Posts tagged ‘bubbles’

I Have A Better Idea: Let's Just Kill It

Kevin Drum thinks the mortgage interest deduction is unfair because people with bigger mortgages get bigger deductions.  In particular, he is concerned that people with smaller deductions get no incremental benefit because these deductions are seldom larger than their default personal exemption.

But tax deductions are always going to be like this in a progressive system -- the rates are progressive and the fixed personal exemption is extremely progressive, so the combination of the two mean that tax deductions are going to preferentially help the rich more.  This reminds me of the arguments in Colorado when tax law required a tax reduction and Democrats in the state legislature complained that people who don't pay taxes would be getting no benefits from this.

He tries to posit some silly alternative tax credit system, but why bother?  Haven't we had enough of distortive tax breaks that favor a single industry and/or shift investment alarmingly into a particular pool of assets (thus increasing the risk of bubbles).  Isn't the whole notion of tax-subsidizing home ownership but not rentals inherently regressive, no matter how the deduction or credit is calculated?  Doesn't the labor market rigidity of home ownership most penalize lower income workers who get trapped in a certain geography by their home and cannot migrate for better wages, as blue collar workers have done in past recessions and recoveries?

Why wouldn't a good progressive like Drum be advocating for an elimination of the deduction altogether?  Is this one of those coke-pepsi party things, where the Republicans have taken over the issue of limiting deductions so Democrats have to reflexively defend them, even if ideologically it would make more sense for them to promote their elimination?

Bitcoin, Short Sales, and Volatility

I am fascinated by Bitcoin and would love to see it be a success.  But Tyler Cowen has a quote that reflects some of my concerns about it:

…bitcoins are an uncomfortable combination of commodity and currency. The commodity value of bitcoins is rooted in their currency value, but the more of a commodity they become, the less useful they are as a currency.

Bitcoin is in the midst of an enormous price bubble, with increases in value of as much as 50% over just a few days.  This is astounding volatility for even a commodity, much less a currency.

Cowen said something at the end of the post, almost as a throw-away, that got my attention:  "There is, by the way, no current way to short Bitcoin."  The reason this caught my eye is that I have argued a long time that short selling is an important mechanism to reduce market volatility.

Every time we get to a market bubble or problem, insiders always start arguing against short selling saying it makes volatility worse and undermines markets.  But what they are really saying is that they like volatility so long as it is up. They had no problem with the bubble that propelled their securities up, they just don't want them to come back down to Earth.

In certain bubbles, when interest in a certain asset class gets really frothy, anyone who is skeptical of the asset and its new high values will sell and get out.  This means that as the bubble grows, all the skeptics are long gone from the market.  No longer owning the asset, these skeptics have no further "vote" or influence on the price.  Short selling is a way for skeptics to continue to influence the price and asset values.  To this extent, I think it tends to limit the peak of bubbles, just as bottom-fishers limit the debt of troughs.

Bitcoin would likely benefit from skeptics having some sort of influence on bitcoin values.  But without a way to short, Bitcoin values are driven solely by wacky anarcho-capitalists (e.g. people like me) and people fearful of Cyprus style depositor losses.  Essentially all the true believers are bidding against themselves.

Krugman Dead Wrong on Capital Controls

I am a bit late to the game in addressing Krugman's comments several days ago when he said:

But the truth, hard as it may be for ideologues to accept, is that unrestricted movement of capital is looking more and more like a failed experiment.

This was in response to the implosion of Cyprus banks, which was exacerbated (but not necessarily caused) by the banks being a home for a lot of international hot money - deposits so large they actually dwarfed the country's GDP.

I generally rely on Bastiat's definition of the role of the economist, which I will quote from Wikipedia (being too lazy on this Friday morning to find a better source):

One of Bastiat's most important contributions to the field of economics was his admonition to the effect that good economic decisions can be made only by taking into account the "full picture." That is, economic truths should be arrived at by observing not only the immediate consequences – that is, benefits or liabilities – of an economic decision, but also by examining the long-term second and third consequences. Additionally, one must examine the decision's effect not only on a single group of people (say candlemakers) or a single industry (say candlemaking), but on all people and all industries in the society as a whole. As Bastiat famously put it, an economist must take into account both "What is Seen and What is Not Seen."

By this definition, Krugman has become the world's leading anti-economist.  Rather than reject the immediate and obvious (in favor of the larger picture and the unseen), he panders to it.  He increasingly spends his time giving intellectual justification to the political predilection for addressing symptoms rather than root causes.  He has become the patron saint of the candle-makers petition.

