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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig and other Atlanta Fed economists.


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October 18, 2013


Why Was the Housing-Price Collapse So Painful? (And Why Is It Still?)

Foresight about the disaster to come was not the primary reason this year’s Nobel Prize in economics went to Robert Shiller (jointly with Eugene Fama and Lars Hansen). But Professor Shiller’s early claim that a housing-price bubble was full on, and his prediction that trouble was a-comin’, is arguably the primary source of his claim to fame in the public sphere.

Several years down the road, the causes and effects of the housing-price run-up, collapse, and ensuing financial crisis are still under the microscope. Consider, for example, this opinion by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

...the downturn is not primarily a “financial crisis.” The story of the downturn is a simple story of a collapsed housing bubble. The $8 trillion housing bubble was driving demand in the U.S. economy in the last decade until it collapsed in 2007. When the bubble burst we lost more than 4 percentage points of GDP worth of demand due to a plunge in residential construction. We lost roughly the same amount of demand due to a falloff in consumption associated with the disappearance of $8 trillion in housing wealth.

The collapse of the bubble created a hole in annual demand equal to 8 percent of GDP, which would be $1.3 trillion in today’s economy. The central problem facing the U.S., the euro zone, and the U.K. was finding ways to fill this hole.

In part, Baker’s post relates to an ongoing pundit catfight, which Baker himself concedes is fairly uninteresting. As he says, “What matters is the underlying issues of economic policy.” Agreed, and in that light I am skeptical about dismissing the centrality of the financial crisis to the story of the downturn and, perhaps more important, to the tepid recovery that has followed.

Interpreting what Baker has in mind is important, so let me start there. I have not scoured Baker’s writings for pithy hyperlinks, but I assume that his statement cited above does not deny that the immediate post-Lehman period is best characterized as a period of panic leading to severe stress in financial markets. What I read is his assertion that the basic problem—perhaps outside the crisis period in late 2008—is a rather plain-vanilla drop in wealth that has dramatically suppressed consumer demand, and with it economic growth. An assertion that the decline in wealth is what led us into the recession, is what accounts for the depth and duration of the recession, and is what’s responsible for the shallow recovery since.

With respect to the pace of recovery, evidence supports the proposition that financial crises without housing busts are not so unique—or if they are, the data tend to associate financial-related downturns with stronger-than-average recoveries. Mike Bordo and Joe Haubrich, respectively from Rutgers University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, argue that the historical record of U.S. recessions leads us to view housing and the pace of residential investment as the key to whether tepid recoveries will follow sharp recessions:

Our analysis of the data shows that steep expansions tend to follow deep contractions, though this depends heavily on when the recovery is measured. In contrast to much conventional wisdom, the stylized fact that deep contractions breed strong recoveries is particularly true when there is a financial crisis. In fact, on average, it is cycles without a financial crisis that show the weakest relation between contraction depth and recovery strength. For many configurations, the evidence for a robust bounce-back is stronger for cycles with financial crises than those without...

Our results also suggest that a sizeable fraction of the shortfall of the present recovery from the average experience of recoveries after deep recessions is due to the collapse of residential investment.

From here, however, it gets trickier to reach conclusions about why changes in housing values are so important. Simply put, why should there be a “wealth effect” at all? If the price of my house falls and I suffer a capital loss, I do in fact feel less wealthy. But all potential buyers of my house just gained the opportunity to obtain my house at a lower price. For them, the implied wealth gain is the same as my loss. If buyers and sellers essentially behave the same way, why should there be a large impact on consumption? *

I think this notion quickly leads you to the thought there is something fundamentally special about housing assets and that this special role relates to credit markets and finance. This angle is clearly articulated in these passages from a Bloomberg piece earlier in the year, one of a spate of articles in the spring about why rapidly recovering house prices were apparently not driving the recovery into a higher gear:

The wealth effect from rising house prices may not be as effective as it once was in spurring the U.S. economy...

The wealth effect “is much smaller,” said Amir Sufi, professor of finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Sufi, who participated in last year’s central-bank conference at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, reckons that each dollar increase in housing wealth may yield as little as an extra cent in spending. That compares with a 3-to-5-cent estimate by economists prior to the recession.

Many homeowners are finding they can’t refinance their mortgages because banks have tightened credit conditions so much they’re not eligible for new loans. Most who can refinance are opting not to withdraw equity after the first nationwide decline in house prices since the Great Depression reminded them home values can fall as well as rise...

Others are finding it difficult to refinance because credit has become a lot harder to come by. And that situation could worsen as banks respond to stepped-up government oversight.

“Credit is going to get tighter before it gets easier,” said David Stevens, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Mortgage Bankers Association...

