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The Economy Is Down. Why Are Home Prices Up?

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Many Americans will have heard stories about people fearful of the pandemic fleeing from crowded cities and driving up home prices in the rest of the country. But there is a much bigger tale to tell here.

Housing prices started rising before the pandemic arrived. They are rising on average in U.S. cities as well as in rural and suburban areas. They are increasing not just in the United States but also worldwide, regardless of how hard a country has been hit by the pandemic. And prices are at or near record highs not only for housing but also, despite recent market wobbles, for stocks and bonds.

This is a global market boom in the price of … everything.

The common factor is not the virus; it is so-called easy money. Led by the Federal Reserve in the United States, central banks have been lowering interest rates for decades, hoping to stimulate economic growth, but much of that newly issued money keeps flowing into financial markets. This unintended boost has accelerated drastically during the pandemic, as central banks roll out multi-trillion-dollar stimulus plans. According to my research, the valuations of stocks, bonds and housing have risen sharply this year to levels seen only around 2000 and 2008 — periods characterized by financial bubbles.

This is not good news for most people. Market manias have an alarming record of bringing down the wider economy and of widening wealth inequality. In 484 cities around the world whose home prices are tracked by Numbeo, which compiles user-generated data about consumer prices, home prices are now beyond reach for the typical family in more than 400 of them. The least affordable U.S. city is New York, where median home prices (despite falling during the pandemic) are still more than 10 times the median annual income.

Going back at least to the 1970s, housing had always slumped during recessions, both in the United States and worldwide. People lose jobs and stop dreaming of bigger homes. But in the second quarter this year, amid the worst global recession since the 1940s, housing prices were up a robust 4 percent worldwide, and that was before the boom really took off. Since May, new-home sales in the United States have climbed by 67 percent, and prices by 15 percent. The median price of existing homes in the United States recently passed $300,000 for the first time.

This surreal “boom in the gloom” is a government creation. As central banks flooded money into the credit markets, rates on 30-year mortgages, which had been falling for years, plummeted to record lows — under 3 percent in the United States and under 2 percent in Europe. If you are dreaming of riding out the pandemic in a larger home, cheap mortgages now beckon you to act.

For now, housing is a bright spot in a struggling economy. But when prices are shaped by easy money, as much or more than by genuine demand, the result is often a severely skewed allocation of resources. Already, many investors are buying homes not as a shelter but as an alternative to stocks and bonds, which are even pricier.

The risk going forward is that the boom will leave more people unable to afford a home and that prices will eventually reach dangerous bubble levels. And when booms go bust, it takes time to unravel the bad debts, which ripple through the middle class, lengthening and deepening the resulting recession.

The response favored by many experts, including some Fed officials, is tighter regulation. But if regulators clamp down on mortgage lending, investors will borrow to buy something else — stocks and bonds, or even fine art, rare wines or some other exotic asset. When borrowing is nearly free, tweaking regulations will only shift money from one market to another.

For years, central banks said there was no reason to tighten monetary policy because there was no inflation. But as many economists have argued, there appeared to be no inflation because official indexes don’t adequately capture asset prices. The United States, for example, includes only rent and a “rental equivalent” for home prices in its official indexes, which makes them increasingly misleading: Rents have lagged behind home prices for years and have slumped further during the pandemic, pushing the official inflation rate even lower.

Central banks need to take the menace of asset price inflation more seriously and to give the threat of stock, bond and especially housing bubbles more weight in their policy deliberations. This would not prevent central banks from bailing out an economy in crisis, when other concerns prevail. But once a recovery begins, it would nudge central bankers to start shutting off the easy money spigot a bit earlier than they otherwise would have — before an “everything boom” like this one becomes a full-blown bubble.

Ruchir Sharma is the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, the author, most recently, of “The Ten Rules of Successful Nations” and a contributing opinion writer. This essay reflects his opinions alone.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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Economy

Here is Trump economy: Slower growth, higher prices and a bigger national debt

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If Donald Trump is re-elected president of the United States in November, Americans can expect higher inflation, slower economic growth and a larger national debt, according to economists.

