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June 16, 2016
Experts Debate Policy Options for China's Transition
After nearly three decades of rapid economic growth, China today faces the challenge of economic rebalancing against the backdrop of slow and uncertain global growth. Although investment and exports have been a motor for growth, China is increasingly experiencing structural issues: widening inequality, overcapacity as a consequence of policy distortions, unsustainable environmental costs, volatile financial markets, and rising systemic risk.
On April 28–29, I attended the First Research Workshop on China's Economy, organized jointly by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Atlanta Fed. The workshop, held at the IMF's headquarters in Washington DC, explored a series of questions that have emerged as China shifts toward a new growth model. Is this the end of the growth miracle? Will the Chinese renminbi one day be as important as the U.S. dollar? Should the rapidly increasing shadow banking activity in China be a source of concern? How worrisome is the rapid rise in China's housing prices?
Panelists shared their views on these and other issues facing the world's second-largest economy (or largest, if measured on a purchasing-power-parity basis). Plans are under way for a second workshop to be held in 2017.
The following is a nice summary of the research discussed at the workshop. It was originally published in the IMF Survey Magazine, and was written by Hui He, IMF Institute for Capacity Development, and Nan Li, IMF Research Department. Thanks to the IMF for allowing me to repost it here.
Is China's economic growth sustainable?
Understanding the source of China's tremendous growth was a recurring theme at the workshop. "China's economy combines enormous dynamism with huge distortions," observed Loren Brandt (University of Toronto). Brandt described his research based on China's firm-level data and emphasized that firm dynamics (entry and exit), especially firm entry, have been the main source of the productivity growth in the manufacturing sector.
Echoing Brandt's message, Kjetil Storesletten (University of Oslo) discussed regional growth disparities and showed that barriers preventing firms from entering an industry account for most of the disparities. Such barriers are more severe for privately owned firms in regions in which state-owned enterprises (SOE) dominate, he said.
In his keynote speech, Nicholas Lardy (Peterson Institute for International Economics) offered an upbeat view on China's transition to a new growth model, one in which the service sector plays a larger role than manufacturing. The bright side of the service sector, he noted, is its continued strong productivity growth. The development of financial deepening and the stronger social safety net are contributing to increased consumption, which helps to rebalance the economy.
However, he emphasized, SOE reforms remain critical as the service sector cannot provide a silver bullet for a successful transition.
Central bank's policy decisions
Several participants tried to discern how the People's Bank of China (PBC) conducts monetary policy. Tao Zha (of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Quantitative Economic Research and Emory University) found that the PBC reacts sharply when the gross domestic product's growth rate falls below its target, increasing the money supply by 11.5 percentage points for every 1 percentage point shortfall.
Mark Spiegel (Center for Pacific Basin Studies) discussed the trade-offs involved in Chinese monetary policy—for example, controlling the exchange rate versus maintaining inflation stability. He also argued that the heavy use of reserve requirements on banks as a monetary policy tool might have an unintentional consequence to reallocate capital from SOEs to more efficient privately owned firms and could therefore offset the resource misallocation caused by the easy credit to SOEs that banks granted in the high growth years.
Renminbi versus the dollar
Eswar Prasad (Cornell University and Brookings Institution) argued that China's capital account will become more open and the renminbi will be used more widely to denominate and settle cross-border transactions. But he also noted that legal and institutional constraints in China were likely to prevent the renminbi from serving as a safe-haven currency as the U.S. dollar does today.
Moreover, he said, the current sequencing of liberalization initiatives—that is, removal of capital account restrictions before appropriate financial market supervision and regulation and exchange rate reform—poses financial stability risks.
Shadow banking and the housing market
Recently, volatile Chinese financial markets and continued housing price appreciation have raised serious financial stability concerns.
Michael Song (Chinese University of Hong Kong) argued that rapidly rising shadow banking activity is an unintended consequence of financial regulation. Restrictions on deposit rates and loan-to-deposit ratios have led to the issuance by banks of "wealth management products" to attract savers with higher returns. Because these restrictions had a greater impact on small banks, the big state banks had more room to undercut the smaller banks by offering wealth management products with higher returns and then restricting liquidity to them in interbank markets, ultimately making the banking system more prone to liquidity distress and runs.
