Q&A with Housing Bubble Forecaster Dean Baker

"For most economists, the idea that a market would take leave from its senses -- that it would be driven by speculation -- is almost inconceivable."
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Leo W. Gerard: Economist James K. Galbraith, the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations at the University of Texas, recently told Deborah Solomon of the New York Times that you are "the person with the most serious claim" for predicting the onslaught of the current credit disaster. The promo for your most recent book, Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy (PoliPoint Press, 2009), says the fall of the bubble economy was "completely predictable." But you were standing nearly alone out there for some time yelling, "The collapse is coming, the collapse is coming."When did you get the first inkling that the collapse was impending and what did that feel like?

Dean Baker: I learned from the stock bubble in the 90s that the timing was hard to predict but I first became convinced that it was starting to burst in the fall of 2006, (house prices had begun to fall) and I wrote a forecast projecting a recession for 2007. It turned out that I was still somewhat premature. I was expecting the price decline to gain speed more quickly and to have a more immediate impact on the economy. However, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of recessions, the current recession did begin in 2007, so I was not too far off.

As a more general matter, I did feel somewhat vindicated, although it was striking to me, that even as the bubble was very much in the process of deflating in late 2007 or even early 2008, most economists were still convinced that it would have little consequence for the economy. I recall repeated pronouncements from former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke that the problems were contained in the subprime market.

Gerard: What were the clues you saw that others ignored or missed?

Baker: For most economists, the idea that a market would take leave from its senses - that it would be driven by speculation - is almost inconceivable. Given that we had just seen a massive bubble in the stock market, it really should not have surprised people to see one also develop in the housing market.

The main factor that attracted my attention was the sudden spurt in house prices beginning in the mid-90s. For the hundred years from the 1890s to the 1990s, house prices nationwide had just tracked the overall rate of inflation. Yet, from 1995 to 2002 (when I first noticed the bubble), house prices rose by 30 percent in excess of the rate of inflation.

There was no explanation for this sudden jump in prices based on the fundamentals of supply and demand. Income growth had been healthy in the late 90s, but not extraordinary by the standard of the early post-war years. Furthermore, income growth had largely stopped during the 2001 recession.

Population growth was slowing, which should have slowed housing demand. On the supply side, we were building houses at near record rates, so clearly there was no serious supply constraint.

If there is a big run-up in house prices and no obvious force driving it on either the demand or the supply side, then it sure looks like a bubble. Just as additional confirmation, I checked rents, which tend to more or less follow sale prices. Rents had increased only slightly more than the rate of inflation in the late 90s, and by this decade, they were falling behind inflation. There certainly was no evidence of growing demand pressure on the housing market there.

Finally, I noticed the rise in vacancy rates. This is consistent with people buying homes for speculative purposes. Many investors were willing to gamble on a high price for a new home or condo, betting that it would go up even more in the future. Of course, this is not sustainable. Not many people can afford to keep a unit vacant for a long time, since it means that they are paying the mortgage and getting little or nothing back. The high vacancy rates of this era virtually guaranteed that the bubble would burst.

Gerard: Did you also see problems with subprime mortgages contributing to the bubble?

Baker: The problems in the mortgage market were hardly a secret. The subprime share of the market nearly tripled from 2002 to 2006. The Alt-A share, which are typically mortgages taken out by small business owners with variable income (and often in accurate tax returns), exploded from around 1 percent to 15 percent. This should have set off flashing red lights to any serious economist.

And, the stories about liar loans and phony documents were everywhere. I was getting e-mail from people around the country telling me about friends and relatives employed by mortgage banks who were told to put in fake numbers so that the banks could issue loans. Certainly the regulatory agencies must have known this was going on.

Gerard: But if you noticed those clues, and looking back on it, those clues are actually quite obvious, why did the vast majority of financial analysts and economists and managers for large investment funds including pensions and endowments, fail to see the bubble and its implications?

Baker: The bulk of financial analysts and economists largely repeat the conventional wisdom without ever seriously trying to assess whether it makes sense. They unthinkingly follow the conventional wisdom because of the structure of incentives in their profession. No one is going to get fired because they didn't see the housing bubble. In fact, few people are likely to even miss a promotion because they didn't see the bubble.

Economists and financial analysts are not like steelworkers or people in other occupations. They don't get evaluated based on their performance. They can mess up every day of the week through their whole careers, and this would be just fine, as long as they messed up in the same way as their peers.

