The real estate roots of the crisis in the US

Today’s guest blogger is Elena Panaritis,  an expert in property rights, creating markets in illiquid real estate assets, and public sector management.  She is also the author of Prosperity Unbound; Building Property Markets with Trust, which is definitely not one of those odious get-rich-quick-in-real-estate-without-capital-brains-or-effort books.  Instead it is a get real book for social entrepreneurs about how to turn real estate possessions into socially productive, and indeed also privately profitable, capital.

This Crisis Demands Non-Traditional Solutions to Get to a Path of Quick Recovery

By Elena Panaritis

Two years after it began, there is now a coalescing of opinion about the causes of the U.S. financial crisis and what should be done to resolve it, yet there is a serious element missing both in the causation analysis as well as in the prescriptive solution. This crisis, which has infected the global economy so severely, is very much a non-traditional one that calls for a non-traditional solution. The impact in the United States so far has been worse than anything since the Great Depression: unemployment reached 9.5 percent in June, up from 7.8 percent in January, home prices were down 27% at the end of the first quarter from their 2006 peak, and 1.5 million homes were in foreclosure.  After jumping by 30 percent in February, home foreclosure rates tapered off but are again on the rise. According to the New York Times, the loss in property value could total $500 billion.

There is general agreement that the financial crisis results from a variety of factors: an extremely low household saving rate in the United States; excessive public and private liquidity creation and a wave of cheap and easy credit which was directed into real estate speculation; proliferation of “subprime” mortgage loans to high-risk borrowers, interest rates kept too low for too long that further increased incentives to over-borrow; the failure of financial supervision and regulation. However, there is a much less obvious element that everybody is missing, that of a poorly defined and weak underlying asset namely real estate/property. Indeed, it is at the heart of the crisis. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the weak link here is the system used to define the asset of real estate/property in terms of use and cash flow, its supply, and pricing.

In this crisis, real estate assets were badly defined for the most part, making them less securely bankable and more susceptible to price manipulation and destabilizing speculation. That’s still true, yet no one is raising the issue.

Usually, economic crises result from bad regulation and over-liquidity in the financial markets (the first four of the five factors mentioned above). Economists usually address the demand side of the assets (i.e. how an asset is financed and the credit markets around it) (as opposed to the actual regulatory infrastructure that defines and creates assets to become securely tradable with reduced risk, that is, the supply side. In this crisis, the asset (real estate) was/is for the most part badly defined – and it is this side of the equation that needs to be examined rather than taken for granted.

The current economic crisis stems from the fact that the underpinnings of the market are either broken or rotted, and in some cases there are no underpinnings. That makes it a non-traditional crisis; what we are confronting is the direct result of inadequacies in upstream property rights. This crisis combines the original sin of badly valued properties with a financial system based on harmful, unproductive gambling and incentives to continue gambling. As a result, investors in mortgage-backed securities did not have enough, reliable information on the mortgage itself. They only had information on ratings of the derivative, but not of the actual underlying asset.

We cannot achieve secure derivative trading if the information on the underpinning asset is not standardized but oblique and difficult to find – because markets run on information. In the same way we understand the need to standardize derivatives, we must understand the need to do the same for the underlying real estate assets. While we have national and international trading in asset-based securities, the information on the assets themselves is localized, and the way it is collected and reported varies from county to county and state to state.

What, then, should be done? We need to treat this crisis as an opportunity not only to install a more rigorous regulatory regime for the financial sector, but also to listen to the non-traditional economists – that is practitioners of institutional economics. They will tell us that we need to overhaul the way property rights and property values are established in this country. We need a structural reform that establishes standards for how property is evaluated and how it is offered to the market. We need a standardized repository of information about the asset of property, so that no one has to search multiple places to make sure a title is good and that there are no outstanding liens dating back decades.  We need to ensure that all buyers can access information about the pricing of property. Let’s start with a consolidation of information county by county, and use the best standardized information we can find – typically from registries of deeds and from title insurance companies – to get things going.

