Friday, July 31, 2009

Two verities of real estate investment

Over the past few days, I have been in San Francisco, and have had the privilege of meeting with four real estate executives whom I am trying to interest in participating with the Lusk Center in one way or another. They are all doing remarkably well, all things considered, and some of the things they said to me explain why. Two things stand out:

(1) When investing in real estate, underwrite the real estate without consideration for financing. Unless the deal earns an acceptable unlevered internal rate of return, don't do the deal.

(2) If a deal depends on a going-out (i.e. exit) cap rate that is lower than the going-in (i.e., purchase) cap rate, don't do the deal.

The Truth About Amsterdam, RE: Bill O'Reilly loves Amsterdam

Amsterdam has a great orchestra, too.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Michael Lacour-Little says it's all about the refinances

He points me to:

Why are so many homeowners underwater on their mortgages?

In crafting programs to prevent foreclosures, policymakers have assumed that the primary reason homeowners owe more on their home than it is worth is that they bought at the top of the market. In other words, they’ve lost equity primarily through forces beyond their control.

A new study challenges this premise and finds that excessive borrowing may have played as great a role.

Michael LaCour-Little, a finance professor at California State University at Fullerton, looked at 4,000 foreclosures in Southern California from 2006-08. He found that, at least in Southern California, borrowers who defaulted on their mortgages didn’t purchase their homes at the top of the market. Instead, the average acquisition was made in 2002 and many homes lost to foreclosure were bought in the 1990s. More than half of all borrowers who lost their homes had already refinanced at least once, and four out of five had a second mortgage.

The original loan-to-value ratio for these borrowers stood at a reasonable 84%, but second and third liens left homeowners with a combined loan-to-value ratio of about 150% by the time of the foreclosure sale date.

Borrowers, meanwhile, took out around $2 billion in equity from their homes, or nearly eight times the $262 million that they put into their homes. Lenders lost around four times as much as borrowers, seeing $1 billion in losses.

“[W]hile house price declines were important in explaining the incidence of negative equity, its magnitude was more strongly influenced by increased debt usage,” writes Mr. LaCour-Little. “Hence, borrower behavior, rather than housing market forces, is the predominant factor affecting outcomes.”

If other housing markets across the country offer similar findings, then the study argues that current “policies aimed at protecting homeowners from foreclosure are misguided” because lenders, and not borrowers, have born the lion’s share of economic losses.

Borrowers that bought homes without ever putting any or little equity in their homes could have seen huge returns on investment simply by extracting cash through refinancing. “Why such borrowers should enjoy any special government benefits such as waiver of the income taxation on debt forgiveness or subsidized loan modifications to reduce their borrowing costs is at best unclear,” the authors write.

Michael is a co-author of mine (and was a student at Wisconsin while I taught there), and has a gift for slicing up mortgage data. On the policy question, we might think about treating the half who did not refinance differently, as they were drowned by the flood.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An Interview with Kenneth Arrow, Part One - Conor Clarke

An Interview with Kenneth Arrow, Part One - Conor Clarke

Shared via AddThis

Stanley Fish and Chris Rock make the same point

Fish writes about Henry Louis Gates' time at Duke:

I flashed back 20 years or so to the time when Gates arrived in Durham, N.C., to take up the position I had offered him in my capacity as chairman of the English department of Duke University. One of the first things Gates did was buy the grandest house in town (owned previously by a movie director) and renovate it. During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake.

The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?

At the university (which in a past not distant at all did not admit African-Americans ), Gates’s reception was in some ways no different. Doubts were expressed in letters written by senior professors about his scholarly credentials, which were vastly superior to those of his detractors. (He was already a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the so called “genius award.”) There were wild speculations (again in print) about his salary, which in fact was quite respectable but not inordinate; when a list of the highest-paid members of the Duke faculty was published, he was nowhere on it.

The unkindest cut of all was delivered by some members of the black faculty who had made their peace with Duke traditions and did not want an over-visible newcomer and upstart to trouble waters that had long been still. (The great historian John Hope Franklin was an exception.) When an offer came from Harvard, there wasn’t much I could do. Gates accepted it, and when he left he was pursued by false reports about his tenure at what he had come to call “the plantation.” (I became aware of his feelings when he and I and his father watched the N.C.A.A. championship game between Duke and U.N.L.V. at my house; they were rooting for U.N.L.V.)

