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December 6, 2011

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Latest Posts from Economist's View


"The Eurozone’s Terrible Mistake"

Posted: 06 Dec 2011 12:15 AM PST

Felix Salmon:

The eurozone's terrible mistake, by Felix Salmon: The FT is reporting today that the new fiscal rules for the EU "include a commitment not to force private sector bondholders to take losses on any future eurozone bail-outs". If this principle really does get enshrined into some new treaty, it will be one of the most fiscally insane derelictions of statesmanship the world has seen — but it certainly helps explain the short-term rally that we saw today in Italian government debt.
Right now, the commitment is still vague...
To understand just how stupid this is, all you need to do is go back and read Michael Lewis's Ireland article. The fateful decision in Ireland was to take the insolvent banks and give them a blanket bailout, with the banks' creditors all getting 100 cents on the euro. That only served to put a positively evil debt burden onto the Irish people, forcing a massive austerity program and causing untold billions of euros in foregone growth, while bailing out lenders who deserved no such thing.
Are we really going to repeat — on a much larger scale — the very same mistake that Ireland made? ...

On Ireland, see: Despite Praise for Its Austerity, Ireland and Its People Are Being Battered.

Links for 2011-12-06

Posted: 06 Dec 2011 12:06 AM PST

Possible Fed Communication Strategy

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 05:22 PM PST

Tim Duy:

Possible Fed Communication Strategy, by Tim Duy: As is widely known, the Federal Reserve is working on improving its communication strategy to provide better guidance about monetary policy and thus hopefully induce better outcomes. From today's Wall Street Journal:

The Fed has taken ad hoc steps in this direction. During the financial crisis, it said rates would stay low for an "extended period." In August, it said they would stay low "at least through mid-2013." Quarterly projections would formalize this guidance and make it more specific. If the Fed signals that rates will stay lower even longer than investors expect, it could push long-term interest rates down now, spurring investment, spending and growth.p>

"The scope remains to provide additional accommodation through enhanced guidance on the path of the federal funds rate," Fed vice chairwoman Janet Yellen said in a speech last week. She is chairing the Fed subcommittee designing the communications overhaul.

The "mid-2013" formulation is especially problematic. At some point it will need to be updated. With unemployment high and not falling quickly, it is possible the Fed won't raise interest rates until much later. Of course, if inflation surprisingly picks up, it might need to move rates up sooner.

What form might "enhanced" guidance take? It seems unlikely that the Fed would limit itself to point estimates on the future course of interest rates. Reality is much more probabilistic, and I would expect additional Fed guidance to reflect forecast uncertainty via confidence intervals. One such example would be the Monetary Report of the Swedens' central bank. Forecasts for inflation:

Fed2yield interest rate guidance:

Fed1

Essentially, this formalizes what we already expect - if inflation exceeds forecasts, then it is likely interest rates will rise at a greater rate than currently expected. It also provides information on the magnitude of any deviation from the interest rate forecast given differing inflation forecasts. Of course, we would expect the Fed to include a similar forecast for unemployment. And, given the current range of policy tools, it would be nice to have guidance on the balance sheet as well, although I sense it to be unlikely.

Expect some push back from some Federal Reserve policymakers:

Some Fed officials still aren't convinced this is the right approach. Giving interest rate guidance "might be an interesting exercise," Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, said in an interview last week. "Its utility I wonder about."

Some officials, like Mr. Fisher, doubt it will accomplish much. One risk is the Fed's signals about the expected path of rates might even confuse the public, rather than clarify the central bank's intentions.

I tend to think this is misguided - that a probabilistic assessment of the Feds' forecast will make it easier to interpret the implications of incoming data for the evolution of Fed policy, thus making the public less reliant on the often discordant views of Fed officials. Importantly, in the current environment I think additional guidance would make clear that the more hawkish policymakers are outliers, thus minimizing the likelihood of raising premature expectations of policy tightening as we experienced earlier this year. Which would explain Fisher's resistance to chance - he would prefer not to be further marginalized in the policymaking process.

Note: Sorry to be short on posts recently. I have been running around the last few days trying to tie up loose ends at the end of the term.

