COVID-19 RESOURCES AND INFORMATION: See the Atlanta Fed's list of publications, information, and resources; listen to our Pandemic Response webinar series.

About


Real Estate Research provides analysis of topical research and current issues in the fields of housing and real estate economics. Authors for the blog include the Atlanta Fed's Jessica Dill, Kristopher Gerardi, Carl Hudson, and analysts, as well as the Boston Fed's Christopher Foote and Paul Willen.

Comment Standards:
Comments are moderated and will not appear until the moderator has approved them.

Please submit appropriate comments. Inappropriate comments include content that is abusive, harassing, or threatening; obscene, vulgar, or profane; an attack of a personal nature; or overtly political.

In addition, no off-topic remarks or spam is permitted.

January 22, 2014

Wall Street and the Housing Bubble

The conventional wisdom on the 2008 financial crisis is that finance industry insiders on Wall Street deceived naïve, uninformed mortgage borrowers into taking out unaffordable mortgages and mortgage-backed security (MBS) investors into purchasing securities backed by bad loans—mortgages and securities that had not been properly vetted and that would eventually default. This theory is on display front and center in the Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job, and it has motivated new regulations aimed at realigning incentives among Wall Street insiders and their customers. (One such rule is the risk retention requirement in the Dodd-Frank Act, which we will discuss in some detail in a future post.)

We've written in support of an alternative hypothesis for the financial crisis—specifically, that overly optimistic views about house prices, not poorly designed incentives on Wall Street, are the better explanation for the crisis (for an example, see this 2012 paper). This alternative theory holds that investors lost money not because they were deceived by financial market insiders, but because they were instead misled by their own belief that housing-related investments could not lose money because house prices were sure to keep rising.

A new paper makes an important empirical contribution to this debate by inferring the beliefs of Wall Street insiders during the height of the bubble. The paper, titled "Wall Street and the Housing Bubble," performs a clever analysis of personal housing-related transactions (like home purchases) made by individuals who worked in the mortgage securitization business during the peak of the housing boom. The behavior of these mortgage insiders is compared with that of a control group of people who worked for similar institutions in the finance industry but did not have any obvious connection to the mortgage market. What the analysis finds should be an eye-opener for believers in the inside-job explanation of the crisis. There is no evidence that mortgage insiders believed there was a housing bubble in the 2004–06 period. In fact, mortgage insiders were actually more aggressive in increasing their personal exposure to housing at the peak of the boom. The increase in insider exposure contradicts the claim that insiders sold securities backed by loans that they knew would eventually go bad when the housing bubble burst.

The authors construct a random sample from the list of attendees of the 2006 American Securitization Forum, which is a large industry conference featuring employees of most of the major U.S. investment and commercial banks (as well as hedge funds and other boutique firms). The sample is mainly comprised of vice presidents, managing directors, and other nonexecutives in mid-managerial positions whose jobs focused on the structuring and trading of MBS. The authors refer to this group as "securitization agents." As a comparison group, they use a random sample of Wall Street equity analysts who covered firms that were in the S&P 500 in 2006 but did not have a strong connection to the housing market (in other words, the sample includes no homebuilders). These equity analysts worked for similar financial institutions, had similar skill sets, and likely experienced similar income shocks (in the form of bonuses during the boom) but did not have any experience in the securitization business and thus did not have access to any insider information. (As a second control group, the authors use a random sample of lawyers who did not specialize in real estate law.) The names of the securitization agents and the equity analysts are then matched to a database of publicly available information on property transactions. The final data set contains information on the number of housing transactions, the sale price of each transaction, some mortgage characteristics, and income at the time of origination for each individual in the sample spanning the period 2000–10.

Armed with this unique data set, the authors then implement a number of empirical tests to determine whether the securitization agents' beliefs about the likelihood of a housing crash differed from the beliefs of the control groups. The first test considers whether the securitization agents timed the housing market cycle better than the comparison groups by reducing their exposure to the market at the peak of the bubble (2004–06) by either selling their homes outright or downsizing. The second test is slightly weaker in that it simply tests whether the securitization agents were more cautious in their housing transactions by avoiding home purchases at the peak of the bubble to a greater extent than the control groups. The third test looks at whether the average return on housing transactions during the entire sample period was higher for the securitization agents. The final test considers a prediction of the permanent income hypothesis: if securitization agents were armed with superior knowledge of the impending collapse of the housing bubble, then through reductions in their expectations of permanent income, they should have decreased the size of their housing purchases relative to their current incomes by a greater amount than the comparison groups.

