Monday, February 23, 2009

Causes of the Depression: Real Estate Speculation or the Fed?

Friedman and Schwartz, Monetary
History of the United States
, 1963
In the 1950s, the cause of the Great Depression was attributed simply to 1920s over-speculation in real estate, with Florida as the poster state.

Subsequently, monetarist economists have put the blame on blunders by the Federal Reserve System, which was adrift after the death in 1928 of its able New York Bank President, Benjamin Strong. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz demonstrated that the Fed was selling government securities instead of buying them, taking liquidity out of the financial system and keeping interest rates too high in the 1930s.

Making the Fed the culprit has contributed to a complacent feeling that the Fed knows so much now that the Depression couldn't happen again. The problems of the Japanese financial system since 1990 have been brushed off (e.g., by former Fed Governor Larry Meyer) as indicators that the Japanese response to a downturn was just too slow and too timid.

Polly Cleveland has recently reasserted the older version of the story, namely that the Depression was primarily a reaction to the 1920's real estate bubble. It began with the production of cars in 1899, which grew exponentially (with just a two-year interruption for World War I) until a peak of 4 million cars in 1929.
The auto suddenly opened up vast suburban and rural areas to housing. Developers—legitimate and bogus—leapt at the opportunity. Banks jumped in too, creating so-called "shoestring mortgages", effectively allowing property purchases on margin. Within a few years, tens of thousands of acres around major cities had been subdivided and sold. In rural areas, developers bought up farms, dug a pond, built a "clubhouse" and sold cheap "vacation" lots. As reported in Homer Hoyt's classic “One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago, from 1918 to 1926,” Chicago’s population increased 35 percent and land values rose 150 percent, or about 12 percent a year.
Land values tapered off in 1926, then fell. After 1929, home construction and car production collapsed. In Chicago, by 1933 land values had fallen some 70 percent overall; peripheral areas fell even more. U.S. auto production did not regain the 4 million level until 1949. Housing production did not pass the 1926 peak until 1950. Cleveland continues:
Around Detroit, more than 95 percent of recorded lots were vacant as of 1938. Nationally, the number of vacant lots rose to 20-30 million, compared with about 30 million occupied housing units. According to economic historian Alex Field, the barren subdivisions ringing the cities hindered the recovery of construction: Missing titles of defaulted owners and poor physical layout created de facto brownfields.

The real estate bubble helped set off and then worsen the Depression. Collapsing land values left people suddenly much poorer, so they cut spending. They also defaulted on mortgages, sticking the banks with "toxic" assets: liens on near-worthless property. The struggling banks in turn cut off lending even to good customers. Bank runs—panicky depositors withdrawing cash—further crippled the banking system.
Cleveland compares the innovation of the automobile with the innovation of collateralized debt obligations. Both started off innocently enough (securitization of housing debt was a good idea when properly monitored), but ended up setting off destructive real estate bubbles.

What we have found out is that the downside of the business cycle is not necessarily more under control than it was in the 1930s.

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