Tag: housing bubble

Congress Begins Conference on Financial Regulation

Today begins the televised political theatre that Barney Frank has been waiting months for:  the first public meeting of the House and Senate conferees on the two financial regulation bills.  While there are a handful of important differences between the House and Senate bills, these differences are overshadowed by what the bills have in common.  The most important, and tragic, commonality is that both bills ignore the real causes of the financial crisis and focus on convenient political targets.

As our financial system was brought to its knees by an exploding housing bubble, fueled by government mandates and distortions, one would think, just maybe, that Congress would roll back these distortions.  Despite their role in contributing to the crisis and the size of their bailout, however, neither bill barely mentions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.   Except, of course, to continue their favored and privileged status, such as their exemption from a proposed new “consumer protection” agency.  What we really need is a new “taxpayer protection” agency.

Nor will either bill change the government’s meddling in what is probably the most important price in the economy:  the interest rate.  Given the overwhelming evidence that loose monetary policy was a direct cause of the housing bubble, one might expect Congress to spend time and effort preventing the Fed from creating another bubble.  Not only does Congress ignore the issue, the Senate won’t even allow GAO to look at the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy.

Instead of spending the next few weeks gazing into the camera, Congress should stop and gaze into the mirror.  This was a crisis conceived and born in Washington DC.  The Rayburn building serving as the proverbial back-seat of the housing bubble.

Lehman’s Failure Taught Us Nothing

Several commentators have reacted to Senator McConnell’s floor statement regarding the Dodd bill as a defense of “doing nothing”.  And accordingly argue that such a position would be, in the words of Simon Johnson, both dangerous and irresponsible.  This familiar canard is based upon the oft repeated assertion that the failure of Lehman proved that we cannot simply let large financial companies enter bankruptcy.

The simple, but important, fact is that we have no idea what would have happened had we let AIG and Bear go into bankruptcy proceedings.  Nor do we know what would have happened if Lehman had been saved.  Macroeconomics does not have the luxury of running natural experiments to determine the impact of a corporate failure.   Scholars have an obligation to accurately reflect the uncertainties in the debate.  Those that assert Lehman proved anything, are being at best disingenuous, and at worst, dishonest.

Let us, however, put forth a few things we do know:

  1. We know none of Lehman’s counterparties failed as a result of Lehman’s failures.  Just as we know none of AIG”s counterparties would have failed if they did not get 100 cents on the dollar from their CDS positions.  So where exactly is the proof of contagion?
  2. We know we had a nasty housing bubble.  We were going to lose millions of jobs in construction and real estate regardless of what we did.  We knew financial institutions heavily invested in housing would suffer.  How exactly would saving Lehman have prevented any of that?

The debate over ending bailouts and too-big-to-fail will not progress, we will not learn a thing, if we let simple, empty assertion pass as fact.  Much of the public remains angry at Washington because those responsible, such as Bernanke and Geithner, have never laid out a believable or plausible narrative for the bailouts.  It always comes back to “panic.”  If we are ever to hope to return to being a country governed by the rule of law, rather than the whims of men, then we need a lot more of an explanation than “panic.”

Wednesday Links

FHA’s New Stringent Standards

The Federal Housing Administration will reportedly announce more stringent lending requirements and higher borrowing fees. The move comes in response to growing concerns that rising losses on mortgages it insures will require a taxpayer bailout. Although any credit tightening is welcome, the agency will not propose an increase in the minimum downpayment, currently 3.5 percent. (Borrowers with credit scores below 580 will be required to put down a minimum of 10 percent, but most FHA lenders already require a 620 minimum score.)

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal noted that “home builders are worried” the FHA would propose raising the minimum downpayment. The CEO of a Texas builder said it would be a “game changer,” meaning that it would hinder the nascent housing recovery. However, other industry observers believe otherwise:

In markets where home values are still falling, buyers who put little money down could see their equity wiped out quickly. The FHA is “just manufacturing more upside-down homeowners by the truckload in Arizona, California, and Nevada,” says Brett Barry, a Phoenix real-estate agent who specializes in selling foreclosed homes.

FHA commissioner David Stevens counters that inhibiting lending by increasing downpayment requirements would “perpetuate” price declines. But falling prices are a painful, but necessary, correction needed to bring the housing market back into equilibrium. Government interventions in the wake of the housing bubble’s burst have created an artificial cushion. Thus, any alleged housing recovery could prove illusory when the cushion is removed. In addition, the longer the government tries to prop up the housing market, the greater the economic distortions and risk to taxpayers.

