Even the federal government has projected price decreases through 2010. As a baseline, the stress tests recently performed on big banks included a total fall in housing prices of 41 percent from 2006 through 2010. …
Such long, steady housing price declines seem to defy both common sense and the traditional laws of economics, which assume that people act rationally and that markets are efficient. … If people acted as the efficient-market theory says they should, prices would come down right away, not gradually over years, and these cycles would be much shorter.
But something is definitely different about real estate. Long declines do happen with some regularity. And … we still appear to be in a continuing price decline. … Why does this happen? One could easily believe that people are a little slower to sell their homes than, say, their stocks. But years slower?
Several factors can explain the snail-like behavior of the real estate market. An important one is that sales of existing homes are mainly by people who are planning to buy other homes. So even if sellers … have no reason to hurry because they are not really leaving the market.
Furthermore, few homeowners consider exiting the housing market for purely speculative reasons. … And they don’t like shifting from being owners to renters… Among couples…,… any decision to sell and switch to a rental requires the assent of both partners. Even growing children, who may resent being shifted to another school district and placed in a rental apartment, are likely to have some veto power.
In fact, most decisions to exit the market in favor of renting are not market-timing moves. Instead, they reflect the growing pressures of economic necessity. This may involve foreclosure or just difficulty paying bills, or gradual changes in opinion about how to live in an economic downturn. This dynamic helps to explain why, at a time of high unemployment, declines in home prices may be long-lasting…
Even if there is a quick end to the recession, the housing market’s poor performance may linger. After the last home price boom, which ended about the time of the 1990-91 recession, home prices did not start moving upward, even incrementally, until 1997.
Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.