“Households that have been through foreclosure or have underwater mortgages or are otherwise credit-constrained are less able than other households to take advantage” of low interest rates, Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin said in an April 18 speech in New York.

(I should note that Sufi et al. previously delved into the relationship between household balance sheets and the economic downturn here.)

A more systematic take comes from the Federal Reserve Board’s Matteo Iacoviello:

Empirically, housing wealth and consumption tend to move together: this could happen because some third factor moves both variables, or because there is a more direct effect going from one variable to the other. Studies based on time-series data, on panel data and on more detailed, recent micro data point suggest that a considerable portion of the effect of housing wealth on consumption reflects the influence of changes in housing wealth on borrowing against such wealth.

That sounds like a financial problem to me and, in the spirit of Baker’s plea that it is the policy that matters, this distinction is more than semantic. The policy implications of an economic shock that alters the capacity to engage in borrowing and lending are not necessarily the same as those that result from a straightforward decline in wealth.

Having said that, it is not so clear how the policy implications are different. One possibility is that diminished access to credit markets also weakens policy-transmission mechanisms, calling for even more aggressive demand-oriented “pump-priming” policies of the sort Dean Baker advocates. But it is also possible that we have entered a period of deep structural repair that only time (and not merely government stimulus) can (or should) engineer: deleveraging and balance sheet repair, sectoral resource reallocation, new consumption habits, new business models driven by both market and regulatory imperatives, you name it.

In my view, it’s not yet clear which policy approach is closest to optimal. But I am fairly well convinced that good judgment will require us to think of the past decade as the financial event it was, and in many ways still is.

*Update: A colleague pointed out that my example describing housing price changes and wealth effects may be simplified to the point of being misleading. Implicitly, I am in fact assuming that the flow of housing services derived from housing assets is fixed, a condition that obviously would not hold in general. See section 3 of the Iacoviello paper cited above for a theoretical description of why, to a first approximation, we would not expect there to be a large consumption effect from changes in housing values.

David Altig By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed


October 18, 2013 in Economic conditions, Housing, Pricing, Real Estate | Permalink

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A primary residence's home price reflects the economic value to a homeowner of living in an area. The major part of the economic value of living somewhere is future expected earnings. The home price will not exceed the economic value to the marginal buyer. When expectations of future earnings decline home prices will decline across the board.

Using housing wealth is just intertemporal substitution. Refinancing is self-financing with homeowners self-qualifying themselves for the mortgage debt. Bank restrictions can limit refinancing but most homeowners will not refinance if they belive they cannot afford to repay the debt or sell above mortgage amounts.

Home price appreciation and the ability to pay back the refinancing or first mortgage debt depend on expectations of a continuation of wage growth to the borrower, or future homebuyer (if one expects to sell prior to debt payoff). A decline in expected wage growth rates (productivity) will cause home prices to decline, unemployment to increase and wages to stagnate.

Wage and GDP growth are linked to capital investment and there has been a sharp decline in US capital investment, which is continuing. If the decrease in capital investment was anticipated (expected), then whatever shock caused the decline in investment is also causing the continuing slow recovering.

Home price decline and the continuing slow recovery have common causes.

Posted by: Milton Recht | October 18, 2013 at 06:24 PM

For those of us between 20-40, first time buyers or up-graders, high land/building prices are very much a drag on our budget. This also includes high rents for the businesses we are starting.

My parents were able to buy their first house in their early twenties on a single blue collar income with a 40% down payment that took only a few years to accumulate. That seems utterly utopian among my peers.

In the long term, high housing prices is a drag on the economy. Do high gasoline prices help people because they feel their cars' tank is worth more?

The only people benefiting from rising house prices are people speculating, those who buy or build with the intent to sell.

Posted by: Benoit Essiambre | October 19, 2013 at 08:45 AM

Mr. Altig, the reason housing mattered so much in the late 2000s, and more than it had in previous times, was precisely because the housing "wealth effect" was just about the only thing normal people had going for them.

While wealth seemed to be increasing in the financial sector, much of that, as we learned, was piggy-backed on the notion that houses would always increase in value--and on the widespread idea that any loan was a good loan because you could bundle it and sell it off.

Much of the rest of the country's GDP improvements came in tech, but tech lately tends to destroy the wealth of everyday people as it automates and outsources their jobs.

That's why the late 1990s/early 2000s real estate boom needs to be seen as a response to a fading job market. The end of job security and the ever-declining wages for ordinary workers meant millions of people taking up the business of flipping houses.

