|The Cider Mill, by Robin Moline|
A popular explanation for the rise in land prices are the various versions of the secular stagnation thesis advocated by folks like Paul Krugman and Larry Summers. According to Krugman, if the natural rate of interest has become persistently negative—i.e. new capital projects are expected to yield a negative return—then investors will look to existing durable assets like gold or land that yield no less than a 0% return. The prices of these goods will be bid upwards, bubble-like. Or, as Summers puts it, if the return on capital is below the economy's growth rate, then intrinsically valueless ponzi assets may be recruited as stores of value to bridge the distance between an individual's present and the future. (Krugman and Summers's ideas are a bit hard to follow, but Nick Rowe has a bunch of helpful posts on these ideas).
In short, these theories explain the paradoxical conjunction of bubbles with a sluggish economy and low inflation.
I think that a better explanation for the rise in real land prices is the emergence of large liquidity premium on land. This premium isn't an irrational "bubble" phenomenon. Rather, over the last decade or two finance and real estate professionals have put in large amounts of time, sweat, and tears to improve the underlying infrastructure that facilitates the transfer of residential land. A few of these improvements include the optimization of the mortgage lending process by the adoption of automated underwriting systems, the development of mortgage scoring, higher loan-to-value ratios on mortgage loans, and the creation of the mortgage-backed securities market.
All these improvements mean that your parcel of land is not like your grandfather's parcel—it can be sold off, parceled up, rented out, collateralized, and re-hypothecated faster than ever. In short, land has become more like cash. Whereas in the past the purchase of a house made you dramatically less liquid, these days that same house impairs your liquidity position much less.
Like any other asset owner, land owners expect to enjoy three services: a pecuniary return such as capital appreciation, a non-pecuniary consumption yield, and liquidity services. In a world in which arbitrage ensures that all assets provide roughly the same return, any improvement in the liquidity services provided by land reduces the amount of capital appreciation people expect to earn on their land parcel (we'll assume the consumption return is constant). This reduction in expected capital appreciation comes about via a rise in land prices now relative to their expected future price. So the steady improvements in the liquidity services thrown off by land have created a stepwise rise in land prices. This rise might appear to be a bubble, but it's only the market's warm response to the finance industry's consistent upgrades to the mechanisms that facilitate transfers of land.
If you believe John Maynard Keynes, what we're seeing now is just a reversion to ancient times. In Chapter 17 of his General Theory, Keynes wrote: "It may be that in certain historic environments the possession of land has been characterized by a high liquidity-premium in the minds of owners of wealth..." He goes on to note that the high liquidity premiums formerly attaching to the ownership of land are now attached to money. It may be the case that in modern times these liquidity premia are detaching from traditional forms of money like deposits and returning to land, the evidence being the rise of land prices and decline in traditional deposit banking.
When a market bursts, the stagnation thesis has it that people have spontaneously switched from one bubble to a new one, or that the underlying features of the economy (i.e the negative natural interest rate) have changed. If land price increases are being driven by improvements in liquidity services rather than low-to-negative rates of return and resulting bubble-seeking behavior, than snap-backs may occur when the underlying architecture supporting that liquidity fails. Alternatively, different networks of finance professionals may be working hard to build up their own asset's liquidity, thus competing away the liquidity premium of the incumbent asset.
Here's an interesting data point: While almost every western nation experienced a housing price boom between the mid 1990s and 2008, Germany somehow missed the boat.
|From the Economist's very useful housing price chart tool.|
Was Germany somehow exempt from the stagnation that other Western nation's face? Perhaps Germans selected a different bubble asset than land? Or did the underlying mechanics governing the liquidity of the German market for residential land stay constant whereas those of most nation's improved?
We know that while MBS markets were deepening all over the world, German law did not permit MBS issuance until 1997, putting it far behind the mortgage slicing & dicing eight-ball. Rather, German residential real estate finance continued to be underpinned the centuries old pfandrief, or covered bond. While the originator of an MBS can parcel away mortgages into a bankrupt-remote entity, the assets underlying a pfandriefe are required by law to stay on the issuer's balance sheet. The mortgages comprising MBS often have up to 100% loan-to-value ratios, but German law requires that pfandbriefe be backed by mortgage loans with a maximum of 60% of the home's "lending value" (lending value is more conservative than market value), which in practice means that Germans often have to put up 60-70% cash to buy a home. Such high requirements would surely stifle the liquidity of residential land, especially compared to places like Canada where permitted LTVs went from 80% to 100% in the space of ten years.
So while Keynes's liquidity premium may have migrated back to land in much of the western world, this doesn't seem to be the case in Germany. There are surely advantages to having avoided a rise in housing prices. On the other other hand, owning a liquid house rather than an illiquid one is a boon—it provides an individual with a fluid asset for dealing with an uncertain future. From this perspective, any attempt to stifle some asset's liquidity by limiting the finance industry's ability to innovate reduces the range of coping mechanisms that a society is presented with.
P.S. I already wrote versions of this post. Here are these ideas applied to equity markets, here they are applied to bond markets. Same idea, different day, different market.