Thursday, April 29, 2010

Path Dependence?

I am currently in Minneapolis. It is, to me, a great city. My feelings may reflect that it was the large city nearest to me when I was growing up, but they also reflect that it has the attributes of a great city: innovative companies, such as 3M, and Medtronic, wonderful arts, including an orchestra that Alex Ross of the New Yorker wrote,"[sounds] to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world," and a vibrant, walkable downtown. The only other Midwestern city with such a jewel of a downtown is Chicago, which is also, of course, a much larger city.

The question is why. Bill Cronon wrote a great book about Chicago, explaining how it became and remains an epic city. The remain part is a function of path dependence--once Chicago made a set of choices about how it would connect with the nature that surrounded it, both physically (through, for instance, railroads) and intellectually (through, for instance, exchanges), it set itself on a self-perpetuating path.

I know of no similar book about the Twin Cities (that doesn't mean it doesn't exist). But it is an interesting question as to why Minneapolis has done so much better than other Midwest metropolitan areas: it terms of educational attainment, income, and population growth, it has substantially outperformed Kansas City, St Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, Pittsburgh and Buffalo (I could go on, but you get the point). I don't think it is the weather.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Did Arizona just help California's Housing Market?

My colleague Dowell Myers points out that for the housing market in the US to remain healthy, we must "cultivate new immigrant residents." Arizona's new law, which would require immigrants (legal or otherwise) to "carry papers" creates what I would consider to be an atmosphere of hostility to immigrants--all immigrants. I am also awaiting the spectacle of a police officer demanding the "papers" of a native-born Latino.

In any event, people have a propensity to go where they feel welcome, and avoid places where they are not. Hostility to immigrants in general and Latinos in particular seems to be a political loser in California, so Arizona's policies may lead to higher demand for houses in California.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Should Berkshire Hathaway be required to post collateral on underwater positions?


(BTW, I own a few Class B shares and am a big fan of Warren Buffett).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A simple financial reform

If an investment instrument has never been through a down-cycle, rating agencies should be forbidden from giving the instrument a grade of BBB (or in Moody's case, Baa) or higher. Instruments that lack history are, by definition, speculative.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Trying to figure out whether synthetic CDOS add value

In principle, I think they could, because they allow investors to invest in a combination of mortgages that are not actually available in the market (the combination, that is), and as such, make markets a bit more complete.

But does the efficiency benefit synthetics create exceed the cost of their opaqueness? Would creating an exchange deliver sufficient transparency to overcome the opaqueness problem?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What people don't know about household income

I spoke at a Hanley-Wood Conference in Ft.Lauderdale today to a group of Apartment operators. It was a very nice audience.

I asked members of the group to raise their hands when they thought I hit the number at which median income for renters in the US was higher. I started at $60K; nobody raised their hand. But at $50K, a number raised their hands; at $40K, nearly everyone had a raised hand. According to the American Housing Survey from 2007, median income among renters was $28,921. It is possible that number is even lower now. If 30 percent of income paid for rent is "affordable," this means the median renter can afford to pay no more than about $750 per month.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thoughts from 37,000 Feet

I am on a Virgin America flight that includes, among other things, Wifi. The plane is nicely lit and very clean (because it is new). And it makes me wonder whether the airline business will ever be a sustainable long-term business. There are reasons why it is difficult for the legacies to match the Virgins and Jetblues for amenities.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How many loans are non-recourse?

In California (and other states), purchase money home mortgages are non-recourse loans--if a bank accepts the keys from a borrower, it cannot then go after the borrower for any difference in value between the house and the loan outstanding.

But as I learned from Paul Willen this weekend, once a loan is refinanced, it is no longer a non-recourse loan. For borrowers who have no assets to speak of, the difference doesn't matter much. But for others, the difference is large.

Is it better to model or to converse?

It amuses me when on occasion someone in the real estate business complains that I am "too academic." For starters, given the career I have chosen, I don't exactly consider than an insult.

But it does raise a question: would academics who study real estate be better off spending less time modeling and more time talking to practitioners? As someone who enjoys talking to people in the business, I would say the answer is no. While models have their problems--particularly with respect to precision--well specified models should be free of bias. To give one example, modeling drove me to conclude three years ago that capitalization rates for commercial real estate were unsustainably low. I wasn't sure when they would rise, I was just sure that they would--and as a consequence drive down commercial real estate values. My views were treated with derision by practitioners, who were convinced that we had entered a "new paradigm" wherein cap rates would always stay low and values would forever stay high.

Jim Shilling summed up the issue in his AREUEA Presidential Address. Here is the abstract:

This paper is based on my Presidential Address to the American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association delivered at Washington, D.C., in January 2003. The paper asks whether there is a risk premium puzzle in real estate. I examine this question by reporting on an empirical investigation of real estate investors' expectations over the last 15 years. The results suggest that ex ante expected risk premiums on real estate are quite large for their risk, too large to be explained by standard economic models. Further, the results suggest that ex ante expected returns are higher than average realized equity returns over the past 15 years because realized returns have included large unexpected capital losses. The latter conclusion suggests that using historical averages to estimate the risk premium on real estate is misleading.

I actually do learn a lot by talking to people who do real estate. I just don't learn a lot about future returns.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Small Ironies

I was culling my books over the weekend, and decided to pitch out Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose. This is striking me today as ironic, because I doubt that the West Virginia miners were free to choose much of anything.

At best, they made a choice based on misinformation--they thought they were working at a mine that met safety standards. Those of us who are tenured professors have indeed been free to chose; we can even say whatever we want without fear of losing our jobs. But to think everyone has such freedom is just delusional.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Good Reading

Yannis Ioannides Journal of Economic Literature review of Scott Page's The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Choices.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

My disappointment with Ted Koppel

I was listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation while driving home tonight: the topic was the federal deficit. They brought in Ted Koppel to talk about it, and he was asked the difference between the national debt and the deficit--and he couldn't answer.

It did not so much disappointment me that he didn't know (although the distinction is pretty easy--the debt is a stock and the deficit is a flow). It disappointed me that given that he knew he didn't know, he still thought he had something worthwhile to say about the issue.