Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Malpass on the Economy

David Malpass, the chief economist of Bear Stearns, has an upbeat editorial on the economy in the WSJ today.

Another aspect of the market disruption is a dramatic stand-off between bond buyers and sellers: Buyers in both housing and debt markets are using the market discontinuity to claw prices and terms back to Earth. The slowdown talk weighing on equities also reflects the Wall Street view that debt, mortgage and takeover businesses have replaced General Motors as the economy's bellwether. According to the bears: As goes the credit market, so goes the economy.

Fortunately, Main Street is not that fickle. Housing and debt markets are not that big a part of the U.S. economy, or of job creation. It's more likely the economy is sturdy and will grow solidly in coming months, and perhaps years.

Malpass passes along some interesting facts about the economy that others seem to be missing. He doesn't believe the housing slowdown will cause a recession (neither do I) and supplies some facts to back up the argument:

The bearish view is that Americans live, breathe and spend their houses and mortgages. Yet the July 31 consumer confidence survey by the Conference Board jumped to 112, the highest in the six-year expansion. Data and theory show clearly that houses are not the be-all and end-all of the economy. Jobs matter more. For many, the value of future employment is much greater than their home equity. The low jobless claims and unemployment rate -- clear signs of a strong labor environment -- raise confidence and likely future wages. This outweighs changes in wealth, whether from declines in house prices or the stock market, especially for lower-income workers.

So he says that jobs are more important than housing and then provides some numbers to back this up:

Those overstating housing's impact on jobs often use dates spanning the 2001 recession, as in the widely quoted calculation that 37% of the net new jobs were in housing. That was true only between March 2001 and September 2005, because housing jobs grew in the recession while other jobs shrank. A fairer picture of the role of housing in the expansion is to start counting from any month after the recession. From the end of 2003 through present, jobs from residential construction plus real estate and mortgage brokers created only 3.6% of the net new jobs, 5.3% if all credit intermediation jobs are also included.

Nor has consumer spending been dependent on "cashing in" on the housing boom. The increase in mortgage equity withdrawals in 2004 and 2005 funded big net additions to household financial assets, while consumption growth remained steady. Mortgage equity withdrawals slumped throughout 2006, yet consumption growth was particularly fast in the fourth quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007.

The constant warnings of a housing-related collapse in domestic consumption overstates the importance of housing in the economy, while understating the importance of jobs and economic growth, both of which have been solid. Of course, sellers of both houses and bonds would like more froth in their markets. But buyers, and likely the economy as a whole, will probably benefit over time from the wrenching return to more normal market conditions.

I have said since last year that the housing slowdown would not cause a recession and I still stand by that.

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