Tag: freddie mac

No Hope or Change When it Comes to Fannie Mae

The Washington Post is reporting that President Obama has assigned his staff with the task of designing a new set of government guarantees behind the U.S. mortgage market. Although as the Post also reports the “approach could even preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” That’s correct. Despite their role in driving the housing bubble and the already $160 billion in taxpayer losses, President Obama appears to be considering just putting the same failed system in place. Of course, we’ll be promised that it will all work better this time.

Perhaps most offensive is that the Post reports that Obama “officials don’t want to punish the thousands of Fannie and Freddie employees who have specialized knowledge about the mortgage market.” Seriously? What about the many blameless employees of AIG, Lehman Brothers, or Bear Stearns? Or New Century for that matter. Did the janitors and receptionists at those firms really cause the crisis? The truth is that the employees of Fannie and Freddie have been lining their pockets at the expense of the taxpayer for years. What the Administration is really saying is that they wouldn’t want all the political operatives at these favored firms to lose their perks. After all, Obama officials will need somewhere to land after 2012 and Goldman Sachs has only so many slots.

What’s most depressing is that you can’t say Obama hasn’t been given the facts. As the Post makes clear, his economic advisers spelled out the case against massive subsidies for the mortgage market. Austan Goolsbee, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, points out: by subsidizing mortgage investments, the government drives capital away from other types of investments. If Obama truly wants to help the middle and working class, then he’d want capital to flow into investments that increase labor productivity, which is the ultimate source of wage growth.  Running up asset prices, like houses, does not make us wealthier in the long run.

But then what should I expect. The President has already entered campaign mode. It would be nice to see the economics win over the politics. But it looks like such a thing will have to wait for another administration.

Monday Links

  • Regulatory privilege is not consistent with competitive markets–that’s why Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need reform.
  • Thank goodness the U.S. Supreme Court found that education tax credits are not consistent with the fictitious notion of a “tax expenditure.”
  • President Obama’s budget plan is not consistent with either his own deficit commission’s plan or the Constitution.
  • The modern “Executive State” is not consistent with Article II of the Constitution.
  • Cyberbullying laws are not consistent with the First Amendment and our concept of free speech:


Fannie, Freddie: Late to the Party?

Debates over the causes of the financial crisis sometimes center on whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were “late to the party” in terms of subprime lending.  As it relates to the recent crisis, I address this question elsewhere

The GSEs and their apologists do claim to have been big contributors to one party: the expansion of homeownership in the United States.  Yet the facts suggest otherwise.

The chart below compares the GSE’s market-share, in terms of home mortgage lending (as reported in the Fed’s Flow of Funds data), with the national homeownership rate (as reported in the Decennial Census). 

The chart makes readily apparent that the largest increases in homeownership occurred before the GSEs played much of a role, if any, in the mortgage market.  For instance, by 1970, the homeownership rate had reached 62.3, yet the GSE market-share was just above 6%.  Even a decade after Fannie was “privatized,” the GSE market-share was still under 20%.

The real growth in GSE activity occurred during the 1980s, particularly the later half.  The reason?  The implosion of the savings and loan industry.  It seems we simply substituted several thousand mismanaged and under-capitalized thrifts for two large mismanaged and under-capitalized thrifts.  Interestingly enough, as the GSEs were doubling their market-share in the 1980s the homeownership rate actually fell.  By the time the GSEs had reached a market-share of 50%, the U.S. homeownership rate had already come close to the rate we see today, of 66%.

The data clearly show that we became a nation of homeowners with little assistance from Fannie and Freddie.  Not only did they join that party late, they simply took the place of the last group to ruin the party:  the S&Ls.

Wednesday Links

The Mortgage Industry-Government Revolving Door

The Washington Post is reporting that current Federal Housing Administration (FHA) head David Stevens, who only last week announced he was leaving FHA, is going to be the new head of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

When Stevens was first nominated to head FHA, I have to admit I was concerned.  FHA has a long history of prioritizing the interests of the mortgage industry over that of the taxpayer.  And here was a guy right out of the real estate industry (former Freddie Mac exec).  My expectations weren’t exactly high.  Maybe because of that, I’ve been largely impressed.  As FHA Commissioner, Stevens has taken eliminating fraud seriously, as well as avoiding a taxpayer bailout of FHA (so far).

All that said, it is hard to imagine that in under a week’s time, he interviewed with and was hired by the Mortgage Bankers Association.  So while there’s no evidence that he was looking at an MBA job while carrying out his duties running FHA, there is certainly the appearance of such.  The appropriate thing to do would be to leave FHA before getting a job with the very industry that FHA regulates and subsidizes.

Again I think Stevens has done a far better job at FHA than many of his predecessors, and I don’t believe he played a role in the financial crisis, but I do believe the cozy relationship between the mortgage industry and our federal government did play a huge role in the crisis.

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.