Doug Duncan of Fannie Mae joins Bruce Norris- Part 1

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Douglas G. Duncan is Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at Fannie Mae where he is responsible for forecasts and analyses of the economy and the housing and mortgage markets. Duncan also oversees strategic research regarding the potential impact of external factors on the housing industry. He leads the House Price Forecast Working Group reporting to the Finance Committee.


Under his leadership, Fannie Mae’s Economic & Strategic Research Group (ESR) won the NABE Outlook Award, presented annually for the most accurate GDP and Treasury note yield forecasts, in both 2015 and 2016 – the first recipient in the award’s history to capture the honor two years in a row. In addition, ESR was awarded by Pulsenomics for best home price forecast.


Named one of Bloomberg/BusinessWeek’s 50 Most Powerful People in Real Estate, Duncan is Fannie Mae’s source for information and analyses on demographics and the external business and economic environment; the implications of changes in economic activity on the company’s strategy and execution; and for forecasting overall housing, economic, and mortgage market activity.


Prior to joining Fannie Mae, Duncan was Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association. His experience also includes work on the Financial Institutions Project at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and service as a LEGIS Fellow and staff member with the Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs for Congressman Bill McCollum in the U.S. House of Representatives.


Duncan received his Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from Texas A&M University and his B.S. and M.S. in Agricultural Economics from North Dakota State University.


Episode Notes:


Narrator  This is The Norris Group’s real estate investor radio show the award-winning show dedicated to thought leaders shaping the real estate industry and local experts revealing their insider tips to succeed in an ever changing real estate market hosted by author, investor and hard money lender, Bruce Norris.

Bruce Norris  Hi, thank you for joining us. My name is Bruce Norris and our special guest is Douglas Duncan. Douglas is the Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at Fannie Mae where he’s responsible for forecast analysis of the economy and the housing and mortgage markets. Duncan also oversees strategic research regarding the potential impact of external factors on the housing industry. He leads the house price forecasts working group reporting to the financial committee. Under his leadership, Fannie Mae’s economic and strategic research group ESR won the NABE Outlook Award, presented annually for the most accurate GDP and Treasury note yield forecast in both 2015 and 2016. The first recipient in the awards history to cap-, to capture the honor two years in a row. In addition, ESR was, was awarded by Pulsenomics for best home price forecast. Named one of business and, Bloomberg business week’s most, 50 most empowered, powerful people in real estate. Duncan is Fannie Mae’s source for information and analysis on demographics and external business and economic environment, the implications of changes in economic activity on the company’s strategy and execution and for forecasting overall housing, economic and mortgage market activity. Doug, we welcome you back to our show. And boy, what a year to be an economist.

Doug Duncan  It’s great to be back. And it has been fascinating. You know, from, from a data perspective, some a whole array of unprecedented kinds of things that happened in in 2020. And of course, still, so that will be recaptured in 2021. So, yeah, it’s fascinating time to be in this space.

Bruce Norris  Well, that’s interesting, because, uh, you know, in preparation for this, I, first of all, you’re doing it monthly. So, well, you had a front seat to the immediate impact, because, because I pulled up January 2020 projection, and then those sheets, you have basically a two year projection out to say, this is what we expect a lot of categories to be. And one was pretty consistent. It was 2% GDP growth, you know, plus or minus a point here or there for pretty much two years. And then all of a sudden Coronavirus hits. Have you ever had any, anything impact something so suddenly and so severe?

Doug Duncan  No. And in fact, I have a chart, I’ll send to you that shows the unprecedented nature of the impact of the virus on employment. It’s a, it’s a line that over two months drops almost straight down. The most massive sudden change in employment in, really in modern history, even even including the depression, when the job losses were significant and higher, but not at the same pace. It’s just there’s nothing like it very amusing.

Bruce Norris  And what was interesting to me, too, now I looked at January 2021 sheet just like there was a year before, when I found out I found very interesting is projecting out to GDP for all of 2021. And then 2022. There’s a projection of about 5% for 2021. And something like three 3.6 for 2022.

