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Dylan Matthews brings our attention to this map from the Tax Foudation:

all about the variable purchasing power of a benjamin

Basically, they inverted the BEA’s Regional Price Parities and mapped it – cool!

It needs a bit of context, though. Specifically, there’s something very clearly driving this outcome. Fortunately for us, BEA subdivides the RPPs into Goods, Rents, and Other Services, and provides us with a good-enough guide to how it weights them that we can create a parallel “non-housing cost” index and see what happens. And what do you know?

histograms ftw

Once you exclude housing, the distribution of outcomes is much narrower and much more clustered around its central tendency. Or more bluntly – everywhere costs a lot more like everywhere else when you don’t consider housing.

Of course we should consider housing! It’s really important! But we should also be clear what expensive housing means – lots of people want to live somewhere. Often because wages are high. And guess what? If we graph the state rent index against state per capita income:

mo money mo housing demand

It becomes pretty clear that higher wages (or at least higher average incomes) are likely the reason housing prices are high.

So if you live in DC, you’re probably not paying that much more for most things than an Alabaman is; you’re just paying a premium to live in a high-wage area that can’t – or won’t – build enough housing to keep up with the demand to live somewhere wages are high.

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My post last week on the case for homeownership as an investment has received some good feedback (the e-word is hereby banished from this blog), a good chunk of which has been constructively critical. While I responded to specifics in comments, I also wanted to supplement the post by fleshing out the remainder of the argument and adding a couple of points.

It has been pointed out to me that there are certain costs – mostly taxes, insurance, and maintenance – that weren’t included in my spreadsheet and only implicitly in my analysis. This is – for the most part – true! I did handwave away depreciation, as much for the sake of simplicity as anything, but I only touched on the other two to the extent that they’re wrapped up into the rent counterfactual. Let’s delve into that some more.

Rent – the price of shelter to non-owners – is in the simplest analysis driven by the same things that drive all markets prices: supply and demand. That means rents aren’t directly responsive to the costs of housing, but those costs do impact the supply curve. If the costs of creating and renting new housing can’t be justified by rents, then supply will not rise even if demand does, driving up prices until they are so justified. Therefore, in general we should expect the costs of renting shelter to be similar (though not equivalent) to those incurred by the owner of the same. In fact, I bet if you play around with The Upshot’s ‘Buy vs. Rent’ calculator, you’ll find that housing and rental costs are very similar.

This brings me to my next point; while people have pointed out what costs I didn’t include, fewer have mentioned the benefit I didn’t include in my analysis, even though that benefit is much vaster. I focused solely on the capital gains returns of buying a house to demonstrate the power of leverage, but the huge share of the returns to a house are the rents you receive as an owner. This is central to any complete case in favor of homeownership. It is further worth noting that these imputed rents are, in fact, an enormous share of our economy.

a vampire weekend song entitled "david ricardo"

Net imputed rents, as I pointed out in my Piketty thinkpiece which seriously you must have read this thing by now also tend to be fairly stable, returning between 4-6% of the house’s price over time.

seek those rents seek them hard 

This chart actually understates the stability of imputed rents (as the former chart makes clear) since most of that volatility is driven by volatility in the denominator. For context, here’s the Case-Shiller index, since basically forever (with bonus real interest rate series):

 oh hai the aughties

While volatility has more recently increased (consider that my application for the Understatement of the Year Award), note that houses, at the very worst, tend to be inflation proof (the Case-Shiller is a real, not nominal, index) – an asset whose nominal price grows alongside inflation while consistently returning 4-6% annual net returns is, hey, not too bad, and if you can use tax-privileged leverage to buy it, not too bad at all. Especially since we’re going to pay a bundle for housing no matter what we do:

 what would a cake chart look like

…using housing as a vehicle for savings makes an additional sense.

