Housing Bubble Harms

August 27th, 2021 by Potato

Adam Vaughan made himself the face of government callousness and inaction earlier this year[0]. It started with an appearance on TVO’s the Agenda, where when talking about what the government should do about housing, he said “We’re in a safe market for foreign investment but we’re not in a great market for Canadians looking for choices around housing.” Which wasn’t news to a lot of people, but it was news that the government knew and was choosing to do nothing rather than just being incompetent and unaware.

He then continued to say (and followed it up and in various Twitter battles) that the government would not do anything if it meant risking even a 10% decline in house prices — which in the context of the time (over 20%/yr increases, and not just in the big cities) would have been rolling prices back just a few months. But even that was too much for them.

In other words, he said the quiet part loud. And now we all know that they know, and that they don’t care.

He’s tried to make the case that housing prices falling is bad, as have others throughout this decade+ run-up in house prices. People don’t like seeing their biggest asset fall in value, and recent buyers could be underwater and financially stressed. If it gets rolling, it might lead to a recession.

And sure, it’s pretty obvious that if we have a housing crash, it would have many negative effects. The problem is, high prices also have negative effects, and there’s a chance prices will fall anyway in the future, and inaction just delays and exacerbates that.

Why Housing Bubbles are Bad

A housing crash and its associated harms is hard to miss, but the harms of a bubble are more subtle and insidious, but just as bad for society.

Bad? The wealth effect? Our cities becoming “world-class”? These are bad things? Well, those aren’t the only side effects of a housing bubble.

There are much more serious effects on people’s lives. There’s rising inequality, though that’s just part of it.

Housing is the biggest cost in most family’s budgets, and for young people that can be by a huge amount[1]. When housing gets more expensive, they feel the squeeze: literally, if they have to settle for being under-housed to make ends meet. That has real-world consequences.

I can write about the rent-vs-buy decision and raising a kid in a rental all I want, many people out there still want to put off starting families until they can buy sufficient housing for a family. The frenzied speculation makes rentals less secure even if rents themselves have lagged price appreciation. With higher prices (and rapidly rising prices), buying is harder — much harder — and young families have to settle for less space, and delay their purchases to save up. That means they put off having kids longer, and having fewer when they do. Toronto’s fertility rate dropped 16% in the last decade[2]. If anything else had caused our fertility rate to drop that much in just a decade (in the face of millennial demographics that we might have expected an increased fertility rate from) we would be rioting in the streets for the government to do something, holding up signs about the missing 10,000 babies. We’d be banning chemicals, exterminating mosquito vectors, or adding fertility treatments to OHIP coverage. But when it’s economic: crickets. Housing insecurity and microcondos are just the way of life here in a world-class city, and a few thousand unconceived babies are acceptable collateral damage for muh price growth.

Mike Moffat has also pointed out Toronto’s troublesome population movement patterns: the largest cohort of people leaving the city are newborns (followed by other young children and those in the parents of young children age bracket) — so even when a kid is born here, there’s a good chance its family promptly leaves.

Lower interest rates (that somehow keep going lower) have helped support housing prices: mortgage payments have not increased as much as prices. But they have gone up quite a bit, and even if more and more of that payment goes toward principal, the principal still has to be paid back. 10 years ago, a $775k average detached house required that, at some point, you paid back $775k. Spread evenly over 25 years, that’s $31k/yr. A big chunk of a couple’s after-tax income, but doable if you were pulling in $100-120k combined (and a monthly payment including interest of $3.1k). At $1.7M, that’s $68k/yr to pay it off in 25 years, which doesn’t leave much else for having kids or supporting the economy (and the monthly is up to $5.4k at lower interest rates).

This is a big black hole for the velocity of money: more and more of our salaries are going to paying for our houses. That’s money that isn’t circulating back through the economy, or investing in something productive. Wouldn’t we be better off with lower house prices, and more of our disposable income going to services, innovation, transitioning to a low-carbon economy, charities, etc., instead of having housing sucking up all the cash flow?

In conclusion, while a crash can be harmful, high (and rapidly rising) house prices also have harms. So far the government has made it clear which set of harms they see and care about.

Election Time

A federal election has been called, and more and more people are saying that housing is a big issue for them. Each party has come out with an ineffectual do-nothing housing plan, and not one has acknowledged the elephant in the room: that a solution must allow at least the risk that house prices will drop. The cure to affordability is not to create more loan programs and tax breaks to help people pay higher and higher prices for housing[3] — it’s to get prices lower.

The first step is admitting that there is a problem[4]. I’m a left-leaning voter — often ABC — and while there are a lot of issues I care about (science funding, the environment, electoral reform, etc.), man, at this point I would vote PC if they actually came out with a housing plan that was willing to actually address prices and affordability.

