Fire sale prices versus stagnation prices

The concept of “fire sale prices” is a useful one in many contexts – some examples are the October 19th 1987 US stock market crash, the LTCM crisis of 1998, and the 2007-8 US credit-liquidity crisis. In all three of these cases, security prices crashed in a particular sub-market, policymakers stepped in providing extraordinary credit-liquidity support, and eventually (quickly in the first two cases, slowly in the last) the capital market situation normalized. Unfortunately, “fire sale prices” is a useless or even harmful analytical tool for understanding the current Irish financial predicament. A better term for current conditions in Irish asset markets is stagnation prices rather than fire sale prices. Policymakers should look to Japan circa 1991 and the following two decades, rather than the USA, for a useful historical precedent. The fire sale concept gives the wrong policy guidance in the Irish situation; it is metaphorically like trying to use a fire hose to drain a swamp.

Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny have a series of papers exploring the use of the fire sale concept in modelling financial markets. There has been a large outpouring of papers by other authors with similar or related models, but the Shleifer and Vishny model is clear and simple and their survey is particularly good. They provide a definition:

“A fire sale is essentially a forced sale of an asset at a dislocated price…. Assets sold in fire sales can trade at prices far below value in best use, causing severe losses to sellers.”

They discuss how fire sales can cause financial and macroeconomic instability via credit and liquidity channels. In a related paper they laud US policymakers for their prompt and correct response in 2007-9 in injecting massive credit and liquidity into the markets for mortgage-related and credit-related securities caught up in the fire sale environment of 2007-9.

Fire sale mitigation policies are unusual as economic policies in that, as a rule, they should result in a net profit for the policymaker. This follows from the theory of the limits to arbitrage. This certainly seems to apply in the US case – the Federal Reserve made a trading profit of $79.3 billion in 2010 and $76.9 billion in 2011. The Fed vastly outperformed the best-performing hedge fund both years, at U.S. civil service pay rates, and without actually trying to make a profit. TARP was also profitable or near profitable, after an adjustment for the expensive but necessary bail-out of the US automobile industry. This is the nature of fire sale mitigation policies – they are about buying securities slightly below fair value and holding them temporarily on government account while injecting liquidity and credit.

The bad news is that this has near-zero relevance for Ireland. Irish asset markets are not suffering from a fire sale problem but rather from a long-horizon stagnation problem. The appropriate comparison case is not from the USA but rather Japan circa 1990. Japanese policymakers and financial institutions worked endlessly to slow the pace of adjustment, leading to an almost twenty year period of stagnation, suppressing growth and business innovation, and leaving a massive overhang of government debt. Irish asset markets need to be forced to adjust quickly and reach their new (much lower) equilibrium values with un-frozen free trading and clear, public pricing. This applies to banks, collateralized pools of debt, commercial leases, and commercial and residential property. Preventing this from happening is not preventing a “fire sale” rather it is guaranteeing a long stagnation. It could even last twenty years, as in Japan.

Another question – what is it about the US environment that gives rise to fire-sale-induced financial crises of typically short duration? Part of the answer lies in the USA lead in financial innovation. New financial innovations were key to all three fire-sale market crashes mentioned in the first paragraph of this post (portfolio insurance, statistical arbitrage, and numerous CDO innovations, respectively). High-frequency trading (the most recent big innovation) will be the likely cause of the next fire-sale-related crash, if one comes in the USA.* Ireland seems to avoid these fire-sale crashes, but is plagued instead by long-lasting periods of stagnation. Let us hope the current one is not dragged out for a decade.


*A post-script on HFT and the Tobin tax. After my last blogpost, Frank Barry asked me to give more details about Tobin’s use of the term “sand in the wheels” and its application in old-fashioned engineering. I do not know that much about the engineering use of sand in the wheels – I only heard Tobin discussing it in an interview. I now know that historically the sand in the wheels technique was used in the case of a metal (steel or iron) wheel aligned on a track and needing better grip, such as an old-fashioned railway wheel on a wet track. It is used for wheel-type mechanisms and not for gears with teeth. See Wikipedia for some details for those with an interest. I remember Tobin saying he was annoyed that many commentators mistook him as suggesting sabotage, and I remembered that key idea correctly. Sand in the wheels is a technique to improve, not hinder, performance.

