Housing Boom, Bubble and Bust

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 15th, 2013

Economics 101

Building and Furnishing Houses creates Great Economic Activity

Central to any booming economy are healthy home sales.  For home sales unleash great economic activity.  From the first surveys of a new subdivision.  To the new sewers and water systems.  Gas and telephone.  Cable television and broadband Internet.  Concrete for basements, driveways and sidewalks.  Structural steel (that beam in the basement and steel poles holding up the house).  Rough carpentry.  Electrical work and plumbing.  Drywall, windows and roofing.  Painting, flooring, doors and hardware.  Heating and air conditioning.  Lighting and plumbing fixtures.  Brick, siding and landscaping.  Etc.

All of this takes manufacturing to make these construction products.  All these manufacturers need raw materials.  And raw material extraction needs heavy equipment and energy.  At all of these stages of production are jobs.  Extracting raw materials.  Processing raw materials.  Manufacturing products out of these raw materials.  Building this production equipment.  Interconnecting these stages of production is every form of transportation.  Rail, Great Lake freighter, river barge and truck.  Requiring even more jobs to build locomotives, rolling stock, ships and trucks.  And jobs to operate and maintain them.  And build their infrastructure.  Filling all of these jobs are people.  Earning a paycheck that will let them buy a house one day.

Then even more economic activity follows.  As people buy these homes and furnish them.  Washers and dryers.  Refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, food processors and coffee makers.  Furniture and beds.  Light fixtures and ceiling fans.  Rugs, carpeting and vacuum cleaners.  Telephones, televisions, music systems, modems and computers.  Curtains, drapes, blinds and shades.  Shower curtains, bath mats, towels and clothes hampers.  Mops, buckets, cleaning supplies and waste baskets.  Lawnmowers, fertilizers, hoses and sprinklers.  Snow shovels and snow blowers.  Cribs, highchairs, diapers and baby food.  Etc.  All of these require manufacturers.  And all of these manufacturers require raw materials.  As well as transportation to move material and product between the stages of production.  And to our wholesalers and retailers.  More jobs.  More people earning a paycheck.  Who will one day buy their own home.  And create even more economic activity.

Bill Clinton pressured Lenders to Lower their Requirements and Subprime Lending took Off

This is why governments love housing.  And try to do everything within their power to increase home ownership.  Which is why they changed the path to home ownership.  After World War II when the building of subdivisions took off there was the 3-6-3 savings and loan.  Where savings and loan paid 3% interest on savings accounts.  Loaned money to home buyers at 6%.  And were on the golf course by 3 PM.  And the mortgage was the 30-year conventional mortgage with a 20% down payment.

The conventional mortgage was the mortgage of our parents.  Who had no problem putting off their wants to save money for that 20% down payment.  They prioritized.  And planned for the future.  But the conventional mortgage has an obvious drawback.  It limits home ownership to those who can save up a 20% down payment.  Pushing home ownership further out for some.  Or just taking that option away from a large percentage of the population.  So the government stepped in.  To help those who couldn’t save 20% of the house’s price.

Mortgage Qualification Decreasing Down Payment

As we lowered the down payment amount it allowed lower-income people the opportunity of home ownership.  But it didn’t get them a lot of house.  That is, those who could afford a 20% down payment could buy more house for the same monthly payment than those who couldn’t afford it.  And a house in a better neighborhood.  Which some said was unfair.  Some in government even called it discriminatory.  As Bill Clinton did.  Who pressured lenders to lower their lending requirements to qualify the unqualified.  His Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending helped to fix that alleged problem.  And kicked off subprime lending in earnest.  Leading to the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Conventional Wisdom was to Pay the Most you could Possibly Afford when Buying a House

But lowering the down payment wasn’t enough.  Even eliminating it all together.  The people needed something else to help them into home ownership. And to generate all of that economic activity.  And this was something the government could fix, too.  By printing a lot of money.  So banks had a lot of it to lend.  Thus keeping interest rates artificially low.  And we can see the effect this had on home ownership combined with a zero down payment.  It allowed people to buy more house for the same given monthly payment.  Even more than those buying with the 3-6-3 conventional mortgage.

Mortgage Qualification Decreasing Mortgage Rate

Falling interest rates bring in a lot more people into the housing market.  Which is good for sellers.  And good for the economy.  A lot more people than just those who could afford a 20% down payment can now buy your house.  As people bid against each other to buy your house they bid up your price.  Raising home prices everywhere.  Increasing the demand for new housing.  Which builders responded to.  Creating a housing boom.  As builders flood the market with more houses.  At higher prices.  That new homeowners move into.  And max out their credit cards to furnish.  Creating a lot of debt people are servicing at these artificially low interest rates.  But then the economy begins to overheat.  And other prices begin to rise.  Leaving people with less disposable income.  The housing boom turns into a housing bubble.  House prices are overvalued.  Those artificially low interest rates created a lot of artificial demand.  Bringing people into the market who weren’t planning on buying a house.  But decided to buy only to take advantage of those low interest rates.

