The cause of the Global Economic Crisis: The collapse of the housing bubble in the U.S.
Dean Baker, from his book: The End of Loser Liberalism 2011
The picture of banks collapsing and a chain reaction of defaults and bankruptcies made for exciting news stories and provided the basis for several bestselling books, but this panic was secondary to the collapse of the housing bubble.
The housing bubble drove demand in the years since the 2001 recession, and when the trillions of dollars of bubble-generated housing equity disappeared, there was nothing to take its place.
The bubble in housing led to near-record rates of residential construction over the years from 2002 to 2006. Builders rushed to build new homes to take advantage of record-high home prices. The boom also generated an enormous amount of employment in the financial industry, which issued mortgages not just for new homes but also to refinance homes people already owned, as tens of millions of homeowners sought to take advantage of the run-up in prices and low interest rates to take equity out of their homes. This “housing wealth effect” is well-known and is a standard part of economic theory and modeling. Economists expect households to consume based on their wealth. At its peak, the housing bubble generated more than $8 trillion in home equity on top of what would have been generated had home prices continued to rise at their historic pace. Recent estimates of the size of the wealth effect put it at 6 percent, meaning that homeowners will increase their annual consumption by 6 cents for every additional dollar of home equity.
A bubble in nonresidential real estate led to a building boom in that sector that followed on the heels of the boom in housing; as construction of housing began to trail off at the end of 2005 and into 2006, construction of nonresidential projects like office buildings, retail malls, and hotels exploded. This boom led to enormous overbuilding in the nonresidential sector, and so when the recession kicked in, and especially after the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, nonresidential construction plummeted.
The impact of the collapse of these two bubbles on the demand for goods and services in the economy was enormous.
Consumers are spending in line with their wealth. Now that their wealth has been hugely reduced by the collapse of the bubble, they have adjusted their spending accordingly. The overbuilding and collapse of the bubble in nonresidential real estate led to a further loss in annual demand of roughly $250 billion. Adding together the $600 billion in lost residential construction demand, the $500 billion in lost consumption demand, and the $250 billion in lost demand in nonresidential construction gives a total drop in annual demand of $1.35 trillion.
The collapse of the real estate bubbles as the cause of our continued economic weakness stands in contrast to the financial crisis stories we keep reading and hearing about in the news. These stories hinge on the idea that the problem in the economy is the improper working of the financial system following the financial crisis of the fall of 2008. This story has an obvious problem: the reason we have a financial system is to allocate capital, and it doesn’t seem that anyone is having difficulty getting capital.