Bubble, bubble, Toll's in trouble. This week, Toll Brothers, the nation's premier builder of McMansions, announced that sales were way off, profits were down, and the company was walking away from already-purchased options on land for future development.
Follow the money. When it runs away, take heed.
And with prices falling in many areas, the speculative demand for houses has gone into reverse, as people try to get out with a profit while they still can. There's now a rapidly growing glut of unsold houses. This is a recipe for a major bust, not a soft landing.
Moreover, it could be both a deep and a prolonged bust. Since 2000, much of the nation has experienced a rise in home prices comparable to the boom in Southern California during the late 1980's. After that bubble popped, Los Angeles house prices began a slow, grinding deflation, eventually falling 20 percent (34 percent after adjusting for inflation). Prices didn't begin a sustained recovery until 1996, more than six years after the downturn began.
Now imagine the same thing happening across a large part of the United States. It's an ugly picture, and not just for people and companies in the construction business. Many homeowners - especially those who bought their houses with interest-only loans or with minimal down payments - will find themselves in financial distress. And the economy as a whole will take a hit.
As far as I know, Nouriel Roubini of Roubini Global Economics is the only well-known economist flatly predicting a housing-led recession in the coming year. Most forecasters consider his call alarmist, and many Federal Reserve officials remain optimistic. Last week, Richard Fisher, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, dismissed "Eeyores in the analytical community who worry about a possible recession.
Call me Eeyore. While I don't share Mr. Roubini's certainty, I see his point: housing has been the main engine of U.S. economic growth over the past three years, and with that engine now going into reverse, it's hard to see how we can avoid a serious slowdown.
No 'recession', just a 'serious slowdown'. Ever the cockeyed optimist, eh, Krugman?