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By Barry Wood
17 December 2008
The U.S. housing sector remains weak, two years into an unprecedented decline. House prices, house sales, and house construction are all continuing to fall.
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Home prices in the United States have fallen over eight percent this year, according to housing industry specialist Zillow.com. This follows a nine percent drop in 2007, the first year average U.S. home prices had declined since 1990. Overall, Zillow.com says American homeowners have lost $2 trillion of equity during what has become the worst housing slump since World War II.
The U.S. economy overall is in the midst of deep recession, with some forecasters predicting that in the current three-month period economic activity is declining at seven percent annual rate.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says an economic recovery is unlikely until house prices begin to rise. Tuesday the Federal Reserve signaled its intention to drive mortgage interest rates lower.
"If we get mortgage rates down that is going to have a great deal of beneficial effect on the economy," said Richard Hoey, the chief economist at the Bank of New York Mellon. "And I look at this statement [from the Federal Reserve] and see that this is a Fed that is trying to push mortgage rates down by buying mortgage securities."
Mortgage rates are falling with 30-year home mortgages available at interest rates over five percent. Hoey told Bloomberg Television he expects rates will fall further. Rates haven't been below five percent since the 1950s.
But low rates have not yet stimulated the depressed housing market. New home construction in November fell 19 percent to its lowest level since 1959. Foreclosure filings in November were 28 percent higher than a year earlier and some 12 million Americans now have mortgage balances bigger than the market value of their homes. The credit squeeze that evolved into recession began in August 2007 with widespread defaults on high-risk home loans.
But not all experts agree that the government should be trying to boost home prices.
"What the credit crisis is telling us is that there is too much debt and that asset prices were unreasonably elevated, particularly house prices," said James Grant, a respected financial analyst in New York. "The federal agenda is to intervene to try so as to prevent the readjustment of prices lower."
The Federal Reserve is intent on stimulating economic activity and combating incipient deflation. Most experts say if mortgage rates do go lower, home prices are likely to recover.