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Sunday, January 3, 2010

A New Housing Bubble?

Is Congress once again foolishly setting up another housing bubble? According to Foreign Policy magazine (and anybody paying attention to this year's Congressional rhetoric), that is a distinct possibility.

From the article: "More than any other factor, ill-advised speculation on U.S. real estate set off the global financial crisis. But even after millions of foreclosures and secondary effects rippled through economies around the world, U.S. homeowners might be starting to make the same mistakes all over again.

"After suffering their largest month-to-month drop in history, U.S. home prices began to increase again in May. The S&P/Case-Shiller index, widely considered the most reliable measure of housing prices in the United States, rose 3.4 percent between May and July, with gains in 18 of the 20 cities the index measures. Prices were still 13.3 percent lower than last year, but even that figure was less than expected. The release of this data coincided with other positive indicators, including an increase in existing home sales and home construction. 'We've found the bottom,' one economist told the New York Times.

"Not so fast. Economist Robert Shiller, one of the index's creators, sees the numbers as alarming rather than promising. Pointing to survey data showing that most homeowners think that their house will increase dramatically in value over the next decade, he worries that 'bubble thinking' might once again be taking hold.

"'[I]t appears that the extreme ups and downs of the housing market have turned many Americans into housing speculators,' he wrote in the New York Times.

"The government's solution to the housing crisis might, ironically, be causing the new problem, by encouraging irresponsible home buying by people who aren't able to afford it. The Federal Housing Administration, which backed nearly 2 million mortgages in 2009, saw the percentage of its loans that are delinquent or in foreclosure rise to nearly 8 percent in June, and the agency is quickly burning through its reserves for loan losses. A congressional committee has been formed to investigate the losses. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that Congress should look into the potential trade-offs of federal loan support.

"With prices looking likely to keep rising in the near term and the U.S. government giving generous incentives for homeowners, there's a risk that the same irresponsible speculative behavior that caused the Great Recession might be returning."

The idea that "[t]he government's solution to the housing crisis might, ironically, be causing the new problem" is not really all that ironic to me. In fact, the federal government's buttressing of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac coupled with the encouragement of lender's loosening up of their lending policies with "wink wink" de facto guarantees, were major factors that led to the housing crisis.

These reasonably obvious factors have been consciously ignored, and Congress and the Obama administration have followed simply (and nonsensically) blamed Bush and the amorphous concept of "greed." There has been no real reassessment of the policies that encouraged reckless loans and the resulting bailouts of "greedy" lenders and irresponsible loan recipients. Without this, the potential short-term political pay off of federal meddling spun as "helping out the little guy" is far too seductive to ignore.

Understanding this does not make a repeat building of a housing bubble surprising nor ironic.

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