35 replies on “Fire sale prices versus stagnation prices”

Doesn’t this logic mean that NAMA is part of the problem? NAMA froze the commercial property market for over 2 years while anticipation of its policies and then implementation of them was being worked out .. and in the name of preventing a fire sale.

House prices, at least in Dublin, have crashed quite spectacularly – they still have a little bit more to go but I don’t think anything near as much as they’ve already come down by. The problem is now lack of credit and confidence as opposed to still too high prices.

You have got this process back to front – there was more intensive malinvestment in the 80s – the 90s and 00s were more a period of consolidation & recovery.
Try to find out what was Japans growth expressed in US dollars over the last 20 years ?
I hear their Yen can buy more oil these days.
Hell if they remain in sustainable Trade defecit they might not need to export their wealth anymore.
There is nothing wrong with high goverment debt in this monetory system of free floating currency pairs if it remains internal and is a true sovergin – it prevents the banking system from introducing too much credit poison via leverage

As for Ireland’s physical stagnation over and above monetory matters – well that can be explained easily – the built envoirment is clearly not suitable for our present energy ration.
It needs major base money investment using Intelligent elegant design philosophy.
May I suggest what is happening in Northern & Mid English towns which was never a really rich area is worth a look.

Something relatively radical is occurring in mid size / poor cities such as Nottingham – since the mid 90s the old 19th century railway lines have been developed into commuter rail systems
(check out each rail station for passenger numbers which are rising in many stations – some even during the 2009 /10 shock which is a characteristic of British rail these days.)–

with new Tram trains systems feeding into this matrix.

They have announced a major extension of their 2004 Tram system with two shorter lines going to the south of the city with all Tram lines feeding into the mainline city station.

Their Tram system is the most successful in the UK since its inception.

Nottingham is like many cities in that area of Mid to Northern England – although car centric & poorer then the south – many of the towns have become sub urbanised around a oringinal 19th century station although much is destroyed also.

– with rail cuttings often remaining intact and suitable for future tram trains (half urban tram , half rural rail lines)
With polycentric rather then linear development centres

Looking at Google earth comparisons of these Mid England towns such as loughbourgh & the Irish mess and there is no comparison.

But Ireland can’t even spend a million or two for a little station in Glanmire to try to make some sense of the credit mess – because it is not a sovergin.
I say again – I have never seen anything like the Irish built landscape.
Its a ode to credit malinvestment.
Oh if we only had high goverment money to credit ratios since the 1990s – think of all the malinvestment we could have avoided.

@ BdP

‘The problem is now lack of credit and confidence as opposed to still too high prices’

It can be argued that house prices are still too high relative to (steadily declining) confidence and credit activity. Accelerating emigration has to be a factor too.

Given the prospects for employment (as oppose to FDI driven GDP) , another 50% drop could be on the cards. I think I recall an acqaintance buying a terrace house in Rochdale Lancashire for 5k in the 80s. There was no work there.

Stagnation is the outcome which the current stakeholders realistically desire, or at least expect. A kind of LIFO principle for society. I have a Dorkish feeling, though, that something nastier and more chaotic is on the way.

Without trying to sound like Zhou En Lai, it may be a little early to give credit to the US authorities for their actions. The whole CDO/mortgage bubble, at its peak in 2007, typically consisted of assets with an average maturity of around five years, and that five-year period doesn’t end until later this year.

The manifest nervousness in the US over the CDS exposures of their banking system, the pressures brought to bear on Europe to treat bank senior debt as equally-ranked with sovereign (or even effectively senior to it), do not speak of a country which has solved a problem. Their banking problems persist, and have merely been temporally and geographically displaced.

The Irish market did have to face a steep fall.

An international survey showed in 2006 that for the cost of a comparable house – – 2,200 square foot single-family dwellings with four bedrooms, two and one-half baths, a family room (or equivalent) and a two-car garage – – in an area favoured by a management level family in Dublin, Ireland, you could buy nine similar houses in Houston, Texas, three in Amsterdam, two in Sydney and almost two in Tokyo.

New 3-bed houses that were selling for £28,000 in Bray in 1981, were fetching £26,000 or less in 1987 and inflation in 1981 was 20.4% and 17.1% in 1982.

