|Unlearned lessons from the housing bubble|
|Every major country of the world has abundant land in the form of farms and forests, much of which can be converted someday into urban land|
By Robert J Shiller/
That misunderstanding encouraged people to buy homes for their investment value – and thus was a major cause of the real estate bubbles around the world whose collapse fuelled the current economic crisis. This misunderstanding may also contribute to an increase in home prices again, after the crisis ends. Indeed, some people are already starting to salivate at the speculative possibilities of buying homes in currently depressed markets.
But we do not really have a land shortage. Every major country of the world has abundant land in the form of farms and forests, much of which can be converted someday into urban land. Less than 1% of the earth’s land area is densely urbanised, and even in the most populated major countries, the share is less than 10%.
There are often regulatory barriers to converting farmland into urban land, but these barriers tend to be thwarted in the long run if economic incentives to work around them become sufficiently powerful. It becomes increasingly difficult for governments to keep telling their citizens that they can’t have an affordable home because of land restrictions.
The price of farmland hasn’t grown so fast as to make investors rich. In the
Despite a huge 21st century boom in cropland prices in the US that parallels the housing boom of the 2000’s, the average price of a hectare of cropland was still only $6,800 in 2008, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and one could build 10-20 single-family houses surrounded by comfortable-sized lots on this land, or one could build an apartment building housing 300 people.
Land costs could easily be as low as $20 per person, or less than $0.50 per year over a lifetime. Of course, such land may not be in desirable locations today, but desirable locations can be created by urban planning.
Many people seem to think that the
But, to the extent that the products of land (food, timber, ethanol) are traded on world markets, the price of any particular kind of land should be roughly the same everywhere. Farmers will not be able to make a profit operating in some country where land is very expensive, and farmers would give up in those countries unless the price of land fell roughly to world levels, though corrections would have to be made for differing labor costs and other factors.
Shortages of construction materials do not seem to be a reason to expect high home prices, either. For example, in the
An even more troublesome fallacy is that people tend to confuse price levels with rates of price change. They think that arguments implying that home prices are higher in one country than another are also arguments that the rate of increase in those prices should be higher there.
But, the truth may be just the opposite. Higher home prices in a given country may tend to create conditions for falling home prices there in the future.
The kinds of expectations for real estate prices that have informed public thinking during the recent bubbles were often totally unrealistic. A few years ago Karl Case and I asked random home buyers in US cities undergoing bubbles how much they think the price of their home will rise each year on average over the next ten years. The median answer was sometimes 10% a year.
If one compounds that rate over 10 years, they were expecting an increase of a factor of 2.5, and, if one extrapolates, a 2000-fold increase over the course of a lifetime. Home prices cannot have shown such increases over long time periods, for then no one could afford a home.
The sobering truth is that the current world economic crisis was substantially caused by the collapse of speculative bubbles in real estate (and stock) markets – bubbles that were made possible by widespread misunderstandings of the factors influencing prices.
These misunderstandings have not been corrected, which means that the same kinds of speculative dislocations could recur. - Project Syndicate
lRobert Shiller, Professor of Economics at
I doubt a week has gone by since last summer during which I haven't seen some pundit or other trot out Walter Bagehot's dictum that in the event of a credit crunch, the central bank should lend freely at a penalty rate. More often than not, this is contrasted with the actions of the Federal Reserve, which seems to be lending freely at very low interest rates.
Ben Bernanke, in a speech today, addressed this criticism directly:
What are the terms at which the central bank should lend freely? Bagehot argues that "these loans should only be made at a very high rate of interest". Some modern commentators have rationalized Bagehot's dictum to lend at a high or "penalty" rate as a way to mitigate moral hazard--that is, to help maintain incentives for private-sector banks to provide for adequate liquidity in advance of any crisis. I will return to the issue of moral hazard later. But it is worth pointing out briefly that, in fact, the risk of moral hazard did not appear to be Bagehot's principal motivation for recommending a high rate; rather, he saw it as a tool to dissuade unnecessary borrowing and thus to help protect the Bank of England's own finite store of liquid assets. Today, potential limitations on the central bank's lending capacity are not nearly so pressing an issue as in Bagehot's time, when the central bank's ability to provide liquidity was far more tenuous.
I'm no expert on Walter Bagehot, and in fact I admit I've never read Lombard Street. But I'll trust in Bernanke as an economic historian on this one, unless and until someone else makes a persuasive case that Bagehot's penalty rate really was designed to punish the feckless rather than just to preserve the Bank of England's limited liquidity."