Biden’s Housing Gambit

The “transitory” inflation swamping the country has stubbornly persisted into July. This week it was announced that producer prices posted a second straight 1% month-over-month increase, which brought the full year number to a record 7.8%. It was also reported that 12-month US export prices rose 17.2%, and nearly 22% if the rate of the first seven months of 2021 were annualized. (I find it telling that those prices – which are subject to no after the fact data collection adjustments – are rising at a rate that is nearly triple the CPI). But there is one major cost center of American lives, rental housing, where the Government claims Americans are getting a break. Not because the supply and demand dynamics are not pushing rents up with the same virulence that we now see in food and energy, but because the government relies on very dubious data collection and has thoroughly disrupted the normal functioning of the marketplace.

For the vast majority of families, housing costs constitute the single largest portion of their living expenses, and in fact represents more than a third of the Consumer Price Index. For more than a third of US households, housing costs boil down to rent. But the government has a very hard time incorporating housing cost data into the overall inflation statistics. The inputs they actually use could not be more irrelevant and misleading.

For people looking to buy homes, the 22% increase in house prices thus far this year may be making it more difficult to afford what they want. But the government does not consider home prices when calculating housing costs. Similarly, by most metrics home rental costs are up about 9% this year, slightly outstripping the overall costs of living. But the government does not consider those numbers either. Instead, they rely exclusively on “Owner’s Equivalent Rent,” a phantom statistic that nobody uses, and which can’t be objectively determined.

Owner’s Equivalent Rent is derived by asking homeowners how much they would pay to rent a home that would replicate, in terms of size, location, quality and amenities, the homes they already own. Huh? Most homeowners do not have their fingers on the pulse of the rental market, particularly for homes that look just like theirs. Typically homes available for purchase and those available to let are taken from different pools of housing stock. If asked to come up with such a hypothetical, most homeowners would likely just guess.

Would it surprise you then to know that the owners-equivalent rent statistics have been far, far lower than either home prices or actual rents? In the latest CPI report the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates year over year increases in Owner’s Equivalent Rent was just 2.3%. How convenient. So as far as the government is concerned, housing costs aren’t really going up that fast as most people think!