Archive for the ‘housing’ Category

No taper, no problem

18 September 2013

The Federal Open Market Committee concluded one of its most anticipated meetings in a long time with the expected decision to keep its federal funds rate target near zero (0 – 0.25%) and, less expectedly, not to “taper,” i.e., announce that it would gradually reduce its monthly purchases of mortgage-backed securities and longer-term Treasury bonds. Those purchases are otherwise known as “quantitative easing” (QE).

From various market surveys and betting sites, it appeared that about half the market was expecting a taper. Just why is hard to figure. Excessive asset purchases by the Fed can be inflationary, but excessive is in the eye of the beholder, and inflation has been under, not over, the Fed’s target of 2%. There is the argument that these new and unusual QE policies are damaging to investor confidence, but they’re not that new anymore, and the investors in the stock market seem remarkably undamaged — the S&P 500 has more than doubled since early 2009, i.e., since shortly after the first round of QE was implemented. Then there is the opposite argument that QE has created a “sugar high” in the stock market and maybe the housing market, too. This last argument has to be taken seriously, in view of how the 2000s housing bubble was stoked in part by the Fed’s easy-money policies circa 2004, when economic recovery was well underway.

But not too seriously. The S&P 500 is only about 15% higher now than it was mid-2007; adjusting for inflation, it’s hardly any higher at all (and the jury’s still out over whether stocks, as opposed to housing, were a bubble in 2007). Moreover, corporate profits are at record highs, so the fundamentals look rather good. Home prices are rising fast, but they’re still at 2004 levels, and monthly mortgage payments are cheaper than rents. A true speculative bubble is when people are obviously overpaying for assets, especially when they do so knowingly, with the plan of selling to a greater sucker later on. Is there evidence of that here?

The evidence about the general state of the economy is much stronger, and the evidence is that it’s still pretty weak. In particular, employment — the indicator that the Fed is supposed to focus on, along with inflation — is dismal. The employment-to-population ratio is still under 76%, or 4 points below where it was before the crisis. (The graph below, by the way, is of the “prime-age” population, 25-54 year-olds; if it included 16-24 year-olds, it would look even worse.)


For more on unemployment and tape:


The top 1% are different. Yes, they own more financial assets.

25 June 2013

Lawrence Mishel’s recent piece on inequality includes a very telling graph:


We see that the second half of the 1990s  is the first prolonged period when the top 1%’s income soared above that of the college educated in general; it coincided with the dot-com boom/bubble. We see a similar takeoff during the mid-2000s housing bubble and stock boom. In the market corrections/crashes that began in 2000 and 2007, we see the top 1%’s advantage mostly, but not completely, disappear. 

A combination of stock options, stock-market-based bonuses, and “Takes money to make money” seems to be at work here. The graph seems to be at odds with the common argument (Greg Mankiw’s?) that the top 1% deserve all they get because they are so much more productive, as it seems doubtful that their superior productivity deserts them in bad times.

Blame Canada?

17 June 2013

Unlike the USA and most of western Europe in 2008-2009, Canada did not have a financial crisis. Quite a few columns and articles were written about the superior stability of Canada’s financial system, which is much more concentrated but is apparently much more tightly regulated and has captured far fewer politicians and regulators than its US counterpart. I meant to blog about that but never got around to it.

Which makes Krugman’s recent post about Canada‘s still-raging housing bubble fascinating reading. In brief: housing prices in Canada experienced much the same run-up as US housing prices in the mid-2000s but instead of plummeting after 2007, have kept on rising. They are now more than double their 1975 level, whereas US house prices peaked at about 190% of that level. Canadian household debt as a percentage of income also never stopped rising and is now slightly above the US ratio.

Does this mean Canada is headed for a financial crisis? Not necessarily. Canada’s financial sector still looks sedate compared to its high-flying, reckless US counterpart. But you can have a collapsing bubble and severe recession without a financial crisis. Canada did not escape the worldwide 2008 recession and has made a fair recovery, but it is not hard to see where the next big blow could come from. Dean Baker has emphasized that the recent US financial crisis depended far less on subprime borrowing, securitization, credit default swaps, and the other usual suspects and much more on the collapse of a multi-trillion-dollar housing bubble, and the loss of all that wealth and wealth-driven consumption. Not surprisingly, Baker liked Krugman’s post. He adds that the collapse of the housing bubble could be even worse in Canada because 30-year fixed-rate mortgages never took hold in Canada (as they did in the US during the New Deal). The standard mortgage in Canada has to be paid off or refinanced in five years, so when interest rates rise from their current record lows (1% is the current benchmark short-term rate in Canada), millions of homeowners could see their monthly payments shoot up. The scenario is similar to the expiration of low “teaser rates” on adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) in the US in 2006-2008, but could be even worse, as the five-year limit appears more common in Canada than ARMs were in America. Could large numbers of defaults on “underwater mortgages” (where amount owed exceeds market value of house) happen in Canada, too?

