Subprime Meltdown: American Housing and Global Financial Turmoil

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Subprime Meltdown: American Housing and Global Financial Turmoil
In early 2008, policy-makers in the United States needed to deal with the frightening after-effects of what had appeared to be a glorious housing boom. The most immediate problem was a wave of foreclosures, which a Senate report predicted could reach 2 million by the end of 2009. Lawmakers sought to relieve the resulting pain and to preserve the longstanding dream of raising the US homeownership rate. Amidst a sea of lawsuits and recrimination, they needed to figure out where the US system for financing home purchases had gone wrong and how it could be fixed. To do this, lawmakers needed to understand what had happened, particularly because housing had until then seemed like such a bright spot in the US economy. The US housing “bubble” in the early 21st century

In his 2001 letter to shareholders, Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines wrote, “Housing is a safe, leveraged investment – the only leveraged investment available to most families – and it is one of the best returning investment to make. Home will continue to appreciate in value. Home values are expected to rise even faster in this decade than in the 1990’s.” His optimism was due in part to the importance Americans attributed to owning a home. The importance was reflected in Fannie Mae’s motto, which was “Our Business in the American Dream.”

Raines was not alone in touting the advantages of housing as an investment. While house prices in particular region had suffered temporary declines at various points, average housing prices across the United States had risen fairly steadily since at least 1975 (see Exhibit 1). This trend accelerated in 1996, and reached about 12 percent per annum in late 2005 and early 2006. Many observers felt that this rise in prices was due in part to the Federal Reserve’s policy of maintaining low interest rates after the 2001 recession. In the period from 1980 to 2001, the Federal Funds rate (an overnight interest rate that bank charged each other and which the Federal Reserve targeted) had generally tracked economic conditions (see Exhibit 2). After 2001 and until July 2004, however, the Fed kept interest rates low in spite of signs of growth in output and prices. Perhaps fearing a recession that did not materialize, the Federal Funds rate was set to only 1 percent from July 2003 to July 2004. After this, anxiety about inflation seemed to gain the upper hand and interest rates were increased steadily, with the Federal Funds rate reaching 5.25% in September 2006.

A debate over house prices started around 2004. Some economists, such as Dean Baker, the co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research claimed at the time that house prices were like a bubble ready to burst, and that the economy needed to brace itself for a loss of $2 to $3 trillion in housing wealth. Others felt that, even though increases in housing prices had far outstripped increase in residential rents, this was reasonable in light of the low interest rates.

Even in October 2005, when it was common to hear mentions of a housing bubble, developer Bob Toll disagreed and complained “Why can’t real estate just have a boom like every other industry? Why do we have to have a bubble and then a pop?” Meanwhile, several economists pointed out that house price increases were concentrated in particular areas such as San Francisco and New York, where zoning restriction made it difficult to expand the housing stock. Professor Chris Mayer of Columbia University saw the attraction of these areas coupled with the inability to increase supply as allowing house prices in these areas to remain high “basically forever”. Nothing that Tokyo real estate was still more expensive than real estate in Manhattan, he stated: “There’s no natural law that says US housing prices have to stop here. None.”

While house prices reached eye-popping levels in what Chris Mayer called “superstar cities,” construction was booming...
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