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Collapsing home prices are good for the young

Robert Samuelson is usually bringing bad news. He’s a respected economist, but nobody will accuse him of being an optimist. In fact, he’s very bearish on our fiscal future and he believes that life will be more difficult for the next generation of Americans given our massive debt and the inevitable need for higher taxes or cuts in benefits like Medicare and Social Security.

But he sees a silver lining with the collapse of housing prices. It’s terrible for anyone who bought a home in the past decade, but it’s good news for young people who home to buy a home some day.

But housing’s troubles may have a silver lining. If you’re a homeowner, the steep fall in prices is calamitous. But if you’re a future buyer, it’s a godsend. What we’re seeing is a massive wealth transfer from today’s older homeowners to tomorrow’s younger homeowners. From year-end 2006 to 2010, housing values fell $6.3 trillion, reports the Federal Reserve. Assuming there’s no sharp rebound in prices — a good bet — that’s $6.3 trillion the young won’t pay.

Up to a point, the lower home prices merely deflate the artificial “bubble.” But there’s evidence that the declines transcend that. The National Association of Realtors routinely publishes a housing “affordability” index, which judges the ability of median families to buy the median-price home at prevailing interest rates. By this measure, existing homes are the most affordable since the index started in 1970.

Young buyers “will be able to enter the housing market at bargain prices,” argues NAR economist Lawrence Yun. When home prices again rise, increases will parallel income gains, meaning that the relative burden of housing costs will remain roughly stable, Yun says. He expects only modest increases in interest rates. (A rise of one percentage point — say, from 5 percent to 6 percent — on a $150,000 mortgage boosts the monthly payment about $95.)

The important thing for young people, however, is learning to avoid credit card debt. If they don’t learn this lesson, lower housing prices won’t matter much as they wont be able to afford a mortgage payment if they’re loaded up with credit card payments.

The Medicare debate

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-WI, arrives for a hearing to mark up his 2012 budget proposal called “The Path to Prosperity” on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 6, 2011. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg

With the radical new budget proposed by Paul Ryan and passed by the House Republicans, we have a full-fledged debate about the future of retirement in America. Ryan’s budget removes the guaranteed Medicare entitlement and replaces it with vouchers (or premium supports, depending on who you listen to). According to the Congressional Budget Office, the subsidy from the government will not be enough for most seniors to purchase medical insurance, assuming private insurers even want to cover them.

This is a radical departure from the social safety net. The Republicans argue that this will not apply to current seniors, just those under the age of 55. But that cold comfort for everyone else, including seniors who care about the future of their children, relatives and friends.

It’s doubtful that anything like this will pass with the current President and Senate, but everyone needs to pay attention. Who knows, the next election may affect your retirement years.

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