The global financial crisis of 2007–2009 helped usher in a stronger consensus about the central role that housing plays in shaping economic activity, particularly during large boom and bust episodes. The latest research regards the causes, consequences, and policy implications of housing crises with a broad focus that includes empirical and structural analysis, insights from the 2000s experience in the United States, and perspectives from around the globe. Even with the significant degree of heterogeneity in legal environments, institutions, and economic fundamentals over time and across countries, several common themes emerge. Research indicates that fundamentals such as productivity, income, and demographics play an important role in generating sustained movements in house prices. While these forces can also contribute to boom-bust episodes, periods of large house price swings often reflect an evolving housing premium caused by financial innovation and shifts in expectations, which are in turn amplified by changes to the liquidity of homes. Regarding credit, the latest evidence indicates that expansions in lending to marginal borrowers via the subprime market may not be entirely to blame for the run-up in mortgage debt and prices that preceded the 2007–2009 financial crisis. Instead, the expansion in credit manifested by lower mortgage rates was broad-based and caused borrowers across a wide range of incomes and credit scores to dramatically increase their mortgage debt. To whatever extent changing beliefs about future housing appreciation may have contributed to higher realized house price growth in the 2000s, it appears that neither borrowers nor lenders anticipated the subsequent collapse in house prices. However, expectations about future credit conditions—including the prospect of rising interest rates—may have contributed to the downturn. For macroeconomists and those otherwise interested in the broader economic implications of the housing market, a growing body of evidence combining micro data and structural modeling finds that large swings in house prices can produce large disruptions to consumption, the labor market, and output. Central to this transmission is the composition of household balance sheets—not just the amount of net worth, but also how that net worth is allocated between short term liquid assets, illiquid housing wealth, and long-term defaultable mortgage debt. By shaping the incentive to default, foreclosure laws have a profound ex-ante effect on the supply of credit as well as on the ex-post economic response to large shocks that affect households’ degree of financial distress. On the policy front, research finds mixed results for some of the crisis-related interventions implemented in the U.S. while providing guidance for future measures should another housing bust of similar or greater magnitude reoccur. Lessons are also provided for the development of macroprudential policy aimed at preventing such a future crisis without unduly constraining economic performance in good times.
Carlos Garriga and Aaron Hedlund
Rajesh P. Narayanan and Jonathan Pritchett
Financial economics reveals that slaves were profitable investments and that the rate of return from owning slaves was at least as high as the return on comparable investments. The profitability of slavery depended on both the productivity and the market valuation of slaves. Owners increased the productivity of slaves by developing better strains of cotton, employing more efficient systems of production (gang labor), and using force and coercion (whippings). Efficient markets facilitated the interregional transfer of labor, and selective sales devastated slave families. Market studies show that slave prices reflected the capitalized value of labor and that they varied based on labor productivity. The profitability of slaves and the availability of efficient markets made slaves attractive investment vehicles for storing wealth. Their attractiveness as investments, however, may have had some other costs. Several studies argue and provide evidence that investment in slaves supplanted investment in other forms of physical and human capital, much to the detriment of southern industrialization and development. Besides serving as investment vehicles, slaves also facilitated financing. A growing body of work provides evidence that slaves were pledged as collateral to obtain credit.
African financial history is often neglected in research on the history of global financial systems, and in its turn research on African financial systems in the past often fails to explore links with the rest of the world. However, African economies and financial systems have been linked to the rest of the world since ancient times. Sub-Saharan Africa was a key supplier of gold used to underpin the monetary systems of Europe and the North from the medieval period through the 19th century. It was West African gold rather than slaves that first brought Europeans to the Atlantic coast of Africa during the early modern period. Within sub-Saharan Africa, currency and credit systems reflected both internal economic and political structures as well as international links. Before the colonial period, indigenous currencies were often tied to particular trades or trade routes. These systems did not immediately cease to exist with the introduction of territorial currencies by colonial governments. Rather, both systems coexisted, often leading to shocks and localized crises during periods of global financial uncertainty. At independence, African governments had to contend with a legacy of financial underdevelopment left from the colonial period. Their efforts to address this have, however, been shaped by global economic trends. Despite recent expansion and innovation, limited financial development remains a hindrance to economic growth.