Home slump harder to reverse than usual: Harvard

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Record foreclosures and limited access to credit will make it harder than usual for the housing market to rebound from this slump, the worst since at least World War Two, according to a Harvard University study released on Monday.

A two-year drop in home prices is eating into housing wealth, curbing consumer spending and slicing away economic growth. This is unlikely to change until potential home buyers are convinced that prices have stopped tumbling, the study found.

The downturn has room to run.

“I tend to be optimistic. I want to be optimistic. I find at this point in time it’s not warranted,” Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, said at a press briefing.

The highest home loan rates in nine months and strict lending standards are keeping buyers on the sidelines, even after aggressive Federal Reserve intervention and a 16 percent national home price slide from the 2006 peak.

“Historically, housing markets recover only after the economy has entered a recession and a combination of falling mortgage interest rates and house prices have improved housing affordability,” Retsinas said in a statement released with the study.

“It will take longer this time to rebound given the unusually high levels of foreclosures and constrained credit markets,” he said. “The slump in housing markets has not yet run its full course.”

Price declines and mortgage defaults are the worst on records dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, the study noted. Job losses and falling prices intensify risk of foreclosure.

The number of homes entering foreclosure nearly doubled to 1.3 million in 2007 from about 660,000 in 2005.

A foreclosed home in Chicago is seen in this January 28, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/John Gress/Files

Payment shock after interest rate resets on some adjustable loans, many made to higher-risk borrowers, has propelled owners into foreclosure. For others in trouble, falling prices have left them with mortgages larger than their home’s value, and they are often unable to refinance or sell.

Foreclosures are adding to an already massive supply of unsold homes, which further pressures prices.

Also, new home building and house sales rival the worst downturns in the post-World War Two era.

The number of homeowners paying more than half of their income on housing surged by 35 percent to 8.8 million in 2006 from 6.5 million five years earlier, according to the study, the center’s 20th annual broad report on U.S. housing trends.

After rising for years, the U.S. homeownership rate fell to 67.8 percent at the end of 2007 from an all-time high 69 percent in 2004.

“As investors demand a higher return for assumed risk and limit credit to riskier borrowers, costs are rising for all types of mortgage, consumer and corporate loans,” the center said. “Many would-be borrowers are now finding it impossible to get loans at any price.”

Shifting borrower psychology is also pivotal, Retsinas told Reuters. After a bidding frenzy that swept prices unsustainably high this decade, “now, even if they could get credit, they’re not willing to buy.”

The downturn has yet to reach its midpoint, David Lowman, chief executive officer of home lending at JPMorgan Chase, said at the press conference. In more than 30 years in the mortgage business, “I’ve never managed through anything quite like this and I hope that I never do again and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Economic weakness does not bode well for income growth in the short run, and housing cost pressures are unlikely to lighten in the long term. Much of employment growth will be in part-time and low-wage positions, the study said.

“The somber conclusion is that if the economy slips into recession or job losses keep racking up, household growth and homeownership demand could fall even more,” the center said.

Barring a prolonged period of serious economic decline, household formation -- through marriage, divorce and immigration, for example -- should expand, the study said. The main risk to that outlook is a drop in immigration from its recent 1.2 million annual pace due to weaker labor markets.

A return of home affordability to 2000 levels, however, “would take some combination of large price declines, interest rate reductions, rent deflation and unprecedented real income growth,” it said.

Reporting by Lynn Adler, Editing by Dan Grebler