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Home Prices Are Soaring… Is That The Fed’s Problem?

A long line outside an open house in suburban Belleville, N.J., last summer. There has been a wave of New York City residents moving to the suburbs during the pandemic.

Robert S. Kaplan, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has been nervously eyeing the housing market as he ponders the path ahead for monetary policy. Home prices are rising at a double-digit pace this year. The typical house in and around the city he calls home sold for $306,031 in June of this year, Zillow estimates, up from $261,710 a year earlier.

Several of Mr. Kaplan’s colleagues harbor similar concerns. They are worried that the housing boom could end up looking like a bubble, one that threatens financial stability. And some fret that the central bank’s big bond purchases could be helping to inflate it.

“It’s making me nervous that you’ve got this incipient housing bubble, with anecdotal reports backed up by a lot of the data,” James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said during a call with reporters Friday. He doesn’t think things are at crisis levels yet, but he believes the Fed should avoid fueling the situation further. “We got in so much trouble with the housing bubble in the mid-2000s.”

Policymakers don’t need to look far to see escalating prices, because housing is growing more expensive nearly everywhere. Buying a typical home in Boise, Idaho, cost about $469,000 in June, up from $335,000 a year ago, based on Zillow estimates of local housing values. A typical house in Boone, N.C., is worth $362,000, up from $269,000. Prices nationally have risen 15 percent over the past year, Zillow’s data shows, in line with the closely watched S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index of home prices, which rose a record 16.6 percent in the year through May.

Bidding wars are frustrating buyers. Agents are struggling to navigate frantic competition. About half of small bankers in a recent industry survey said the current state of the housing market poses “a serious risk” to the United States economy. Lawmakers and economic policymakers alike are hoping things calm down — especially because frothy home prices could eventually spill into rent prices, worsening affordability for low-income families just as they face the end of pandemic-era eviction moratoriums and, in some cases, months of owed rent.

Industry experts say the current home price boom emerged from a cocktail of low interest rates, booming demand and supply bottlenecks. In short, it’s a situation that many are feeling acutely with no single policy to blame and no easy fix.

Fed officials face a particularly tricky calculus when it comes to housing.

Their policies definitely help to drive demand. Bond-buying and low Fed interest rates make mortgages cheap, inspiring people to borrow more and buy bigger. But rates aren’t the sole factor behind the home price craze. It also traces back to demographics, a pandemic-spurred desire for space, and a very limited supply of new and existing homes for sale — factors outside of the central bank’s control.

“Interest rates are one factor that’s supporting demand, but we really can’t do much about the supply side,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, explained during recent congressional testimony.

It’s an unattractive prospect to pull back monetary support to try to rein in housing specifically, because doing so would slow the overall economy, making it harder for the central bank to foster full employment. The Fed’s policy-setting committee voted Wednesday to keep policy set to full-support mode, and Mr. Powell said at a subsequent news conference that the economy remains short of the central bank’s jobs target.

But central bank officials also monitor financial stability, so they are keenly watching the price surge.
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Demand for housing was strong in 2018 and 2019, but it really took off early last year, after the Fed cut interest rates to near-zero and began buying government-backed debt to soothe markets at the start of the pandemic. Mortgage rates dropped, and mortgage applications soared.

That was partly the point as the Fed fought to keep the economy afloat: Home-buying boosts all kinds of spending, on washing machines and drapes and kiddie pools, so it is a key lever for lifting the entire economy. Stoking it helps to revive floundering growth.

Those low interest rates hit just as housing was entering a societal sweet spot. Americans born in 1991, the country’s largest group by birth year, just turned 30. And as Millennials — the nation’s largest generation — were beginning to think about trading in that fifth-floor walk-up for a home of their own, coronavirus lockdowns took hold.

Suddenly, having more space became paramount. For some, several rounds of government stimulus checks made down payments seem more workable. For others, remote work opened the door to new home markets and possibilities.

Reina and David Pomeroy, 36 and 35, were living in a rental in Santa Clara, Calif., with their children, ages 2 and 7, when the pandemic hit. Buying at California prices seemed like a pipe dream and they wanted to live near family, so they decided to relocate to the Boulder, Colo., area, near Mr. Pomeroy’s brother.

When Reina and David Pomeroy were ready to give up their rented townhouse and buy, they looked outside California to avoid the state’s high home prices.
When Reina and David Pomeroy were ready to give up their rented townhouse and buy, they looked outside California to avoid the state’s high home prices.Credit…Ulysses Ortega for The New York Times

They closed in late July, and they move in a few days. Ms. Pomeroy was able to take her job at a start-up remote, and Mr. Pomeroy is hoping that Google, his employer, will allow him to move to its Boulder office. The pair saw between 20 and 30 houses and made — and lost — six offers before finally sealing the deal, over their original budget and $200,000 above the $995,000 asking price on their new 5-bedroom.

Their experience underlines the other key issue driving prices up: “There’s not enough inventory for everyone that’s looking,” said Corey Keach, the Redfin agent who helped the Pomeroys find their home.