As this issue of reason goes to press, the dollar is at a record low against the euro, oil is more than $100 a barrel, consumer prices are up 4 percent from a year ago, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is cutting interest rates so often that the guys at the office have taken to calling him Edward Scissorhands. The subprime mortgage fallout has yet to finish wreaking its havoc, Bear Stearns is holding on by the skin of its teeth, and the government’s bucket may not be big enough for all the bailouts under way. Gloomy faces dominate CNBC and the Fox Business Channel, muttering long-forgotten terms like inflation and recession.
President George W. Bush, by contrast, is relatively cheery, conceding that we are in “challenging times” but arguing that “our financial institutions are strong” and the capital markets “functioning efficiently and effectively.” “In the long run,” Bush said in a March 17 White House address, “our economy is going to be fine.” And some statistics back up the sunny view: Unemployment is still at a low 5.1 percent, and productivity remains high.
Presidential hopefuls are offering a variety of explanations and possible solutions for what 42 percent of voters say is the most important issue to them, according to a recent CNN poll. At a March 20 rally, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) suggested the problem was a combination of “special interests” and war: “At a time when we’re on the brink of recession, when neighborhoods have ‘For Sale’ signs outside every home, and working families are struggling to keep up with rising costs, ordinary Americans are paying a price for this war.” Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) took a different tack: The “economic crisis is, at its core, a housing crisis,” she said in a major Philadelphia address on March 24, but she cited other factors as well, including Bush’s “brain dead energy policy.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the Republican nomination without really talking much about the economy.
How will we know when it’s fair to speak the dreaded r-word? In general, a recession is defined as a decline in a country’s gross domestic product for two or more successive quarters. In the United States, an official pronouncement is required from the professional doom diagnosticians on the business-cycle dating committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, who often take other aspects of an ailing economy into account. GDP growth slowed dramatically at the end of 2007 and is projected to be zero in the second quarter of 2008, so we look to be well on our way.
As oil prices continued to climb and housing prices continued to slide, Reason assembled a panel of economists and other market watchers to help make sense of the headlines, point some fingers, figure out how we got where we are, and offer advice about how to get out with our wallets intact.
Blame the Fed
Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr.
The U.S. economy is in the midst of an old-style credit crunch brought on by a combination of bad policies and incredibly lax underwriting standards at financial institutions. The biggest policy failure was the decision by Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve to hold interest rates too low for too long. That led to a tsunami of credit that inundated the economy with cheap money. Mortgage lenders in particular were flush with funds and searched for deals wherever they could be found. Heretofore unqualified borrowers suddenly “qualified” as underwriting standards relaxed and then disappeared.
Egged on by statements from Chairman Greenspan, market participants came to believe the era of low interest rates would last indefinitely. But the era did come to an end as the Fed was forced to begin raising interest rates. Faced with the prospect of paying higher rates on their mortgages in the future, borrowers began defaulting. First home prices stopped rising, and then home prices began dropping—precipitously in some overheated housing markets. Now we are approximately six months into a new cycle of lower interest rates, but with no end in sight to the crunch.
At least two other factors stoked the crisis. First, many exotic financial products were issued whose value was tied in one way or another to home prices and the value of the securities into which home mortgages were bundled, such as collateralized mortgage obligations. The pricing of these financial products was the product of complex economic models, not the outcome of market transactions. As the value of the underlying homes and mortgages declined, pricing of the financial exotica became nearly impossible. As we learned in the collapse of Long Term Capital Management, these pricing models fail precisely when their accuracy is most important—in times of financial turbulence. The inability to price the financial products has exacerbated losses among the firms holding them.
There is a wonderful parallel here to the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises argued almost 100 years ago, central planning inevitably fails because there are no market prices to allocate resources. Market prices can only be the outcome of actual market transactions among buyers and sellers. Planners used mathematical formulas to value resources, especially capital. Now Wall Street wizards have imported Soviet thinking to allocate financial capital. Is it any wonder that it failed?
The second factor contributing to the housing market collapse was the federal government’s commitment to “affordable housing.” Lenders, especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, were pressured into promoting housing to low-income groups that could not qualify for normal loans. That policy is predicated on the belief that there is an underserved group of people who, but for economic discrimination or some other market failure, would be homeowners. That social goal and the credit-driven desire for more deals merged into mortgages made without adequate collateral.
We learned two lessons from the drive to make home ownership available to the heretofore underserved. First, many of these were not homeowners because they could not afford a home. Only under the temporary “hothouse” conditions in mortgage markets did they seem to qualify. Second, people who have no equity in their homes cannot meaningfully be said to be owners. When times turn tough, they will walk away. They were effectively renters, not homeowners.
The crisis will end when housing markets hit bottom and the prices of mortgage securities stabilize. Banks also need to unwind their positions in exotic financial derivatives.
The Fed needs to understand it is facing a capital crisis, not a liquidity crisis. The very low interest rates on safe assets show there is ample liquidity in financial markets. The Fed should not supply capital. That is the job of markets, and they are doing it.
Gerald P. O’Driscoll
Jr., formerly a vice president and economic adviser at the
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, is a senior fellow at the Cato
No Hoofing to Hooverville
Just one thing puzzles me about the race to the White House: Why would anyone want to get there? I know that being crowned prettiest girl at the prom is the great lasting rejoinder to everyone who made fun of you in middle school, but given the economic condition of the country, the next four years seem like a rotten time to reign.
Ignore the econopundits making comparisons to the 1930s. While the parallels are striking, we are missing the key ingredient in the onset of the Great Depression: tight Fed policy that caused the money supply to shrink by 25 percent. You can put away that bindle and push the apple cart back in the garage.