Nobel economist speaks at USF
Vernon Smith is a professor of economics and law at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif. This morning at the University of South Florida, Smith outlined the economic and sociological reasons for the collapse of the housing bubble, which led to the current global financial meltdown.
Smith showed data from the Dow Jones index and house prices since the 1970s to establish that there has been a pattern of bubbles and collapses in the housing market. In the current and largest of those bursting bubbles, Smith says, the collapse first happened in homes but then spread to banks, stocks and the broader economy.
âAnd this decline, I would argue, blindsided the financial system, the stock market, the economy, even the Federal Reserve system, because they didnât really catch on to what was going on until August 2007 and all of a sudden they realized, âoh my god, look whatâs happening in the banking and financial system.â And they moved, you know, to create lots of liquidity and everything and that liquidity just died in puddles.â
In 2002, Smith along with fellow economist Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. It was established and funded by the Bank of Sweden and is often called the Nobel Prize in Economics. But it is not one of the five Prizes established by Nobelâs will and some of his descendents are critical of the prize.
Smith contrasted the stock market crash following the dot-com bubble, in which losses were absorbed immediately by owners, with the housing crash, which was absorbed by the banking system first.
âYou had that stock market crash in about 2000. Ten trillion dollars of value disappeared in that market and it had hardly any ripple effect on the banking system. The housing market we lost $3 trillion â¦ and it devastated the banking system. Big, big difference.â
Some of the strategies used to spur the economy, like adjusting tax rates and reducing regulation didnât help. Smith used a quote from economist Sir Dennis Robertson to criticize supply-side attempts at solving the problem.
âMonetary policy is like pushing on a string. â¦ It takes buyers to pull it, OK, and there were no buyers. And you talk about the limit of supply-side economics â wow! There it is. Youâre out there pushing and trying to make it real easy for people to borrow money and nobody wants to borrow it. And this thing started to really, really go to pot.â
In December 2007, Smith wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal placing much of the blame for the housing bubble on the Tax Relief Act of 1997, which was passed during the presidency of Bill Clinton.
âClinton shared some of the blame, he thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread, that heâd come up with this idea. â¦ All you people are going to get an opportunity â¦ the details werenât available â¦ but you would never have to pay a capital gains tax, ever, on your home. Boy was that popular; everybody said that was a great idea. To me, a zero tax on capital gains is fine, but please donât choose just one asset because you expect money to flow into that.â
The money that flowed into housing, Smith claims, caused the housing bubble, which, when it crashed, set of a chain of events leading to the current global economic crisis. Smith divided the housing bubble in four major cities, into three categories based on home price and found out that the bubble was most pronounced for owners in the lowest tier of home prices.
âSo hereâs all the people that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and all of us, the policymakers, wanted so badly to help. The ones with the least means and the bubble hurt them the most. Howâs that for unintended consequences? Who do you blame? Iâm telling you â people didnât have to buy these thinking that the price was going to go up forever. Buyers, sellers, real estate agents, the banks, the mortgage repackages, people who guaranteed these loans, and people who rated these loans higher than they deserved to be rated. Theyâre all part of the problem.â
But earlier in his lecture, Smith said he doesnât think that assigning blame is constructive.
âEverybodyâs looking for someone to blame. Believe me, thereâs lots and lots of blame to go around. Both in public policy and bad private incentives and donât go there, thatâs not going to help us solve the problem.â
Smithâs research is on experimental economics. He has placed groups of people in scenarios in which they buy and sell fake commodities and found that bubbles often occur: people spend more than the asset is worth, until the price crashes. That pattern hold true until a participant has experienced a bursting bubble two times. On the third time, wild speculation is uncommon and market fundamentalism becomes more common.
âYouâre hearing a lot of anti-market rhetoric now. Be careful about that. There are problems in asset markets, yes. And weâre not sure exactly how to solve them. We need to give those attention. But letâs not kill the goose thatâs been laying these golden eggs for so long, and is capable of continuing to lay them.â
Smith says there is a role for the government in ârecapitalizingâ banks, but he recognizes âthat thereâs long-term dangers in that in the sense that the banks may be tempted in the future to think theyâre going to get bailed out, and not be prudent.â But in contrast to banks, Smith thinks that underperforming auto companies should be allowed to fail.
âI think Detroit has to go through bankruptcy. The simple fact is that Detroit has to get their costs down or theyâll never be able to compete in world markets with the automobiles. And I donât care what kind of automobile they build, thatâs not the issue. The issue is that every car they produce costs them more to produce than it does Toyota.â
A major reason why American-made cars are more expensive to produce is because, unlike many other industrialized countries, the United States does not have a national health care system and the cost of auto employer-sponsored health insurance is part of the expense of an American car. But Smith did not address that, nor did he mention that if the car companies go into bankruptcy, thousands of auto workers would lose their negotiated high-wage union contracts.
Despite the current economic disaster, Smith says he considers himself an optimist.
âThe glass is still half full â it may even be 5/8ths full. And weâll get past this, weâre going to survive this, the American economy, I am sure, weâre going to get past it. Itâll be painful in the meantime, and some of the people who are least able to take the pain will be hit the worst. And I think that itâs important for government policy to address that distress and make sure that consumption levels are adequate. I think that should be more the focus of the policy rather than ideas for bailing the economy out that we donât even know will work and conceivably could make it worse by just delaying the inevitable.â
Smith says he is unwilling to speculate when the housing crash might end with a bottoming out of home prices.comments powered by Disqus