Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Home prices are irrelevant!

So argues Willem Buiter, a well-known monetary economist, in his FT blog. Why? The answer is that people usually live in their own house, hence:

As long as your endowment is positive, your wealth obviously increases when the house price increases. However, an increase in house prices means that the present discounted value of future rents has increased. As a consumer of housing services, now and in the future, you are therefore worse off. On average, in a country like the UK, people consume the housing services they own. Hence an increase in house prices does not make them better off. For financial assets like equity there is no corresponding “present discounted value of future equity services consumption” whose cost increases whenever the value of equity goes up. An increase in stock market values therefore unambiguously makes you better off.

But as regards house prices, regardless of whether a change in price is due to a change in risk-free discount rates, in risk premia or in expected future rents, you are neither better off nor worse off as a result of that price change, if you consume, now and in the future, the same contingent sequence of housing services whose present discounted value is part of the wealth you own. In that case, despite the increase in your housing wealth, once you have paid for the consumption of your initial contingent sequence of housing services, there will be nothing left to spend on anything else.

Great! So today's news of deepening falls in house prices in the U.S. can be happily dismissed. Move along, nothing to see here.

Back to reality, this is one of the most striking examples of ivory tower airy-fairy thinking I've come across in a while.

Now, Mr. Buiter's argument hinges on house prices being equal to the present value of future owner-equivalent rents. This simply does not hold up in real life. Judge for yourself:

There are many reasons for this. But in essence it comes down to the fact that people believe housing is real wealth. How else can one explain the decline ins the personal savings rate to almost zero in recent years?

So, yes, house prices do matter. How much? We'll find out soon enough.