Brain Devine of NCB Stockbrokers said in 2010 that in the 25 years between 1975 and 2000, the ratio of house prices to household income was approximately 3. If this ratio were to be restored, it would imply that average house prices would need to fall to approximately €170,000 in 2010. However, he said despite house prices as a multiple of disposable income being the same in 1981 and 1998, repayments as a percentage of disposable income were 41.3% in 1981 versus 24.3% in 1998.

A Demographia report last week suggested affordability is almost back in Dublin. However, credit and the unstable employment situation will remain factors for years.  

@ The Dork of Cork

As regards Japan, you need to look at more than the headline figures.

Most big companies were born before 1975 when Microsoft was established.

They are badly run, poor at internationalisation and in electronics, Samsung has trumped them.

In 2009 Japan had the lowest score of any of the IMF’s advanced economies on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, administered to foreign students who wanted to study in the United States. It had the second-lowest score among Asian nations, outperforming only Laos.

In an ageing society, the young working as temps account for more than a third of the workforce, earning less than the Irish minimum wage. They cannot vote until they are 20.

On the other hand, Japan has the best infrastructure among rich countries with the US towards the bottom. Cheap public debt was used to finance all the building but like France, there comes a time when a country runs out of road.

@ aiman

Just to spoil the allusion to Zhou Enlai…

The American interpreter who was with Henry Kissinger in 1971, has confirmed that the Chinese leader was referring to Paris in 1968 not 1789.

Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ was popular with students at the time even though the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ was far from a picnic.

BTW, apparently there’s no evidence either that Lenin called Western apologists for Soviet communism, ‘useful idiots,’ even though they were.

TARP has not turned a profit. Please excise that untruth from an otherwise excellent article. Look at the GAO report that criticised TARP for only reporting final numbers on programs where it made a profit. Include the losses on AIG and Bear Stearns and Fannie and Freddie and you will see that it has lost money.

@Garo — there is some dispute between the US Treasury and Government Accounting Office so I modified the statement in the blogpost to “profitable or near profitable” – I think my use of the case is valid in that TARP was either profitable or not expensive given what it did, and most components of this multi-dimensional TARP program (not all of them) earned a profit or came close.

@BdP and MH-ff: I believe that res property prices will continue their slow decline. After tax and charge incomes are also declining, and there appears to be an increase in ‘savings’ – which I take to be paying down debt, not increasing deposits. Additional household charges will also force further res property price decreases. Lots more to go.

I predict the ‘bottom’ in about three years – unless we have a significant ‘energy’ shock (and it looks like there is one in the pipeline (Freudian!) as I write). Then, all bets are off.

Garo is correct about TARP. A most artful scam.

@Gregory Connor

Irish asset markets need to be forced to adjust quickly and reach their new (much lower) equilibrium values with un-frozen free trading and clear, public pricing. This applies to banks, collateralized pools of debt, commercial leases, and commercial and residential property.

It is good to see an economist nail his colours to the mast with a concrete proposal. I suspect, more than suspect, that the above proposal is a far better way forward than the current stagnation.
Your colleague Rob Kitchin would appear to agree with your 20 year stagnation scenario. We may, according to his presentation, have to wait until today’s two year olds start to earn for the situation to improve.

TARP costs are estimated by CBO at $34bn. Costs for all private banks and AIG netted to about zero. The losses were from the aid to auto companies and mortgage subsidies.

The Bear Stearns bailout was not part of TARP – it was a loan by the Fed to JP Morgan collateralized with Bear Stearns junk assets. I don’t think much has been paid back. However, as Gregory Connor points out, the Fed is sending $75bn a year to the Treasury in profits from its asset purchases, and so this needs to be counted in any “total bailout cost” scenario.

Final Fannie and Freddie costs are hard to estimate. About $150bn has been spent so far, but the final costs could be $200bn or greater. There’s a mix of Fed and Treasury support.

However it needs to be remembered that the size of the collapse/bailout in Ireland is of a completely different order of magnitude to what happened in the USA, or in Finland/Sweden in the early 90s, or pretty much everything else you can compare it to (except Iceland, and, by some measures, Scotland calculated as an independent country).

The TARP costs mapped to an Irish context (relative to GDP) would be €350m (e.g. about 1/3 of last Wednesday’s payment to Anglo).

