Why is housing so expensive?

Apr 30, JDN 2457874

It’s not your imagination: Housing is a lot more expensive than it used to be. Inflation adjusted into 2000 dollars, the median price of a house has risen from $30,600 in 1940 to $119,600 today. Adjusted to today’s dollars, that’s an increase from $44,000 to $173,000.

Things are particularly bad here in California, where the median price of a new home is $517,000—and especially in the Bay Area, where the median price is $838,000. Just two years ago, people were already freaking out that the median home price in the Bay Area had hit $661,000—and now it has risen 27% since then.

The rent is too damn high, but lately rent has actually not been rising as fast as housing prices. It may be that they’ve just gotten as high as they can get; in New York City rent is stable, and in San Francisco it’s actually declining—but in both cases it’s over $4,000 per month for a 2-bedroom apartment. The US still has the highest rent-to-price ratio in the world; at 11.2%, you should be able to buy a house on a 15-year mortgage for what we currently pay in rent near city centers.

But this is not a uniquely American problem.

It’s a problem in Canada: Housing in the Toronto area recently skyrocketed in price, with the mean price of a detached home now over $974,000 CAD, about $722,000 USD.

It’s a problem in the UK: The average price of a home in the UK is now over 214,000 pounds, or $274,000 (the pound is pretty weak after Brexit). In London in particular, the average home now costs nine years of the average wage.

It’s even a problem in China: An average 1000-square-foot apartment (that’s not very big!) in Shanghai now sells for 5 million yuan, which is about $725,000.

Worldwide, the US actually has a relatively low housing price to income ratio, because our incomes are so high. Venezuela’s economy is in such a terrible state that it is literally impossible for the average person to buy the average home, but in countries as diverse as France, Taiwan, and Peru, the average home still costs more than 10 years of the average household income.

Why is this happening? Why is housing so expensive, and getting worse all the time?

There are a lot of reasons that have been proposed.

The most obvious and fundamental reason is basic supply and demand. Demand for housing in major cities is rapidly rising, and supply of housing just isn’t keeping up.

Indeed, in California, the rate of new housing construction has fallen in recent years, even as we’ve had rapid population growth and skyrocketing housing prices. This is probably the number one reason why our housing here is so expensive.

But that raises its own questions: why aren’t more houses getting built? The market is supposed to correct for this sort of thing. Higher prices incentivize more construction, so prices get brought back down.

I think with housing in particular, we have a fundamental problem with that mechanism, and it is this: The people who make the policy don’t want the prices to come down.

No, I’m not talking about mayors and city councils, though they do like their property tax revenue. I’m talking about homeowners. People who go to homeowners’ association meetings and complain that someone else’s lopsided deck or un-weeded garden is “lowering property values”. People who join NIMBY political campaigns to stop new development, prevent the construction of taller buildings, or even stop the installation of new electrical substations. People who already got theirs and don’t care about anyone else.

Homeowners have an enormous influence in local politics, and it is by local politics that most of these decisions about zoning and development are made. They make all kinds of excuses about “preserving the community” and “the feel of the city”, but when you get right down to it, these people care more about preserving their own home equity than they do about making other people homeless.

In some cases, people may be so fundamentally confused that they think new development actually somehow causes higher housing prices, and so they try to fight development in a vain effort to stop rising housing prices and only end up making things worse. It’s also very common for people to support rent control policies in an effort to keep housing affordable—and economists of all political stripes are in almost total consensus that rent control only serves to restrict supply, increase inequality, and make housing prices even worse. As one might expect, the stricter the rent control, the worse this effect is. Some mild forms of rent control might be justifiable in particularly monopolistic markets, but in general it’s not a good long-term solution. Rent control forces rationing, and often the rationing is not in favor of who needs it the most but who is the most well-connected. The people who benefit most from rent control are usually of higher income than the average for the city.

On the other hand, removing rent control can cause a spike in prices, and make things worse in the short run, before there is time for new construction to increase the supply of housing. Also, many economists assume in their models that tenants who get forced out by the higher rents would get compensated for it, which is not at all how the real world works. It’s also unclear exactly how large the effect sizes are, because the empirical studies get quite mixed results. Still, rent control is a bad idea. Don’t take it from me, take it from Paul Krugman.

