The Economy in the Plastic Bubble

By: Michael Ashton | Thu, Mar 21, 2013
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We're going to leave behind the topic of Cyprus for a day. It does seem as if events are coming to a head, but with banks there closed until Tuesday (and the ECB lifeline in place until Monday), there will be lots of news over the next few days but most of it will be heat without light.

So, speaking of heat and light, let's look at today's data. Specifically, let's look at Existing Home Sales.

While the total sales number fell just shy of the 5mm-unit level, the 4.98mm print still represented the highest number (aside from the home-buyer-tax-credit induced surge in 2009) since 2007 (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Existing Home Sales Chart

The inventory of homes available for sale bounced off of 14-year lows, but remains at levels lower than any we've seen in over a decade.

And, near and dear to my heart, the median price of existing homes accelerated from last month (although, due to historical revisions, last month's y/y was revised down to 10.67%) and stands at 11.34%. The January Home Price Index from FHA also came out; the 6.46% year-on-year rate of increase in that index is also the highest post-2007.

There are long lags between both of these indices and the appearance of price pressures in the Consumer Price Index, but at the moment all indicators of housing point the same direction: Owner's Equivalent Rent should be in the 2.75% neighborhood by year-end, and could be as high as 3%. This is a key part of our forecast that core CPI should reach 2.6%-3.0% by year-end, and accelerate further in 2014.

The amazing recent run in home prices - which I suspect is driven in part by institutional investor interest in real estate - has caused existing home prices as a multiple of household income to move above levels that prevailed for the last quarter-century of the 20th century. The housing industry likes to present charts of housing affordability, which takes into account the current level of interest rates, because currently those interest rates make even the relatively high home prices look more affordable.

Yes, I said "relatively high home prices." The median sales price of existing homes averaged 3.36x median household income from 1975 to 2000, with a relatively small range of values around that average. Even including the bubble, when the multiples reached 4.8x, the average through 2011 only rose to 3.54. As of year-end 2012, the multiple was back to approximately 3.48 and if median prices rise "only" 8% this year (remember, the current pace is 11.3% and rising) the multiple will be around 3.6x by the end of the year (see chart, source U.S. Census Bureau, National Association of Realtors, Enduring Investments).

Median Existing Home Price vs Median Household Income

Notice that even at the depths of the crisis, home prices were only slightly cheap by pre-2000 standards. Similarly, equity prices at the lows only reached approximately fair value by pre-2000 standards. There are two interpretations of this fact set. It could mean that the pre-2000 era valuations were too low, and that modern financial markets and structures make higher valuation multiples permanently viable. Or it could mean that the Federal Reserve continues to artificially support markets at multiples that are not likely to be sustainable in the long run. I suspect the latter point is more accurate, although I am open-minded about whether the former point might have some validity.

This isn't necessarily a bad strategy, if the idea is to let the market stair-step down to equilibrium rather than letting it crash there all at once. But I don't see anything that suggests the Federal Reserve has the slightest idea how to value assets. I understand that they don't want to substitute their own analysis for the market's judgment (at least, that would be the counterargument), but that's what they're doing anyway - with no indication that they plan to back off anytime soon. The Fed is just more comfortable in the bubble, and afraid to leave it entirely. But don't we have to, eventually?

The VIX returned to 14 today, which makes a bit more sense to me than the 12.7 level of yesterday. It still seems low to me, but at least there is a way for long-vol positions to actually lose.

 


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Michael Ashton

Author: Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton, CFA
E-Piphany

Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton is Managing Principal at Enduring Investments LLC, a specialty consulting and investment management boutique that offers focused inflation-market expertise. He may be contacted through that site. He is on Twitter at @inflation_guy

Prior to founding Enduring Investments, Mr. Ashton worked as a trader, strategist, and salesman during a 20-year Wall Street career that included tours of duty at Deutsche Bank, Bankers Trust, Barclays Capital, and J.P. Morgan.

Since 2003 he has played an integral role in developing the U.S. inflation derivatives markets and is widely viewed as a premier subject matter expert on inflation products and inflation trading. While at Barclays, he traded the first interbank U.S. CPI swaps. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the CPI Futures contract that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange listed in February 2004 and was the lead market maker for that contract. Mr. Ashton has written extensively about the use of inflation-indexed products for hedging real exposures, including papers and book chapters on "Inflation and Commodities," "The Real-Feel Inflation Rate," "Hedging Post-Retirement Medical Liabilities," and "Liability-Driven Investment For Individuals." He frequently speaks in front of professional and retail audiences, both large and small. He runs the Inflation-Indexed Investing Association.

For many years, Mr. Ashton has written frequent market commentary, sometimes for client distribution and more recently for wider public dissemination. Mr. Ashton received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Trinity University in 1990 and was awarded his CFA charter in 2001.

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