Well, we did it again. Only eight years after the last big financial boom ended in disaster, we’re now in the migraine hangover of an even bigger one—a global housing and debt bubble whose bursting has wiped out tens of trillions of dollars of wealth and brought the world to the edge of a second Great Depression.
Millions have lost their houses. Millions more have lost their retirement savings. Tens of millions have had their portfolios smashed. And the carnage in the “real economy” has only just begun.
What the hell happened? After decades of increasing financial sophistication, weren’t we supposed to be done with these things? Weren’t we supposed to know better?
Yes, of course. Every time this happens, we think it will be the last time. But it never will be.
First things first: for better and worse, I have had more professional experience with financial bubbles than I would ever wish on anyone. During the dot-com episode, as you may unfortunately recall, I was a famous tech-stock analyst at Merrill Lynch. I was famous because I was on the right side of the boom through the late 1990s, when stocks were storming to record-high prices every year—Internet stocks, especially. By late 1998, I was cautioning clients that “what looks like a bubble probably is,” but this didn’t save me. Fifteen months later, I missed the top and drove my clients right over the cliff.
Later, in the smoldering aftermath, as you may also unfortunately recall, I was accused by Eliot Spitzer, then New York’s attorney general, of having hung on too long in order to curry favor with the companies I was analyzing, some of which were also Merrill banking clients. This allegation led to my banishment from the industry, though it didn’t explain why I had followed my own advice and blown my own portfolio to smithereens (more on this later).
I experienced the next bubble differently—as a journalist and homeowner. Having already learned the most obvious lesson about bubbles, which is that you don’t want to get out too late, I now discovered something nearly as obvious: you don’t want to get out too early. Figuring that the roaring housing market was just another tech-stock bubble in the making, I rushed to sell my house in 2003—only to watch its price nearly double over the next three years. I also predicted the demise of the Manhattan real-estate market on the cover of New York magazine in 2005. Prices are finally falling now, in 2008, but they’re still well above where they were then.
Live through enough bubbles, though, and you do eventually learn something of value. For example, I’ve learned that although getting out too early hurts, it hurts less than getting out too late. More important, I’ve learned that most of the common wisdom about financial bubbles is wrong.
Who’s to blame for the current crisis? As usually happens after a crash, the search for scapegoats has been intense, and many contenders have emerged: Wall Street swindled us; predatory lenders sold us loans we couldn’t afford; the Securities and Exchange Commission fell asleep at the switch; Alan Greenspan kept interest rates low for too long; short-sellers spread negative rumors; “experts” gave us bad advice. More-introspective folks will add other explanations: we got greedy; we went nuts; we heard what we wanted to hear.
All of these explanations have some truth to them. Predatory lenders did bamboozle some people into loans and houses they couldn’t afford. The SEC and other regulators did miss opportunities to curb some of the more egregious behavior. Alan Greenspan did keep interest rates too low for too long (and if you’re looking for the single biggest cause of the housing bubble, this is it). Some short-sellers did spread negative rumors. And, Lord knows, many of us got greedy, checked our brains at the door, and heard what we wanted to hear.
But most bubbles are the product of more than just bad faith, or incompetence, or rank stupidity; the interaction of human psychology with a market economy practically ensures that they will form. In this sense, bubbles are perfectly rational—or at least they’re a rational and unavoidable by-product of capitalism (which, as Winston Churchill might have said, is the worst economic system on the planet except for all the others). Technology and circumstances change, but the human animal doesn’t. And markets are ultimately about people.
To understand why bubble participants make the decisions they do, let’s roll back the clock to 2002. The stock-market crash has crushed our portfolios and left us feeling vulnerable, foolish, and poor. We’re not wiped out, thankfully, but we’re chastened, and we’re certainly not going to go blow our extra money on Cisco Systems again. So where should we put it? What’s safe? How about a house?
House prices, we are told by our helpful neighborhood real-estate agent, almost never go down. This sounds right, and they certainly didn’t go down in the stock-market crash. In fact, for as long as we can remember—about 10 years, in most cases—house prices haven’t gone down. (Wait, maybe there was a slight dip, after the 1987 stock-market crash, but looming larger in our memories is what’s happened since; everyone we know who’s bought a house since the early 1990s has made gobs of money.)