[0] And stealing that crown from DoFo in a pandemic was quite the achievement.

[1] Though for the wealthy who haven’t read my book, investment fees may edge out housing.

[2] And that’s before the effect of the pandemic and lockdowns, which looks to have created its own “baby bust”. Also, other cities did have birth rate declines over the last decade too, though they were lagging Toronto’s — Calgary and Halifax had held steady through to 2016 (which would be about 9 months after Alberta’s oil bust started) and then a step down; London had a small decline in 2016, which was then exacerbated in 2018, while Toronto just heads down and down the whole decade.

[3] which in a tight market just gives people more money to bid which drives prices up further — many of the proposed programs are counter-productive that way.

[4] Update: Rob Carrick had a similar take here (and he got around to hitting publish first while I was dicking around in MS Paint). “Only a major price reversal can restore mass affordability and the federal parties won’t touch policies that would make this happen.”

Grad School, 10 Years On

August 19th, 2021 by Potato

Coincidentally, I had this post on grad school and mental health come up across my stream today. (It’s a coincidence because I got out 10 years ago today though the server time on that old post indicates I didn’t post until after midnight)

Grad school is about as harmful to a person’s mental health as the death of a spouse was one tweet summary. Collectively, it causes as much disability adjusted life years lost as HIV/AIDS and other STDs per the post, which yeah, tracks about right.

I had a lot of good times in grad school, faced some interesting challenges, made some friends, and learned a lot. It was far from all bad. But I also wasted years of my life, with a huge opportunity cost.

My mental health has been terrible for the last year and a half or so. But this last decade I think overall it’s been fair to good (highs and lows, of course). Part of that is that fatherhood suits me. Yet even having to face the pressures of the real world and all the monkey feces it has thrown at me, I’ve been less anxious and less depressed than in grad school. To say it plainly: I, too, suffered with bouts of anxiety and depression on that journey. Of course, I can’t place the full blame on grad school: part of that was pre-existing. It may be generalizable/self-selecting, as I suppose you don’t go get a PhD unless you’re already a little cracked in the head in the first place.

It’s also a little sad to see that 10 years on and Science-with-a-capital-S still hasn’t figured this shit out. The profession is structurally hostile to people looking to reproduce, is more than a little exploitative and pyramid-schemy, and yet absolutely vital to human progress. We’ve been talking for years about how PhD students are often poorly prepared for “alternative” careers (though academia and research are the minority outcomes, by a lot). We under-value research talent (severely in many cases), and even then can’t manage to pull out sustainable and secure funding programs. On the bright side, I am seeing more positions for people as working scientists (e.g. Research Associates) that aren’t some under-paid holding-pattern position on the mythical ladder to tenure.

I wasn’t planning on posting anything to mark the day, but when I saw that tweet I had to put something up, so this rambling mess is all the retrospective you get today.

— Doctor Potato

Rent vs Buy: So How’d That Work Out for You?

August 10th, 2021 by Potato

It was 10 years ago that I finished my PhD and started looking for a new place to live. I went deep, deep down the analysis rabbit hole, eventually emerging with my rent-vs-buy spreadsheet. At the time, we decided to rent: the housing market in Toronto was already at a price-to-rent ratio of over 300X, and using a bunch of very reasonable assumptions, renting looked like the much smarter move.

Well, now it’s 10 years later. How’d that all work out?

The housing market (esp. in Toronto) performed very well over the last decade. That was unexpected: the market was already expensive on a price:rent and price:income basis in 2011, and it just simply got more expensive — incomes have not surged ahead in the city, nor have rents. Yet prices have been on an absolute tear, roughly doubling in that decade.

Back then interest rates were at “emergency” lows, and nearly everyone was warning buyers that they would have to be prepared to renew at higher rates. Reality is stranger than we can imagine though, and instead we find ourselves a decade later with rates even lower. If you predicted that, congratulations, you already have your prize. If you used the best information available at the time and decided to rent instead, then you likely have a constant stream of people looking to dunk on you. “How’d that renting thing work out for you anyway?”

While housing is the national obsession, investments had a hell of a decade, too. Remember in the rent-vs-buy analysis we assumed a 7% rate of return for investments? Well in actuality an aggressive diversified portfolio got over 9% because the stock market also blew the lights out.

So how did those two choices shake out with all things considered then? The answer comes down to leverage: if you had a big pile of money and were looking to buy a place outright, you were better off investing it. A $775k (the price of an average detached house back then) investment in a TD e-series portfolio would grow to become $1.9M, while a house of the same value grew to $1.7M. Without leverage, renting and investing was a toss-up versus buying.

If you use the more realistic scenario of starting with a smaller amount to invest and using that as a downpayment (and getting a mortgage for the rest), then buying a house came out better — thanks, leverage!