Conventional wisdom was to pay the most you could possibly afford when buying a house.  For all houses gained value.  You may struggle in the beginning and have to make some sacrifices.  Say cut out steak night each week.  But in time you will earn more money.  That house payment will become more affordable.  And your house will become more valuable.  Which will let you sell it for more at a later date letting you buy an even bigger house in an even nicer neighborhood.  But when it’s cheap interest rates driving all of this activity there is another problem.  For printing money creates inflation.  And inflation raises prices.  Gasoline is more expensive.  Groceries are more expensive.  As prices rise households have less disposable income.  And have to cut out things like vacations.  And any discretionary spending on things they like but don’t need.  Which destroys a lot of economic activity.  The very thing the government was trying to create more of by printing money.  So there is a limit to the good economic times you create by printing money.  And when the bad consequences of printing money start filtering through the rest of economy the government has no choice but to contract the money supply to limit the economic damage.  And steer the economy into what they call a soft landing.  Which means a recession that isn’t that painful or long.

The Price of Artificially Low Interest Rates is Inflationary Booms, Bubbles and Great Recessions

As interest rates rise home buying falls.  Leaving a lot of newly built homes unsold on the market.  And that housing bubble bursts.  Causing home values to fall back down from the stratosphere.  Leaving a lot of people owing more on their mortgage than their houses are now worth.  What we call being ‘underwater’.  And as interest rates rise so do the APRs on their credit cards.  As well as their monthly payments.  And those people who paid the most they could possible afford for a house with an adjustable rate mortgage saw their mortgage interest rates rise.  As well as their monthly payment.  By a lot.  So much that these people could no longer afford to pay their mortgage payment anymore.  As a half-point increase could raise a mortgage payment by about $50.  A full-point could raise it close to $100.  And so on.

Increasing Monthly Payment dur to Increasing Mortgage Rate

With the fall in economic activity unemployment rises.  So a lot of people who have crushing credit card debt and a house payment they can no longer afford lost their job as well.  Causing a rash of mortgage foreclosures.  And the subprime mortgage crisis.  As well as a great many personal bankruptcies.  Causing the banking system to struggle under the weight of all this bad debt.  Add all of this together and you get the Great Recession.

This is the price of artificially low interest rates.  You get inflationary booms.  And bubbles.  That burst into recessions.  That are often deep and long.  Something that didn’t happen during the days of 3-6-3 mortgage lending.  And the primary reason for that was that the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  Which prevented the government from printing money at will.  The inflationary booms and busts that come with printing money.  And Great Recessions.

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Microeconomics and Macroeconomics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 10th, 2012

Economics 101

Keynesians cannot connect their Macroeconomic Policies to the Microeconomic World

Economics can be confusing.  As there are actually two genres of economics.  There’s microeconomics.  The kind of stuff most people are familiar with.  And is more common sense.  This is more of the family budget variety.  And small business budget.  Where if costs go up (gasoline, commodities, food, insurance, etc.) families and businesses make cuts elsewhere in their budget.  When revenue falls (a decline in sales revenue or a husband/wife loses their job) people cut back on expenses.  They cancel the family vacation.  Or cancel Christmas bonuses.  Straight forward stuff of living within your means.

Then there’s macroeconomics.  The big economic picture.  This is the stuff about the national economy.  GDP, inflation, recession, taxes, etc.  Things that are more abstract.  Unfamiliar.  And often defy common sense.  Where living beyond your means is not only accepted.  But it’s national policy.  And when some policies fail repeatedly those in government keep trying those same policies expecting a different outcome eventually.  Such as using Keynesian economic policies (stimulus packages, deficit spending, printing money, etc.) to get an economy out of recession that never quite works.  And then the supporters of those policies always say the same thing.  Their policies only failed because they didn’t spend enough money to make them work.

Keynesian economics focuses on macroeconomics.  And cannot connect their macro policies to the micro world.  There is a large gap between the two.  Which is why Keynesians fail.  Because they look at the macro picture to try and effect change in the micro world.  To get businesses to create jobs.  To hire people.  And to reduce unemployment.  But the politicians executing Keynesian policy don’t understand things in the micro world.  Or anything about running a business.  All they understand, or all they care to try to understand, are the Keynesian basics.  That focus on the demand side of economics.  While ignoring everything on the supply side.

When the Economy goes into Recession the Fed Expands the Money Supply to Lower Interest Rates

Keynesians have a few fundamental beliefs.  And one of the big ones is the relationship between interest rates and GDP.  In fact, it’s the center of their world.  High interest rates discourage people from borrowing money.  When people don’t borrow money they don’t build things (like factories).  And if they don’t build things they won’t create jobs and hire people.  So the higher the interest rates the lower the economic output of the nation (GDP).

