Tag: housing bubble

AFL-CIO Wants to Tax Stock Trades…to Stop Speculation

Earlier this week, the AFL-CIO, building upon a suggestion made last week in the UK, proposed that the federal government impose a 1/10 of 1 percent tax of all stock trades.  The union group argues that such a tax would reduce non-productive speculative activity in the stock market.

First of all, we have all sorts of transfer taxes on housing, and yet we still had a housing bubble.  So much for small taxes stopping speculative activity.  If an investor expected to double his money, it seems quite a stretch to believe that such a small tax would discourage him.

More importantly, our recent financial crisis was not triggered by too much equity (like stocks) but by too much debt.  In taxing stock transactions, we only add to the already favorable treatment of debt compared to equity, encouraging even greater leverage in our financial system.

The real purpose of this tax on speculation becomes apparent when the AFL-CIO suggests what the money should be used for…building new infrastructure that would require the hiring of unionized workers.  The AFL-CIO should stop hiding behind the spin of stopping speculation and directly engage in the real debate:  the massive size of our federal government and the unsustainable fiscal path we are on.

Embracing Bushonomics, Obama Re-appoints Bernanke

bernanke1In re-appointing Bernanke to another four year term as Fed chairman, President Obama completes his embrace of bailouts, easy money and deficits as the defining characteristics of his economic agenda.

Bernanke, along with Secretary Geithner (then New York Fed president) were the prime movers behind the bailouts of AIG and Bear Stearns. Rather than “saving capitalism,” these bailouts only spread panic at considerable cost to the taxpayer. As evidenced in his “financial reform” proposal, Obama does not see bailouts as the problem, but instead believes an expanded Fed is the solution to all that is wrong with the financial sector. Bernanke also played a central role as the Fed governor most in favor of easy money in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble – a policy that directly contributed to the housing bubble. And rather than take steps to offset the “global savings glut” forcing down rates, Bernanke used it as a rationale for inaction.

Perhaps worse than Bush and Obama’s rewarding of failure in the private sector via bailouts is the continued rewarding of failure in the public sector. The actors at institutions such as the Federal Reserve bear considerable responsibility for the current state of the economy. Re-appointing Bernanke sends the worst possible message to both the American public and to government in general: not only will failure be tolerated, it will be rewarded.

Does the Left Know We Had a Housing Bubble?

Over the last week, speaking at a variety of events, I heard three different representatives of the Left; first a Democrat US Senator, then a senior member of the Obama Administration, and finally a “consumer” advocate, all repeat the same narrative:  all was fine in the housing market until predatory lenders forced hard-working honest families into foreclosure, which reduced house prices, bringing the economy to a crash.  That’s correct, apparently the Left believes we all would still be seeing double-digit home price appreciation if it wasn’t for those evil lenders.

Undoubtedly foreclosures, especially those that result in houses that remain vacant for a considerable amount of time, have an adverse impact on surrounding property values.  Many constitute a serious eye-sore and provide a haven for criminal activity.  But did foreclosures really drive down prices, or were foreclosures first driven by price declines resulting from a bursting housing bubble?  While causality is always difficult to establish with certainty, we do know that the rate of house price appreciation peaked and started declining about 18 months before the dramatic up-turn in mortgage delinquencies.  If one prefers a more rigorous test, economists at the Boston Fed have directly tested if prices first drove foreclosures or whether foreclosures drove prices.  Their results conclude that its was declining prices that matter, and that the price effect of foreclosures is minimal.

Why does any of this ultimately matter?  Because if we craft policies to avoid the adverse impacts of the next property bubble based upon a narrative of “consumer protection” – as is being pushed by the Obama Administration, we will do little to avoid the creation of the next housing bubble and its damaging aftermath.  Instead we should be focusing attention on those policies that contributed to the creation of the housing bubble: expansionary monetary policy and the Federal government’s blind pursuit of ever-expanding home-ownership rates at any cost.

End the Credit Rating Monopoly

Earlier this week, SEC Chair Mary Shapiro appeared before Congress to suggest ways to fix the failings in our credit rating agencies.   Sadly her proposals miss the market, although that shouldn’t be so surprising as her suggestions appear to rest upon a misunderstanding of the problem.

The thrust of the SEC’s current approach is more disclosure, such as releasing “pre-ratings” that debt issuers may get before final issuance.  Additional disclosure of ratings methodology and assumptions is likely to be useless.  Almost all that information was available during the building housing bubble.  The problem is that the rating agencies had little incentive to go beyond the consensus forecasts of increasing to at most modest declines in home prices.  These same assumptions were the foundation of almost all government economic forecasting as well, yet few believe that forcing CBO or OMB to disclosure more of their forecasts will cure our budget imbalances.  What is needed is a change in incentives.

Here again the SEC seems to misunderstand the incentives at work, but then recognizing such would force the SEC to admit its own role in creating those some perverse incentives.  The SEC’s notion that agencies issue favorable ratings in order to gain business misses the most basic fact of the ratings business - they don’t have to compete for business, any debt issuer wanting to place “investment grade” debt has to use the agencies, and often has to use more than one of them.  Due to a variety of SEC and bank regulations, there is almost no competition among the rating agencies.  They have been given a government created monopoly.  If the rating agencies were, as the SEC proposes, competing strongly for business, then they wouldn’t have been earning huge profits on that business.  Competition erodes a business’ profits.  During the housing boom, the rating agencies continued to make ever more profits - more the sign of a monopoly than one of competition.