To look back we can use the same rent-vs-buy calculator and just adjust a few numbers based on how things played out — higher realized returns for both investing and house price appreciation, lower mortgage rates, lower property taxes, as well as lower rent inflation [1].

Saving the extra cashflow from renting plus investing the downpayment would leave the renter with a portfolio of $820k (remember how expensive housing was compared to rents — it took a lot of cashflow to buy!). But that house appreciation (to $1.7M!) leaves the owner with even more equity. Once you sell both (hit the renter’s portfolio with some capital gains taxes, the owner with some sales commission), the owner is better off by $367k.

That’s… not a small difference.

Findependence Proximity

Here’s the strange thing: in reality I chose to rent, so I can see how much more houses in my neighbourhood are than my portfolio. Yet I don’t feel bad about missing the boat. Part of it is not wanting to engage in resulting. I knew what information I had at the time, I know that I put a tonne of effort into my decision-making and analysis, and made the best decision I could with it at the time. Some people were indeed calling for those high growth rates to continue, and we would do the math and laugh.

“You can’t be serious. At that rate, in a decade an already-expensive bog-standard 3-bedroom detached house would be $1.7M! Who would possibly be able to buy that!” Well, here we are, the Darkest Timeline.

With the incredible stock market returns, the renters now have enough to be able to buy in cash — mortgage-free — the house they were previously renting… if it had only appreciated in-line with inflation. But it didn’t, and instead they’re priced out forever (…ever-ever-ever…).

Yet in a way, they’re better off.

I tend to try to put big numbers into context by thinking about FIRE — how much closer to retirement would $367k [2] put me? On the surface, that much money should be a very meaningful difference in outcomes — years knocked off the time in the science mines. But it’s all locked up in real estate equity in the counterfactual. That’s the funny thing: though they can’t buy a house, that stock market performance means that the renter’s investment portfolio is now roughly large enough to pay their rent indefinitely. A few more years of saving and investing to cover their other needs and they’re on track to retire in their 50’s.

The owner still has 15 years of mortgage payments to make, and then still has to save up enough to be able to pay the other costs of the property (tax, insurance, maintenance) and then find a way to pay for food and all the other necessities of life. Their net wealth is significantly higher, and yet their life goals are much further away.

Unless, of course, they’re willing to sell and realize those gains. But at what point do you do that? If you looked at the market in 2011 and decided to buy anyway, when do you switch tracks and get out? What do you do with all that housing wealth if you don’t sell?

The market has seriously warped the notion of wealth. Ten years ago I was aiming for an early retirement (not extreme FIRE, something like early-to-mid 50’s). Round numbers, $1.5M invested would have been in the ballpark for me to comfortably quit my job and either fully retire or go freelance part-time. Yet these days, that doesn’t even buy a house here.

Resulting and the Next Timestep of the Simulation

Was it a “bad decision” to rent 10 years ago? I don’t think so — based on the information available at the time, it was the right move under most expected future scenarios. The future as it turned out happened to be the darkest timeline: rather than correcting the 300X price:rent, it simply went to an even crazier 470X through massive appreciation. If in 2011 you told me the high rate of growth would continue for another decade, I’d say that seemed laughable, and do the math for you — wouldn’t the average house becoming $1.7M in 2021 seem like a ridiculous outcome? …yet here we are. So no, I don’t think it was a bad decision, just a bad outcome.

Likewise, continuing to rent from here: there is nothing in the short-term data that suggests this market is about to crash. The bulls are firmly in control and the government has explicitly said it’s not going to do anything that might bring prices down. But it doesn’t have to crash for renting to come out ahead — it just has to stop growing at such a ridiculous rate. The price:rent is even more insane, so even with lowered expectations about future stock returns, renting looks like it should come out ahead if the housing market also settles down to inflation-plus-a-bit returns. And maybe in 10 years we’ll laugh at how people thought a two-and-a-half decade bull market would continue into a third and fourth decade, and that an average house would somehow be trading at $4M by 2031. Or maybe we’ll see that become the price and the class divide will be complete.

Now, if you gave me a time machine and said what would be the best move to make in 2011, then sure, buying might be the way to go… but that would be a terrible waste of a time machine. As Ben Felix said it would be even better to use that time machine to go back and rent and then invest the difference + downpayment into Bitcoin.

1. There’s a big suburbia/downtown split here — AirBNB really threw a wrench in the rental market. If your condo approximately resembled a hotel room, the rent went up by more than the 2% assumed inflation, then crashed in 2020, while rents out here in commuterville have gone up less than 2%/yr yet held up through the pandemic.
2. Or whatever scaled but not so very different amount for my actual situation vs. the average house retrospective/counterfactual numbers here.