Could the Next Fed Appointment Crush the Housing Market?
As the end of Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s first term approaches, financial markets are beginning to digest the increased likelihood that US President Donald Trump will opt to appoint a more hawkish individual to the position. Even though the Federal Reserve is largely expected to continue tightening monetary policy over the coming months as it pares down the balance sheet and contemplates a dovish hike, Trump’s appointment could send shockwaves through the housing market.
One of the nastier side effects of operating at or near the zero-bound for interest rates has been the rapid expansion of asset valuations. Lower interest rates encourage individuals and companies to finance their purchases and then reinvest for more aggressive returns. However, this rapid valuation expansion has not been limited strictly to financialized assets, but also physical assets like real estate. When seen in the context of the more hawkish leanings of Trump’s recent Fed Chair interviewees, the Administration’s next Fed appointment could pose the risk of a serious correction across asset classes.
Fed Frontrunners Exhibit More Hawkish Bent
Financial news outlets have been rife with reports covering the potential picks for Fed Chairman, with two of the leading candidates including Economist John Taylor and former Federal Reserve Governor Kevin Warsh. Taylor, who currently serves as an economics professor at Stanford University, received high marks from Trump according to a Bloomberg report on the matter. Trump was purportedly very impressed with his credentials, though unlike other candidates, Taylor is among the fiercest advocates of having policy measures closely reflect economic conditions.
The “Taylor Rule”, titled after the economist, stipulates rates should rise when inflation is running at an elevated pace or unemployment is below the “full employment” threshold and should fall in the opposite scenario. Applying this set of rules to current economic conditions indicates that the key Fed Funds rate should be 3.74% to reflect high levels of employment and rising prices. At nearly 3 times the present rate, a selection of John Taylor to chair the Fed could rapidly dampen overextended valuations in equities and the housing market. Already his interview with Donald Trump caused a palpable dip in gold prices considering his overtly hawkish stance.
By comparison, Kevin Warsh has also advocated for a tighter monetary policy regime, greater deregulation, and a general makeover of the Central Bank. His attitude towards reform has won him positive mentions as well. However, his overall degree of hawkishness and stated desire to overhaul the inflation target could put him at the epicenter of a dramatic policy shift that departs from the more cautious approach of current Chair Janet Yellen.
Factors Outside the Fed’s Control
While easy to label the rebuilding efforts in Texas and Florida as positive for the overall housing market, this deals more with the supply angle than demand. On the buy side, a Fed determined to raise interest rates will assuredly presage rising mortgage costs which could in turn subject buyer interest to some downside as financing costs climb. Though it is tempting to cite the foreclosure rate at an 11-year low as a sign of strength, it does not necessarily imply that the housing market is on stable footing, especially as prices reach past the realm of affordability.
Considering income growth has kept nowhere near the same pace as price growth for homes according to the monthly Case-Shiller home price index, the lack of affordable solutions may be another factor that hurts demand and concurrently weighs on pricing. For the year through July, average hourly earnings climbed by 2.50% while housing prices of 20 major US metropolitan areas increased by 5.80% over the same period. With price growth outpacing wages by such a significant margin, the surge in values should be a worrying sign for prospective buyers thinking about diving in while mortgage rates remain not far from record lows.
However, a more concerning indication apart from unaffordability is the degree to which flipping has reemerged. The move is eerily reminiscent of the years leading up to the last financial crisis as lending standards are relaxed. House flipping reached the highest point since 2007 during the second quarter of 2017 and nearly 35% of the transactions were accompanied by mortgages. Even Goldman Sachs is getting into the flipping game with its recent acquisition of Genesis Capital LLC, a move designed to help the institution build a bigger presence in the lending sphere. Should mortgage rates rise in tandem with interest rates, it could spell doom for this substantial portion of residential real estate activity.
The Fed as the Deciding Factor
With the shortlist for the next Federal Reserve Chair realistically narrowed down to 5 candidates, those under consideration for the job have significantly more hawkish leanings than current Chair Janet Yellen and her predecessor Ben Bernanke. While ultimately housing prices are a function of the interaction of supply and demand, demand largely behaves inverse to interest rates. As rates climb, mortgage costs will echo the gains, potentially reducing interest. Should demand fall, housing prices are likely to experience a correction as well after a near 8-year unabated rise in values. Considering the unaffordability aspect and the degree of house flipping, the approaching Fed appointment has a higher propensity to cause a downturn compared to another leg of the ongoing housing market rally.