The Housing Bust

| Sat Nov. 15, 2008 1:32 PM EST

THE HOUSING BUST....Matt Ygelsias says it's not really the housing bubble that's responsible for our economic woes:

Even though the deflation of a housing bubble would lead to economic problems, it's just not the case that "the economic crisis" (as folks have taken to calling it) was primarily caused by the rise and now fall of an asset bubble in the housing sector. Such bubbles and their collapse are problematic, but also somewhat banal. We had one just a few years back when the dot-com stock bubble collapsed. That provoked a recession and the loss of a lot of paper wealth in the stock market, but there was no crisis. There was no crisis because the big movers and shakers of the finance world didn't build a giant house of cards built on the assumption that tech stocks would continue to rise in value indefinitely. Some people made bad bets along those lines, of course, but nothing close to the scale of what we've seen recently.

And the essence of the crisis is right there. Not in the deflation of the bubble as such, but in what was done on top of the bubble with leverage and so forth so as to create a situation so precarious that credit markets were on the verge of total collapse a little while back.

Superficially, this seems plausible. In the U.S., the dotcom bust destroyed about $7 trillion in wealth, while the housing bust has destroyed (so far) about $5 trillion in wealth. So it seems like the difference in effect must be due to all the derivative speculation piled on top of the housing bubble.

There's a lot to that, but it's not the whole story. The housing bust really is different for several reasons:

  • Dotcom wealth was mostly held by individuals and funds. Mortgage debt is mostly held by banks, and when it disappears it causes massive capital losses in the banking system. Those losses (again, so far) appear to be about half a trillion dollars or so, but half a trillion dollars in lost bank capital reduces lending capacity by $5-10 trillion or so. The lost capital causes bank failures and a loss of trust in the system, while the reduced lending capacity causes a huge credit crunch, something that just didn't happen during the dotcom bust.

  • Dotcom wealth was fairly transitory. Most of it was built up over the space of 18 months or so and was lost just as quickly. What's more, a lot of it was in the hands of rich people and venture funds, so its loss hit a relatively narrow segment of the population and thus had a substantial but not catastrophic effect on spending.

    Conversely, housing wealth is spread very widely among ordinary consumers, many of whom were using their homes as ATM machines. When that got cut off, it hit consumer spending hard. Additionally, housing wealth for most people is psychologically far more permanent and far more important than a brief spell of prosperity caused by a stock market bubble. So even beyond the direct shutdown of the HELOC ATM, the wealth effect from the housing bust has been more damaging to consumer spending than the dotcom bust.

  • Unlike the dotcom crash, which was fairly self-contained, the housing crash has precipitated a stock market crash all its own. I'm cheating a little bit here since part of this is a result of all the side bets and financial manipulation, but at least part of it is purely a result of the housing bust. So add on another $4-5 trillion in wealth effect problems directly attributable to the housing bust.

  • The dotcom crash came at the end of a period of broadly rising wages. The housing crash came at the end of a period of broadly stagnant wages. So even if the housing crash had been just a housing crash, it still would have affected the U.S. economy more severely than the dotcom bust.

  • The dotcom bust was ameliorated by the rise of the housing bubble. This time, there's no other bubble in sight. It's just a pure crash.

That said, there's no question that all the side bets and opaque financial instruments that swirled around the housing bubble made it far worse than it would have been all by itself. But even without all that stuff, it still would have been different. Not only did it affect consumers much more directly, but within the banking system housing and mortgages simply have a far bigger and more important role than equities,

Further comments and corrections are welcome since my usual caveat applies here: I'm still trying to figure all this stuff out, and I haven't managed to do it yet. What else am I missing?

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