Only four years late

Paul Krugman writes in the NYT:

Remember the stock market bubble? With everything that’s happened since 2000, it feels like ancient history. But a few pessimists, notably Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley, argue that we have not yet paid the price for our past excesses. I’ve never fully accepted that view. But looking at the housing market, I’m starting to reconsider.

In July 2001, Paul McCulley, an economist at Pimco, the giant bond fund, predicted that the Federal Reserve would simply replace one bubble with another. “There is room,” he wrote, “for the Fed to create a bubble in housing prices, if necessary, to sustain American hedonism. And I think the Fed has the will to do so, even though political correctness would demand that Mr. Greenspan deny any such thing.”

As Mr. McCulley predicted, interest rate cuts led to soaring home prices, which led in turn not just to a construction boom but to high consumer spending, because homeowners used mortgage refinancing to go deeper into debt. All of this created jobs to make up for those lost when the stock bubble burst.

Now the question is what can replace the housing bubble.

Nobody thought the economy could rely forever on home buying and refinancing. But the hope was that by the time the housing boom petered out, it would no longer be needed.

But although the housing boom has lasted longer than anyone could have imagined, the economy would still be in big trouble if it came to an end. That is, if the hectic pace of home construction were to cool, and consumers were to stop borrowing against their houses, the economy would slow down sharply. If housing prices actually started falling, we’d be looking at a very nasty scene, in which both construction and consumer spending would plunge, pushing the economy right back into recession.

That’s why it’s so ominous to see signs that America’s housing market, like the stock market at the end of the last decade, is approaching the final, feverish stages of a speculative bubble.

Roach has been saying this for years. So have I. But if Paul Krugman is finally starting to figure it out, we must be on the verge of something interesting and probably nasty.

Then again, perhaps this is simply the first sign that I’m incorrect.