What would happen if everyone believed real estate prices only go up?

Ten years ago people truly believed real estate prices only go up. As a result people behaved imprudently and borrowed too much money because they believe they could always sell the property for enough to pay the loan.

real_estate_only_goes_upThe mantra of the National Association of Realtors is “real estate only goes up.” This economic fallacy fosters the belief in future price increases and the limited risk of buying real estate. In general real estate prices do increase because salaries across the country do tend to increase with the general level of inflation, and it is through wages that people make payments for real estate assets. When the economy is strong and unemployment is low, prices for residential real estate tend to rise. Therefore, the fundamental valuation of real estate does go up most of the time. However, prices can, and often do, rise faster than the fundamental valuation of real estate, and it is in these instances when there is a price bubble.

Greed is a powerful motivating factor for the purchase of assets. It is a natural response for people to desire to make money by doing nothing more than owning an asset. The only counterbalance to greed is fear. However, if a potential buyer believes the asset cannot decline in value, or if it does, it will only be by a small amount for a very short period of time, there is little fear generated to temper their greed. The belief that real estate only goes up has the effect of activating greed and diminishing fear. It is the perfect mantra for creating a price bubble.

Think how you would behave in a financial transaction if you really believed you had no risk of loss? Is there any price that is too high?

Imagine a room with 100 people representing the pool of subprime borrowers. These are new entrants to the market. They were previously unable to buy due to bad credit, lack of savings, and other reasons. All of them are told they are going to bid on an asset that never goes down in value, [this is where the belief that there is no risk takes over] and they will be given the ability to borrow unlimited funds (stated-income “liar loans”) The only caveat is the borrowed money must be paid back when the asset is sold (not that they care, they already have bad credit). Imagine what happens?

People start to buy the asset, and prices rise. Others in the room seeing the rising prices come to believe that the value of the asset never declines, and they join in the bidding. As the bidding drives prices even higher, a manic quality takes over the bidding and people compete with each other, often bidding higher than the asking prices. Nobody wants to be left out. There are fortunes to be made. Greed drives prices upward at a staggering rate. As the last of the 100 people buy, prices are very high, everyone has made money, and it looks as if prices will continue to rise forever . . .


Then something strange happens: there is nobody left to make a purchase. (A key indication of the end of a speculative mania is a huge decline in sales, as was witnessed over 2006 and 2007). Transaction volume drops off dramatically, and prices stop their dizzying ascent.

Nobody is particularly alarmed at first, but a few of the more cautious sell their assets to pay off their loans. Since there are no more new buyers, the first selling actually causes prices to drop. This is unprecedented: prices have never declined! Most ignore the problem and comfort themselves with the history of rising prices; however, a few are spooked by this unprecedented drop and sell the asset. This selling drives prices even lower.

Now those who still own the asset become worried, some continue to deny that there is a problem, and some get angry about the price declines. Some of the late buyers actually owe more than they paid for the asset. They sell the asset at a loss. The lenders now lose some money and refuse to loan any more money to be secured against the asset.panic

Now there are even fewer buyers and a large group of owners who all want to sell before prices drop any lower. Panic selling ensues. Everyone wants to sell at the same time, and there are no buyers to purchase the asset. Prices fall dramatically. This asset which was sought after at any price is now for sale at any price, and there are few takers. People in the market rightfully believe the asset will continue to decline. Owners of the asset have accepted the new reality; they are depressed and despondent.

In any group of people, there are always a few who do not believe the “prices always rise” narrative. Some recognize that asset prices cannot rise indefinitely and cannot stay detached from their fundamental valuations. These people witness the rally and the resulting crash without participating. They wait patiently for prices to drop back to fundamental values, and then these people buy.

As these new buyers enter the market, prices stop their steep descent and market participants start to hope again. It takes a while to work off the inventory for sale in the market, so prices tend to flatten at the bottom for an extended period of time; however, just as spring follows winter, appreciation returns to the market in time, and the cycle begins all over again.

What is written above is true of any asset whether it be stocks, bonds, houses or tulips. In this case, it is the local housing market, and the room of new buyers represents subprime borrowers, but the concepts are universal. One phenomenon somewhat unique to the housing market is the forced sale due to foreclosure (stocks have margin calls). Even if the psychological factors at work during the panic could somehow be quelled, the forced sales from foreclosures would drive down prices anyway. True panic is not required to crash a housing market, only dropping prices and an inability to make payments. Subprime lending was one of the leading causes of the Great Housing Bubble, and its implosion exacerbated the market decline.honorable_borrowers

Are we safe now?

Dodd-Frank effectively the unstable loan products that lead to the delinquency and insolvency of millions of people. Most homebuyers over the last 10 years were actually qualified based on their income, and since they generally have 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, they will be able to sustain ownership unless we have another devastating bout of unemployment. Further, since the banks mastered the art of kicking-the-can, even if borrowers did default, the banks wouldn’t foreclose and push prices any lower.

So does that mean prices can’t go down?

Well, if everyone believed that, then they would inflate another massive housing bubble, and we will find out.

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