The British have included a little Subprime Mortgage Crisis in their 2013 Budget

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 24th, 2013

Week in Review

Governments like people buying houses.  Because it is the biggest engine of economic activity.  Generated from  building houses.  And then furnishing them.  And they’ll do just about anything to encourage people to buy houses.  No matter the damage it can cause.  As we’ve recently learned.  But that hasn’t stopped government from making the same mistakes (see Budget 2013: The good, the bad and the ugly by Sam Bowman posted 3/20/2013 on Adam Smith Institute).

Bank guarantees to underpin £130bn of new mortgage lending for three years from 2014. Apparently the Treasury has not learned the lesson of 2008: injecting taxpayer money into the housing sector will simply inflate prices, distorting price signals and stoking the housing bubble that already seems to be growing in the housing sector. Houses are expensive because supply is restricted by the planning system. Instead of throwing money at the problem and driving prices up even more, the government should have the courage to liberalize planning to allow more development, including on green belt land.

Government ministers picking winners. Fiddling with tax breaks for specific industries is a mug’s game. There is no way the government can know which industries to promote, and these projects inevitably collapse into a mess of overcomplicated grant schemes and politics-driven bailouts of failing firms. Only consumers can pick winners.

Government spending is still rising. Despite all the talk of cuts, the government will still be spending £761bn this year, nearly £20bn more than last year. By leaving healthcare alone and failing to carry out the big structural reforms needed to reduce social security spending, the government  is not matching its rhetoric on spending with the action needed. We’re still going to be borrowing £108bn this year – that’s £295m a day, every day, with no end to the borrowing in sight.

While those on the Left blame Wall Street and greedy banks for the subprime mortgage crisis the British press knows who was at fault.  The U.S. government.  They’re the ones who kept interest rates artificially low.  Creating a housing bubble.  It was Bill Clinton who pressured lenders to make bad loans (to fix discrimination in lending that was not there).  This is why banks turned to subprime lending.  And the adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).  To qualify the unqualified.  Which they only did because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed those loans.  Even buying them to get them off of the banks’ books.  So the U.S. government caused the subprime mortgage crisis.  Not Wall Street.  Or greedy bankers.

Land use restrictions have long kept housing prices high.  Rich people have used their influence with government to restrict new housing in some very nice areas.  You can’t build new housing in some of the most exclusive neighborhoods.  Which keeps housing availability low.  Housing prices high.  And the ‘undesirables’ out of these rich people’s neighborhoods.  Allowing the rich to stick with their own kind.

Friends of the government get special favors.  Solyndra gets government loans to produce something there is no market for.  They go bankrupt.  Yet the government continues to spend money to pick winners the market passes on.  Some things never change.  No matter where you are.

Wherever you look these days governments give examples of what not to do.  Yet no one ever heeds these warnings.  And they make the same mistakes over and over again.  No matter how bad those mistakes were.  And as far as mistakes go, few were as bad as all the bad policy decisions that led up to the subprime mortgage crisis.  Yet President Obama has already talked about doing more of the same.  As are the British.  Why?  Because of that insatiable desire governments have to spend.  It has toppled empires in the past.  And yet they still spend.  As they will always continue to spend.  Because spending gives them power.  Which trumps everything else.  Even the trust of the people.

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The Poor and Middle Class see their Incomes Still Falling in the Obama Recovery

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 3rd, 2013

Week in Review

If you listen to the president, his press secretary, the mainstream media and just about anyone on the political left the economy is doing super.  Sure, we can make improvements.  But over all everything is just swell.  If you’re rich, that is. People with money are doing very well in the Obama recovery.  Those who aren’t as rich aren’t.  No.  All they see is high unemployment, rising prices and falling incomes (see Americans see biggest monthly income drop in 20 years by Annalyn Kurtz posted 3/1/2013 on CNNMoney).

Personal income decreased by $505.5 billion in January, or 3.6%, compared to December (on a seasonally adjusted and annualized basis). That’s the most dramatic decline since January 1993, according to the Commerce Department.

It’s something of a combination of one-time events, though.

Monthly income was unusually high in December because companies paid out early dividends to avoid upcoming tax hikes.

Further proof that people change their behavior when the government increases taxes.  The surge in December that made January look so bad was due to one-time distributions of profits to avoid higher taxes.  So December wasn’t that good, either.  Just an aberration as people tried to avoid the higher taxes coming their way.

The payroll tax cut’s expiration also played a role in January’s drop, because most workers have to pay 2 percentage points more in taxes this year…

Meanwhile, economists are closely watching consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of the U.S. economy…

Economists think that rising gas prices in February could cut into consumer spending temporarily. Gas prices rose 10% in February, according to AAA, but are expected to fall in coming weeks…

The Social Security tax break helped consumers at the 2012 election.  Allowing them more disposable income in the year before the election.  And helping them feel things weren’t that bad.  Of course this Social Security tax holiday drew down the Social Security surplus to a dangerous low.  Something they will have to make up for with even higher taxes than the 2% temporary cut used to help the president’s reelection.

Regulatory costs, environmental policies that have shut down oil drilling on public lands and inflation (the incessant quantitative easing of the Fed putting more and more dollars into circulation) are keeping gas prices high.  For you can hide inflation in some consumer goods by reducing package sizes but you can’t do that with gasoline.  Because you sell gas by the gallon.  So the full cost of the Fed’s inflationary policies hit gas prices hard.  And, of course, high gas prices increases prices for everything else that uses fuel.  A large factor in the rise in our grocery bills.  Taking a bigger bite out of family budgets.  Leaving little for other consumer spending.

All of that said, consumers are benefiting from a housing recovery and rising stock prices…

They’re not able to save much, though. On average, people saved about 2.4% of their disposable income in January, down from 6.4% in December. That marks the smallest saving rate since November 2007.

