Case Shiller Goes Sideways

Going SidewaysThe news stories are all over the map about the latest Case Shiller Home Price Index for January. It's down, says CNN. No, up, says Forbes. Unchanged, declares The Wall Street Journal.

You were expecting clarity?

Before last summer, the index tended to move boldly, rising or falling by several points a month. Now Case Shiller moves in fractions: up 0.6, down 0.5. The changes are so small they get reversed by the seasonal adjustment. Journalists have been using the tiny ups and downs in the index to read big changes in the housing markets, but in reality, home prices have been flat since last summer.
If you include seasonal adjustments, the Case Shiller index of home prices in 20 of the nation's biggest cities has been inching steadily upward for the last eight months, creeping from 140.8 in May to 146.3 in January. But if you take away the seasonal adjustment, then the index has been falling... well, since it got cold, from 146.7 in September to 145.3 in January.

On average, the housing market has stabilized close to its lowest point in years -- even though some research suggests that home prices are steeply undervalued. The Citizen's Housing and Planning Council has graphed the Case Shiller Index against a trend line that shows the average 5 percent-a-year appreciation most economists expect from housing (scroll down to find the chart).

What's keeping home prices down? Blame the banks. As the government struggle to get its foreclosure prevention programs to work (a quarter-million permanent home loan modifications approved, almost another million still in limbo...) some banks seem determined the thwart the programs. (Check out the comments to this story on a yet another new government anti-foreclosure initiative.) Then again, some say foreclosure prevention programs just postpone the inevitable. Only time --- and lots more teeny ups and down -- will tell.
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