Tag: house prices

Now Is the Time to End the Mortgage Interest Deduction

If there is one, almost universal, point of agreement on drivers of the financial crisis, it is that our financial system simply had way too much leverage.  Much of that discussion has focused on financial institutions, leading many to suggest increased capital standards, so that banks have more equity and less debt.  Often lost in the mix is the excessive leverage on the part of home owners.

We know, for instance, that the number one predictor of mortgage default is whether the borrower has equity or not.  And while that should lead us to debate appropriate downpayment requirements, at least when the government backs the mortgage, we should not forget that our tax code encourages excessive leverage on the part of home buyers.  And there’s no bigger incentive to get a bigger mortgage than the mortgage interest deduction.

Some might say we can’t risk removing any props from the housing market.  My friends at the National Association of Realtors, for instance, have in the past argued that full removal would decrease home prices by up to 15 percent.  Such an estimate depends on the level of interest rates (the higher are mortgage rates, the higher the value of the deduction and the greater the impact on house prices).  With the current low level of mortgage rates, the negative price impact should be around 5 percent.

Given the already close to 30% national decline in prices, a further 5% would be less noticeable now than at a time when prices start to rise again.  In addition, a 5% decline would attract more buyers into the market.  Housing is just like any other good – when there’s too much, the best way to clear the market, perhaps the only way, is to drop prices.  Getting rid of the deduction would make housing all the more affordable.  And given current low mortgage rates,there would be far less distortions to do so now.  Of course, all of this should be done in a budget neutral manner, lowering marginal tax rates across the board, which would have its own benefits to the economy.

A Double Dip for Housing?

Washington is fretting this week over news that mortgage applications fell dramatically in November. Coupled with earlier indications of renewed softening in the housing market, there is growing fear that housing is headed for a “double-dip downturn” that could further damage the economy. As a result, Federal Reserve policymakers are considering additional stimulus, while the National Association of Realtors is suggesting an(other) extension of the “temporary” homebuyer tax credit.

Remarkably, neither policymakers nor the media are asking the obvious question: Given all of the emergency interventions in housing that government has undertaken, and the fact that the housing market continues to erode, do such interventions do much good?

Since the bursting of the bubble in 2006, the great unknown has been whether housing prices will revert to their historical trend (and possibly to below trend for a short period), or stabilize at some permanently higher level because a portion of the bubble (aided perhaps by public policy) would prove enduring. There is good reason to expect reversion to trend, but the economy can surprise us.

Let’s use an example to understand this better. The graph below depicts the course of house prices for my hometown of Hagerstown, MD, an area within commuting range of suburban DC that was hit particularly hard by the bubble and its deflation. The black line is a house price index computed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency for 1989–2009. The red line is an extended linear trendline drawn using index data from the period 1989–2002. (You can do the same analysis for your area using these FHFA data.) The question, then, is whether house prices will fall all the way back to the trendline or will stabilize at a level above the trendline. 

Figure

The sharp downward slope at the end of the price line and  the latest housing news suggest that Hagerstown is destined to revert to trend (perhaps after a period below trend). I’ve drawn similar figures for several other locations and they show similar patterns. It looks like the nation’s housing markets, for the most part, are reverting to trend.

When this crisis first began in 2007, Bush administration officials vowed to “stabilize house prices at the highest possible level.” However, despite their efforts and those of the Obama administration, Congress, and the Fed,  reversion to trend appears inevitable. At best, those efforts may have slowed the reversion — in which case, I suppose the Bush goal has been met.

It can be argued that a gentler reversion to trend may be more tolerable than a sharp return. On the other hand, there are fears that a lengthy softening of the housing market will lead to more defaults, less worker mobility, continued weak consumption, and a long period of high unemployment and stagnant wages for those who are working. Perhaps a sharp return would be the quickest way to shed the ill effects of the bubble.

This leaves us with a final question that policymakers, the media, and the public should be grappling with: If all of these emergency housing interventions only result in a slower reversion to trend, then is that benefit worth the cost?