I am not naive to the fact that there are pools of international hot money that seem to be some of the dumbest money out there.  Over the last few years it has piled into one market or another, creating local asset bubbles as it goes.

But to suggest that international capital flows need to be greatly curtailed merely to slow down this dumb money, without even considering the costs, is tantamount to economic malpractice.

You want to know what much of the world outside of Western Europe and the US would look like without free capital flows?  It would look like Africa.  In fact, for the younger folks out there, when I grew up, countries like China and India and Taiwan and Vietnam and Thailand looked just like Africa.  They were poor and economically backwards.  Capital flows from developed nations seeking new markets and lower cost labor has changed all of that.  Over the last decade, more people have escaped grinding subsistence poverty in these nations than at any other time in history.

So we have the seen:  A million people in Cyprus face years of economic turmoil

And the unseen:  A billion people exiting poverty

By pandering to those who want to expand politicians' power based on a trivial understanding of the seen and a blindness to the unseen, Krugman has failed the most important role of an economist.

Other thoughts:  I would offer a few other random, related thoughts on Cyprus

  • Capital controls are like gun and narcotics controls:  They stop honest people and do little to deter the dishonest.  In the case of Cyprus, Krugman obviously would have wanted capital controls to avoid the enormous influx of Russian money the overwhelmed the government's effort to stabilize the banks.  But over the last several weeks, the Cyprus banks have had absolute capital controls in place - supposedly no withdrawals were allowed.  And yet when the banks reopened, it become increasingly clear that many of the Russians had gotten their money out.  Capital controls don't work as a deterrence to money that is already corrupt and being hidden.
  • No matter what anyone says, the huge capital inflows into Cyprus had nothing to do with the banking collapse.  The banks had the ability to invest the money in a range of international securities, and the money was tiny compared to the size of those security pools.  So this is not like, say, a housing market where in influx of money might cause a bubble.   The only harm caused by the size of the Russian investments is that once the bank went bad, the huge size of the problem meant that the Cyprus government did not have the resources to bail out the bank and protect depositors from losses.
  • Capital controls are as likely to make bubbles worse as they are to make them better.  Certainly a lot of international money piling into a small market can cause a bubble.  But do capital controls really create fewer bubbles?  One could easily argue that the Japanese asset bubble of the late 80's would have been worse if all the money were bottled up in the country. When the Japanese went around the world buying up American movie studios and landmark real estate, that was in some sense a safety valve reducing the inflationary pressure in Japan.
  • Capital controls are the worst sort of government expropriation.  You hear on the news that the "haircut" taken by depositors in Cyprus might be 20% or 80% or whatever.  But in my mind it does not matter.   Because once the government put strict capital controls in place, the haircut effectively became 100%, at least for honest people that don't have the criminal ability or crony connections to beat the system.  Cyprus basically produces nothing.  Since money is only useful to the extent that it can buy or invest in something, then bottling up one's money in Cyprus basically makes it worthless.
  • Capital controls are a prelude to protectionism.   First, international trade is impossible without free flow of capital.   No way Apple is going to sell ipods in Cyprus if they cannot at some point repatriate their profits.  Capital controls can also lead to export controls.  If I can't export money, I might instead buy jets, fly them out of the country, and then sell the jets.
  • Let's not forget that the core of this entire problem is a government, not a private, failure.  Banks and investors treated sovereign euro-denominated debt as a risk-free investment, and banking law (e.g. Basil II) and pension law in most countries built this assumption into law.  Cyprus banks went belly-up because the Greeks, in whom they had (unwisely) invested most of their funds, can't exercise any fiscal responsibility in their government.  If European countries could exercise fiscal responsibility in their government borrowing, 80% of the banking crisis would not exist (housing bubbles and bad mortgage securities have contributed in some countries like Spain).  There is a circle here:  Politicians like to deficit spend.  They write regulations to encourage banks to preferentially invest in this government paper.  When the government debt gets iffy, and the banks face collapse, the governments have to bail them out because otherwise there is no home for their future debt.  The bailouts get paid for with more debt, which gets crammed back into increasingly over-leveraged banks.    What a mess.
  • All of this creates an interesting business school problem for the future:  What happens when there are no longer risk-free investments?  Throughout finance one talks about risk free rates and all other risks and risk premiums and discussed in reference to this risk-free benchmark.  In regulation, much of banking capital regulation and pension regulation is based on there being a core of risk free, liquid investments.  But what if these do not exist any more?
  • I have thought a lot about a banking model where the bank accepts deposits and provides basic services but does no lending - a pure deposit bank with absolute transparency on its balance sheet and investments.  I think about a web site depositors can check every day to see exactly where depositors money is invested and its real time values.  Only listed, liquid securities with daily mark to market.   Open source investing, as it were.  In the past, deposit insurance has basically killed this business model, but I think public confidence in deposit insurance just took a big-ass hit this week.