Rich people are benefitting from the housing ‘recovery’ and stock prices.  Those who have a lot of money left over after meeting the living expenses.  Who can save a lot of money.  And invest it into housing.  Or stocks.  In fact, that’s why the stock market does well on news of the Fed continuing their quantitative easing.  For the rich are taking advantage of that cheap money to borrow it.  So they can invest it.  Trading on the interest.  Borrowing at low interest rates.  And investing in something that earns a higher rate of return.  People struggling to make their paycheck buy everything it once did as prices rise everywhere aren’t enjoying any benefits from that cheap money.  As they have no money left over to even save up a down payment on a house.  So they can take advantage of those low housing prices.  No.  The poor and middle class are not reaping anything in the current economic ‘recovery’.  Only the rich are.

Under President Obama the rich are getting richer.  And the poor are getting poorer.  Because of his economic policies.  Especially the Keynesian policies.  Keynesians look at personal savings as leaks out of the economy.  For if people aren’t spending money they are wasting money.  Which is the point of low interest rates.  To get people to borrow money to buy things.  Thus stimulating economic activity.  And generating more consumer spending.  But all that quantitative easing has raised prices so much that consumers are left with less and less money to spend.  The poor and middle class aren’t borrowing money to buy new houses.  They’re just trying to get by on what little they have.  Hoping for good economic times to return when their personal incomes rise once again.

Keynesian economics don’t work.  Just as Keynesian stimulus does not stimulate.  If it did we wouldn’t still have fewer jobs in the U.S. economy than when President Obama took office.  And he spent about $8000 billion on a stimulus bill.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Some critics said it failed as an $8000 billion stimulus wasn’t big enough.  Even though the Obama administration declared the summer of 2010 the Recovery Summer.  Proof that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 restored economic prosperity.  Even though it didn’t.  For things still haven’t returned to where they were under George W. Bush.  Despite 4 years of Keynesian policies.  That haven’t raised personal incomes.  The true measure of any economic recovery.  And when personal incomes are the lowest they’ve been in 20 years, there hasn’t been any economic recovery.  Despite $800 billion in stimulus.  And 4 years of President Obama’s Keynesian economic policies.

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The UAW and Public Sector Unions devastate Three Michigan Cities

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 24th, 2013

Week in Review

It’s not been a good year for Detroit.  Well, it’s been more than a year.  It’s been a few bad years.  Actually, it’s been a great many bad years.  Since 1970.  When Ford Motor Company Chairman Henry Ford II joined with other business leaders to form Detroit Renaissance.  To revitalize the City of Detroit.  And some 42 years later, the City of Detroit is still struggling (see Detroit’s Misery Can Be Its Turning Point by Micheline Maynard posted 2/23/2013 on Forbes).

Detroit boosters were dealt a one-two blow this week by the kind of outsiders they have come to resent.

First, a state review panel declared that a financial emergency existed in the city, making it likely that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder will appoint an emergency financial manager with sweeping powers.

Then, Forbes weighed in by declaring Detroit the nation’s most miserable city, based on a series of criteria that include crime, unemployment, foreclosures and home value…

Although General Motors is based in Detroit, and Chrysler recently opened an office there, the automobile industry is not going to provide the vast numbers of jobs the city needs to become solvent.

And there lies the problem for Detroit.  A city that grew big and rich off of the automobile industry saw a steady exodus and a declining tax base when the automobile industry declined.  Live by the automobile.  Die by the automobile.  And it’s just not Detroit.  A couple of other Michigan cities broke into the top 10 of Forbes’ America’s Most Miserable Cities 2013.

#7 Warren, Mich.

Troy and Farmington Hills are part of the government-defined Warren metro division. Like Detroit, the Warren metro has seen home prices collapse–off 53% the past five years.

#2 Flint, Mich.

Flint has been demolishing homes as the city shrinks with residents leaving in search of jobs. Only Detroit has a higher net out-migration rate. Flint ranks third worst for violent crime, behind Detroit and Memphis.

#1 Detroit, Mich.

Violent crime in the Detroit metro was down 5% in 2011, but it remains the highest in the country with 1,052 violent crimes per 100,000 people, according to the FBI. Home prices were off 35% the past 3 years, which is the biggest drop in the U.S.

If you seek a pleasant peninsula* you’d do better looking for one where the UAW isn’t dominant.  Perhaps Florida.  For the UAW is a city killer based on these Michigan cities.  (*The official state motto of Michigan is “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”)

The Big Three dominated these cities.  Where fat pay and benefit packages were passed on to consumers in overpriced vehicles.  The Big Three’s monopoly on car sales allowed them to make fat profits.  And pay enormous amounts of taxes to the cities that had the factories that assembled their cars.  City coffers were so flush with cash city governments grew.  And city workers enjoyed fat pay and benefit packages.  This was the high water mark of the UAW.  Just after public sector unions had joined them on the gravy train.  But then something happened that devastated the UAW.  Consumers got choice.  They no longer had to buy overpriced ‘rust buckets’ the Big Three was putting out during the Seventies.  For the Japanese gave them choice.

And so began the great decline of the Big Three.  Quality and value did them in.  It’s what the people wanted.  While the UAW wanted consumers to pay more and get less.  So they could continue to enjoy their fat pay and benefit packages.  As the jobs went away so do did the taxes.  The cities bloated with all those government workers with their fat pay and benefit packages tried to maintain the size of their governments even while the tax base was declining.  Reducing other government services as they had little money left over after paying those fat pay and benefit packages.

