Time to let home prices fall?

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Market Beat

You can’t force someone to buy a house.

But as a society we’ve long tried to make homeownership an offer you couldn’t refuse.

And since the real estate mega-bubble burst three years ago, the government has tried even more tricks to get people to sign home purchase contracts.

Now, a grim reality has set in: Despite the still-rich basket of tax breaks for residential property owners, and the lowest mortgage rates in a generation, the pool of willing or able buyers is dwindling.

The housing market’s new woes expose the limits of government’s ability to end the real estate bust, while also raising the odds that policymakers could resort to more dramatic moves to try to support the market.

Reports this week on home purchases in July were beyond dismal. Sales of existing homes tumbled 27% from June and 25% from a year earlier. New-home sales slumped to an annualized rate of just 276,000 units, down 32% from July 2009 and the lowest since at least the early 1960s.

Some of the fall-off undoubtedly reflected the spring expiration of the latest federal housing gimmick — tax credits of $8,000 for first-time buyers who met certain income requirements, and $6,500 for repeat buyers.

But it can’t be a coincidence that the summer plunge in housing demand occurred as faith in the year-old economic recovery continued to wane.

“It’s not a housing issue anymore — it’s an overall economic issue,” said David Crowe, chief economist for the National Assn. of Home Builders.

Historically, housing has led the way in recoveries. “But this is a case where housing is going to follow the economy, not lead it,” Crowe said.

You need a job to afford a home, unless you’re rolling in cash, and everyone knows that the U.S. has created precious few net new jobs since April — just 80,000 over the last three months in a nation of 310 million people.

The national unemployment rate remains stuck at 9.5%, and even among workers who have jobs more than one-quarter live in fear of being laid off, according to a Gallup poll this month.

How do you stoke housing demand given that backdrop?

Congress figured the tax-credit giveaway would encourage buyers, and it did to an extent. The credit helped boost sales of existing homes to an annualized rate of 5.79 million units in April, up from about 5 million in January and February.

But the risk of offering any giveaway with a deadline (in this case, April 30) is that it will artificially inflate activity for a limited period and simply steal from future sales.

“We conferred an $8,000 benefit on people who were going to buy a house anyway,” asserts David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities in New York.

Though government intervention may be well-meaning, each new effort “completely clouds whether there has been any fundamental improvement in the housing market,” he said.

And if you didn’t buy in time to get the credit, you may well figure that if you wait long enough Congress will bring it back. So why rush to buy now? The 2010 credit, after all, was an extension of one that expired last November.

Over the last two years, federal attempts to help brake the housing market’s plunge have been monumental, of course.

The U.S. has nationalized the biggest sources of mortgage credit ( Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), pushed home loan rates sharply lower via Federal Reserve purchases of mortgage-backed bonds, and offered to pay banks to get them to agree to loan modifications for struggling borrowers.

A new program will offer no-interest loans of up to $50,000 for unemployed homeowners to help them make their mortgage payments until they find work.

The Obama administration “has taken a broad set of actions to help stabilize the housing market and help American homeowners,” Treasury spokesman Mark Paustenbach said.

Those programs surely get some credit for the uptick in home prices over the last year. The S&P/Case-Shiller index of home prices in 20 U.S. cities bottomed in April 2009 after plunging 33% from its peak in July 2006. The most recent report, for May, showed the index up 4.7% from a year earlier.

Government policy has been aimed at slowing or stopping the decline in prices, for obvious reasons: A further drop in home values would push more owners underwater, meaning their homes would be worth less than their mortgage balance. An estimated 21.5% of single-family homes with mortgages were underwater in the second quarter, down from 23% a year earlier, according to Zillow Real Estate Market Reports.

A continuing rise in house prices would mean that more homeowners who can no longer afford their mortgages might be able to sell for enough to cover their loans, thus avoiding adding to the mountain of homes already in foreclosure. About 4.6% of all loans outstanding were in the foreclosure process at the end of June, according to the Mortgage Bankers Assn.

Yet the collapse in home sales in July suggests that prices overall are likely to begin sliding again. Despite average 30-year mortgage rates under 4.4%, many would-be buyers who can get financing must not believe that prices are attractive enough to justify taking the plunge.

Given the 4 million existing homes on the market – an inventory that could double based on the number of homes in foreclosure – buyers clearly have the upper hand now.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington, believes home prices still are overvalued by 15% to 20% in many areas.

For government to stand in the way of a further price decline is unfair to the next generation of buyers, he said. “The people who get hurt the most are those who are overpaying for houses today,” he said.

Robert Shiller, co-creator of the S&P/Case-Shiller price indexes, said that although he doesn’t forecast prices, “I think the scenario of declining home prices for years to come is underemphasized by people.”

That’s an argument for allowing the housing market to hit bottom sooner, so that a genuine recovery also can begin sooner.

The risk is that another downward spiral in home prices would feed a deflationary mind-set, meaning the sense that prices for all sorts of goods, services and assets can only go lower. That could cause many consumers to severely rein in spending, leading to another recession, or worse.

But a new decline in home values also could force the banking system, and the government, to finally deal realistically with a root cause of the economy’s woes: the gigantic debt load consumers took on over the last two decades.

The Obama administration’s program to persuade banks to modify troubled home loans has met with relatively little success. And few banks over the last year have been willing to take the step of permanently reducing struggling borrowers’ mortgage debt to keep them in their homes.

The initial wave of subprime mortgage foreclosures caused a torrent of losses for the financial system. Writing down millions more mortgages could cause another wave of red ink.

Christian Weller, an economist at the Center for American Progress in Washington, argues that debt reduction on a huge scale is inevitable. “Right now the pain is with the consumer,” he said. “We should force the banks to take some of that pain.”

Another idea, endorsed by Pimco bond guru Bill Gross, is for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to allow even underwater homeowners to refinance their mortgages at current low rates, reducing their monthly payments. No bank on its own would refi a home with negative equity. But the government already bears the risk of default by these borrowers on their Fannie and Freddie loans. Refinancing wouldn’t raise that risk.

Richard Green, director of USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate, suggests that lenders and the government should embrace the idea of converting troubled loans into shared-equity mortgages, which forgive a portion of a borrower’s principal in return for a stake in any future equity gain when the home is sold.

All of these ideas, however, are bailouts of one sort or another. “There is no ‘fair’ answer here,” Green concedes.

Well, there is one: Leave housing to market forces, let prices fall until buyers are motivated to come in, and hope that the economy can stand one final cathartic wave to clear the excesses of the bubble.