Even if Fannie and Freddie costs were $300bn, in an Irish context that would be about €3bn (e.g. one year’s promissory note payment)

Using a very rough measure, and relative to GDP, you could say that the TARP costs are close to zero, and that Fannie and Freddie costs, counterbalanced by Fed profits returned to the Treasury, are also close to zero.

@Brian Woods Snr

I’m trending with you. I thought by now we might at least be ‘bumping along the bottom’ but we’re not. 3-5 years to finally reach it and maybe sooner if this all pans out badly.

(Greece faces ‘the spectre of bankruptcy and all the dire consequences that entails’, the Greek prime minister Lucas Papademos has warned ahead today’s EU leaders’ summit.)

I’m not sure where people are getting their residential property price falls from but I was talking to a guy with buy to let property the other day who has ‘hit a little turbulence’ (his words) and he’s had to sell a two bed terrace in Co. Dublin for €150k that he paid just over €400k for. His view was that if he didn’t sell it now, he might not even get €120k for it by the end of this year. And he wasn’t trying to do this in a rush/fire sale kind of way – he’s had it advertised for 6 months now and this was the first (only) offer he got (from another landlord apparently – there are few first time buyers out there).

@PR Guy. Nothing like first-hand experience. I also have a few ‘sorry’ stories. Maybe they are representative, maybe not. Time will tell.

I have to ‘travel’ to and from industrial parks – sort of thing. Lots of shutters. Lots of chained gates. And lots of ‘green shoots’ (aka weeds). Many neglected For Sale and To Let signages. This is ‘not seen’. So I suppose it does not get counted.

Your acquaintance made a ‘rational’ decision. Did he explain how he was able to acquire that level of mortgage in the first instance? That would be useful.

@Bryan G

Re “Using a very rough measure, and relative to GDP, you could say that the TARP costs are close to zero, and that Fannie and Freddie costs, counterbalanced by Fed profits returned to the Treasury, are also close to zero.”

What you are not including on your balance sheet is the cost of TARP vis a vis inflation and erosion of purchasing power of the dollar itself.

Also there is the skewing factor of these banking bailouts hosing money upward to the banks while the money supply among the middle class becomes more eroded. Wealth becomes more concentrated and stagnates at the upper levels.

The real measure of the success of TARP is the employment stats; there is some success, but arguments abound as to the marginal effect TARP has had on employment levels.

The biggest criticism of TARP is how the banks have not accounted for the money they have received. Arguments are that banks are once again using it to stoke the FIRE economy and go back to bad habits. The real economy has not benefited; bank bonuses/profits are bubbling.


Applying fire sale concepts to the financial industry in the USA is fraught with lack of solid information and dependent upon variables that you may not realise also belong to the equation. For example, the sale of US treasury bills; there has been a flight of capital away from Europe, even largely driven by European banks themselves.

To what extent is the US benefiting from a praying mantis effect re the euro; to what extent is the euros’s demise, the dollars rise 🙂

Fire sales of property clearly require differentiation from financial world firesales.

So, we must consider the NAMA Grendal fire monster. Its clearly been a failure by any measure. It has failed to keep Irish property prices from falling to firesale prices. I heard of 3 beds going in a Blackstairs mountain area location, unfinished estate, going for a song at ¢65000.

Clearly NAMA and the ‘upward only rent reviews’ amount to a hidden subvention to the banks. So, taxpayers are privileged to support real debt writedown by the banks; encourage higher extraction of taxpayer assets as taxpayers are forced to pay for ‘stagnation’ of property prices.

I support firesales as a capitalism method adequately addressing wealth that has become toxic and inefficient. Sweden’s Bo Lundren grasped the point and suggested loans in order to get the fastest resolution of a financial crisis have to be marked to market: we didn’t do that so we have this virtual economy of socialism for the banks kept ‘alive’ by the ECB and the Troika

