The Housing Crisis: Maybe We Should Do Nothing?

Two weeks ago, the Senate passed legislation ostensibly intended to address home foreclosures. That legislation is now being criticized as little more than a handout to corporate interests. The criticism is legit; the bill is largely a package of tax breaks for developers (and other struggling industries, including those that have nothing to do with housing), along with tax credits for the purchasers of foreclosed homes (a provision that has its own criticisms) and grant money to local governments that want to play Flip This House.

Across Capitol Hill, the House is considering different foreclosure legislation that would give tax credits to first-time homebuyers and developers of lower-cost housing (proposals that are subject to some of the same criticisms now being lobbed at the Senate bill). House and Senate committees are also considering additional legislation that would permit the Federal Housing Authority to underwrite as much as $300 billion in mortgages for borrowers who are at risk of falling behind on their payments.

Lawmakers’ interest in combating the mortgage problem is understandable: default and foreclosure are painful for homeowners, clusters of vacant houses are hard on communities, and the struggling homebuilding industry is a significant contributor to the nation’s overall economic malaise. (Another factor that makes it understandable: this is an election year.)

However, before Congress puts taxpayers (most of whom are also paying mortgages or renting their homes) on the hook for billions of dollars in grants, tens of billions in tax breaks, and guarantees for hundreds of billions of dollars in mortgages, three points should be acknowledged:

  1. The bailout proposals are as much a benefit to lenders as borrowers.
  2. The homebuyers who are to be rescued are not the victims of “raw deals” (unless they were deceived or defrauded).
  3. The bailout could make the nation’s overall economic condition worse.

The housing market turmoil is the product of two related factors:

  • a decline in house prices in several geographic areas that were super-heated in recent years, and
  • the discovery that many mortgage borrowers are higher-risk than lenders had previously realized.

As long as house prices were rising, the risky borrowers were not a problem. Borrowers who fell behind in their payments could sell their houses (and usually reap capital gains). But when the market reversed, this “escape hatch” closed and defaults and foreclosures ensued.

The home loans at the heart of the mortgage meltdown are “subprime” loans — loans made to borrowers with less-than-stellar credit and/or little money down. Though subprimes constitute only 12.7 percent of all outstanding mortgages, they comprise 55.2 percent of mortgages that are in foreclosure. (Mortgage figures are calculated using data from the most recent National Delinquency Survey.)

The fact that subprime loan defaults are (literally) breaking the investment banks indicates that lenders were charging subprime borrowers too little — that subprime borrowers’ mortgage payments weren’t sufficient to cover their risk of default. That’s why investment banks are suffering severe write-downs (and in the case of Bear Stearns, near collapse) and brokerage firms have needed capital infusions. Those firms would benefit greatly from many of the proposed government interventions, even if they have to take a “haircut” on their loans. Hence, claims that bailout legislation is intended to “help Main Street, not Wall Street” should be taken with grains of salt.

Further, consider that 73.3 percent of the subprime loans in foreclosure are adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). ARM borrowers not only paid lower rates than what their default risk merited, but they also paid even-lower introductory rates for the first few years of their mortgages. In essence, the borrowers entered into “lease-to-buy” contracts, with the “buy” provision kicking in when the ARMs reset to higher rates. The increased foreclosures can be understood as borrowers deciding not to exercise the “buy” portion of the contract, either because the terms are relatively unaffordable or because the house is no longer worth the contracted amount.

Commentators err when they describe these borrowers as being irresponsible or foolish for signing such contracts. The borrowers simply made a risky but reasonable decision to try to buy a house, on very generous terms given their default risk, in a market that was experiencing tremendous appreciation. They are now making a reasonable decision to bail on their contracts and go back to renting in the wake of the housing market downturn. Of course, the borrowers feel pain when they lose their homes. But, unless they were deceived or defrauded, they were not the victims of raw deals.

Moreover, for the overwhelming majority of subprime loans, the borrowers’ original decision to buy has worked out nicely — more than 80 percent of subprime loans (and just under 80 percent of subprime ARMs) are currently in good standing. Moreover, many of the people who have used subprime loans, ARMs, and other oft-denigrated “exotic vehicles” over the past decade have realized significant capital gains, even with the recent decline in house prices. If some so-called “consumer advocates” get their wish and regulation is implemented to curtail or prohibit the use of subprime loans and ARMs, higher-risk would-be homebuyers as a group will be harmed.

Another worry is that the bailout and other interventions could make overall economic matters worse. The United States’ current economic malaise is partly the product of the housing market collapse and the associated mortgage woes, but it is also partly the product of higher energy prices. Put simply, current conditions indicate that market actors need to shift their investment and risk-taking away from housing and toward energy development and conservation.

However, government and Federal Reserve efforts to combat the housing crunch and the financial crisis could dampen the incentives to make that necessary investment switch. Ready money makes it easier to delay painful but necessary changes.

Economic corrections are always painful, but as GMU economist Alex Tabarrok and WaPo columnist Robert Samuelson each recently wrote, the pain is increased if the correction process is drawn out. Tabarrok’s NYT column compares the recent U.S. housing experience with Japan’s dramatic boom-and-bust cycle of 1985–2000. We should be mindful of Japan’s broader experience over the 1990s: the government struggled mightily to blunt the pain of a correction, resulting in an agonizing decade of economic stagnation.

All of this raises the question: Should government intervene at all in the foreclosure mess? In asking this, I’m not arguing that struggling borrowers should drop dead. But there is much more downside risk and much less justification for intervention than what proponents have acknowledged.