And now Chris Rock:

I will give you an example of how race affects my life. I live in a place called Alpine, New Jersey. Live in Alpine, New Jersey, right? My house costs millions of dollars. [some whistles and cheers from the audience] Don't hate the player, hate the game. In my neighborhood, there are four black people. Hundreds of houses, four black people. Who are these black people? Well, there's me, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy. Only black people in the whole neighborhood. So let's break it down, let's break it down: me, I'm a decent comedian. I'm a'ight. [applause] Mary J. Blige, one of the greatest R&B singers to ever walk the Earth. Jay-Z, one of the greatest rappers to ever live. Eddie Murphy, one of the funniest actors to ever, ever do it. Do you know what the white man who lives next door to me does for a living? He's a f**king dentist! He ain't the best dentist in the world...he ain't going to the dental hall of fame...he don't get plaques for getting rid of plaque. He's just a yank-your-tooth-out dentist. See, the black man gotta fly to get to somethin' the white man can walk to.

I have a question for Senator Grassley

Does he really believe that all the white guys he has voted for "set aside [their] personal preferences and prejudices?"

Featured on today's USC Home Page

A story on Dr. Patricia Harris, who makes house calls.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I was on Bloomberg TV today

I have to admit it is fun. The clip is at

Program Note

I will be on KPCC's Airtalk with Larry Mantle at 10:05 today.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Manuel Adelino, Kristopher Gerardi, and Paul S. Willen are skeptical...

...that the paucity of loan modifications is a function of securitization.

There is widespread concern that an inefficiently low number of mortgages have been modified during the current crisis, and that this has led to excessive foreclosure levels, leaving both families and investors worse off. We use a large dataset that accounts for approximately 60 percent of mortgages in the United States originated between 2005 and 2007, to shed more light on the determinants of mortgage modification, with a special focus on the claim that delinquent loans have different probabilities of renegotiation depending on whether they are securitized by private institutions or held in a servicer’s portfolio. By comparing the relative frequency of renegotiation between private-label and portfolio mortgages, we
are able to shed light on the question of whether institutional frictions in the secondary mortgage market are inhibiting the modification process from taking place.

Our first finding is that renegotiation in mortgage markets during this period was indeed rare. In our full sample of data, approximately 3 percent of the seriously delinquent borrowers received a concessionary modification in the year following their first serious delinquency, while fewer than 8 percent received any type of modification. These numbers are extremely low, considering that foreclosure proceedings were initiated on approximately half of the loans in the sample and completed for almost 30 percent of the sample. Our second finding is that a comparison of renegotiation rates for private-label loans and portfolio loans, while
controlling for observable characteristics of loans and borrowers, yields economically small, and for the most part, statistically insignificant differences. This finding holds for a battery of robustness tests we consider, including various definitions of modification, numerous subsamples of the data, including subsamples for which we believe unobserved heterogeneity to be less of an issue, and consideration of potential differences along the intensive margin of renegotiation.

Since we conclude that contract frictions in securitization trusts are not a significant problem, we attempt to reconcile the conventional wisdom held by market commentators, that modifications are a win-win proposition from the standpoint of both borrowers and lenders, with the extraordinarily low levels of renegotiation that we find in the data. We argue that the data are not inconsistent with a situation in which, on average, lenders expect to recover more from foreclosure than from a modified loan. At face value, this assertion may seem implausible, since there are many estimates that suggest the average loss given foreclosure is much greater than the loss in value of a modified loan. However, we point out that renegotiation exposes lenders to two types of risks that are often overlooked by
market observers and that can dramatically increase its cost. The first is “self-cure risk,” which refers to the situation in which a lender renegotiates with a delinquent borrower who does not need assistance. This group of borrowers is non-trivial according to our data, as we find that approximately 30 percent of seriously delinquent borrowers “cure” in our data without receiving a modification. The second cost comes from borrowers who default again after receiving a loan modification. We refer to this group as “redefaulters,” and our results show that a large fraction (between 30 and 45 percent) of borrowers who receive modifications, end up back in serious delinquency within six months. For this group, the
lender has simply postponed foreclosure, and, if the housing market continues to decline, the lender will recover even less in foreclosure in the future.