Postscript:  I don't want to fall into a Godwin's law trap here, but I am currently reading Eichmann in Jerusalem and it is impossible for me to ignore the role strict capital controls played in Nazi Germany's trapping and liquidation of the Jews.

PS#2:  Oops, Hayek beat me by about 70 years to the postscript above

The extent of the control over all life that economic control confers is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of foreign exchanges. Nothing would at first seem to affect private life less than a state control of the dealings in foreign exchange, and most people will regard its introduction with complete indifference. Yet the experience of most Continental countries has taught thoughtful people to regard this step as the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty. It is, in fact, the complete delivery of the individual to the tyranny of the state, the final suppression of all means of escape—not merely for the rich but for everybody.

Capital Controls

I am not sure I understand Kevin Drum's argument for capital controls.  He seems to be arguing that these controls are a sort of financial speed limit and making an awkward analogy to highway speed limits to justify them.

In a world where I as a taxpayer have to bail out banks, I don't have a huge problem with capital requirements for banks, though this seemingly simply topic is rife with unintended consequences -- I have seen it argued persuasively that the pre-2008 Basil capital requirements helped fuel the housing bubble by giving special preference to MBS in computing capital.  In fact, one might argue the same for the sovereign debt crisis, that by creating a huge demand for sovereign debt for bank balance sheets it fueled an unsustainable expansion in such debt.

Anyway, the point of this post was capital controls.  Drum quotes this from an IMF report:

19. Indeed, as the recent global financial crisis has shown, large and volatile capital flows can pose risks even for countries that have long been open and drawn benefits from capital flows and that have highly developed financial markets. For example, in several advanced economies, financial supervision and regulation failed to prevent unsustainable asset bubbles and booms in domestic demand from developing that were partly fueled by cheap external financing. Rather than favoring closed capital accounts, these experiences highlight the need for policymakers to remain vigilant to the risks. In particular, there is a constant need for sound prudential frameworks to manage the risks that capital inflows can give rise to, which may be exacerbated by financial innovation.

The logic, then, is that bubbles are exacerbated by inflows of foreign capital so capital controls can keep bubbles from getting worse.  I have very little knowledge of international finance, but let me test three thoughts I have on this:

  1. Doesn't this cut both ways?  If bubbles can be inflated by capital inflows, can't they also be deflated by capital outflows?  Presumably, if people domestically see the bubble, they would logically look for other places to invest their money.  International investments outside of the overheated domestic market are a logical alternative, and such capital flows would act a s a safety valve to reduce pressure on the bubble.  So wouldn't capital controls just as likely make bubbles worse, by confining capital within the bubble, as make them better by preventing new capital from outside the country flowing in?
  2. The implication here is that the controls would be dynamic.  In other words, some smart person in government would close the gates when a bubble starts to build and open them at other times.  But does that not presupposed the ability to see the bubble when one is in it?  Certainly there were a few who pointed out the housing bubble before 2008, but few in power did so.  And even if they had seen it, what is the likelihood that they would have pointed it out or taken action?  Who wants to be the politician who pops the bubble?  Remember the grief Greenspan got for pointing to an earlier bubble?
  3. Controls on capital inflows tend to be anti-consumer.  Yeah, I know, no one in government ever seems to care when they pass protectionist laws that protect 100 tire workers at the cost of higher tires for 100 million drivers.  But limiting capital inflows would reduce the value of the dollar, and make anything imported (or made from imported parts or materials) more expensive.

Trapped Into Civic Participation, and A Note on Labor Mobility

Up until now, I had never know that there was actually a theory, propounded by people with a straight face, that trapping people in neighborhoods and institutions (like public schools) is a positive because it promotes civic virtue.  

If you own your home, then a lot of your wealth is tied in with the quality of your neighborhood. In theory, this should motivate you to vote more carefully in local elections. On the other hand, if you are a renter, and the neighborhood goes downhill, you will simply leave.