We consider following our agent’s advice, but then we decide against it. House prices have doubled since the mid-1990s; we’re not going to get burned again by buying at the top. So we decide to just stay in our rent-stabilized rabbit warren and wait for house prices to collapse.
Unfortunately, they don’t. A year later, they’ve risen at least another 10 percent. By 2006, we’re walking past neighborhood houses that we could have bought for about half as much four years ago; we wave to happy new neighbors who are already deep in the money. One neighbor has “unlocked the value in his house” by taking out a cheap home-equity loan, and he’s using the proceeds to build a swimming pool. He is also doing well, along with two visionary friends, by buying and flipping other houses—so well, in fact, that he’s considering quitting his job and becoming a full-time real-estate developer. After four years of resistance, we finally concede—houses might be a good investment after all—and call our neighborhood real-estate agent. She’s jammed (and driving a new BMW), but she agrees to fit us in.
We see five houses: two were on the market two years ago for 30 percent less (we just can’t handle the pain of that); two are dumps; and the fifth, which we love, is listed at a positively ridiculous price. The agent tells us to hurry—if we don’t bid now, we’ll lose the house. But we’re still hesitant: last week, we read an article in which some economist was predicting a housing crash, and that made us nervous. (Our agent counters that Greenspan says the housing market’s in good shape, and he isn’t known as “The Maestro” for nothing.)
When we get home, we call our neighborhood mortgage broker, who gives us a surprisingly reasonable quote—with a surprisingly small down payment. It’s a new kind of loan, he says, called an adjustable-rate mortgage, which is the same kind our neighbor has. The payments will “reset” in three years, but, as the mortgage broker suggests, we’ll probably have moved up to a bigger house by then. We discuss the house during dinner and breakfast. We review our finances to make sure we can afford it. Then, the next afternoon, we call the agent to place a bid. And the house is already gone—at 10 percent above the asking price.
By the spring of 2007, we’ve finally caught up to the market reality, and our luck finally changes: We make an instant, aggressive bid on a huge house, with almost no money down. And we get it! We’re finally members of the ownership society.
You know the rest. Eighteen months later, our down payment has been wiped out and we owe more on the house than it’s worth. We’re still able to make the payments, but our mortgage rate is about to reset. And we’ve already heard rumors about coming layoffs at our jobs. How on Earth did we get into this mess?
The exact answer is different in every case, of course. But let’s round up the usual suspects:
• The predatory mortgage broker? Well, we’re certainly not happy with the bastard, given that he sold us a loan that is now a ticking time bomb. But we did ask him to show us a range of options, and he didn’t make us pick this one. We picked it because it had the lowest payment.
• Our sleazy real-estate agent? We’re not speaking to her anymore, either (and we’re secretly stoked that her BMW just got repossessed), but again, she didn’t lie to us. She just kept saying that houses are usually a good investment. And she is, after all, a saleswoman; that was never very hard to figure out.
• Wall Street fat cats? Boy, do we hate those guys, especially now that our tax dollars are bailing them out. But we didn’t complain when our lender asked for such a small down payment without bothering to check how much money we made. At the time, we thought that was pretty great.
• The SEC? We’re furious that our government let this happen to us, and we’re sure someone is to blame. We’re not really sure who that someone is, though. Whoever is responsible for making sure that something like this never happens to us, we guess.
• Alan “The Maestro” Greenspan? We’re pissed at him too. If he hadn’t been out there saying everything was fine, we might have believed that economist who said it wasn’t.
• Bad advice? Hell, yes, we got bad advice. Our real-estate agent. That mortgage guy. Our neighbor. Greenspan. The media. They all gave us horrendous advice. We should have just waited for the market to crash. But everyone said it was different this time.
Still, except in cases involving outright fraud—a small minority—the buck stops with us. Not knowing that the market would crash isn’t an excuse. No one knew the market would crash, even the analysts who predicted that it would. (Just as important, no one knew when prices would go down, or how fast.) And for years, most of the skeptics looked—and felt—like fools.
Everyone else on that list above bears some responsibility too. But in the case I have described, it would be hard to say that any of them acted criminally. Or irrationally. Or even irresponsibly. In fact, almost everyone on that list acted just the way you would expect them to act under the circumstances.