Blogger keeps finger on pulse of housing market
As housing prices soared, Bill McBride sensed a lie.
In 2005, the retired technology executive saw signs of the bubble everywhere.
He chatted up a woman at his gym who had bought a home priced at 10 times her annual income. He heard “spiky-haired” young mortgage peddlers preaching that “any equity in your home is dead money.” And he read the data: How could homeownership hit record highs as household incomes stagnated?
McBride founded his finance blog, Calculated Risk, to warn the world about a looming housing market collapse. As his analyses proved increasingly on the mark, he gained the attention of notable economists and his audience grew.
These days, Calculated Risk has become a go-to source for Wall Street, the media, academics and anyone else looking for authoritative analysis of housing and the broader economy. When McBride makes a prediction — as when he called a housing bottom early in 2012 — the housing world takes note.
“If you only follow one economics blog, it has to be Calculated Risk,” said James Hamilton, an economics professor at UC San Diego. “If you find yourself reaching a different conclusion from Bill about where the economy is headed, my recommendation is think again.”
Although many economics blogs have ideological slants, Calculated Risk established a reputation as an objective source of commentary on an increasingly politicized topic. The blog’s name — borrowed from that of a friend’s boat — accurately implies an impartial, yet edgy, take on the economy.
But McBride himself has remained somewhat a mystery. Even while promoting his work, McBride shunned the spotlight personally. He wrote anonymously during the first years he blogged, which only heightened interest among a growing number of followers.
“He was one of the first people to stand up and, objectively, just by brutally falling back on the facts, just say that the emperor didn’t have any clothes,” said longtime reader Stan Humphries, Zillow.com’s chief economist. “It was this deep mystery about who this guy actually was. I remember the first time I went and met him, it was like meeting Batman.”
McBride, 58, writes Calculated Risk from his home in Corona del Mar. Although his surroundings are posh, he maintains a simple lifestyle. He has never been married. He is an avid hiker. Photographs of Yellowstone National Park and other natural wonders adorn his walls, but there are few other decorating flourishes of note.
A recent weekday afternoon found McBride in his home office in jeans and sneakers, briskly delving through the most recent auto sales numbers on his Dell desktop. Although McBride is best known for his housing calls, he covers all types of economic indicators including major releases on consumer confidence and employment data, as well as more obscure data points such as port traffic and architecture billings.
“He seems to work almost all the time,” housing economist Thomas Lawler said. “And he actually follows not just reports on the standard data, but he seems to just follow an extraordinarily large number of indicators.”
To keep track of all the facts, McBride said, he maintains about 50 Excel spreadsheets at any given time. Data is at the core of nearly everything written on Calculated Risk, whether McBride is covering news, making a prediction, arguing an economic point or mocking a newspaper headline.
McBride follows data sets with religious vigor, arising at 5 a.m. to blog the first economic releases of the day and continuing into late afternoon. Reflecting this rhythm, Calculated Risk is set on Eastern Standard Time, though McBride often credits living in California with helping him understand the housing market.
“I saw firsthand what was happening,” McBride said. “A lot of those analysts, maybe living in New York, they live in their own little world. Maybe if they’d gone out to Brooklyn they would have seen it.”
McBride grew up in San Diego, the son of a Navy fighter pilot. He studied chemistry at UC Irvine and later earned a master’s in business administration there.
After retiring, McBride volunteered for Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign, convinced that the Iraq war was initiated by the Bush administration based on manufactured data. It was while working on the Kerry campaign that McBride first gained an interest in blogging, he said. But rather than focusing on politics, he wanted to explore the main thing on his mind: housing.
One of McBride’s first blog posts, in January 2005 — well before the housing bubble burst in 2007 — used a simple analysis of home price data, household income and mortgage interest rates to argue that home prices were overvalued 14%. The situation was probably “due to speculation or easy terms” that included no-money-down loans and adjustable-rate mortgages, he wrote.
He soon caught the attention of the blog Angry Bear, which asked him to begin writing about housing for the site. With the exposure from Angry Bear, Web traffic to Calculated Risk grew fast, particularly after Doris Dungey, a mortgage professional, began commenting and then posting under the name Tanta.
Tanta’s dissection of the mortgage market helped the blog gain fans, including researchers at the Federal Reserve, who cited her work in one of their publications. Dungey, who suffered from ovarian cancer, died in 2008.
In a recent New York Times blog post titled “All Hail Calculated Risk,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote that McBride’s “analysis, more than anyone else’s, gave me a heads-up on the housing bubble, and has helped me along the way on many other issues.”
Mark Thoma, an economics professor at the University of Oregon who writes the Economist’s View blog, said McBride has succeeded where trained economists have failed because he’s not bound by economic theory, which generally holds that prices accurately reflect underlying value.
“One of the things he really taught me is that you have to listen to people outside of academics,” Thoma said.
In February 2012, McBride was among some of the earliest of market watchers to call a definitive end to the housing downturn.
“It now appears we can look for the bottom in prices,” McBride wrote. He received a number of angry emails, calling him too optimistic. But that early prediction has grown into a consensus on housing as home sales have improved and prices have risen.
McBride again credits not only the data but also his California point of view.
“Here I can drive to Temecula and visit a friend and see what’s going on,” McBride said. “You can see things are improving. Talk to people; they say business is doing better.”