Thursday, December 13, 2007

Was There A Housing Bubble . .

or a simply a credit bubble.

This may seem like a widly pedantic inquiry. What difference, if one even exists between the two, does it make whether there was a housing bubble or just a "credit" bubble? Prices are falling and that is obvious to anyone.

I do think it makes a bit of difference, though, in thinking about how this whole thing is likely to unfold and how to prevent it again.

Some people lay the blame for this crisis at the feet of Alan Greenspan and his failure to diffuse what was obviously a growing problem. The question for me is - from a macro perspective how obvious was it?

My own take is that the current crisis has most of its seed in the structured debt boom. Housing prices started to rise early in the decade from easy money and a decline in world wide long term interest rates. To the extent that this was the whole story we wouldn't have that serious of a problem on our hands.

Tightening monetary policy would have slowed down the rise in housing prices and we probably would have been able to pull of a soft landing. The problem is that at exactly the time monetary policy was tightening, credit standards were loosening, big time.


There was a sense, ill-placed as it may have been, that risk could be managed with far greater efficiency than ever before. And managing risk is terribly important. Had structured debt lived up to its hype it would have meant a revolutionary change for millions of Americans. It would have meant the opening of opportunities, the forgiveness of pass indiscretion and new chances which would lead to an eventual unleashing of entrepreneurial ingenuity. That, however, was not to pass.

So it turns out that people have fewer opportunities and banks are less willing to overlook imprudence. Thus, the dream home and dream opportunities that would have been yours, cannot be. This is real and it is a loss.

That's important, because it means that the bursting of this bubble is not as William Buiter suggests, a zero-sum game. We are not simply transfering income from current homeowners back to future homeowners. We slashing the opportunity sets of millions of current and future homeowners a like. Such an adjustment will be inevitably painful in the short term and I am not sure there is effective means for preventing something of the sort from happening again.

11 comments:

Ken Houghton said...

I'm inclined to argue a credit bubble, with housing used as the proxy for the "lower-rent" borrowers.

In fact, if you want to be realistic, let's call it what it is: a(n off) balance-sheet crisis. The advantage of many of the Structured Products is their tax treatment contra the underlyings.

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