Monday, October 30, 2006

PAUL KRUGMAN: Bursting Bubble Blues

Here are the five stages of housing grief:

1. Housing bubble? What housing bubble? “A national severe price distortion [in housing] seems most unlikely in the United States.” (Alan Greenspan, October 2004)

2. “There’s a little froth in this market,” but “we don’t perceive that there is a national bubble.” (Alan Greenspan, May 2005)

3. Housing is slumping, but “despite what you hear from some of the Eeyores in the analytical community, a recession is not visible on the horizon.” (Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, August 2006)

4. Well, that was a lousy quarter, but “I feel good about the U.S. economy, I really do.” (Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, last Friday)

5. Insert expletive here.

We’ve now reached stage 4. Will we move on to stage 5?

Over the last few years, most good U.S. economic news has been the result of soaring home prices. Spending on new houses created jobs and poured cash into the economy. Consumers borrowed against the rising values of existing homes and went on a buying spree, spending more than they earned for the first time since the great depression.

But the housing boom became a bubble, fueled by a surge of irresponsible bank lending, which continues even now. (Yesterday’s Denver Post tells of a runaway prisoner who managed to borrow enough to buy three expensive houses while on the lam, then bought two more while in prison.) The question now is how much pain the bursting bubble will inflict.

Last week’s report on G.D.P. showed the first signs of serious economic damage. According to the “advance” estimates (which are often subject to major revisions), growth in the third quarter of 2006 slowed to its worst level since early 2003. A plunge in spending on residential construction, which fell at an annual rate of 17 percent, was the main culprit. But was that just a temporary setback, or the beginning of something much worse?

Some say the worst is already over. Mr. Greenspan, who’s been an optimist all the way, now argues that the latest data on new-home sales and mortgage applications suggest that housing has already bottomed out. Business investment is still growing briskly, and so far consumers haven’t cut their spending. So maybe this is as bad as it gets.

But I think the pessimists have a stronger case. There’s a lot of evidence that home prices, although they’ve started to decline, are still way out of line. Spending on home construction remains abnormally high as a percentage of G.D.P., because banks are still lending freely in spite of rapidly rising foreclosure rates.

This means that home sales probably still have a long way to fall. And you don’t want to make too much of the fact that some housing indicators have turned up; those indicators tend to bounce around a lot from month to month.

Moreover, much of the good news in the latest economic report is unsustainable at best, suspect at worst. Almost half of last quarter’s estimated growth was the result of a reported surge in automobile output, which some observers think was a statistical illusion, not something that really happened.

So this is probably just the beginning. How bad can it get? Well, you don’t have to go far to find grim forecasts: Merrill Lynch predicts that the unemployment rate will rise from 4.6 percent now to 5.8 percent by the end of next year.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t blame the Bush administration for the latest bad economic numbers. If anyone is to blame for the current situation, it’s Mr. Greenspan, who pooh-poohed warnings about an emerging bubble and did nothing to crack down on irresponsible lending.

Still, the bad news will have political consequences. The Bush administration has been trying to shift attention away from the disaster in Iraq to an allegedly booming economy. That strategy wasn’t working too well even when the headline numbers were good, because it never felt like a boom to most Americans. But now even the headline numbers have turned lousy.

And if that hurts the G.O.P. in next week’s election, well, there’s a certain poetic justice involved. The administration tried to claim undeserved credit for the positive effects of the housing boom, so why shouldn’t it receive some blame for the negative effects of the housing bust?

1 comment:

Lefty Granny said...

so how many bubbles has Greenspan monitored, pooh poohed until the "oh expletive deleted" moment?