We have nothing to fear but fear itself, but
fear itself can be pretty scary.

…Fear is ruling the
financial markets. Billions of dollars have been lost in mortgage-related
investments. The Federal Reserve worked madly over the weekend to
engineer a takeover of Bear Stearns and avert a systemic meltdown. But
the big fear remains. How low will house prices go?

If prices continue to fall, mortgage defaults will move well beyond the
subprime sector. Trillions of dollars in losses for investors are not
impossible. But that doesn’t mean they are inevitable.

That’s me in today’s New York Times.  Believe it or not, my piece is one of the more optimistic pieces you are likely to read on the housing crisis.

I think that housing prices went beyond the fundamentals sometime around 2004 (and I said so in 2005, see here and also note my warning that prices could fall dramatically here).   But 2004 levels are still well above long run trend.  Thus my optimism stems from thinking that unlike Japan, our housing prices need not fall back to long run trend (see my piece for graphs).

But the problem is that we can overshoot the fundamentals going down as well as going up and the United States now faces two potentially
self-fulfilling prophecies.

If the financial markets can predict where and when house prices will
stabilize, then credit conditions can quickly return to normal, the
economy can expand and house prices will indeed stabilize.

But if the financial markets remain uncertain about when the decline in
house prices will end, then fear will tighten credit even further, which
would strangle the housing market and generate even more fear.

Unfortunately, I do not know what will push us into the right prophecy (but read my piece, that will help!)  Thus, I am more optimistic than Paul Krugman, who thinks that we may have slipped into the state where no prophecy can bring us back to a good equilibrium, but I’m not that much more optimistic.


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