Bubble Trouble

The future of the housing boom, and the possible financial repercussions of a substantial price decline in coming years, is a matter of mounting concern among governments around the world. I learned this first-hand while attending this year’s Jackson Hole Symposium in the remote wilderness of Wyoming, where, ironically, there are almost no homes to buy. The howls of coyotes and bugling of elk rang out at night. But, by day, everyone was talking about real estate.

This conference has grown to be a major international event for government monetary policymakers, with governors or deputy governors of 34 central banks attending this year. Roughly two-thirds of these countries have had dramatic housing booms since 2000, most of which appear to be continuing, at least for the time being. But there was no consensus on the longer-run outlook for home prices.

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Of all these countries, the United States appears to be the most likely to have reached the end of the cycle. According to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller US National Home Price Index, US home prices increased 86% in real, inflation-corrected, terms from 1996 to 2006, but have since fallen 6.5% – and the rate of decrease has been accelerating.

That looks like the beginning of the end of the boom, though, of course, one can never be sure. I presented a bearish long-run view, which many challenged, but no one obviously won the argument.

Nevertheless, an outside observer might have been struck by the weight given to the possibility that the decade-long boom might well suffer a real reversal, followed by serious declines. There seems to be a general recognition of substantial downside risk, as the current credit crisis seems to be related to the decline in US home prices that we have already seen.

The boom, and the widespread conviction that home prices could only go higher, led to a weakening of lending standards. Mortgage lenders seem to have believed that home buyers would not default, because rising prices would make keeping up with their payments very attractive.

Moreover, the boom resulted in a number of financial innovations, which may have been good ideas intrinsically, but which were sometimes applied too aggressively, given the risk of falling prices. Mortgage-backed securities were urged onto investors for whom they were too risky. As with homebuyers, all would be well, the reasoning went, on the premise that home prices continue to rise at a healthy pace.

At the Jackson Hole conference, Paul McCulley of PIMCO, the world’s largest bond fund, argued that in the past month or two we have been witnessing a run on what he calls the “shadow banking system,” which consists of all the levered investment conduits, vehicles and structures that have sprung up along with the housing boom. The shadow banking system, which is beyond the reach of bank regulators and deposit insurance, fed the boom in home prices by helping provide more credit to buyers.

Bank runs occur when people, worried that their deposits will not be honored, hastily withdraw their money, thereby creating the very bankruptcy that they feared. It is no coincidence that this new kind of bank run originated in the US, which is the clearest example of falling home prices in the world today. When home prices stop rising, recent homebuyers may lose the enthusiasm to continue paying their mortgages – and investors lose faith in mortgage-backed securities.

The US Federal Reserve is sometimes blamed for the current mortgage crisis, because excessively loose monetary policy allegedly fueled the price boom that preceded it. Indeed, the real (inflation-corrected) federal funds rate was negative for 31 months, from October 2002 to April 2005. The only precedent for this since 1950 was the 37-month period from September 1974 to September 1977, which launched the worst inflation the US has seen in the last century. What then helped produce a boom in consumer prices now contributed to a boom in home prices.

But loose monetary policy is not the whole story. The unusually low real funds rate came after the US housing boom was already well underway. According to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller US National Home Price Index, home prices were already rising at almost 10% a year in 2000 – a time when the Fed was raising the federal funds rate, which peaked at 6.5%. The rapid increase thus appears to be mostly the result of speculative momentum that occurred before the interest-rate cuts.

Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman, recently said that he now believes that speculative bubbles are important driving forces in our economy, but that, at the same time, the world’s monetary authorities cannot control bubbles. He is mostly right: the best thing that monetary authorities could have done, given their other priorities and concerns, is to lean against the real estate bubble, not stop it from inflating.

The current decline in home prices is associated just as clearly with waning speculative enthusiasm among investors, which is likewise largely unrelated to monetary policy. The world’s monetary authorities will have trouble stopping this decline, and much of the attendant problems, just as they would have had trouble stopping the ascent that preceded it.