Does the Left Know We Had a Housing Bubble?

Over the last week, speaking at a variety of events, I heard three different representatives of the Left; first a Democrat US Senator, then a senior member of the Obama Administration, and finally a “consumer” advocate, all repeat the same narrative:  all was fine in the housing market until predatory lenders forced hard-working honest families into foreclosure, which reduced house prices, bringing the economy to a crash.  That’s correct, apparently the Left believes we all would still be seeing double-digit home price appreciation if it wasn’t for those evil lenders.

Undoubtedly foreclosures, especially those that result in houses that remain vacant for a considerable amount of time, have an adverse impact on surrounding property values.  Many constitute a serious eye-sore and provide a haven for criminal activity.  But did foreclosures really drive down prices, or were foreclosures first driven by price declines resulting from a bursting housing bubble?  While causality is always difficult to establish with certainty, we do know that the rate of house price appreciation peaked and started declining about 18 months before the dramatic up-turn in mortgage delinquencies.  If one prefers a more rigorous test, economists at the Boston Fed have directly tested if prices first drove foreclosures or whether foreclosures drove prices.  Their results conclude that its was declining prices that matter, and that the price effect of foreclosures is minimal.

Why does any of this ultimately matter?  Because if we craft policies to avoid the adverse impacts of the next property bubble based upon a narrative of “consumer protection” – as is being pushed by the Obama Administration, we will do little to avoid the creation of the next housing bubble and its damaging aftermath.  Instead we should be focusing attention on those policies that contributed to the creation of the housing bubble: expansionary monetary policy and the Federal government’s blind pursuit of ever-expanding home-ownership rates at any cost.

Bernanke’s Part in the Housing Bubble

bernankeRecent weeks have seen a swirl of speculation over whether President Obama will or will not re-appoint Ben Bernanke to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board, when his current term as Chair expires in January 2010. Almost all of the debate has centered on his actions as Chairman. This narrow focus misses an important piece: his actions, and words, as a Fed governor during the build-up of the housing bubble.

What should have been Bernanke’s greatest strength as a Fed governor and later chair, his understanding of monetary theory and his knowledge of the Great Depression, has ended up being a weakness. While correct in his analysis of the role of “debt deflation” – where the deflation increases the real burden of debts and correspondingly weakens the balance sheet of both households and businesses – in the deepening of the Great Depression; his obsession with slaying the Great White Whale of Deflation provided intellectual cover for the Fed’s ignoring and contributing to the housing bubble. Like the proverbial general, he was fighting yesterday’s battle, rather than today’s.

While core inflation was moderate and increasing at a decreasing rate between 2001 and 2005, this measure ignores the dramatic up-tick in house prices during those years. First, housing makes up the single largest expense for most households, ignoring housing, especially after one subtracts out energy and food from the definition of inflation, gives a narrow and distorted picture of inflation. Even if one were to focus solely on rents, the 2000s were an era of increasing housing costs.

Separate from the impact of housing prices on inflation is the role which housing plays as the collateral for the primary piece of household debt: a mortgage. Even were the US to suffer a bout of mild deflation and the real burden of their mortgages increased, this would likely have little impact on household balance sheets in an environment of increasing home prices.

Admittedly Bernanke was then only a “governor” and not yet Chair of the Fed, but he was the Fed’s loudest voice when it came to combating deflation and arguing for lower rates. Additionally there have been zero public acknowledgements by either Bernanke or the Fed that its policy earlier this decade contributed to the housing bubble and financial crisis. Without admitting to the occasional mistake, we have no way of judging whether Bernanke has learned from any of his mistakes, and hence less likely to repeat them.

In weighing Bernanke’s record at the Fed, judgement should not solely consider his actions as Chair, but also consider his words and deeds while the housing bubble was inflating. How one responds to a impending disaster is as important as to how one helps to clean up after the disaster has struck.