Globally, U.S. housing market hits home

Newly constructed homes at a housing development in Novato, Calif.

KAI RYSSDAL: It's one of those things nobody can seem to agree on. Whether the housing market will rebound this year. Or whether we still haven't hit bottom. Not to influence your vote, but in the past week two big American homebuilders announced they'll report big drops in profits. And it's not just homebuilders or homesellers who'll feel the pinch: A report out today from the United Nations says the slowing U.S. housing market could affect the rest of the world, too. Marketplace's Alisa Roth has more from New York.


ALISA ROTH: For years booming real estate has been boosting the confidence of American consumers. Many got into the habit of using their home equity as savings accounts, even credit cards.
LINDSEY PIEGZA: They're taking this cash out for vacations, college tuitions, everything from swimming pools and groceries to gasoline.

Analyst Lindsey Piegza says all that buying helped fuel growth in countries like China, which are exporting the stuff American consumers are busy acquiring.

Piegza says falling house prices could make those shoppers rethink their ways.

LINDSEY PIEGZA: That's going to have a huge impact on borrowing and these consumers' willingness to spend those dollars.

And that, in turn, could slow down the global economy. It grew 3.8 percent last year. The U.N. is predicting those lower housing prices could make that growth drop to 3.2 percent this year.

But spending is only part of the story.

Edward Lamer from the University of California Los Angeles says the U.S. has been a favorite with foreign investors. They essentially fund our consumer debt and in exchange get a healthy return on their investments. A slower housing market could change that.

EDWARD LAMER: If the U.S. economy starts to feel sluggish and investors think that there's more growth potential in the emerging markets, then the financial community doesn't continue to fund all of the debt that we've been accumulating.

Still, it's probably not time to panic about the U.S. housing market just yet. Nobody can agree on how much further it might still fall — or how fast.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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