We believe that our analysis has some important implications for policy. First, “safe harbor provisions,” which are designed to shelter servicers from investor lawsuits, are unlikely to have a material impact on the number of modifications and thus will not significantly decrease foreclosures. Second, and more generally, if the presence of self-cure risk and redefault risk do make renegotiation less appealing to investors, the number of easily “preventable” foreclosures may be far smaller than many commentators believe.

Ideally, a lender would like to know whether a borrower will either (1) self-cure; (2) be cured by a loan modification that has no reduction in balance; (3) be cured by a loan modification that has a balance reduction or (4) is beyond help. If anyone can figure out how to write a contract that induces the borrower to reveal their type, they will have the solution to the crisis. The closest I can think of is one that allows borrowers to short-sell their houses (a la Hancock and Passmore) with reference to some sort of price index, so as to prevent gaming of the sales process.

Praise be to the NYT On Language Column (h/t Patricia Harris)

A brief history of singular pronouns:

One tweeter asked plaintively, “Can we just accept that ‘they’ can be used as singular?” But another wrote, “I HATE it when people make improper use of plural pronouns for gender neutrality!” Several suggested writing around the problem (“Sometimes I try to alternate he and she, but bleh”). One tweet seemed to sum up the general attitude: “Damn you, English language!”

Traditionalists, of course, find nothing wrong with using he to refer to an anybody or an everybody, male or female. After all, hasn’t he been used for both sexes since time immemorial? Well, no, as a matter of fact, it hasn’t. It’s a relatively recent usage, as these things go. And it wasn’t cooked up by a male sexist grammarian, either.

If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.

The idea that he, him and his should go both ways caught on and was widely adopted. But how, you might ask, did people refer to an anybody before then? This will surprise a few purists, but for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine. Nobody seemed to mind that they, them and their were officially plural. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, writers were comfortable using they with an indefinite pronoun like everybody because it suggested a sexless plural.

If it is good enough for Chaucer it is good enough for me. I will from now on use "they" as my gender neutral singular pronoun.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Have Existing Home Sales Started to Rise?

NAR reported that Existing Home Sales rose 3.6 percent in June. In response to this, MSNBC notes:

"The turnaround in the housing market appears finally to be here and indeed may be gaining some speed," wrote Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors Inc.

Stocks jumped on the news, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising above 9,000 for the first time since early January.

The NAR numbers suggest that sales have stopped falling, and this is doubtless a good thing. But the numbers really don't support the idea that sales are rising--yet.

The reason is that the NAR Existing Home Sales number is a seasonally adjusted annualized number. This is a correct method for reporting (or at least I have reasons to think it is correct, as I am partly responsible for the development of the Existing Home Sales Methodology). But a seasonal adjustment is a statistical measure, and as such cannot be known with precision. June is a month that requires lots of adjustment, because June sales are always higher than sales in the average month. I am guessing that 3.6 percent is inside the 95 percent confidence interval of seasonally adjusted sales, so the best interpretation of the NAR release is that sales were flat or better in June.

The really good news in the report is the fact that the share of sales that are non-distressed sales is rising.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Two ideas for appraisal reform

Lawrence Yun of NAR is complaining that appraisals are preventing legitimate real estate transactions from occurring. Because of the way appraisers sometimes choose comparables, I have some sympathy for this view. And as I noted in an earlier post, Rhonda Porter says the Home Value Code of Conduct is nothing more than a way to line the pockets of Appraisal Management Companies. I have some sympathy for this view as well.

But we should not go back to the days when appraisers were basically paid to stay out of the way of the consummation of a deal. So let me suggest two proposals:

(1) Appraisers should not be allowed to see the offer price of a house. This is the only way their valuation will be truly independent.

(2) Appraisers should use valuation techniques that allow them to report a standard deviation of their estimate. Subdivision tract houses will have small standard deviations; architect designed villas will have large standard deviations.

We could then move to a pricing rule where Mortgage Insurance will be required if (1) the LTV based on appraised value is greater than 80 percent or (2) there is a greater than five percent chance that the true value of the house implies an LTV of 95 percent.

