Tag: fannie mae

Are Mortgages Cheaper in the U.S.?

As Congress and the White House continue to debate the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, one of the oft heard concerns is that if we eliminate all the various mortgage subsidies in our system, then the cost of a mortgage will increase.  There certainly is a basic logic to that concern.  After all, why have subsidies if they don’t lower the price of the subsidized good.  Of course some, if not all, of said subsidy could be eaten up by the providers/producers of that good.

All this begs the question, with all the subsidies we have for mortgage finance, are mortgages actually cheaper in the U.S.?  While not perfect, one way of answering that question is to look at mortgage rates in other countries.   Although every developed country has some sort of government intervention in their mortgage market, almost all have considerably less support then that provided by the U.S.  (For a useful comparison of international differences see Michael Lea’s paper).

The European Mortgage Federation regularly collects information on mortgage pricing by EU countries.   The latest complete annual data from the EMF’s Hypostat database is for 2009, with at least a decade of historical data.

A quick glance reveals that mortgage rates in most European countries are not all that different than rates in the U.S.  For instance in 2009, the U.S. 30 year mortgage rate was, on average, 5.04; whereas mortgages in France averaged 4.6 and those in Germany averaged 4.29.  In the UK, the average was 4.34.

Part of this difference is driven by product type.  For instance, in France, most mortgages tend to be 15 year, which one would expect to be cheaper than a 30 year.  But the French 15 year rate of 4.6 isn’t all that different from the current U.S. 15 year rate of 4.1.  As lending rates are usually bench-marked off the rate on government debt, part of the slightly higher rate in some European countries is due to their higher government borrowing rate.  If we instead measure mortgage costs as a spread over government funding costs (as reported by the OECD), then many European countries look more affordable than the U.S.  For instance, German mortgages price about 100 basis points over long-term German govt debt; whereas U.S. mortgages price about 140 basis points over long-term U.S. government debt.

I don’t expect these numbers to settle the debate.  A variety of other costs, such as points paid or required downpayments, differ dramatically across countries.  Unfortunately that data does not seem to be readily available.  What the preceding comparison does suggest, however, is that even without Fannie and Freddie, U.S. mortgage rates aren’t necessarily going to be a lot higher.

Homeownership Before the New Deal

The latest canard offered for keeping taxpayers on the hook for mortgage risk is that, without such, homeownership would limited to the wealthy.  Sarah Rosen Wartell of the Center for American Progress stated before the House Subcommittee on Capital Markets, “The high cost, limited availability, and high volatility of pre-New Deal mortgage finance meant that homeownership was effectively limited to the wealthy.”  Congressman Al Green repeated the point.  As I’ve generally found Sarah to be one of the more reasonable CAP employees, and that this is fundamentally an empirical question, I would have expected her to offer some evidence to support such a claim.  Alas, she did not.  So I will.

According to the US Census Bureau, at the turn of the century in 1900, the US homeownership rate was 46.5%.  I’m pretty sure that even Sarah wouldn’t claim that close to half of US households in 1900 were “wealthy.”  Interestingly enough, homeownership after the first 10 years of the New Deal was lower than before the New Deal.

While 46.5% is about 20 percentage points below the current rate, the population in 1900 was considerably younger, and one thing we do know is that homeownership is positively correlated with age.  In 1900, 54% of the US population was under the age of 25, a reasonable cut-off for homeownership.  Today, that number is 35%.  I don’t think it would be a stretch to say the greatest driver behind the homeownership rate over the last 100 years has been the aging of the US population, probably followed by the increase in household incomes (homeownership and income are also closely correlated).

Hopefully this will put to rest the myth that FDR and the New Deal gave homeownership to the masses.  The fact is that homeownership was fairly widespread long before the New Deal.  I await the next myth from the Fannie Mae apologists.   If they are wise, they will try one that isn’t so easily falsified.

Administration Playing Both Sides on Fannie Mae

On Friday the Obama Administration released its report on “reforming America’s Housing Finance Market.”  The report claimed that the Administration would work toward “winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on a responsible timeline.” 

