Do Underwater Mortgages Reduce Labor Mobility?

Last Updated Jun 15, 2011 12:12 PM EDT

Kash Mansori at The Street Light highlights new research on underwater houses and labor market mobility:
Has the Bad Housing Market Reduced Labor Mobility?, by Kash Mansori: Economists Colleen Donovan and Calvin Schnure have written an interesting new paper examining whether the fall in house prices since 2007 in the US -- which has left many home-owners owing more on their house than it is worth -- created a lock-in effect that depressed labor mobility. ...

The evidence presented in this paper indicates that the fall in house prices has indeed caused a "lock-in" effect, but has not significantly impacted labor market efficiency. Here's the abstract:
Locked in the House: Do Underwater Mortgages Reduce Labor Mobility?: The collapse of the housing boom led to an unprecedented number of homeowners who are "underwater"...

This paper ... finds significant evidence of a lock-in effect. The lock-in, however, results almost entirely from a decline in within-county moves. As local moves are generally within the same geographic job market, this decline is not likely to affect labor market matching. In contrast, moves out-of-state, which are more likely to be in response to new employment opportunities, show no decline, and in fact are higher in counties with greater house price declines. Housing market lock-in does not appear to have degraded the efficiency of the labor market and does not appear to have contributed to a higher unemployment rate.
As Kash notes, the fact that the observed lack of mobility in the data is due to a decline in within-county moves rather than moves over longer distances is important evidence against a structural interpretation of our high unemployment problem. Instead, the evidence points to a cyclical problem. That is, it's lack of demand rather than lack of mobility that is behind our labor market problems.

If the problem is structural, there's not a lot that policy can do to help in the short-run. Social insurance can ease the pain. Government can provide short-term employment to tide workers over, create incentives for both workers and firms to relocate, provide retraining, etc., but these problems take time to work themselves out. However, if the problem is lack of demand, then there is much more that policymakers can do to help the economy get back on its feet. The key is to offset the fall in demand through monetary and fiscal policy measures so that businesses will be willing to hire people again.

Mike Rorty has more on the lack of evidence for the structural explanation of high unemployment.