Step (1) would be easy to implement, and I think would help a lot. Step (2) will require lots of training (and perhaps different parameters from those that I am suggesting).

We need to stop kidding ourselves that we can measure house prices precisely. We need to start measuring the level of imprecision.

Rethinking California's Revenue Structure

California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who has no particular allergies to progressive taxes, cites an astonishing statistic about California Income Taxes: that 144,000 Californians (out of 38 million) pay half the state's income taxes. As I will discuss below, this does not necessarily imply that California taxes are, overall, too progressive, but it does mean that state income tax revenue is too undiversified. When such a small share of the population makes up such a large share of the revenue base, the fiscal conditions of the state will swing wildly with the fortunes of a few. This is what we have been witnessing here in California.

On the other hand, California has a very high sales tax as well, and everyone pays it. The best evidence I know suggests that the sales tax is regressive over the short term, but is more or less proportional over the life cycle. There is no question that the size of California's sales tax dampens the overall progressiveness of state revenue collections.

Finally, there is the property tax, which is completely detached from the ability to pay it, because of Proposition 13. Within a condominium complex, one can find two identical units that pay extraordinarily different levels of property taxes (sometimes by a factor of 10 to 1), because taxes are based on the price a property owner pays at the time of acquisition.

For California to have stable fiscal conditions going forward, it will need to broaden its income tax base and equalize its property tax base. I am not holding my breath.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Joy of Great Cities

Last night, at the invitation of friends of ours, my wife and I went to a concert of the Pasadena Pops at Descanso Gardens. I wasn't quite sure what to expect: I am always suspicious of "pops" concerts (I love the Rolling Stones, but really don't want to hear Satisfaction played by a 100 piece orchestra) and community orchestras vary tremendously in terms of quality and spirit. I can enjoy music that is less than perfectly polished, but I find indifference difficult to take.

The punchline, of course, is that the concert was a gas. In the first place, the band has a conductor named Rachael Worby, who introduces the pieces with charm and who, more importantly, knows how to make an orchestra sparkle. Her beat and cues were so clear that even the most obtuse player would know what she wants. Second, the program, featuring Saint Saens, Gershwin, and Chansons sung by Karen Akers, was delightful.

But the really extraordinary thing was the caliber of the playing; one does not expect such precision in rhythm and tuning from an orchestra in a city of 150,000 people. But of course, the orchestra is drawing on a population of musicians who are drawn to Los Angeles because of opportunity, but also because they can find lots of other good musicians. I went to the Pasadena Symphony Web Site, and alas could not find a list of the players. My suspicion is that a number of the players are studio musicians (or people hoping to become studio musicians). And so it is throughout the region. One can go to free student recitals around LA, and hear music, from Palestrina to Riley, performed well.

I suspect that this is an example of agglomeration at its best (I can only suspect because I know of no formal test), and is a reason why the Londons, Parises, New Yorks and Los Angeleses of the world retain their special places for long periods of time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why the consequences of past discrimination persist over generations

I just read President Obama's most recent speech on race. It is another extraordinary speech--his ability to be at once sophisticated and accessible never ceases to amaze me.

To oversimplify, the speech has two themes: that individuals, whether discriminated against or not, must take control of their owns lives as best they can, but that the legacy of Jim Crowe will not go away quickly--that there are structural conditions in society that to place impediments in the paths of success for minority children.

The point reminded me of an award winning thesis by Kate Antonovics I read while I was at Wisconsin. One of the papers she generated from the thesis has the following summary:

Thus, initially disadvantaged groups may become trapped even though there is always a
unique within-generation equilibrium. That is, in contrast to standard models of statistical discrimination, repeated coordination failures are not needed to generate persistent discrimination.

Rather, statistical discrimination changes the transmission of earnings across generations by leading parents’ investment behavior to depend upon the distribution of income in the parents’ racial group. Thus, statistical discrimination and racial inequality are self-reinforcing, and multiple equilibria can arise.

When parents have limited resources to invest in their children, it becomes harder for children to migrate to a higher income class than their parents. In a world that was truly characterized by equal opportuntiy, children's fortures would be independent of their parents. We should at least strive to move to the point where children's fortunes are independent of their parents' race.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

John Y. Campbell, Stefano Giglio, and Parag Pathak estimate that Foreclosed houses sell at a 28 percent discount

The results imply two problems with thinking about house prices through the lens of the Case-Shiller Index.