I love Canada, but if I were to move there today, I’d rent.

Unhappy Halloween

31 October 2011











Case-Shiller Housing Price Index, 2003-present

As my daughter used to say while handing out Halloweeen candy: “You get what you get.”

WTF, S&P???

26 September 2011

How did I miss this one? Bloomberg News, on Aug. 31, reported that Standard & Poor’s is still giving its highest rating, AAA, to subprime-mortgage-backed securities:

Standard & Poor’s is giving a higher rating to securities backed by subprime home loans, the same type of investments that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, than it assigns the U.S. government….

More than 14,000 securitized bonds in the U.S. are rated AAA by S&P, backed by everything from houses and malls to auto- dealer loans and farm-equipment leases, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

(Hat tip: Simon Johnson.)

The economic crisis explained in six words

14 July 2010

“the big banks blew themselves up”

Simon Johnson

What, you want more?  How about this primer, one clause at a time:

The big banks blew themselves up,

along with a gigantic housing bubble that they did much to inflate.

The collapse of house prices meant the collapse of the largest component of Americans’ wealth.

With banks in trouble and consumers having less money in their house-shaped piggy banks,

credit got harder to obtain

and consumers spent less,

which also caused firms to invest less.

Those last two things caused unemployment to skyrocket.

The Fed and Congress bailed out the banks,

which stabilized the banks,

but couldn’t get them to lend money

and couldn’t get nervous, indebted consumers and businesses to borrow money.

The Fed did practically everything it could to boost the credit markets,

by cutting its main interest rate to zero and creating lots of bank reserves,

but it wasn’t enough.

The government passed spending and tax stimulus bills to boost the economy,

but the stimulus was too small.

Another stimulus could help close the gap,

but the same folks who didn’t object to deficit spending for wars and tax cuts,

have a big problem with deficit spending for other purposes.

Let’s just hope the economy comes back on its own,

because that seems to be the only hope right now.

Unconfident consumers

29 June 2010

Well, can you blame them?

After two bubble-based expansions, in which first a tech stock bubble (1990s) and then a housing bubble (2000s) helped fuel huge levels of consumer debt, it seems rational for consumers to conclude that they’ve been living beyond their means and hence to retrench.  Today’s report of a 10-point drop in an already-low consumer confidence index is some hard cheese just the same.

The linked story, above, is a good one in that it actually provides information as to what is a “normal” or “good” level of the index.  90 is pretty good, 100 means “strong growth.”  So this month’s reading of 52.9 (again, down 10 points from May’s) is awful.  The best that can be said for it is that it’s double its all-time low of 25.3 in February 2009.

The story also mentions weakness in the housing market, where the Commerce Dept. reported Wednesday that new-home sales in May dropped 33% from their April level.  While a big drop is not shocking in view of the April 30 expiration of big tax credits for homebuyers, it was larger than expected, and the annualized rate of 300,000 new homes purchases is the lowest in the history of the Commerce Dept.’s survey (which began in 1963).  Again, considering the giant bubble in the housing market that preceded the current slump, it seems plausible to me that we have not yet hit bottom, i.e., the market may still have some correcting to do.

I hate to sound like a liquidationist, but if it’s true that the economy was on steroids thanks to a housing bubble and a frenzy of consumer debt, then our “natural” standard of living may be a good bit lower than we’d care to admit.

UPDATE, July 4:  Dean Baker says the housing bubble still has some deflating to do, in particular in California, New York, and Illinois.  He says house prices in those states are still way over trend levels and still abnormally high in relation to rents.

Must-read: How Goldman Sachs secretly bet on the housing crash

1 November 2009

. . . while selling $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities that it claimed were safe.  The article, by Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers, is based on a five-month investigation.

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism has a few words on the matter and on the article, here.

What the #$*! do we know!?

6 July 2009

WhatTheBleep2Didn’t see the movie, but the title is one that any student of economics must ponder on a regular basis. Case in point: our attempts to understand the current crisis, which is the reason I set up this blog in the first place. While there does seem to be a general consensus that the crisis involved the bursting of a bubble of some kind, there seems to be strong disagreement on the specifics, even among economists who are smart, fair, and thorough.