It was not a cultural critique of Japan which indeed has many flaws when looked at with Western eyes.
It was a observation of the far more destructive role that credit plays over closer money substitutes like goverment debt as credit can multiply losses many times over and above the more linear nature of closer money malinvestments.
Indeed Japan has built too many roads but that does not mean there is no investments it can engage with – it is a huge Australian coal importer for example.
I remember Milton Friedman remark fondly that Japans electrical utility companies were private entities.
I imagine they have cut corners to express artificial profits with tragic results as expressed by the numerous Nuclear incidents over the years in those islands.
Since EDF became a limited liability corporation in 2004 the nuclear electrical production in Europe has declined dramatically with no new EDF plants coming on line during that time.
Coincidence ?
Looking at the IEA figures for OECD Europe
Nuclear TPES Y2007 : 241.26
Nuclear TPES Y2009 : 228.42

Honestly I think most of yee guys cannot comprehend the destruction that the pure petrodollar has brought to the World.
In Northern England for example it has done more physical damage then the Heinkels could ever have done.

Edinburgh narrowly missed the Nottingham treatment of major roads cutting through the centre of the city.

@Brian Woods Snr

“Did he explain how he was able to acquire that level of mortgage in the first instance?”

He was a cash buyer. That’ real money (to him) that he’s lost.

I see the fragrant Lucinda Creighton is giving it the scaring the horses treatment this morning: “Ireland has warned that if voters opposed the new fiscal treaty, the country would probably have to leave the eurozone.”

Whereas Lisbon (2) was all about how it would cost jobs, services, prosperity, etc. if we didn’t vote yes to it, the new fiscal compact is, er, about costing jobs, services, prosperity, etc. if we don’t vote yes to it …… should a vote on it be available that is.

Yes I believe there are further prices falls in store but they won’t be of the order of 50%. You can buy 3-bed semi ds for €150,000 in areas such as D15 – if they were to fall to €75,000 by any rational calculation that would be a bargain.

Unless someone is a forced seller they would never sell for that amount, much easier to rent it out for ~€900 instead and simply wait. I think they price falls will increasingly come from people who have houses priced at €200,000 next to the above mentioned houses bringing their prices down to match.

There comes a point where you simply won’t sell as it would be a ridiculous price. This is of course Dublin the rest of the country is still behind. I can imagine 10%-15% falls from the above prices, but 50% would generate over 10% gross rental yields. You would have a queue of cash buyers from around the world in today’s low rate environment.

@ PR Guy: Ouch!

Those politicos are super-snake-oil con artists. Folk just might, just might get it into their little heads that they were scammed! Then its – “watch out below!”.

@BdP. A ‘bargain’ is, something of a relative thing. 75K might represent a bargain, but maybe not. Your reference to ‘renting out’ is useful. This may indeed be the way things will pan out. But renters need incomes too. If renting is the next ‘bubble’: whither the direction of rents?

There is always a ‘base number’ of res property sales. Nature of things. This is where you need to look. Where is it now?


The base number of resi property sales is probably not the best place to look because the banks aren’t lending . 75K looks like fantastic value compared to prices in other countries.

If families can’t afford €8,000 rent a year for a 3 bed semi d then we will truly be in extreme poverty. You can spend that much on a *single room* in London.

The linked demographia is a damning piece of work when it comes to the housing markets in several other English speaking markets. It offers hope for Ireland though, just behind the US in affordability.

I suggested a thread on this a couple of months ago, if for no other reason than it was appropriate to provide posters the opportunity to employ capital letters in a tasteless manner thusly:


@Colm Brazel

Inflation in the USA is about 3%, hardly a catastrophe, and slightly below the long term historical average.

Using the trade weighted US dollar index as a measure of purchasing power shows that there has been a drop of about 10% from the 2003-2006 timeframe, and it is still historically quite high.

There are of course huge problems with income inequality, bank regulation etc. in the USA, but these were not caused by TARP or Fed QE. Unemployment, and the real economy in general, would be in far worse shape without this support.

@ Seafóid: The ‘base number’ I have in mind is a statistical estimate of what the number of sales should be at – given the demographics we have and the movement of individuals and families between different locations. The normal number of sales that would be expected annually, or monthly – in a ‘normal’ market.

If this number is X, but actual sales are less, then this would be an indicator of some problem. Anecdotal evidence says it is down. The other bits of this are the actual number of properties ‘on market’ – seeking an able and willing buyer, (a lot) and of course the duration the property is on market (10 months is being quoted as mean, but this is misleading. “Location, location, location”, as the man said).

