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What effect does negative equity have on mobility?
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A debate has broken out in the housing literature over the effect of negative equity on geographic mobility. The key question is whether homeowners with negative equity—those who are "under water"—are more or less likely to move relative to homeowners with positive equity. In a paper published in the Journal of Urban Economics last year (available on the New York Fed website), Fernando Ferreira, Joseph Gyourko, and Joseph Tracy (hereafter FGT leaving out these categories) argue that underwater owners are far less mobile. Using data from 1985 to 2005, they find that negative equity reduces the two-year mobility rate of the average American household by approximately 50 percent. This is a very large effect and, if true, FGT's findings have important policy implications for both the housing market and the labor market today. For example, the economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, in testimony to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress on December 10, 2009, stated:
But the weak housing market will contribute to high unemployment and lower productivity in another way: a distinguishing feature of America's labor market is its high mobility. But if individuals' mortgages are underwater or if home equity is significantly eroded, they will be unable to reinvest in a new home.
The fear is that if people with negative equity can't move to new jobs, then the job-matching efficiency of the U.S. labor market will suffer, putting upward pressure on the unemployment rate. This type of "house lock" is exactly what the economy doesn't need as it emerges from the recent housing crisis and recession.
However, recent research by Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, an economist from the Minneapolis Fed, casts doubt on FGT's conclusions, as well as the economic intuition in Stiglitz's testimony. Schulhofer-Whol replicated the FGT analysis using the same data set (the American Housing Survey, or AHS) over the same sample period. But he found the exact opposite result: negative equity significantly increases geographic mobility.
What is the source of the discrepancy?
The difference in results stems from what at first blush seems like a small discrepancy in how the two papers identify household moves in the AHS. Here are the details: the AHS is conducted every two years by the U.S. Census Bureau as a panel survey of homes. That means that AHS interviewers go to the same homes every two years to record who lives there (among other pieces of information). For a home that is owner-occupied in one survey year, there are four possibilities regarding its status two years later. First, the home could still be owner-occupied by the same household as before. Second, the home could be owner-occupied by a different household. Third, it could be occupied by a different household that rents the home but doesn't own it. Finally, the home could be vacant.
In their paper, FGT treated the first category as a non-move and the second category as a move. FGT threw out of their analysis any observations that fell into the third and fourth categories.1 Dropping these last two categories, rather than coding them as moves, introduces significant bias into FGT's results. As Schulhofer-Wohl notes, it effectively assumes that households in negative equity positions are no more likely to rent out their homes, or leave them vacant when they move, than are households with positive equity. But it is relatively straightforward to show that this assumption is not borne out in the data. Specifically, Schulhofer-Wohl finds that positive-equity households who move sell their houses to new owner-occupiers two-thirds of the time. The other two possibilities (renting out the home or leaving it vacant) combine to occur only one-third of the time. In contrast, among negative-equity households who move, sales to new owner-occupant households occur half of the time, with the other two possibilities occurring the other half. Thus, by dropping the last two categories of transitions, FGT are artificially increasing the mobility rate of positive equity households relative to negative equity households.
Schulhofer-Wohl recodes the moving variable so that instances in which an owner-occupied home is rented or vacated also count as moves. He then re-estimates FGT's regressions. The coding change reverses the estimated relationship between negative equity and mobility. The new estimates show that negative equity raises the probability of moving by 10 to 18 percent, relative to the overall probability of moving in the AHS data. This of course is in marked contrast to FGT's results, where negative equity was found to significantly decrease the probability of moving.
What does theory tell us?
When thinking about what economic theory might say about the relationship between negative equity and mobility, it is important to distinguish how equity might affect selling versus how equity might affect moving. FGT write that their results suggest a role for what behavioral economists call "loss aversion." In this context, loss aversion can occur when owners are reluctant to turn paper losses into real ones by selling a home that has fallen in price. But, as Schulhofer-Wohl's analysis makes clear, it is possible and even common for households to move to different houses without selling their old ones. That means that loss aversion potentially affects the probability of selling a home without affecting the probability of moving.
Of course, while moving and selling are theoretically distinct, they often occur together in practice. One reason for the tight relationship between moving and selling involves liquidity constraints. Even short-distance moves entail nontrivial transaction costs, so households that do not have liquid wealth may not be able to move without selling their home. As a result, to the extent that negative equity decreases the probability of selling (via loss aversion), it may also decrease the probability of moving.
Besides loss aversion, there are at least two other channels through which liquidity constraints are relevant for the way that negative equity affects homeowner mobility. By definition, underwater households cannot retire their mortgages by selling their houses. Liquidity-constrained households that are also under water do not have the cash to make up the difference between the outstanding mortgage balance and sale price. As a result, negative equity could reduce selling (and, by extension, moving). On the other hand, liquidity-constrained households are more likely to simply default on their mortgages. Thus, negative equity might increase the probability of moving, though the moves that it facilitates are accompanied by foreclosures and not sales. Note that this "default channel" between negative equity and mobility depends importantly on expectations of future housing prices. Negative-equity households who do not think housing prices will rise any time soon are more likely to default on their mortgages, and thus move, than households who think that higher prices and restored housing equity are just around the corner.
The offsetting implications of liquidity constraints on mobility mean that theory doesn't provide a clean prediction for how negative equity should affect mobility. The question boils down to which implication is dominant in the data. The findings from the Schulhofer-Wohl paper suggest that the default channel may be relatively large, so concern about negative equity impeding homeowner mobility may be overblown.
Are these studies relevant to the current environment?
The sample period for both papers we have discussed ended in 2005. While we certainly believe that the issue addressed by both papers is very important, and that the Schulhofer-Wohl analysis corrects an important omission in the FGT study, we would offer a cautionary note to those who would extrapolate the findings of these studies to the current environment. The period 1985–2005 was a boom time in housing markets for most areas of the country. One way to see this is by noting the low number of negative equity observations in both the FGT and Schulhofer-Wohl papers. The majority of negative equity observations in the AHS data is likely from only a couple of areas in the country and from a narrow time period (most likely from the East and West coasts in the late 1980s and early 1990s). These places and time periods may be unrepresentative of the average negative-equity owner today.
Even more importantly, there were very few foreclosures from 1985 to 2005 relative to the past several years. This paucity of foreclosures was probably due not only to the low number of negative-equity households, but also to the low probability of foreclosure conditional on having negative equity. Recall that if housing prices are generally rising, households with negative equity will try hard to hang on to their homes and reap the benefits of future price appreciation, even if they are liquidity-constrained. It's probably safe to say that price expectations are lower today than they were in 1985–2005. Because low price expectations increase defaults, and because defaults and foreclosures increase the mobility of negative-equity owners through the default channel, it might be the case that the current effect of negative-equity on mobility is not only positive, but also even larger than the positive estimates in Schulhofer-Wohl's paper.
Research economist and assistant policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
1 This coding choice is not divulged in the FGT paper. The authors confirmed in private correspondence that it was a conscious decision to omit these categories and not a coding error, and that they are currently working on a revision of their original work that will address this issue.
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