Hanming Fang (University of Pennsylvania) found that, except in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, housing prices in China's urban areas between 2003 and 2013 more or less tracked rising household incomes. In his view, the Chinese housing boom is thus unlikely to trigger an imminent financial crisis. He warned, however, that housing prices may fall rapidly if economic growth slows dramatically, and that such a development could, in turn, amplify the economic downturn.
Rising wage inequality
China's rapid growth over the past two decades has been accompanied by rising wage inequality, an issue highlighted by two conference participants. Dennis Yang (University of Virginia) explored the distributional effects of trade openness in China and found a significant impact on wage inequality of China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Chong-En Bai (Tsinghua University) argued that the decline after 2008 of the skill premium—that is, the ratio of the skilled labor wage to the unskilled labor wage—can be explained by the Chinese government's targeted credit extension to unskilled labor-intensive infrastructure sector (as part of the fiscal stimulus following the global financial crisis). Such distortionary policies might have short-run growth benefits but could lead to long-run welfare losses, he said, especially when rural-to-urban migration has run its course.
June 9, 2016
It’s Not Just Millennials Who Aren't Buying Homes
In recent years, much attention has been focused on the growing tendency of millennials to rent. Theories for the decrease in homeownership among young adults abound. They include rising student debt levels that crowd out additional borrowing, a tendency to live in more urban areas where the cost to buy is relatively high, a generally tougher credit environment, and even shifts in the perception of homeownership in the wake of the housing bust. The ideas have been widely debated, and yet no single factor seems to neatly explain the declining share of the millennial population opting to buy a house. (See this webcast by the Atlanta Fed's Center for Real Estate Analytics for a discussion of these issues.)
To the extent that these factors are true, they may be affecting the decisions of other generations as well. Chart 1 below shows the overall average homeownership rate and homeownership rates by age group from 1982 to 2015. It's clear that homeownership rates have declined for everyone during the past 10 years, not just for millennials.
In fact, homeownership among young Generation Xers has fallen by a bit more than the millennial generation since the housing peak—declining 11 percentage points since 2005 compared with a decline of 9 percentage points for those under 35 years old.
Another interesting point of comparison is the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, a period in which the United States had a relatively stable share of owner-occupied housing of around 64.0 percent. During the subsequent housing boom, the homeownership rate climbed to a peak of 69 percent in 2004, only to fall back down to 63.7 percent in 2015, a level similar to that prevailing before 1995. However, each age group under age 65 has a somewhat lower homeownership rate than their same-aged peers had during the 1986–94 period.
The fact that the average U.S. homeownership rate is close to rates seen in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s while homeownership rates within age groups (under 65) are currently lower than their respective averages in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s suggests that factors other than age may be affecting the average person's decision to buy or rent.
To investigate what else may be going on, charts 2 and 3 show homeownership rates by family type and race. Between 2005 and 2015, the trend mirrors what's happening by age group. The tendency to own a home has been falling for all family types and races over the past decade. In general, economic incentives (or cultural attitudes) appear to have shifted the population toward renting and away from buying.
However, the picture is quite different when you compare homeownership rates by family type and race to the pre-1995 period. While homeownership rates within age groups are generally lower today, married couples, one-person households, and nonmarried, multiperson households were all more likely to own their home in 2015. Homeownership rates across race (except for blacks) were also higher in 2015 than in 1994.
So how do we interpret the fact that the overall homeownership rate is close to its average in the 1986 to 1994 period? Are millennials to blame? Yes. But so is everyone else under the age of 65. The data suggest that whatever is affecting millennials' homeownership decisions is applicable to older individuals as well. Further, it seems there are other, possibly larger, factors affecting homeownership, such as the changing face of America. Although homeownership rates by family types and racial groups are a bit above the level seen in 1994, the average person in 2015 was about as likely to live in a home that is owned or being bought. Thus, the shift in the distribution of the population toward racial groups and family types (and likely other factors) that tend to have lower homeownership rates is likely exerting an important influence on the overall homeownership rate.
August 1, 2014
What's behind Housing's June Swoon?
The housing market appears to have endured a particularly cruel month in June. Fairly good numbers on existing home sales provided some antidote to a second consecutive monthly decline in housing starts and a sharp decline in new home sales. But that palliative is less comforting than it might otherwise be given the fact that existing sales were still 2.3 percent below the June 2013 rate, and budding optimism diminished further with this week's unexpected drop off in the pace of pending home sales.
