive to the impact of rates on housing. This is one reason we think the backup in rates will be modest and the Fed will pay particular attention to mortgage rates. Second, while housing looks alright, it is unlikely to provide the same tailwind for consumers as it did in ’13, when higher home prices supported confidence and lower rates helped household cash-flow through a surge in refinancing activity.

Russ Koesterich, CFA, is the Chief Investment Strategist for BlackRock and iShares Chief Global Investment Strategist. He is a regular contributor to The Blog.