Global economy is exposed to America’s houses of cards
By Joseph E. Stiglitz
There are times when being proven right brings no pleasure. For several years I have argued that a housing bubble that had replaced the stock market bubble of the 1990s was supporting America’s economy. But no bubble can expand forever. With middle-class incomes in the United States stagnating, Americans could not afford ever more expensive homes.
Economists, as opposed to those who make their living gambling on stocks, make no claim to being able to predict when the day of reckoning will come, much less identifying the event that will bring down the house of cards. But the patterns are systematic, with consequences that unfold gradually, and painfully, over time.
There is a macro-story and a micro-story here. The macro-story is simple, but dramatic. Some, observing the crash of the sub-prime mortgage market, say, “Don’t worry, it is only a problem in the real estate sector.” But this overlooks the key role that the housing sector has played in the US economy, with direct investment in real estate and money taken out of houses through refinancing mortgages accounting for two-thirds to three-quarters of growth over the last six years.
Booming home prices gave Americans the confidence, and the financial wherewithal, to spend more than their income. America’s household savings rate was at levels not seen since the Depression, either negative or zero. With higher interest rates depressing housing prices, the game is over. As America moves to, say, a 4 percent savings rate (still small by normal standards), aggregate demand will weaken, and with it, the economy.
The micro-story is more dramatic. Record-low interest rates in 2001, 2002 and 2003 did not lead Americans to invest more - there was already excess capacity. Instead, easy money stimulated the economy by inducing households to refinance their mortgages, and to spend some of their capital.
It is one thing to borrow to make an investment, which strengthens balance sheets; it is another thing to borrow to finance a vacation or a consumption binge. But this is what Alan Greenspan encouraged Americans to do. When normal mortgages did not prime the pump enough, he encouraged them to take out variable-rate mortgages - at a time when interest rates had nowhere to go but up.
Predatory lenders went further, offering negative amortization loans, so the amount owed went up year after year. Now reality has hit: Newspapers report cases of borrowers whose mortgage payments exceed their entire income.
Globalisation implies that America’s mortgage problem has worldwide repercussions. America managed to pass off bad mortgages worth hundreds of billions of dollars to investors (including banks) around the world. They buried the bad mortgages in complicated instruments, buried them so deep that no one knew exactly how badly they were impaired, and no one could calculate how to re-price them quickly. In the face of such uncertainty, markets froze.
Those in financial markets who believe in free markets have temporarily abandoned their faith. While the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund warned East Asian countries facing financial crises 10 years ago against the risks of bailouts and told them not to raise their interest rates, the US ignored its own lectures about moral hazard effects, bought up billions in mortgages, and lowered interest rates.
But lower short-term interest rates have led to higher medium-term rates, which are more relevant for the mortgage market. It may make sense for central banks (or Fannie Mae, America’s major government-sponsored mortgage company) to buy mortgage-backed securities in order to help provide market liquidity. But those from whom they buy them should provide a guarantee, so the public does not have to pay the price for their bad investment decisions. Equity owners in banks should not get a free ride.
It is the victims of predatory lenders who need government help. With mortgages amounting to 95 percent or more of the value of the house, debt restructuring will not be easy. What is required is to give individuals with excessive indebtedness an expedited way to a fresh start: for example, a special bankruptcy provision allowing them to recover, say, 75 percent of the equity they originally put into the house, with the lenders bearing the cost. There are many lessons for America, and the rest of the world; but among them is the need for greater financial sector regulation, especially better protection against predatory lending, and more transparency.
Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate in economics.
Home | Business