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Monday, April 20, 2009


the demographics of diminishing demand

via yves smith -- david goldman's piece on american demographics with some stunning datapoints.

All the armamentarium of modern capital markets boils down to investing in a new generation so that they will provide for us when we are old.

To understand the bleeding in the housing market, then, we need to examine the population of prospective homebuyers whose millions of individual decisions determine whether the economy will recover. Families with children are the fulcrum of the housing market. Because single-parent families tend to be poor, the buying power is concentrated in two-parent families with children.

Now, consider this fact: America’s population has risen from 200 million to 300 million since 1970, while the total number of two-parent families with children is the same today as it was when Richard Nixon took office, at 25 million. In 1973, the United States had 36 million housing units with three or more bedrooms, not many more than the number of two-parent families with children—which means that the supply of family homes was roughly in line with the number of families. By 2005, the number of housing units with three or more bedrooms had doubled to 72 million, though America had the same number of two-parent families with children.

The number of two-parent families with children, the kind of household that requires and can afford a large home, has remained essentially stagnant since 1963, according to the Census Bureau. Between 1963 and 2005, to be sure, the total number of what the Census Bureau categorizes as families grew from 47 million to 77 million. But most of the increase is due to families without children, including what are sometimes rather strangely called “one-person families.” ...

The declining demographics of the traditional American family raise a dismal possibility: Perhaps the world is poorer now because the present generation did not bother to rear a new generation. All else is bookkeeping and ultimately trivial. This unwelcome and unprecedented change underlies the present global economic crisis. We are grayer, and less fecund, and as a result we are poorer, and will get poorer still—no matter what economic policies we put in place. ...

The collapse of home prices and the knock-on effects on the banking system stem from the shrinking count of families that require houses. It is no accident that the housing market—the economic sector most sensitive to demographics—was the epicenter of the economic crisis. In fact, demographers have been predicting a housing crash for years due to the demographics of diminishing demand. Wall Street and Washington merely succeeded in prolonging the housing bubble for a few additional years. The adverse demographics arising from cultural decay, though, portend far graver consequences for the funding of health and retirement systems.

goldman is illustrating the point that a complete lack of lending standards did not only drive up the price of homes by increasing buyer borrowing power; it also put large homes within the financial reach of people who had no real use for them but vanity. this expansion of the pool of buyers incentivized the mcmansion, among other things, and the huge tract developments of suburban housing that ring many major american cities.

the end of the credit bubble will dislodge plenty of folks from these homes. not only will many of the mortgages on what might be called "underoccupied" houses be underwater and easier prey to recession in one-person one-income arrangements, driving the prices of such homes down; the simple operating costs of oversized housing will present a real burden to such households, not to mention the problems of transport costs and services in the exurbs.

The Virginia Tech economist Arthur C. Nelson has noted that households with children would fall from half to a quarter of all households by 2025. The demand of Americans will then be urban apartments for empty nesters. Demand for large-lot single family homes, Nelson calculated, will slump from 56 million today to 34 million in 2025—a reduction of 40 percent. There never will be a housing price recovery in many parts of the country. Huge tracts will become uninhabited except by vandals and rodents.

this is a dynamic already visible in post-bubble california, as i understand it.

UPDATE: more, via clusterstock, from charles hugh smith.

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