Thursday, August 14, 2008
Greenspan Sees Bottom
By DAVID WESSEL
WASHINGTON -- Alan Greenspan usually surrounds his opinions with caveats and convoluted clauses. But ask his view of the government's response to problems confronting mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and he offers one word: "Bad."
|David S. Holloway|
In a conversation this week, the former Federal Reserve chairman also said he expects that U.S. house prices, a key factor in the outlook for the economy and financial markets, will begin to stabilize in the first half of next year.
"Home prices in the U.S. are likely to start to stabilize or touch bottom sometime in the first half of 2009," he said in an interview. Tracing a jagged curve with his finger on a tabletop to underscore the difficulty in pinpointing the precise trough, he cautioned that even at a bottom, "prices could continue to drift lower through 2009 and beyond."
A long-time student of housing markets, Mr. Greenspan now works out of a well-windowed, oval-shaped office that is evidence of his fascination with the housing market. His desk, couch, coffee table and conference table are strewn with printouts of spreadsheets and multicolored charts of housing starts, foreclosures and population trends siphoned from government and trade association sources.
An end to the decline in house prices, he explained, matters not only to American homeowners but is "a necessary condition for an end to the current global financial crisis" he said.
"Stable home prices will clarify the level of equity in homes, the ultimate collateral support for much of the financial world's mortgage-backed securities. We won't really know the market value of the asset side of the banking system's balance sheet -- and hence banks' capital -- until then."
At 82 years old, Mr. Greenspan remains sharp and his fascination with the workings of the economy undiminished. But his star no longer shines as brightly as it did when he retired from the Fed in January 2006.
Two Pillars of Data
Mr. Greenspan has been criticized for contributing to today's woes by keeping interest rates too low too long and by regulating too lightly. He has been aggressively defending his record -- in interviews, in op-ed pieces and in a new chapter in his recent book, included in the paperback version to be published next month. Mr. Greenspan attributes the rise in house prices to a historically unusual period in which world markets pushed interest rates down and even sophisticated investors misjudged the risks they were taking.
His views remain widely watched, however. Mr. Greenspan's housing forecast rests on two pillars of data. One is the supply of vacant, single-family homes for sale, both newly completed homes and existing homes owned by investors and lenders. He sees that "excess supply" -- roughly 800,000 units above normal -- diminishing soon. The other is a comparison of the current price of houses -- he prefers the quarterly S&P Case Shiller National Home Price Index because it includes both urban and rural areas -- with the government's estimate of what it costs to rent a single-family house. As other economists do, Mr. Greenspan essentially seeks to gauge when it is rational to own a house and when it is rational to sell the house, invest the money elsewhere and rent an identical house next door.
"It's the imbalance of supply and demand which causes prices to go down, but it's ultimately the valuation process of the use of the commodity...which tells you where the bottom is," Mr. Greenspan said, recalling his days trading copper a half century ago. "For example, the grain markets can have a huge excess of corn or wheat, but the price never goes to zero. It'll stabilize at some level of prices where people are willing to hold the excess inventory. We have little history, but the same thing is surely true in housing as well. We will get to the point where there will be willing holders of vacant single-family dwellings, and that will no longer act to depress the price level."
The collapse in home prices, of course, is a major threat to the stability of Fannie and Freddie. At the Fed, Mr. Greenspan warned for years that the two mortgage giants' business model threatened the nation's financial stability. He acknowledges that a government backstop for the shareholder-owned, government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs, was unavoidable. Not only are they crucial to the ailing mortgage market now, but the Fed-financed takeover of investment bank Bear Stearns Cos. also made government backing of Fannie and Freddie debt "inevitable," he said. "There's no credible argument for bailing out Bear Stearns and not the GSEs."
His quarrel is with the approach the Bush administration sold to Congress. "They should have wiped out the shareholders, nationalized the institutions with legislation that they are to be reconstituted -- with necessary taxpayer support to make them financially viable -- as five or 10 individual privately held units," which the government would eventually auction off to private investors, he said.
Instead, Congress granted Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson temporary authority to use an unlimited amount of taxpayer money to lend to or invest in the companies. In response to the Greenspan critique, Mr. Paulson's spokeswoman, Michele Davis, said, "This legislation accomplished two important goals -- providing confidence in the immediate term as these institutions play a critical role in weathering the housing correction, and putting in place a new regulator with all the authorities necessary to address systemic risk posed by the GSEs."
But a similar critique has been raised by several other prominent observers. "If they are too big to fail, make them smaller," former Nixon Treasury Secretary George Shultz said. Some say the Paulson approach, even if the government never spends a nickel, entrenches current management and offers shareholders the upside if the government's reassurance allows the companies to weather the current storm. The Treasury hasn't said what conditions it would impose if it offers Fannie and Freddie taxpayer money.
Fear that financial markets would react poorly if the U.S. government nationalized the companies and assumed their approximately $5 trillion debt is unfounded, Mr. Greenspan said. "The law that stipulates that GSEs are not backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government is disbelieved. The market believes the government guarantee is there. Foreigners believe the guarantee is there. The only fiscal change is for someone to change the bookkeeping."
Cloudy Crystal Ball
In the past, to be sure, Mr. Greenspan's crystal ball has been cloudy. He didn't foresee the sharp national decline in home prices. Recently released transcripts of Fed meetings do record him warning in November 2002: "It's hard to escape the conclusion that at some point our extraordinary housing boom...cannot continue indefinitely into the future."
Publicly, he was more reassuring. "While local economies may experience significant speculative price imbalances, a national severe price distortion seems most unlikely in the United States, given its size and diversity," he said in October 2004. Eight months later, he said if home prices did decline, that "likely would not have substantial macroeconomic implications." And in a speech in October 2006, nine months after leaving the Fed, he told an audience that, though housing prices were likely to be lower than the year before, "I think the worst of this may well be over." Housing prices, by his preferred gauge, have fallen nearly 19% since then. He says he was referring not to prices but to the downward drag on economic growth from weakening housing construction.
Mr. Greenspan urges the government to avoid tax or other policies that increase the construction of new homes because that would delay the much-desired day when home prices find a bottom.
He did offer one suggestion: "The most effective initiative, though politically difficult, would be a major expansion in quotas for skilled immigrants," he said. The only sustainable way to increase demand for vacant houses is to spur the formation of new households. Admitting more skilled immigrants, who tend to earn enough to buy homes, would accomplish that while paying other dividends to the U.S. economy.
He estimates the number of new households in the U.S. currently is increasing at an annual rate of about 800,000, of whom about one third are immigrants. "Perhaps 150,000 of those are loosely classified as skilled," he said. "A double or tripling of this number would markedly accelerate the absorption of unsold housing inventory for sale -- and hence help stabilize prices."
Write to David Wessel at email@example.com
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