Trump’s economic agenda for a second term in office includes raising tariffs on imports, cutting taxes and deporting millions of undocumented migrants.

“Inflation will be the main impact” of a second Trump presidency, Bernard Yaros, lead US economist at Oxford Economics, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s ultimately the biggest risk. If Trump is president, tariffs are going up for sure. The question is how high do they go and how widespread are they,” Yaros said.

Trump has proposed imposing a 10 percent across-the-board tariff on all imported goods and levies of 60 percent or higher on Chinese imports.

During Trump’s first term in office from 2017 to 2021, his administration introduced tariff increases that at their peak affected about 10 percent of imports, mostly goods from China, Moody’s Analytics said in a report released in June.

Those levies nonetheless inflicted “measurable economic damage”, particularly to the agriculture, manufacturing and transportation sectors, according to the report.

“A tariff increase covering nearly all goods imports, as Trump recently proposed, goes far beyond any previous action,” Moody’s Analytics said in its report.

Businesses typically pass higher tariffs on to their customers, raising prices for consumers. They could also affect businesses’ decisions about how and where to invest.

“There are three main tenets of Trump’s campaign, and they all point in the same inflationary direction,” Matt Colyar, assistant director at Moody’s Analytics, told Al Jazeera.

“We didn’t even think of including retaliatory tariffs in our modelling because who knows how widespread and what form the tit-for-tat model could involve,” Colyar added.

‘Recession becomes a serious threat’

When the US opened its borders after the COVID-19 pandemic, the inflow of immigrants helped to ease labour shortages in a range of industries such as construction, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality.

The recovery of the labour market in turn helped to bring down inflation from its mid-2022 peak of 9.1 percent.

Trump has not only proposed the mass deportation of 15 million to 20 million undocumented migrants but also restricting the inflow of visa-holding migrant workers too.

That, along with a wave of retiring Baby Boomers – an estimated 10,000 of whom are exiting the workforce every day – would put pressure on wages as it did during the pandemic, a trend that only recently started to ease.

“We can assume he will throw enough sand into the gears of the immigration process so you have meaningfully less immigration, which is inflationary,” Yaros said.

Since labour costs and inflation are two important measures that the US Federal Reserve weighs when setting its benchmark interest rate, the central bank could announce further rate hikes, or at least wait longer to cut rates.

That would make recession a “serious threat once again”, according to Moody’s.

Adding to those inflationary concerns are Trump’s proposals to extend his 2017 tax cuts and further lower the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 20 percent.

While Trump’s proposed tariff hikes would offset some lost revenue, they would not make up the shortfall entirely.

According to Moody’s, the US government would generate $1.7 trillion in revenue from Trump’s tariffs while his tax cuts would cost $3.4 trillion.

Yaros said government spending is also likely to rise as Republicans seek bigger defence budgets and Democrats push for greater social expenditures, further stoking inflation.

If President Joe Biden is re-elected, economists expect no philosophical change in his approach to import taxes. They think he will continue to use targeted tariff increases, much like the recently announced 100 percent tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles and solar panels, to help US companies compete with government-supported Chinese firms.

With Trump’s tax cuts set to expire in 2025, a second Biden term would see some of those cuts extended, but not all, Colyar said. Primarily, the tax cuts to higher earners like those making more than $400,000 a year would expire.

Although Biden has said he would hike corporate taxes from 21 percent to 28 percent, given the divided Congress, it is unlikely he would be able to push that through.

The contrasting economic visions of the two presidential candidates have created unwelcome uncertainty for businesses, Colyar said.

“Firms and investors are having a hard time staying on top of [their plans] given the two different ways the US elections could go,” Colyar said.

“In my entire tenure, geopolitical risk has never been such an important consideration as it is today,” he added.

 

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Economy

China Stainless Steel Mogul Fights to Avoid a Second Collapse

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Chinese metal tycoon Dai Guofang’s first steel empire was brought down by a government campaign to rein in market exuberance, tax evasion accusations and a spell behind bars. Two decades on, he’s once again fighting for survival.