The bubble's runup cannot be understood except in this context. Most people did not want to become mortgage fraudsters. But economic circumstances changed to make house-flipping and mortgage fraud the most (and mostly the only) lucrative option for people who used to be bank tellers and salesmen and low-level software developers.

And right: there has as yet been no policy changes designed to either increase wages or create honest jobs for everyday people. Absent action on this concern, the only question before us is, What will bubble next?

Posted by: Edward Ericson Jr. | October 21, 2013 at 03:35 PM

A couple of issues not mentioned abut the "wealth effect":

During the bubble, many folks bought houses with little or no downpayment. Many bought houses with loans that were not really affordable for them in the long term because of the terms of the loan or the because the actual issuance of the loan was, shall we say, irregular. So when rates rose or prices went down, they had no buffer.

Many who had houses they could afford or even paid off took the wealth effect somewhat literally and spent it, in the form of equity loans, thanks to the same low rate, loose terms, and irregularities. The "wealth" they had just spent turned out to be a short-lived ephemeral delusion, but the debt was durable.

Posted by: MacCruiskeen | October 22, 2013 at 07:24 AM

During the peak of the housing bubble, consumers were taking out $100B/month in new debt:

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?g=nG5

I find it stunning that people still don't understand this basic aspect of the reality of the erstwhile "Bush Boom".

It was all borrowed money! Trillions! Flowing to millions of households, and creating millions of jobs via this stealth stimulus.

But it was all ponzi-based, as the specuvesting was being supported by more and more "suicide" lending products and outright fraud at all levels of the FIRE sector, from customer-facing brokers to the ratings agencies stamping AAA on CDOs.

What got the housing appreciation train going in 2002 was Greenspan's lower interest rates and the 2001-2003 tax cuts, which empowered homebuyers to bid up the cost of housing more.

Momentum kept the game going in 2004, but the smart money started getting out in 2005, leaving the field to idiots stampeded into buying then or being priced out forever (plus millions of specuvestors like Casey Serin playing with OPM).

Drop $100B/month onto the middle class again and we'd have a helluva great economy again, like we did in 2004-2005.

Posted by: Troy | October 23, 2013 at 10:01 PM

Don't forget the fraudulent nature of the house price increases in much of the country.

In many many places, loans were issued and properties flipped because lenders and/or borrowers were blatantly writing fraudulent loan paperwork. Prices were inflated above sustainable economic value as a result. Those who sold received ill-gotten gains; those who bought and held were forced to pay higher prices than they should have - they were robbed. Those who flipped paper received ill-gotten gains; those who bought the AAA-rated bonds and didn't get their interest or principal back were robbed. Those who borrowed against the higher, fraudulent prices, thinking that rising prosperity and declining rates would make refinancing later affordable, were tricked too. In fact, never in the course of human events have so many been robbed so badly, by so few.

Wondering why the eventual collapse was so painful is a ludicrous pastime for "economists". The net worth of the overwhelming majority of Americans is entirely in their home equity. Or was. Many folks lost their entire net worth. Rebuilding that takes time in the best of circumstances, and even more so now, given the structural problems in the economy. Furthermore, many of these folks were burned so badly that they will refuse to partake in a repeat.

The Federal Reserve, among many other institutions, was AWOL when it should have been regulating to prevent all of this. Greenspan is recently on record claiming that fraud is a law-enforcement issue, not a Federal Reserve issue. That is nonfeasance. The Fed has regulatory powers and anything that leads to "bezzle" on the balance sheets (to borrow a term from J.K. Galbraith) is also a regulatory issue because it means banks haven't got the capital base they claim to have. There was plenty of evidence available to those willing to look for it.

I suspect that 100 years from now, History is not going to look kindly on anything the Fed did from about 2002-present.

Posted by: Sustainable Gains | October 24, 2013 at 12:18 AM

You should look at Richard Koo's work on balance sheet recessions to get an understanding of the dynamic.

Simply put, if a household or business owns assets financed by debt,and that asset has declined in value, the household reduces consumption and increases savings/reduces debt to reduce the risk of default.

It is important to understand because debt is reduced under these circumstances irrespective of the interest rate.

Posted by: RichL | October 24, 2013 at 04:43 PM

Here's a table, compiled by former Fed Governor Larry Lindsey, that explains much of the pain from the housing-bubble collapse. The lower 75% of households (by wealth) have still not recovered their peak wealth.

http://www.portphillippublishing.com.au/DR20131118c.jpg

This is consistent with what I wrote above; glad to see someone with the right background is looking into this.

Too bad it's too late; the next bubble is already upon us, and no one in a position of authority was willing to take away the punchbowl early enough.

Posted by: Sustainable Gains | November 18, 2013 at 02:43 PM

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