The results of these empirical tests show very little evidence to support the inside-job theory of the financial crisis. The authors conclude that there is "little systematic evidence that the average securitization exhibited awareness through their home transactions of problems in overall house markets and anticipated a broad-based crash earlier than others." If anything, the authors are being a little timid in their interpretation as the empirical results clearly show that securitization agents were significantly more aggressive in their housing transactions during the bubble period, which suggests that they held even more optimistic expectations of housing prices dynamics than did the control groups.

This is an important paper because it sheds light on one of the most striking aspects of the financial crisis, which the inside-job theory is unable to reconcile: the financial institutions involved in the creation of the subprime MBS and collateralized debt obligations (CDO)—the true "insiders," if you will—lost enormous amounts of money on those securities. The table clearly supports this observation. The firms that lost the most money from mortgage-related credit losses were the same investment and commercial banks that are being accused of profiting off of naïve investors by selling securities comprised of loans that they knew would eventually go bad. The table shows that these firms lost enormous sums of money, and the paper provides a simple answer to explain why: like the rest of the market, agents working at those firms believed that housing prices would continue to rise so that even the riskiest mortgages would continue to perform well.

Mortgage-Related Losses to Financial Institutions from the Subprime Crisis, as of June 18, 2008

Photo of Kris GerardiKris Gerardi, financial economist and associate policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, with

 

Photo of Chris FooteChris Foote, senior economist and policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

December 16, 2013

Many Banks, Many Builders: Concentration in the Construction Industry

The home construction industry has always been fragmented, with small construction firms holding a larger market share than big firms. This fragmentation was especially noticeable during the housing boom. In 2005, for example, the top 10 construction firms in the country had just 25 percent of the market share, and the top 200 firms had less than 50 percent. One explanation for the fragmentation is that construction just doesn't have many economies of scale.

Not surprisingly, these numbers started to shift during the recession, especially in areas hit harder by the housing bust—when bank lending to small builders all but disappeared. According to Bloomberg, the market share of the top 100 firms in the West and South grew by 10 percent during the crisis. In the Midwest, the market share of closings of the top 10 builders grew from 20 percent to 30 percent after 2007. Note that small banks—and therefore small bank failures—had also been concentrated in these three regions (see chart 1).

Number of bank failures

In places where there are many small banks that can supply small private construction firms, do large builders have as much of an edge, or does low concentration in the banking industry lead to low concentration in the construction industry? This question is difficult to answer definitively, but it's clear there is a relationship. The scatter plot (chart 2) shows that in 2006, in places with lots of banks (upper left)—places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Kansas City—large builders tended to have a small market share. In cities like Tucson, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque (bottom right), where there weren't many banks, the large builders dominated. It would seem that in places where construction and development (C&D) loans are tight, we can expect to see many more of the larger builders.

And in times when C&D loans are tight—say, during financial crises—we can also expect larger firms to dominate and smaller firms to fall by the wayside. A 2008 Real Estate Economics paper by Brent Ambrose and Joe Peek showed how private builders fell into decline in the 1990s because of differential access to capital during the banking crisis. (The raft of small banks failures here in Georgia is an illustration of how this interconnection runs both ways: after 2007, 55 Atlanta banks failed when the real estate market turned and small construction firms defaulted on their loans en masse.)

2006: Market Share of Top 10 Builders x Density of Banks

Since the banking crisis of 2007, bank construction lending has plummeted. In past posts (here and here), we've documented just how tight credit has been: total outstanding C&D loans plummeted from $454.6 billion in 2006 to $188.4 billion in 2013. Because of the tight credit, the large public builders have been much more resilient than large private builders. As Builder magazine reported, "private builders' access to capital continued to be all but blocked in 2012, [but] public builders tapped into cheap bond money and sold stock, creating sizable war chests many have begun to deploy to buy land and lots for what they hope will be a continuing industry recovery."

Many large and medium-sized private builders have been attracted to this source of funding, so much so that between January and August of 2013, WCI Communities, TRI Pointe Homes Inc., Taylor Morrison Home Corp., UCP Inc., William Lyon Homes, and LGI Homes all had initial public offerings. Public builders have always dominated the charts, but in 2013, the top 12 firms—with a combined $97 million in revenue and 316,802 closings—were all public. (See chart 3.)

