The central irony of financial crisis is that while it is caused by too much confidence, too much borrowing and lending and too much spending, it can only be resolved with more confidence, more borrowing and lending, and more spending. Most policy failures in the US stem from a failure to appreciate this truism and therefore to take steps that would have been productive pre-crisis but are counterproductive now with the economy severely constrained by lack of confidence and demand.
Thus even as the gap between the economy’s production and its capacity increases, fiscal policy turns contractionary, financial regulation focuses on discouraging risk-taking and monetary policy is constrained by concerns about excess liquidity. Most significantly US housing policies especially with regard to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, institutions whose purpose is to mitigate cyclicality, have become a case of disastrous procyclical policy.
In retrospect it would have been better if financial institutions and those involved in regulating them, especially the Federal Housing Finance Agency, recognised that house prices can go down as well as up, if more rigour had been applied in providing credit, if the government-sponsored enterprises had been more careful in monitoring those originating and servicing loans, and if there had been more vigilance about fraudulent behaviour.
The question now is what should be done to address the housing market given the drag it represents on the economy. With virtually all mortgages in the US provided by the federal government or guaranteed by the GSEs, this is inevitably a matter of government policy. Continue reading »