An economist recently recommended that I read a paper by three Fed researchers titled: “Why Did So Many People Make So Many Ex Post Bad Decisions? The Causes of the Foreclosure Crisis.” It was presented at a major conference last year and made the rounds again in the economics blogosphere this year with generally positive reviews. It seems to have been influential.
The authors – Christopher Foote, Kristopher Gerardi and Paul Willen – argue that the financial crisis was caused by over-optimistic expectations for house prices, while other factors such as distorted incentives for bankers played only minor roles or no roles at all. In other words, it was a bubble just like the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s or South Sea bubble of the early 1700s, and had nothing to do with modern financial practices.
Then the authors make absolutely sure of their work being well-received by those who matter. The financial crisis is surely a touchy subject at the Fed, where the biggest PR challenge is “bubble blowing” criticism from those of us who aren’t on the payroll (directly or indirectly). But Foote, Gerardi and Willen are, of course, on the payroll. They tell us there’s little else that can be said about the origins of the crisis, because any “honest economist” will admit to not understanding bubbles.
Here’s their story:
[I]t is deeply unsatisfying to explain the bad decisions of both borrowers and lenders with a bubble without explaining how the bubble arose. … Unfortunately, the study of bubbles is too young to provide much guidance on this point. For now, we have no choice but to plead ignorance, and we believe that all honest economists should do the same. But acknowledging what we don’t know should not blind us to what we do know: the bursting of a massive and unsustainable housing bubble in the U.S. housing market caused the financial crisis.
We don’t often critique papers like this (who cares about Fed research outside of academic economists?) But what the heck, the bolded sentences above – in particular, the hypocritical reference to “honest economists” – deserve at least a few words of rebuttal.
We’ll limit our comments to two areas. First, we’ll offer a redline edited version of a key section in the authors’ conclusion, mostly to share a different perspective on the financial crisis. Second, we’ll point out an example of dishonesty from these economists who brazenly claim that their own perspective is the only one that can be called honest.
Where did the bubble come from?
In practice, the authors don’t completely “plead ignorance” about the causes of bubbles as they claim to do. They offer a few “speculative” ideas about the housing bubble, writing:
One speculative story begins with the idea that some fundamental determinants of housing prices caused them to move higher early in the boom. Perhaps the accommodative monetary policy used to fight the 2001 recession, or higher savings rates among developing countries, pushed U.S. interest rates lower and thereby pushed U.S. housing prices higher. Additionally, after the steep stock market decline of the early 2000s, U.S. investors may have been attracted to real estate because it appeared to offer less risk. The decisions of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may have also played a role in supporting higher prices…
This smells to us like a strategy of gently acknowledging criticism (of the Fed’s interest rate policies), while at the same time attempting to neutralize it. The authors imply that low interest rates were an unavoidable byproduct of the Fed’s recession fighting, and then shift some of the blame to foreigners in developing countries before moving on to other possible explanations.
But even if you believe the Fed’s anti-recession measures were worthwhile, the authors’ story is nonsense. It needs corrections for the facts that the Fed continued to slash rates nearly two years after the 2001 recession and then maintained an ultra-easy stance for a few years after that. It also begs the question of why the Fed responded to high foreign savings rates – which were the flip side to U.S. current account deficits and primary source of disinflation – with even greater stimulus. Moreover, there’s much more to the Fed’s role in the housing boom than these factors.
As we see it, the financial crisis validated certain principles that aren’t reflected in mainstream models but feature in fringe areas such as Austrian business cycle theory or behavioral economics. Economists in these areas offer far more detailed explanations for the housing bubble than the “speculative story” above. For example, recent Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller filled a whole book with bubble theories. While Foote, Gerardi and Willen would presumably call these economists dishonest, we beg to differ. Borrowing from non-mainstream ideas, here’s our edited version of the excerpt:
If this version is accurate, the Fed’s failures include three whoppers:
- Monetary policy was too stimulative throughout the boom.
- Two decades of Greenspan/Bernanke “puts” created a mentality that risky bets couldn’t lose (moral hazard).