With fewer and fewer jobs available people left these cities.  Empty houses dotted the horizon.  And housing prices fell.  With the tax base continuing to decline.  Poverty rates rose.  As did city services for the impoverished.  Leaving even less for other city services.  Causing a further exodus from the city.  Urban blight followed.  As did crime.  Causing a further decline in property values.

Low interest rates helped boost housing prices.  For awhile.  President Clinton’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending kicked off subprime lending in earnest as lenders bowed to the Clinton Justice Department to put more low-income and minorities into homes they couldn’t afford.  Creating a huge housing bubble.  Built on easy credit.  Artificially low interest rates.  And the adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).  When rates went up all those low-income and minorities who bought houses they couldn’t afford defaulted on their higher mortgage payments.  Creating the subprime mortgage crisis.  Giving us the Great Recession.  Creating a flood of foreclosures.  A free fall in housing prices.  And more of the same that helped put those three Michigan cities into the top ten of Forbes’ America’s Most Miserable Cities 2013.

Michigan recently opted to become a Right-to-Work state.  Greatly angering the UAW and those public sector unions.  But it may be just what Michigan needs to reverse the great decline caused by the UAW and the public sector unions that devastated some of Michigan’s greatest cities.  One thing for sure it can’t get any worse.  Not when being a union state for so long secured three places in the top ten of Forbes’ America’s Most Miserable Cities 2013.

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Homeowners are still Suffering in the Housing Market but Speculators are Profiting

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 3rd, 2013

Week in Review

Housing sales drive the economy.  Because it takes a lot of economic activity to build houses.  And even more for homeowners to furnish their homes.  This is why the government gave us the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession.  They kept interest rates artificially low.  And the Clinton administration forced lenders to lower standards to put as many people into houses as possible.  But, alas, they put a lot of people into homes that couldn’t afford them.  Using subprime mortgages to get them into those homes.  Like the adjustable rate mortgage.  And when interest rates went up so did their mortgage payments.  And they defaulted.  Which kicked off the subprime mortgage crisis.  Giving us the Great Recession.

These low interest rates created a great demand for housing.  Everyone was borrowing money to buy.  Because money was so cheap to borrow.  And with those lower standards borrowing money was never easier.  Especially for investors.  Who bought houses.  Fixed them up.  And put them back on the market.  House flippers.  With all this demand housing prices soared.  Creating a great housing bubble.  Which burst.  As all bubbles do.  And housing prices plummeted.  Leaving people with mortgages greater than the new value of their houses.  Some walked away.  Especially those who put little to nothing down.  Like those house flippers.  And those subprime borrowers.  Flooding the market with more homes.  Putting further pressure on housing prices.

It was a huge mess the government gave us.  The damage was great.  And we’ve been waiting a long time for the housing market to recover.  Housing prices are finally rising.  But not for the right reasons (see Home prices on the rise, but not ownership by Alejandro Lazo posted 1/29/2013 on the Los Angeles Times).

The sharp increase in home prices — particularly in regional markets such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, which had been so decimated by the bust — is raising concern among some economists…

It is those kinds of big increases that could fuel speculation.

“It does concern me a bit,” Zillow.com chief economist Stan Humphries said. “It encourages people to think about housing as a short-term investment, instead of a long-term investment…”

While prices may be rising, homeownership is struggling, an indication that investors are playing a big part in fueling the market’s rebound. The Census Bureau said Tuesday that national homeownership fell 0.6% to 65.4% in the fourth quarter over the same period a year earlier…

The spike in prices is masking the trouble that borrowers with underwater mortgages are facing. In fact, it’s precisely because so many borrowers cannot get out from underneath their upside-down homes that prices are rising so much, economists have said, because those people are simply hanging on and not putting their homes on the market.

People underwater are hanging on because they don’t want to take a huge loss by selling.  When you lose some 25-40% of your home’s value there’s only one way to get it back.  You keep living in it.  For a long time.  For only time can restore a home’s value.  Which a homeowner will lose if he or she sells.

So house prices are coming back up.  But like elsewhere in the economy it’s the rich who are doing well.  Not middle class families.  Those who want to live in their homes.  Furnish their homes.  These people who drive real economic activity.  Not the house flippers who are just trying to profit off the misfortune of others.  Who are picking up houses on the cheap thanks to those lost their homes or sold them at a loss.  And flipping them to make a profit.  These are the people doing well in Obama’s America.  Not middle class families.

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Great Depression, Monetary Expansion, Keynesian, Smoot Hawley Tariff, Gold Window, Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 2nd, 2012

History 101

There was Real Economic Activity in the Twenties so the Great Depression should only have been a Recession

The Great Depression began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Which led to a period of record unemployment.  On average the unemployment rate was 13.46% during the Thirties.  Or, if you don’t count all of the make-work government jobs, 18.23%.  So what caused this unemployment?  Was it the expansionary monetary policy of the Twenties?  The Keynesians thought so.  Even the economists from the Austrian school of economics thought so.  The only ones to have predicted the Great Depression.  So were they right?  A little bit.

Yes, there was monetary expansion during the Twenties.  So a recessionary correction was inevitable.  But a depression?  When you look at the economic activity of the Twenties, no.  The Roaring Twenties were a transformative time.  It was when we began to say goodbye to the steam engine.  And said hello to electricity.  We said goodbye to the horse and buggy.  And said hello to the automobile.  We said goodbye to the horse and plow.  And said hello to the tractor.  As well as said hello to radio, motion pictures, air travel, electric lighting and electric appliances in the home, etc.  So there was real economic activity in the Twenties.  It wasn’t all a bubble.  So the Great Depression should have only been a regular recession.  But it wasn’t.  So what happened?

