Why should anyone care about financial bubbles in general and the housing bubble in particular? The first and most obvious reason is that the financial fallout is stressful. Many people lost a great deal of money. Beyond that, the housing bubble had enormous impact on the health of individuals, families and entire communities.
People buying into a financial mania too late, particularly in a residential housing market, will probably end up in foreclosure and most likely in a bankruptcy court. In contrast, stock market bubbles will only cause people to lose their initial investment. It may bruise their ego or delay their retirement, but these losses generally do not cause them to lose their homes or declare bankruptcy like a housing market bubble does.
In a stock market collapse, a broker will close out positions and close an account before the account goes negative. There is a safety net in the system. In a residential housing market, there is no safety net. If house prices decline, a homeowner can easily have negative equity and no ability to exit the transaction. In a housing market decline, properties become very illiquid as there simply are not enough buyers to absorb the available inventory. A property owner can quickly fall so far into negative territory that it would take a lifetime to pay back the debt. In these circumstances bankruptcy is not just preferable; it is the only realistic course of action. It is better to have credit issues for a few years than to have insurmountable debt lingering for decades.
The real problems for individuals and families come after the bankruptcy and foreclosure. The debt addicted will suddenly find the tools they used to maintain their artificially inflated lifestyles are no longer available. The stress of adjusting to a sustainable, cash-basis lifestyle can lead to divorces, depression and a host of related personal and family problems. One can argue this is in their best interest long-term, but that will be little comfort to these people during the transition.
The problems for the housing market linger as well. Those who lost homes during the decline are no longer potential buyers due to their credit problems. It will take time for this group to repair their credit and become buyers again. The reduction in the size of the buyer pool keeps demand in check and limits the rate of price recovery.
The Great Housing Bubble, like all asset bubbles, was driven by the belief in permanent, rapid house price appreciation, an unrealistic perception of the risk involved, and the fear that waiting to buy would cause market participants to miss their opportunity to own a house. These erroneous beliefs were supported by groupthink; if everyone else believes it, it must be true.
As with any mass delusion, it is difficult to see beyond the comforting fallacies to understand the deeper truth; however, it is essential to do so because the cost in emotional and financial terms of getting caught up in the mania is very high. Foreclosure and bankruptcy are bad for individuals, bad for families, and bad for society.