“Are Swedish House Prices Too High? Why the Price-to-Income Ratio Is a Misleading Indicator,” first version March 2022, revised January 2023. Paper.
Figure 1.2. The preference-adjusted user-cost-to-income ratio and the negative of the preference-adjusted price-to-income ratio (percentage deviation from historical averages).
According to ECB (2022) and European Systemic Risk Board (2022), Swedish owner-occupied housing (OOH) was overvalued by about 55% in 2021q2, the largest overvaluation in the EU and EEA; according to European Commission (2021) by at least 30% in 2020q4. These assessments affect warnings and recommendations issued for Swedish economic policy and shocks in EBA stress tests of Swedish banks.
But the large overvaluation assessments are mainly due to the use of misleading indicators: deviations of price-to-income (PTI) and price-to-rent ratios from their historical averages. These disregard mortgage rates and other housing costs and lack scientific support. According to a large housing literature, the user cost of housing (not the purchase price) is the appropriate measure of cost of living in OOH, the cost of the housing services that the OOH delivers.
The user-cost-to-income (UCTI) indicator (the deviation of the UCTI ratio from its historical average) is a natural measure of valuation and affordability and has strong scientific support. New improved estimates of the indicator are constructed, including adjustment for a preference shift during covid in favor of larger and better housing.
For Sweden, the UCTI and PTI indicators are strongly negatively correlated and have opposite signs (see figure 1.2). If the UCTI indicator is right, the PTI indicator is consistently wrong.
According to the UCTI indicator, Swedish owner-occupied houses have since 2010 become increasingly undervalued (not overvalued), by a maximum of 33% in 2019q4. Due to rising electricity prices and mortgage rates, they have since become less undervalued, but were still undervalued by 17% in 2022q4.
The problem of misleading indicators and overvaluation assessments is not restricted to Sweden but concerns several countries in the European Union. The relevant and informative indicators presented in the paper allow more reliable and appropriate valuation assessments.
“Monetary Mystique and the Fed’s Path Toward Increased Transparency,” chapter, in King, Robert G., and Alexander L. Wolman (eds.), Essays in Honor of Marvin Goodfriend: Economist and Central Banker, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 2022, 289-300.
Marvin Goodfriend’s paper “Monetary Mystique: Secrecy and Central Banking” is a masterpiece: It is an extremely well-written, meticulous, and fair analysis and critique of the Federal Reserve’s defense of its practice of secrecy in monetary policy and central banking. His critique was devastating, and he completely demolished the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) arguments in the most precise and convincing way. Nevertheless, it took the Fed many years to reach the current standards of transparency and accountability in monetary policy.
“Household Debt Overhang Did Hardly Cause a Larger Spending Fall during the Financial Crisis in the UK,” April 2021, paper. CEPR Discussion Paper DP16059. NBER Working Paper 28806.
The “debt-overhang hypothesis” – that households cut back more on their spending in a crisis when they have higher levels of outstanding mortgage debt (Dynan, 2012) – seems to be taken for granted by macroprudential authorities in several countries in their policy decisions, as well as by the international organizations that evaluate and comment on countries’ macroprudential policy. Results are presented for UK microdata that reject the debt-overhang hypothesis. The results instead support the “spending-normalization hypothesis” of Andersen, Duus, and Jensen (2016a), what can also be called the “debt-financed overspending” hypothesis – that the correlation between high pre-crisis household indebtedness and subsequent spending cuts during the crisis reflects high debt-financed spending pre-crisis and a return to normal spending during the crisis. As discussed in Svensson (2019, 2020), this is consistent with the correlation reflecting debt-financed overspending through what Muellbauer (2012) calls the “housing-collateral household demand” and Mian and Sufi (2018) the “credit-driven household demand” channel. The correlation is thus spurious and an example of omitted-variable bias.
A simple model shows that consumption and debt changes are directly and strongly positively correlated, whereas consumption and debt levels are quite weakly negatively correlated. Importantly, and in contrast, examples show that there is no systematic relation between consumption cuts and levels of or changes in LTV ratios. The lack of a robust relation between consumption cuts and levels of or changes in LTV ratios implies that tests of these hypotheses should generally not be done by regressions of consumption cuts on levels of or changes in LTV ratios.
“Household Debt Overhang Did Hardly Cause a Larger Spending Fall during the Financial Crisis in Australia,” April 2021, paper. CEPR Diskussion Paper DP16094. NBER Working Paper 28776
The “debt-overhang hypothesis” – that households cut back more on their spending in a crisis when they have higher levels of outstanding mortgage debt (Dynan, 2012) – seems to be taken for granted by macroprudential authorities in several countries in their policy decisions, as well as by the international organizations that evaluate and comment on countries’ macroprudential policy. New results for Australian microdata are presented that reject the debt-overhang hypothesis. The results instead support the “spending-normalization hypothesis” of Andersen, Duus, and Jensen (2016), what can also be called the “debt-financed overspending” hypothesis – that the correlation between high pre-crisis household indebtedness and subsequent spending cuts during the crisis reflects high debt-financed spending pre-crisis and a return to normal spending during the crisis. As discussed in Svensson (2019, 2020), this is consistent with the above correlation reflecting debt-financed overspending through what Muellbauer (2012) calls the “housing-collateral household demand” channel and Mian and Sufi (2018) the “credit-driven household demand” channel.
