Real Estate Bubbles and Urban Development

44 Pages Posted: 3 Jan 2017 Last revised: 3 Nov 2021

See all articles by Edward L. Glaeser

Edward L. Glaeser

Harvard University - Department of Economics; Brookings Institution; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: December 2016


Why are real estate bubbles so common? Can these bubbles actually do some good? Real estate booms have regularly occurred throughout the world leaving painful busts and financial crises in their wake. This paper suggests that real estate is a natural investment for more passive debt investors, including banks, because real estate’s flexibility makes it better collateral than specifically built production facilities. Passive capital’s preference for real estate will be particularly strong when agency problems bedevil equity investments. Consequently, passive capital may flow disproportionately into real estate and the errors of passive capital can generate real estate bubbles. The preference of banks for more fungible real estate assets can also explain why real estate is so often the source of financial crises. In principle, real estate bubbles can be welfare enhancing, if cities would otherwise be too small either because of agglomeration economies or building restrictions. But given reasonable parameter values, the large welfare cost of any financial crisis associated with a real estate bubble is likely to be much higher than the modest benefits of extra building. The benefits of real estate bubbles are welfare “triangles” while the costs of widespread default are welfare “rectangles,” which is why bubbles rarely appear to be benign events.

Suggested Citation

Glaeser, Edward L., Real Estate Bubbles and Urban Development (December 2016). NBER Working Paper No. w22997, Available at SSRN:

Edward L. Glaeser (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Department of Economics ( email )

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