That leads me to an additional point on volatility; here’s Shiller’s stock price index, also since basically forever:

 oh hai the 20s oh and the 90s hello

That looks a lot more volatile than house prices, huh? Which brings us to a key point – as asset price volatility increases, so does the importance of investment timing. This, as Neil Irwin recently noted, can make long-term averages of returns misleading.

seriously though fuck umberto nobody likes that guy anyway

While his examples are obviously stylized, they clearly-enough make the point that otherwise-identical savings behavior in a volatile market can achieve vastly different outcomes depending on the timing of returns even holding long-term average returns constant. Therefore, the relative stability of housing returns – prices + rents – helps savers reduce long term risks.

I want to conclude, though, by taking a major step back and examining the whole purpose of this exercise. When we’re talking about savings from a consumer perspective (not from an investment perspective) what we’re talking about is retirement; and when we’re talking about retirement, we’re always talking about the same somewhat-odd phenomenon. When a person retires, they cease all economic production through labor, yet continue to demand a share of the economic output of their society. We tend to view these claims as just and deserved because they are made by the elderly, who we feel have earned it/are unable to work/are generally venerable (as opposed to similar claims from the non-elderly poor, which we treat very differently) but that doesn’t change the underlying structural nature of the phenomenon, in which we are trying to ensure that a substantial portion of the adult population is consuming an broadly-equally-substantial portion of present economic output while providing no inputs.

Debates about savings and retirement, therefore, are all about how to structure this phenomenon – specifically, what network of programs, policies, mechanisms, incentives, and behaviors we want to establish to justify to the working and capitalists that a portion of their labor and capital outputs be directed to the non-working old, which we often do by creating mechanisms that somehow tether those portions of redistributed present income to guarantees of future income. All governments in wealth nations do this, and the ways in which they vary are influenced heavily by politics, ideology, and other socioeconomic factors. In the United States, our prevalent ideology around a certain kind economic freedom means we tend to be less generous in direct public redistribution and instead attempt to subsidize private savings through the tax code and public insurance – ergo, 401(k)s, the home mortgage interest deduction, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Indeed, the increasing prevalence of that ideological strain is driving defined benefit plans into extinctions in favor of defined contribution plans.

good thing we don't have unions anymore

This leads us to many debates about the best savings vehicles for middle class Americans, yet those debates are to a decent extent a red herring – the vast majority of retirees receive the majority of their retirement income from Social Security, and for many, it’s all the income they have – though to be consistent, I’m nearly certain the figures in the chart below don’t include imputed rents, though I could be wrong, and this is important because 80% of seniors are homeowners:

society secured 

This is very good evidence for the proposition that a vastly disproportionate share of the private-savings-for-retirement subsidy network flows to those who need it least. And it suggests that questions like “houses v. stocks” are, for many Americans, mostly a red herring – if we want to put more money in the hands of retirees, we should simply make Social Security more generous – or, in a better world, maintain it at its current level of generosity while implementing a Universal Basic Income.

stewie "david ricardo" griffin

Linking to Dylan Matthew’s generally-excellent piece on the correct way to manage one’s personal finances, Matt Yglesias says “stocks are on average a much better long-term investment than houses.”

This, of course, is an increasingly common view in the “internet wonk community” (one I consider myself an member of), distinct from the related and equally-prevalent view that ‘homeownership should be much less subsidized than it it now.’

This is also a view I take issue with, which you’d already know if you read my big Piketty #thinkpiece – you read my big Piketty #thinkpiece, right? right? – and one that I think needs a little elucidating and defending in detail.

There are three basic reasons that buying a house is a vastly better investment than current wonkpinion suggests. The first is that making large leveraged investments can pay off hugely even if the underlying growth rate of the purchased asset is slow. Let’s demonstrate.* Let’s take an average American buying an average house in an average way – $200,000 purchase price, 20% down, 4% closing costs, 5% interest rate. Now let’s say the value of that house grows reeeeeeeally slowly – just 0.3%/year, which just so happens to be the compounded annual growth rate of the Case-Shiller index since 1947.