In Southern California, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent of sales are distressed sales. If lenders make decisions that are based on Case-Shiller, they will underestimate the value of transactions that are taking place in the absence of distress. Appraisers seem to be taking a Case-Shiller view of the world right now, and so deals are getting undone. There is reason to believe that when buyers are willing to place 20 percent down on a house, they actually believe the house is worth the offer price.

On the other hand, let's say we move to a world where only, say, 20 percent of sales are distressed. This will produced an observed increase in the index Case-Shiller Index of 6 to 7 percent--even if nothing is really changing about underlying house prices. This could lead markets to become too optimistic too quickly.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The rigors of the USC Masters in Real Estate Development Program

A student of ours emails:

I just wanted you to know that this assignment got me out of a traffic ticket this morning.

La Cienega was shutdown to due an accident and I was trapped. So, I made a u-turn which included driving over a curbed median. A motorcycle cop pulled me over and gave me a lecture about how this isn't Texas (I have texas plates) and "cowboy driving" is not acceptable....whatever that means. So I told him that I had to get to campus for the mid- term and I had a limited amount of time to complete the homework assignment. I pulled out assignment #3 to make my story credible and he took it with him when he went back to his motorcycle.

When he came back he told me that it seemed like the assignment was going to be enough punishment and he let me go.

Monday, July 13, 2009

We have a new Census Director!

Robert Groves was confirmed. The vote to invoke cloture was 78-15. Why did this take so long? Why is the Senate so.....Senatorial?

Jan Hatzius has a Great Sense of Humor

His GDP forecast for 2009 goes four places right of the decimal point. (it is - 2.8753%).

Peter Wallison calls Consumer Protection Elitist

He writes:

Traditionally, consumer protection in the United States has focused on disclosure. It has always been assumed that with adequate disclosure all consumers -- of whatever level of sophistication -- could make rational decisions about the products and services they are offered. No more. If the administration's plan is adopted, many consumers will be told that they cannot have particular products or services because they are not sophisticated, educated or perhaps intelligent enough to understand what they have been offered.

Conservatives have always argued that liberals are elitists who do not respect ordinary Americans; this legislation seems to prove it. For example, the administration's plan would allow the educated and sophisticated elites to have access to whatever financial services they want but limit the range of products available to ordinary Americans.

This unprecedented result comes about because, under the proposed legislation, every provider of a financial service (a term that includes organizations as varied as banks, check-cashing services, leasing companies and payment services) is required to offer a "standard" product or service -- to be defined and approved by the proposed agency -- that will be simple and entail "lower risks" for consumers. These standard products are called "plain vanilla" in the white paper that the administration circulated in advance of the legislation.

Such protection is actually not unprecedented. For example, people must be deemed to be "accredited investors" or (for more complicated products) "qualified purchasers" in order to invest in certain types of hedge funds. And stock brokers have an obligation to make sure their clients' investments are "suitable."

But beyond the issue of precedence, there is a broader issue of safety. We reasonably forbid or require a variety of actions in the interest of safety. We require people to wear seatbelts. Be don't allow people to buy certain type of narcotics over the counter. Perhaps Mr. Wallison thinks such protections are a bad idea too, in which case he is consistent, if not also ridiculous. Mortgages can be dangerous products. Let's turn it over to Richard Thaler:

Fast forward to 2008, and the world of mortgage shopping had become a much more complicated place. Borrowers were quoted low initial “teaser” rates that would jump later to some higher level, depending on market interest rates at the time, and there were prepayment penalties for paying off the loans early. For such mortgages, an A.P.R. was no longer an adequate measure of the loan’s cost.

How can we help people make sense of all this?

One extreme approach would be to ban complex mortgages entirely: we could just go back to the world of uniform fixed-rate mortgages. But the cost of simplicity is an end to innovation. Shopping for televisions was easier in the 1970s, when we did not have to decide between plasma and L.C.D. technology — but who wants to go back to those hulking old TV sets?

A better approach is to strive for maintaining diverse options but helping consumers make smart choices and avoid the most common pitfalls.

