Delivery October 18, 2005, almost three years before Lehman bankruptcy, and a full year before housing prices finally did begin their downward spin.
In addition to the uncertainties raised by higher energy prices, there are downside risks to economic growth relating to the housing market. This sector has been a key source of strength in the current expansion, and the concern is that, if house prices fell, the negative impact on household wealth could lead to a pullback in consumer spending. Certainly, analyses do indicate that house prices are abnormally high—that there is a “bubble” element, even accounting for factors that would support high house prices, such as low mortgage interest rates. So a reversal is certainly a possibility. Moreover, even the portion of house prices that is explained by low mortgage rates is at risk. There is a controversy about just why the rates have stayed so low. Over the past year, the Fed has raised the federal funds rate significantly. Normally, long-term interest rates also rise with increases in the expected path for the federal funds rate. But, long-term rates—such as those on 30-year fixed rate mortgages—have actually fallen over the period. This is what Chairman Greenspan has labelled a conundrum because there seems to be no convincing explanation for it. So, we can’t rule out the possibility that they would rise to a more normal relationship with short-term rates. This obviously might take some of the “oomph” out of the housing market. My bottom line is that while I’m certainly not predicting anything about future house price movements, I think it’s obvious that a substantial cooling off of the housing sector represents a downside risk to the outlook for growth.