Invalid economic assumptions

Robert Samuelson:

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It was once believed that the crisis of "subprime" mortgages -- loans to weaker borrowers -- would be limited, because these loans represent only 12 percent of all home mortgages. Even better, they were widely held, diluting losses to individual banks and investors.

Wrong. Subprime mortgage losses (20 percent are delinquent) triggered a full-blown financial crisis. Confidence evaporated, because subprime loans were embedded in complex securities whose values and ownership were hard to determine. Similar doubts afflicted other bonds. Demand for all these securities shriveled. Lenders hoarded cash and favored safe U.S. Treasuries. Because investment banks and others relied on short-term debt (a.k.a. "leverage"), a loss of confidence and credit threatened failure. Lehman Brothers failed. The financial system had overborrowed and underestimated risk.

It was once believed that American consumers could borrow and spend more, because higher home values and stock prices substituted for annual savings. Consider: From 1985 to 2005, the personal savings rate dropped from 9 percent of disposable income to almost zero. But over the same years, households' net worth (assets minus liabilities) quadrupled, from $14 trillion to $57 trillion.

Wrong. In recent years, consumers increasingly overborrowed, especially against inflated home values. With the housing "bubble" now collapsed, net worth is falling. Homeowners' equity in their homes -- the share not borrowed -- is at a record low of 45 percent, down from 59 percent in 2005. Consumers have responded by retrenching big-time. Retail sales have dropped for five straight months; vehicle sales are a third below 2006 levels.

It was once believed that the rest of the world would "decouple" from the United States. As Europe, Asia and Latin America expanded, their buying would cushion our recession. A better-balanced world would emerge, with smaller U.S. trade deficits and lower surpluses elsewhere.

Wrong. The crisis has gone global; economic growth in 2009 will be the lowest since at least 1980. Even China has slowed; steel output was down 12 percent in November from a year earlier. The crisis has spread through two channels: reduced money flows and reduced trade. Global financial markets are interconnected. Customer redemptions forced U.S. mutual funds and hedge funds to sell in emerging markets (such as Brazil or Korea), whose stocks have dropped about 60 percent from their peak. Credit has tightened, as money flowing into developing countries is expected to shrink 50 percent in 2009 from 2007 levels, estimates the World Bank. The bank expects trade, up 7.5 percent in 2007, to fall in 2009 for the first time since 1982.

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At the heart of this problem is the decision to require lenders to make bad loans to people who could not afford them. It was compounded by encouraging people to borrow against the equity in their homes. Since many have seen their equity disappear there will probably be fewer such loans, but we should limit the practice before the next bubble.

Obviously we need to deal with the problems of the Community Reinvestment Act which was used to push the bad loans on the lenders. We also need to address the obvious problem with mortgaged backed securities. We now know that attempts to hedge against portfolio losses for bad loans not only does not work, but is counter productive to credit markets in general.

We not only need to deal with the toxic assets, but with the creation of future ones. Wrenching them out of the system should be a priority.

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