Housing | timiacono.com - Part 30

On Economists and Psychopaths

After reading through some of the recently released transcripts from the 2006 Federal Reserve policy meetings, it occurred to me for about the thousandth time that economists are particularly ill-suited to oversee an economy where the financial system is, from time to time, run by psychopaths each trying to one-up the other.

During normal times, economists’ models of how the world works seem to function reasonably well, but when a multi-decade orgy of money and credit creation came to a head a few years back, they were completely unaware of how badly some people were acting and how contagious this was.

The central bank meets this week and is expected to revamp how they communicate their thinking about monetary policy to the world, but, maybe they should spend more time figuring out how to better observe what’s going on in the world – looking beyond the charts, tables, and models that they had their noses buried in back in 2006, oblivious to the looming crisis in housing and credit markets.

It was all there to see for anyone willing to make a modest effort to get out into the real world and look around.

Wild-eyed buyers lined up for blocks to buy new condos and mortgage brokers with barely a high school education were raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in commissions by peddling all kinds of “exotic” mortgages to borrowers who, in many cases, didn’t really understand what they were signing.

As we’ve come to find out, there was a good deal of fraud involved here by both lenders and borrowers as few seemed to care about how their individual actions might affect others in the fullness of time.

You might say that a good asset bubble brings out the psychopath in many of us.

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Mishkin’s 2006 “Smidgen” Moment

Dean Baker’s commentary from last week that delved into the 2006 meeting transcripts of the Federal Reserve’s policy committee – Alan Greenspan’s ship of fools – contains this noteworthy section featuring former governor Frederic Mishkin that provides more evidence that economists are particularly ill-suited to run the economy.

Here’s what Frederick Mishkin, a Federal Reserve Board governor who later played a starring role in the movie Inside Job, had to say about the risks from the housing market in that same December 2006 meeting:

“I don’t see any indications that we will have big spillovers to other sectors from weak housing and motor vehicles.

In that sense, there’s a slight concern about a little weakness, but the right word is I guess a ’smidgen,’ not a whole lot.

At that last meeting of the year, the major concern expressed was about inflation. Several FOMC members expressed concern that the unemployment rate at the time (4.5%) was too low to keep inflation in check. They hoped that slower growth in 2007 would raise the unemployment rate to a level consistent with stable inflation. They certainly got their wish about a growth slowdown, although they did have to wait until 2008 to feel its full effect.

If you haven’t already clicked on the link to the Inside Job excerpt in the quoted text, you can do so here. I don’t know about you, but, I just never get tired of watching that clip.

The Fed’s Housing Bubble Laughter

The Federal Reserve transcripts from 2006 released ten days ago continue to reverberate around the internet as the central bank has become a laughing stock for being so unaware of the U.S. housing bubble that was inflating to dangerous levels throughout the year.

Dean Baker’s Alan Greenspan’s ship of fools from last week is well worth reading if for no other reason than to learn what former Fed governor Frederic Mishkin was thinking late that year and I recently came across this item at The Daily Staghunt blog that charted how much laughter appeared in the transcripts over the years.

While Fed economists are purportedly a funny lot, it does look pretty bad to see increasing joviality at a time when they could have been doing something about the housing bubble.

The FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) meets this week and they are expected to announce of a new communication initiative with two key features – expanded interest-rate projections and an explanation of their objectives for inflation and employment. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will surely discuss these in detail in the press conference after the meeting and, though normally keen on audience engagement, he’ll probably be hoping that he’s not asked about the 2006 transcripts.

If we’re really lucky, someone will ask him about this chart.

Existing Home Sales Up, Inventory Down

The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of previously owned homes rose 5.0 percent in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.61 million, up from a downwardly revised rate of 4.39 million in November, and the median home price rose nearly $4,000 to $164,500 last month, down 2.5 percent from a year ago.

Total housing inventory fell 9.2 percent to 2.38 million units last month, the lowest level since March of 2005, and the months of supply metric dropped from 7.2 months in November to 6.2 in December, the lowest level since 2006.

Distressed sales accounted for 32 percent of all transactions – 19 percent foreclosures and 13 percent short sales – and all-cash sales accounted for 31 percent of purchases as the share of sales made to investors seeking bargains rises at this time of the year since many traditional buyers wait for better weather in the spring or schools to let out in the summer.

Record low mortgage rates, an improving labor market, and rising consumer confidence in recent months have all combined to spur home sales, however, a backlog of foreclosures now working their way through the system in the wake of the “robo-signing” scandal last year may soon change the current supply/demand balance.

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