Our esteemed 33rd president, Harry S. Truman, once said, "It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours." In the vein of everything old becoming new again, it seems that this eye-of-the-beholder issue has never rung truer than when it comes to pinpointing when the current/recent real estate recession began, and when it ended (or will end, depending on your point of view).
The Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Indices calls recession and recovery in terms of peaks, troughs and the rises and falls thereto and therefrom. The Case-Shiller called the top of the market in 2006 or 2007, depending on the market, and the bottom of the national housing market in the spring of 2009; the Case-Shiller is primed to mark another nationwide bottom — the second dip — any moment now.
Last fall, a committee that studies business cycles for the National Bureau of Economic Research raised more than a few eyebrows when it declared that technically, the recession had been over for more than a year. The NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee said the recession began in December 2007, and ended 18 months later when the economy stopped contracting and began to expand again.
But for many individual Americans who own homes, the Truman definition rules their personal sense of when the recession began. That is, the housing crisis became real only when the prospective listing agents told them what the comparable sales looked like for their home, when they received a notice from the county that their property taxes were being reduced (without having applied for a reduction in their home’s assessed value), when they lost their job and realized they couldn’t sell the place for what they owed on it, or when their mortgage payment began increasing and they realized they couldn’t refinance the loan because the place wouldn’t appraise at their current loan balance.
While the housing bubble’s deflation occurred in a geographically spotty manner over a year’s time, which made it even tougher for the average Jane to pinpoint — it was still more of an encapsulated event — than recovery will be. Media outlets and real estate data reports have proliferated faster than Android apps, so that recovery and its absence are alternatively heralded, predicted or dismissed on a weekly or even daily basis in various outlets.
The Case-Shiller ostensibly views recovery as a return of home values to their mid-decade peaks, while former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan recently said recovery wouldn’t be here until housing prices rise another 10 percent from the status quo.
All these definitions have turned the issue of when the real estate recovery was, is or will be into an economic Tower of Babel, with every analyst and report shouting out about a different definition of recovery, so that no one really understands what the other is talking about.
And in the minds of homebuyers, sellers and homeowners, this disconnect is exponentially gappier, because their positions on what recovery is is largely driven by their own perceived interests, as I realized in a recent conversation on my Facebook page about the Obama administration’s proposal to phase Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac entirely out of existence.
I had sketched out a number of implications to the proposal — including hikes in loan costs, interest rates, down-payment requirements and, generally speaking, the barrier to entry to homeownership. But I’d also mentioned that the Fannie/Freddie bailout has U.S. taxpayers $130 billion in the hole, and counting, and that the proposal provides a set of options to resolve the troubling and ideally, very temporary, current state of affairs, in which 90 percent of the home loans originated on today’s market are backed in some way by the federal government.
Most real estate professionals and virtually all prospective homebuyers thought this was outrageous and would cripple the market. Those viewing the matter from their perspective as taxpayers thought that for the government to do anything but phase Fannie and Freddie out would be the real outrage. "But recovery will take longer," cried the first group, "or never happen at all," indicating that their definition of recovery was probably tied to a rise in home values or sales activity. The other group thinks recovery, by definition, will include a stable market, not propped up by the government, where homebuyers and refinancing homeowners are required to document some serious creditworthiness and put significant swathes of their own skin in the game when they take mortgages.
In his 1980 presidential election campaign, Ronald Reagan appended a definition of recovery onto Truman’s definitions of recession and depression: Recovery, Reagan said, "is when Jimmy Carter loses his" job — as U.S. president.
In today’s American economy, there is no single person whose position in or out of any office will generate the housing market’s recovery. The fact is, many homeowners won’t think the market has recovered until it gets back to their mental target value for their home; and some buyers won’t think recovery is here until they’ve been priced out. In every household, there is a single person whose sense of what recovery is will dictate whether it has been achieved in his or her mind: you.