By Karl Smith
by Adam Ozimek
I don’t have some all encompassing narrative of the housing bubble to weave you, or an airtight case that government policies caused the bubble, didn’t cause the bubble, etc. I just want to comment on a few points in the Fannie (FNMA.OB) and Freddie (FMCC.OB) debate.
The argument frequently made is that Fannie and Freddie were minor securitizers by the time the bubble came to a full boil in 2006, therefore they didn’t “cause” the bubble. But the fact that private companies were able to push them out of the market doesn’t tell us anything about the initiation of the bubble. The fact is that as early as August 2002 Dean Baker, who many credit as having “called the bubble”, was saying that prices were becoming divorced from fundamentals. As you can see from Karl’s chart, this is still during a time period when GSEs constituted the vast majority of MBS issuance and were quickly ramping up:
Click to enlarge
So was Dean Baker identifying a bubble in late 2002 that wasn’t there, or were Fannie and Freddie the majority MBS issuers when the bubble started?
A lot of focus goes into who issued the subprime loans which are now defaulting and much less discussion occurs about what caused the initial divorce of house prices from fundamentals. I think Jim Hamilton’s explanation of the run-up in oil prices that led to the beginning of this recession has some applicability to what happened in the housing market. In short, market participants (and academics) no longer knew the value of a key parameter. When demand did not subside even as oil prices went above historical levels, market participants began to wonder “what exactly is the price elasticity of oil at this level?”. As Hamilton put it:
Just as academics may debate what is the correct value for the price elasticity of crude oil demand, market participants can’t be certain, either. Many observers have wondered what could have been the nature of the news that sent the price of oil from $92/barrel in December 2007 to its all-time high of $145 in July 2008. Clearly it’s impossible to attribute much of this move to a major surprise that economic growth in 2008:H1 was faster than expected or that the oil production gains were more modest than anticipated. The big uncertainty, I would argue, was the value of ε. The big news of 2008:H1 was the surprising observation that even $100 oil was not going to be suﬃcient to prevent global quantity demanded from increasing above 85.5 mb/d.
Once the ratio of house prices to rents and other fundamentals became indisputably divorced from historical levels, market participants had to wonder what are the new underlying parameters were. Dean Baker said from the start that the historical levels were correct, and nothing has changed. Economists overall were agnostic. But from 2002 until 2007, those who bet optimistically were rewarded and those who bet pessimistically were punished or ignored.
If Fannie and Freddie drove the initial divorce of prices from their historical relationship with fundamentals, then they are an important causal factor. Yes, markets that myopically rewarded the most optimistic assessments of the new parameter values were a necessary condition for us to arrive at the hugely frothy markets of 2006, but so too was some first mover to push prices above historical levels.
Perhaps some of that divorce from fundamentals was real, in the sense that the equilibrium price to rent ratio grew as a result of a change in capitalization rates driven by income growth. If this is the case, then those who want to claim that the bubble was “called”, especially by Dean Baker, or that bubbles are identifiable, have a harder story to tell about when you know that a bubble has formed. What level of divorce from historical values is acceptable as real and at what level do you call it a bubble?