The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:
This week, belatedly, the National Association of Realtors is scheduled to issue revised numbers that show the nation's housing bust was worse than the big real estate trade group has reported all along.
'Bout time it got around to 'fessing up.
The Chicago-based organization has known for a long time that the existing home sales data it releases to the public each month were significantly inflated. It knew that it was double-counting, miscounting and relying on outdated census results that pumped up its report on housing activity. A rival research firm, CoreLogic, blew the whistle on the group's faulty methodology in February. Nevertheless, every month since then, NAR, as it's called, kept churning out its inaccurate figures — noting their inaccuracy in a footnote, for anyone who pays attention to those.
The group has said it will restate home sales back to 2007. Analysts expect the corrected numbers to show that an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent fewer homes were sold in the last five years than the original NAR reports suggested. Too bad NAR can't turn back the clock and restate some of the misleading assertions it made during that same period of economic crisis: As soon as the real estate market started to tumble, the group got busy dispensing bad advice, telling Americans that prices had hit bottom, so they should keep right on buying.
Millions of Americans who took the bait during housing's go-go days have suffered punishing losses. In many markets, prices still are sinking as supply outstrips demand. Though positive data on apartment construction helped drive Tuesday's stock market surge, most housing stats still lag.
The public needs to keep in mind that the Realtors group represents Realtors, not real estate buyers or sellers, and not homeowners. Realtors get paid when transactions occur. So the members of NAR have a financial interest in promoting activity. It is fitting that having misled the public throughout the bust, the group would wait to correct its data until just before Christmas: This is, after all, traditionally the slowest season for real estate sales, so Wednesday's reality check probably will have the least possible impact on pending transactions. It's also a time when Americans distracted by the holidays tend to tune out the news.
This isn't the only realm in which the trade group's priorities haven't jibed with the public's.
One lesson of the housing bust is that federal subsidies for residential real estate must be reduced. The only way to head off another government-backed bubble is to downsize the web of tax breaks and government guarantees that distort the marketplace, giving Americans a huge incentive to over-invest in their homes.
The housing lobby, which includes NAR, is accustomed to fighting for these subsidies. Consider the recent dust-up over government guarantees for the loans on personal McMansions. The fight concerned the Federal Housing Administration and the size of the loans it is allowed to back. Under a misguided law approved in 2008 as the housing market collapsed, Congress raised the loan limit to support very costly homes. It was supposed to drop Oct. 1 from a maximum of $729,750 to $625,500 in certain markets. (The limits are lower in the Chicago area).
Taxpayers have lost an estimated $150 billion guaranteeing mortgage loans so far — and they're on the hook for tens of billions more. Reducing the size of federally backed loans from gigantic to only slightly less gigantic was a first step toward unwinding these costly obligations and returning the marketplace to private lenders who would price their loans according to the risks involved.
But what's good for taxpayers would have been bad for Realtors — at least in the short run. So, under strong lobbying, Congress rescinded the modest cut in FHA loan guarantees through at least 2013. As a result, federal dollars still will be used to back enormous loans.
NAR's quiet little mea culpa Wednesday may come and go without attracting much attention. Meanwhile, the government may well keep subsidizing the housing market until another bubble forms. And you know how that story always ends: Pop!