For mortgages, the specific plan proposed by the administration appears to be strongly influenced by Michael S. Barr, an assistant Treasury secretary. Mr. Barr is a former law professor at the University of Michigan who wrote an important article sketching out these ideas with Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard, and Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. As the administration plan describes it, lenders could be required to offer some mortgages they call “plain vanilla,” with uniform terms. There might be one vanilla 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage and one five-year, adjustable-rate mortgage. The features of these plain mortgages would be uniform, much as in a standard lease used in most rental agreements.

Lenders would also be free to offer other exotic mortgages — perhaps called “rocky road” mortgages? — along with the vanilla variety, but these offerings would receive more intense scrutiny from regulators.

I am not sure what is so elitist about this, other than the fact that those who are hostile to regulations tend to like to use elitist as an epithet for their opponents. So I guess I have two questions for Mr. Wallison:

(1) If I gave him an HP12C calculator, assumptions about an interest rate path, and the terms of an option-ARM mortgage, would he be able to tell me the payment on that mortgage in, say, month 62? Perhaps he could, but I don't know too many lawyers (and he is a lawyer) who could do that calculation. If highly education lawyers are generally flummoxed by this calculation, it is hard to see how ordinary Americans could understand it. The point is not to disparage ordinary Americans, but to emphasize a fact--most of us do not have the equipment to make informed judgments about complex financial products.

(2) I am curious how often Mr. Wallison hangs out with those who are not elite. Does he socialize with, say, median income people? With people whose eduction is at the median (i.e., high school graduates?). Perhaps he does, in which case he is entitled to refer to "the elite" as an other. But I have my doubts.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

President Obama, please be bolder

Both Brad Delong and Mark Thoma have it right today, when they suggest the need for another round of stimulus--with particular aim at helping states--right now.

But President Obama needs to be bolder when it comes to solving the mortgage mess too. Last March I wrote:

Details of the Obama plane to help mortgage borrowers were released this morning. The order in which the mods will happen: interest rate reduction, term extension, principal reduction.

This is backward. Suppose a $100,000 loan has a 7 percent coupon, and its rate is modified down to 4 percent. The payment drops from $665 per month to $477 per month. This helps, but leaves the borrower underwater, making it difficult for her to sell if she needs to move to a new job.

But a $477 payment, at 7 percent annual interest, has a present value of $71,759. So if the interest rate remained the same and the loan balance was written down by 28 percent, the payment would be the same as an interest rate write-down to 4 percent, but the borrower would have her head above water. If she later sells for more than $72K + selling costs, she can split the proceeds with the lender, who would now basically be a shared equity owner.

I think the people in the Obama Administration are very smart. Why aren't they doing this?

The President's rescue program has not taken off. The redefault rate on modified mortgages is high--because they don't solve the negative equity problem. I am not alone in thinking some wort of debt-for-equity modification would make sense. John Quigley has supported such an idea. The Milkin Institute has supported the idea. I was on a radio program with Ken Rosen last week, and I am pretty sure he supported the idea.

Moliere saw 345 years ahead of his time.

Two quotes from Tartuffe:

Although I am a pious man, I am not the less a man.


To create a public scandal is what's wicked;
To sin in private is not a sin.

To which I should add a quote attributed to Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr -

"plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"

(p.s., I don't speak French, but this is how it appears, and I think we can all figure it out.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Home news from the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate

My colleague and friend Raphael Bostic was today confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is a good thing for the country, but we shall miss him while he is gone.

We will also be joined by a new colleague, Jenny Schuetz, late of NYU and CCNY. She does wonderful work on (among other things) land use regulation and the impacts of various policy interventions on neighborhood outcomes. We are very excited that she will be joining us in August.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lisa Schweitzer on Cities and the Stimulus

From her blog:

One of my fantastic students from Virginia Tech, Eric Howard, posted this piece from today’s New York Times on Facebook. The NYT author argues that:

Two-thirds of the country lives in large metropolitan areas, home to the nation’s worst traffic jams and some of its oldest roads and bridges. But cities and their surrounding regions are getting far less than two-thirds of federal transportation stimulus money.