It’s also common to blame foreign investors—because humans are tribal, and blaming foreigners is always popular—even though that makes no economic sense. Investors are buying your houses because the prices keep rising. It’s possible that there could be some sort of speculative bubble, but that’s actually harder to sustain in housing than it is in most other assets, precisely because houses are immobile and expensive. Speculative bubbles in gold happen all the time (indeed, perhaps literally all the time, as the price of gold has never fallen to its real fundamental value in all of human history), but gold is a tradeable, transportable, fungible commodity that can be bought in arbitrarily small quantities. (Because it’s an element, you’re literally only limited to the atomic level!)

Moreover, it isn’t just supply and demand at work here. Fluctuations in economic growth have strong effects on housing prices—and vice-versa. There are monetary policy effects, particularly in a liquidity trap; lower interest rates combined with low inflation create a perfect storm for higher housing prices.

Overall economic inequality is a major contributor to steep housing prices, as well as the segregation of housing across racial and economic lines. And as the rate of return on productive capital continues to decrease while the rate of return on real estate does not, more and more of our wealth concentration is going to be in the form of higher housing prices—making the whole problem self-reinforcing.

People also seem really ambivalent about whether they want housing prices to be low or high. In one breath they’ll bemoan the lack of affordable housing, and in another they’ll talk about “protecting property values”. Even the IMF called the increase in housing prices after the Second Depression a “recovery”. Is it really so hard to understand that higher prices mean higher prices?

But we think of housing as two fundamentally different things. On the one hand, it’s a durable consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator—something you buy because it’s useful, and keep around to use for a long time. On the other hand, it’s a financial asset—a store of value for your savings and a potential source of income. When you’re thinking of it as a consumption good, you want it to be “affordable”; when you’re thinking of it as an asset, you want to “protect its value”. But it’s the same house with the same price. You can’t do both of those things at once, and clearly, as a society—perhaps as a civilization—we have been tilting way too far in the “asset” direction.

I get it: Financial assets that grow over time have the allure of easy money. The stock market, the derivatives market, even the lottery and Las Vegas, all have this tantalizing property that they seem to give you money for nothing. They are like the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone in days of yore.

But they are just as much a chimera as the Philosopher’s Stone itself. (Also, if anyone had found the Philosopher’s Stone, the glut of gold would have triggered massive inflation, not unlike what happened in Spain in the 16th century.) Any money you get from simply owning an asset or placing a bet is money that had to come from somewhere else. In the case of the stock market, that “somewhere else” is the profits of the corporations you bought, and if you did actually contribute to the investment of those corporations there’s nothing wrong with you getting a proportional share of those profits. But most people aren’t thinking in those terms when they buy stocks, and once you get all the way to sophisticated derivatives you’re basically in full gambling territory. Every option that’s in the money is another option that’s out of the money. Every interest rate swap that turns a profit is another one that bears a loss.

And when it comes to housing, if you magically gain equity from rising property values, where is that money coming from? It’s coming from people desperately struggling to afford to live in your city, people giving up 40%, 50%, even 60% of their disposable income just for the chance to leave in a tiny apartment because they want to be in your city that badly. It’s coming from people who started that way, lost their job, and ended up homeless because they couldn’t sustain the payments anymore. All that easy money is coming from hard-working young people trying to hold themselves out of poverty.

It’s different if your home gains value because you actually did something to make it better—renovations, additions, landscaping. Even then I think these things are sort of overrated; but they do constitute a real economic benefit to the people who live there. But if your home rises in value because zoning regulations and protesting homeowners stop the construction of new high-rises, that’s very much still on the backs of struggling young people.

We need to stop thinking houses as assets that are supposed to earn a return, and instead think of them as consumption goods that provide benefits to people. If you want a return, buy stocks and bonds. When you’re buying a house, you should be buying a house—not some dream of making money for nothing as housing prices rise forever. Because they can’t—sooner or later, the bubble will break—and even if they could, it would be terrible for everyone who didn’t get into the market soon enough.

Asymmetric nominal rigidity, or why everything is always “on sale”

July 9, JDN 2457579

The next time you’re watching television or shopping, I want you to count the number of items that are listed as “on sale” versus the number that aren’t. (Also, be careful to distinguish labels like “Low Price!” and “Great Value!” that are dressed up like “on sale” labels but actually indicate the usual price.) While “on sale” is presented as though it’s something rare and special, in reality anywhere from a third to half of all products are on sale at any given time. At some retailers (such as Art Van Furniture and Jos. A. Bank clothing), literally almost everything is almost always on sale.

