Root Causes Of The Financial Crisis: A Primer

Commentary, Housing Affordability, Wendell Cox

It is not yet clear whether we stand at the start of a long fiscal crisis or one that will pass relatively quickly, like most other post-World War II recessions. The full extent will only become obvious in the years to come. But if we want to avoid future deep financial meltdowns of this or even greater magnitude, we must address the root causes.

In my estimation two critical and related factors created the current crisis. First, profligate lending which allowed many people to buy overpriced properties that they could not, in reality, afford. Second, the existence of excessive land use regulation which helped drive prices up in many of the most impacted markets.

Profligate lending all by itself would not likely have produced the financial crisis. It took a toxic connection with excessive land-use regulation. In some metropolitan markets, land use restrictions, such as urban growth boundaries, building moratoria and large areas made off-limits to development propelled house prices to unprecedented levels, leading to severely higher mortgage exposures. On the other hand, where land regulation was not so severe, in the traditionally regulated markets, such as in Texas, Georgia and much of the US Midwest and South there were only modest increases in relative house prices. If the increase in mortgage exposures around the country had been on the order of those sustained in traditionally regulated markets, the financial losses would have been far less. Here is a primer on the process:

    The International Financial Crisis Started with Losses in the US Housing Market: There is general agreement that the US housing bubble was the proximate cause for the most severe financial crisis (in the US) since the Great Depression. This crisis has spread to other parts of the world, if for no other reason than the huge size of the American economy.

    Root Cause #1 (Macro-Economic): Profligate Lending Led to Losses: Profligate lending, a macro-economic factor, occurred throughout all markets in the United States. The greater availability of mortgage funding predictably led to greater demand for housing, as people who could not have previously qualified for credit received loans (“subprime” borrowers) and others qualified for loans far larger than they could have secured in the past (“prime” borrowers). When over-stretched, subprime and prime borrowers were unable to make their mortgage payments, the delinquency and foreclosure rates could not be absorbed by the lenders (and those which held or bought the “toxic” paper). This undermined the mortgage market, leading to the failures of firms like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and the virtual failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In this era of interconnected markets, this unprecedented reversal reverberated around the world.

    Root Cause #2 (Micro-Economic): Excessive Land Use Regulation Exacerbated Losses: Profligate lending increased the demand for housing. This demand, however, produced far different results in different metropolitan areas, depending in large part upon the micro-economic factor of land use regulation. In some metropolitan markets, land use restrictions propelled prices and led to severely higher mortgage exposures. On the other hand, where land regulation was not so severe, in the traditionally regulated markets, there were only modest increases in relative house prices. If the increase in mortgage exposures around the country had been on the order of those sustained in traditionally regulated markets, the financial losses would have been far less. This “two-Americas” nature of the housing bubble was noted by Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman more than three years ago. Krugman noted that the US housing bubble was concentrated in areas with stronger land use regulation. Indeed, the housing bubble is by no means pervasive. Krugman and others have identified the single identifiable difference. The bubble – the largest relative housing price increases – occurred in metropolitan markets that have strong restrictions on land use (called “smart growth,” “urban consolidation,” or “compact city” policy). Metropolitan markets that have the more liberal and traditional land use regulation experienced little relative increase in housing prices. Unlike the more strongly regulated markets, the traditionally regulated markets permitted a normal supply response to the higher market demand created by the profligate lending. This disparate price performance is evidence of a well established principle of economics in operation – that shortages and rationing lead to higher prices.

    Among the 50 metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population, 25 have significant land use restrictions and 25 are more liberally regulated. The markets with liberal land use regulation were generally able to absorb from the excess of profligate lending at historic price norms (Median Multiple, or median house price divided by median household income, of 3.0 or less), while those with restrictive land use regulation were not.

    Moreover, the demand was greater in the more liberal markets, not the restrictive markets. Since 2000, population growth has been at least four times as high in the traditional metropolitan markets as in the more regulated markets. The ultimate examples are liberally regulated Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the developed world with more than 5,000,000 population, where prices have remained within historic norms. Indeed, the more restrictive markets have seen a huge outflow of residents to the markets with traditional land use regulation (see:

    Toxic Mortgages are Concentrated Where there is Excessive Land Use Regulation: The overwhelming share of the excess increase in US house prices and mortgage exposures relative to incomes has occurred in the restrictive land use markets. Our analysis of Federal Reserve and US Bureau of the Census data shows that these over-regulated markets accounted for upwards of 80% of “overhang” of an estimated $5.3 billion in overinflated mortgages.

    Without Smart Growth, World Financial Losses Would Have Been Far Less: If supply markets had not been constrained by excessive land use regulation, the financial crisis would have been far less severe. Instead of a more than $5 Trillion housing bubble, a more likely scenario would have been at most a $0.5 Trillion housing bubble. Mortgage losses would have been at least that much less, something now defunct investors and the market probably could have handled.

    While the current financial crisis would not have occurred without the profligate lending that became pervasive in the United States, land use rationing policies of smart growth clearly intensified the problem and turned what may have been a relatively minor downturn into a global financial meltdown.

    Never Again: All of the analyst talk about whether we are “slipping into a recession” misses the point. For those whose retirement accounts have been wiped out, or stock in financial companies has been made worthless, those who have lost their jobs and homes, this might as well be another Great Depression. These people now have little prospect of restoring their former standard of living. Then there is the much larger number of people whose lives are more indirectly impacted – the many households and people toward the lower end of the economic ladder who have far less hope of achieving upward mobility.

All of this leads to the bottom line. It is crucial that smart growth’s toxic land rationing policies be dismantled as quickly as possible. Otherwise, there could be further smart growth economic crises ahead, or, perhaps even worse, a further freezing of economic opportunity for future generations.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”