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A Bubble In Search of a Pin


Should Greenspan, Bernanke, and the entire Fed have seen it coming?


… On the one hand, the Federal Reserve's logic for ignoring housing prices was grounded in the perfectly sensible proposition that the private sector can judge equilibrium housing prices (or equity prices) at least as well as any government bureaucrat. On the other hand, it might have paid more attention to the fact that the rise in asset prices was being fueled by a relentless increase in the ratio of household debt to GDP, against a backdrop of record lows in the personal saving rate. This ratio, which had been roughly stable at close to 80 percent of personal income until 1993, had risen to 120 percent in 2003 and to nearly 130 percent by mid-2006. Empirical work by Bordo and Jeanne and the Bank for International Settlements suggested that when housing booms are accompanied by sharp rises in debt, the risk of a crisis is significantly elevated. Although this work was not necessarily definitive, it certainly raised questions about the Federal Reserve's policy of benign neglect.

The US conceit that its financial and regulatory system could withstand massive capital inflows on a sustained basis without any problems arguably laid the foundations for the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. The thinking that "this time is different" -- because this time the US had a superior system -- once again proved false. Outsized financial market returns were in fact greatly exaggerated by capital inflows, just as would be the case in emerging markets. What could in retrospect be recognized as huge regulatory mistakes, including the deregulation of the subprime mortgage market and the 2004 decision of the Securities and Exchange Commission to allow investment banks to triple their leverage ratios (that is, the ratio measuring the amount of risk to capital), appeared benign at the time. Capital inflows pushed up borrowing and asset prices while reducing spreads on all sorts of risky assets, leading the International Monetary Fund to conclude in April 2007, in its twice-annual World Economic Outlook, that risks to the global economy had become extremely low and that, for the moment, there were no great worries. When the international agency charged with being the global watchdog declares that there are no risks, there is no surer sign that this time is different.

[By that they mean that the attitude of the market in general and central bankers in particular was that "this time is different" and so we didn't need to worry about the warning signs. The entire point of the book is that it's never different. We just somehow believe we are in a special situation.]

… We have focused on macroeconomic issues, but many problems were hidden in the 'plumbing' of the financial markets, as has become painfully evident since the beginning of the crisis. Some of these problems might have taken years to address. Above all, the huge run-up in housing prices -- over 100 percent nationally over five years -- should have been an alarm, especially fueled as it was by rising leverage. At the beginning of 2008, the total value of mortgages in the United States was approximately 90 percent of GDP. Policy makers should have decided several years prior to the crisis to deliberately take some steam out of the system. Unfortunately, efforts to maintain growth and prevent significant sharp stock market declines had the effect of taking the safety valve off the pressure cooker.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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