There is a very good explanation for this in terms of cognitive economics. It is a special case of a more general phenomenon of asymmetric nominal rigidity. Asymmetric nominal rigidity is the tendency of human beings to be highly resistant to (rigidity) changes in actual (nominal) dollar prices, but only in the direction that hurts them (asymmetric). Ultimately this is an expression of the far deeper phenomenon of loss aversion, where losses are felt much more than gains.

Usually we actually talk about downward nominal wage rigidity, which is often cited as a reason why depressions can get so bad. People are extremely resistant to having their wages cut, even if there is a perfectly good reason to do so, and even if the economy is under deflation so that their real wage is not actually falling. It doesn’t just feel unpleasant; it feels unjust. People feel betrayed when they see the numbers on their paycheck go down, and they are willing to bear substantial costs to retaliate against that injustice—typically, they quit or go on strike. This reduces spending, which then exacerbates the deflation, which requires more wage cuts—and down we go into the spiral of depression, unless the government intervenes with monetary and fiscal policy.

But what does this have to do with everything being on sale? Well, for every downward wage rigidity, there is an upward price rigidity. When things become more expensive, people stop buying them—even if they could still afford them, and often even if the price increase is quite small. Again, they feel in some sense betrayed by the rising price (though not to the same degree as they feel betrayed by falling wages, due to their closer relationship to their employer). Responses to price increases are about twice as strong as responses to price decreases, just as losses are felt about twice as much as gains.

Businesses have figured this out—in some ways faster than economists did—and use it to their advantage; and thus so many things are “on sale”.

Actually, “on sale” serves two functions, which can be distinguished according to their marketing strategies. Businesses like Jos. A. Bank where almost everything is on sale are primarily exploiting anchoring—they want people to think of the listed “retail price” as the default price, and then the “sale price” that everyone actually pays feels lower as a result. If they “drop” the price of something from $300 to $150 feels like the company is doing you a favor; whereas if they had just priced it at $150 to begin with, you wouldn’t get any warm fuzzy feelings from that. This works especially well for products that people don’t purchase very often and aren’t accustomed to comparing—which is why you see it in furniture stores and high-end clothing retailers, not in grocery stores and pharmacies.

But even when people are accustomed to shopping around and are familiar with what the price ordinarily would be, sales serve a second function, because of asymmetric nominal rigidity: They escape that feeling of betrayal that comes from raising prices.

Here’s how it works: Due to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, there will always be some uncertainty in the prices you will want to set in the future. Future prices may go up, they may go down; and people spend their lives trying to predict this sort of thing and rarely outperform chance. But if you just raise and lower your prices as the winds blow (as most neoclassical economists generally assume you will), you will alienate your customers. Just as a ratchet works by turning the bolt more in one direction than the other, this sort of roller-coaster pricing would attract a small number of customers with each price decrease, then repel a larger number with each increase, until after a few cycles of rise and fall you would run out of customers. This is the real source of price rigidities, not that silly nonsense about “menu costs”. Especially in the Information Age, it costs almost nothing to change the number on the label—but change it wrong and it may cost you the customer.

One response would simply be to set your price at a reasonable estimate of the long-term optimal average price, but this leaves a lot of money on the table, as some times it will be too low (your inventory sells out and you make less profit than you could have), and even worse, other times it will be too high (customers refuse to buy your product). If only there were a way to change prices without customers feeling so betrayed!

Well, it turns out, there is, and it’s called “on sale”. You have a new product that you want to sell. You start by setting the price of the product at about the highest price you would ever need to sell it in the foreseeable future. Then, unless right now happens to be a time where demand is high and prices should also be high, you immediately put it on sale, and have the marketing team drum up some excuse about wanting to draw attention to your exciting new product. You put a deadline on that sale, which may be explicit (“Ends July 30”) or vague (“For a Limited Time!” which is technically always true—you merely promise that your sale will not last until the heat death of the universe), but clearly indicates to customers that you are not promising to keep this price forever.

Then, when demand picks up and you want to raise the price, you can! All you have to do is end the sale, which if you left the deadline vague can be done whenever you like. Even if you set explicit deadlines (which will make customers even more comfortable with the changes, and also give them a sense of urgency that may lead to more impulse buying), you can just implement a new sale each time the last one runs out, varying the discount according to market conditions. Customers won’t retaliate, because they won’t feel betrayed; you said fair and square the sale wouldn’t last forever. They will still buy somewhat less, of course; that’s the Law of Demand. But they won’t overcompensate out of spite and outrage; they’ll just buy the amount that is their new optimal purchase amount at this new price.

