Betting the House

Homeowners around the world effectively gamble on home prices. Their risks today are often big due to real estate bubbles in such glamour cities as London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Istanbul, Moscow, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Sydney, Melbourne, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Those bubbles may keep expanding, or may burst, leaving many homeowners mired in debt.

The risk to home prices in the aftermath of a bubble is real and substantial. In the last cycle of real estate busts, real (inflation-corrected) home prices fell 46% in London in 1988-95, 41% in Los Angeles in 1989-1997, 43% in Paris in 1991-98, 67% in Moscow in 1993-97, and 38% in Shanghai in 1995-1999. All of these drops were eventually reversed, and all of these markets have boomed recently. But this does not guarantee that future drops will have a similar outcome. On the contrary, the future real value of our homes is fundamentally uncertain.

Most homeowners are not gambling for pleasure. They are just buying real estate because they need it. But, because they do nothing to protect themselves against their real estate price risks, they are unwitting gamblers. In fact, home buyers in most countries do nothing to protect themselves – short of selling their homes – because there is nothing to be done. A market for real estate derivatives that can help balance these risks is only just beginning to appear.

Well-developed markets for real estate derivatives would allow homeowners to kick the gambling habit. A liquid, cash-settled futures market that is based on an index of home prices in a city would enable a homeowner living there to sell in a futures market to protect himself.