The Fed and Asset Bubbles: Beyond Superficiality

There is considerable discussion about tasking the Federal Reserve Board with monitoring and even taking actions to prevent asset bubbles. Before they move too far, the Fed needs to understand what happened in the housing bubble to which they responded after the world economy was decimated.

Any initiative on the part of the Fed to seriously understand, much less do anything about asset bubbles requires that their causes be comprehended at more than a superficial level. To this day, the Fed appears to presume that the housing bubble was simply the result of financial factors, such as loose money and loose lending. In fact, however, the housing bubble was far more complex than that.

The averages on which the Fed and much of the business press have based their analysis hide the dynamics that were at the heart of the price explosion. The housing bubble inflated with a vengeance in only one-half of the major US metropolitan markets, and inflated very little in the others.

There is no doubt that the bubble would not have occurred without the loose monetary policies. However, where the bubble inflated the most, it was in a metropolitan environment of excessively strong land use controls or artificially constricted land supply (called compact development or smart growth). In these markets (such as in California, Florida, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle), regulation is so strong that when the loose credit induced expansion of demand occurred, the housing market was not permitted to respond with a supply of new affordable housing, and there was a rush to purchase existing stock, which drove prices up.

On the other hand, in the traditionally regulated markets, including fast growing metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, there was comparatively little escalation in house prices. In short, one-half of the country had a housing bubble, the other half did not. In the more highly regulated markets, the Median Multiple (median house price divided by median household income) increased to from 4.5 times to more than 11 (compared to the historic ratio of 3.0). In the traditionally regulated markets, the 3.0 standard was generally not exceeded. Thus, as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman of Princeton University and The New York Times noted more than three years before the crash, the United States was really two nations with respect to house price escalation, and the difference was land use regulation.

We have estimated that the house value losses were overly concentrated in the compact development markets, accounting for 85% of the peak to trough declines. Without these artificial losses, which were the result of unwise policy intervention, the international Great Recession might not have been set off or it certainly would have been less severe. All of this is described in the last two editions of our “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” and related items (the 6th Annual Demographia Housing Affordability Survey will be available early in 2010).

The purpose of compact development and smart growth is to stop the expansion (the ideological term is “sprawl”) of urban areas. Clearly, given the distress that has occurred in the US housing market and the wave of additional losses in both the domestic and international economy that followed, the price of stopping urban expansion (or attempting to) has proven to be immensely larger than any gains.

At least in housing, until the Fed understands what happened, it will be powerless to effectively apply whatever new powers it employs to control future housing bubbles.