Coupons are a lot like sales, but they’re actually even more devious; they allow for a perfectly legal form of price discrimination. Businesses know that only certain types of people clip coupons; roughly speaking, people who are either very poor or very frugal—either way, people who are very responsive to prices. Coupons allow them to set a lower price for those groups of people, while setting a higher price for other people whose demand is more inelastic. A similar phenomenon is going on with student and senior discounts; students and seniors get lower prices because they typically have less income than other adults (though why there is so rarely a youth discount, only a student discount, I’m actually not sure—controlling for demographics, students are in general richer than non-students).

Once you realize this is what’s happening, what should you do as a customer? Basically, try to ignore whether or not a label says “on sale”. Look at the actual number of the price, and try to compare it to prices you’ve paid in the past for that product, as well as of course how much value the product is worth to you. If indeed this is a particularly low price and the product is durable, you may well be wise to purchase more and stock up for the future. But you should try to train yourself to react the same way to “On sale, now $49.99” as you would to simply “$49.99”. (Making your reaction exactly the same is probably impossible, but the closer you can get the better off you are likely to be.) Always compare prices from multiple sources for any major purchase (Amazon makes this easier than ever before), and compare actual prices you would pay—with discounts, after taxes, including shipping. The rest is window dressing.

If you get coupons or special discounts, of course use them—but only if you were going to make the purchase anyway, or were just barely on the fence about it. Rarely is it actually rational for you to buy something you wouldn’t have bought just because it’s on sale for 50% off, let alone 10% off. It’s far more likely that you’d either want to buy it anyway, or still have no reason to buy it even at the new price. Businesses are of course hoping you’ll overcompensate for the discount and buy more than you would have otherwise. Foil their plans, and thereby make your life better and our economy more efficient.

Tax incidence revisited, part 2: How taxes affect prices

JDN 2457341

One of the most important aspects of taxation is also one of the most counter-intuitive and (relatedly) least-understood: Taxes are not externally applied to pre-existing exchanges of money. Taxes endogenously interact with the system of prices, changing what the prices will be and then taking a portion of the money exchanged.

The price of something “before taxes” is not actually the price you would pay for it if there had been no taxes on it. Your “pre-tax income” is not actually the income you would have had if there were no income or payroll taxes.

The most obvious case to consider is that of government employees: If there were no taxes, public school teachers could not exist, so the “pre-tax income” of a public school teacher is a meaningless quantity. You don’t “take taxes out” of a government salary; you decide how much money the government employee will actually receive, and then at the same time allocate a certain amount into other budgets based on the tax code—a certain amount into the state general fund, a certain amount into the Social Security Trust Fund, and so on. These two actions could in principle be done completely separately; instead of saying that a teacher has a “pre-tax salary” of $50,000 and is taxed 20%, you could simply say that the teacher receives $40,000 and pay $10,000 into the appropriate other budgets.

In fact, when there is a conflict of international jurisdiction this is sometimes literally what we do. Employees of the World Bank are given immunity from all income and payroll taxes (effectively, diplomatic immunity, though this is not usually how we use the term) based on international law, except for US citizens, who have their taxes paid for them by the World Bank. As a result, all World Bank salaries are quoted “after-tax”, that is, the actual amount of money employees will receive in their paychecks. As a result, a $120,000 salary at the World Bank is considerably higher than a $120,000 salary at Goldman Sachs; the latter would only (“only”) pay about $96,000 in real terms.

For private-sector salaries, it’s not as obvious, but it’s still true. There is actually someone who pays that “before-tax” salary—namely, the employer. “Pre-tax” salaries are actually a measure of labor expenditure (sometimes erroneously called “labor costs”, even by economists—but a true labor cost is the amount of effort, discomfort, stress, and opportunity cost involved in doing labor; it’s an amount of utility, not an amount of money). The salary “before tax” is the amount of money that the employer has to come up with in order to pay their payroll. It is a real amount of money being exchanged, divided between the employee and the government.

The key thing to realize is that salaries are not set in a vacuum. There are various economic (and political) pressures which drive employers to set different salaries. In the real world, there are all sorts of pressures that affect salaries: labor unions, regulations, racist and sexist biases, nepotism, psychological heuristics, employees with different levels of bargaining skill, employers with different concepts of fairness or levels of generosity, corporate boards concerned about public relations, shareholder activism, and so on.

But even if we abstract away from all that for a moment and just look at the fundamental economics, assuming that salaries are set at the price the market will bear, that price depends upon the tax system.

