Posts Tagged ‘brad setser’

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.