While the report was silent on what a responsible timeline would be (surprise, no details); I assumed, perhaps naively, that a reasonable timeline would be 5 to 6 years.  So you can imagine my surprise while reading the Administration’s budget proposal (see Table S-12 of the summary tables), released Monday, that the Administration is projecting that the government will be receiving, between 2012 and 2021, $89 billion in dividend payments from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  In 2021 alone the White House projects $8 billion in dividend payments.  But here’s the rub, for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to be paying dividends in 2021 requires that they still be around.

So would the Administration please be straight with us for just a minute: are you or are you not proposing that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac disappear; and if so, when?

Another odd thing from the budget, again Table s-12 lists the net equity position of Fannie and Freddie as negative.  Well that’s obviously true, but it also raises the question of why they are still in conservatorship, as the law requires them to be taken into receivership once they’ve reached negative equity.  Then perhaps OMB and Treasury have different definitions of net equity.

Administration Punts on Reform of Fannie and Freddie

Remember that “tough study” promised by Senator Chris Dodd to deal with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?  Well it is finally out.  All 22 pages (of doubled-spaced large font).  And less than half those pages actually discuss Fannie and Freddie.

While the report does say a lot of the right things — such as protecting the taxpayer — it is awfully short on any real details.  And in many areas, the report makes clear that the Obama administration intends to keep the taxpayer on the hook for future losses arising from Fannie and Freddie.  For instance, after assuring us that the GSEs will have sufficient capital to meet their obligations, including debt, the report tells us that such capital will not come from investors, but from the taxpayer.  One has to wonder whether this report was written for the benefit of the Chinese Central Bank (one of the largest GSE debtholders) or for the benefit of the U.S. taxpayer.

Equally vague is the discussion of “winding down” Fannie and Freddie.  While that sounds great, how is this to be accomplished? And how long will it take?  Again it seems that this “wind-down” will be financed by the taxpayer.  It is suggested that the GSE guarantee fees will increase.  Again, by how much and when?

Paragraph 2 of Section 1074 of the Dodd-Frank act, which required this study, also requires an “analysis” of various options and impacts.  In all due respect to HUD and Treasury and their efforts, there is nothing in this report that remotely resembles an “analysis” — just vague generalities.

I appreciate the administration’s stated desire to move us closer to a private market solution, but we’ve heard these empty promises before.  Remember that financial reform was going to end “too big to fail” and bailouts?  Health care reform was going to “bend the cost curve”?  It is past the time of fluff.   We need actual details and an actual plan.  

For details of immediate action that can be taken, see my testimony from earlier this week.

GOP Conservatives Propose Spending Cuts

Last week the conservative House Republican Study Committee released its Spending Reduction Act of 2011, which would cut federal spending by $2.5 trillion over the next ten years. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) will introduce it in the Senate.

The vast majority of the savings, $2.3 trillion, would come from freezing non-defense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006 levels over the next ten years. The rest would come from cutting the federal civilian workforce, privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, repealing the state Medicaid FMAP increase, repealing remaining stimulus funds, and immediately reducing non-security discretionary spending to fiscal 2008 levels.

Of the $2.3 trillion over 10 years that would be saved by freezing nondefense discretionary spending at fiscal 2006 levels, only $330 billion in savings are actually specified, or about $33 billion annually. That’s only about 5 percent of nondefense discretionary spending, and nondefense discretionary spending only accounts for about 17 percent of total federal spending.

The RSC targeted an array of small and silly programs such as $17 million in subsidies for the International Fund for Ireland. They would eliminate mohair subsides saving $1 million, but that’s tiny compared to the needed termination of all farm subsidies. And proposing to eliminate “duplicative education programs” is fine, but the Department of Education doesn’t need house cleaning – it needs to be cleaned out.

The plan does include some good cuts that have been proposed at Downsizing Government:

However, most of the RSC’s savings are generated by a largely amorphous promise to keep domestic spending flat for years to come at 2006 levels. Unfortunately, this evades the needed national conversation on closing down major agencies and departments.

