June 20, 2005,
Homebuilders led the stock parade this week with a fantastic 11 percent gain. This is a group that hedge funds and bubbleheads love to hate. All the bond bears have been dead wrong in predicting sky-high mortgage rates. So have all the bubbleheads who expect housing-price crashes in Las Vegas or Naples, Florida, to bring down the consumer, the rest of the economy, and the entire stock market.
None of this has happened. The Federal Reserve has effectively mopped up excess cash and calmed inflation expectations. That’s why bond rates are hovering around 4 percent, with most mortgage rates about a point higher.
Meanwhile, the homebuilders index has increased 76 percent over the past year, with particularly well-run companies like Toll Brothers up about twice as much. The bubbleheads missed all this because they haven’t done their homework. If they had put a little elbow grease into their analysis, they would have learned that new-housing starts for private homes and apartments haven’t changed much during the past three and a half decades.
Although year-to-date housing starts have kicked up to 2 million, average new construction since the early 1970s has hovered around 1.5 million to 1.75 million new starts per year. During the same period, the number of American households has increased by 48 million, or 75 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is plain to see that the family demand for homes has far outstripped the supply of newly built residences. So it should not be shocking that home prices have tended to rise on a steady basis, averaging 6.5 percent price gains over the last 35 years.
Upward price momentum has kicked into higher gear in recent years for two important reasons. First, housing is highly tax-advantaged. The 1997 tax-cut bill proposed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Democrat president, Bill Clinton permitted the first $500,000 of profits from the sale of a home to be tax-free. This came on top of existing law that permits mortgage expenses to be tax deductible depending on one’s income bracket.
Since 1997 home prices have been increasing at a 6.5 percent pace on a yearly basis, with a 12 percent gain over the past year. In contrast, stock prices have gained only 3 percent yearly during the same period. Simply, real estate has had the tax-advantage over stocks as an investment vehicle. There is no $500,000 per family tax-free capital gain for shares, nor are the borrowing costs for the purchase of stocks tax-deductible.
It appears that the housing lobby in Washington has been more powerful than the securities industry lobby, as the results clearly show.
None of this is to argue that low mortgage rates haven’t been a plus in the housing picture. Of course they have. But the imbalance between excess demand over limited supply, resulting from tax factors and land-use restrictions, has made home buying even more profitable in recent years than has been the case in the past.
Tax reform to create a level playing field could boost our economy’s potential to grow beyond almost anyone’s wildest dreams. Homeownership, stock ownership, and small business ownership should be taxed at the same minimal rates as they are all key components of economic growth and wealth creation.