FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Real Story of the Housing Crash

The economy is certain to occupy center stage in the presidential race this fall. Unfortunately neither Governor Romney nor President Obama are likely to give us an accurate account of the economic problems we are now facing.

Romney’s efforts seem intended to convince the public that President Obama has turned the country into the Soviet Union, with government bureaucrats shoving aside business leaders to take the commanding role in the economy. He will have lots of money to make this case, which he will need since it is so far from reality.

Corporate profits are at their highest share as a percentage of the economy in almost 50 years. The share of profits being paid in taxes is near its post-World War II low. The government’s share of the economy has actually shrunk in the Obama years, as has government employment. Perhaps Romney can convince the public that the private sector is being crushed by burdensome regulation and taxes, but that has nothing to do with reality.

Unfortunately President Obama’s economic advisors have not been much more straightforward with the American people, never offering a clear explanation of why the economy has taken so long to recover. They have pointed out that economies often take long to recover from the effects of a financial crisis like to the one we experienced in the fall of 2008, but that is not an explanation for why we have not recovered.

The basic story is actually quite simple. The housing bubble had been driving the economy prior to the recession. It created demand through several channels. A near-record pace of housing construction added about 2 percentage points of GDP to annual demand or more than $300 billion in the current economy.

The $8 trillion in ephemeral housing wealth created by the bubble led to a huge surge in consumption. Tens of millions of people borrowed against bubble-generated equity or decided that they didn’t need to save for retirement. When house prices were going up 15-20 percent a year, the house was doing the saving. The result was a huge consumption boom on the order of 4 percent of GDP or $600 billion a year.

In addition, there was a bubble in non-residential real estate that followed in the wake of the housing bubble. This raised non-residential construction above its normal levels by close to 1 percent of GDP or $150 billion a year.

Adding these sources of demand together, the bubble generated well over $1 trillion in annual demand at its peak in 2005-2007. When the bubble burst, this $1 trillion in annual demand vanished as well. That is the central story of the downturn.

To recover we must find some way to replace this demand; however that is not easy. People will not go back to their old consumption patterns because they know they need to save more. Tens of millions of people have much less wealth than they expected at this point in their lives after they saw the equity in their homes largely vanish. Tens of millions of baby boomers are approaching retirement with almost nothing but their Social Security to support them.

Given the huge loss of wealth from the collapse of the housing bubble it is not reasonable to expect consumption to rise to fill the demand gap. It doesn’t make much more sense to expect investment to do the job. Historically, investment in equipment and software has been close to 8 percent of GDP. It is pretty much back to that level today. To fill the demand gap created by the collapse of the housing bubble the investment share of GDP would have to nearly double to 14 percent.

This would be almost impossible to imagine at any time, but it is especially far-fetched at a time when much of the economy is operating far below its capacity. Businesses are unlikely to spend a lot of money expanding their facilities when the existing capacity is sitting idle regardless of how nice we are to job creators.

Over a longer term we can expect that net exports will fill the demand gap. If we bring our huge trade deficit close to balance by selling more abroad and importing less it will provide a substantial boost to demand. However this will require that the dollar fall in value relative to the currencies of our trading partners, making U.S. products more competitive. That is a process that will take time. With many of trading partners also in severe slumps, we cannot expect any major improvement in our trade balance in the immediate future.

This leaves government as the only remaining source of demand. This is not a question of whether we prefer the government or the private sector. We need the government sector to fill the gap in demand because the private sector will not do it. And that will be true no matter how much we love the private sector and its job creators.

Until we get our trade deficit closer to balance we will need large government deficits to fill the gap in demand created by the housing bubble. That is the simple reality that neither party seems anxious to tell the people.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This column originally appeared on Yahoo Finance.

More articles by:

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael Duggin
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Frank Clemente
The GOP Tax Bill is Creating Jobs…But Not in the United States
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
December 13, 2018
John Davis
What World Do We Seek?
Subhankar Banerjee
Biological Annihilation: a Planet in Loss Mode
Lawrence Davidson
What the Attack on Marc Lamont Hill Tells Us
James McEnteer
Breathless
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail