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How Is The Housing Industry's Recovery Faring?

The Federal Reserve has released its latest snapshot of the state of the U.S. economy. Retail and auto sales were up slightly over the year before — as was activity in the housing sector. Renee Montagne talks to David Wessel, economics editor at The Wall Street Journal, about housing's recovery.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Federal Reserve, yesterday, released its latest snapshot of the state of the U.S. economy. Retail and auto sales were up slightly over the year before, as was activity in the all important housing sector. Real estate sales were seen as steady or improved across much of the country.

For more on housing prices and economic recovery, we turn this morning, as we often do, to David Wessel. He's economics editor of The Wall Street Journal. Good morning.

DAVID WESSEL: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, the bursting of the housing price bubble helped trigger the recession and the global financial crisis. Is the housing bust finally over?

WESSEL: Pretty much. Housing prices are well below where they were in 2006 but in most communities they've stopped falling and in many they've begun rising - particularly in places that were hardest hit. In Phoenix, for instance, prices are up more than 20 percent above where they were a year ago. And this shift in the mood is pulling buyers into the market, more people buying houses - though mortgages remain hard to get for some people. But for those people who can get a mortgage, mortgage rates are extraordinarily low by historical standards. It's about 3.4 percent for a 30-year mortgage now.

MONTAGNE: So housing prices going up, good for the economy. What about the prices of all the other goods and services, what you might say - the overall rate of inflation?

WESSEL: Right. Well, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on that yesterday. Some prices are going up; that's always going on. For some reason the price sweet rolls, coffeecakes and doughnuts is up 5.4 percent over the past year. I don't know why that is.

MONTAGNE: Something - and something for us in the morning to think about.

WESSEL: Right. But, overall, prices are rising very slowly. The BLS said consumer prices didn't climb at all in December, overall, and they're only 1.7 percent above the year ago level.

Wages aren't going up very much either. They're barely keeping up with inflation. And financial markets and economic forecasters - for what they're worth - predict inflation will hover around two percent - which actually is what the Fed's target is for the next few years.

MONTAGNE: And David, as we've discussed before, the Fed has been printing money for years now - tens of billions of dollars every month. What happened to the notion that printing money inevitably ends up producing inflation?

WESSEL: Well, actually, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was asked just that question earlier this week, when he spoke at the University of Michigan. And here's what he had to say about it.

BEN BERNANKE: We have, obviously, used very expansionary monetary policy. There are some people who think that's going to be inflationary. Personally, I don't see much evidence of that.

WESSEL: So what Mr. Bernanke is saying is that the Fed has the tools it needs to keep the money it's printed and all the reserves that banks hold from turning into inflation when the economy is stronger. And he and the people in the Fed who agree with him, point to the fact that with all the ups and downs of the economy in the past few years - consumer, business and financial markets - all expect inflation to remain pretty stable. They call it anchored, inflation expectations.

And they figure that as long as that holds, as long as businesses, consumers, workers and markets all anticipate inflation will remain calm, and factor that into decisions on wages and prices and interest rates and investments, then inflation will actually remain stable. And they're kind of counting on that holding.

MONTAGNE: So, what does that mean, the end of inflation?

WESSEL: Probably not. Absolutely not. The Fed is running a big experiment in monetary policy. There's a good chance that they'll make a mistake, misread the economy, wait too long to raise interest rates and inflation will go up. That's almost always happened before. But we'll be starting from a very low inflation rate.

But there some people inside and outside the Fed who are afraid that the Fed officials may lack the political courage - if you will - to raise interest rates or sell off some of their bonds and mortgages when the time comes, because they know that'll be so unpopular with politicians and everybody, because they'll be raising rates and they'll, like, be putting the brakes on the economy. Ben Bernanke says that's not the case, but by the time that decision is made he'll probably be gone from his job at the Fed.

MONTAGNE: David, nice to talk to you.

WESSEL: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: David Wessel, of The Wall Street Journal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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