Monday, May 28, 2007

George Akerlof's Presidential Address

This is well worth reading:

Apparently, a fair number of economists didn't like this, because it states that empirical findings undermine a number of neoclassical totems, such as the Permanent Income Hypothesis. But if we want to be a reality-base profession...

C Students

I think C students can be divided into roughly three types.

The first type sees the universe through a different prism than most of us, and often has wonderful insights that do not translate well to the stylized task of exam writing. I am grateful for these C students.

The second type must deliver pizza and clean bathrooms to pay for tuition, and so has compromised time and energy with which to do school work. I am grateful for these C students as well.

The third type is lazy, arrogant and uncaring. I was thinking about this third type while sitting on the lawn at Wolftrap for Prairie Home Companion the other day. Garrison Kieler was reading hellos to service members in Iraq and Afghanistan from their family members in the audience, and I found myself misting up a bit as I listened. The habits of the third type of C student has placed more than 150,000 young men and women in far more danger than they need to be, and those same habits are keeping them in danger longer than necessary.

Friday, May 25, 2007

When is the bottom of the housing market coming?

I don't know--and neither does anyone else. Here are three things to consider, however:

(1) A good harbinger of the housing market is the months supply measure. When the months supply rises beyond six months, it is hard to make a case for house prices going up anytime soon, unless builders stop building altogether. The reason: it takes about six months to build a house in most markets (i.e., to get from the beginning of the permitting process to the finished product). Thus prices have to fall until the inventory is absorbed.

The good news is that homebuilding has slowed down a lot, and that the months supply measure for new homes fell well below six months in April. The bad news is that the months supply of Existing Home Sales continues to rise, and is currently at 8.4 months. The other bad news (in a sense) is that the Existing Sales number is much less prone to revision than the New Sales number, and reflects actual closed sales, instead of sales contracts. Until the Existing Home Sales months supply number turns around, it is hard to see when the bottom will come.

(2) While the national number is important from a macroeconomic and mortgage securitization standpoint, it is not helpful to buyers in local markets. Some markets have supplies of less than six months, and buyers in these markets, particularly those who are planning to live in one place for awhile, just shouldn't worry about short-term price fluctuations. But other markets have huge supply gluts; in these markets, potential first time homebuyers are better off renting for awhile.

(3) Housing markets have substantial intrametropolitan variation. The detached housing market can be considerably different from the Condo market; housing near transportation lines can retain its value better than housing in far-flung suburbs. Moreover, there are some opportunities in weakness. I was looking at the San Diego MLS listings recently. Houses that would have been out of range for a finance professor a few years ago (i.e., houses with ocean views) are now within range. The principal reason to buy a house is the consumption benefit of the house--when an opportunity arises to obtain a great place to live, it is worth considering. Just don't be naive about it--make sure you plan on living in one place for a long time (in which case resale value doesn't matter so much), that you can afford the place with a fixed rate mortgage, and that you don't mind knowing that its price might go down for awhile before starting back up again.

Monday, May 21, 2007

It's been too long

The past two months have passed too quickly. One week I spent teaching finance in Busan. Korea is a remarkable place. When first I visited in 1992, it was clearly a place on the rise, but also one that retained a large number of very poor people, many of whom lived in very poor housing conditions. I have been back three times since then. The extreme poverty seems pretty much gone now, as its per capita GDP has risen from about 1/4 US and Japanese levels in 1990 to 1/2 US and 2/3 Japanese levels today. At the end of the Korean War, per capita GDP was roughly a dollar a day.

Korea is an exilerating place, because it has come so far so quickly, and as such, is an example for poor countries all over the world. It is hard to know the "secret," though, other than the fact that education has been an important part of the culture for a long time, and Korean parents probably care even more than Montgomery County parents about how well their kids do in school.

The infrastructure in Busan is quite remarkable, with a wonderful metro system, good roads, and one of the most beautiful suspension bridges I have ever seen. (The image below is from Slate). The city is the second largest in Korea, and trying to become the financial services center of the country. But it is still off the beaten path--as a Westerner I felt quite conspicuous.