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Halfway Through a Lost Decade
Does anyone care that the economy is floundering and that we are not getting out of this crisis anytime soon? Housing values are in the cellar, the Fed foresees unemployment remaining unacceptably high for the next three years, and national economic growth is predicted to be, at best, anemic.
Even the substantial rise of stock averages during recent years has been based in large part on the ability of companies such as Apple to outsource jobs and sales to booming markets led by China—while America’s graduating students face mountainous debt and what is shaping up as a decade without opportunity.
These are the inescapable conclusions to be drawn from a gloomy report released Wednesday by the Federal Reserve. In that document, the Fed revises downward its growth projection for the next two years and predicts, in the words of a New York Times article about the report, that “unemployment will remain a massive and persistent problem for years to come.” The housing failure that is the root cause of this economic emergency continues unabated because there is no political will in either party to aid beleaguered homeowners.
Beneath all the pundit blather about the election lies the fact that most deeply affects the voters’ well-being: Home prices are at a decade low, and in cities like Atlanta and Las Vegas they are as dismal as they have been since the Case-Shiller indices started tracking housing prices in the early 1990s.
At fault is a free-market-rules philosophy that denies the essential reality of American housing: The market was not free, it was brutally rigged.
Without a resurgence in housing value, consumer confidence will remain moribund and a woefully weak labor market will persist. Every time housing seems to be rebounding, the banks and the feds unload more of their toxic mortgages and prices edge lower.
The only thing preventing a complete collapse, one that would plunge us into deep recession or worse, is the Fed’s extremely low interest rate, which Wednesday’s report reiterated will remain at near zero until late 2014. If the Fed rate were to rise, driving up all of the adjustable rate mortgages out there, we would be in a full-blown depression.
All of this terrible news should spell disaster for Barack Obama’s re-election chances, since it is a direct consequence of his continuing the George W. Bush strategy of bailing out the bankers while ignoring the plight of the homeowners they swindled. But Obama will probably survive because his Republican presidential rival, Mitt Romney, is far worse on this subject.
At least Obama has made a stab at pushing the banks to provide mortgage relief, albeit a halfhearted one. When assessed in light of Romney’s splendid indifference to the suffering that he himself and other financial hustlers caused, Obama deserves support; at least the president seems alert to the pain the bankers have inflicted, while Romney blames their victims.
Romney’s is the sink-or-swim, tough-love approach that has come to mark the Republican Party. As he put it last fall in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “... [D]on’t try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit bottom. Allow investors to buy up homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up.”
That of course does not address the painful losses of, for example, Nevada homeowners, who have witnessed a 62 percent drop in values since 2006. At fault is a free-market-rules philosophy that denies the essential reality of American housing: The market was not free, it was brutally rigged.
The securitization of mortgages into collateralized debt obligations turned homes—the castles of so many average Americans—into gambling chips, and the fallout mainly hurt those who were not even in on the game. As The Wall Street Journal reported in February when Romney was campaigning in Nevada, the primary victims of foreclosure are those who had paid down their home loans, or worse yet owned homes outright, only to find that repossessions on their block destroyed the value of their investment.
The appalling thing is that this enormous mess did not have to happen. It is a man-made disaster, the result of capricious Wall Street bankers who have no regard for the national interest. Perhaps that is to be expected, but what is shocking is the inability of leading politicians of either party to mount a challenge to the unfettered greed that has come to dominate our political process.
In the end, the perpetrators of this calamity have been rewarded, and their patsies, the ordinary folks who are supposed to matter in a democracy, have been cast overboard.