Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Texas Non-Bubble

Mike Konczal serves up some interesting graphs on the Texas economy. One important element he flags relates to jobs and the debt burden. Texas managed to go through the past decade with no housing bubble, and a limited increase in housing-related debt. This served the state a great deal in avoiding foreclosure and a subsequent “balance sheet” recession driven by households aiming for deleverage. Mike offers this commentary on how Texas did that:

Fisher states that a free regulatory environment is causing this growth, but the rather strong regulations on the mortgage market and growth in the housing stock are more likely the factors in preventing the build-up of housing debt that in turn isn’t holding back the economy. There are strong regulations on the housing market, especially in terms of housing equity loans that in turn make it harder to bid up values.

Well, why did Texas avoid a bubble? Mike flags consumer regulation. But I’d also point to lax local zoning and land use regulations.

The chief restriction on home equity loans in Texas is that they cannot exceed 80% of the market value of the home — essentially requiring all borrowers to have some sort of equity. Cash out refinances were restricted in the same manner. Requiring that homeowners place a sufficient amount as a downpayment, and restricting people from using equity gains as collateral to acquire new debt, substantially reduced speculation and cash outs.

But it’s something of an open question as to how much this reduced price fluctuation. Certainly, requiring sizable downpayments lowered the plausible group of buyers in a given property. However, the restriction on refinancing was probably a factor reducing leverage more than increasing price. Ie, it prevented existing homeowners from doubling down on home prices by acquiring more debt. Certainly, the option to extract future equity may have enticed buyers in other states. But limiting future equity extraction may or may not have been a small factor in actually inducing higher prices.

By contrast, there are good theoretical reasons to focus on housing restrictions. Paul Krugman argued all the way back in 2005 that house price appreciation seemed to be much higher in areas where geographic and zoning restrictions lowered the available supply of housing. Since then, Ed Glaeser and co-authors have written a paper arguing that price increases in housing were driven most strongly in areas where housing supply was relatively fixed.

This makes a lot of sense from a demand-supply framework. Where supply is flexible; builders respond to greater demand for housing by building more houses, so prices remain flat. Where supply is inflexible, increases in housing demand largely translate into increases in prices, not increases in the number of houses built. Even if the increase in housing demand comes from speculators who place little money down and expect to extract future equity from their houses; as long as builders can keep building this increase in demand will not translate into an increase in prices. You need both an increase in demand, as well as inflexible supply to generate an increase in housing prices.

The national data backs this idea up well enough, but there are two big stumbling blocks: basically Las Vegas and Phoenix. The housing market in these areas saw huge price increases, but the thinking is that land policy should have been fairly flexible here. If you look at both markets specifically though, the real problem may also have been inflexible housing supply:

In Nevada, something like 85% of all land is federally owned, including a lot of the land in the neighborhood of Las Vegas, and overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. A local journalist at the Nevada News & Views, Mike Chamberlain, has repeatedly emphasized the role of government ownership of land in building up the bubble. A federal law in 1998 split land sale proceeds with local governments, which gave local authorities strong incentives to try to bid up land sales. As this Economist article mentioned, other local housing participants in 2005 thought the government was far too stingy in releasing land at a suitable pace. At the very least, there are good reasons to think that not all of the land outside Las Vegas was free for development.

Phoenix is also wrongly classified as freely developable state. Rather, beginning in 1998, the state opted for a “growth management” policy limiting land use. Similar to Las Vegas, land outside of Phoenix land was held by the government, which limited sales to maximize revenues. This link from Demographia (honestly not sure how I ran across this, so perhaps take with a grain of salt) argues in Maricopa county, home to Phoenix, agricultural land was selling for a fraction of development land. The problem wasn’t a land shortage per se, so much as a segmented real estate market in which agricultural land was not easily convertible into housing. Wendell Cox at New Geography argues:
Building is largely impossible on the "abundance of land" surrounding Las Vegas and Phoenix. Las Vegas and Phoenix have virtual urban growth boundaries, formed by encircling federal and state lands. These are fairly tight boundaries, especially in view of the huge growth these areas have experienced. There are programs to auction off some of this land to developers and the price escalation during the bubble in the two metropolitan areas shows how a scarcity of land from government ownership produces the same higher prices as an urban growth boundary...

In Las Vegas, house prices escalated approximately 85% relative to incomes between 2002 and 2006. Coincidentally, over the same period, federal government land auctions prices for urban fringe land rose from a modest $50,000 per acre in 2001-2, to $229,000 in 2003-4 and $284,000 at the peak of the housing bubble (2005-6). Similarly, Phoenix house prices rose nearly as much as Las Vegas, while the rate of increase per acre in Phoenix land auctions rose nearly as much as in Las Vegas.
Somewhat conspiatorially, a similar situation prevailed in Spain. An Economist article has noted that building on vacant land required local governments to extend town limits, and entitled them to 10% of development land (which town governments then sold for revenue). I find it suspicious that three of the biggest housing bubble markets in the world in the last decade were characterized by these sorts of crony capitalist land ownership rules. It’s easy to imagine how governments could limit the sales in these auctions to artificially constrain supply and encourage price inflation.

I think all of this is at least circumstantial evidence to think that local zoning and housing policy may have played a role in preventing a housing bubble in Texas. There are other factors at play too — Texas has high property taxes, further limiting speculation, and it tends to draw its migrants from states in the Midwest, which also saw low property price appreciation. By contrast, Nevada and Arizona saw a lot of migrants from California (cashing in on previous house appreciation), while Florida had a lot of migrants from pricey New York.

Still, there’s no reason we can’t follow both the consumer regulation and the lax zoning. Texas’ housing policy involves “regulations,” but ought be relatively palatable for regulation-distrusting libertarians and others to swallow. There aren’t strict mandates on what or where to build, but simply sensible rules requiring that homeowners keep sufficient collateral in their homes. This seems reasonable enough. Not to get too into the politics of this, but the chief opposition to collateral requirements tends to come from progressive community activists worried that downpayments punish wealth-poor families.

Meanwhile, the loose regulations on housing seem to do a great deal of good in preventing price bubbles from building up as well. Those, too, seem reasonable. There’s no reason not to adopt both sets of policies throughout the nation. That would lower rents, limit speculation, and likely lower house price volatility. It’s too bad Rick Perry isn’t running on that platform.

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