Economic psychologists have researched how we respond to risk, and discovered that we find it impossible to put our losses into context.
I should recognise that the value of my home fluctuates every hour by more than the value of the mobile phone I am so worried about losing.
It will not be the house price, but the theft of the phone that upsets me. And it is the risk of being upset that mobile phone companies will remind me about next time I am in one of their shops.
In my 2003 book, New Financial Order: Risk in the 21st Century, I proposed a different idea, which I called “livelihood insurance.” As the name implies, livelihood insurance is designed to provide more than just a brief respite or a subsidy for retraining. It is aimed at dealing with long-term changes in the labor market, rather than assuring temporary wage levels. It would also rely on the market rather than a government program.
With livelihood insurance, a private insurer would pay a stream of income to a policyholder if an index of average income in the insured person’s occupation and region declines substantially. Moreover, this income stream would continue for as long as the index stays down, not just for a couple of years (or any other arbitrary period). In other words, this insurance policy would protect against lifetime income risks.
One reason why government-run wage insurance programs must have limited duration is that they involve so-called “moral hazard”: the risk that people will get lazy or would take easier, lower-paying jobs and continue to collect insurance that pays them the wage of a more demanding occupation. But this would not apply to livelihood insurance, because its benefits are tied to the rise and fall of income indices, which are beyond the control of individuals.
Livelihood insurance would also have another advantage. Since the premium would be determined by the market, it would be higher in occupations that the market believes to be in danger from outsourcing or technical change. This, in turn, would give workers a tangible warning and an incentive to anticipate job losses before they occur.
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.
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.
If home prices fall sharply in that city, the drop in the value of the home would be offset by an increase in the value of the futures contract. That is how advanced risk management works, as financial professionals know. But the tools needed to hedge such risks should be made available to everyone.
Attempts to set up derivatives markets for real estate have -- so far -- all met with only limited success. In May 2003, Goldman, Sachs & Co. began offering cash-settled covered warrants on house prices in the United Kingdom, based on the Halifax House Price Index and traded on the London Stock Exchange. In October 2004, Hedgestreet.com began offering “hedgelets” on real estate prices in US cities – contracts that pay out if the rate of increase in home prices based on the OFHEO Home Price Index falls within a pre-specified range.
My former student Allan Weiss and I have been campaigning since 1990 for better risk management institutions for real estate. In 1999, we co-founded a firm, Macro Securities Research, LLC, to promote the development of such institutions, working with the American Stock Exchange to create securities that would allow people to manage real estate as well as other risks.
These will be long-term securities that pay regular dividends, like stocks, whose value is tied – either positively or negatively – to a real estate price index. Early this month, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange announced that it will also work with us to explore the development of futures markets in US metropolitan-area home prices. We hope to facilitate the creation of such markets in other countries as well.
Because even many financially sophisticated homeowners will find direct participation in derivative markets too daunting, the next stage in the development of real estate risk management will be to create suitable retail products. For example, the derivative markets should create an environment that encourages insurers to develop home equity insurance, which insures homeowners not just against a bust but also against drops in the market value of the home. Such insurance should be attractive to homeowners if it is offered as an add-on to their existing insurance policies.
Derivatives markets for real estate should also facilitate the creation of mortgage loans that help homeowners manage risks by, say, reducing the amount owed if a home’s value drops. Such products should appeal to homebuyers when the mortgage is first issued. Insurance companies and mortgage companies ought to be willing to offer such products if they can hedge the home-price risks in liquid derivative markets.