The reporter goes on to quote outrage from mayors. They also get information from one of my favorite experts, Rob Puentes at Brookings. As usual, Rob has a very good point here: this package isn’t just about business as usual revenue allocation–which has always had a strong rural bias due to the structure of the Federal representative system (as Owen D. Gutfreund points out). This rural strength made way more sense 150 years ago than it does now.

So, of course all of these smart people are right in that cities aren’t treated very well in the stimulus, as they aren’t treated very well in Federal politics in general.
However, we have to ask ourselves: would it really be sensible to hand out this money on a per capita basis either? The main argument for cities and against suburbs and small towns is an economy of scale argument. Those arguments underpin the “costs of sprawl” research. Urbanization and density of human settlement lower the cost of providing infrastructure because of all the sharing we city folk do: the same sidewalk can serve thousands per day instead of a handful of people per day, as in a low-density settlement.

Thus, cities should somewhat expect to receive less per person than other places. The key point is just how much less per person should we expect urban infrastructure to cost, given all this sharing. The problem with sharing, of course, is that sharing leads to congestion after a certain point in population growth, thereby raising costs for everybody and requiring either dispersal of population or additional infrastructure.
While planning and planners are hard-wired to think in terms of increasing density, building duplicate systems (ie increasing capacity) in congested areas is only one means of cost sharing: the other, more macro-scale approach is to direct more growth to areas with excess capacity or price congested facilities and shift more of the revenue generation burden back onto users instead of looking for Federal funds.
This latter approach is, I think, where we are ultimately heading with infrastructure finance in the new urban world. Do we have compelling arguments for why the Federal government should be involved in urban infrastructure if all they going to do is return revenues to source (the per capita/population distribution argument). Anti-federalists can and do make strong arguments for local funding of intracity systems, like metro rail systems, while Federal dollars should go to intercity and interstate projects.

So while the NYT and urban mayors are probably right in that this distribution of funding is skewed, they haven’t really told us what the right distribution would look like, other than to say that cities are important and they need more money. Of course they are and they do, but it isn’t as though some of the poorest places in this country aren’t places like the Central Valley rather than places like Los Angeles, and it’s not as though Boston doesn’t depend on connectivity between rural Florida and Boston for all parts of the freight and US food system.

Debra Johnson points us to the relative dearth of recent household formations.

She has a nice graph:

The graph illustrates an important change; after a secular decline in average household size in the US (from about 3.5 people per households after World War II to around 2.6 now), households are getting (slightly) larger. This matters for housing demand, of course, because households are the source of such demand (recent event have taught us that not a whole lot of people can afford to own more than one home). It is important to note that this change happened before the current economic calamity.

She does have some good news, though: age induced household formations should be rising over the next three years. The question is whether there will be sufficient numbers of jobs for young adults to leave the family nest on schedule.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Why some columnists make my head want to explode

Ross Douthat:
In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

But the point about Palin is not that she didn't go to Columbia and Harvard. She graduated from her state's flagship school, and I personally am very fond of such places. The point is that she went to five different colleges before graduating. Two, ok, but at three you start to wonder. But doesn't the fact that she went to five tell us something about her ability to follow through--to finish something? Hasn't her past behavior been a pretty good predictor of current behavior, and therefore likely of future behavior?

Program Note

I will be on KPCC at 2 today.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Krugman on Franken

To reinforce the point that funny people are often smart:

David Broder has a column this morning calling for bipartisanship. I know, you’re shocked. But what struck me was this bit about Al Franken:

Franken, the loud-mouthed former comedian, will be the 60th member of the Senate Democratic caucus …

Two points.

First, implicit in this characterization of Franken is the notion of the Senate as a decorous gentlemen’s club. I doubt that club ever existed in reality; but in any case, these days the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body is, not to put too fine a point on it, chock full o’ nuts. James Inhofe: I rest my case.

Second, Al Franken’s dirty secret is that … he’s a big policy wonk.

I used to go on Franken’s radio show, all ready to be jocular — and what he wanted to talk about was the arithmetic of Social Security, or the structure of Medicare Part D.

In fact, the only elected official I know who’s wonkier than Al Franken is Rush Holt, my congressman — and he used to be the assistant director of Princeton’s plasma physics lab. (The campaign’s bumper stickers read, “My Congressman IS a rocket scientist.”)

