Posts Tagged ‘global savings glut’

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.

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Symbiotic twin killings

11 June 2009

What caused the crisis?  It seems like most of the plausible answers I’ve heard come down to one of two basic explanations:

(1) “We were living beyond our means” — Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY), in a WRVO Community Forum in Syracuse last week that included, um, me.  Sounded very reasonable coming from Congressman Maffei, less so coming from stockbroker/ investment advisor/ author Peter Schiff on the other night’s “Daily Show”, probably because of the diametrically opposite policy prescriptions the two draw.  Maffei backs the stimulus bill and wants to see the economy recover as soon as possible; Schiff is an adherent of the Austrian school and thinks a good old bloodletting (oops, “liquidation” or “correction”) is just what the doctor ordered.  Either way, this explanation has a lot going for it, as it explains the rash of subprime mortgage borrowing, home equity loans, maxed-out credit cards, etc.

(2) A “global savings glut” led to stock and housing bubbles, which finally burst — Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Nobel economist / NYT columnist Paul Krugman.  The idea here is that while we spendthrift Americans were running up huge debts, people in other countries, notably China and Japan, as well as the minority of wealthy Americans with high savings rates, had large pools of savings seeking a good risk-adjusted return.   And they invested much of it here, in Treasury bonds, thereby keeping U.S. interest rates low; in the stock market, reinflating the late 1990s bubble; in the corporate bond market, lowering rates on all bonds, even junk bonds; and in real estate, largely through securitized collections of other people’s mortgages.  (By some accounts, demand created its own supply of mortgage-backed securities — after the 2001 stock debacle, investors were looking for an alternative to stocks and thought real estate looked promising.)  A particular problem here seems to be that many investors opted for wildly risky investment vehicles, like investing in “diverse” portfolios of dodgy mortgages or blindly handing their money over to a Bernie Madoff or a Robert Allen Stanford, without realizing they were risky.

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