The article cites the example of a 42-year-old air-conditioning repairman who just bought a house with the FHA minimum 3.5 percent downpayment. To meet the requirement he had to borrow part of the money from his father-in-law, which he then repaid with the $8,000 first time homebuyer tax credit. He now has a $1,466 monthly mortgage payment on a $50,000 salary. Factoring in utilities and other homeownership costs, it’s not inconceivable that half of his pre-tax salary will be devoted to just his home. Is it any wonder the FHA is experiencing large default rates?

Popping Bubbles

David Leonhardt’s column today in the New York Times, in reaction to Ben Bernanke’s recent speech at the American Economic Association meetings, asks an important question:

If the Federal Reserve failed to detect the housing bubble when it occurred, why should we entrust it with that role in the future?

But he doesn’t follow the logic of his question far enough and instead embraces a financial equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board, as if technical solutions exist and could be implemented if politics got out of the way.

In our recent Policy Analysis, Jagadeesh Gokhale and I examine a more complete list of technical and political problems that stand in the way of asset bubble management. Can bubbles be detected using scientific techniques (econometric models) with little controversy? We argue no.

Would stopping bubbles involve the simple implementation of a technical solution such as raising interest rates, or would they instead involve trade-offs with other policy goals? We argue the latter.

Even if bubbles could be detected easily with no controversy and policy solutions involved no tradeoffs, could the Fed maintain political support by stopping booms if the benefits of such a policy (preventing busts after financial bubbles burst) were never observed? We argue no.

And finally, even if all the previous problems were solved, how would raising interest rates reduce the supply of capital to housing markets given that a rate increase would increase the supply of capital to the United States and interest rates for both long-term and short-term housing loans have become decoupled from federal funds rates?

Our reasoning, like Bernanke’s, suggests that the events of 2008 were not the result of “bad” monetary policy. However, we believe that granting additional regulatory authority to the Fed will not prevent similar episodes because of the technical and political difficulties we describe in our paper.

Trade Not to Blame for a ‘Lost Decade’

For American workers and families trying to get ahead, the decade just behind us was a stinker. As a front-page Washington Post story over the long weekend summarized:

For most of the past 70 years, the U.S. economy has grown at a steady clip, generating perpetually higher incomes and wealth for American households. But since 2000, the story is starkly different. …

According to the story, the Aughts (2000-09) were the first decade since World War Two with no net job creation, and the first in which median household income was actually lower at the end than at the beginning.

It won’t be long before critics of trade will try to blame the poor economic performance on trade agreements and globalization. This has been a standard line of attack, and I address it at length in my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization. For now, just a few quick-hit observations:

The two recessions that book-ended the past decade were both “Made in the USA.” The first was triggered by the popping of the dot-com bubble, the second by the bursting of the housing bubble. Trade was not the cause of either recession. In fact, trade and globalization were charging ahead full steam in the 1990s, when everybody agreed the economy was doing well.

There is also the temptation to extrapolate short and medium trends into a long-term decline in living standards. As the Post reporter Neil Irwin rightly noted,

The miserable economic track record is, in part, a quirk of timing. The 1990s ended near the top of a stock market and investment bubble. Three months after champagne corks popped to celebrate the dawn of the year 2000, the market turned south, a recession soon following. The decade finished near the trough of a severe recession.

The U.S. economy has endured equally long stretches of poor performance in the past. For example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was actually lower in 1982 as it was in 1966—16 years stuck in neutral. Real median household income was lower in 1983 than it was in 1969—14 years of no net gains. Yet the economy recovered and scaled new heights.

During difficult economic times, trade helps us weather the storm by offering lower prices and more choice to consumers struggling to make ends meet. When domestic demand sags, U.S. companies can find customers and profits in more robust markets abroad. Foreign investment in the United States helps to keep interest rates down, keeping more Americans in their homes and keeping credit markets open.

Our policy makers will only make our economy worse if they reach for the snake oil of higher trade barriers.

Thursday Links

  • Doug Bandow:  “Congress has spent the country blind, inflated a disastrous housing bubble, subsidized every special interest with a letterhead and lobbyist, and created a wasteful, incompetent bureaucracy that fills Washington. But now, legislators want to take a break from all their good work and save college football.”