Monday, August 22, 2005

Mr. Bubble's Worried Again :: NYT


Today, nine years after his lunch with Mr. Greenspan and five years after the markets finally did crash, Mr. Shiller is sounding the same warning for real estate that he did for stocks. In speeches, in television and radio interviews and in a second edition of his prophetic 2000 book, "Irrational Exuberance," he is arguing that the housing craze is another bubble destined to end badly, just as every other real-estate boom on record has.

These, in short, are his second 15 minutes of gloom. He predicts that prices could fall 40 percent in inflation-adjusted terms over the next generation and that the end of the bubble will probably cause a recession at some point.

Despite being a boyish-looking 59-year-old academic economist with a halting speaking manner, he has become the bugaboo of the multibillion-dollar real-estate industry.
. . .
Most people have never looked at decades and decades of home prices, because such data have been almost impossible to find. Stock-market charts often go back almost a century. Housing charts typically start sometime in the distant decade of the 1970's.

But Mr. Shiller has unearthed some rare historical housing data for other countries. Using old classified advertisements, he was then able to fashion a chart for the United States that goes back to the 19th century.

It all points to an unavoidable truth, he says. Every housing boom of the last few centuries has been followed by decades in which home values fell relative to inflation. Over the long term, the portion of income that families spend on their shelter stays about the same.

Builders become more efficient, as they are doing today. Places that were once sleepy hinterlands, like the counties south of San Francisco or a patch of desert in southern Nevada, turn into bustling centers that take pressure off prices elsewhere. Even now, the United States remains a mostly empty nation.

"This is the biggest boom we've ever had," said Mr. Shiller, who bought into the boom himself in 2002, with a vacation home near one of Connecticut's Thimble Islands.
Although I remain convinced the U.S. is in a housing bubble, it is odd that Shiller's buying and holding real estate.

Mr. Shiller has little company for his radical notion that house prices could fall by 40 percent. Many economists say that interest rates are low enough and demand for housing in big urban areas is high enough to keep from prices from falling very far. Mr. Shiller himself confesses to some doubt.

"I don't have any certainty," he said. "I have a lot of humility" about any prediction.

"We do have a shortage of land in the prestige areas, and so there is a potential for them to go up," he added. "But I just know that the trend over the last century has been for new prestige areas to appear."


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