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Why Should I Care: Real Estate & Price Discovery

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Like shooting finance in a barrel.

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Price discovery. It sounds simple enough, right? If you separate out its component parts, you have "price" -- the amount buyers are willing to pay and sellers are willing to accept -- and "discovery" -- the uncovering of that price.

But price discovery -- a term which is bandied about in all corners of the financial markets -- has a meaning far deeper than this cursory analysis.

In a financial sense, it's defined as the point at which the free market -- the natural interplay between supply and demand -- converge on a single point where buyers and sellers can find mutual ground. There, you have price discovery.

In a practical sense, it happens every day; each time an economic transaction occurs. Coffee at Starbucks (SBUX) costs more than, say, coffee at any other establishment on the planet, because consumers have determined they're willing to pay a premium for it. Starbucks, for its part, has generously sprinkled its stores on street corners around the world, matching supply with this persistent demand. The price, even though most of us scoff at the mere thought of forking over more than $4 for some contrived, flavored coffee-like drink, is what the market will bear.

So why then do financial-market participants make such a big deal about "true price discovery" in trying to analyze specifically when and where markets will bottom? The key is in the definition.

Let's examine the housing market to see why this distinction matters, and how the dynamics effecting price discovery are so important.

Homes, unlike cups of coffee, are rarely bought and sold -- other than when entire neighborhoods are turned over (which seems to happen with frightening regularity). But buying or selling a home typically involves uprooting one's family, hauling boxes across town (or across the country), switching schools, changing jobs, and otherwise disrupting the flow of life.

When talking about the housing market, most pundits and so-called experts typically focus on the demand side of the equation. How low are interest rates? Did Wells Fargo (WFC) just tighten its mortgage guidelines? Are property values increasing or decreasing? How is the job market doing? On a more personal level, getting married, having kids, changing jobs, seeking out a slower (or faster) pace of life, or looking to trade up into a better school district or bigger home can all lead buyers to jump into the market.

Sellers, on the other hand, are typically hard-pressed to sell. Many of the same circumstances (jobs, retirement, family, etc.) lead a seller to enter the market, but leaving a home and the emotional attachment therein, is an extremely difficult decision to undertake without a very compelling reason.

In the current housing downturn, as social mood has swung violently towards risk aversion and shorter time preferences, the decision to sell one's home has effectively become that of necessity, or nothing at all. In other words, the vast majority of sellers on the market right now are forced sellers -- those who don't have any choice.
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