Stock markets world-wide have sold off the past few weeks over concerns the collapse of the subprime mortgage industry could prolong and deepen the housing slump and threaten the health of the U.S. economy. Federal Reserve officials and most economists believe the problems in the subprime mortgage market will remain relatively contained, but there is compelling evidence that the failure of subprime loans may be the start of a painful unwinding of a housing bubble that was fueled by easy money and loose lending practices.
I don't share his doomsday outlook for housing:
The report by Credit Suisse estimates mortgage originations could drop 21% during the next year or two because of tighter credit standards. Coupled with high inventories of unsold homes and the additional supply likely from distressed sellers, this drop in demand could produce an unprecedented nationwide decline in home prices. Merrill Lynch estimates prices could drop as much as 10% this year. A price drop of this magnitude would lead to a vicious cycle in the housing market and pose a major risk to economic growth. And, of course, it would create a raging political firestorm.
But I do agree with him about the cause of the bubble:
The fact that Congress is now holding hearings on the fallout from the second major asset price bubble in the last decade should prompt some broader questions. For example, what role did the Fed's loose monetary policy from 2002-2004 play in fueling the housing bubble? Should the Federal Reserve reexamine its policy of ignoring asset bubbles?
Asset bubbles are harmful for the same reason high inflation is: Both create misleading price signals that lead to a misallocation of economic resources and sow the seeds for an inevitable bust. The unwinding of today's housing bubble is not merely an academic question; it is likely to inflict real hardship on millions of Americans. To reduce the risk of a similar outcome in the future, it is important that policy makers, economists, and policy analysts properly diagnose the root causes of the current housing bust, not just its symptoms.
The Fed cannot control monetary policy if it ignores asset inflation. And it is past time for them to answer up for past mistakes.