On the other hand, the few economists/analysts who spoke up to warn about the bubble were taking huge risks. Of course, we were all ridiculed at the time. If you were an economist working at a major investment bank and tried to tell them that all their big money-making deals were going to get them in trouble, they would probably tell you to shut up and fire you if you didn't.

If the housing market stayed strong and house prices kept rising or just remained stable, then any economist who had warned of the bubble would be laughed off as a chicken little.

In short, the incentives are such that the overwhelming majority of economists will never challenge conventional wisdom even if they think it is wrong. They are there to hold on to their jobs, not to inform the public about the economy.

Gerard: Did you know the collapse would be this bad? How bad will it get?

Baker: I knew that it could be very bad. I was trying to be contained in my pessimism (I couldn't completely ignore the conventional wisdom either), but I did warn that the downturn could develop into a Japan-style financial crisis. This obviously is the case that we are looking at. Of course, if the Fed and Treasury had moved more quickly, they could have prevented some of the damage that the financial system is now seeing.

The same applies to fiscal stimulus. It was painful sitting through the months of the election campaign and then the transition when the government was completely paralyzed. At that point, economists from across the political spectrum all recognized that the economy needed further stimulus, but the politics were such that nothing could move.

As it is, the stimulus package passed by Congress is a good start, but it is nowhere near big enough to turn the economy around. The unemployment rate is virtually certain to shoot past 8.0 percent in the February jobs report and is likely to hit 9.0 percent by summer. If we are lucky, the stimulus will provide enough of a boost to keep the unemployment rate from reaching 10 percent, although I would not take this for granted at this point.

In addition to higher unemployment, house prices will continue to fall at least until summer. The big question in my mind is whether house prices return to their pre-bubble level or they overshoot on the way down. At this point, I would bet on overshooting. This implies an even larger loss of wealth for homeowners, more foreclosures and more big losses for banks.

Gerard: Will the stimulus stop the free fall?

Baker: If we are to turn things around, we really need much more stimulus and we need it quickly. My favorite idea at this point is a tax credit to employers for giving workers paid time off. For example, if employers offer paid parental leave or sick leave, or paid vacation, or increase the days they already offer, then the tax credit would cover the lost work. This can be a quick way to get millions of people back to work.

The arithmetic on this is straightforward. Suppose that employers of 100 million people give their workers an amount of additional paid time off that is equal to 5 percent of their work time. These employers would suddenly have demand for 5 percent more workers, or 5 million workers. I can't think of a quicker, less bureaucratic way to create jobs at this point, especially now that we have already funded most of the shovel-ready infrastructure projects.

Gerard: What must be done to prevent this from recurring?

Baker: There are two key points. First we must rein in the political and economic power of the financial sector. The financial sector must serve the real economy, not the other way around. There is a long list of reforms that are needed to ensure this outcome, but the main point is that an efficient financial sector is a small financial sector.

One way to keep it small is to tax it. If we had a very modest financial transactions tax, for example 0.25 percent on the purchase or sale of a share of stock, it would have very little impact on people who invest for the long-term. However, it would have a huge impact on people who are buying at 2:00 and selling at 3:00. This sort of tax would discourage such speculation, making the markets friendlier to long-term investors.

It would also reduce the size of the financial sector, since the industry makes much of its profit off this sort of speculation. In addition, such a tax could raise more than $100 billion a year. That's real money even in Washington.

The other point is that a balanced economy, in which workers share in the gains of growth, is not conducive to financial bubbles. We didn't have any major bubbles in the three decades following World War II. During this period, productivity gains were passed on in wage gains, which in turn fed consumption, which led firms to invest in expanded capacity. The basis for the bubble economy was created in the 80s when this virtuous circle broke down and workers could no longer count on seeing their wages rise in step with productivity.

In short, if we want to prevent another financial bubble and the sort of economic collapse caused by its bursting, we should support policies that allow workers to share in the gains of growth. That sort of world favors investment in the productive economy rather than financial speculation.


Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC., has written several books. His most recent, Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy (PoliPoint Press, 2009), chronicles the growth and collapse of the stock and housing bubbles and explains how policy blunders and greed led to the catastrophic market meltdowns.

His analyses have appeared in many major publications, including the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, the London Financial Times, and the New York Daily News. His blog, Beat the Press, features commentary on economic reporting.

He is a frequent guest on National Public Radio, Marketplace, CNN, CNBC and other news programs.

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