Boom and Bust in the Housing Market

A culture of consumerism is a factor "in an economy based on immediate gratification." Starting in 2005, American households have spent more than 99.5% of their disposable personal income on consumption or interest payments. If imputations mostly pertaining to owner-occupied housing are removed from these calculations, American households have spent more than their disposable personal income in every year starting in 1999.

Low interest rates and large inflows of foreign funds created easy credit conditions for a number of years prior to the crisis. The USA home ownership rate increased from 64% in 1994 (about where it had been since 1980) to an all-time high of 69.2% in 2004. Subprime lending was a major contributor to this increase in home ownership rates and in the overall demand for housing.

This rise in demand fueled rising house prices and consumer spending. Between 1997 and 2006, the price of the typical American house increased by 124%. During the two decades ending in 2001, the national median home price ranged from 2.9 to 3.1 times median household income. This ratio rose to 4.0 in 2004, and 4.6 in 2006. This housing bubble resulted in quite a few homeowners refinancing their homes at lower interest rates, or financing consumer spending by taking out second mortgages secured by the price appreciation. USA household debt as a percentage of annual disposable personal income was 142% at the end of 2007, versus 101% in 1999.

Household debt grew from $705 billion at yearend 1974, 60% of disposable personal income, to $7.4 trillion at yearend 2000, and finally to $14.5 trillion in midyear 2008, 134% of disposable personal income. During 2008, the typical USA household owned 13 credit cards, with 40% of households carrying a balance, up from 6% in 1970.

This credit and house price explosion led to a building boom and a surplus of unsold homes. Easy credit, and a belief that house prices would continue to appreciate, encouraged many subprime borrowers to obtain adjustable-rate mortgages. These mortgages enticed borrowers with a below market interest rate for some predetermined period, followed by market interest rates for the remainder of the mortgage's term. Borrowers who could not make the higher payments once the initial grace period ended would try to refinance their mortgages. Refinancing became more difficult, once house prices began to decline in many parts of the USA. Borrowers who found themselves unable to escape higher monthly payments by refinancing began to default.

By September 2008, average U.S. housing prices had declined by over 20% from their mid-2006 peak. This major and unexpected decline in house prices means that many borrowers have zero or negative equity in their homes, meaning their homes were worth less than their mortgages. As of March 2008, an estimated 8.8 million borrowers — 10.8% of all homeowners — had negative equity in their homes, a number that is believed to have risen to 12 million by November 2008. Borrowers in this situation have an incentive to "walk away" from their mortgages and abandon their homes, even though doing so will damage their credit rating for a number of years. The reason is that unlike what is the case in most other countries, American residential mortgages are non-recourse loans; once the creditor has regained the property purchased with a mortgage in default, he has no further claim against the defaulting borrower's income or assets. As more borrowers stop paying their mortgage payments, foreclosures and the supply of homes for sale increase. This places downward pressure on housing prices, which further lowers homeowners' equity. The decline in mortgage payments also reduces the value of mortgage-backed securities, which erodes the net worth and financial health of banks. This vicious cycle is at the heart of the crisis.

Increasing foreclosure rates increases the inventory of houses offered for sale. The number of new homes sold in 2007 was 26.4% less than in the preceding year. By January 2008, the inventory of unsold new homes was 9.8 times the December 2007 sales volume, the highest value of this ratio since 1981. Furthermore, nearly four million existing homes were for sale, of which almost 2.9 million were vacant. This overhang of unsold homes lowered house prices. As prices declined, more homeowners were at risk of default or foreclosure. House prices are expected to continue declining until this inventory of unsold homes (an instance of excess supply) declines to normal levels.

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