Monday, August 22, 2005

Signs of the Economic Apocalypse 8-22-05

From Signs of the Times 8-22-05:

Oil closed at $65.05 a barrel on Friday, down 2.8% from last week’s close of $66.86. The U.S. dollar closed at 0.8217 euros, up 2.2% from last week’s close of 0.8041. The euro, then, closed at 1.2177 dollars, down from the previous Friday’s close of 1.2436. Oil in euros, then would be 53.42 euros a barrel, down 0.6% from 53.76 on the previous Friday. Gold closed at 441.60 dollars an ounce, down 2.3% from $451.60 an ounce at last week’s close. In terms of euros, gold closed at 362.65 euros an ounce, down 1.4% from 363.14 a week earlier. At Friday’s close, an ounce of gold would buy 6.79 barrels of oil, compared to 6.75 a week earlier (0.6% rise for gold against oil). In the U.S. stock market the Dow closed at 10,559.23, down 0.4% from 10,600.31 on the previous Friday. The NASDAQ closed at 2135.56, down 1% from 2156.90 a week earlier. The yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note closed at 4.22% down three basis points from 4.25% at the previous week’s close.

There were also signs that the housing bubble is coming to an end. Paul Krugman of the New York Times points to some of these signs in a column published a couple of weeks ago:

That Hissing Sound
By Paul Krugman
This is the way the bubble ends: not with a pop, but with a hiss.

Housing prices move much more slowly than stock prices. There are no Black Mondays, when prices fall 23 percent in a day. In fact, prices often keep rising for a while even after a housing boom goes bust.

So the news that the U.S. housing bubble is over won't come in the form of plunging prices; it will come in the form of falling sales and rising inventory, as sellers try to get prices that buyers are no longer willing to pay. And the process may already have started.

Of course, some people still deny that there's a housing bubble. Let me explain how we know that they're wrong.

One piece of evidence is the sense of frenzy about real estate, which irresistibly brings to mind the stock frenzy of 1999. Even some of the players are the same. The authors of the 1999 best seller "Dow 36,000" are now among the most vocal proponents of the view that there is no housing bubble.

Then there are the numbers. Many bubble deniers point to average prices for the country as a whole, which look worrisome but not totally crazy. When it comes to housing, however, the United States is really two countries, Flatland and the Zoned Zone.

In Flatland, which occupies the middle of the country, it's easy to build houses. When the demand for houses rises, Flatland metropolitan areas, which don't really have traditional downtowns, just sprawl some more. As a result, housing prices are basically determined by the cost of construction. In Flatland, a housing bubble can't even get started.

But in the Zoned Zone, which lies along the coasts, a combination of high population density and land-use restrictions - hence "zoned" - makes it hard to build new houses. So when people become willing to spend more on houses, say because of a fall in mortgage rates, some houses get built, but the prices of existing houses also go up. And if people think that prices will continue to rise, they become willing to spend even more, driving prices still higher, and so on. In other words, the Zoned Zone is prone to housing bubbles.

And Zoned Zone housing prices, which have risen much faster than the national average, clearly point to a bubble.

In the nation as a whole, housing prices rose about 50 percent between the first quarter of 2000 and the first quarter of 2005. But that average blends results from Flatland metropolitan areas like Houston and Atlanta, where prices rose 26 and 29 percent respectively, with results from Zoned Zone areas like New York, Miami and San Diego, where prices rose 77, 96 and 118 percent.

Nobody would pay San Diego prices without believing that prices will continue to rise. Rents rose much more slowly than prices: the Bureau of Labor Statistics index of "owners' equivalent rent" rose only 27 percent from late 1999 to late 2004. Business Week reports that by 2004 the cost of renting a house in San Diego was only 40 percent of the cost of owning a similar house - even taking into account low interest rates on mortgages. So it makes sense to buy in San Diego only if you believe that prices will keep rising rapidly, generating big capital gains. That's pretty much the definition of a bubble.

Bubbles end when people stop believing that big capital gains are a sure thing. That's what happened in San Diego at the end of its last housing bubble: after a rapid rise, house prices peaked in 1990. Soon there was a glut of houses on the market, and prices began falling. By 1996, they had declined about 25 percent after adjusting for inflation.

And that's what's happening in San Diego right now, after a rise in house prices that dwarfs the boom of the 1980's. The number of single-family houses and condos on the market has doubled over the past year. "Homes that a year or two ago sold virtually overnight - in many cases triggering bidding wars - are on the market for weeks," reports The Los Angeles Times. The same thing is happening in other formerly hot markets.

Meanwhile, the U.S. economy has become deeply dependent on the housing bubble. The economic recovery since 2001 has been disappointing in many ways, but it wouldn't have happened at all without soaring spending on residential construction, plus a surge in consumer spending largely based on mortgage refinancing. Did I mention that the personal savings rate has fallen to zero? Now we're starting to hear a hissing sound, as the air begins to leak out of the bubble. And everyone - not just those who own Zoned Zone real estate - should be worried.

