The World Economic Forum recently released a report as part of its asset bubble project.
It's actually worth the read, particularly the case studies. The key to asset bubbles lies in behavioural decisions and pricing: what causes the divergence of price from value for the (normally) level headed?
Should governments intervene when a bubble is forming? A vexed question: bubbles are almost always acknowledged ex-ante – with the wisdom of 20:20 hindsight we hear the almost constant drone of, “we told you so”. But, so few were those who foresaw the global financial crisis that it royally begs the question: how could the economists fail to miss something so big?
“Hubris” and “wishful thinking” were part of the response. Blind faith placed in the “wizards” of the banking world – trusting they actually knew what they were doing. And the bankers did little to bring their egos back to earth.
Also, failing to see the forest for the trees. Risk management practices were robust in the context of any individual deal, being outside of a reasonable remit to assess the global financial system when undertaking a risk audit. A house of cards was under construction.
Distinguishing between cyclical periods of natural growth and unconstrained excess is challenging – even professional forecasters have famously botched it. Intervening too soon or by too much may nip economic growth in the bud or do more harm than good (think: London '74 or Australia '91). And besides this, there's the belief underpinning laissez faire markets: governments do best when they do nothing at all.
Booming property markets generally underscore booming economies, leveraging ever larger transactions in a kind debt-capital feedback loop. Governments typically fail to act (until its too late) as growing economies are typically what people and businesses want. It's seen as a hallmark of good government – albeit at the detriment of good governance.
The property sector underpins the economy, with returns to capital finding some basis in the land rent. The scale of capital involved in institutional transactions is significant such that a few sensational losses can rouse the animal spirits, spreading fear and causing panic. Fundamentally, we need shelter and housing markets are coupled to the economy via the banking sector and the wage-mortgage/rent relationship. A healthy, growing economy generally resonates in an appreciating housing market.
Too many rules stifle growth, while too few fail to restrain our excesses as collectively we try to get ahead. How many haven't dreamed of the day when we finally shake that monkey from our backs? In this context, we return to our opening question, with the observation that price is what you pay, while value what you get.