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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.


my god nothing can save us


So NPR gave time this morning to Paul Taylor to wax catastrophic about why Social Security is going to eat us all in a naked attempt to create an anti-senior backlash among millennials. No transcript yet, but among the many scary numbers he cited is the beneficiary-to-population ratio, which basically gives the impression that senior citizens are an all-consuming mass whose insatiable hunger for early-bird buffets and tchotchkes for the grandkids will surely doom us all.

Needless to say, this is extremely misleading. And it’s misleading because, hey guess what, productivity and technology have also increased a wee bit since the Truman administration. Here’s the share of GDP going to Social Security since 1960:

alert the president! the blog has been subdued by secular trends in labor and capital productivity!

Everybody panic! It’s…1980!

Now, in that time the senior share of the population has increased:

senior share

But ever since the ’83 reforms to Social Security, it’s growth has basically been level with GDP growth. Now, that above chart looks scary, but remember – if our real GDP grows on average at just 2.5% annually, it will double every 28 years, which means that barring protracted economic catastrophe that by the time 2050 rolls around and the senior share of the population has increased by ~7 percentage points that our overall GDP will be approximately two-and-a-half times what it is today, making it easy to pick up a higher tab on behalf of our seniors. And this ignores any new technological efficiencies that might come from automation.

The real point is that if Social Security is a problem in 2050, it’s not a problem with Social Security it’s a problem with our economy, which will have severely malfunctioned. Also, stop trying to turn us kids against our parents and grandparents. We like them, they worked hard, they deserve to retire with dignity. We can afford it.

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