Government.  The government interfered with market forces.  Based on Keynesian advice.  They said the government needed to increase aggregate demand.  As that demand would encourage businesses to expand and hire new workers.  Thus lowering the unemployment rate.  And part of increasing demand was keeping wages from falling.  So people had more money to spend.  Of course, if employers were to continue to pay higher wages that meant that prices could not fall.  Like they normally do during a recession.  So the Keynesian advice was to prevent the market from correcting prices to match supply to demand.  Prolonging the inevitable recession.  But there was more bad government policy.

The Keynesian Cure for Unemployment is Inflation

The stock market was soaring in the late Twenties.  Because of that real economic growth.  So what happened to that economic growth?  Well, in part, the Smoot Hawley Tariff of 1930.  Which was in committee in 1929 before the great crash.  But investors saw it coming.  And they knew tariffs rising as much as 50% were going to cool those hot earnings they’ve been enjoying.  As well as Herbert Hoover’s progressive plans.  Who would go on to double income tax rates.  When Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election the writing was on the wall.  And investors bailed.  Especially when the Smoot Hawley Tariff was moving through committee.  Because raising the cost of doing business does not help business.  So the great earnings ride of the Twenties was ending and the investors sold their stocks to lock in their profits.  Precipitating the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  And the record unemployment that would follow.  And the Great Depression.

So the Keynesians got it wrong during the Thirties.  Their next grand experiment would be in the Seventies.  As government spending took off thanks to the Vietnam War, the Great Society and the Apollo moon program.  There was so much spending that they had to print money to pay for it all.  As they did, though, they devalued the dollar.  Which became a problem.  As the U.S. at the time agreed to exchange gold for dollars at $35/ounce.  So when the Americans made their dollar worth less our trading partners decided to take our gold instead.  Gold flew out of the gold window.  So to stop this gold flow out of the country Nixon did what any Keynesian would do.  No, he didn’t cut back spending.  He decoupled the dollar from gold.  Slamming the gold window shut.  Without any advanced warning to the world.  So we now call this action he took on August 15, 1971 the Nixon Shock.  The Keynesians were thrilled.  Because they now had no restraint in printing new money.

The reason Keynesians were happy to be able to print more money was because that was their cure for unemployment.  Inflation.  When the economy goes into recession it was just a simple matter of expanding the money supply.  Which lowers interest rates.  Which makes businesses who had no intention to expand their businesses borrow money to expand their businesses.  So to pull the economy out of recession they inflated the money supply.  And did it work?  No.  Of course it didn’t.  It just raised prices.  Increasing the cost of business.  As well as leaving consumers with less real income.  So, no, the economy didn’t improve.  It just stagnated.  The average unemployment rate during the Seventies was 6.21%.  While the average inflation rate was 7.08%.  Also, the top marginal tax rate of 70%.  Which didn’t help the anti-business environment.

The Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the Great Recession were Direct Consequences of Bad Monetary Policy

So the Keynesians failed.  Again.  Their inflationary monetary policy only made things worse during the Seventies.  All of that inflation just kept pushing prices ever higher.  Ensuring that the inevitable recession to correct those prices would be long and painful.  Which it was.  In the early Eighties.  Then Paul Volcker rang out all of that inflation.  And Ronald Reagan began bringing the top marginal tax rate down until it was at 28% by the end of the decade.  Making a more favorable business environment.  So business grew.  And began to hire new workers.  Teaching an economic lesson some in government refused to learn.  Keynesian inflationary monetary policies did not work.

During the Nineties the Keynesians were back.  Inflating the money supply slowly but surely to continue an economic expansion.  Making money available to borrow.  And borrow it people did.  Creating a long and sustained housing boom that would last for about 2 decades.  That expansionary monetary policy gave us cheap mortgages.  Making it very easy to buy a house.  Housing prices rose.  And continued to rise during those two decades.  Then President Clinton had his Justice Department tell banks to lower their standards for approving mortgages for the unqualified.  So everyone could buy a house.  Even if they couldn’t afford to pay for it.  Ushering in the subprime mortgage industry.  Further increasing the demand for houses.  And further driving up housing prices.  Making the inevitable correction a long and painful one.

Meanwhile, there was something new in the market place in the Nineties.  The Internet.  And new Internet start-ups (dot-coms) flooded the market.  Investors poured money into them.  Even though they didn’t have a product to sell.  And had no earnings.  But investors were exuberant.  And irrational.  Kids flooded into universities to get degrees in computer science.  To staff all of those Internet start-ups.  Companies went public.  Creating a stock market bubble as investors scrambled to buy their stock.  They raised a boatload of money from those IPOs.  And spent it all.  Many without producing anything to sell.  And when that money ran out they went bankrupt.  Bursting that stock market bubble.  And throwing a lot of computer scientists out of a job.  Causing a painful recession in the early 2000s that George Bush helped mitigate with tax cuts.

And low interest rates.  People were back buying houses.  But this time they were buying McMansions.  Because that easy monetary policy gave us cheap mortgage rates.  And subprime, no-documentation, zero down loans, etc., made it easier than ever to buy a house.  Housing prices soared.  And builders flooded the market with more McMansions.  Pushing prices ever higher.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were buying those toxic subprime mortgages from banks to encourage them to approve more toxic subprime mortgages.  Pushing the inevitable correction further and further out.  Running up prices so high that their fall would be a long and painful one.  Which it was when the subprime mortgage crisis hit.  As well as the Great Recession.  Direct consequences of bad monetary policy.  And the government’s interference into market forces.