The truth is not that the agencies were captive to the debt issuers, but the other way around.  And like any monopolist, the agencies became lazy, slow and fat.  The real fix for the failure of the credit raters is to reduce the excessive reliance on their judgements inherent in most securities, banking and insurance regulations.  An investment grade rating should never serve as a substitute for appropriate due diligence on the part of investors (especially pension fund managers) or regulators.

Bernanke’s Part in the Housing Bubble

bernankeRecent weeks have seen a swirl of speculation over whether President Obama will or will not re-appoint Ben Bernanke to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board, when his current term as Chair expires in January 2010. Almost all of the debate has centered on his actions as Chairman. This narrow focus misses an important piece: his actions, and words, as a Fed governor during the build-up of the housing bubble.

What should have been Bernanke’s greatest strength as a Fed governor and later chair, his understanding of monetary theory and his knowledge of the Great Depression, has ended up being a weakness. While correct in his analysis of the role of “debt deflation” – where the deflation increases the real burden of debts and correspondingly weakens the balance sheet of both households and businesses – in the deepening of the Great Depression; his obsession with slaying the Great White Whale of Deflation provided intellectual cover for the Fed’s ignoring and contributing to the housing bubble. Like the proverbial general, he was fighting yesterday’s battle, rather than today’s.

While core inflation was moderate and increasing at a decreasing rate between 2001 and 2005, this measure ignores the dramatic up-tick in house prices during those years. First, housing makes up the single largest expense for most households, ignoring housing, especially after one subtracts out energy and food from the definition of inflation, gives a narrow and distorted picture of inflation. Even if one were to focus solely on rents, the 2000s were an era of increasing housing costs.

Separate from the impact of housing prices on inflation is the role which housing plays as the collateral for the primary piece of household debt: a mortgage. Even were the US to suffer a bout of mild deflation and the real burden of their mortgages increased, this would likely have little impact on household balance sheets in an environment of increasing home prices.

Admittedly Bernanke was then only a “governor” and not yet Chair of the Fed, but he was the Fed’s loudest voice when it came to combating deflation and arguing for lower rates. Additionally there have been zero public acknowledgements by either Bernanke or the Fed that its policy earlier this decade contributed to the housing bubble and financial crisis. Without admitting to the occasional mistake, we have no way of judging whether Bernanke has learned from any of his mistakes, and hence less likely to repeat them.

In weighing Bernanke’s record at the Fed, judgement should not solely consider his actions as Chair, but also consider his words and deeds while the housing bubble was inflating. How one responds to a impending disaster is as important as to how one helps to clean up after the disaster has struck.

Consumer Financial Product Commission Distracts from Real Reform

Today the Obama Administration released a 152-page draft bill to create a new Consumer Financial Product Commission. While intended to protect against consumer confusion and reduce the likelihood of future financial crises, the proposed agency will at best have little impact and at worst contribute to the next financial crisis, with the added effect of decreased homeownership and increased litigation.

The president promises that “those ridiculous contracts with pages of fine print that no one can figure out – those things will be a thing of the past,” The president ignores that those “ridiculous contracts” and “fine print” are the result of previous rounds of so-called consumer protections. The disclosures one receives with a mortgage or a credit card are those mandated by some level of government. They don’t call those credit card disclosures a “Schumer Box” because they were invented by a baron of industry. In addition to the government-mandated disclosures that have failed, are the endless amount of fine print added to protect companies from frivolous litigation. The Obama approach to that problem is to increase the amount of litigation.

If the president were serious about avoiding the next housing bubble and financial crisis, he would propose eliminating some of the various federal policies that contributed to the housing bubble. For instance, how about requiring real down payments when the taxpayer is on the hook – as with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Talk about bad incentives; under FHA, a borrower can put almost nothing down and if the loan goes bad, the government covers the lender for 100 percent of their losses.  No wonder we had a housing bubble. In addition, the proposed agency does nothing to address the underlying causes of any type of credit default: unemployment, unexpected health care costs or divorce.

Once again, when given the opportunity to address the real flaws in our financial system, the administration chooses to appease the special interests and provide a distraction from the underlying causes of our current financial crisis.

Senators Want to Delay Housing Recovery

As discussed in a recent Bloomberg piece, several U.S. senators from both parties are pushing to almost double the recently enacted $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers to $15,000. The same senators are also pushing to remove the current income restrictions — $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples — while also removing the first-time buyer requirement.

The intent of the increase, and the original credit, is to increase the demand for housing and to create a “bottom” to the housing market. The flaw of this approach is that it creates a false bottom, one characterized by government-inflated prices and not fundamentals. It was excessive government subsidies into housing that helped create the housing bubble, additional subsidies to re-inflate the bubble will only prolong the actual market adjustment.

If it were only a matter of prolonging the adjustment, then the huge cost of the tax credit might be easier to justify. Yet by encouraging increased housing production, the tax credit will increase supply when we already have a huge glut of housing. Despite housing starts being near 50-year lows, there is still too much construction going on. The way to spur demand in housing is the same way you spur demand in any market: you cut prices.

Removing the income limits makes clear the real intention of the tax credit, to help the wealthiest households. About three-fourths of existing families already fall under the income cap of $75,000. As we move up the income latter, home equity makes up a smaller percentage of one’s total wealth. The richest families can make do with a decline in their housing wealth and continue spending; they have other substantial sources of wealth. If we have learned anything from the housing boom and bust, it should be that continued government efforts to rearrange the housing market have been costly failures.