Collectivists prefer to trap households within specific government service areas. Their thinking is that with the “exit” option foreclosed, households will be forced to exercise their “voice” option, to everyone’s benefit. This is an argument against private schools. It goes back at least as far as A.O. Hirschman’s classic book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

I would argue just the opposite, that this creates state monopolies ripe for abuse, and besides, is disastrous for labor mobility and thus the healthy functioning of labor markets.  People keep arguing that this recession is long because recessions after financial bubbles are always long.  I am not sure that is proven out by history.

I would argue a big reason this recession is long is that the nature of this bubble, being in housing markets, short-circuited one of the ways we get out of recessions, which is labor mobility.   Trapped in homes the government encouraged them to buy but now they cannot sell, people can't move to find new regional opportunities.  Where are the mass migrations to the North Dakota oil fields?

China Bubble Bursting

I don't have time today to link all the evidence, but the combination of crashing real estate markets and the Chinese government jamming liquidity into its banks tells me the China bubble is bursting as we speak.

This is an interesting test of the Austrian view of depressions vs. the Keynesian / Krugman / Thomas Friedman / MITI view of government-orchestrated prosperity.  If the latter are right, then China is doing more right to keep their economy going than any country in history and you should go invest all your money in Chinese real estate.

However, if one believes the Austrian model about government-enforced mis-allocation of capital and labor leading to bubbles and crashes; if one believes that the technocrat-beloved MITI was largely responsible for the Japanese lost decade; if one believes that the US govenrment through articially low interest rates and government-directed reductions in underwriting quality helped create the housing bubble -- then the mother of all crashes is looming in China.  Because no country has done more to reallocate resources and capital based on the whims of a few technocrats  and well-connected industrialists than has China.  After all, this is why Thomas Friedman loves China, that it does not rely on the judgement of millions of individuals to allocate capital, but instead on the finger pointing of a few at the top.

Obsessing over China?

Chinese exceptionalism, or do we just notice it because it is so large.  I clicked through to this chart from a link on Instapundit that said to note how Chinese fertility fell off the map.  When I watched the video though, what I saw was ALL the fertility rates falling at roughly the same pace, at roughly the same point.  The lesson seems to be that fertility tends to drop with increasing mortality, wealth, and technology -- which is what many of us have been saying in response to Paul Ehrlich for years.

I am probably over-reading this, but I am sensitive that there is a sort of storyline of Chinese exceptionalism -- due to their taking some sort of totalitarian third way -- that seems to be admired among certain US socialists and environmentalists and Thomas Friedman.  This hearkens back to all the admiration for the Japanese MITI-managed economy, right before their economy crashed for two decades or so.

China flourishes because it has a culture, never fully suppressed by Mao, whose people take well and quickly to capitalism -- much of the development around Southeast Asia in previous decades was led by expat Chinese.  The totalitarianism that is, depressingly, so admired by the US intelligentsia is just going to lead China into the abyss.  Already we can see bubbles emerging due to the state's forced mispricing of key economic inputs, from capital to oil.  The burden of spending on triumphalist projects like super-bridges and mega-buildings and Olympics and high speed trains is going to start appearing over the next few years.

Here is my prediction:  The Chinese are going to have a bubble burst that will rival any such economic explosion that we have seen in the last century.  I have been looking at the situation and by a number of metrics, the bubble is already huge.  I would bet against China, but the problem (as with all shorts) is timing.  Government officials, if they really dedicate themselves to the task, can extend bubbles for a long time.  Even in the US, which is less authritarian and more transparent, it can be argued that Fannie and Freddie and Barnie Frank and Alan Greenspan helped push off the reckoning by at least 5 years.   Of course, the longer you push it off, the worse it gets.  Which means the Chinese bubble is going to be a doozy.

Postscript: Here is a nice example -- admiration from US environmentalists for China gutting their economy to make arbitrary goals

It's interesting to note the dedication China has displaying in achieving its [energy efficency] target -- shutting down entire operations and even executing rolling blackouts. Surely there would have been some amount of embarrassment for the nation on the world's stage if it had missed its target, but that likely would have been minor. It's worth noting the difference in political culture: What do you think would have happened if the US had such an energy-reduction target to hit, but a sagging economy got in the way?

I can tell you with some certainty: We would have missed that mark.

Will there never be an end to Americans who take advantage of our uniquely strong speech protections to laud totalitarians?