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Housing Boom, Subprime Lending, ARMs, Housing Bubble, CDOs, Subprime Mortgage Crisis, Housing Inventories & Sales and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 24th, 2012

History 101

Artificially Low Interest Rates and Federal Pressure to Qualify the Unqualified created a Housing Bubble

The federal government loves home sales.  Because they generate a lot of economic activity.  From the washing machines and refrigerators new homeowners buy to furnish them.  To the raw materials extracted from nature to make the concrete, bricks, wood, pipes, wires, shingles, glass, plastic, paints, carpeting, insulation, etc., to build them.  Enormous amounts of economic activity at every level throughout the stages of production.  It reduces down to a simple formula.  Make it easy for people to buy houses.  Enjoy a booming economy.  And how best to do that?  Make mortgages cheap.  By keeping interest rates cheap.  Artificially low.  To stimulate a housing boom.

This is Keynesian economics.  Government intervention into the private market.  By having the Federal Reserve keep interest rates lower than the market would have them.  To encourage more people to buy houses.  Then the Clinton administration took it up a notch with their Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Investor’s Business Daily reported (see Smoking-Gun Document Ties Policy To Housing Crisis by PAUL SPERRY posted 10/31/2011 on Investors.com) that this policy statement forced lenders basically to qualify the unqualified.

At President Clinton’s direction, no fewer than 10 federal agencies issued a chilling ultimatum to banks and mortgage lenders to ease credit for lower-income minorities or face investigations for lending discrimination and suffer the related adverse publicity. They also were threatened with denial of access to the all-important secondary mortgage market and stiff fines, along with other penalties…

“The agencies will not tolerate lending discrimination in any form,” the document warned financial institutions.

The unusual full-court press was predicated on a Boston Fed study showing mortgage lenders rejecting blacks and Hispanics in greater proportion than whites. The author of the 1992 study, hired by the Clinton White House, claimed it was racial “discrimination.” But it was simply good underwriting.

There was no racial discrimination.  Just people who couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  But that didn’t stop the Clinton administration.  So there were artificially low interest rates.  And federal pressure to qualify the unqualified.  To let those who can’t afford to buy a house buy a house.  Enter subprime lending.  A way lenders could approve the unqualified for a mortgage.  With adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs).  Interest only mortgages.  Zero down mortgages.  No documentation loans (say you earn whatever you want and we’ll enter it into the application without documenting it).  Anyone who wanted to have a house could have a house.  And a lot of people bought houses.  Even those with insufficient incomes to pay their mortgage payment if interest rates ever rose.

When the Housing Bubble Burst it Destroyed a lot of Economic Activity and a lot of Jobs

The economy was heating up.  There was a housing boom.  The boom turned into a housing bubble.  Housing prices soared demand was so high.  Builders couldn’t build them fast enough.  And people couldn’t buy a house big enough.  McMansions entered the lexicon.  Houses in excess of 3,000 square feet.  For a family of four.  Or smaller.  But then these artificially low interest rates began to heat up inflation.  And it was the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to keep that from happening.  So they raised interest rates.  Causing the interest rates on those ARMs to reset at a higher rate.  Making a lot of those monthly payments beyond the homeowners’ ability to pay.  Homeowners defaulted in droves.  Causing the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Facilitating this economic carnage was the secondary mortgage market.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Who bought those very risky mortgages from the lenders.  Repackaged them into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).  And sold them to unsuspecting investors.  Who thought they were buying high-yield safe investments.  Because they were backed by historically the safest investment.  A mortgage.  But that was before subprime lending.  For these subprime mortgages weren’t your father’s mortgage.  These mortgages were toxic.

So when the housing bubble burst it not only destroyed a lot of economic activity, and a lot of jobs, it wreaked financial destruction in people’s investment portfolios.  All because of a formula.  Make it easy for people to buy houses.  But when you play with the economy too much you don’t create economic growth.  You created bubbles.  And the bigger the bubble the longer and the more painful the recession will be when that bubble bursts.  As those artificially high house prices fall out of the stratosphere back to real market levels.

The Current Gulf between Housing Inventories and Sales is what made this Recession the Great Recession

If you look at the housing inventories and housing sales for the decade from 2001 to 2011 you can see how bad the recession was.  And will continue to be.  We took housing data from the United States Census Bureau.   Housing inventories from Table 7A.  And housing sales from Houses Sold.  The data shows housing units in inventory and sold.  We used 2001 as a base year, dividing each number by the 2001 base numbers.  Graphing the results shows how inventories and sales trended for this decade.

From 2001 to 2005 housing sales were rising at a greater rate than inventories.  Indicating demand for houses was greater than the supply of houses.  Causing house prices to rise.  Encouraging builders to build more houses.  Heating up the housing market.  Sending prices higher.  Creating the great housing bubble.  Then around 2005 the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates to tamp out inflation.  And those ARMs began to reset at higher rates.  Causing housing sales to fall.  From about 2005 to 2008 inventories continued to rise while sales collapsed.  Leaving the available housing supply far outstripping demand.  Causing house prices to collapse.  Leaving people underwater in their mortgage (owing more than their house is worth).  Or living in paid-off houses that lost up to half their value.  Or more.

The gulf between inventories and sales is what made this recession the Great Recession.  And is why the Great Recession lingers on.  There are just so many more houses than people want to buy.  Killing new housing starts.  And all that economic activity that building a house generates.

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The Easy Credit of Central Banks can’t Stimulate when Recessions are Still Correcting Prices

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 14th, 2012

Week in Review

Central banks have caused most of our financial woes today.  Easy credit created a frenzy of buying.  Pushing asset prices skyward.  America’s subprime mortgage crisis was caused by easy credit.  Well, that, and bad government policy like forcing lenders to lend even to people who were unqualified.  And they had their government sponsored enterprises (GSE), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, unload those toxic mortgages to unsuspecting investors.  You add this to the easy credit of America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, and it created an incredible housing bubble.  That just didn’t burst.  It exploded.  Sending the U.S. into the greatest recession since the Great Depression.  The Great Recession. 

