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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The housing debacle

What are the lessons from the housing debacle that is now unwinding?
First and most important, we were right. We predicted the housing collapse. We'll dig up the links and enter them on the web site treatment on Friday.

We predicted that the low interest policy of the Fed would produce the bubble. Others have talked about how the leverage and corruption of the mortgage brokers was key, but the cycle begins at the beginning -- turning housing into an investment. Speculation fever follows as prices rise. Then the leverage and the corruption.

Too much congratulations and not enough corporal punishment are being dealt the Fed. Under Greenspan and Bernanke, there was low interest at the beginning and bailing out at the end, with absolutely no oversight in the middle (or anywhere, really).

Second, others predicted it as well. Dean Baker is foremost among these. Baker of CEPR and now the American Prospect used a simple historical trend analysis comparing housing rents to home prices over time. It worked. He should be on every talk show in the nation.

Third, the people who didn't see it coming are still the "experts." (Much like in another key blunder, when Thomas Friedman and even the Neocons blew the Iraq analysis, yet are still showing up as experts. Compare this to others -- George McGovern, Joseph Stiglitz -- who offered accurate analysis and peaceful, productive resolutions. They are still on the outside.)

So, fourth, the people who say, "Nobody saw it coming" were and still are listening only to each other.
This debacle continues the ballooning of the financial sector. Henry Kaufman, formerly of Salomon Brothers and now of Henry Kaufman & Co. and hardly a communist, reported that the Finance Sector is now bigger than Health Care and Energy combined. Why not? Too bad some homeowners can't get hold of that "liquidity" and out from under their ARMS. Now is the time to buy stocks in the financial sector, before everybody realizes that -- just like in 1987 and 1998 -- the Fed is bailing them out. They get a hundreds of billions of "too big to fail" insurance for free.

Upcoming we'll look closely at tool the world class analysis at the Fed is linked too. It looks a lot like a catapult. The Fed's single blunt instrument is its control over short-term interest rates. It doesn't matter how smart you are, the interest rate is (1) ineffective against inflation, (2) operates with a lag in producing growth and is wildly inferior to fiscal policy for jobs, but (3) is great at bailing out a financial sector.

Outlook for the economy as housing deflates? Which economy?
  • The financial sector will likely bounce back with great new investment opportunities.

  • The wealthiest 20 percent will no doubt wonder what everybody is complaining about.

  • The middle class will watch their home values receding in front of them as they approach retirement.

  • The multiplier will bring down wages.

  • The collapse of housing could create more hysteria in the immigration discussion, as migrants move out of their niche in relatively low-skill residential construction and residential support and compete for other jobs.

  • A huge burden of private debt has been created, for the purpose of building an immense stock of passive housing vs. productive assets. And very little of this building was green. Both the debt and the character of the housing stock will weigh us down.
What a mess.

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