Wednesday, January 12, 2011

American Dream Diminished

Owning a home was once a cornerstone of the American Dream. Go to school, work hard, get married, buy a home with a mortgage, have children, try to give them better opportunities than you had, work hard some more to pay off the mortgage, retire and do the things you couldn't do while you were working. It all sounds prosaic now, even old fashioned, but I suppose if I had to describe my life in a few words, that description would be a rough outline. Lucky for me, I loved my work so I never thought a moment about following just about the same blueprint as did my parents.

They were children of the Great Depression and after the war, the urge to own a home was overwhelming, a symbol of financial security and success. Levittown became the poster child for postwar suburbs throughout the country, and upon my father's return from WWII, they immediately bought their first house, around the corner from my grandparents' home, and blocks from my other grandparents, in Richmond Hill (borough of Queens in NYC). I think they paid less than $5,000 (this is 1946 mind you) and we lived there until I was 13 when we moved to a larger home, in a "better section" of the same community. Both homes still stand today, remarkably unchanged as these photos from Google Street Views attest. Those were the only homes they owned during their entire lifetimes.

By comparison, our home-owning has been more prolific (and equally remarkable, our past homes have been renovated to such a degree they are now nearly unrecognizable). After renting apartments in Brooklyn and the upper West Side of Manhattan, we finally ultimately moved to Connecticut where I was then working, first renting a small house in Westport, and then finally buying our first home which was almost across the street from where we were renting. It was 1971, the beginning of a steady increase in real estate prices and by 1974 we sold that first home and moved into a larger one in neighboring Weston where we lived for the next 22 years and raised our family.

The 1990s saw a moderation of real estate prices -- even a decline in some areas. It was the time of the savings and loan crisis, but with our children out on their own or off to college, our two acre home in Weston seemed unnecessary and we wanted a home in a "neighborhood" and by the water, so we sold and bought a 100 year old cape on the Norwalk River in East Norwalk. We thought that might be our home for the rest of our lives but, unexpectedly, my working life was at its end four years later and that is when we decided to move to Florida, the fourth home we've owned and, who knows, perhaps our last.

But, someplace along the way, the American Dream of home owning has become an American Nightmare. Foreclosures and the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are just ongoing symptoms of the developing crisis that has stemmed from the housing bubble of 2000-2007, mortgages being eagerly issued by banks with zero down to less than credit-worthy buyers, or to those in the "business" of flipping homes for profit, these loans condoned or even mandated by government. This activity and Wall Street's eagerness to cash in by taking inappropriate subprime loans and rolling them into exotic collateralized mortgage obligations, "rated" AAA by another accomplice in this crime against the American Dream, the rating agencies, conning investors into thinking they were getting a "guaranteed" return on a "riskless" investment, fueled the fire.

Also complicit is the Federal Reserve. By addressing the crisis with "Quantitative Easing" the Federal Reserve has postponed the day of reckoning. By Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's own admission in a November 2010 Washington Post opinion piece, it is the "wealth effect" of past QE's that has contributed to the stock market's recovery, saying "higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending." This Fed induced bubble simply accelerates the "boom bust cycle," one that may end ugly when 'the can' can no longer be kicked down the road.

We all see the macro effects of QE, the rise in speculative investments, animal spirits being drawn out by low interest rates, a surge in commodity prices (of which there are relatively fixed amounts in relation to monetary creation out of thin air) but the gorilla in the room is our state and local governments. There has been a sudden flood of articles about their failing finances; a Google search will unleash an avalanche of them and I've written about this before as well.

In a nutshell, our state and local governments have promised too much in their pension obligations and now that the revenue tide is running against them with lower property tax revenues from falling real estate prices and foreclosures, not to mention their poor fiscal habit of financing certain projects with the assumption there will always be the opportunity to roll over debt with more debt in the future, the homeowner finds himself in the crosshairs. The cavalry of the Federal Reserve which rode to the rescue of banks and AIG has decided to leave municipalities and homeowners to their own devices, Bernanke saying "we have no expectation or intention to get involved in state and local finance. [States] should not expect loans from the Fed."

Consequently, it is now a vicious cycle, lower property values begetting a smaller pie for municipalities, which results in millage increases being levied by local taxing authorities, which in turn results in still lower property values. Being a homeowner today leaves one obligated to share in the past profligacy and poor planning of one's local government. Many would have difficulty selling their homes at any price to escape this obligation, turning the American dream of home owning into a nightmare.