The United States is now going through its second post-bubble downturn in seven years. Yet this one stands in sharp contrast to the post-bubble shakeout in the stock market during 2000 and 2001. Back then, there was a collapse in business capital spending, a sector that peaked at only 13 percent of real gross domestic product.
The current recession has been set off by the simultaneous bursting of property and credit bubbles. The unwinding of these excesses is likely to exact a lasting toll on both homebuilders and American consumers. Those two economic sectors collectively peaked at 78 percent of gross domestic product, or fully six times the share of the sector that pushed the country into recession seven years ago.
For asset-dependent, bubble-prone economies, a cyclical recovery ”” even when assisted by aggressive monetary and fiscal accommodation ”” isn’t a given. Over the past six years, income-short consumers made up for the weak increases in their paychecks by extracting equity from the housing bubble through cut-rate borrowing that was subsidized by the credit bubble. That game is now over.
Washington policymakers may not be able to arrest this post-bubble downturn. Interest rate cuts are unlikely to halt the decline in nationwide home prices. Given the outsize imbalance between supply and demand for new homes, housing prices may need to fall an additional 20 percent to clear the market.
Aggressive interest rate cuts have not done much to contain the lethal contagion spreading in credit and capital markets. Now that their houses are worth less and loans are harder to come by, hard-pressed consumers are unlikely to be helped by lower interest rates.
Japan’s experience demonstrates how difficult it may be for traditional policies to ignite recovery after a bubble. In the early 1990s, Japan’s property and stock market bubbles burst. That implosion was worsened by a banking crisis and excess corporate debt. Nearly 20 years later, Japan is still struggling.