How Tales of ‘Flippers’ Led to a Housing Bubble

The problem for economists is that these changes don’t correspond to movements in the usual suspects: interest rates, building costs, population or rents. The Consumer Price Index for Rent of Primary Residence, compiled by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics and corrected for inflation, went up only 8 percent in 1997 to 2005, so unmet demand for housing services can’t explain the huge increase in real home prices. It doesn’t explain the 29 percent rise in real home prices since 2012 either, because inflation-adjusted rents increased only 10 percent in that period. So what has been driving the wild ride in home prices?

I believe the price swings have something to do with the changing mentality of the times, changes caused by narratives that have gone viral and swept across the population. Looking for answers in such popular stories contrasts starkly with the prominent approach of modeling people as though they react logically to economic forces. But a less orthodox approach can be quite useful.

One thing is clear: The prevalent narratives of 1997 to 2005 did not include the concept of a housing bubble, not at first. A computer search using Proquest or Google Ngrams shows that the phrase “housing bubble” was hardly used until 2005, the end of the boom. What is a bubble? It typically includes the notion that, spurred by the public’s expectation of ever further price increases, demand eventually reaches levels that cannot be sustained, and so the enthusiasm wanes and the bubble collapses. But that thought was just not on many people’s minds then, the evidence suggests.

Instead, during the 1997 to 2005 boom there were multitudes of narratives about smart investors who were bold enough to take a position in the market. To single out one strand, recall the stories of flippers who would buy a house, fix it up, and resell it within months at a huge profit. These stories appear to have been broadly…

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