This is because taxes effectively drive a wedge between supply and demand.

Indeed, on a graph, it actually looks like a wedge, as you’ll see in a moment.

Let’s pretend that we’re in a perfectly competitive market. Everyone is completely rational, we all have perfect information, and nobody has any power to manipulate the market. We’ll even assume that we are dealing with hourly wages and we can freely choose the number of hours worked. (This is silly, of course; but removing this complexity helps to clarify the concept and doesn’t change the basic result that prices depend upon taxes.)

We’ll have a supply curve, which is a graph of the minimum price the worker is willing to accept for each hour in order to work a given number of hours. We generally assume that the supply curve slopes upward, meaning that people are willing to work more hours if you offer them a higher wage for each hour. The idea is that it gets progressively harder to find the time—it eats into more and more important alternative activities. (This is in fact a gross oversimplification, but it’ll do for now. In the real world, labor is the one thing for which the supply curve frequently bends backward.)

supply_curve

We’ll also have a demand curve, which is a graph of the maximum price the employer is willing to pay for each hour, if the employee works that many hours. We generally assume that the demand curve slopes downward, meaning that the employer is willing to pay less for each hour if the employee works more hours. The reason is that most activities have diminishing marginal returns, so each extra hour of work generally produces less output than the previous hour, and is therefore not worth paying as much for. (This too is an oversimplification, as I discussed previously in my post on the Law of Demand.)

demand_curve

Put these two together, and in a competitive market the price will be set at the point at which supply is equal to demand, so that the very last hour of work was worth exactly what the employer paid for it. That last hour is just barely worth it to the employer, and just barely worth it to the worker; any additional time would either be too expensive for the employer or not lucrative enough for the worker. But for all the previous hours, the value to the employer is higher than the wage, and the cost to the worker is lower than the wage. As a result, both the employer and the worker benefit.

equilibrium_notax

But now, suppose we implement a tax. For concreteness, suppose the previous market-clearing wage was $20 per hour, the worker was working 40 hours, and the tax is 20%. If the employer still offers a wage of $20 for 40 hours of work, the worker is no longer going to accept it, because they will only receive $16 per hour after taxes, and $16 isn’t enough for them to be willing to work 40 hours. The worker could ask for a pre-tax wage of $25 so that the after-tax wage would be $20, but then the employer will balk, because $25 per hour is too expensive for 40 hours of work.

In order to restore the balance (and when we say “equilibrium”, that’s really all we mean—balance), the employer will need to offer a higher pre-tax wage, which means they will demand fewer hours of work. The worker will then be willing to accept a lower after-tax wage for those reduced hours.

In effect, there are now two prices at work: A supply price, the after-tax wage that the worker receives, which must be at or above the supply curve; and a demand price, the pre-tax wage that the employer pays, which must be at or below the demand curve. The difference between those two prices is the tax.

equilibrium_tax

In this case, I’ve set it up so that the pre-tax wage is $22.50, the after-tax wage is $18, and the amount of the tax is $4.50 or 20% of $22.50. In order for both the employer and the worker to accept those prices, the amount of hours worked has been reduced to 35.

As a result of the tax, the wage that we’ve been calling “pre-tax” is actually higher than the wage that the worker would have received if the tax had not existed. This is a general phenomenon; it’s almost always true that your “pre-tax” wage or salary overestimates what you would have actually gotten if the tax had not existed. In one extreme case, it might actually be the same; in another extreme case, your after-tax wage is what you would have received and the “pre-tax” wage rises high enough to account for the entirety of the tax revenue. It’s not really “pre-tax” at all; it’s the after-tax demand price.

Because of this, it’s fundamentally wrongheaded for people to complain that taxes are “taking your hard-earned money”. In all but the most exceptional cases, that “pre-tax” salary that’s being deducted from would never have existed. It’s more of an accounting construct than anything else, or like I said before a measure of labor expenditure. It is generally true that your after-tax salary is lower than the salary you would have gotten without the tax, but the difference is generally much smaller than the amount of the tax that you see deducted. In this case, the worker would see $4.50 per hour deducted from their wage, but in fact they are only down $2 per hour from where they would have been without the tax. And of course, none of this includes the benefits of the tax, which in many cases actually far exceed the costs; if we extended the example, it wouldn’t be hard to devise a scenario in which the worker who had their wage income reduced received an even larger benefit in the form of some public good such as national defense or infrastructure.