First-timers are being very coy. Trader-uppers are in hibernation. Lenders are in a funk. Market is in deep dis-equilibrium – like the Costa perched on that reef. One untoward puff!

@BdP: Res property mortgage interest rates are in suspension. Lower? Unlikely. Higher? Probable. How much will 8K get you? Rem, you will need MINIMUM 25% CASH – as in REAL savings (20% down and 5% to cover costs) – there ye go G! – before a lender will let you through their front door. As ownership charges and costs rise; prices decline.

@Brian Woods Snr
My €8k figure is rent not a deposit, in the UK more and more people rent and yet house prices are staying relatively buoyant. They really need to come down though. There are professionals were both parents work and most of the income goes to renting due to the prices going steadily up and they simply can’t find a reasonably priced house for their themselves esp if they have a young family.

They long for the house prices of Dublin when I show them what they can buy. This is exactly what the Demographia report drives home. It used to be like that in Ireland too, but now for the price of renting one room in London you can rent an apartment in Ireland. I know which housing market I’d rather have and it’s not the cripplingly unaffordable one.

The bond markets are pricing in low rates for many years due to deflation and austerity. Rates have come down in the UK/US over the past year – I’d say they will stay flat in Ireland. If they go up it might be good as it would be due to growth, I just can’t see it though. Draghi knows the last rise was a colossal mistake.

Another question – what is it about the US environment that gives rise to fire-sale-induced financial crises of typically short duration?

The US practiced the rule of law during previous financial crises – which provided an opportunity for a new broom and all that.

This one is different.

The Fraudclosure debacle is symptomatic of the kleptocratic “Too Big To Jail” disease now infesting the American financial system.

Our American cousins are not all they seem.

Sand in the gears is sabotage, sand under the wheels provides traction. In areas where the temperature goes below zero regularly you will find boxes of sand in parking lots and by the side of the road on hills which are there so that you can throw a few fistfuls under the wheels when you get stuck. People also carry bags of sand and a shovel in the boot/trunk to use when they get stuck. Tobin has enemies who feel threatened by his FTT and undermine him at every opportunity.

In the US, Britain, Australia, NZ, Hong Kong, Singapore and Ireland the rich have bought big government.

Low/no regulation, low/no corporate taxes, weak unions, gov’t subsidies to the rich are all symptoms of bought gov’t. Cronyism, nepotism, fraud and corruption are accepted, almost legal, never prosecuted in countries where gov’t has truly sold out. A supine electorate is a precursor to all of it.

@ Gregory Connor

As the thread is coming to an end:

Another misunderstood image is F Scott Fitzgerald’s “there are no second acts in American lives”.

This is usually employed as meaning: you only have one chance.

However, plays at that time usually had three acts. Fitzgerald was saying that American lives rose and fell without a middle bit – see Gatsby.

@MH: “In the US, Britain, Australia, NZ, Hong Kong, Singapore and Ireland the rich have bought big government.”

That’s a neat definition of prostitution. Willing and able to participate!

“A supine electorate is a precursor to all of it.”

Anaesthetised? My take is the Irish electorate are: un-educated (irrespective of cause), or ill-informed (by choice perhaps) or more probable, deliberately mal-informed (maipulation – “IF YOU DO NOT DO THIS” – the sky will fall sort of tripe).

The last only works if either of the other conditions exist. And they do! A ‘supine’ electorate is an outcome in itself. A ‘bought legislator’ is the outcome of lack of moral fibre.


Sorry about the confusion in my comment. I tend to type faster that my single, functioning neuron can react.

The 8K ref was to the amount of mortgage this amount would fund – in the context of an unrigged, non-disfunctional credit market, which no longer exists and is unlikely to return any time soon. Logically, a dis-functional credit market has a proportionate distorting effect on the res property market.

Growth, as in business-as-usual economic mode, cannot occur in the current situation. The two vital nutrients for growth (credit and in-expensive liquid hydrocarbon fuels (stress is on liquid, not gaseous)) are in some disarrray, and the prospect for LHFs is very poor – see Export-land Model (Available Nett Exports).

Essentially, asset values are in a very iffy situation. If you believe in photosynthesis, then Jack-and-the-Beanstalk is a fable. Our current crop of economic ‘fabilizers’ would have you believe the opposite.

And, heaven help us, they believe their own fable.

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