If our average American sells their house after 10 years, their initial $48,000 equity investment will become $67,691.08 – which means their equity grew at a CAGR of 3.5%! If they sell after 15 years, they’ll net $92,209.57, which is a CAGR of 4.45%. Hey, that’s a lot higher than the 0.3% growth rate of the house’s price itself, isn’t it?

It sure is! The amazing power of leveraged investments is that you can turn a little bit of equity into a large return, as Matt Yglesias notes concisely here. Here, in fact, is a nice little graph demonstrating the implied return rate of selling your house after making regular mortgage payments for a given number of years, given the interest rate paid, assuming that meager 0.3% growth rate:

n33ds m0Ar l3vr1j

After 13 years, you’ll get a 3% return even at a very high interest rate; at 19 years, you’ll get a 4% return. In fact, you can assume zero growth and still get a substantial return on your initial investment – as long as you don’t count the regular payments on the debt.

Hey, what about the regular payments on the debt?

Good question! This brings us to my next two points. Because if leveraged investments are so awesome, why don’t we empower (and perhaps subsidize) average people to make large leveraged investments in stocks, which have a much larger underlying growth rate? Beyond all the other problems with that idea (not that nobody has pitched it), the thing about a house is that it has an unusual counterfactual. If you buy stocks with leverage, in theory the payments on the debt should come out of your savings, creating a counterfactual of simply saving and investing that money. But the counterfactual to owning is renting. This creates some curious conditions that lead to my next two points in favor of buying a house – inflation protection and subsidies.

There is obviously some connection between the purchase price of a house (and therefore the amortized monthly payment on the mortgage) and the rent it could fetch – regardless of where you fall on the capital controversy that dare not speak its name, there must be some fundamental link between the price of an asset and its expected returns. However, a mortgage is detached from the imputed rent (the flow of sheltering services) a house delivers, and therefore is nominally frozen in a way that rents are not. So therefore even if a mortgage today is substantially more expensive than the rent payment on an equivalent housing unit, in thirty years even very low inflation will change that drastically. Just 2% average annual inflation entails an 80% increase in the price level over three decades, meaning the annual mortgage payment declines by nearly half over that time. Rent, in the meantime, keeps going up (except in rare cases which can entail its own problems), at least as fast as inflation. Therefore even a mortgage whose monthly payment is more expensive than a rent payment today will be much cheaper than renting in a few years.

Aha, you might say, but there is a problem with this – the magic of compound interest means that the difference-in-monthly-payment savings accrued today by the renter will be much more valuable in retirement than the parallel savings accrued years from now by the owner. This is true! But that’s where the subsidies kick in. Our primary national subsidy for homeownership is to allow mortgage-payers to deduct the interest portion of their payments from their income – and the amortization structure of mortgages means the share of payments comprised of interest are highest right when the mortgage begins, and declines until the loan expires:

interest on your interest

This benefit comes when “housing” costs – really, housing-purchase-debt costs – are at their highest, also because earlier in life is when incomes are their lowest. It is difficult – very difficult – to defend the home mortgage interest deduction as currently structured, as such a large portion of the benefit goes to such a small and disproportionately well-off group. It is worth considering, though, whether the idea at the core of the program is sound. And either way, whether you think we should have them or not doesn’t mean that you don’t consider them when considering what constitutes a good investment under the status quo.

Of course, I haven’t even touched on imputed rents once a house is fully-owned (or, conversely, actual rents), which are of course the most important return to a house, well beyond the capital gains discussed heretofore. But this leads to the most important conclusion: not that houses are such a great investment per se; just that they’re a great investment for people without a lot of capital because of their unique pathway to leverage. If you had half-a-million dollars, should you buy a house (or apartment) to rent or a portfolio of financial products? Almost always the latter. But if you only have an order of magnitude less than that to your name, it may make sense to buy something with a lower return (not to mention wholly undiversified) because you can lever up. Just another way that large capital concentrations can secure higher returns – or at least exercise more freedom of action.

Spreadsheet, as always, attached – calculate your own expected returns on your housing investment!

House Investment

*All of these numbers are real and net-of-depreciation unless otherwise noted.

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