In a subsequent column, Krugman elaborates on the consequences of a collapse of the housing boom. According to Krugman, housing construction in the United States during the Bush II years created 2 million new jobs, increased house prices created 1.5 million more and the military buildup created 1.3 million jobs. Now, given the shaky employment situation the United States finds itself in, where would we be without those 4.8 million jobs created on quicksand?

Safe as Houses

By Paul Krugman
I used to live next door to a Russian émigré. One day he asked me to explain something that puzzled him about his new country. "This place seems very rich," he said, "but I never see anyone making anything. How does the country earn its money?"

The answer, these days, is that we make a living by selling each other houses. Since December 2000 employment in U.S. manufacturing has fallen 17 percent, but membership in the National Association of Realtors has risen 58 percent.

The housing boom has created jobs in two ways. Many jobs have been created, directly and indirectly, by a surge in housing construction. And rising home values have fueled a simultaneous surge in consumer spending.

Let's start with home building. Between 1980 and 2000, which was before the housing boom, spending on the construction of new homes averaged 4.25 percent of G.D.P. In the most recent quarter, however, the figure was 5.98 percent. That difference is equivalent to about $200 billion a year in additional spending, generating roughly two million extra jobs.

Then there's the jump in house prices. Over the past five years housing prices have grown much faster than the overall cost of living, adding about $5 trillion to the public's wealth. Typical estimates say that each additional dollar of housing wealth adds about 3 cents to annual consumer spending, as families reduce their savings and borrow against their newly valuable homes. So we're talking about an additional $150 billion in spending, and roughly 1.5 million more jobs.

Does anything else in the U.S. economy rival housing as a source of job creation? Well, there's also the military buildup. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that increased military spending over the past four years has created 1.3 million private-sector jobs.

And, yes, there are the Bush tax cuts, which the administration insists are the source of everything good in the economy. And it's true that some portion of the tax cuts, which amounted to $225 billion this year, must have been spent in ways that created jobs. Given reasonable estimates of the effect of tax cuts on spending, however, they were probably a smaller force for job creation than the military buildup, and dwarfed by the housing boom.

So it's an economy driven by real estate. What's wrong with that?

One answer is that it has been a pretty disappointing recovery. Two new reports, one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and one from the Congressional Budget Office, compare the current economic expansion with other postwar recoveries. By any measure except corporate profits, which have done very well, this one comes up short.

Even the good months would have been considered subpar in the past: the administration hailed last month's job growth as something wondrous to behold, yet there were 68 months during the Clinton years when employment grew faster. Still, the economy is expanding.

But because that expansion depends so much on real estate - without the housing boom, the economic picture would look dismal indeed - you have to wonder how much to trust it.

I've written before about the reasons to believe that current house prices in much of the country represent a bubble. When that bubble begins to deflate, so will housing-related employment.

Beyond that, there's the disturbing point that we're paying for the housing boom (and the military buildup and tax cuts) with money borrowed from foreigners. Now, any economics textbook will tell you that it's fine to borrow from abroad if the money is used to expand the economy's productive capacity. When 19th-century America borrowed from Europe to build railroads, it was also enhancing its ability to repay its debts later. But we aren't borrowing to build productive capacity. As a share of G.D.P., investment other than housing construction is below its average between 1980 and 2000, and way below its level at the end of the 1990's.

In other words, a fuller answer to my former neighbor would be that these days, Americans make a living selling each other houses, paid for with money borrowed from the Chinese. Somehow, that doesn't seem like a sustainable lifestyle.

How solid, then, is America's economic recovery? The British have a phrase that applies: "safe as houses." Our economy is as safe as houses. Unfortunately, given current prices and our dependence on foreign lenders, houses aren't safe at all.

We wrote last week of the rigged nature of most markets. Mike Whitney lays the blame for the housing bubble on the rigging of Alan Greenspan and, in the process, answers the question of “who benefits?”

Pop Goes the Weasel
Greenspan and the Housing Bubble

By Mike Whitney
It's strange that Alan Greenspan hasn't been blamed for the housing bubble. After all, he set the "easy money" policies that put the whole thing in motion and he's the one who should be held responsible when it goes up in smoke.

Let me explain.

Most people expect the Federal Reserve to lower rates when business is flagging to stimulate the economy by making loans more available for commerce, home buying, recreational spending etc. But, just as higher rates can stop the economy in its tracks by making money too expensive to borrow, so too, lower rates can have equally adverse consequences.

For example, when Greenspan lowered rates to 1% in 2002 he knew that money would surge into the economy and create the appearance that everything was hunky-dory. Predictably, the economy sputtered along from the economic activity generated by the housing boom and from the 30% increase in government spending.
But, what else did Greenspan's lower rates achieve?

