The Federal Reserve Knew About the Housing Bubble in 2004

Jan 17, 2012Matt Stoller

The data -- both anecdotal and otherwise -- was out there, and the Fed even discussed it internally. Let's not let it off the hook.

I noticed something odd about the recent release of the 2006 Federal Reserve Open Market Committee transcripts. Binyamin Appelbaum has a characteristically good article about the inept chatter at the FOMC meetings that year, where the various participants missed the housing bubble completely. And there has been suitable mockery of the Fed.

What I'm finding, though, is a bit of an apologia for these folks in the form of "no one knew." This is just not true. I remember in 2002-2003 I heard crazy stories about housing, where people would list their home and get 15 bids in 24 hours. It's why I didn't consider buying a home. It wasn't just anecdotal, but the data was out there.

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And it's clear, from going into earlier transcripts of FOMC meetings, that the Fed actually knew there was a housing bubble as early as 2004. Or rather, it had the data, both anecdotal and quantitative, and even discussed the possibility of a bubble internally. Ryan Grim and Calculated Risk picked this up in 2010.

Here's Grim:

Federal Reserve bank president from Atlanta, Jack Guynn, warned that "a number of folks are expressing growing concern about potential overbuilding and worrisome speculation in the real estate markets, especially in Florida. Entire condo projects and upscale residential lots are being pre-sold before any construction, with buyers freely admitting that they have no intention of occupying the units or building on the land but rather are counting on 'flipping' the properties -- selling them quickly at higher prices."

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And Calculated Risk found that the Fed discussed the rent-to-price ratio that Dean Baker relied on for his accurate diagnosis of the bubble.

MR. FERGUSON [Roger Ferguson, Fed Vice Chairman in 2004]: The other question I have deals with chart 3, on housing prices. My question is about the footnote, which says that the rent-price ratio is adjusted for biases in the trends of both rents and prices. Is that where you pick up demographics and lifecycle factors? What are these biases in the trends, and how does one think about changing demographics and the relative attractiveness of owning a home versus renting? Give me some sense of whether or not the shape of the curve that you show here is likely to reverse, as you imply, or likely to stay relatively low.

MR. OLINER [Stephen Oliner, Fed associate research director]: The biases referred to in that footnote were really technical biases in the construction of the two measures shown here, the rent measure and the price measure. Had we not adjusted for them, the rent-to-price ratio would have been much lower at the end point. So it would have looked more alarming. In part we think the published data have some technical problems that need to be taken care of before this analysis can be done in a way that is meaningful. With regard to the question of owning versus renting, it depends to some extent on what is happening to interest rates because that changes that calculation at the margin. So it’s really important to plot any kind of valuation measure relative to an opportunity cost. Just showing the rent-to-price ratio I think would have been somewhat misleading; it’s really that gap that we think is the meaningful measure of valuation. And it looks somewhat rich, taking account of the fact that interest rates are relatively low and income growth has been relatively strong. I don’t want to leave the impression that we think there’s a huge housing bubble. We believe a lot of the rise in house prices is rooted in fundamentals. But even after you account for the fundamentals, there’s a part of the increase that is hard to explain.

Alan Greenspan understood very well the importance of withdrawing equity from homes as a driver of demand, which comprised 6-8 percent of all disposable income from 2003-2006. There was an enormous amount of chatter about a possible housing bubble (see this Google trend search.) It wasn't just heroic figures like Dean Baker and Josh Rosner who were warning of a bubble (and the possibility of a severe recession when it burst) since 2001; there were books coming out in 2003 with subtle titles like The Coming Crash in the Housing Market. Read the reviews of that book, and you'll see discussions by normal people in the industry pointing out how creepy the market had become.

That the Fed engaged in extreme groupthink is not a surprise. But let's not pretend like no one knew there was a bubble, or that no one knew that it could become a deeply serious problem. Many normal people knew. Non-corrupt policymakers and thinkers got it. And the Fed saw the signals; its officials even discussed the possibility internally. It simply ignored the pricing signals the market was sending. Funny, that.

Matt Stoller is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former Senior Policy Advisor to Congressman Alan Grayson.

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