Over the last 13 years, the stock market has twice crashed and touched off a recession: American households lost $5 trillion in the 2000 dot-com bust and more than $7 trillion in the 2007 housing crash. Sooner or later — within a few years, I predict — this latest Wall Street bubble, inflated by an egregious flood of phony money from the Federal Reserve rather than real economic gains, will explode, too.
Since the S.&P. 500 first reached its current level, in March 2000, the mad money printers at the Federal Reserve have expanded their balance sheet sixfold (to $3.2 trillion from $500 billion). Yet during that stretch, economic output has grown by an average of 1.7 percent a year (the slowest since the Civil War); real business investment has crawled forward at only 0.8 percent per year; and the payroll job count has crept up at a negligible 0.1 percent annually.
The full story about housing and the economy has been ignored too long. Like all manias, it was a long time building.
The boom of the 1950s and 1960s, featuring rising incomes and wealth, occurred in a well-balanced economy. The benefits of economic growth were fairly evenly distributed. That was an economy where the U.S. manufacturing sector was competitive and flourishing, its infrastructure was adequate and being improved, and housing valuations were at least fair, if not cheap. The value of housing averaged 80% to 90% of gross domestic product in this era -- about half of the peak value set in the mania that ended so badly in 2008.
During the 1970s and 1980s, as the large baby-boom generation grew to adulthood and formed households, housing markets were distorted. The result: about a 50% rise in the aggregate value of housing, to 120% of GDP. At the end of this period, there was a solvency crisis in the thrifts and banks that had financed the housing sector. A few thousand of them had to be liquidated by the federal government.
Remember the Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP? When we last heard from the Treasury Department, on Jan. 23, TARP was being wound down. It was, in the estimation of Timothy Geithner & Co., a success: 93% of the $418 billion disbursed had been collected including $70 billion last year. Read the latest Treasury Department progress report on TARP.
But hold the Champagne. It ain’t over till it’s over.
The idea that TARP is somehow a wash because a few banks repaid the bailouts with interest is misleading. The reality is that bailed-out firms essentially wrote off their losses on taxes. As of Dec. 30, TARP was still owed $67.3 billion, including $27 billion in realized losses — which is to say, that money is gone and is never coming back. See the inspector general’s Jan. 30 report on TARP.
A year ago, when the nation’s biggest banks settled with state and federal officials over claims of foreclosure abuses, the public was led to believe that the deal would allow millions of hard-pressed borrowers to escape the threat of foreclosure. It still hasn’t happened.
A third progress report was issued last Thursday by the monitor of the settlement, which, among its terms, required the banks to grant $25 billion worth of mortgage relief, much of it by reducing the principal balances on troubled loans. The report showed that through the end of 2012, 71,000 borrowers had their primary mortgages modified, versus 170,000 who received help on their second mortgages, including home equity loans.
On television, in interviews and in meetings with investors, executives of the biggest U.S. banks -- notably JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon -- make the case that size is a competitive advantage. It helps them lower costs and vie for customers on an international scale. Limiting it, they warn, would impair profitability and weaken the country’s position in global finance.
So what if we told you that, by our calculations, the largest U.S. banks aren’t really profitable at all? What if the billions of dollars they allegedly earn for their shareholders were almost entirely a gift from U.S. taxpayers?
Granted, it’s a hard concept to swallow. It’s also crucial to understanding why the big banks present such a threat to the global economy.
Let’s start with a bit of background. Banks have a powerful incentive to get big and unwieldy. The larger they are, the more disastrous their failure would be and the more certain they can be of a government bailout in an emergency.
Last week was a big one for the banks. On Monday, the foreclosure settlement between the big banks and federal and state officials was filed in federal court, and it is now awaiting a judge’s all-but-certain approval. On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve announced the much-anticipated results of the latest round of bank stress tests.
How did the banks do on both? Pretty well, thank you — and better than homeowners and American taxpayers.
That is not only unfair, given banks’ huge culpability in the mortgage bubble and financial meltdown. It also means that homeowners and the economy still need more relief, and that the banks, without more meaningful punishment, will not be deterred from the next round of misbehavior.