As housing prices fell back to earth homeowners found themselves underwater in their mortgages.  Some refinanced.  Some just walked away.  Some went through foreclosure.  Leaving the country littered with foreclosed homes.  And all of this financial destruction was brought to us courtesy of the Federal Reserve and their easy credit.  Despite all of this devastation our central bank has caused us some people still think that central banks can stimulate us out of the Great Recession.  Perhaps they’ll finally learn the folly of their thinking (see Roubini: My ‘Perfect Storm’ Is Unfolding Now by Ansuya Harjani, CNBC, posted 7/9/2012 on Yahoo! Finance).

“Dr. Doom” Nouriel Roubini, says the “perfect storm” scenario he forecast for the global economy earlier this year is unfolding right now as growth slows in the U.S., Europe as well as China.

In May, Roubini predicted four elements – stalling growth in the U.S., debt troubles in Europe, a slowdown in emerging markets, particularly China, and military conflict in Iran – would come together in to create a storm for the global economy in 2013…

Policy easing moves by the European Central Bank (ECB), Bank of England (BoE) and the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) last week did little to inspire confidence in global stock markets…

Bill Smead, CEO of Smead Capital Management, agrees that there is little central banks can do arrest the global slowdown.

Last week, he told CNBC that there is “virtually zero chance” that pump-priming by central banks will succeed, suggesting that policymakers should instead let the economic bust work itself through the system.

Yes.  We should let the economic bust work itself through the system.  Because that’s what recessions are supposed to do.  That’s why we call them corrections.  When rising prices create asset bubbles recessions come along and correct these prices back to where they should be.  Where the market would have had them had it not been for all of that easy credit.

Recessions aren’t pleasant.  But it’s the price we must pay.  Especially when we interfere with market forces to keep interest rates artificially low to stimulate economic activity.  Because the economic activity they stimulate is as artificial as the interest rates.  People don’t base their purchasing decisions on supply and demand.  They base them on the availability of easy credit.  Where people say things like, “I had no intention of buying a 3,000 square foot home for me and my wife but at these mortgage rates I’d be a fool not to.  And wouldn’t a Cadillac look just great in the driveway?  At these low interest rates I can afford both.  I mean, it’s not like I’m going to lose my job or anything.”

Of course people do lose their jobs.  And their homes.  And their cars.  What happens then?  Why, we have a subprime mortgage crisis.  And a Great Recession.  That’s what.

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Low Interest Rates in Canada are creating a Housing Bubble Similar to the one that led to the Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 5th, 2012

Week in Review

Easy credit created a housing bubble in the U.S.  And inflation.  When the Fed increased interest rates to stop that inflation they burst that housing bubble.  And caused the U.S. Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  Which caused the Great Recession. 

Easy credit.  The hallmark of Keynesian economics.  To maintain a small but ‘manageable’ permanent level of inflation.  To make recessions a thing of the past.  But this permanent inflation has only created bubbles.  Like housing bubbles.  Such as the one that led to the Great Recession.  Making it longer and far more painful than it would have been had they left interest rates to market forces.

Credit wasn’t as easy in Canada.  So they escaped much of the fallout from the Great Recession.  But they still practiced Keynesian economics.  Kept interest rates low these past few years to stimulate their economy.  And stimulated they did.  Perhaps a little too much (see Look out below posted 2/4/2012 on The Economist).

When the United States saw a vast housing bubble inflate and burst during the 2000s, many Canadians felt smug about the purported prudence of their financial and property markets. During the crash, Canadian house prices fell by just 8%, compared with more than 30% in America. They hit new record highs by 2010. “Canada was not a part of the problem,” Stephen Harper, the prime minister, boasted in 2010.

Today the consensus is growing on Bay Street, Toronto’s answer to Wall Street, that Mr Harper may have to eat his words. In response to America’s slow economic recovery and uncertainty in Europe, the Bank of Canada has kept interest rates at record lows. Five-year fixed-rate mortgages now charge interest of just 2.99%. In response, Canadians have sought ever-bigger loans for ever-costlier homes. The country’s house prices have doubled since 2002…

Bankers are becoming alarmed. Mark Carney, the governor of the central bank, has been warning for years that Canadians are consuming beyond their means. The bosses of banks with big mortgage businesses, including CIBC, Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Montreal, have all said the housing market is at or near its peak. Canada’s ratio of household debt to disposable income has risen by 40% in the past decade, recently surpassing America’s (see chart). And its ratio of house prices to income is now 30% above its historical average—less than, say, Ireland’s excesses (which reached 70%), but high enough to expect a drop. A recent report from Bank of America said Canada was “showing many of the signs of a classic bubble”…

However, the state has refused to use its most powerful tool. To protect business investment, the central bank has made clear that it plans to keep interest rates low. As long as money stays cheap, the balloon could get bigger—perhaps big enough to become a fully fledged bubble after all.

So, to further stimulate the economy (i.e., to protect business investment) they are keeping interest rates low.  When all the signs indicate that this economic growth is growing a rather large real estate bubble.  Normally a good time to start raising interest rates.  So housing prices don’t get so high that when they fall they hurt.  Like they did in the U.S.  Where they fell over 30%.  And are still falling in some areas.  And when they fall from that height it hurts.  It really hurts.  Just ask someone whose mortgage is underwater.  Where their mortgage is greater than the current price of their house.  You can ask just about any homeowner in the U.S.  Or, perhaps, any homeowner in Canada in the not so distant future.

