Amex to Launch Options on Home Price Indexes

Playing the U.S. housing market may no longer require actually buying a home.

In the next few months, investors will be able to buy or sell shares whose value is based on indexes of home prices in various parts of the country.

"A lot of people right now are talking about a bubble in many important markets around the country," said Allan Weiss, chief executive of Morristown, N.J.-based Macro Securities Research (search) and one of the creators of the indexes.

For many U.S. residents, their home is often their biggest investment.

"That violates all the rules of diversification," Weiss said. The new housing index products will help homeowners guard against the risk of falling prices, he said.

At first, the chance to bet on whether the hot California or Northeast real estate markets are due for a correction will only be offered to institutions and wealthy individuals, Weiss said.

The American Stock Exchange (search) said it hopes sometime next year to list options on the single-family home price indexes that Weiss and Yale University economics professor Robert Shiller helped develop.

All investors, from speculators to home builders, could use the American Stock Exchange products.

The indexes are based on so-called matched sales — the sales price of the same house over 30 years, according to David Stiff, senior economist for Cambridge, Mass.-based Fiserv CSW, which bought the company that produces the indexes.

Using matched sales makes the indexes more reliable than competing products that are based on median home prices in an area, Stiff said. Those indexes can be skewed by a spike in the number of expensive homes that happen to sell in a period, for example.

If a home changes hands in less than one year, it is not included in the index because any jump in price might be due to a renovation, Stiff noted.

A host of other products that aim to let investors bet directly on economic indicators — including the monthly U.S. jobs reports — could lie ahead.

"The basic idea is to have a security design that can be used to turn an economic indicator into a tradable, liquid share that you can go either long or short with," Weiss said.

"It can apply to things like the gross domestic product of a country, unemployment, real estate (and) the consumer price index," he said.

U.S. and overseas players have long speculated on these and other weekly or monthly economic data, using everything from currencies to Treasuries and fixed-income derivatives.

The American Stock Exchange and the Macro Securities Research founders see an appetite for products whose entire value — aside from transaction costs — would hinge on specific economic indexes.

The new products all would share the same sort of structure.

The index player's funds would be invested in U.S. Treasury bonds (search), and a "dividend" would be paid until the contracts expired. The investors who correctly picked the direction of the index would get back their initial stake — plus the cash value of any rise or fall in the value of the economic indicator.

For example, speculators who correctly anticipated that the real estate index in a particular region would fall would get their initial investment plus the drop in the index.

On the opposite side of the bet, investors who predicted home prices would rise would see their initial investment decline by the drop in the index.