Tag: freddie mac

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 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.

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.

Banks Are Lending, but to Whom?

A recurring concern we have heard since the financial crisis erupted is that banks are simply not lending, and that this is holding back economic activity.  If only banks would lend, the economy would grow.  As usual, the truth is a little more complex. 

Unlike in the Great Depression, and despite about 300 bank failures, the balance sheets and deposits of insured commercial banks and thrifts has been steady, if slowly, expanding throughout the financial crisis and recess.  Banks have continued lending during this time; however, they have changed who they are lending to.  Over the last two years we have witnessed a massive shift from lending to the private sector to lending to the public.

The chart below shows banking business lending and bank holdings of U.S. government securities.   The chart suggests that the approximately $500 billion increase in bank lending to Uncle Sam came at the expense of a $400 billion decline in lending to private business.  If one assumes that bank balance sheets have either been stable or increased slightly, then a loan to the government must off-set a loan otherwise made somewhere else.

While its hard to exactly measure the job impact of this reduced business lending, some estimates have been made on the impact of SBA lending.  According to one study, every $41,600 in new small business loans is associated with 1 new job created.   While this number should be taken with a grain of salt, it implies that the $400 billion reduction in business lending has cost over 9 million jobs.  Of course, one might argue that the half-trillion in lending to the govt has created or “saved” some jobs.  Accepting the difficulty of coming up with a reliable estimate, I think its fair to say that on net a few million jobs have been lost due to this shift of lending from the private to the public sector.

Also of interest is that since the financial crisis, and despite the failures of Fannie and Freddie, commercial banks and thrifts have increased their holdings of Fannie/Freddie/Ginnie securities by over $300 billion.

Textbook economics usually teaches that government crowding out of private investment only really occurs when we are near full-employment.  Yet looking at the balance sheets of our commercial banks and thrifts, would suggest that U.S. Treasuries and Agency securities have crowded out significant lending that would otherwise go to the private sector.   But this should come as no surprise, since banks can borrow for close to zero and invest risk-free in government debt, earning a nice spread of 3 to 4 percentage points.

ARMs as Automatic Stabilizers

An argument often heard for keeping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or some sort of subsidy for mortgages, is the desire to keep the 30 year fixed rate mortgage “affordable.” The 30 year fixed certainly has some merits - which borrowers should be willing to pay for - but it also has the downside of reducing the impact of monetary policy in stabilizing the economy.

Generally interest rates go down in a recession and up in an expansion.  Part of this is the reaction of the Federal Reserve, which tends to cut rates in a recession, but part is also the fact that the demand for credit also declines in a recession and increases in an expansion.

If borrowers moved to adjustable rate mortgages, then in recessions they would likely see a reduction in their mortgage rate, resulting in a reduction in their monthly payment, which would increase their disposable income, which itself should have some positive impact on consumption, helping to stabilize a weak economy.

The reverse would work in an expansion.  If the economy became over-heated, interest rates would likely go up, pushing up monthly payments, resulting in reductions in income and consumption.  While of course this would be unpleasant for the borrower, it would have the benefit of moderating a booming economy, reducing the likelihood of inflation and the occurrence of bubbles.

The latter effect would also increase the degree to which consumers care about inflation and demand price stability from the central bank.  Normally, borrowers have an incentive to favor inflation, as it reduces the real value of their debt.  If however, inflation resulted in an increase in their mortgage rate, their preference could switch toward price stability, which would in the long run be better for growth and the overall economy.

While I do not expect the above to settle the debate over the role of the 30 year fixed rate mortgage, we, as a society, should openly and loudly debate its costs and benefits before we simply assume it needs to be subsidized.