Doug Duncan  Yeah.

Bruce Norris  That’s, when’s the last time we had a 5% year. I mean, it’s gotta be..

Doug Duncan  Reagan Administration, probably. During the Reagan Administration, we had I think one year that was north of 7%, after the, all the supply side tax cuts, but nothing, nothing in recent history at all. And that, it’s, the story on that is really what assumption you make about the vaccines. So, in our forecasts, we make an assumption that they will be distributed broadly, they will be effective, and they will be resilient, and this will be in place by the middle of the year. So, that June, July timeframe. If you look at consumer savings rates, you look at the equity in homes, you look at the equity in the stock market, consumers have a lot of resources to put to work. And that’s even without the existing stimulus, the stimulus that’s being discussed. So, it to get to 5% growth for the full year of 2021. It means you’re gonna have to have the 7% growth for the second half, because the first half is going to be somewhere in the three to 4% range, we think. Now if if people’s response is earlier, then we’ll you know, you’ll see, see that in the, in the GDP data, or if the their response to the to the vaccine is more cautious, then you’ll see that bleed back into 2022. This is the, this is the difficulty of this forecast environment, you’re forecasting based on a variable that’s not economic.

Bruce Norris  Absolutely.

Doug Duncan  It’s a health variable, right. And we have no history of this.

Bruce Norris  Right.

Doug Duncan  Because our forecast model is only as good as it’s, the past data it’s seen, which was similar. And therefore it can draw conclusions about what might happen about the future in this circumstance. Well, we have no past data on this.

Bruce Norris  What was interesting to me at the end of 2019, gonna be specific about California because it’s what I know best. It had the best set of charts literally ever, unemployment as low as ever in like the last 50 years, no foreclosure competition. And yet, we had virtually no price increases, the median price went up like two or 3%, with all those charts, perfect. And then we get into 2020. So if you’re looking at 2019, and December, looking out at 2020, you think they’re more of the same be fine as far as the economy and all that. Well, then you get this surprise, that takes out ridiculous numbers of jobs. And within a couple months after that the real estate market completely explodes and goes up 17 and a half percent. I mean, is it I? I guess I, I don’t have a chart for that. That and ending if you know what I mean? What is, what is your take on why that happened? Because the there was so much more uncertainty at that point than they would have been at the,uh in 2019. So, I’m just curious what your take is?

Doug Duncan  Sure it is. It’s a fascinating story. It has to do with which jobs were lost and why. So, the jobs that were lost were in services categories that are supported by discretionary spending for middle and higher income households, going to restaurants, staying in hotels, flying in airplanes, going to sporting events, going to theaters, all of those are places where the fear of the virus because of the aggregation of people that are required to acquire those services. People vacated the premises and huge job losses in the service in that sector of discretionary spending. The people that are employed in that space are largely hourly wage workers. And hourly wage workers are heavily renters. So, if you’re a salaried worker, the risk to your job which was revealed in a month or two was fairly minimal. But if you are an hourly wage worker, you are in trouble. If you look at the homeownership rate of hourly wage earners in that services sector that I’m talking about, it’s 43%. So..

Bruce Norris  Okay.

Doug Duncan  This was a rental story, right? So, we looked in March, when addressing the board of directors, they’re like, what do you think is going to happen to house prices as it, as the virus was unfolding? We did a quick analysis, again, with no historical data. And we said, well, maybe prices might go down a percent or so. Then in April, we now have two months of our National Housing survey of 1000. We survey 1000 households a month we’ve been doing that since 2010.

Bruce Norris  Right.

Doug Duncan  From March to April, what became clear was that for existing homeowners, that is people who had house, they were much more afraid of the virus than were people who were potential first time buyers. Interest rates plummeted.

Bruce Norris  Right.

