The April edition of Fortune Magazine hit the shelves yesterday. Emblazoned across the cover was the headline "The Return of REAL ESTATE". The sub-title heaved a sigh of relief as it proclaimed "FINALLY! After years of plummeting home prices, the market is showing signs of a turnaround." The picture showed a McMansion somewhere in the Sun-Belt that seemed barely finished; a grass-less and rutted front yard; a moving truck - or maybe a landscape trailer - loading (or unloading) nondescript items (I couldn't tell which), and a young couple standing in the mud who looked like they were getting ready to start a water balloon fight.
It was surreal.
What was even more surreal was the story inside. It encouraged you to "Forget stocks; don't bet on gold. After four years of plunging home prices, the most attractive asset class in America is housing." (we're getting ready to enter our 6th year of plunging home prices, but let's not fuss over the details). The story went on to cite two basic factors for why housing is a great bet: First, the historic drop in new construction, and second, the 30% national decline in home prices since 2006.
And with that foundation set, the writers launched into an analysis of several statistics that were suposed to show how these two factors - new construction inventory and low sale prices - should make you want to snatch up real estates in markets like Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa, Las Vegas, St. Louis and Memphis."Beat the crowd" were the final words of the story. I'm sure they thought that their case was compelling.
It's not just the timing of this story that is tragic. The litany of bad housing news that broke last week should have been enough to make Fortune stop the press and reconsider their bold proclamation. Since we're barely a week out from every major player in the real estate market predicting a double-dip in housing, the embarassing timing couldn't be worse for Fortune. I literally laughed when the magazine landed on my desk - probably not the reaction the editors were hoping for.
But even worse than the bad timing was the flippant simplicity with which the authors summed up the problem facing the housing market. A shortage of new homes? Low prices? Do they really think that the housing market in all its glorious complexity can be boiled down to only new construction and prices?
What about jobs? What about foreclosures? What about underwater mortgages? The short-sale pipe-line? The surplus of rental units? The massive inventory of existing homes on the market? The mortgage scandals breaking almost daily? What about consumer confidence in home values? Asking prices for new construction? The list of problems facing the housing market goes on... and on... and on.
In an era where things are often over-complicated, I can understand that people crave simplicity. There's so much that's wrong with the housing market that I can understand wanting to find the one silver-bullet that could possible fix our problems. But there's refreshing simplicity and there's ignorant simplicity, and Fortune's summary of the housing market is most certainly the later. If it were all about new home supplies and low prices, then the housing debacle could have been fixed long ago. But anyone who has sold or bought a house recently can tell you it's much more complicated than that.
As I read this story I was reminded of a great business-school lecture that I heard a few years ago. It was given by Michael Scott - that's right, regional manager of Dunder Mifflin. I remembered the comedic way with which he summarized business: "There are four kinds of business" he said: "tourism, food service, railroads, and sales... and hospitals - slash - manufacturing... and air travel...." I laughed out loud at the infantile simplicity of it all. Laughter was the desired effect of the comedy, but probably not the reaction that the editors of a serious business magazine were hoping for.