The good old days are back. Those days during the last housing bubble when money grew on trees: home prices jumped 10.9% year over year, according to the S&P Case-Shiller 20-city Home Price Index, based on data through March 2013. On a monthly basis, the index rose 1.2%. Prices are now back to 2003 levels. The usual suspects: Phoenix soared 22.5% year over year, San Francisco 22.2%, Las Vegas 20.6%. You can’t lose money in real estate. I’m already hearing it again.
Flipping houses is back in vogue. People are jabbering about it on their cellphones while crossing streets without looking. Entire articles have been written about it, backed with reasonable-looking numbers, such as RealtyTrac’s “25 Markets Where Flipping Homes is Most Profitable.” The top three? Orlando, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Visions of 2005!
The smart money is once again running national radio ads on how-to-flip-houses shenanigans. Pull out your credit card, call that 800-number, and get rich quick. On NPR, an “economist” said this morning that the housing market was “on fire.” That’s the sort of hard “data” that puts real gloss on NPR’s perspicacious coverage of the US economy. And everybody fingers the “tight” inventory – as hundreds of thousands of vacant and for-sale homes have evaporated, and as bidding wars are breaking out over what’s left. Or so it seems.
But vacant homes don’t evaporate. Private-equity funds have poured tens of billions into gobbling up vacant single-family homes in specific markets. And now some of them are planning IPOs as a way of dumping this stuff into funds that unsuspecting worker bees hold in their 401(k)s. It’s called an exit, and they have to do it before it blows up in their faces. Meanwhile, they’re hoping to rent out at least some of these vacant homes on their books, but vacancy rates of single-family homes are sky-high in these markets, with the stock of vacant homes having simply been moved from the for-sale list to the for-rent list where it languishes unnoticed by the gurus. That’s what free and unlimited money will do.
Euphoria even shows up in the numbers. The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index rose in May to 76.2 up from 69.0 in April, the highest level since February 2008. Not everyone was euphoric. Which was why the index hasn’t hit the stratosphere yet. But those among the respondents who benefitted from the Fed’s money-printing binge and the bubbles it engendered in corporate bonds, farmland, housing, the stock markets, even junk bonds… they felt flush; and just like in 2006 or 2007, when “Merger Monday” had become a day of the week, they felt wise for having made smart decisions. Forgotten were the fiscal cliff – whatever that had been – the payroll-tax hike, and the sequester. For the lucky ones, these inconveniences were drowned out by euphoria.
The Walmart crowd wasn’t so lucky, however, and if it hadn’t been for their presence, the index would have been soaring. So there were some hiccups: only 10.8% of the respondents thought that jobs were “plentiful”; while dismal, and a reminder of reality, it was up from an even more dismal 9.7% in April.
Everybody loves bubbles. People either don’t remember the wealth destruction and wealth transfers that took place when the last bubble blew up, or they think they, but not others, can get out in time, whether it’s through an IPO, a quick stock sale, or a real estate transaction. Governments love bubbles because they generate a flood of tax revenues – and even California is having illusions of a surplus. Central banks, and specifically the Fed, create bubbles and then deny their existence until afterwards when they bail out their cronies that hadn’t been able to get out in time – while others are left holding the bag. It’s an amazing show, with fireworks, suspense, dramatic plot twists, and a rousing score. And we get to watch it over and over again.