Doug Duncan  So,the people on the supply side, existing homeowners are on average older than first time homebuyers. So, they would be more afraid of the virus because it had been revealed it was more serious for older households, it became clear the supply side was going to be more constrained than the demand side because those historically low interest rates were a real spur if you were a salaried worker, with the potential of becoming a first time homebuyer. So, we said to the board, we said, ‘Look, the number of sales are going to fall because people are worried and they’re not going to go out and mix with other people. But we expect the supply side to fall further than the demand side and if that’s true price will go up.’ Well then the industry adapted to things which used to be done in person, a lot of them that very quickly figured out how to do them remotely. And so they, they were able to patch together a technological solution for some key points of interpersonal contact, and the market started to recover very quickly. And it’s been the case that the supply side has grown much less rapidly than the demand side. So, for example, existing homes nationally 1.9 months supply, I mean, that’s just crazy. And so, the demand side very strong, because those interest rates you can get it two and three quarters percent 30 year fixed rate mortgage rate, when could you ever get that? Right?

Bruce Norris  When I, when I started looking back at this, I kind of came to the similar conclusion in that there was two groups of that had urgencies because in California at 45% of the listings disappeared.

Doug Duncan  Yeah.

Bruce Norris  So, those people, those people were just going, Okay, we don’t want anybody tour in our house.

Doug Duncan  Exactly.

Bruce Norris  We’re staying. As a matter of fact, we’re gonna refi our house and just stay. So, that’s off the market. But you had another group of urgent buyers that had to make decisions wanting to get out of wherever they were. What was fascinating is that for a long time, this has been the explanation of California’s kind of modest sales, we’ve had 400,000 sales for about the last 10 years plus or minus, where a good year would be 500,000 sales. And the explanation was, well, there wasn’t enough inventory. Well, now inventory is down 45%, and you managed to get to 120% of 400. So, you sold 22% more houses in 2020, despite all this stuff on 4, 55% of the inventory. That’s uh…

Doug Duncan  One of the other things, of course, is because people are not spending that in the discretionary categories. They have cash. And yeah, I got the same thing for my wife. She came in one day and like July or so, why do we have all this money in the checking account? I said, you probably noticed, I haven’t, I have not flown to Washington once since March. And she’s like, Oh, yeah. So, people also have cash balances. And, and, for example, if you live in an urban core, where you can’t buy a single family house, but where there are concentrated groups of people and you might be afraid of the virus, now might be the time it was gonna be two years from now I was going to move out to the suburbs, but now might be the right time, because interest rates are low, I’ve got the cash, I’m afraid of the virus. And we’ve got data that show that that actually happened that because we can track the location from which the application is made, and the location of the property for which it is made. And you can see in San Francisco, in New York City, in Boston, places that have that significant urban core, definitely a flight out to less densely populated areas.

Bruce Norris  In a way that GDP growth numbers being so strong are kind of saying we’re going to make up for lost time. But the kind of spending that was mistake, we’re missing like I couldn’t go get a haircut, I couldn’t go to a movie. I couldn’t take a cruise. I couldn’t go to a baseball game. They can’t like cre-, increase uh, let’s say the baseball season to 320 games. So, I’m still only going to have if it’s got a baseball season is still only gonna be 162 games. So, where does all this like really aggressive GDP come from?

Doug Duncan  Well, it is it is true. It’s difficult to go to a restaurant retroactively.

Bruce Norris  That’s right. Or get a haircut.

Doug Duncan  That’s right. So, the question is, what do people do with the cash because it’s sitting, the savings rate today is 50% higher than the normal level. So, what are people going to do with that cash if they can’t put it into discretionary spending, because the restaurants aren’t open at all, and the sporting events aren’t on and all that? Well, there was, has been a very strong recovery in the auto industry, for example, they’ve done very well, not quite back to the peak pre-recession, but pretty close. The reason they’re not back to the peak is the number of miles being driven is down substantially so, now hanging out their cars is fast. I’ve seen insurance companies give rebates because accident rates were down because the miles traveled had fallen so significantly. So, that’s one place people are using that money for very low-interest durable goods. So, you can get 0% financing on almost any automobile today for 5, 6, 5 or 6 years. And it’s a durable good. So, if you’re, if there’s some sense that it’s time to replace your vehicle, it’s a great time to do it from that perspective. You’ve got the cash, and then there are no interest rates if you want to do it on credit. Housing is the same, it’s a durable good, right? So, it very advantageous financing. Now, with the exception that for a lot of households, the price increases have offset the benefit of the interest rate declined.

