Monday, December 31, 2007

Top economist says America could plunge into recession

From The TimesDecember 31, 2007
Suzy Jagger in New York

Losses arising from America’s housing recession could triple over the next few years and they represent the greatest threat to growth in the United States, one of the world’s leading economists has told The Times.

Robert Shiller, Professor of Economics at Yale University, predicted that there was a very real possibility that the US would be plunged into a Japan-style slump, with house prices declining for years.

Professor Shiller, co-founder of the respected S&P Case/Shiller house-price index, said: “American real estate values have already lost around $1 trillion [£503 billion]. That could easily increase threefold over the next few years. This is a much bigger issue than sub-prime. We are talking trillions of dollars’ worth of losses.”

He said that US futures markets had priced in further declines in house prices in the short term, with contracts on the S&P Shiller index pointing to decreases of up to 14 per cent.

“Over the next five years, the futures contracts are pointing to losses of around 35 per cent in some areas, such as Florida, California and Las Vegas. There is a good chance that this housing recession will go on for years,” he said.

Professor Shiller, author of Irrational Exuberance, a phrase later used by Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said: “This is a classic bubble scenario. A few years ago house prices got very high, pushed up because of investor expectations. Americans have fuelled the myth that prices would never fall, that values could only go up. People believed the story. Now there is a very real chance of a big recession.”

He pointed out that signs at the beginning of 2007 that had indicated that some states were beginning to experience a recovery in house prices had proved to be false: “States such as Massachusetts had seen some increases at the beginning of the year. Denver also looked like it had a different path. Now all states are falling.”

Until two years ago, each of America’s 50 states had experienced a prolonged housing boom, with properties in some – such as Florida, California, Arizona and Nevada – doubling in price, fuelled by cheap credit and lax lending practices to borrowers who ordinarily would not have been able to secure a mortgage. Two years ago, the northeastern states of America became the first to slide into a recession after 17 successive interest-rate rises between June 2004 and August 2006 hit the property market.

Last week, new numbers from the S&P/Case Shiller index showed that house prices had declined in October at their fastest rate for more than six years, with homes in Miami losing 12 per cent of their value.

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