The Coming Real Estate Recovery — By The Numbers

I have been analyzing real estate and construction since 1991. I can’t even say that our current real estate collapse is unprecedented, because to me it’s not – I went through the Asian Financial Crisis, and this is like that. As a matter of fact, the Hongkong real estate slump of 1994-95 was pretty serious even before the Big One two years later. And Japan’s real estate collapse has been both huge and enduring.

But I well remember my first AFC trip to the region. I had been correctly bearish in 1997 and I was analyzing from afar, unwilling to allow myself to make the trip in case my natural sympathy with people should overcome my brutally harsh analysis. So instead of my usual five-times-a-year Asia trips, I took no trips in 1997. Finally in the first quarter of 1998 I was sure things were as bad as they were going to get, and I did not have to worry about personal contagion any longer. I flew into Seoul, and was driven immediately in a black car to the Bank of Korea. Along the way I saw the debris from anti-government demonstrations and grafitti saying “IMF = I AM F**KED”. The last two hundred yards of the way to the BOK, the car went slowly enough for me to see the sad, sunken faces looking with deep suspicion at a foreigner in a limo on his way to the central bank.

From Seoul I flew to Singapore on a Singapore Airlines wide-body aircraft with exactly three passengers on it, just me and a honeymooning couple.

In Bangkok, I visited the offices of one of the big commercial real estate brokers, where the Englishman in charge appeared a broken man. We looked out over the vast city with its forest of cranes all idle for the first time in memory. “No one will build another class A building in Bangkok for fifteen years,” he said.

But he was wrong. Capital did re-form in the real estate markets, and things were humming again inside of three years.

That’s good, and I expect we can look forward to some similar unexpectedly rapid recovery. But enough talk already. What do the data say we can expect here? Let’s dig into the housing market data.

For a long time I have resisted the popular Case-Shiller 20-City Housing Index, for many reasons. I think Shiller’s nutty professor act is off-putting, as is the false precision in the reports, the short history, and my sense that it is hard to index lumpy and illiquid stuff like houses. But everyone now uses it, so I have to relent.

I refer to short history — Professors Case and Shiller only reach back to 1987, which misses the booms and busts of the seventies and early eighties. I can’t deal with that, so here’s what I did. I took their data, and lined them up with Census data going back to 1959, data that HUD also reports. I did some regressions and other hand-waving trend analysis to try to extend the Case-Shiller Index back in time.

Hey, if hand-waving is good enough for the Treasury Secretary, it’s good enough for me.

I got GDP, PCE Housing, and 10-year Note Yield data (the latter my mortgage interest rate proxy) from my good friend Fred at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, and lined that up with the housing index stuff reported by the good professors and massaged by me.

Six recessions have been observed since 1959. Twenty quarters (five years) after trough recessionary conditions, the average increase in the price index has been 46.3%, the median increase 55.2%, the maximum 79.8% and the minimum -0.3%.

Eight interest rate spikes over the same period have seen the average price increase 30.0% twenty quarters later, or 34.5% on a median basis. The maximum increase was 75.9% and the minimum -22.3% (i.e. a more than 20% drop, in the period in which we now find ourselves).

There have been only five episodes of declining prices, of which this is by far the worst. Twenty quarters after the midpoint of these episodes, prices are 18.8% higher (average), 17.1% (median), 75.7% higher at best and down 28.3% at worst. But leaving out the current episode, which I suppose is not finished, the figures are respectively 46.3%, 55.2%, 79.8%, and -0.3%.

Food for thought.

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