Well, they achieved the results for which they were designed; they kept the economy humming along while Bush dragged the country to war, they kept the American people asleep while $400 billion per year in Bush tax cuts were siphoned from the US Treasury, and they generated what the "The Economist" calls this "the biggest bubble in history"; the housing bubble.

All of these were purely political choices made at the Federal Reserve under the auspices of Fed-chairman Greenspan.

Thanks, Alan.

Now, of course, Greenspan has signaled that the Happy Days are over and that the Fed will continue to ratchet up rates to strengthen the dollar. So far, the Fed has raised rates 10 times in the last 14 months. This eventually will strain the resources of all the poor slobs who took out ARMs (Adjustable Rate Mortgages) trusting is the soundness of the system. They will inevitably see their monthly payments go through the roof.

…The Fed seduces the public with cheap money, so that credit spending increases and, then, "presto", millions of Americans slip inexorably into indentured servitude.

Isn't this what's happening right now?

The American public is presently mortgaged up to the hilt with most of their personal wealth invested in their homes and with the highest level of personal debt in any period since the Great Depression.

Not good.

Especially when we consider that the current bubble is "larger than the global stock market bubble in the late 1990s (an increase over five years of 80% of GDP) or America's stock market bubble in the late 1920s (55% of GDP)." Or, when we consider that "over the past four years, consumer spending and residential construction have together accounted for 90% of the total growth in GDP." (The Economist")

Or, when we consider that 2 out of every 5 jobs in America are now related to construction. One blip in the housing market and we'll all be hawking pencils on the street corner.

Regrettably, this Greenspan-generated pyramid scheme is headed for the dumpster. The fundamentals for securing a loan have all been abandoned; putting traditionally unqualified applicants in a position to buy a home. 42% of all new home buyers cannot even come up with a few thousand dollars for a down payment. Equally disturbing is the fact that "nearly one third of all new mortgages this year call for interest-only payments (in California, it's almost half)" (NY Times)"

The Fed's "cheap money" policy has spawned a "creative financing" monster and the speculation in the housing market has grown accordingly. A full 36% of homes are bought either for investment or as second homes; "the very definition of a financial bubble." (Economist)

"Speculation"? Not according to Colonel Greenspan. According to him, it's just a bit of "froth" in the market.

"Froth"? The biggest bubble in history!?!

Of course, none of this even vaguely resembles the activities of a "free market". The market is not free when a privately owned banking system like the Federal Reserve sets the prime rate according to its own political-economic agenda.

Most people have no idea to what extent Greenspan has abandoned his principles to carry out his task as the country's foremost class-warrior. Earlier in his career, Greenspan proclaimed, "Deficit spending is simply a scheme for the confiscation of wealth".


That, of course, was when deficits were used to pay for exorbitant social programs, like Welfare or Medicaid that benefited the broader American public. Greenspan has revised his thinking now that the deficits are a means for lining the pockets of his rich constituents.

Greenspan fully grasps the danger of his current strategy of flooding the market with, what he once called, "easy money". As he noted in an article he wrote in 1967 "Gold and Economic Freedom":

"After a mild business contraction in 1927 the fed decided the Federal Reserve created more paper reserves in the hope of forestalling any possible bank reserve shortage. The excess credit which the Fed pumped into the economy spilled over into the stock market -- triggering a fantastic speculative boom. Belatedly, Federal Reserve officials attempted to sop up the excess reserves and finally succeeded in breaking the boom. But it was too late: by 1929 the speculative imbalances had become so overwhelming that the attempt precipitated a sharp retrenching and a consequent demoralizing of business confidence. As a result, the American economy collapsed."

Let's see if we got that right?

"The excess credit which the Fed pumped into the economytriggered a fantastic speculative boom.which collapsed the American economy".

Sound familiar?

…Greenspan has worked exclusively to serve the interests of American elites. He has helped shape the policies on taxation, minimum wage and Social Security that have enriched the wealthy and battered the middle class. His lowered interest rates have perilously expanded credit and produced the "largest speculative market of all time". Whatever economic calamity befalls the American people certainly bears his imprimatur.

The nation now faces the end of the Greenspan epoch and the very real prospect of an economic tidal wave greater than 1929. The bubble was manufactured by Greenspan and his colleagues at the Fed to swindle millions of working-class Americans out of their life-savings and to facilitate the greatest transferal of wealth in American history.

The lesson of the housing bubble is simple: whenever monetary policy is put into the hands of privately owned institutions like the Federal Reserve, those policies will invariably reflect the narrow interests of the men who own them and the members of their class.

That's why Thomas Jefferson warned, "Banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies."

He undoubtedly had the Federal Reserve in mind.


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