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Explaining the Housing Bubble


Adam J. Levitin


Georgetown University Law Center

Susan M. Wachter


University of Pennsylvania - Wharton School, Department of Real Estate

April 12, 2012

Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 100, No. 4, pp. 1177-1258
University of Pennsylvania Institute for Law & Economics Research Paper No. 10-15
Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-60
Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 10-16

Abstract:     
There is little consensus as to the cause of the housing bubble that precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. Numerous explanations exist: misguided monetary policy; a global savings surplus; government policies encouraging affordable homeownership; irrational consumer expectations of rising housing prices; inelastic housing supply. None of these explanations, however, is capable of fully explaining the housing bubble.

This Article posits a new explanation for the housing bubble. First, it demonstrates that the bubble was a supply-side phenomenon attributable to an excess of mispriced mortgage finance: mortgage-finance spreads declined and volume increased, even as risk increased — a confluence attributable only to an oversupply of mortgage finance.

Second, it explains the mortgage-finance supply glut as resulting from the failure of markets to price risk correctly due to the complexity, opacity, and heterogeneity of the unregulated private-label mortgage-backed securities (PLS) that began to dominate the market in 2004. The rise of PLS exacerbated informational asymmetries between the financial institutions that intermediate mortgage finance and PLS investors. These intermediation agents exploited informational asymmetries to encourage overinvestment in PLS that boosted the financial intermediaries’ volume-based profits and enabled borrowers to bid up housing prices.

This Article proposes the standardization of PLS as an information-forcing device. Reducing the complexity and heterogeneity of PLS would facilitate accurate risk pricing, which is necessary to rebuild a sustainable, stable housing-finance market.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 82

Keywords: housing bubble, securitization, mortgage, MBS, RMBS, CMBS, PLS, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, GSE, informational asymmetries, community reinvestment act, affordable housing goals, irrational exuberance, standardization, housing finance, real estate

JEL Classification: K23, L15, L32, L50, R31

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Date posted: September 1, 2010 ; Last revised: May 16, 2012

Suggested Citation

Levitin, Adam J. and Wachter, Susan M., Explaining the Housing Bubble (April 12, 2012). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 100, No. 4, pp. 1177-1258; University of Pennsylvania Institute for Law & Economics Research Paper No. 10-15; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-60; Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 10-16. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1669401 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1669401

Contact Information

Adam J. Levitin (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
Susan M. Wachter
University of Pennsylvania - Wharton School, Department of Real Estate ( email )
The Wharton School
3620 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6330
United States
215-898-6355 (Phone)

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