Housing Downturn Moves Into Phase II


The great housing turndown, which started as early as 2007, has entered a second and more difficult phase. We can trace this to Monday, September 15, 2008 just as October 29, 1929 – “Black Tuesday” – marked the start of the Great Depression. September 15 does not yet have a name and the name “Black Monday” has already been taken by the 1987 stock market crash. The 1987 crash looks in historical perspective like a slight downturn compared to what the world faces today.

On September 15 – let’s call it “Meltdown Monday” – the housing downturn ended its Phase I and burst into financial markets leading to the most serious global recession since the Great Depression. Indeed, International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn now classifies it a depression.

Phase I claimed its own share of victims; Phase II seems likely to hit many more.

Phase I of the Housing Downturn

Whether in depression or recession, parts of the United States housing market were already in a deep downturn well before September 15. Phase I of the housing downturn started when house prices reached an unprecedented peak in some markets and began fell into decline. By September of 2008, house prices in the “ground zero” markets of California, Florida Las Vegas, Phoenix and Washington, DC had dropped from 25 percent to 45 percent from their peaks. These markets represented 75 percent of the overall lost value among the major metropolitan areas (those with more than 1,000,000 population).

The Varieties of House Price Escalation Experience: In Phase I, the house price escalation and subsequent losses were far less severe in other major metropolitan areas. This depended in large part to the degree of land use controls – such as land rationing (urban growth boundaries and urban service limits), building moratoria, large lot zoning and other restrictions on building routinely – that helped drive prices up to unsustainable levels. This effect, cited by a number of the world’s most respected economists, was exacerbated by the easy money policies adopted by mortgage lenders.

On the other hand, in the “responsive” land use regulation areas, the market (people’s preferences) was allowed to determine where and what kind of housing could be built. In these areas housing prices rose far less during the housing bubble and fell far less during Phase I of the housing downturn.

Leading to the International Financial Crisis: These radically differing house price trends set up world financial markets for ”Meltdown Monday.” The easy money led to a strong increase in foreclosure rates, an inevitable consequence of households having sought or been enticed into mortgage loans that they simply could not afford. Yet it was not foreclosure rates that doomed the market. It was rather the unprecedented intensity of those losses in particular markets.

Foreclosures were not the problem: Foreclosures happened all over. Foreclosure rates rose drastically in California and the prescriptive markets, but had relatively less impact in the responsive markets of the South and Midwest, where house prices changed little relative to incomes.

Intensity of the losses was the problem. The problem lay largely in the scale of house value losses in some markets, particularly the most prescriptive ones. Lenders faced foreclosure and short sales losses on houses that had lost an average of $170,000 in value in the ground zero markets. In the responsive markets, on the other hand, average house value losses were less than one-tenth that, at $12,000 per house (http://www.demographia.com/db-hloss.pdf).

By the end of Phase I of the housing downturn, house value losses in the prescriptive markets had reached nearly $2.3 trillion, accounting for 94 percent of the total losses in major metropolitan markets (those with more than 1,000,000 population). If the market had been allowed to operate in these markets, the losses in the prescriptive markets could easily have been one-fifth this amount. Most likely the mortgage industry and the international economy might have been able to handle such losses, sparing the world the current deep financial crisis.

True, the housing bust would not have happened without the easy money. Neither easy money nor prescriptive land use regulation were sufficient in themselves to send the world economy into a tailspin. But together they conspired to create the conditions for “Meltdown Monday”.

Phase II of the Housing Downturn

The Panic of 2008: By September 15, the “die had been cast.” The holders of mortgage debt could no longer sustain the losses that were occurring in the ground zero markets. This led to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and then to a financial sector that seems to be accelerating faster than the taxpayers can pick up the pieces. The ensuing “panic” – a 19th century synonym for a severe economic downturn – has led to millions of layoffs, decreases in demand across the economy and taxpayer financed bailouts around the world. Many have seen their retirement funds wiped out. Others have lost their jobs. American icons, such as General Motors and Bank of America have been relegated to begging on Washington’s K Street.

Housing Downturn Broadens and Deepens: The panic has now brought about a new phase in the housing downturn – what I label Phase II. In Phase II, a deteriorating economy starts to kick the bottom out of the rest of the housing market. With evaporating confidence in the economy and the drying up of demand, house prices have begun a free-fall in virtually all markets, regardless of the extent to which their prices had bloated.

Our analysis of National Association of Realtors data shows this. In almost all markets house price declines accelerated during the fourth quarter of 2008 (the first quarter following Meltdown Monday). In just three months, median house prices fell an average of more than 12 percent in the major metropolitan markets. In the ground zero markets, house prices dropped 14 percent, with the average loss from the peak exceeding 40 percent. In the responsive markets, prices fell 11 percent, approximately double the previous reduction from the peak (See Table).

Thus, the difference is that in Phase I, house price declines were in proportion to the previous price escalation. In Phase II, the percentage declines are generally similar without regard to the house price increases.

House Price Deflation from Peak
By Phase of the Housing Downturn
Ground Zero
Prices: To Phase I
Prices: To Phase II
Prices in Phase II
Loss per House: To Phase I
Loss per House: To Phase II
Loss per House in Phase II
Gross Losses (Trillions): To Phase I
Gross Losses (Trillions): To Phase II
Gross Losses (Trillions): in Phase II
Phase I: To September 2008          
Phase II: To December 2008          
Major Metropolitan Markets (over 1,000,000 population)      
For markets by classification see: http://www.demographia.com/db-hloss.pdf    

Recession or Depression?

It’s critical to note that the decline is by no means as deep as in the 1930s. On the other hand, there is no indication that conditions are going to improve markedly in the short run. Millions of households who saw their retirement accounts devastated are likely to curb consumption for years to come. The key question is whether we are in the equivalent of 1933, in the pit of the downturn, or in the equivalent of the late 1930s, soon to begin a long, slow climb out.

For housing though, this is a depression. Never before over the last half-century have house prices fallen as they have in the prescriptive markets during Phase I of the housing downturn. And since the bust, during Phase II, overall price declines are on a par with the worst years of the Great Depression. “Meltdown Monday” has incited a downward spiral whose course will be the topic of future commentaries on this site.

The classifications of the major metropolitan markets and price declines for each market are shown in http://www.demographia.com/db-hloss.pdf.

Also see: Mortgage Meltdown Graphic: http://www.demographia.com/db-meltdowngraphic.pdf

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.