Share of New-Home Closings by Top 100 Builders by Region

And while the large private builders are going public, the small private firms are going out of business entirely. Bloomberg reported this past spring that membership in the National Association of Home Builders, an association of small private firms, has plunged 44 percent since 2007. By contrast, large and medium-sized firms have had strong increases in market share, as noted earlier.

How does the growing concentration in the construction industry affect the rest of us? Is this the kind of phenomenon that could have a wider impact, by altering home price dynamics, increasing sprawl or decreasing affordability?

We hope to take on some of these questions in a future post.

Photo of Carl HudsonBy Carl Hudson, Director, Center for Real Estate Analytics in the Atlanta Fed's research department, and


By Elora Raymond, graduate research assistant, Center for Real Estate Analytics in the Atlanta Fed's research department/PhD student, School of City and Regional Planning, Georgia Institute of Technology

July 10, 2013

Why Housing Rebound May Continue at a Slower Rate Than Hoped For

Perhaps it's because I've worked with bank examiners for many years, but I often question financial news that seems too optimistic. On July 1, 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that overall construction spending increased in May. Private residential construction, which generally leads the economy, grew 24.4 percent from May 2012 to May 2013. Beyond being cautious with one data point, I think that there are several reasons why housing's rebound may be slower than hoped.

To be clear, residential real estate conditions have been improving, albeit from record low levels of activity. Sales of both new and existing houses have been trending up recently, but remain near historically low levels. Additionally, the quantity of new and existing homes readily available for sale is low. Homebuilders in the Sixth Federal Reserve District (which includes Alabama, Florida, and Georgia and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee) recently reported that new home sales and construction have been ahead of year-earlier levels and that buyer traffic remains strong (see this SouthPoint post). Builders noted, however, that access to financing and a shortage of developed lots continued to constrain construction activity. In conjunction with the recent construction spending data release, it is this last point that I aim to dig into a bit deeper in this blog post.

Since the housing bust, construction and development (C&D) lending has been in sharp decline in terms of aggregate dollars and as a percent of total bank assets. Using year-end data, we find that C&D loans peaked in 2007 at $629.4 billion. As of 2012, they stood at $203.8 billion. As of March 2013, C&D loans accounted for 1.4 percent of bank assets, unchanged from December 2012 and the lowest level since at least 1991. The decline in C&D lending is broad based given that similar trends are seen for banks under and over $1 billion in total assets. With the recent reports of growing construction spending, will bank lending practices dampen construction growth going forward?

Banks represent a significant funding source for homebuilders, especially nonpublic homebuilders. Using data from 1991 to 2012, there appears to be a strong, positive relationship between bank construction lending and private residential construction put in place—see the chart. Of course, it's impossible to tell from this chart whether construction activity is responding to changes in credit supply or credit supply is responding to changes in construction demand. However, banks have been extremely tight with credit in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and there aren't many signs that banks plan to change course any time soon. So it may be reasonable to assume that a continued reduction in bank C&D lending is likely to limit future gains in construction activity.

Construction Activity versus Credit Supply

A case for optimism
In conversations with banks of various sizes, two things are often repeated. First, bankers indicate there is little appetite for growth in C&D lending and second, banks of various sizes want to increase commercial and industrial lending (C&I). For many banks, a move from C&D lending to C&I lending is easier said than done—the skillsets needed for C&I lending differ from those associated with C&D. Acquiring C&I expertise is a challenge particularly for smaller banks. So what's a community bank going to do?

An old adage is to do what you know best. For many community banks that would be C&D lending. Given the reports of lot shortages and house inventory being low, it would seem that profitable opportunities for C&D lending exist. There is nothing wrong with C&D loans appropriately underwritten and subject to reasonable risk management. A key question is when banks start moving back to C&D lending, will they be able to resist the shortcuts of the last cycle? Let's hope that banks can successfully navigate a return to C&D lending so that the housing market can continue to recover.

Photo of Carl HudsonBy Carl Hudson, Director, Center for Real Estate Analytics in the Atlanta Fed's research department

June 12, 2013

Is Investing in Housing Really a Losing Proposition?

In a recent article in the New York Times (here), Robert Shiller notes that a home may not be such a great investment after all. After adjustments are made for inflation, Shiller says that real home prices are more or less flat over the long term and that investors can make better returns by investing elsewhere. Bill McBride and Tom Lawler from Calculated Risk have chimed in on this debate several times over the past few years (here, here and here) by pointing out that there are several methodological issues with the way Shiller calculated home prices before 1986, and that using an alternative series results in a clear upward slope.