Low interest rates, on the other hand, encourage people to borrow money.  So they can build things and create jobs.  The lower the interest rates the more people will borrow.  And the greater the economic output of the nation will be.  This was the driving factor that caused the Great Recession.  The central bank (the Fed) kept interest rates so low for so long that people bought a lot of houses.  A lot of expensive houses.  The demand for housing was so great that buyers bid up prices.  Because at low interest rates there was no limit to how much house you could buy.  All this building and buying of houses, though, oversupplied the market with houses.  As home builders rushed in to fill that demand.  They built so many houses that there were just so many houses available to buy that buyers had a lot of choice.  Making it a buyers’ market.  So much so that people had to slash their asking price to sell their house.  Which popped the great housing bubble.

The Fed lowers interest rates by increasing the money supply.  They create new money and inject it into the economy.  By giving it to bankers.  Banks have more money to lend.  So more people can borrow money.  This is what lowers interest rates.  Things that are less scarce cost less.  More money to borrow means it’s less scarce.  And the price to borrow it (i.e., the interest rate) falls.  If the Fed wants to increase interest rates they pull money out of the economy.  Which makes it a little harder to borrow money.  Because more people are trying to borrow the limited amount of funds available to borrow.  And this is the basics of monetary policy.  Whenever the country enters a recession and unemployment rises the Fed expands the money supply to encourage businesses to borrow money to expand their businesses and create jobs that will lower unemployment.

Keynesian Economic Policies hurt the Higher Stages of Production where we Create Real Economic Activity

If low interest rates create greater economic activity why in the world would the Fed ever want to raise interest rates?  Because of the dark side of printing money.  Inflation.  Increasing the money supply gives people more money.  And when they have more money they try to buy what everyone else is buying.  As the money supply grows greater than the amount of economic output there is more money trying to buy fewer goods and services.  Which raises prices.  Just like those low interest rates did in the housing market.  The fear is that if this goes on too long there will be an economic crash.  Just like after the housing bubble burst.  From boom to bust.  Higher prices reduce consumer spending.  Because people can’t buy as much when prices are high.  As consumers stop spending businesses stop selling.  Faced with overcapacity in a period of falling demand they start cutting costs.  Laying off people.  People without jobs can buy even less at high prices.  And so on as the economy settles into recession.  This is why central bankers raise interest rates.  Because those good times are temporary.  And the longer they let it go on the more painful the economic correction will be.

This is why Keynesian stimulus spending fails to pull economies out of recession.  Because Keynesians focus only on the demand curve.  Consumption.  Consumer spending.  Not supply.  They ignore all that economic activity in the higher stages of productions.  That activity that precedes retail consumer sales.  The wholesale stage (the stage above retail).  The manufacturing stage (above the wholesale stage).  And the furthest out in time, the raw commodities stage (above the manufacturing stage).  As economic activity slows inventories build up.  Creating a bulge in the middle of the stages of production.  So manufacturing cuts back.  And because they do raw commodities cut back.  These are the first to suffer in an economic downturn.  And they are the last to recover.  Because of all that inventory in the pipeline.  When Keynesians get more money into consumers’ pockets they will increase their consumer spending.  For awhile.  Until that extra money is gone.  Which provided an economic boost at the retail level.  And a little at the wholesale level as they drew down those inventories.  But it did little at the higher stages of production.  Above inventories.  Manufacturing and raw material extraction.  Who don’t expand their production or hire new workers.  Because they know this economic activity is temporary.  And because they know all that new money will eventually create inflation.  Which will increase prices.  Throughout the stages of production.

The Keynesian approach focuses on the macro.  By playing with monetary policy.  Policies that ultimately hurt the higher stages of production.  At the micro level.  Where we create real economic activity.  If they’re not hiring then no amount of stimulus spending at the retail level will get them to hire.  Because giving the same amount of workers (i.e., consumers) more money to chase the same amount of goods and services only causes higher prices in the long run.  And it’s the long run that raw commodities and manufacturing look at.  They are not going to invest to expand their businesses unless they expect improving economic conditions in the long run.  All the way up the stages of production to where they are.  When new economic activity reaches them then they will expand and hire people.  And when they do they will add a lot of new consumers with real wages to go out and spend at the retail level.

One of the most efficient ways to achieve this is with tax cuts.  Because cuts in tax rates shape economic activity in the long run.  Across the board.  Unlike stimulus spending.  Which is short term.  And very selective.  Some benefit.  Typically political cronies.  But most see no benefit.  Just higher prices.  And continued unemployment.  Which is why Keynesian policies fail to pull economies out of recessions.  Because politicians use them for political purposes.  Not economic purposes.

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