Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) — In 2009, an economist named Paola Sapienza came up with an image to describe the challenge the U.S. economy faced after the financial crisis. The economy was like a board game, Sapienza, a professor at Northwestern University, told me. Especially like the old favorite "Monopoly."
Despite the name, "Monopoly" isn't really about antitrust. It's about trust. Trust and commerce, Sapienza said. If people want to buy properties, if renters pay their rents and the bank acts predictably, then the game will move merrily forward, and hotels will replace houses on the board.
But if the bank can't be trusted — if it cheats or proves too erratic — there is a problem. The players walk away from the table.
The same holds true on the great American game board. Trust that everyone is playing by the rules, more or less, is critical. Around the same time she first talked about "Monopoly," Sapienza and a colleague, Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago, set about trying to measure the elusive sentiment of trust. They launched a survey, formally known as the Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Financial Trust Index.
In December 2008, they found that only 20 percent of Americans said they trusted the financial system. That rate climbed in successive "waves" of the survey to 26 percent in January 2011. But the index has bobbed up and down since then, and in Wave 12, in September, the trust level had dropped back to 23 percent, other positive signs in the economy notwithstanding.
To many people, housing is one reason why trust in the financial sector remains so stubbornly low. U.S. home prices have fallen 33 percent since their peak before the recession. Declining home values have diminished consumer confidence and curtailed spending. About 12 million homeowners owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth. Many people are losing their homes, and the foreclosure process is a costly mess.
If only we could straighten these problems out, the housing market could recover and the rest of the economy would follow. Or so the logic goes.
One proponent of the Houses Ueber Alles theory is Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, who recently published a white paper on how housing-market fixes, especially involving mortgages, could restore growth. This is the moment, Bernanke and his Fed colleagues posit, that policy makers should "help reconcile the existing size and mix of the housing market." Regulators and banks should consider a "broad menu of loan modifications." Conversion to rentals from ownership may be appropriate. Mortgage servicers should get "incentives to pursue alternatives to foreclosure." The paper recommends that regulators and lenders "tailor" vulnerable contracts.
In other words, details of paper contracts written years ago matter less than the immediate challenge of lifting burdens from the shoulders of borrowers. The lender's contractual right to foreclose is subordinate. In Bernanke's assessment, the rest of the economy will take heart once people get help with houses. It's time for a new kind of Fed intervention, or Fed-inspired intervention, in residential mortgages.
Given Bernanke's background, it makes sense that he's taking this angle. Bernanke got to the Fed partly because of the quality of his academic work on underwater mortgages of the early 1930s and their role in the Great Depression.
Perhaps, though, houses are not themselves the key to recovery. Houses are actually props. What matters more than houses, whether on the game board or in the real economy, is the general reliability of contracts, and whether the legal culture will enforce them in the future.
In others words, the kind of trust Sapienza and Zingales are chasing.
Gaming the System
That's why Bernanke's suggestions to help individuals in 2012 may prove perverse, tightening the very credit market he seeks to loosen. When borrowers hear they may get a break, they spend less time hunting down the monthly payment due and more time studying up on the break on the government website. Instead of playing the game, Americans will learn to game the system.
A recent study by Sapienza on the rise of so-called strategic defaults suggests that is already happening. Her pollsters found that 35 percent of mortgage defaults in 2010 were by families that could afford, by their own admission, to make the monthly payment. That rate was up from 25 percent in 2009. Lenders who see even solvent borrowers — partners they had assumed to be safe credit risks — walk away from their commitments will tighten qualifications for the next borrower. Everyone will postpone transactions until they know a better deal isn't available in 2013.
The more general problem is that the Fed — the bank, in game terms — has been playing so prominently in the first place. Even if the new paper is only recommending what other authorities have already said, its very publication represents another signal from the Fed that it will keep its hand perpetually and unpredictably in the game, even in periods of recovery like the current one. Monopoly works best when the bank has no discretion: It pays $200 as you pass Go, and otherwise mostly keeps quiet.
Remember, our economy is growing, joblessness is dropping and interest rates are low, which should help the residential sector. The sad probability is that today's low prices reflect what houses are actually worth. The Fed needs to get out of the housing business, and indeed, the rest of day-to-day commerce. And it needs to spend more energy on building the trust that Sapienza tries to quantify.
There's a genuine danger that we're morphing from a country built on deals and honor into one populated by casino capitalists. That would make a good topic for a white paper.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg View columnist and the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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