A one-time scrap-metal collector, he built and rebuilt a fortune as China boomed. Now with the economy cooling, Dai faces a debt crisis that threatens the future of one of the world’s top stainless steel producers, Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry Co., along with plants held by his wife and son. Its demise would send ripples through the country’s vast manufacturing sector and the embattled global nickel market.

 

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Why Trump’s re-election could hit Europe’s economy by at least €150 billion

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A Trump victory could trigger a 1% GDP hit to the eurozone economy, with Germany, Italy, and Finland most affected. Renewed NATO demands and potential cessation of US aid to Ukraine could further strain Europe.

The potential re-election of Donald Trump as US President poses a significant threat to the eurozone economy, with economists warning of a possible €150 billion hit, equivalent to about 1% of the region’s gross domestic product. This impact stems from anticipated negative trade repercussions and increased defence expenditures.

The recent attack in Butler, Pennsylvania, where former President Trump sustained an ear injury, has boosted his re-election odds. Prediction markets now place Trump’s chances of winning at 71%, a significant rise from earlier figures, while his opponent, Joe Biden, has experienced a sharp decline, with his chances dropping to 18% from a peak of 45% just two months ago.

Rising trade uncertainty and economic impact from tariffs

Economists James Moberly and Sven Jari Stehn from Goldman Sachs have raised alarms over the looming uncertainty in global trade policies, drawing parallels to the volatility experienced in 2018 and 2019. They argue that Trump’s aggressive trade stance could reignite these uncertainties.

“Trump has pledged to impose an across-the-board 10% tariff on all US imports including from Europe,” Goldman Sachs outlined in a recent note.

The economists predict that the surge in trade policy uncertainty, which previously reduced Euro area industrial production by 2% in 2018-19, could now result in a 1% decline in Euro area gross domestic product.

Germany to bear the brunt, followed by Italy

Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse, is expected to bear the brunt of this impact.

“We estimate that the negative effects of trade policy uncertainty are larger in Germany than elsewhere in the Euro area, reflecting its greater openness and reliance on industrial activity,” Goldman Sachs explained.

The report highlighted that Germany’s industrial sector is more vulnerable to trade disruptions compared to other major Eurozone economies such as France.

After Germany, Italy and Finland are projected to be the second and third most affected countries respectively, due to the relatively higher weight of manufacturing activity in their economies.

According to a Eurostat study published in February 2024, Germany (€157.7 billion), Italy (€67.3 billion), and Ireland (€51.6 billion) were the three largest European Union exporters to the United States in 2023.

Germany also maintained the largest trade surplus (€85.8 billion), followed by Italy (€42.1 billion).

Defence, security pressures and financial condition shifts

A Trump victory would also be likely to bring renewed defence and security pressures to Europe. Trump has consistently pushed for NATO members to meet their 2% GDP defence spending commitments. Currently, EU members spend about 1.75% of GDP on defence, necessitating an increase of 0.25% to meet the target.

Moreover, Trump has indicated that he might cease US military aid to Ukraine, compelling European nations to step in. The US currently allocates approximately €40bn annually (or 0.25% of EU GDP) for Ukrainian support. Consequently, meeting NATO’s 2% GDP defence spending requirement and offsetting the potential reduction in US military aid could cost the EU an additional 0.5% of GDP per year.

Additional economic shocks from Trump’s potential re-election include heightened US foreign demand due to tax cuts and the risk of tighter financial conditions driven by a stronger dollar.

However, Goldman Sachs believes that the benefits from a looser US fiscal policy would be marginal for the European economy, with by a mere 0.1% boost in economic activity.

“A Trump victory in the November election would likely come with significant financial market shifts,” Goldman Sachs wrote.

Reflecting on the aftermath of the 2016 election, long-term yields surged, equity prices soared, and the dollar appreciated significantly. Despite these movements, the Euro area Financial Conditions Index (FCI) only experienced a slight tightening, as a weaker euro counterbalanced higher interest rates and wider sovereign spreads.

In conclusion, Trump’s potential re-election could have far-reaching economic implications for Europe, exacerbating trade uncertainties and imposing new financial and defence burdens on the continent.

 

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