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NY Times edits for economic optimism

I downloaded David Streitfeld's article at 12:44 pm today with the headline, "House Prices Fall to New Post-Bubble Low as More Rent." Tonight, the headline reads, more optimistically, "Bottom May Be Near for Slide in Housing." Presumably it's this more optimistic spin that will make it into the print edition. (Check out how the article reads now.)

The fascinating thing is that the revised, more optimistic article quotes a bunch of people saying that the housing market is bound to turn around sometime soon, but they're just shouting "Go Team" and waving pom poms. They certainly don't offer a scintilla of evidence.

The evidence offered, in both versions, is for a bleak prognosis. The original article, like its revised twin, quotes Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research as saying, “There are a lot of forces pushing prices downward." They continue:

One of them is the excess number of houses. Builders built too much during the boom, and the mania for second and third homes has sharply diminished. New household formation will soak up the supply, but that will take years.

The financial blog Calculated Risk
estimated the excess housing supply this week using 2010 Census data, which it compared to 1990 and 2000. The blog concluded that the excess in April 2010 was about 1.8 million units, but probably several hundred thousand fewer now.

Note how the openings of the two articles differ.

The earlier version:

Housing prices fell in March to their lowest point since the downturn began, erasing the last little bit of recovery from the depths plumbed two years ago, according to data released Tuesday.

The Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index for 20 large cities fell 0.8 percent from February, the eighth drop in a row. Prices are now down 33.1 percent from the July 2006 peak.

“Home prices continue on their downward spiral with no relief in sight,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the S.& P. index committee.

Housing is in persistent trouble, industry analysts say, not only because so many people are blocked from the market — being unemployed, in foreclosure or trapped in homes that are worth less than the mortgage — but because even those who are solvent are opting out.

The desire to own your own home, long a bedrock of the American Dream, is fast becoming a casualty of the worst housing downturn since the Great Depression.


 

The revised version begins thus:

For real estate, some economists say, an end to the seemingly endless decline in housing values might be in sight.

Not immediately. At the moment, prices are still dropping. In 20 large cities, prices fell 0.8 percent in March from the previous month, according to the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Index released Tuesday. That pushed the closely watched index below its level of two years ago to a new post-bubble low, and put it 33.1 percent under its July 2006 peak.

Few analysts expect housing prices to rebound anytime soon. But quite a few are predicting that the market is close to the moment when things will stop getting worse, which will be a major improvement all by itself.

“By far the bulk of the downturn of housing prices is beyond us,” said Paul Dales of Capital Economics. He expects the market to slip 5 percent further, slightly more than he was expecting a few months ago.

“There are some amazingly favorable signs. Housing is the most undervalued it’s been in 35 years,” Mr. Dales said. “At some point, it’s going to do very well.”

Peter Muoio, senior principal of Maximus Advisors, says he thinks the market has already bottomed, although he expects it to bounce around in a narrow range for a few years rather than recovering. And James F. Smith, chief economist for the investment firm Parsec Financial and a rare housing bull, is predicting a 25 percent climb from here by mid-decade.


 

Quite a different story, no? Why wouldn't the Times editors let the story go where the evidence pointed? Or did the housing bulls have evidence more substantial than a Peter Pan-like "I believe," and if so, why didn't that evidence make it into the article?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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