The central bankers of the world gathered last weekend for their annual meeting at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This was an opportunity to talk about the major issues confronting the world economy, as well as an opportunity to spend some time in a very beautiful vacation spot.
When they met in Jackson Hole in 2005, the meetings were devoted to an Alan Greenspan retrospective, honoring his 18-year tenure as Federal Reserve Board chairman, which was due to end the following January. A number of papers were presented analyzing his record at the Fed, including one that raised the question of whether Mr. Greenspan was the greatest central banker of all time.
The elite Jackson Hole crew did not debate whether Greenspan was the greatest central banker of all time this year. The world is now facing the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. At least, that is the assessment of Alan Greenspan. With house prices plunging, unemployment and inflation rates rising and banks failures mounting, Greenspan has a pretty good argument.
How did we get here? The centerpiece in this story is the United States allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble to grow unchecked. Between 1996 and 2006, house prices rose by more than 70 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In the previous century, from 1896 to 1996, house prices had just kept even with the overall rate of inflation.
When there is suddenly a sharp divergence from a long-term trend like this, it is reasonable to look for an explanation. Was there some fundamental factor on either the supply or demand side that was suddenly causing house prices to skyrocket?
A quick investigation revealed no obvious suspects. On the supply side, there were no major new constraints that were impeding construction. In fact, housing starts were at near record levels over the years 2002 to 2006, so there was no reason to believe any developments on the supply side could explain skyrocketing house prices.
The demand side also didn't feature any obvious culprits. The rate of population growth and household formation had slowed sharply. If demographics could explain a sharp rise in house prices, then we should have seen the surge in the 70s and 80s. That was when the huge baby boom cohort was first forming their own households. In the current decade, the baby boomers are preparing for retirement.
There also was no plausible income story. Income grew at a healthy but not extraordinary rate in the years from 1996 to 2000, but income growth has been very weak throughout the current decade.
Finally, if the run-up in house prices could be explained by the fundamentals of the housing market, then we should expect to see a comparable increase in rents. But there was no unusual run-up in rents. They did slightly outpace inflation in the late 90s, but they actually were falling behind inflation by the early years of this decade.
source:The Villains of the Housing Crisis Are Denying All Responsibility AlterNet, CA