“Macroprudential Policy and Household Debt: What is Wrong with Swedish Macroprudential policy?”, Nordic Economic Policy Review 2020, 111–167. Article. Online appendix. Slides.
Much is right with Swedish macroprudential policy. But regarding risks associated with household debt, the policy does not pass a cost-benefit test. The substantial credit tightening that Finansinspektionen (FI, the Swedish FSA) has achieved – through amortization requirements and more indirect ways – has no demonstrable benefits but substantial costs. The FI, and international organizations, use a flawed theoretical framework for assessing macroeconomic risks from household debt. The tightening was undertaken for mistaken reasons. Several reforms are required for a better-functioning mortgage market. A reform of the governance of macroprudential policy – including a decision-making committee and improved accountability – may reduce risks of policy mistakes.
Update, June 2020: Problems of the amortization requirements confirmed
The paper was written before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. It emphasizes that the FI’s mandatory amortization requirements substantially increase the mortgagors’ housing payments and reduce their cash-flow margins. Thereby the amortization requirements reduce households’ resilience to shocks – in contradiction to the FI’s objective to increase the resilience.
The paper also notes that the FI is aware of the problem that amortization requirements reduce households’ resilience. Its response to this problem and contradiction is to allow mortgage firms to make exemptions from amortization payments for mortgagors “for a limited period” on “special grounds.” However, the special grounds FI mentions refer to situations when individual mortgagors face individual problems in fulfilling their debt service for reasons such as “unemployment, long periods of absence from work due to illness and the death of a close relative.” There is no suggestion in the FI’s discussion that mortgage firms might consider mortgagors’ consumption or the macroeconomic risk from a reduction in mortgagors’ consumption—the FI’s official rationale for having introduced the amortization requirements. It difficult to believe that mortgage firms would exempt mortgagors from amortization on the ground that certainly they can fulfill their debt service, but they cannot maintain their normal consumption. The mortgage firms will most certainly be focused on any risk to their individual debt service rather than on any macroeconomic consequences. Thus, the FI has not provided any mechanism through which the exemptions to amortization payments would avoid the reduced resilience caused by the amortization requirements.
The problems of the mandatory amortization requirements were confirmed, when the corona pandemic forced the FI in March 2010 to adapt and to make a surprise special recommendation: “Loss of income due to the corona-virus [is] a cause for exemption from amortization.” But borrowers have no right to an exemption; it is still the mortgage firm that decides. And the recommendation did not apply to those that have not yet lost their income. In April, the FI corrected the latter and stated that banks may grant all mortgagors amortization exemption. But the exemption is only in force until the end of June 2021. As Bäckman has argued – and is argued in the paper – it is better to simply abolish the amortization requirements.
“Monetary Policy Strategies for the Federal Reserve,” International Journal of Central Banking 16 (February 2020) 133-193. Paper.
A previous version was prepared for the conference Monetary Policy Strategy, Tools, and Communication Practices—A Fed Listens Event, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, June 4–5, 2019. Video (my presentation starts 3 min 5 sec into the session).
The paper finds that the general monetary policy strategy of “forecast targeting” is more suitable for fulfilling the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability than following a Taylor-type rule. Forecast targeting can be used for any of the more specific strategies of annual-inflation targeting, price-level targeting, temporary price-level targeting, average-inflation targeting, and nominal-GDP targeting. The specific strategies are examined and evaluated according to how well they may fulfill the dual mandate, considering the possibilities of a binding effective lower bound for the federal funds rate and a flatter Phillips curve. Nominal-GDP targeting is equivalent to a single mandate and is found to be inconsistent with the dual mandate. Average-inflation targeting is found to have some advantages over the others.
“Amortization Requirements, Distortions, and Household Resilience: Problems of Macroprudential Policy II,” November 2019, paper.
Mortgage lending standards have tightened in Sweden in recent years, in particular through mandatory amortization requirements introduced by the Swedish FSA. The stated purpose is to increase the resilience of mortgagors to shocks, but it is shown that the resilience actually falls and that the tightening causes or worsens many distortions. Households without high income or wealth face higher barriers to entry into owner-occupancy. The mobility within the market for owner-occupied housing is reduced. First-time buyers without high income or wealth are excluded from the owner-occupancy market in Stockholm Municipality and many outsiders have to resort to a high-rent secondary-rental market. To prevent such exclusions, housing prices may have to fall by almost 40%. Less-than-high-income outsiders have higher housing user cost than high-income insiders. A less wealthy outsider has a higher user cost than a high-wealth insider with similar income. Mortgagors are forced to oversave and underconsume relative to their disposable income, and their consumption becomes more sensitive to income shocks. They have to save in illiquid housing equity instead of more liquid and diversified assets. They become less resilient to shocks for many years, for a very small gain in resilience later. Secondary-rental outsiders are forced to overpay, undersave, and underconsume, and their consumption becomes more sensitive to income shocks. They face less resilient to shocks, without any gain in resilience later. By design the amortization requirements make the amortization countercyclical, which makes consumption more procyclical and sensitive to income shocks. The tightening of lending standards reduces demand for and lowers the prices of housing. This in turn reduces already too-low housing construction and worsens the structural problem of excess demand for housing. The conclusion is that this example of macroprudential policy is counterproductive and harmful to social welfare and equity.
