Sunday, March 01, 2009

All in.

Even as the Obama administration may be consumed by efforts to stem the depth and duration of the recession, we appear to be at a tipping point in foreign affairs that can lead to positive new directions or a new downward spiral in regional conflicts.

The opportunities at hand are complex and interconnected. And unlike the high stakes, three-hand game among Russia, China and the United States of the Nixon era, which subsumed all of the smaller countries into bit roles, the diplomatic world today involves a wide range of actors, each of whom has real interests, has signaled their readiness to play, and can each affect the potential outcomes for the others.

The historical background is important in several regards. First, the global economic collapse has illustrated the interdependence of national economies, while at the same time demonstrated the risks to individual states that flow from that interdependence. Accordingly, many national leaders find themselves at a point where they have to choose—both as a matter of policy and politics—whether they are in or out, whether they accept the rules of globalization, free trade, and interdependence, or whether they will opt for a return to economic protectionism and political self-preservation.

Second, the election of Barack Obama signaled the end of the Neoconservative era in US policy, and portends a renaissance of realism in foreign affairs and diplomacy based on national self-interest. As much as war might be the proven solution to depressions past, Americans have grown weary and cynical over calls to arms and regime change over every looming international confrontation, and the rest of the world seems ready to embrace new directions as well.

Russia, for one, has been pushing for an alignment of interests since Vladimir Putin first called George Bush to pledge Russia’s support after the 9/11 attacks. Putin sought—but ultimately failed—to build a new strategic relationship with the US around a number of specific areas of common interest—stemming the Jihadist threat emerging in Chechnya and Muslim former Soviet republics, defeating the Taliban, controlling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and controlling drug trafficking—for which Russia could leverage the reinstatement of the Bush ‘41 and Clinton-era US commitments to curtail NATO expansion toward Russia.

Now, after several years of declining relations, and with the ruble in free-fall, Putin is signaling a desire to try again. After years of trying to swing a big stick to get our attention—cutting off natural gas supplies to Ukraine and Europe, sending arms to Iran and Venezuela, and sending tanks into Georgia—Russia is trying a bit of carrot—opening its territory for the US to resupply its troops in Afghanistan and delaying the deployment of missiles in Kaliningrad.

Iran, meanwhile, is looking to get into the carrot and stick game. Like Russia, Iran grates at being disrespected and has sought out strategies that might force the US to bargain on equal terms. Certainly, as President Obama announced his plans for withdrawing from Iraq, it was not lost on many that Iran—almost single-handedly—can determine whether those plans can succeed.

Iran has much to offer—enabling an exit from Iraq, moderating the role and conduct of Hezbollah, and, of course addressing the nuclear issue—and has much to gain—recognition of its role as a regional power, reducing the threat of American troops on both its eastern and western boarders, fears of being frozen out in a US-Russian rapproachment, and an end to American threats of regime change.

Like Russia, Iran’s economy is in shambles, and the June presidential election looms to be a critical moment. The entrance of former president Mohammad Khatami into the presidential race in early February may signal that Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei is willing to move toward a moderation of Iran’s hard line direction and rhetoric, embodied in current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and substantively address the concerns of the international community.

Syria, another long-time target of US regime change, also needs to demonstrate its bona fides at this moment of political change. Just as Russia reached out to Syria over the past several years to demonstrate its continuing ability to stir the always-simmering Middle East pot, Syria can on its own significantly influence the next trajectory in the politics of the Middle East.

Like Iran, Syria controls one long border with Iraq, and can influence the outcome of President Obama’s exit strategy. Similarly, as the home of the Hamas political leadership, and as the long-time suzerain of Lebanon, the Syrian intelligence apparatus can directly control the direction and temperature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Like others, Syria has its interests—in territory and regime survival—for which it will play its cards.

Achieving our foreign policy goals requires that each of these key nations change their approach to us and to others. We have tried threats of regime change and war, and we are broke and tired. Ironically, however, this has led to a moment of opportunity where each country may be motivated to move in a new and positive direction.

For Russia, Iran and Syria, this is a moment of opportunity. Their leaders, Putin, Khamenei and Assad, are rational and cunning adversaries. Each has demonstrated the ability to work with us when it served they and their country’s interests, or to resist our threats and recriminations when it did not. Each of them has a hand to play, and yet each knows that they risk being left behind if they fail to seize the moment.

For Barack Obama, as well, this is a moment of opportunity. But as he has suggested when speaking of the economic challenges we face, in the world of foreign policy, our major challenges are interconnected. He cannot put any aside for another day.

Iraq. Afghanistan. Iran. Pakistan. Al Qaeda. Israel-Palestine. Lebanon. Energy. Venezuela. For each of these, Russia, Iran and Syria—in one combination or another—can be the fulcrum for success or failure.

This is the President’s moment.

Reality bites.

This Sunday, the New York Times asked a panel of economists, “When Will the Recession Be Over?” A few panelists offered hopeful words, ‘Perhaps later this year… if there are no more surprises.’ The eternally pessimistic Nuriel Roubini suggested three years… or more. One sage observer offered the wisdom of bubbles past: You don’t reach the bottom until people stop asking.

