The Great Debate

How home prices helped kill the first tech boom

By Ryan Avent
The opinions expressed are his own. 

The late 1990s was a wild time in Silicon Valley. The NASDAQ was soaring, and seemingly anyone could start a company, stick a .com at the end of its name, put together an IPO and retire a millionaire. The great boom ultimately took on a speculative character that led to wasted investments and the collapse of many poorly-grounded operations. But it was rooted in a surge of not-unrealistic optimism about the potential of the internet to change the world of business.

Among the striking features of the era, one of the most startling is this: the rate of high-tech entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley seems to have been below the national average from 1996 to 2000, according to a recent analysis of business creation during the tech boom. And from the late 1990s to the early 2000s — after the bust — Silicon Valley’s rate of high-tech entrepreneurship actually increased. How can this be? How is it that during the first great boom of the internet era, Silicon Valley was less of a hotbed for new firm formation than the country as a whole?

Economists Robert Fairlie and Aaron Chatterji suggest that the answer lies in the extremely tight labor market conditions that prevailed at the time. The tech boom was remarkably good for Silicon Valley workers. Average earnings rose by nearly 40% from 1997 to 2000 — more than twice as fast as the increase for the country as a whole. Non-salary compensation also soared, thanks to the popularity of stock options and the skyrocketing value of equity in tech firms. These generous pay increases made it unattractive for workers to leave established companies to strike out on their own. Entrepreneurship fell because life on salary was too lucrative to risk self-employment.

Why was pay so high? Rising productivity was a big reason, as were expectations (some more reasonable than others) of high and rising profitability across the tech sector. But these factors could just as easily have driven an increase in new firm formation and employment as a rise in salaries. Silicon Valley experienced more of the latter than the former because workers were scarce. During the late 1990s, the unemployment rate across Silicon Valley dropped well under 3%, eventually sinking to nearly half the national level. There was essentially no surplus labor in the whole of the region. Firms therefore had to bargain hard to hire qualified workers, and this meant giving up a substantial share of firm surplus in the form of salary, benefits, and profit-sharing. That, in turn, made it more attractive to be a worker than an entrepreneur.

And this brings us to the crux of the matter: why was the Silicon Valley labour market so tight? If the unemployment rate was so much lower than it was elsewhere in the country, and if compensation was rising so much more rapidly than elsewhere in the country, why weren’t people pouring into Silicon Valley from elsewhere in the country? More remarkably, why were people moving in the opposite direction?

from Reuters Money:

Retirement investors suffer as economy catches up to Wall Street

Retirement investors have struggled with a Jekyll and Hyde economy these past two years, where Dr. Jekyll lives very well on Wall Street while Mr. Hyde runs roughshod over a terrified Main Street.

On Main Street, the jobless rate tops 9 percent and 14 million residential mortgages are underwater – a figure Deutsche Bank thinks will hit 25 million, or 48 percent of all home loans, before the housing bust ends.

On Main Street, the economy hasn't respond to ultra-accommodative monetary policy. Near-zero interest rates don't matter because because there's so little demand for credit to hire people or to buy post-bubble real estate.

from Commentaries:

Goldman’s real estate gambit

Matthew Goldstein.jpgIs history repeating itself at Goldman Sachs?

In late 2006, Goldman shrewdly began backing away from the residential mortgage market. With little fanfare, the firm began aggressively hedging its exposure to home loans, in particular mortgages to borrowers with shaky credit histories.

This savvy and somewhat stealthy strategy enabled Goldman to pawn off lots of its soon-to-be toxic mortgages and mortgage-backed securities on other institutions -- forcing those foolhardy speculators to pay the price when the subprime market blew up.

And much to everyone else's chagrin, Goldman even made money off the housing meltdown when some of its hedges -- specifically a bet that a subprime mortgage index would plunge -- paid off handsomely.

from Commentaries:

Goldman still puzzles

Matthew GoldsteinInvesting in Goldman Sachs still requires a leap of faith in the investment firm's ability to out-trade, out-wit and out-muscle everyone else on Wall Street.

Sure, the bulls will say that with fewer competitors and with the Federal Reserve keeping bank borrowing costs near zero, Goldman's traders should be able to print money. But here's the thing: The post-federal bailout version of Goldman is as much of an investing riddle as the pre-crisis Goldman that many critics called a giant hedge fund or an inscrutable black box.

Even after becoming a bank holding company last fall, Goldman still doesn't make it easy for investors to get their arms around all the firm's many moving pieces. Trying to get a clear picture of how Goldman makes all that money and where the risks to its profitability may be lurking is like embarking on a treasure hunt with a ripped map.

Fishing for the housing bottom in San Diego

– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –
When prophetic long time bears turn a bit cuddly, it is usually best to take notice.  A real estate maven who rejoices in the “nom-de-blog” of Professor Piggington has now, after five years of correctly shouting bubble, labelled San Diego housing prices “reasonable” based on the latest available housing data.

Remember, San Diego has been, along with Phoenix, Las Vegas and parts of Florida, among the most bubbleicious markets in the U.S., and the massive busts there still represent a huge problem for bank balance sheets, for employment and for the U.S. economy generally.

So a bottoming, if that is what we are seeing, would be very significant. Housing is usually among the first sectors to recover in the aftermath of a recession and many economists argue that it actually drives the economic cycle.