Is the housing crisis over?

Well maybe in America.

The infamous US housing crisis which spilled over into worldwide markets and was a major cause of the 2008 global financial crisis seems to finally be over. In the US at least.

Residential real estate prices released by S&P/Case Shiller this past week show that the US residential market has begun to recover after 5 years of negative growth.

The results show that in the 12 months to February 2013, US house prices rose by 9.3 per cent.

This index is based off the property values in 20 major cities. The largest gainers were Phoenix with 23 per cent growth, followed by San Francisco (19 per cent growth) and Las Vegas (18 per cent growth).

The two largest US cities, Los Angeles and New York, also both recorded price growth over the 12 month period. Los Angeles registered strong growth of 14 per cent, while New York recorded more moderate growth of 1.9 per cent.

Compared to peak levels

Despite this recent growth, home prices nationwide are still 29 per cent below their peak reached at the height of the housing bubble in July 2006. They are only back to where they were in the fall of 2003.

Some cities such as Dallas and Denver are almost back to where they were in July 2006. They are both within 5 per cent of peak levels. However, the likes of Los Angeles and New York are both over 25 per cent below peak levels.

Background to US housing crisis

Timeline

  • Prior to 1996 only wealthier people were able to get sub-prime mortgages. All this changed in 1996, when the US housing department set a goal for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that at least 42 per cent of the mortgages they purchase be issued to borrowers whose household income was below the median in their area.
  • This target was then increased to 50 per cent in 2000 and 52 per cent in 2005. This led to increased sub-prime lending, particularly to lower income groups.
  • During 2001, US interest rates were decreased from 6.0 per cent to less than 2.0 per cent in order to fuel consumer spending. Rates were then kept at this low level until 2005.

The points above fuelled increased mortgage lending and speculation which caused US house prices to increase by 57 per cent over the period between 2000 and 2006. Rates were then put up to just over 5.0 per cent in 2006 as the Fed suspected a property bubble was developing.

The US property market then began to contract in 2007, with house prices falling by 9.0 per cent during the year. A larger decline occurred a year later, in 2008, when US house prices fell by 18.6 per cent. This led to widespread panic in the market and a large number of home owners defaulted, resulting in a run on a number of investment banks that had bought and sold large volumes of ‘toxic debt’ instruments related to mortgages including credit default swaps.

The five largest US investment banks (with combined debts of US$4 trn) either went bankrupt (Lehman Brothers), were taken over by other companies (Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch) or were bailed out by the US government (Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) during 2008.

The US property market continued to decline in 2009 but by a more moderate 3.1 per cent. This was followed by a decline of 2.4 per cent in 2010 and a 4.1 per cent decline in 2011.

Recovery Begins

In 2012, US housing prices recovered by 6.9 per cent and by 9.0 per cent  in the 12 months to February 2013.

According to London based wealth consultancy, WealthInsight: “this increase bodes well for the future. However, confidence in the asset class has been heavily eroded and it will take more time to restore investor confidence”.

Andrew Amoils is a writer for WealthInsight

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.