This month marks the sixth anniversary of one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the U.S. economy.
Over the course of three weeks in Sept. 2008, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were nationalized, Lehman Brothers filed bankruptcy, Bank of America agreed to acquire Merrill Lynch, the Federal Reserve bailed out AIG with an $85 billion loan, and the FDIC seized savings-and-loan giant Washington Mutual.
Had the financial crisis been a typical recession, it would have been long forgotten by now. But it wasn't. And, as a result, we're still living with the consequences.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the housing market. Even though soaring home prices have led some to proclaim a new bubble, the evidence is clear that the markets for both new and existing homes remain a fraction of their former selves.
The lack of demand for new homes
The natural place to start a discussion about the state of housing is the market for new homes. There are two reasons for this. First, new home construction is intimately intertwined with the demographics of the United States, fueled in large part by population growth and household formation. And second, the homebuilding industry is a critical component of the domestic economy.
Since 1950, residential investment as a share of gross domestic product has averaged 4.7%. Last year it was only 3.1%. That equates to an annual shortfall of $288 billion. If you add this back in, it's projected that economic growth would jump to 4%, or nearly double that of the last few years, and that upwards of 1.5 million jobs would be created.
The main problem is that fewer homes are being built than at any time since 1960. When you factor in population growth and the need to demolish 300,000 dilapidated homes each year, it's estimated that an average of 1.5 million homes must be built on an annual basis to keep up with long-term demand. Yet, in the six years since the financial crisis, we've averaged 727,000.
The drop originally appeared to be the result of past oversupply. From 2002 to 2006, homebuilders turned out almost 1.9 million units a year. This generated a cumulative surplus of almost 2 million new homes. If you do the math, however, this theory only accounts for the drop in construction through the middle of 2010. Since then, a cumulative deficit has emerged to the tune of 2.6 million units.
One explanation is that homeownership has lost its appeal. At the end of 2004, 69% of American households owned their home. The same figure today is 64.7%. Another answer is that fewer households are being formed each year due to the downbeat economy. Prior to the crisis, 1.35 million new households were created on an annual basis. Since then, the figure has fallen to 569,000.
An additional impediment is that it's gotten harder to qualify for a mortgage. "You can assume that roughly a third of the people who got mortgages during the subprime mortgage bubble don't qualify today," Guy Cecala of Inside Mortgage Finance told me. As you can see in the chart below, not only have total mortgage originations fallen, but government-backed loans, which have stricter underwriting standards, now account for 80% of origination volume.
Thus, for a variety of reasons, there simply isn't the demand for new homes that the U.S. economy had come to rely on since the end of World War II.
An anemic supply of existing homes for sale
While the economic impact of waning demand for new homes can't be denied, it's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the health of the overall housing market. This is because existing home sales -- that is, previously owned homes listed by their current owners -- outnumber new home sales by a factor of 10. In 2013, a total of 429,000 new homes were sold compared to over 4.4 million existing single-family homes.
There's no question that the market for previously owned homes has staged a comeback over the last four years. At the low point in July 2010, the volume of existing single-family home sales was just over 3 million on a seasonally adjusted annual basis. The figure this past July was 4.55 million.
But this shouldn't be taken as a sign that the market for existing homes is firing on all cylinders. Even excluding the inflated volumes associated with the subprime mortgage bubble, we're still somewhere around 20% below the rate one would expect by projecting the pre-crisis trend forward.
The problem in this case, unlike in the market for new homes, is supply. As a general rule, the market for existing homes is said to be in equilibrium when the supply, or inventory, of properties listed for sale equals six months' worth of demand, measured by the current rate of monthly sales. When the inventory exceeds this threshold, prices have historically dropped. But when supply comes in less than this mark -- which it currently does -- prices have traditionally gone up.
The most obvious reason for the lack of supply is that many homes are in or on the cusp of foreclosure. According to CoreLogic's latest National Foreclosure Report, approximately 648,000 homes in the United States are in some state of being foreclosed upon and an additional 1.7 million mortgages are seriously delinquent. The former figure is almost four times as high as the average in the early 2000s, says CoreLogic's chief economist Mark Fleming.
On top of this, 6.5 million residential properties are still underwater, according to CoreLogic's Equity Report. This equates to 13.3% of all mortgaged homes. And if you add in the 3.3% of mortgages with less than 5% equity, a total of 16.6% of encumbered properties would subject their owners to a loss if sold.
The net result is that there's a strong financial disincentive for many existing homeowners to put their houses on the market. This will change with time, as home prices continue to rise. But as we've seen over the past six years, this doesn't happen overnight.
The legacy of the financial crisis
"There is no such thing as a normal housing market," Cecala told me. And he's right. Housing, like most other industries, is cyclical; it's in a constant state of either expansion or contraction. But while the residential real estate market is currently expanding, it's doing so in the shadow of the subprime mortgage bubble.
The consequences of those euphoric years carry through to today. In the market for new homes, there's a lack of demand, as Americans reassess the allure (and financial risk) of the American dream. And in the market for previously owned homes, supply is anemic thanks to elevated foreclosure rates and insufficient equity.
Thus, to underline the point made in the title, the housing market has not yet recovered from the financial crisis. It's made progress, and it's continuing to move in the right direction, but for now we'll just have to be satisfied with that.
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