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A Skyscraper Boom may be an Early Recession Indicator

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 14th, 2012

Week in Review

It takes a long time to build buildings.  Especially tall ones.  It takes large sums of money.  Environmental impact studies.  Lots of time to design it and produce contract documents.  Then there’s the bidding process.  Contracts.  All of this before they even break ground.  So it’s a very long process.  Then the building starts.  Which can take years.  So that’s a lot of years between financing commitments and occupancy.  This is why the construction industry is typically the last industry to enter a recession.  And the last to emerge from a recession.  So knowing this what can we learn from a skyscraper boom (see Skyscrapers ‘linked with impending financial crashes’ posted 1/10/2012 on BBC News Business)?

There is an “unhealthy correlation” between the building of skyscrapers and subsequent financial crashes, according to Barclays Capital…

“Often the world’s tallest buildings are simply the edifice of a broader skyscraper building boom, reflecting a widespread misallocation of capital and an impending economic correction,” Barclays Capital analysts said…

Investors should be most concerned about China, which is currently building 53% of all the tall buildings in the world, the bank said.

A lending boom following the global financial crisis in 2008 pushed prices higher in the world’s second largest economy.

In a separate report, JPMorgan Chase said that the Chinese property market could drop by as much as 20% in value in the country’s major cities within the next 12 to 18 months.

We get skyscraper booms during good economic times.  When interest rates are low.  And real estate bubbles are beginning to grow.  Cheap money gives us housing booms and high housing prices.  Then the inflation kicks in.  Inflating those real estate bubbles.  As inflation fears build they increase interest rates.  This increases the cost of buying those new homes.  Which, of course, leaves a lot of those new homes unsold.  With more homes for sale that there are buyers looking to buy only one thing can happen.  Prices fall.  Bubbles burst.  And recession sets in to correct prices.

While the economy collapses into recession those skyscrapers limp along.  Too late to stop.  And too costly to cancel.  Instead they’ll complete them.  On the exterior, at least.  And there they’ll stand as monuments to the folly of cheap money.  With thousands of square feet of empty office space.  Or rents slashed to get enough people into them to at least pay for the maintenance of these great buildings.

China has some problems.  Some big ones.  They have a shrinking trade surplus thanks to the weak demand in Europe and America.  Some inflation fears.  And now what looks like a real estate bubble being primed to burst.  Which may very well bring a recession China.  And it will be an economic crash heard round the world.

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Obama Prolongs the Recession with High Food and Gas Prices and anti-Business Policies

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 27th, 2011

Consumer Spending and Wages are Flat thanks to Inflation

Consumer spending at last shows some growth.  No, wait a minute.  It’s not growth.  It’s only inflation (see April consumer spending shows weak gain by the Associated Press posted 5/27/2011 on the Los Angeles Times).

Consumer spending rose 0.4 percent, reflecting a surge in the category that covers food and gasoline, areas which showed big price gains last month, the Commerce Department reported Friday. Excluding price changes, spending rose a much smaller 0.1 percent.

Incomes rose 0.4 percent but after-tax incomes adjusted for inflation were flat for a second straight month.

Analysts are worried that weak income growth and big gains in gasoline and food prices are leaving consumers with little left to spend on other products. That could dampen economic growth. Consumer spending is closely watched because it accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

Increased consumer spending is a good thing.  But not when consumers are only paying more for the same stuff.  That’s not new economic activity.  That’s just inflation making life more expensive.  Food and gasoline are the main culprits.  And it’s gasoline that plays a large role in making food more expensive.  Because gasoline is used everywhere in bringing food to our grocery stores.

Worse, Americans are paying more.  But not earning more.  Which leaves less disposable income to stimulate the economy. In other words, the U.S. is still in recession.  And won’t be coming out of it anytime soon.

Still no Recovery in the Housing Market

So we’re still mired in recession.  Of course that means houses should still be cheap.  With low interest rates.  Put the two together and someone should be buying houses at least (see Pending Home Sales Plunge, Reaching Seven-Month Low by Reuters posted 5/27/2011 on CNBC).

Pending sales of existing U.S. homes dropped far more than expected in April to touch a seven-month low, a trade group said on Friday, dealing a blow to hopes of a recovery in the housing market.

Damn.  Housing sales had been the backbone of the U.S. economy.  Because furnishing a house drives so much consumer spending.  The more people that bought houses the better.  So that was U.S. policy.  Putting people into houses.  Which led to the subprime mortgage market.  A housing bubble.  The subprime mortgage crisis.   And a glut of foreclosed homes on the market driving housing prices down further.

It’s a buyer’s market now.  Because so few are buying.  So the economy is not going to get any assistance from the housing market any time soon.

Universal Health Care Ruins Massachusetts First, then the United States

So things are bad.  But can they get any worse?  Are there any new big regulatory compliance or taxes in the pipeline?  Anything that could snuff out even the most anemic of economic recoveries?  As it turns out, yes (see Health Insurance Premiums Continue to Rise Under RomneyCare by Peter Suderman posted 5/27/2011 on reason).

Not only are Masachusetts’ health insurance premiums higher than elsewhere in the U.S. on average, they’ve grown at a faster rate since the adoption of RomneyCare, according to a report released yesterday by the state government. The report, which was published by the state’s Division of Health Care Finance & Policy, notes that for the last two years, private group insurance premiums rose by between five and 10 percent per year despite the fact that the regional consumer price index, which measures inflation on common goods and services, rose by just two percent..

The Obama administration has explicitly stated on numerous occasions that RomneyCare was the model for the federal overhaul. Given the Bay State’s spiraling costs, it seems more and more likely that, thanks to ObamaCare, we can all expect higher health insurance premiums in our future.

So Obamacare is Romneycare at the national level.  So the American people can expect spiraling health care costs and insurance premiums.  That can’t be good for the economy.

