Remember Alan Greenspan, who used to be the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve? In the past year he went from being considered an economic wizard to accused of being the global economic plague's "Patient Zero," the main figure responsible for the current crisis. Greenspan admitted that he was wrong, that he failed to recognize the danger hidden in many new financial instruments, but no one can take away the man's experience: Now 82, for 19 years, until 2006, Greenspan was responsible for American economic policy. And he says the story of the crisis is the story of the U.S. real estate market.
It's not easy to understand the economic crisis sweeping the world. Subprime, collapsing banks and corrupt bankers, insurance companies being nationalized, oil prices sliding, credit crunch, trade flatlining, entire countries going bankrupt - everything affects everything else, and it's impossible to figure out which is the chicken and which the egg. But if there's a single image that can explain how we got to this sad state, it's the graph attached to this article. Look closely. This graph, created by Yale economist Robert Shiller for The New York Times, shows sale prices of existing American homes over 116 years, factoring out the effects of inflation.
The graph shows that U.S. housing prices - again, remember, inflation is factored out - remained quite stable for most of the previous century. With some peaks and valleys during high and low periods, the price stayed relatively close to the $120,000 mark. And then 2000 rolled around, and the housing market went crazy. That spike at the far right of the graph is the reason for the crisis, and presumably it also holds the solution. Is it any wonder that Shiller was one of the lone voices who predicted the crisis' intensity?
Greenspan is responsible for that spike, together with the banking system. He's the one who cut interest rates to 1% earlier this decade, paving the way for more Americans than ever before to obtain mortgages. How, exactly? In the U.S. alone there are currently $13 trillion (!) in mortgage loans. Of that, $3 trillion is in low-quality mortgages (subprime and Alt A"), which are unlikely to ever be repaid.
Those $13 trillion are the rotten assets that were sold to the entire world after being bundled and rebundled in bonds, they're the assets that are poisoning the banks' balance sheets, and they are the main reason for the credit crisis and for the paralysis gripping the financial system. And why are they rotten? Because the moment the prices of these homes began to drop, millions of Americans discovered that they cannot meet their mortgage payments and that, in many cases, their mortgage exceeds the value of their home. And that story is repeating itself in many places around the world, because the U.S. exported its low interest rates and its real estate bubble to everyone.
Now the bubble has burst, and prices have been declining for more than two years. In December, U.S. housing prices contracted by an amazing rate of 18%, annualized, but the financial world won't stabilize until the slide ends. Everyone knows it, and governments are trying to do something about it: helping the public, avoiding foreclosures, purchasing mortgages, spreading out payments, cutting interest rates - there's no plan or idea that isn't being examined.
But it should be clear to anyone who reexamines the graph that coming down from such a spike, back down to reality, cannot be accomplished by artificial means. All those who want to know when the world economy will begin to stabilize must first answer this question: When will home prices stop falling? No one has the answer.
"It's hard to predict this market because we've just been through the biggest bubble in history, at the time of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," Shiller himself said last month in an interview with Reuters television. He noted that prices have been falling quite rapidly every month, adding, "That has a good chance of continuing."
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