We are having a hard time accepting that recovery will take time. Leveraging, or getting into debt, is a lot of fun. For twenty years or so, as interest rates declined and lending standards loosened, America went on a debt-funded spending spree. Across the country, as housing prices rose and the home-equity lending came into vogue, Americans used their access to money to live beyond their current incomes, creating an illusion of prosperity and growth.

Deleveraging, on the other hand, is not fun. It ultimately requires reducing debt. Actually getting rid of it. For American households—whose real incomes have been flat for a decade or more—it means returning to the standard of living that they could afford before the borrowing spree started, adjusted further downward to allow them to pay off the debts they accumulated during the boom years.

So far, our public policy responses to the housing collapse and banking crisis have largely amounted to various strategies for shifting the debt burden around. In the name of stability, the TARP program socializes the losses from our financial sector. Now, in a similar vein, we are proposing to tackle the problem of home foreclosures. But unlike the TARP program that puts the bank losses on the broad shoulders of the Federal government, the strategies to boost the housing market will shift the losses experienced by current homeowner onto the next generation of homebuyers.

Consider this. In 1981, the median home price was $62,000, and the annual cost of funding the purchase of that home at the then-current 16.6% mortgage rates, and with a 20% down payment, was $8,900 per year. $8,900 was 47% of the median family income at the time of $19,000, indicating that the median priced home was not affordable for most families.

As interest rates declined through the 1980s and 90s, home prices escalated as affordability increased. By 1998, the cost of carrying an 80% mortgage on a $128,400, median priced home dipped to $8,228, or just 21% of the 1998 median family income.

By 2007, median home prices increased a further 70% to $217,800. 30-year mortgage rates only dip another 1% or so, but home priced increases were aided by the advent of all sorts of “creative” mortgages, that continued to reduce buyer monthly payments.

For more than two decades, the growth in home prices was made possible by the long-term decline in mortgage interest rates, and at the late stage of the bubble by interest only, variable rate, and teaser-rate mortgages. Despite all hopes for a revival of the real estate market, and particularly a new period of growth in home prices, this is not likely to happen.

Current Federal strategies to re-stimulate the housing market to address the foreclosure problem are ill-advised. Over the past several months, the Federal Reserve has initiated efforts to push long-term mortgage rates down toward 4.5% by purchasing mortgage-backed securities. In addition, the newly enacted stimulus package included an $8,000 first-time homebuyers tax credit.

The problem with these efforts is that they will not fix the fundamental problem, but instead will simply push the problem—the loss of home equity—onto the next generation of homebuyers.

Consider this example. Take the median US home that was worth $220,000 during the years 2005 to 2007, but which might be worth $180,000 today, reflecting a loss in value of nearly 20%. This reduced home price, with a market-rate, 6% mortgage and 80% down, would cost the new owner around $10,500 annually. However, with a 4.5% mortgage rate and the $8,000 tax credit, this new owner can afford to pay $215,000, and still owe only $10,500 annually.

This is the same game that we have watched for the better part of two decades. The buyer—who has been taught to focus on the monthly payment as the measure of “affordability”—is willing to pay the higher price for a home because of the availability of low-cost financing. The seller is happy, because they receive close to the 2005-2007 price of their home. For two decades, this logic worked, because interest rates were continuing to drop and home prices were continuing to rise.

But the situation today is different, creating two very real problems. First, these policies constitute deliberate inducements to entice homebuyers to pay over-market prices for homes, as a matter of public policy. It is reasonable to expect that once the Federal actions that induced the purchase are ceased––the artificially low mortgage rates and the tax credit—the market price of the home the buyer purchased for $215,000 in the example above will fall back to its current value of $180,000.

Therefore, the impact of these policies will be to benefit—or “bail out”—the current homeowners who are facing substantial losses, by passing those losses on to the new homebuyers.

Second, and equally important, new homebuyers should be on notice that the “great deals” that they might see in the real estate market today are only great in comparison to prices at the high point of the real estate bubble. The implied suggestion is that once the current mess is behind us, home prices will continue to rise once again. But that is not likely to be the case.

There are two simple reasons for this. First, tightened rules governing mortgage banking will end the lending practices that artificially lowered the carrying costs of purchasing a home and supported the run-up in home prices. Traditional conforming mortgages with real down payments and more conservative underwriting standards will once again tie home affordability to household incomes and long-term mortgage costs.

Second, long-term mortgage rates are more likely to rise than fall, once the Federal Reserve Bank curtails its market intervention to suppress mortgage rates, and particularly if Congressional action allows judicial rewriting of mortgage contracts, which will undermine the security of—and therefore increase the cost of—mortgage loans.

Many will argue that since we have chosen to bail out the banks, it is only fair that we bail out homeowners. That is a fair argument, and one that Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke and Congress should have considered before we began our long walk down this path.

But Federal actions to artificially boost home values will not socialize the losses in home values, but instead will literally pass one family’s loss on to the next. Like the TARP program, the fundamental problem is that the losses are real, and try as we might to shift them around to avoid the pain, they will not go away.