“Housing Prices, Household Debt, and Macroeconomic Risk: Problems of Macroprudential Policy I,” December 2019. Paper.
This paper answers three questions about current Swedish housing prices and household debt: (1) Are housing prices too high? (2) Is household debt too high? (3) Does household debt pose an “elevated macroeconomic risk”? Finansinspektionen (the Swedish FSA) has argued that the answers to these questions are all yes and that this has justified a substantial further tightening of already rather tight lending standards, achieved through mandatory amortization requirements and in other ways. This paper argues that the answers to the questions instead are all no, in the following sense: Regarding questions (1) and (2), there is no evidence that housing prices and household debt are higher than what is consistent with their fundamental determinants. Regarding question (3), the “macroeconomic risk” refers to the risk of a larger fall in household consumption in a recession or crisis. There is indeed evidence from Denmark, the UK, and the US of a correlation between households’ pre-crisis indebtedness and subsequent negative consumption responses during the financial crisis 2008-2009. But there is no evidence that high household indebtedness caused a subsequent larger negative consumption response. The correlation is instead explained by an underlying common factor that caused both high pre-crisis indebtedness and a large negative consumption response during the crisis. For Denmark and the UK, the evidence is that the common factor is debt-financed household overconsumption relative to income, more precisely overconsumption financed by housing equity withdrawals. There is also evidence of debt-financed overconsumption for the US. But there is no evidence of debt-financed overconsumption of any macroeconomic significance in Sweden. Therefore, there is no evidence of Swedish household debt posing an elevated macroeconomic risk. In summary, Finansinspektionen’s tightening of lending standards lacks scientific support.
“The Future of Monetary Policy and Macroprudential Policy,” in ECB (2018), The Future of Central Banking, Festschrift in honour of Vitor Constancio, December 2018, European Central Bank, pp. 69-123. Paper. Slides.
“Monetary Policy and Macroprudential Policy: Different and Separate?” Canadian Journal of Economics (2018) 51(3) 802-827. Paper. Published article.
The paper discusses how monetary and macroprudential policies can be distinguished, how appropriate goals for the two policies can be determined, whether the policies are best conducted separately or coordinately and by the same or different authorities, and how they can be coordinated when desired. The institutional frameworks in Canada, Sweden, and the UK are briefly compared. The Swedish example of monetary policy strongly “leaning against the wind” and the consecutive policy turnaround is summarized, as well as what estimates have been found of the costs and benefits of leaning against the wind. Continue reading →
“Amortization Requirements Benefit Well-Off and Hurt Liquidity-Constrained Housing Buyers,” February 2018. Paper. Ekonomistas post (Swedish) Continue reading →
“The Relation between Monetary Policy and Financial-Stability Policy,” in Aguirre, Brunnermeier, and Saravia, eds. (2019), Monetary Policy and Financial Stability: Transmission Mechanisms and Policy Implications, Banco Central de Chile, pp. 283–310. Preliminary version presented at the XXI Annual Conference of the Central Bank of Chile, “Monetary Policy and Financial Stability: Transmission Mechanisms and Policy Implications,” Santiago, Chile, November 16-17, 2017. Paper. Slides pdf pptx. Conference. Video.
“What Rule for the Fed? Forecast Targeting”, International Journal of Central Banking 16 (December 2020) 39-95. Paper.
Previous version presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s 61st Economic Conference, “Are Rules Made to be Broken? Discretion and Monetary Policy,” October 13–14, 2017. Slides. Conference. Continue reading →
“Leaning Against the Wind: Costs and Benefits, Effects on Debt, Leaning in DSGE Models, and a Framework for Comparison of Results,” International Journal of Central Banking 13 (September 2017) 385-408. CEPR DP 12226, NBER WP 23745.
The simple and transparent framework for cost-benefit analysis of leaning against the wind (LAW) in Svensson (JME 2017) and its main result are summarized. The analysis of the policy-rate effects on debt in Bauer and Granziera (IJCB 2017) does not seem to contradict that the effects may be small and of either sign. The analysis of LAW in DSGE models is complicated and the results of Gerdrup et al. (IJCB 2017) may not be robust. The Svensson (JME 2017) framework may allow comparison and evaluation of old and new approaches and their results. As an example, it is shown that these three papers result in very different marginal costs of LAW and that a realistic policy-rate effect on unemployment is crucial.
JEL Codes: E52, E58, G01