Room Temperature Ice

Some scientists claim to be able to make room temperature ice (yes, I presume at 1 atm pressure).  Not sure what to make of it:

Earth's climate is strongly influenced by the presence of particles of different shapes and origins "” in the form of dust, ice and pollutants "” that find their way into the lowest portion of the atmosphere, the troposphere. There, water adsorbed on the surface of these particles can freeze at higher temperatures than pure water droplets, triggering rain and snow.Researchers at Spain's Centre d'Investigació en Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (CIN2) have studied the underlying mechanisms of water condensation in the troposphere and found a way to make artificial materials to control water condensation and trigger ice formation at room temperature. Described in the Journal of Chemical Physics, which is published by the American Institute of Physics, their work may lead to new additives for snowmaking, improved freezer systems, or new coatings that help grow ice for skating rinks.

The next step? The researchers' goal now is to produce environmentally-friendly synthetic materials for efficiently inducing snow. "If water condenses in an ordered way, such as a hexagonal structure, on such surfaces at ambient conditions, the term "˜room temperature ice' would be fully justified," adds Verdaguer. "The solid phase, ice, would be produced by a surface effect rather than as a consequence of temperature. In the long term, we intend to prepare smart materials, "˜intelligent surfaces,' that will react to water in a predefined way."

I remember some work on how water boiling could be suppressed by polishing surfaces where bubbles form (watch a pot of water boiling, the bubbles appear on the pan surfaces).  I presume this may be a related effect.

Germany's Ban on Short-Selling

It is pretty much a law of nature that issuers of securities hate short-selling.  They have tried for years to paint it as somehow unethical or at least unseemly, though it has always befuddled me as to why short-selling is any different than taking a long position on a security.  In both cases one is making a bet on future prices of the underlying asset, the only difference is in the direction.

But issuers of securities, whether they be corporate equities or government bonds, generally have strong personal incentives to see asset prices go up, or at least remain flat.  No CEO thinks short-selling is justified, but in fact the ability to sell short is critical to having quality pricing signals (see below for a discussion of how short-selling helps limit bubbles).

Of course, Corporate CEO's may gripe about short sellers, but they basically have to just live with them.  But governments are different.  They can actually ban what they don't like and have done so now in Germany.  What's next, a law saying that once you have bought a government security you are never allowed to sell it?

Postscript: Here is an example of how short selling reduces volatility.  First, some background

Chester Spatt, who was chief economist at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from 2004 to 2007, said that Germany's short-selling ban would probably end up causing more market turbulence and not less.

"Like many types of well-intentioned regulation, this is likely to misfire," he said in an interview. "During our financial crisis in 2008, there was a ban on short-sales for about three weeks .... That ban was very counterproductive. It didn't help stabilize asset prices at all."

Here is an example of why this happens, as I discussed in an earlier post during that temporary US ban:

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell [remember, we are discussing a world where naked shorting is banned], and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote for the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

Without short-selling, the only folks involved in the price-discovery process are those who have self-selected as being more bullish than average.  Short-selling vastly broadens the number of people, and thus the perspectives and information, involved in the pricing process.

I think "cargo cult" is a great moniker for this kind of regulation.  The price of European bonds are declining as lots of people sell?  Then lets ban selling, that will take care of the problem.   Just ignore that large government deficit behind the curtain.

More Cargo Cult Regulation

Apparently, the Obama administration may soon put limits on short-selling.  If so, this is cargo-cult thinking at its worst.  Prices fell really fast, so it must be the sellers' fault!  If we could just stop all this selling, then prices would never go down!

Here is my previous explanation of why short selling is in fact a critical tool to moderate bubbles, adding to the irony that we should be considering limits on this tool while suffering a bubble-induced recession.

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote for the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

Megan McArdle hilariously commented:

I don't understand why the Commission doesn't focus on something more effective, like installing lavish statues of Mammon on trading floors so that traders can better propitiate him.

Update: By the way, this could be argued to be just another piece of corporate welfare.  CEO's hate short sales of their stocks, and would love Congress to ban the practice altogether.  The fact that the practice enforces accountability on them, I am sure, has nothing to do with it.  The reality is that if buying and selling are thought of as voting for or against a company's or asset's value and prospects, then banning short selling is a way of disenfranchising most of the world from this process.

By the way, not that I think it should matter from a policy perspective, but have you noticed that the shorts seem to be right an awful lot?  In retrospect, more shorting of bank and insurance stocks 3 years ago would have been a good thing.

Cargo Cult Regulation

Someone noticed that just before certain stocks crash in value, there is a lot of short-selling.  So the US government has banned short-selling, at least temporarily.  Classic cargo-cult logic. 

