Justin Wolfers, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan, recently posted something on Twitter that stirred the collective pot:
“Lemme ask one of those tone deaf economist questions that annoy almost everyone. Today, many families learned that the amount they owe on their mortgage has declined—in real terms—by 9.1% over the past year. Why do we hear so little about this? Why don’t we see folks celebrating?”
Some other economists agreed with him, at least in terms of how people think of economics. Many non-economists quickly came in to explain their thought processes—that the points, while technically correct, were out of context and touch.
Essentially, the critics made two points as accurately as Wolfers and company related the technicalities. People are set upon from all quarters, not just housing. And the U.S. is becoming a country, not of poverty, but entrenched poorness. That is, in the sense of “small in worth” or “less than adequate” by the Merriam-Webster definition.
It is true that as inflation increases, the monetary value of a loan with terms that established lower interest rates decreases in favor of the borrower, at least while inflation is running hot. If the total remaining on the mortgage, including interest and principal, is $X, then over the last year it’s now 9.1% less expensive because the value of the dollars is falling. The mortgage likely has no inflation escalation rider.
Now, that mortgage only remains 9.1% less expensive if there is no deflation. You do get a savings even if inflation drops to a lower rate, because the value of what a dollar can buy continues to drop. As it does pretty much every year anyway. This is one of the advantages of owning a home. The amount you own drops because there is some degree of inflation in virtually every year, as, unless you have an adjustable-rate mortgage (a bad idea in the long run that might make sense in specific circumstances in the immediate future), you’ll locked in at the level of cheaper dollars.
There’s nothing new with that and it’s how a lot of people build wealth over time. Then they, in theory, pass that property down to their children, who now have greater wealth that, in theory, can get passed down in turn, and so on. The growth of wealth becomes a multi-generational process. The longer you’re around, the greater an advantage you have.
There are two other ways you build value as a homeowner. One is, on the whole, there will be some appreciation in value over time. That comes without additional payments. The other is one of those “you get a benefit because you’re not doing something else that would cost more” kind of financial planning arguments. If you don’t own, you’re a renter and the amount you pay climbs each year. If you do own, then there’s an annual additional amount you don’t have to pay, which is a savings.
That doesn’t mean that homeowners don’t pay more every year because there’s more to owning a house than the payment. Taxes, utilities, maintenance and repair, upgrades, and so on see regularly rising costs. Still, this remains a case that things could be much worse, and you are ahead in some significant ways.
So, why aren’t people dancing in the street? The first reason the critics note is that housing, while a significant cost, isn’t the only place where people are hit. For many years, important areas of living have endured significantly higher increases than income in real terms after inflation. Healthcare, childcare, education, energy (both electric and heating and cooling), all drive up everyday expenses. They leave pay increases in the dusty plains of personal financial ledgers. Personal savings rates are dropping; credit card debt has again reached new heights.
One reason you don’t see conga lines in the street is because people are anxious about the economy and their position in it. Consumer sentiment is up a touch from June, as the newest University of Michigan polling shows, but that’s still down massively from a year earlier. If a patient is in bed with a serious illness and a doctor tells them that they don’t have an additional one, they might be glad to hear it and yet not be in a position to leap to their feet.
The second criticism is even stronger, in a social sense. If housing ownership is at about 65% in the country, should people clap for joy as they see a third of the country having to struggle much harder? When many who are not in a position to own homes are their children or nieces and nephews or kids of friends or younger people they work with? You can be thankful that you weren’t part of a massive traffic accident and yet reluctant to outwardly rejoice so as not to rub others’ noses in the dirt.