In her recent remarks before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and before the House Committee on Financial Services, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen took particular note of ongoing weakness in residential real estate:
The housing sector, however, has shown little recent progress. While this sector has recovered notably from its earlier trough, housing activity leveled off in the wake of last year's increase in mortgage rates, and readings this year have, overall, continued to be disappointing.
The statement following the conclusion of this week's meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee provided an exclamation point to Chair Yellen's commentary:
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that ... recovery in the housing sector remains slow.
The housing market was a bright spot in the economy from early 2012 to mid-2013, and there's no shortage of conjecture on why it has morphed into a source of concern. Reasonable hypotheses include reduced affordability brought on by higher mortgage rates and real estate prices, tighter lending conditions and ongoing balance sheet issues for households (think student debt), and supply constraints associated with rising construction costs and lot availability (at least in the most desirable locations, as examples here and here discuss).
In a March post in the Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint, affordability issues—specifically, interest rates and prices—constituted two of the top three explanations given by our broker and builder contacts in the Southeast for recent slower growth in the housing market. Earlier, we had examined the affordability issue in an Atlanta Fed Real Estate Research post. In it, we decomposed the affordability index that the National Association of Realtors (NAR) produces each month. We used our decomposition to show that the rebound in housing prices in 2012 served as a huge drag on affordability and, after six years of contributing to affordability, mortgage interest rates became a drag in mid-2013.
How—and why—has the affordability index changed since we last checked? The chart below provides an update through May 2014 (the latest date for which we have the data necessary for our decomposition):
On a year-over-year basis, affordability has fallen as a result of rising prices and last summer's uptick in interest rates. Still, affordability remains high by precrisis standards. And given that we have recently passed the anniversary of the first "taper talk," the impact of the interest rate component should fade if rates remain stable and thus become similar to, if not below, year-ago levels. Likewise, house price growth has decelerated and will continue to be less of a drag on affordability as measured by NAR.
It may be fair to attribute some of the recent softness in housing to affordability. But in light of the still relatively high readings of our index, it seems likely that the main culprits are one or more of the other factors discussed above.
By Carl Hudson, director of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Real Estate Analytics, and
Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
October 18, 2013
Why Was the Housing-Price Collapse So Painful? (And Why Is It Still?)
Foresight about the disaster to come was not the primary reason this year’s Nobel Prize in economics went to Robert Shiller (jointly with Eugene Fama and Lars Hansen). But Professor Shiller’s early claim that a housing-price bubble was full on, and his prediction that trouble was a-comin’, is arguably the primary source of his claim to fame in the public sphere.
Several years down the road, the causes and effects of the housing-price run-up, collapse, and ensuing financial crisis are still under the microscope. Consider, for example, this opinion by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
...the downturn is not primarily a “financial crisis.” The story of the downturn is a simple story of a collapsed housing bubble. The $8 trillion housing bubble was driving demand in the U.S. economy in the last decade until it collapsed in 2007. When the bubble burst we lost more than 4 percentage points of GDP worth of demand due to a plunge in residential construction. We lost roughly the same amount of demand due to a falloff in consumption associated with the disappearance of $8 trillion in housing wealth.
The collapse of the bubble created a hole in annual demand equal to 8 percent of GDP, which would be $1.3 trillion in today’s economy. The central problem facing the U.S., the euro zone, and the U.K. was finding ways to fill this hole.
In part, Baker’s post relates to an ongoing pundit catfight, which Baker himself concedes is fairly uninteresting. As he says, “What matters is the underlying issues of economic policy.” Agreed, and in that light I am skeptical about dismissing the centrality of the financial crisis to the story of the downturn and, perhaps more important, to the tepid recovery that has followed.
Interpreting what Baker has in mind is important, so let me start there. I have not scoured Baker’s writings for pithy hyperlinks, but I assume that his statement cited above does not deny that the immediate post-Lehman period is best characterized as a period of panic leading to severe stress in financial markets. What I read is his assertion that the basic problem—perhaps outside the crisis period in late 2008—is a rather plain-vanilla drop in wealth that has dramatically suppressed consumer demand, and with it economic growth. An assertion that the decline in wealth is what led us into the recession, is what accounts for the depth and duration of the recession, and is what’s responsible for the shallow recovery since.
