Fed bashes media on housing data

September 4, 2013, 7:11 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Throughout recovery of the U.S. housing market, a lot of attention has been paid to young homebuyers. Countless surveys and studies suggest the share of first-time homebuyers in their 20s and 30s has dropped off considerably, that they’ve been missing out as the housing market heals.

The media, including Fortune, has widely reported the problem at a time when many young people are bogged down by joblessness and large debts from student loans. Now analysts at the Federal Reserve say the decline isn’t as bad as the media has made it out to be.

In a report last week, analysts at the Federal Reserve of Atlanta point to articles by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Bloomberg Businessweek, which cite surveys by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), an industry group that tracks home prices and purchases. While the surveys may be right, the way the press has interpreted them is flawed, analysts write.

The media has widely reported that first-time buyers currently make up roughly 30% of all home transactions, compared with an average of roughly 40% over the past several decades. While that might be true, the figures come from different surveys reflecting varying frequencies — whereas the 30% share comes from a monthly survey, the 40% average comes from a yearly survey. Since the two sets of numbers are distinctly different, they can’t be fairly compared to one another.

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More than that, a NAR survey says first-time homebuyers accounted for more than 50% of sales in 2009, when recession-era tax credits boosted first-time sales. The Fed did its own analysis and found that the tax breaks distorted the overall long-term trend of first-time buyers (from 2001 to 2012), so it’s likely that their share of all home transactions may be less than housing surveys have suggested.

That’s a fair point, but that still doesn’t entirely explain why the share of first-time buyers has indeed dropped, even if less than previously thought. It remains to be seen how long the drop may persist and how heavily it could weigh on the housing market.

Nonetheless, if the Fed’s findings are right, they prove a few bigger points: That the central bank’s multi-billion dollar bond-buying program designed to spur more borrowing hasn’t left first-time buyers behind the housing recovery. And yet, oddly enough, it might also suggest that the bond purchases aren’t as helpful, at least for first-time buyers, as government tax credits have been.