Money, Banking, and Financial Markets

Understand the principles, understand the future
 
Commentary

Housing debt typically is on the short list of key sources of risk in modern financial systems and economies. The reasons are simple: there is plenty of it; it often sits on the balance sheets of leveraged intermediaries, creating a large common exposure; as collateralized debt, its value is sensitive to the fluctuations of housing prices (which are volatile and correlated with the business cycle), resulting in a large undiversifiable risk; and, changes in housing leverage (based on market value) influence the economy through their impact on both household spending and the financial system (see, for example, Mian and Sufi).

In this post, we discuss ways to assess housing risk—that is, the risk that house price declines could result (as they did in the financial crisis) in negative equity for many homeowners. Absent an income shock—say, from illness or job loss—negative equity need not lead to delinquency (let alone default), but it sharply raises that likelihood at the same time that it can depress spending. As it turns out, housing leverage by itself is not a terribly useful leading indicator: it can appear low merely because housing prices are unsustainably high, or high because housing prices are temporarily low. That alone provides a powerful argument for regular stress-testing of housing leverage. And, because housing markets tend to be highly localized—with substantial geographic differences in both the level and the volatility of prices—it is essential that testing be at the local level….

People use a variety of statistics to gauge how the economy is doing. It is fairly straightforward to measure nominal GDP, so the challenge of estimating real economic growth arises from the need for accurate measures of prices. Price measurement also is key for inflation-targeting central bankers, who need a number as a guide and for public accountability. To be credible, that number must be based on an index constructed using established scientific methods.

Reflecting a set of well-known (and nearly insurmountable) difficulties, measured inflation has an upward bias. That is, the inflation numbers that statistical agencies report are consistently higher than the theoretical construct we would like to compute. As a consequence of this upward bias in inflation measurement, our estimates of growth in real output and real incomes are systematically too low.

The big question today is whether the bias in inflation measurement, and hence the bias in the measurement of growth, has increased in recent years. As Martin Feldstein describes in detail, the answer to this question is important, as it affects how we collectively view long-run progress. If published statistics show sluggish real growth, as well as slow growth in real wages and incomes, then people may be unduly pessimistic. A worsening bias would add to that pessimism.

In practice, however, careful recent analysis suggests that inflation measurement bias has not changed much since the early 2000s….

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... the site where you can learn about finance and economics. We provide commentary on events in the news and on questions of more lasting interest. Because the financial system is constantly evolving, our analysis is informed by a set of core principles: understand the principles, understand the future. The opening excerpts of our two most recent posts appear above. For prior posts, click on the Commentary link to the left, or on the month-by-month Archives to the right. Alternatively, if you are interested in a specific topic, use the tags.

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Steve Cecchetti and Kim Schoenholtz
 

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