So what will Franken do to the level of Senate discourse? He’ll raise it.

Franken writes quite well. The only times he really bothers me is when he loses his sense of humor and becomes sanctimonious. For instance, he loves to point out that while many in the family values crowd are serial adulterers and divorcees (a point that is certainly worth some emphasis), he is a devoted husband and father. I think that is great Al, but let someone else say so.

William Adelman deserves props for pointing out that Krugman can actually be quite funny himself.

Anne-Sophie Mutter's Top Ten Record List

It is a nice list. I think Previn is her husband, which may explain why he is on it three times. But the Bruckner, Ella, Korngold are all wonderful, and the La Boheme is a guilty pleasure of mine. My mind tells me it is schmalz--but I love it anyway.

Anton Bruckner

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

Ella Fitzgerald

The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books

Erich Korngold

The Sea Hawk
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
Captain Blood
The Prince and the Pauper
London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 21 in C major, K 467
Clara Haskil

André Previn

A Streetcar Named Desire
Fleming · Futral · Gilfry · Griffey · Forst · Lord · Gayer · San Francisco Opera Orchestra
André Previn

André Previn

Honey and Rue
Text by Toni Morrison
Kathleen Battle
Orchestra of St. Luke's
André Previn

André Previn

Live at the Jazz Standard
With David Fink

Giacomo Puccini

La Bohème
Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti
Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

Josef Strauss

Delirien Walzer, Sphärenklänge, Kaiserwalzer
Wiener Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

Sergey Rachmaninov

Piano Concertos No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 and No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Krystian Zimerman
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa

Can't help but blog a bit about Health Care

I have not commented on health care because it is not my area of expertise. But my wife is a primary care physician, is head of the Geriatrics Section at Keck Medical School, and was a Health Policy Fellow at the Department of Health and Human Services, so I learn a lot through osmosis and by reading various stuff she puts in front of me.

The most recent thing she put in front of me was from the New England Journal of Medicine. The following reported quote from a Parke-Davis executive really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up:

...We can't wait for physicians to ask, we need to get out there and tell them up front. Dinner programs, CME programs, consultantships all work great but don't forget the one-on-one. That's where we need to be, holding their hand and whispering in their ear, Neurontin for pain, Neurontin for monotherapy, Neurontin for bipolar, Neurontin for everything. I don't want to see a single patient coming off Neurontin before they've been up to at least 4800 mg/day. I don't want to hear that safety crap either...

Economics is supposed to respect evidence; to me, economists who oppose even thinking about a public option (or single-payer option) show no respect for evidence. Medical outcomes in this country are, at best, the equal of any other in the world, but we spend twice as anyone else to get care that is no better than many others'. Spare me stories of queues for elective surgery; when we spend 75 percent more per person than Canada and 2.5 times more per person than Japan on health care, we should get better outcomes. The sort of corruption documented above is at least one reason why we don't.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

What's wrong with being funny?

A Minnesota Republican today said something to the effect that Norm Coleman should not run for governor of Minnesota, because he could not even beat Al Franken--i.e., a comedian.

Some of the smartest and wisest people in history, though, have also been very funny. Shakespeare was funny. Benjamin Franklin was funny. Mark Twain was funny. Will Rogers was funny. Jon Stewart is funny. My wife is funny. And I would take any one of them over the vast majority of current Senators. Of the Senate's many problems, one near the top of the list is how seriously Senators take themselves; how utterly bereft of humor they are (and this is a bipartisan affliction). I hope very much that Franken takes his job seriously, and I think he will. But I also hope he stays funny.

[Update: I somehow forgot to mention that Abe Lincoln was very funny. Enough said.]

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

My Brother and John Norquist are happy

After many years of population decline, the city of Milwaukee has seen a (small) increase in population since the beginning of the decade.

Some other old central cities (not metropolitan areas) where population has increased: New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, Denver (not so old, but a city with tight municipal boundaries), Atlanta (see Denver), St. Louis (!!) and Newark.

Continuing to lose: Detroit (of course), Chicago (a little--but still surprising in light of what a great city it is), Philadelphia, Memphis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo (which may in 50 years pass Green Bay as having the smallest population of any NFL city), and Birmingham.

San Antonio has had remarkable growth, and is now the country's 7th largest city.