A few weeks ago I noted that there were two basic explanations of the crisis that were both plausible and consistent with each other:  (1) overindebted Americans whose luck finally ran out and (2) a global savings glut. Money inflows from abroad helped fuel the housing and stock-market bubbles, and also made U.S. interest rates cheaper, thus making it easier for spendthrift Americans to keep on borrowing. Americans have been living beyond their means since 1981 (we know this because the trade balance has been negative during that time, meaning that imports have made up the gap between what we purchase and what we produce), and foreigners have been our eager enablers by purchasing U.S. stocks, bonds, property, and other assets. Aggregate statistics show that American indebtedness increased greatly in the past decade — to the highest levels since 1929! — and of course the housing market (and to a lesser extent the stock market) became a historic bubble in this decade. The usual story is that the runups in stock and housing prices encouraged Americans to spend more and more, even to the point of going further into debt, as their equity was rising and in many cases, like home equity loans, they could even borrow against it. Then the housing bubble burst, and the stock bubble followed suit, and suddenly Americans were a lot less wealthy and therefore cut back their spending, causing GDP to fall.

Still sounds plausible, but is it true? Some recent empirical studies cast a lot of doubt on both of those explanations.



5 July 2009

(Title semi-stolen from the Option ARMageddon site, whose views I disclaim.)

Although precise causes of the current crisis are still a matter of some debate, it’s generally agreed that adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) played no small part in the housing bubble and its subsequent bursting. ARMs, once very rare, because very common during the bubble, especially for subprime borrowers.  Dean Baker notes that in 2004-2006 ARMs made up 35% of all new mortgages, up from single digit levels previously.   And quite a few (though not necessarily most) mortgage defaults occurred after the “teaser rate” period of these mortgages ended and the “resets,” or higher, market-based interest rates became effective.  Some of the mortgage holders could not make the higher monthly payments and thus defaulted.  (Others could afford the higher monthly payments but didn’t deem them worth paying, especially if they were “underwater” in the sense of their mortgage debt being larger than the resale value of their house.)

Today’s NYT column by University of Chicago behavioral economist Richard Thaler, titled “Mortgages Made Simpler,” got me thinking about this. Thaler laments the often bewildering complexity of many mortgages today, but casually dismisses the notion of requiring all mortgages to be simple fixed-rate mortgages.  A little too casually, I’d say.  He just says that complexity is necessary for “innovation,” without providing evidence that mortgage innovation has been helpful. Fellow Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee (drawing on an NBER working paper by Kristopher Gerardi, Paul Willen & Harvey Rosen), provided a fair bit in a March 2007 NYT op-ed, arguing that mortgage innovation has made many more mortgages possible, especially for younger, poorer, and minority applicants. The argument now looks rather dated in view of the tidal wave of subprime foreclosures, as well as the increasing realization that tying oneself down with a mortgage is not a great idea for everyone (e.g., people with low and variable income, people who might want to relocate soon, people who live in cities where rent is cheap relative to house prices — which was a lot of cities during the housing bubble). It also raises the question, Why can’t banks just issue fixed-rate mortgages with higher interest rates to their riskier customers?

Thaler says they shouldn’t have to, but that they should be required to offer every customer a fixed-rate mortgages as an option, alongside whatever complex mortgages they want to offer them.*  I call it the Baskin-Robbins approach:  31 flavors, many of them quite unusual, but always including vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry for those folks who don’t get out much. The plain-vanilla-mortgage option is a good idea, but it raises another question:  Why weren’t banks doing that all along?

One big reason is surely that interest rates, including regular mortgage rates, were at historic lows in the first half of this decade, when the bubble began.  Banks and other lenders did not want to be locked into receiving such low interest rates for the next 15 or 30 years, so they pushed ARMs.  Fed Chairman Greenspan’s crazy-ass claim that ARMs made sense for American consumers likely fueled this fire.  Even so, ever since ARMs began in the 1970s and 1980s as a response to volatile interest rates, it’s been well known that ARMs transfer risk from the bank to the borrower.  Which makes them a dicey deal for all but the richest borrowers (who don’t actually need the loan but might want it to get the mortgage interest deduction on their taxes and can afford the risk of higher interest payments) and clairvoyants who know what interest rates are going to do in the next 15 or 30 years.  So why why why did so many people enter into ARMs?

My hunch is that ARMs were a form of predatory lending in many, perhaps most cases.  Banks seem to have actively pushed ARMs on many borrowers.  (A former student of mine told me that a bank actually pulled a bait and switch on her and her husband, substituting an ARM for a fixed-rate loan at the last minute. I suspect there are many other such cases.)  Others who would steer clear of the mortgage market because they know they can’t afford a particular fixed monthly payment might be suckered in with a low enough teaser rate and unctuous assurances that interest rates will still be low at the end of the teaser period or that they’ll have no trouble refinancing at a lower rate. This seems to me an area that needs more investigation.