Obamacare hasn’t really kicked in yet.  Most of the activity has been by companies seeking waivers to be excluded from the requirements of Obamacare as it places too great a cost burden on their small businesses.  But these are only one-year waivers.  So small business costs will be going up eventually.  When they do in fact comply with Obamacare.  And that will be a great disincentive to hire new employees.  Being that small business is the biggest generator of jobs, Obamacare will further stretch out this recession.  Or make it an even more severe recession.

The Obama Administration would like Gas at $8/Gallon

If only we could get a break on gasoline prices.  That is such a large part of consumer prices that if they went down the economy might tick up.  So the government should focus all of its powers on lowering gas prices (see Obama’s Bad Policy, Harmful Regulations Add to Gas Prices by Darrell Issa posted 5/27/2011 on USNEWS).

From the campaign trail, then Senator Obama spoke of increased electricity prices as a means for advancing his agenda, noting that costs would “necessarily skyrocket.” Energy Secretary Stephen Chu was equally blunt. “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe [currently $8 a gallon],” Mr. Chu announced. Last year, President Obama declared that America must be the nation that leads the “clean energy economy.”

So the plan was to make gasoline prices high all along.  To make gasoline so expensive that the more expensive green energy became cost competitive.  To encourage the American people to choose it.  And by ‘encourage’ I mean force.  Talk about devious. 

Even as compliance costs for traditional and affordable sources of energy rise, the administration’s willingness to promulgate even tighter regulatory controls and raise taxes on oil and gas producers rolls along. In his fiscal year 2012 budget, President Obama requested more than $60 billion in direct tax and fee increases on American energy production over the next 10 years.

Tighter regulatory controls and higher taxes won’t help the economy.  Especially when those controls and taxes are on the one thing that drives most prices.  Gasoline.  It’s almost as if the Obama administration is trying to prolong the greatest recession since the Great Depression.

The Government’s Help is killing Small Business

So how about the man in the street.  Or, rather, a man on an airplane.  Stephen Carter, Yale law professor, sat next to a small business owner on a recent flight.  An actual person.  Not the abstract business people who are trying to cheat the government out of their taxes or take grandma’s medications away.  A flesh and blood real person.  They had an interesting conversation.  About small business.  The greatest generator of American jobs.  And he asked this business owner why he was prolonging the recession by not hiring new employees (see Carter: Economic Stagnation Explained, at 30,000 Feet by Stephen L. Carter posted 5/26/2011 on Bloomberg).

“Because I don’t know how much it will cost,” he explains. “How can I hire new workers today, when I don’t know how much they will cost me tomorrow?”

He’s referring not to wages, but to regulation: He has no way of telling what new rules will go into effect when. His business, although it covers several states, operates on low margins. He can’t afford to take the chance of losing what little profit there is to the next round of regulatory changes. And so he’s hiring nobody until he has some certainty about cost.

One thing business people don’t like is uncertainty.  Because when they screw up they can’t just raise taxes or print money.  They have to deal with real the consequences of bad decisions.  So they are very careful about making costly decisions.  Like hiring people.

“I don’t understand why Washington does this to us,” he resumes. By “us,” he means people who run businesses of less- than-Fortune-500 size. He tells me that it doesn’t much matter which party is in office. Every change of power means a whole new set of rules to which he and those like him must respond. ‘‘I don’t understand,” he continues, “why Washington won’t just get out of our way and let us hire.”

Republican.  Democrat.  It doesn’t matter.  Every time there is a change there are new rules to follow.  And more of that thing they so hate.  Uncertainty.

“I think about retirement a lot,” he says. “But I can’t.” I wait to hear about how much he loves the business he founded, or about his responsibilities to his employees, or perhaps to the town, somewhere in the Dakotas, where his factory is located. Instead, he tells me that it’s impossible to make a sensible decision about winding down his firm when he doesn’t even know from one year to the next what the capital gains rate is going to be.

So it’s just not the Wall Street robber barons affected by the capital gains tax.  The greatest employer, small business, is affected, too.  He is just one of many.  Unable to make decisions like when he can retire.  Does he have enough money to retire?  And pay his capital gains tax?  If not it could be a problem.  Because you just can’t un-retire when you sell or close down a small business if you calculated wrong.  Instead, you’ll be an old guy trying to find a job.

I ask him what, precisely, he thinks is the proper role of government as it relates to business.

“Invisible,” he says. “I know there are things the government has to do. But they need to find a way to do them without people like me having to bump into a new regulation every time we turn a corner.” He reflects for a moment, then finds the analogy he seeks. “Government should act like my assistant, not my boss.”

An assistant doesn’t tell the boss how to run his business.  Because an assistant doesn’t know how to run his boss’ business.  Government bureaucrats aren’t even as knowledgeable as the assistant.  The assistant at least has a job in a business.  Few in Washington have ever run a business.  Let alone had a real job.  Yet here they are constantly trying to tell others how to run their businesses.

On the way to my connection, I ponder. As an academic with an interest in policy, I tend to see businesses as abstractions, fitting into a theory or a data set. Most policy makers do the same. We rarely encounter the simple human face of the less- than-giant businesses we constantly extol. And when they refuse to hire, we would often rather go on television and call them greedy than sit and talk to them about their challenges.

Recessions have complex causes, but, as the man on the aisle reminded me, we do nothing to make things better when the companies on which we rely see Washington as adversary rather than partner.

The best thing Washington can do to help small business?  Stop helping. 

In the Recession Business?

From small business regulation to inflation to the high cost of health care to the high cost of gasoline it would appear that the current administration is actually in the recession business.  Or utterly incompetent.  One almost has to lean towards incompetence.  Because there is an election in 2012.  And making the worst recession since the Great Depression more like the Great Depression can’t possibly help at the polls.  Even if you have compromising photographs of the Republican candidate having a good time with someone that is not his or her spouse.

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