Will another housing bubble bring down the U.S. economy?
Nearly a decade after the peak of the American real estate bubble, there’s no shortage of fear that we’ll repeat the whole nightmare again.
For years now, economy watchers have fretted over the run up in student loan debt, while more recently the collapse in junk bond prices had analysts drawing paralells to what happened in the subprime mortgage market in 2008. Legendary investor George Soros this week was quoted as saying the upheaval in China’s financial markets reminds him of the “crisis we had in 2008,” The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka reported on Thursday.
But what if the next crisis isn’t just similar to the last one, but a word-for-word rip-off? That’s what a viewer of Quicken Loans’ latest ad for its new mortgage product, Rocket Mortgage, might just think. The tagline is, after all, “push button, get mortgage.”
After seeing that video (or an ad for the product on Fortune.com), you might be forgiven for having flashbacks to the last crisis. Meanwhile, competitors like Guaranteed Mortgage have resorted to hiring celebrities like Extreme Makeover Home Edition host Ty Pennington to pitch its online lending products.
But a hard look at the numbers should convince you that mortgage lenders aren’t handing out loans like a dentist giving out toothbrushes. Lending standards have come down a bit, but they remain tighter than they were before the mid-2000s bubble began inflating, and seemingly qualified buyers are still complaining about getting shut out of the real estate market.
For its part, Quicken Loans President and CMO Jay Farnar argues that products like Rocket Mortgage enable his firms to improve the quality of its lending, because it enables a more efficient collection of consumer data that helps make underwriting more robust.
Meanwhile, mortgage originations have remained flat for the past two years, and lenders are giving out fewer mortgages today then they were in 2012, when the housing recovery was just getting underway, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.
In other words, it doesn’t look like irresponsible mortgage lending is inflating real estate prices beyond their fundamentals, but that doesn’t mean another form of capital won’t. That’s what housing analyst Marc Hanson has been arguing for sometime now. Housing prices, he contends, are about 25% to 60% above what the fundamentals of the U.S. economy can justify, but the market is being propped up by “unorthodox. . .incremental demand using unorthodox capital.”
This time around the unorthodox capital isn’t coming in the form of international investors piling money into the U.S. mortgage bond market, creating a doomsday machine that cranked out home loans with very little scrutiny, but from domestic institutional investors, folks buying second and third homes and serving as landlords, and foreign buyers stowing cash in American real estate.