A NATION OF EXAGGERATORS
Quit Doling Out That Bad-Economy Line
"It was the worst of times, and it was the worst of times."
I imagine that's what Charles Dickens would conclude about the current condition of the U.S. economy, based on the relentless drumbeat of pessimism in the media and on the campaign trail. In the past two months, this newspaper alone has written no fewer than nine times, in news stories, columns and op-eds, that key elements of the economy are the worst they've been "since the Great Depression." That diagnosis has been applied twice to the housing "slump" and once to the housing "crisis," to the "severe" decline in home prices, to the "spike" in mortgage foreclosures, to the "change" in the mortgage market and the "turmoil" in debt markets, and to the "crisis" or "meltdown" in financial markets.
It's a virus -- and it's spreading. Do a Google News search for "since the Great Depression," and you come up with more than 4,500 examples of the phrase's use in just the past month.
But that doesn't make any of it true. Things today just aren't that bad. Sure, there are trouble spots in the economy, as the government takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and jitters about Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, amply demonstrate. And unemployment figures are up a bit, too. None of this, however, is cause for depression -- or exaggerated Depression comparisons.
Overall, the pessimists are up against an insurmountable reality: In the last reported quarter, the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3.3 percent, adjusted for inflation. That's virtually the same as the 3.4 percent average growth rate since -- yes -- the Great Depression.
Why, then, does the public appear to agree with the media? A recent Zogby poll shows that 66 percent of likely voters believe that "the entire world is either now locked in a global economic recession or soon will be." Actually, that's a major clue to what started this thought-contagion about everything being the worst it has been "since the Great Depression": Politics.
Patient zero in this epidemic is the Democratic candidate for president. As it would be for any challenger, it's in his interest to portray the incumbent party's economic performance in the grimmest possible terms. Barack Obama has frequently used the Depression exaggeration, including during a campaign speech in June, when he said that the "percentage of homes in foreclosure and late mortgage payments is the highest since the Great Depression." At best, this statement is a good guess. To be really true, it would have to be heavily qualified with words such as "maybe" or "probably." According to economist David C. Wheelock of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, who has studied the history of mortgage markets for the Fed, "there are no consistent data on foreclosure or delinquency going all the way back to the Depression."
The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) database, which allows rigorous apples-to-apples comparisons, only goes back to 1979. It shows that today's delinquency rate is only a little higher than the level seen in 1985. As to the foreclosure rate, it was setting records for the day -- the highest since the Great Depression, one supposes -- in 1999, at the peak of the Clinton-era prosperity that Obama celebrated in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention late last month. I don't recall hearing any Democratic politicians complaining back then.
Even if Obama is right that the foreclosure rate is the worst since the Great Depression, it's spurious to evoke memories of that great national calamity when talking about today -- it's akin to equating a sore throat with stomach cancer. According to the MBA, 6.4 percent of mortgages are delinquent to some extent, and 2.75 percent are in foreclosure. During the Great Depression, according to Wheelock's research, more than 50 percent of home loans were in default.
Moreover, MBA data show that today's foreclosures are concentrated in that small fraction of U.S. homes financed by subprime mortgages. Such homes make up only 12 percent of all mortgages, yet account for 52 percent of foreclosures. This suggests that today's mortgage difficulties are probably a side effect of the otherwise happy fact that, over the past several years, millions of Americans of modest means have come to own their own homes for the first time.
Here's another one not to be too alarmed about: Obama is flat-out wrong when he frets on his campaign Web site that "the personal savings rate is now the lowest it's been since the Great Depression." The latest rate, for the second quarter of 2008, is 2.6 percent -- higher than the 1.9 percent rate that prevailed in the last quarter of Bill Clinton's presidency.
Full disclosure: I'm an adviser to John McCain's campaign, though as far as I know, the senator has never taken one word of my advice. He's been sounding a little pessimistic on the economy of late, too. And to be fair, he isn't immune to the Depression-exaggeration virus, either. At a campaign news conference in July, my fellow adviser Steve Forbes warned that Obama was seeking "the biggest tax increase since Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression." Factual? Almost certainly not.