Friday, August 29, 2008

Central bankers meet in Jackson Hole, WY

Two must-read dispatches from the central bankers' meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming last weekend. First, Dean Baker notes:
The world is now facing the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. At least, that is the assessment of Alan Greenspan. With house prices plunging, unemployment and inflation rates rising and banks failures mounting, Greenspan has a pretty good argument.

How did we get here? The centerpiece in this story is the United States allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble to grow unchecked. Between 1996 and 2006, house prices rose by more than 70 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In the previous century, from 1896 to 1996, house prices had just kept even with the overall rate of inflation.

When there is suddenly a sharp divergence from a long-term trend like this, it is reasonable to look for an explanation. Was there some fundamental factor on either the supply or demand side that was suddenly causing house prices to skyrocket?

A quick investigation revealed no obvious suspects. On the supply side, there were no major new constraints that were impeding construction. In fact, housing starts were at near record levels over the years 2002 to 2006, so there was no reason to believe any developments on the supply side could explain skyrocketing house prices.

The demand side also didn't feature any obvious culprits. The rate of population growth and household formation had slowed sharply. If demographics could explain a sharp rise in house prices, then we should have seen the surge in the 70s and 80s. That was when the huge baby boom cohort was first forming their own households. In the current decade, the baby boomers are preparing for retirement.

There also was no plausible income story. Income grew at a healthy but not extraordinary rate in the years from 1996 to 2000, but income growth has been very weak throughout the current decade.

Finally, if the run-up in house prices could be explained by the fundamentals of the housing market, then we should expect to see a comparable increase in rents. But there was no unusual run-up in rents. They did slightly outpace inflation in the late 90s, but they actually were falling behind inflation by the early years of this decade.

If the run-up in house prices could not be explained by the fundamentals, then it was a bubble, which would burst. This was easy to see for anyone who cared to look, but Greenspan and his sycophants could not be bothered. Greenspan insisted everything was fine - there was no housing bubble - and virtually the whole economics profession, including his fellow central bankers, acted an enablers touting Mr. Greenspan's wisdom.

While the exact timing and path of the housing market's collapse and the resulting turmoil in financial markets could not be predicted, the basic course of this tsunami was entirely foreseeable. The collapse of the bubble will destroy in the neighborhood of $8 trillion of housing wealth. Most of these losses will be absorbed by homeowners ($8 trillion comes to $110,000 per homeowner), but if just ten percent of the loss ends up on bank financial sheets, the losses will be $800 billion.

Next, Yves Smith, writing at her indispensable finance and macroeconomics blog Naked Capitalism, discusses how the lack of willingness among central bankers - nd the Federal Reserve in particular - to increase market regulations is a disturbing indication of what the future holds.

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