It's always a great day when I have the opportunity to have a substantive exchange with the incredibly erudite Brad DeLong, especially when I am quite sure that I am right. Brad is convinced that the fiinancial crisis is the evil doer responsible for our prolonged downturn instead of the good old-fashioned housing bubble often featured in these pages. He points to the surge in non-residential investment coming in 2007 and 2008. He argues that this surge, along with a rise in exports, would have offset the fall in residential construction and consumption, had it not been for the financial crisis.

I see a somewhat different picture.

Bubble 6310 image001

                                Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

 

The difference between my graph and Brad's is that I have pulled out construction from non-residential investment and shown net exports, rather than just exports. This is helpful because it shows that the surge in non-residential investment was entirely a surge in non-residential construction. This component rose from 2.6 percent of GDP at the start of 2005 to 3.8 percent of GDP in the fourth quarter of 2008. The rest of the non-residential investment component hovered near 9.6 percent over this period. In other words, it was going nowhere.

So what explains this enormous surge (almost a 50 percent increase in own terms) in non-residential construction? It's called a bubble. It would take me a moment to grab the data, but there was a surge in the price of non-residential properties just as the price of housing was going into reverse. Does this sound too dumb for words? Of course it is, but no one ever said that the folks in the banking system had a clue. We saw massive overbuilding in most areas of non-residential construction in this period. Even seven years later you can walk around the downtown of a relatively prosperous city like Washington and still see vacant retail and office space everywhere. This bubble was destined to burst, with or without a financial crisis.

What about net exports? I actually had some hope for net exports filling the gap, with the assumption that the dollar would drop, increasing the relative competitiveness of U.S. goods and services. There is some story here. The dollar had actually been falling since the beginning of the decade. (The over-valued dollar was an evil legacy of the Clinton years.) But the problem was that there were bubbles elsewhere in the world, most notably Europe. This meant a major export market was not going to be there for us. I don't see how we can blame the financial crisis for Europe's housing bubble.

Just to repeat my basic line, if we look at the economy after the financial markets had stabilized (2011 or 2012, pick your year) and ask what component of GDP would be higher if we did not have the financial crisis, it's hard to see a candidate. Brad's pick of non-residential investment doesn't hold water. Perhaps we can claim a bit better picture on net exports if people had not turned to the dollar as a safe haven, but this involved many factors other than the financial crisis. Also, the conscious decision of foreign central banks to prop up the dollar to sustain their export markets has to swamp this effect.

I stand by my housing bubble assessment.

 

Addendum:

Here's that commercial real estate price index I was looking for. Looks like it might be a good time to start worrying, especially if you're in the U.K.

Second Addendum:

I would also question the extent to which the further decline in house prices and construction was due to the financial crisis, as claimed by Brad in his post. It is not surprising that coming out of a bubble markets overshoot on the downside. It happened following the stock crash in 2000-2002. There was no financial crisis then. And the further decline in construction is easily explained by the overbuilding of the bubble years and the record vacancy rates. No need to talk about a financial crisis here either.

Note: typo corrected, thanks Marko.