The U.S. property rights system is severely broken. The incorrect valuation of land, properties, and thus mortgages is at the center of our current crisis, and if we don’t fix things so that mortgages are valued correctly we will not have addressed the root cause of why things are the way they are today.

Traditionally, economists are trained to assume that pricing in general is a point of equilibrium defined by almost perfect market forces, where the demand and supply meet and neither the buyer or seller has a huge informational advantage. The traditional model also assumes that markets are frictionless and transaction costs are near zero especially when we deal with the supply side. From that they continue to assume that systems (rules, regulations, norms) that define the tradability of assets are given and near perfect. But this is rarely the case. In reality the systems that define supply of land and real estate tend to be full of transactions costs and information leakages, and that makes it really difficult to follow the old maxim that a price or value based on how much one is willing to pay is necessarily the right price.

These are the same economists who, faced with a crisis, would concentrate on the downstream usage of an asset – that is, the asset’s treatment in the financial markets. They would typically pay little or no attention to the upstream definition of the asset – that is, the actual system that structures the supply of the asset – the pool of all assets ready to be traded in the market – before it enters the market. Their solutions would be all the traditional ones, that is, solutions that touch on the impacts of distorted financial markets, that is, markets for ‘downstream’ financial assets: macroeconomic stability, regulation of the financial sector, even labor regulations, and by taking these steps, they would consider transactions costs to be close to zero, and disregard societal and market wrinkles.

What about practitioners of institutional economics?  They would emphasize how the underlying asset is defined, whether all the characteristics that help determine its market price are clear, and how the original creation of the asset takes place.

And so, to whom do the powers-that-be turn for solutions in this non-traditional crisis? They are following the lead of the traditional economists and the conventional path of economic analysis.

The Obama administration’s economics team came in determined to get a handle on this crisis. There has been a concerted effort to lift the fog and manage as much as possible the systemic risk that has been created by panic over a suddenly uncertain future. The team has focused on policies to reduce uncertainty about the derivatives markets and restore confidence, to return banks to healthy levels of capital and bring tighter oversight to the derivatives markets.

These steps are needed, but they are not enough. Everyone has pointed to the greed of the financial sector, the manic behavior of banks and new lending institutions that continued to leverage up to take advantage of the spreads between their securitized assets and their ever-shorter funding maturities, the lax regulation of the derivatives markets, and the fact that almost anything could be bundled with anything else, no matter how heterogeneous – one security could include consumer debt, credit cards and home mortgages. Also there is a wide acknowledgment that when banks stop lending it both brings about a cyclical contraction and fuels a weakening of long-term productivity in any economy.

But is it enough simply to reduce uncertainty regarding the capitalization of banks? Does lifting the fog of uncertainty about the complex derivatives also cure the core problem?

No one is touching the roots of the crisis.

When Timothy Geithner, US Treasury Secretary, is asked about the signs of improvement, he points to impacts of the systemic crisis, such as unemployment, lending rates, and so on. He has yet to point to a single indicator that goes to the roots. Where is his explanation of what is being done to address the bad rules and regulations governing how property rights in real estate are established in the United States, which is the primary reason that all the systemic problems could bring us down the path to negative-equity mortgage loans? What does he have to say about long-term miscalculations of the value of mortgages on an asset – real property – that ought to be unambiguous and transparent in our market economy? What is going to be done to ensure that land valuations are not driven by guesswork?

Until the United States accepts that it has a badly flawed approach to establishing and verifying real estate property rights and to determining the valuation of property, until it puts in place a system that homogenizes and standardizes the underlying securitized assets of real estate and housing – the same way securities are required to be homogeneous prior to being traded in bundles – these underlying real estate assets will continue to be toxic. They may be less toxic, or more toxic, as the crisis ebbs and flows, but they will be toxic nonetheless – and they will be on the balance sheets of banks.

Let the traditional economists work on the things they understand. Meanwhile, let’s combine basic institutional economics with some practical reality and fix the broken system. It will take political will, strong leadership from a new and popular president, and a direct confrontation with the special interests that would like to maintain the status quo while continuing to get bailouts.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website

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