Sunday, July 8, 2012

Housing Bubble Economic Problems - Have We Seen the Worst?

The foremost problem resulting from the deflation of the Great Housing Bubble was the imperilment of our banking and financial system. The bailouts emanating from Congress have mostly focused on keeping the banking system solvent. Considering most institutions were secretly bankrupted by the housing collapse, this was not small problem. The economic ramifications are severe, and 2009 will likely not be the end of the crisis.

The Great Depression was precipitated by the collapse of margin trading and the subsequent decline of the stock market beginning in 1929; however, this decline is not what made the Great Depression so severe. The policies responding to the upheaval caused many banks to fail, and it was the failure of banks that led to the dramatic decline in business activity and asset deflation of the Great Depression. To prevent a repeat of those problems, Congress passed a number of banking reforms granting the Federal Reserve broad powers over our currency and effectively abandoned the gold standard. One of the most successful of these policies was the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to guarantee the safety of deposits in banking institutions and prevent panic-induced, mass depositor withdrawals (aka "bank runs") from decimating our banking system. Since the FDIC has been in effect, mass depositor withdrawals at American banks have been relatively uncommon. Just as the deflation of the stock market asset bubble of the Great Depression imperiled the banking system, the deflation of the Great Housing Bubble endangered the banking system because the bank losses were so severe that most became insolvent and many went bankrupt or were taken over by other lenders. Whenever the banking system is put in jeopardy, economic growth is curtailed, and other major economic problems develop.

Another source of economic problems caused by housing market bubbles is the immobility of workers. These problems were witnessed in the deflation of the coastal bubble during the early 1990s, and they occurred again in the deflation of the Great Housing Bubble. When people owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth, they could not move freely to accept promotions or work in other areas. In such circumstances the borrower had limited options. The borrower could have tried to rent the property, but those who bought at bubble prices paid in excess of its rental value so renting the property did not cover the costs of ownership. They were losing money each month trying to keep the house. If they tried to sell the house to avoid the monthly loss, they could not get enough money in the sale to pay off the debt. The borrower would either pay the lender the difference or accept the negative consequences of a short sale or foreclosure. Most often they chose the latter option.

Since none of the options available to borrowers were very palatable, many passed on promotions or other opportunities because they were trapped in their homes. Employers also faced difficulties when house prices were much higher than local incomes. When an employer wanted to expand and hire new people, the potential new employee was repelled by the high house prices and either demanded a higher wage or refused to accept employment. Both circumstances were detrimental to the economy when an employee was trapped in their home and could not move and when an employer could not attract new employees because local house prices were very high.

Like all financial bubbles, the bubble in residential real estate caused the inefficient use of capital resources. When prices rose, it signified an increase in demand, and the supply chain went to work to deliver more supply to meet this demand and capture the profits from increased prices. When the demand was artificial, as was the case in a bubble, the market became oversupplied, and this supply was not of the type or quantity the market really needed. For instance, in the NASDAQ stock market bubble, billions of dollars of investment capital flowed into internet companies. This money went into all forms of unproductive uses which ultimately provided little or no return on the investment capital.

In the Great Housing Bubble, the inflated prices prompted builders to construct many large houses known as McMansions. The economics favored this because the largest homes had the lowest cost per-square-foot to construct, and these houses obtained some of the highest revenues per-square-foot on the market. The result was entire neighborhoods of homes that were very resource wasteful. If the construction resources had been allocated based on true market need, which would have happened in the absence of price bubble distortions, fewer construction resources would have gone into each home, the ongoing cost of maintenance would have been reduced, and fewer total homes would have been built. The temporary demand of construction resources in a financial bubble also impacted human resources. There was a nationwide increase in construction employment to meet the bubble demand. When the bubble burst, many of these people were laid off causing both economic and personal turmoil.

Financial bubbles also witnessed the birth, growth and death of unsustainable financial models. The NASDAQ bubble had internet companies, and the Great Housing Bubble had subprime lending. The subprime lending model was profitable despite a 10% to 15% default rate among its customers. The industry was able to sustain this rate of default because the default losses they sustained were small as long as prices were rising. As soon as prices stopped rising, their loan default rates increased, and their default losses drove the entire industry into oblivion.

In the aftermath of the coastal housing bubble of the early 90s, the economy experienced a period of diminished consumer spending because many homeowners who bought during the bubble and did not go into foreclosure were making payments that represent a high percentage of their income. The extra money going toward their mortgage payment, the money in excess of normal debt-to-income guidelines was money the borrower did not have available to spend on other things. The diminished discretionary spending income from this population of borrowers slowed economic growth in an economy heavily dependent upon consumer spending such as the United States. Many borrowers during the Great Housing Bubble became accustomed to supplementing their income through mortgage equity withdrawal. When house prices fell, mortgage equity withdrawal was curtailed. This forced many to adjust their lifestyles to live within the money provided by their wage incomes after paying the large debt-service payments. This loss of spending power was not just difficult an economic problem, it was a deeply personal problem for those who wished to spend freely.

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