Apr 07 2008
Judging by today’s headlines, things aren’t looking too hot for the US economy:
- Job losses, unemployment both worse than forecast – Apr. 4, 2008
- Dollar slips against euro, yen on jobs – Apr. 4, 2008
- BBC NEWS | Business | Oil price edges up on Opec stance
- FT.com / Asia-Pacific / China – US economy is ‘down sharply’, Paulson says
- Bernanke Nods at Possibility of a Recession – New York Times
From the last article:
In his bleakest economic assessment to date, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, said Wednesday that the American economy could contract in the first half of 2008, meeting the technical definition of a recession, and he encouraged Congress to help homeowners caught up in the mortgage crisis.
For the first time during his three years in the job, Bernanke has admitted we could be in a recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. By June, we could very well have experienced just such a decline in output; every central banker’s nightmare!
The source of America’s economic woes? Weak housing market. In fact, house prices have fallen around 10% nationwide over the last 12 months. To understand why, we need to recall the basic microeconomic principles of supply and demand. Quite simply, too many homes were built over the last decade, as low interest rates and optimism about the continued strenght of the housing market (rooted, of course, in the irrational exuberance about the economy as a whole) led builders to expand the suburban sprawl like never before, anticipating growing demand forever into the future. Problem was, demand couldn’t keep up with supply, and now the price is starting to reflect this basic economic principle.
To make things more complicated, many home buyers over the last seven years should never have been given loans based on their credit histories and household incomes. Many of these buyers were thus given “sup-prime” loans, many with adjustable interest rates, which means that today people who were too poor to get a normal loan four years ago are seeing their monthly payments increase just as the economy is slowing down. Rising unemployment puts downward pressure on wages, and inflation (caused by rising energy and commodity prices) forces poor homeowners to allocate more of their wages towards food and electricity, making it doubly hard to make their monthly mortgage payments.
The outcome is predictable: foreclosures. Banks that made loans to uncreditworthy buyers are now taking the houses back and putting them on the market for really low prices, putting even more downward pressure on all home prices. Since their homes make up the majority of Americans’ wealth, and since wealth and disposable income are the main determinants of consumption, inflation and falling home prices both lead to huge decreases in consumption.
The cycle continues: declines in household consupmtion signals to firms that it’s a bad time to invest, so investment spending declines. As consumption and investment fall, aggregate demand shifts in, causing output and employment to fall, hence our current recession.
“It now appears likely that real gross domestic product, or G.D.P., will not grow much, if at all, over the first half of 2008 and could even contract slightly,” he said. “We expect economic activity to strengthen in the second half of the year, in part as the result of stimulative monetary and fiscal policies.”
For now, however, judging by today’s headlines, conditions will continue to worsen for the American worker, homeowner, consumer and firm.
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About the author: Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author
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