Investor Speculation and the Housing Bubble

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 11:07 AM PST

Research from Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joseph Tracy, and Wilbert van der Klaauw of the NY Fed shows that speculative behavior driven by highly leveraged loans was "much more important in the housing boom and bust during the 2000s than previously thought." Thus, this supports the limits on leverage I and others have been calling for as a means of limiting the fallout from the collapse of asset bubbles:

"Flip This House": Investor Speculation and the Housing Bubble, by Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joseph Tracy, and Wilbert van der Klaauw, FRBNY: The recent financial crisis—the worst in eighty years—had its origins in the enormous increase and subsequent collapse in housing prices during the 2000s. While the housing bubble has been the subject of intense public debate and research, no single answer has emerged to explain why prices rose so fast and fell so precipitously. In this post, we present new findings from our recent New York Fed study that uses unique data to suggest that real estate "investors"—borrowers who use financial leverage in the form of mortgage credit to purchase multiple residential properties—played a previously unrecognized, but very important, role. These investors likely helped push prices up during 2004-06; but when prices turned down in early 2006, they defaulted in large numbers and thereby contributed importantly to the intensity of the housing cycle's downward leg. ...
At the peak of the boom in 2006, over a third of all U.S. home purchase lending was made to people who already owned at least one house. In the four states with the most pronounced housing cycles, the investor share was nearly half—45 percent. Investor shares roughly doubled between 2000 and 2006. While some of these loans went to borrowers with "just" two homes, the increase in percentage terms is largest among those owning three or more properties. In 2006, Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada investors owning three or more properties were responsible for nearly 20 percent of originations, almost triple their share in 2000.
Because investors don't plan to own properties for long, they care much more about reducing their down-payments than reducing their interest rates. The expansion of the nonprime mortgage market during the 2000s provided the perfect opportunity for optimistic investors to get low-down-payment credit, albeit at high interest rates..., investors were far more likely than owner-occupants to use nonprime credit to make their purchases, especially at the peak. ...
So far, we have half the story: Optimistic investors—speculators—used low-down-payment, nonprime credit to place highly leveraged bets on the housing market, perhaps facilitated for some by reporting an intention to live in the house. Because they didn't have to put much money at risk, these investors were able to continue to buy housing even as prices rose further. All of these developments were especially noticeable in Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada. Longstanding tradition in the mortgage lending business and the predictions of economic models hold that investors will quickly default if prices begin a persistent fall. This is what happened starting in 2006...

An interesting feature ... that we document in our study is that borrowers with multiple mortgages start out being better risks—their loans were less likely to become seriously delinquent before 2006—but end up accounting for a disproportionate amount of defaults thereafter. What changed in 2006? Prices started to fall. In 2007-09, investors were responsible for more than a quarter of seriously delinquent mortgage balances nationwide, and more than a third in Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada. While this sharp change in the risk assessment of owners of three or more properties may not seem surprising, it also applied to investors with "just" two homes. If there were reason to believe this latter group was less prone to act like investors, the data don't support this view....
We conclude that investors were much more important in the housing boom and bust during the 2000s than previously thought. The availability of low- and no-down-payment mortgages in the nonprime sector enabled investors to make these bets. This may have allowed the bubble to inflate further, which caused millions of owner-occupants to pay more if they wanted to buy a home for their family. In the end, even the value of the 20 percent down-payments made by responsible, prime borrowers was wiped out—leaving the housing market, and the economy, in the vulnerable state we find them in today.
The idea that asset price booms may be driven by optimistic or speculative investors who make highly leveraged bets on asset prices, then quickly default if their expectations are not realized, is not new. Indeed, John Geneakoplos of Yale University argues that such behavior is a fundamental driver of what he calls the "leverage cycle." To our knowledge, our study provides the first direct evidence that such behavior may have been important in the 2000s housing cycle.
But what, if anything, does it teach us about policy? We conclude that it's very important for lenders (and regulators) to manage leverage as asset bubbles are inflating. In the 2000s, securitized nonprime credit emerged to allow leverage to increase, with effects that extended far beyond this sector, including spillovers from defaulted mortgages to the value of other properties (see Campbell, Giglio, and Pathak [2009]). Effective regulation of speculative borrowing, like what is being attempted in China today, may be needed to prevent this kind of crisis from recurring.

This is pretty far away from the (false) story that Republicans tell about the crisis being caused by the government forcing banks to make loans to unqualified borrowers.

"What Can Save the Euro?"

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 10:17 AM PST

Stiglitz on Europe:

What Can Save the Euro?, by Joseph Stiglitz, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Just when it seemed that things couldn't get worse, it appears that they have. Even some of the ostensibly "responsible" members of the eurozone are facing higher interest rates. Economists on both sides of the Atlantic are now discussing not just whether the euro will survive, but how to ensure that its demise causes the least turmoil possible.
It is increasingly evident that Europe's political leaders, for all their commitment to the euro's survival, do not have a good grasp of what is required to make the single currency work. ...[continue reading]...

Krugman today:

Markets clearly believe that the Europeans have found a formula that will make it possible for the ECB to step in and buy lots of Italian bonds.
I hope they're right

Will the euro survive? I've always thought that it would, but that is based upon political considerations, not economics, and I can't claim to be an expert on the politics of the eurozone. What do you think?

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