Bruce Norris  Correct. Right. monthly payments, basically, it’s the same.

Doug Duncan  Yeah, that’s that’s correct. So, the the real question about whether the forecasts of dramatic growth will be right is the question about how do people feel about their ability to get the vaccine, that the vaccine will be demonstrated to be effective, and it will be resilient to the other strains of the disease that have started appearing in and if all if they’re comfortable with all those things, that I think as fast as the restaurants can reconstitute themselves, and as, as fast as people are comfortable, recongregating at baseball games, in theaters, those kinds of things. That’s, that’s, what the assumptions are behind the growth expectations.

Bruce Norris  Okay.

Joey Romero  Can I ask you a question about that. The assumptions that you had?

Doug Duncan  Yep.

Joey Romero  Um, stimulus that wasn’t a part of the forecast. Am I correct?

Doug Duncan  We, in our, in our next one’s forecast, we will put in the something approximating the $1.9 trillion, that it because it has passed with a couple of changes in both the House and the Senate. So, it looks highly probable. But the forecast you have in front of you, does not include that 1.9 trillion includes everything up through December. So, if you add to that..

Bruce Norris  Wow.

Doug Duncan  1.9 trillion. That raises two questions. One is, can economic growth absorb that? And at what level and in what categories? And second, does it become a, an inflationary issue? And and you will see in the in the current forecast, if you look at our 2022 number on inflation, you see that we do have some inflation forecasts in 2022. That’s before you add the 1.9 trillion. So, that will be in this forecast update. That’s that will be an issue that we will have to address.

Joey Romero  How long do you expect it to be this fluid?

Doug Duncan  Well, the Fed has been, I’m assuming you’re, you’re like all the other economists or people I know who are economists that when the Fed does a press conference, you’re glued to the television. Well, maybe not. But I am. And several times in the course of his in the Q&A section. Chairman Paul was at pains to say the economy is nowhere near where we want it to be. Because there are 9 million more unemployed people than there were before the virus, and they’re not fixed. So, and he said that we have no current plan to change monetary policy, which means the Fed is buying $40 billion a month of mortgage backed securities $80 billion a month of US Treasuries, and they’re holding the Fed Funds target rate between zero and 0.25%. If you look at the what’s called the dot plot, it’s a it’s an aggregation of where each of the members of the committee think rates will be at different points in time, you don’t see them increasing that Fed Funds target rate until after 2023. That’s a long period of very liquid markets. And it is raising questions in people’s minds about whether you’re getting asset price appreciation, because if you think about the way people price assets as the the net present value of the cash flows they expect to receive from that asset. If the interest rates are close to zero, the asset value goes way up. And that’s one of the reasons people are questioning whether the stock market can stay where it is. And there are people that are starting to question whether that’s a factor in most cases as well.

Joey Romero  Wow.

Bruce Norris  When you hand $1.9 trillion, it’s a basically what closing in on 10% of an annual GDP.

Doug Duncan  Yeah.

Bruce Norris  The group that you hand that to are they, at this point more likely to spend it, save it or pay down debt?

Doug Duncan  That, that’s the theory is that, that most of it will go to people who’s what economists called marginal propensity to consume. That is they’re the most likely to spend it. That’s the, that’s the theory on this stimulus is that it will go to those people and they tend to be lower income people. They have those salaried, I mean those hourly wage worker, folks that I was talking about. Because that, because they have lower incomes, their consumption out of whatever income they have is a higher proportion. So their savings rate is lower. And so that would actually come into the economy faster. That’s the theory.

Bruce Norris  Okay. When when you have the stock market booming and real estate going up and all that we have we all have, let’s say more equity, is that typically just sit just sitting there? Or does that now translate some into larger o