Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Subprime/Housing Situation: Economist Vernon Smith's Views

Nobel-winning economist Vernon Smith had an editorial on housing issues in the WSJ the other day here, but you need to be a subscriber -- Murdoch hasn't opened the site up yet!).

Vernon makes a few points, including blaming the "housing bubble" on cuts in capital gains taxes for houses. That might have had some impact on housing prices, I have to agree, but I don't think that was the only reason for the rather spectacular rise in housing prices the last 10 or so years (low interest rates, increased credit available for housing purchases, and simple supply and demand also play large roles).

But Vernon also argued that the investments in housing were to a great extent a waste of resources and went mostly to the rich. Even more bothersome to me, he compared the housing investments to the investments made during the late 90's tech boom and argued that those tech investments were good, in that they contributed to productivity gains for companies.

It would be good to have some more facts at hand, but on the basis of my observations, I think he has it backwards. The housing investments have been for housing, which is generally occupied. And these investments have obviously not just been for the wealthy -- the wealthy don't qualify as subprime risks. Generally the housing boom has expanded the supply of housing, and made home ownership more affordable for many of lower income. We should all keep that in mind when criticizing the mortgage industry for making subprime loans -- even with a lot of defaults, there will still be a lot of lower income folks in houses that they own instead of rent. That is a good thing.

And for Vernon Smith to argue that the investments of the tech boom were all good makes me think he must not have been watching during that period. Much of the investment of the tech boom was not in real capital but instead in human capital. All the startup internet firms were not investing much at all in physical capital; they were investing in salaries of programmers and managers, many of whom had advanced degrees. And these companies were also employing armies of consultants and investment bankers, who are also obviously of higher income classes. Some companies were investing in physical capital, such as the firms in the telecommunications industry that built more fiberoptic network than could be economically justified even at zero discount rates.

So before we condemn the housing investments as clearly wasteful, especially in comparison to the investments of the tech boom, we should pause and, even better, collect some data and do some analysis.


barb michelen said...
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