Sunday, September 15, 2019

Safe As Houses

What does the phrase "safe as houses" mean?

In the Elvis Costello song, Indoor Fireworks, he uses the phrase "we thought we were safe as houses" which I didn't understand, really.  At first, I thought this was an idiosyncratic use of a words by the lyricist, but recently I learned that this was a bit of very old British slang.

The phrase - which dates back more than a century - refers to how investing in a house was about the safest investment you could make - better than the Bank of England!  Oddly enough, this came about after the speculative railroad bubbles of that era burst.   And no doubt, presaged some sort of housing bubble.   Perhaps the term was used sarcastically after that point.

What is interesting to me about this phrase is that it illustrates how far back the obsession with real estate investment goes.   This is not a new thing.  People have viewed houses as a "solid" long-term investment that would never go down in value - for a long, long time.

Of course, as recent events (recent to me, anyway) of 1989 and 2009 illustrate (and as 2019 seems to be echoing) housing prices can go down as well as up.   When supply exceeds demand, it doesn't matter whether "they aren't making anymore" land - if there is no one there to buy it, prices can drop.

We drove across vast stretches of arid land in Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and even Kansas - land suitable only for grazing.  A recent baiting article online lists the top 50 families (or some such nonsense) who own all of America's land!  Well, at least 2% of it, anyway.   Ted Turner is among them - owning zillions of acres of this arid grazing land.   It isn't worth much to anyone.    You can't build on it - no water.   You can't put a factory on it - it ain't near anything, not even roads.   You can't plant crops on it - again, no water.   All you can use it for is grazing - and it takes acres and acres just to feed one cow.

The only way you'll get mega-rich from it, is if they can frack on it - and that presumes you win geological lottery and have oil beneath it.   Even then, the amount you get from oil leases may pale in comparison to how much the oil companies make.

Land - or houses - is not some safe-haven investment.   In fact, few things are.   Even government bonds have risks, not necessarily of default, but in terms of value.   You pay $1000 for a government bond earning 2% interest, it will be worth $900 if rates jump to 5% or more.  The price of the bond will adjust to the market conditions.   Unless you hold the bond to maturity, you can lose money.  And even then, well, you haven't made much.

Safe as houses - an interesting concept, but a flawed one!