While we acknowledge that the gains over time are sensitive to the index you choose to use, we think it's also important to note that returns on investments in housing have not consistently increased regardless of which index you use. Even if you exclude the most recent bubble, there have been notable ups and downs, although none as severe. Shiller and Lawler's work conclude that long-run returns have averaged somewhere between 0.2 percent and 1.2 percent, depending on which series you use, but neither touches on the distribution of returns. This got us wondering—with average returns so close to zero, just how often has the housing market produced losers? And how does investing in housing compare to investing in equities, as Shiller seems to prefer?

As a first step toward answering these questions, we computed the average annual return of home prices across all possible combinations of start and stop points using the Shiller house price series from 1926 to 2012. The distribution depicts returns concentrated around zero with some skewness to the right. Eighty percent of all start-stop point observations experience some degree of positive return (see chart 1).

Distribution of Returns: Shiller Home Price Index

We acknowledge that this exercise alone is imperfect because it fails to take into account the duration of ownership. Based on analysis published (here) earlier this year by Paul Emrath at the National Association of Home Builders, we assume that the average homeowner lives in his or her home for 13.3 years. We applied this duration to our analysis and found that the volatility in the data series is significant enough to change the distribution of returns. The average annual returns for an asset held for a period of 13 or more years is substantially less volatile than for an asset held for fewer than 13 years, and those investing for the longer term were much more likely to have positive returns. Perhaps more important than the shape of each curve is that both are concentrated at or just above zero. We compute that 40 percent of homes owned for less than 13 years have negative average annual returns, compared to 12 percent of homes owned for 13 years or more (see chart 2). Interestingly, while a much greater portion of those owning for 13 or more years obtain positive returns, the average annual return was actually slightly higher for those owning fewer than 13 years (0.95 percent versus 1.03 percent).

Distribution of Returns: Shiller Home Price Index

Since it is pretty clear that the volatility in returns varies by length of ownership, we apply weights for average length of ownership using Emrath's Survival Table. Using the weights, we recomputed average annual returns across all possible combinations of start and stop points for average length of ownership. The distribution continues to show that returns are concentrated around zero with skewness to the right; two-thirds of all investors in this distribution experience some degree of positive return (see chart3).

Distribution of Returns: Shiller Home Price Index

After getting a better feel for average annual returns on homes purchased using Shiller's real home price index, we thought it would be interesting to run through this same exercise with the S&P 500 Index (which we used as a proxy for the stock market) to provide an apples-to-apples comparison of the average annual returns that one could expect from an alternative investment in stocks. The results depict a wider distribution, with longer, fatter tails and some skewness to the right. In other words, there is more volatility in terms of return, but with that volatility comes an opportunity for larger gains over time (see chart 4). In fact, the weighted average annual return of the S&P 500 is 4.55 percent, compared to 0.97 percent for the Shiller real home price index.

Distribution of Returns: S&P 500 Index

As a final exercise, we added a time dimension and charted the average annual return on assets for housing and the S&P 500 Index assuming that each asset is held for 13 years from its purchase (see chart 5).

Average Annual Return on Assets Held for 13 Years

It's important to note that the distributions of returns for housing in all these computations are not the distribution of returns for every possible house purchase. Likewise, the returns shown for the S&P 500 are not the entire universe of returns from buying and selling individual stocks. Instead, these returns are based on a pool of housing and a pool of stocks. Therefore, the chart speaks not to the distributions of returns to individual assets, but the group as a whole. Further, the returns to housing in the chart ignore the fact that homeowners might have additional gains from owning if their mortgage replaces rent. Indeed, according to some calculations, homeowners who buy a home today and hold it for seven years can expect to pay 44 percent less than people who choose to rent.

Depicting average annual returns in this format helps to demonstrate two points. First, Shiller's point that "real home prices rose only 0.2 percent a year, on average" was not far off the mark, as returns on investments in housing using our approach do appear to hover around zero for most of the time series. Second, Shiller's comment that "it's hard for homes to compete with the stock market in real appreciation" seems to be fair. If a home is purchased only as an investment and not as a place to live, this comparison of average annual returns clearly shows that investing in equities offers favorable returns more often than investing in housing.

Photo of Ellie TerryBy Ellyn Terry, an economic policy specialist, and

Photo of Jessica DillJessica Dill, senior economic research analyst, both in the Atlanta Fed's research department