- The Fed applauded rather than stopping the deterioration in lending standards, blithely disregarding its status as only institution that was mandated to set nation-wide lending requirements.
As you might expect, Foote, Girardi and Willen weave a story that either denies or diverts attention from all three failures. One part of the story is their claim that bubbles can’t be explained and anyone who thinks otherwise is dishonest. If the defining feature of the crisis can’t be explained, then it can’t be blamed on the Fed, right?
Other parts of the story are embedded in 12 “facts” that are said to describe the crisis. As written, many of the “facts” are strictly true. Some may have even added to the public debate because they weren’t widely known in policy circles, even as they were understood in the fixed income business. Others, though, can only distort that debate. The worst of the so-called facts are somewhere in between flat wrong and technically accurate but interpreted in ways that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Lending standards didn’t really change during the boom?!?
We’ll point out a single example, from pages 9-11 of the paper and sub-titled, “Fact 4: Government policy toward the mortgage market did not change much from 1990 to 2005.” In this section, the authors deny that policymakers dropped the ball on lending standards. They don’t mention central bankers explicitly (that would be too obvious?), choosing instead to absolve the Clinton administration of blame for its ill-fated National Home Ownership strategy. Of course, their argument also exonerates the Fed if you happen to believe it.
The argument depends partly on a history lesson that begins like this:
It is true that large downpayments were once required to purchase homes in the United States. It is also true that the federal government was instrumental in reducing required downpayments in an effort to expand homeownership. The problem for the bad government theory is that the timing of government involvement is almost exactly 50 years off. The key event was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, in which the federal government promised to take a first-loss position equal to 50 percent of the mortgage balance, up to $2,000, on mortgages originated to returning veterans.
The authors then tell a nostalgic tale about loan-to-value (LTV) ratios in the 1950s and 1960s, before skipping ahead to the 1990s and 2000s. For the latter period, we’re told to believe that lending standards didn’t decline in a meaningful way:
Figure 6 shows LTV ratios for purchase mortgages in Massachusetts from 1990 to 2010, the period when government intervention is supposed to have caused so much trouble … But inspection of Figure 6 does not support the assertion that underwriting behavior was significantly changed by that program [Clinton’s National Homeownership Strategy].
Here’s the key chart that goes with this claim:
Here are a few reasons why the thesis doesn’t fit the reality:
- The authors share data for only one state (Massachusetts), while failing to mention that it didn’t have much of a housing bust. Consider that Boston is one of only four cities (out of 20) in the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index for which prices didn’t fall by more than 20%. During the bear market period for the full index, the Boston component fell only 16%, less than half the 34% drop in the national index.
- The authors’ sweeping argument relies on not only a single state, but also a single indicator (LTV ratios). You might wonder: What were the credit scores of borrowers at each LTV level? How did their incomes compare to monthly mortgage payments? Were their incomes verified? These types of questions need answers before you can draw general conclusions about underwriting behavior.
- Even the cherry-picked data – Massachusetts LTV ratios! – doesn’t support the authors’ conclusions. It shows that the incidence of ratios greater than 100% tripled during the housing boom, from about 8% of all Massachusetts mortgages to about 25%. The claim that this change isn’t significant is incredulous.
- LTV ratios in the 1950s and 1960s, while interesting, are irrelevant to the early 21st century housing boom. Different era, different circumstances, different implications.
Needless to say, the authors’ attempt at defending fellow public officials falls well short. Lending standards declined sharply during the boom, and this was encouraged by both the federal government and the Fed. No amount of data mining can change these facts.
Overall, the Fed staffers’ paper fits a common pattern. It’s stuffed with enough data to be taken seriously, but inferences are based more on spin than objective analysis. The approach aligns conclusions with an establishment narrative, while protecting the authors’ establishment status. The last thing you would call this paper is an honest piece of research.
As long as we’re at it, here’s an extra edit, this one offering another perspective on Foote, Gerardi and Willen’s conclusions about our knowledge of bubbles (from the first excerpt above):