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Fed Chairman Comments on Today’s Housing Market

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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke made the following speech at the 2012 National Association of Homebuilders International Builders’ Show, held in Orlando, Fla. on February 10.

Housing Markets in Transition
The economic recovery began more than two years ago, but it doesn’t feel like much of a recovery for many Americans—certainly for those of you who depend on the housing sector for your living, as well as for the millions of others who have seen their home values plummet or lost their homes through foreclosure. Though some progress has been made in reversing the losses in jobs and income sustained during the recession, the pace of expansion has been frustratingly slow and the unemployment rate remains very high by historical standards. The state of the housing sector has been a key impediment to a faster recovery. In the typical economic recovery, a resurgent housing sector helps fuel reemployment and rising incomes. But as you know all too well, that scenario has not played out this time. Although the precipitous declines in construction that began in 2006 are, thankfully, now behind us, home building remains depressed in most areas, relative both to where it was before the downturn and to where it will need to be to meet the needs of a growing population in the longer term.

The Federal Reserve has a keen interest in the state of housing and has been actively engaged in analyzing the housing and mortgage markets. Issues related to the housing market and housing finance are important factors in the Federal Reserve’s various roles in formulating monetary policy, regulating banks, and protecting consumers of financial services. Traditionally, mortgage interest rates have been a key transmission channel of monetary policy; and banks’ mortgage lending policies directly affect their own safety and soundness as well as the access of creditworthy households to mortgage credit.

Overview of the State of the Housing Market
One way to understand conditions in the housing market is to focus on the balance of supply and demand. For the past few years, the actual and potential supply of single-family homes has greatly exceeded the effective demand. The elevated number of homes that are currently vacant instead of owner occupied reflects the imbalance. According to the most recent estimate, about 1-3/4 million homes are currently unoccupied and for sale. While this figure has declined slightly during the past few years, it is nonetheless up dramatically from the first half of the 2000s, when readings of about 1-1/4 million vacant homes were the norm. Of course, housing conditions vary by region, and vacancy rates in some locations are substantially higher than the national average. For example, here in Florida the homeowner vacancy rate in the third quarter of 2011 averaged 3.2 percent, compared with the national average of 2.4 percent.

Moreover, a very large number of additional homes are poised to come on the owner-occupied market. In each of the past few years, roughly 2 million homes have entered the foreclosure process, and many of these homes have been put up for sale, crowding out much of the need for new building. Looking ahead, the relatively high rate of foreclosures is likely to continue for a while, putting additional homes on the market and dislocating families and disrupting communities in the process.

At the same time, a number of factors are constraining demand. Household formation has been down, particularly among young adults. High unemployment and uncertain job prospects may have reduced the willingness of some households to commit to homeownership. Availability of mortgage credit is an important constraint as well. Additionally, housing may no longer be viewed as the secure investment it once was thought to be, given uncertainty about future home prices and the economy more generally.

Not surprisingly, the large imbalance of supply and demand has been reflected in a drop in home values of historic proportions. Nationally, house prices have plunged about 30 percent in nominal terms from their peak and nearly 40 percent in real, or inflation-adjusted, terms. The imbalance of supply and demand has also been reflected in the decline in home construction. Since 2009, the pace of single-family housing starts has averaged less than 500,000 units per year. During the 15 years before the financial crisis, the pace of single-family starts had never fallen below 1 million units per year.

In contrast to the situation for owner-occupied homes, rental markets around the country have strengthened somewhat. In particular, vacancy rates for rental properties have declined and now stand near the lower end of their range over the past eight years. Not surprisingly, rents have been increasing and the construction of apartment buildings has picked up.

To recap, the housing sector continues to suffer from serious imbalances—a marked excess supply for owner-occupied housing accompanied by a stronger rental market. The narrative of the housing market over the next several years will revolve around the resolution of those imbalances.

To view Bernanke’s full speech, click here.

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