With respect to the pace of recovery, evidence supports the proposition that financial crises without housing busts are not so unique—or if they are, the data tend to associate financial-related downturns with stronger-than-average recoveries. Mike Bordo and Joe Haubrich, respectively from Rutgers University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, argue that the historical record of U.S. recessions leads us to view housing and the pace of residential investment as the key to whether tepid recoveries will follow sharp recessions:
Our analysis of the data shows that steep expansions tend to follow deep contractions, though this depends heavily on when the recovery is measured. In contrast to much conventional wisdom, the stylized fact that deep contractions breed strong recoveries is particularly true when there is a financial crisis. In fact, on average, it is cycles without a financial crisis that show the weakest relation between contraction depth and recovery strength. For many configurations, the evidence for a robust bounce-back is stronger for cycles with financial crises than those without...
Our results also suggest that a sizeable fraction of the shortfall of the present recovery from the average experience of recoveries after deep recessions is due to the collapse of residential investment.
From here, however, it gets trickier to reach conclusions about why changes in housing values are so important.
Simply put, why should there be a “wealth effect” at all? If the price of my house falls and I suffer a capital loss, I do in fact feel less wealthy. But all potential buyers of my house just gained the opportunity to obtain my house at a lower price. For them, the implied wealth gain is the same as my loss. If buyers and sellers essentially behave the same way, why should there be a large impact on consumption? *
I think this notion quickly leads you to the thought there is something fundamentally special about housing assets and that this special role relates to credit markets and finance. This angle is clearly articulated in these passages from a Bloomberg piece earlier in the year, one of a spate of articles in the spring about why rapidly recovering house prices were apparently not driving the recovery into a higher gear:
The wealth effect from rising house prices may not be as effective as it once was in spurring the U.S. economy...
The wealth effect “is much smaller,” said Amir Sufi, professor of finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Sufi, who participated in last year’s central-bank conference at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, reckons that each dollar increase in housing wealth may yield as little as an extra cent in spending. That compares with a 3-to-5-cent estimate by economists prior to the recession.
Many homeowners are finding they can’t refinance their mortgages because banks have tightened credit conditions so much they’re not eligible for new loans. Most who can refinance are opting not to withdraw equity after the first nationwide decline in house prices since the Great Depression reminded them home values can fall as well as rise...
Others are finding it difficult to refinance because credit has become a lot harder to come by. And that situation could worsen as banks respond to stepped-up government oversight.
“Credit is going to get tighter before it gets easier,” said David Stevens, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Mortgage Bankers Association...
“Households that have been through foreclosure or have underwater mortgages or are otherwise credit-constrained are less able than other households to take advantage” of low interest rates, Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin said in an April 18 speech in New York.
(I should note that Sufi et al. previously delved into the relationship between household balance sheets and the economic downturn here.)
A more systematic take comes from the Federal Reserve Board’s Matteo Iacoviello:
Empirically, housing wealth and consumption tend to move together: this could happen because some third factor moves both variables, or because there is a more direct effect going from one variable to the other. Studies based on time-series data, on panel data and on more detailed, recent micro data point suggest that a considerable portion of the effect of housing wealth on consumption reflects the influence of changes in housing wealth on borrowing against such wealth.
That sounds like a financial problem to me and, in the spirit of Baker’s plea that it is the policy that matters, this distinction is more than semantic. The policy implications of an economic shock that alters the capacity to engage in borrowing and lending are not necessarily the same as those that result from a straightforward decline in wealth.
Having said that, it is not so clear how the policy implications are different. One possibility is that diminished access to credit markets also weakens policy-transmission mechanisms, calling for even more aggressive demand-oriented “pump-priming” policies of the sort Dean Baker advocates. But it is also possible that we have entered a period of deep structural repair that only time (and not merely government stimulus) can (or should) engineer: deleveraging and balance sheet repair, sectoral resource reallocation, new consumption habits, new business models driven by both market and regulatory imperatives, you name it.
In my view, it’s not yet clear which policy approach is closest to optimal. But I am fairly well convinced that good judgment will require us to think of the past decade as the financial event it was, and in many ways still is.
*Update: A colleague pointed out that my example describing housing price changes and wealth effects may be simplified to the point of being misleading. Implicitly, I am in fact assuming that the flow of housing services derived from housing assets is fixed, a condition that obviously would not hold in general. See section 3 of the Iacoviello paper cited above for a theoretical description of why, to a first approximation, we would not expect there to be a large consumption effect from changes in housing values.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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