Boy this sure makes perfect sense in a time when we are concerned about speculative bubbles -- let's ban one of the most important tools that exist for bubbles to be shortened and made less, uh, bubbly.  Here is why (very briefly and non-technically) short-selling takes the edge off speculative excesses.

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more. 

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately
made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought
these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote for the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

Update:  From Don Boudreaux:

To ban short-selling of stocks is to short-circuit an important
mechanism through which people share their knowledge and expectations
with others.  Banning a mechanism that better allows share prices to
reflect the expectation that the underlying assets are not worth as
much as current market prices suggest does nothing to change the
underlying reality.  Such a ban merely distorts knowledge of this
reality

Housing: Not At The Bottom

Here is a public service announcement for those of you who might be younger or who did not live through past housing bubbles (such as the mid-80's bubble in Texas).  Housing bubbles take a long time to sort out.  The typical pattern is that one sees a big build-up of yard "For Sale" signs around town, but no real movement or sales.  What happens is that people selling their houses resist accepting that a change in pricing levels has occurred, and list the homes at the old, higher price levels, particularly when any price cuts would put them underwater on their mortgage.

Eventually, the dam breaks, as sellers are forced to accept lower pricing because they can no longer bear the holding costs any longer.  In Texas, I had at least two friends who just left the keys in the mailbox and walked away, leaving it all to the bank to sort out.  But it can take a really long time for this to play out -- I am talking years, not months, depending on how inflated the bubble got.  From my experience (confirmed in the futures markets here) the bottom will not come until at least a year from now.  In Texas in the 1980's, it took as long as five years for the whole thing to play out and for prices to start recovering.

On Subprime and Payday Loans

I haven't had much to say about mortgage markets, mainly because what is going on is so obvious and straight-forward I wouldn't have thought it needed comment.  Even smart financial people get caught up in speculative bubbles, as was demonstrated in the late 1990's when they put money into some really dumb Internet investments.  New credit products can be difficult to price, since much of the costs come after the initial sales are made (in the form of defaults).  So some companies mispriced a new product, some others got caught up in a speculative bubble, same-old same-old.  This too will pass ... unless of course the government does something really stupid like bail some of these guys out, and then it will happen over and over again because no one will have an incentive to change their behavior.

I am afraid I also don't have tons of sympathy for the borrowers.  By definition, since most of these subprime loans were little or nothing down, folks are not losing their life-savings and equity, because they didn't have any equity.  They are being forced to move out of their house in the same way a tenant might if he couldn't make his rent payments, except in this case the "rent" was tax-deductable.  I do feel some sympathy for consumer borrowers who were enticed into borrowing against their home rather than through some sort of consumer loan, thus endangering their house to buy that big screen TV.  But who did the enticing - wasn't it the government, who provides a huge subsidy for home equity lending (via the mortgage interest deductibility on income taxes) versus other forms of borrowing?

But here is the amazing thing to me:  the same politicians who demagogue payday loan companies for providing loans that are too expensive can simultaneously demagogue subprime lenders for loans that were too cheap.  They criticize the same banks now for being too free with credit to the poor that they have criticized for years (via redlining suits and such) for being too stingy with credit to the poor. 

It's almost as if politicians don't really care what lenders are doing, they just want to find an excuse to get a few sound-bites on the local news back in their district and issue some legislation to expand federal power in the banking industry.

Smart Growth and the Housing "Bubble"

The other day, I wrote fairly tongue-in-cheek about dentists, their investment choices, and the housing "bubble".  In that article I linked to several much weightier analyses, if you are interested in the topic.  The Commons Blog has chimed in today with an interesting point about "smart growth" policies (which I have derided in many other posts):

But few reporters have bothered to ask why some markets have a bubble while
other fast-growing markets do not. The usual answer is that the bubbles are on
the coast because everyone is moving there, but many fast-growing regions in the
West and South do not appear to have a bubble.

The answer appears to be that "smart growth" and other growth-management
policies restrict housing supply. Since housing is an inelastic good, a small
restriction on supply leads to rapid increases in prices. This brings
speculators into the market -- and a large percentage of homes today are being
purchased with no-down-payment, interest-only loans by people who don't plan to
live in the homes; in other words, speculators.

A list of regions that are suffering bubbles reveals that a very high
percentage have implemented some form of growth management such as urban-growth
boundaries, greenbelts, or restrictions on building permits.

More on smart growth and housing bubbles here.  More smart growth resources via Cato.