Another disappointment with the RSC plan is that there are no proposed cuts for the Department of Defense. That could be a major political error as more and more conservatives have been coming to the conclusion that it needs to be downsized. And by failing to include the Pentagon, any chance of support by congressional Democrats is killed.

Fannie & China: 2 Birds, 1 Stone

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington brought renewed focus on China’s currency.  It was likely the largest point of discussion between President Obama and President Hu.  I suspect a less public, but related, issue was China looking for some certainty that America would make good on its obligations; after all, China is our largest lender.

What is often missed is the connection between these two issues:  currency and debt.  When China receives dollars for the many goods it sells us, instead of recycling those dollars into the purchase of US goods, it uses that money mostly to buy US Treasuries and Agencies (Fannie/Freddie securities).  These large Treasury/Agency purchases (foreign holdings of GSE debt are over $1 trillion) have the effect of increasing the demand for dollars and depressing that for yuan, resulting in an appreciation of the dollar relative to the yuan.  This connection exposes the hypocrisy of President Obama’s complaints about China currency manipulation - without massive US budget deficits, China would not be able to manipulate its currency to the extent it does.  If the US wants to end that manipulation, it can do so by simply reducing the outstanding supply of Treasuries and Agency debt.

Another solution, which would also do much to end the “implicit guarantees” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is to take Fannie and Freddie into a receivership, stop the US taxpayer from having to cover their losses, and shift those losses to junior creditors, which include the Chinese Central Bank.  Were the Chinese to actually suffer credit losses on their GSE debt, they would quickly start to reduce their holdings of such.  They might also cut back on Treasury holdings.  These actions would force the yuan to appreciate relative to the dollar.  And best of all, it would end the bottomless pit that Fannie and Freddie have become.  It is worth remembering that even today, under statute, the Federal government does not back the debt of Fannie and Freddie.  It is about time we also teach the Chinese a lesson about the rule of law, by actually following it ourselves. 

Of course this would increase the borrowing costs for Agencies (and maybe Treasuries), but then if China were to free float its currency, that would also reduce the demand for Treasuries/Agencies with a resulting increase in borrowing costs.  We cannot have it both ways.

CBO on Fannie, Freddie and Mortgage Finance Options

Just in time for the holidays, the Congressional Budget Office has released its analysis of the costs and benefits of various alternatives to our current system of mortgage finance, particularly the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The report examines three possibilities:

  1. A hybrid public/private model in which the government provides explicit guarantees on privately issued mortgages or MBSs;
  2. A fully public model in which a wholly federal entity would guarantee qualifying mortgages or MBSs; or
  3. A fully private model in which there would be no special federal backing for the secondary mortgage market.

The report doesn’t really push one option over another, but simply lays out the advantages and disadvantages of each.  Some highlights worth keeping in mind as the debate continues into the new year:

“Relying on explicit government guarantees…would also have some disadvantages…If competition remained muted, with only a few…firms participating in the secondary market, limiting risk to the overall financial system and avoiding regulatory capture could be difficult…federal guarantees would reduce creditors’ incentive to monitor risk. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices and would most likely end up imposing some cost and risk on taxpayers. In addition, a hybrid approach might not eliminate the frictions that arise between private and public missions.”

“Privatization might provide the strongest incentive for prudent behavior on the part of financial intermediaries by removing the moral hazard that federal guarantees create.  By increasing competition in the secondary market, the privatization approach would reduce the market’s reliance on the viability of any one firm. Private markets may also be best positioned to allocate the credit risk and interest rate risk of mortgages efficiently, and they would probably be more innovative than a secondary market dominated by a fully federal agency. Further, privatization would eliminate the tension between public and private purposes inherent in the traditional GSE model.”

It is worth remembering that over the years, the CBO has actually been quite strong in warning against the dangers of the GSE model.  Sadly Congress simply chose to ignore those warnings.  Here’s hoping that the CBO has little more influence on this issue than they’ve had in the past.