Tag: households

Homeownership and Mortgage Debt

One of the rationales commonly given for massively subsidizing our mortgage market is that without such homeownership would be out of reach for many households.  Such a rationale implies that more debt should be associated with more homeownership.   (Let’s set aside the obvious, how are you actually an owner without any equity?)

But is that the case.  The chart below compares the homeownership rate with the average debt-to-value ratio of U.S. households.  (Data on debt-to-value is from the Fed’s Flow of Funds and homeownership is from the Census Bureau).

By 1960, the homeownership rate was already over 60%, yet debt-to-value was less than 30%, half of the current value.  Even in 1990, when homeownership reached over 64%, debt-to-value was still under 40%.  From 1990 until today, the percentage of mortgage debt to value increased by over 50%, all to gain a 2 percentage point increase in homeownership.  So it seems the story of the last 20 years has been a massive increase in home debt with very little increase in actual homeownership rates.  The converse should also hold:  reducing homeowner leverage should have little, if any, impact on homeownership rates.

Ask Consumers if They Like a Weak Dollar

According to a Washington Post story today, “the weak dollar is one problem the United States loves to have.” The story reports how the fall of the dollar against the euro and other currencies in the past year has boosted U.S. exports and discouraged imports, cutting the trade deficit and allegedly boosting the U.S. economy. A weaker dollar has spurred complaints in Europe and elsewhere, but here at home the Post story leaves the impression the approval is practically unanimous.

Nowhere in the 1,058-word story is the impact on consumers ever mentioned. But it is American consumers who pay the biggest price when the dollars we earn buy less on global markets. We are paying more for oil, which not coincidentally has zoomed toward $80 as the dollar flounders. A weaker dollar means higher prices than we would pay otherwise for a range of goods, from imported shoes and clothing to food, that loom large in the budgets of American families struggling to make ends meet in this difficult economy.

Ignoring consumer interests is widespread in reporting about trade. It reflects the strong bias of elected officials to see trade issues strictly through the lens of producers and never consumers. After all, it is producers who form trade groups and hire lobbyists to promote their exports or protect themselves from imports. Nobody in Washington represents the diffused, disorganized but much more numerous 100 million American households.

The dollar’s value should be set by markets, and I have no reason to believe the dollar is over- or undervalued. But pardon me if I dissent from the consensus that a falling dollar is unambiguously good news.

For Financial Stability, Fix the Tax Code

There seems to be near universal agreement that the excessive use of debt among both corporations, particularly banks, and households contributed to the severity of the financial crisis.  However, other than the occasional refrain that banks should hold more capital, there has been little discussion over why corporations choose to be so highly leveraged in the first place.  But then such a discussion might lead us to the all too obvious answer – the federal government, via the tax code, encourages, even heavily subsidizes corporate leverage.

Cato scholar and banking analyst Bert Ely has estimated that the subsides for debt have historically resulted in an after tax cost of debt of 3 to 5 percent, compared to an after tax cost of equity of 12 to 15 percent.  With differences of this magnitude, it should not be surprising that financial companies and corporations in general become highly leveraged.

For corporations, this massive difference in cost between debt and equity financing results primary from the ability to deduct interest expenses on debt, while punishing equity due to the double-taxation of dividends along with taxing capital gains. 

If we are going to use the tax code to subsidize debt and tax equity, we shouldn’t act surprised when firms load up on the debt and reduce their use of equity – making financial crises all too frequent and severe.

Administration Reform Plan Misses the Mark

The Obama Administration is presenting a misguided, ill-informed remake of our financial regulatory system that will likely increase the frequency and severity of future financial crises. While our financial system, particularly our mortgage finance system, is broken, the Obama plan ignores the real flaws in our current structure, instead focusing on convenient targets.

Shockingly, the Obama plan makes no mention of those institutions at the very heart of the mortgage market meltdown – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These two entities were the single largest source of liquidity for the subprime market during its height. In all likelihood, their ultimate cost to the taxpayer will exceed that of TARP, once TARP repayments have begun. Any reform plan that leaves out Fannie and Freddie does not merit being taken seriously.

Instead of addressing our destructive federal policies aimed at extending homeownership to households that cannot sustain it, the Obama plan calls for increased “consumer protections” in the mortgage industry. Sadly, the Administration misses the basic fact that the most important mortgage characteristic that is determinate of mortgage default is the borrower’s equity. However, such recognition would also require admitting that the government’s own programs, such as the Federal Housing Administration, have been at the forefront of pushing unsustainable mortgage lending.

While the Administration plan recognizes the failure of the credit rating agencies, it appears to misunderstand the source of that failure: the rating agencies’ government-created monopoly. Additional disclosure will not solve that problem. What is needed is an end to the exclusive government privileges that have been granted to the rating agencies. In addition, financial regulators should end the outsourcing of their own due diligence to the rating agencies.

The Administration’s inability to admit the failures of government regulation will only guarantee that the next failures will be even bigger than the current ones.

Not So Free Love in San Francisco

Yet again the city of San Francisco is demonstrating its “love” for humanity.  By threatening to fine them for getting their garbage wrong.

Reports MSNBC:

Trash collectors in San Francisco will soon be doing more than just gathering garbage: They’ll be keeping an eye out for people who toss food scraps out with their rubbish.

San Francisco this week passed a mandatory composting law that is believed to be the strictest such ordinance in the nation. Residents will be required to have three color-coded trash bins, including one for recycling, one for trash and a new one for compost — everything from banana peels to coffee grounds.

The law makes San Francisco the leader yet again in environmentally friendly measures, following up on other green initiatives such as banning plastic bags at supermarkets.

Food scraps sent to a landfill decompose fast and turn into methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. Under the new system, collected scraps will be turned into compost that helps area farms and vineyards flourish. The city eventually wants to eliminate waste at landfills by 2020.

Chris Peck, the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of an ordinance as tough as San Francisco’s. Many cities, including Pittsburgh and San Diego, require residents to recycle yard waste but not food scraps. Seattle requires households to put scraps in the compost bin or have a composting system, but those who don’t comply aren’t fined.

“The city has been progressive, and they’ve been leaders and it appears that they’re stepping out of the pack again,” he said.

San Francisco officials said they aren’t looking to punish violators harshly.

Waste collectors will not pick through anyone’s garbage, said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Sunset Scavenger Co., which handles the city’s recyclables. If the wrong kind of materials are noticed while a bin is being emptied, workers will leave what Reed called “a love note,” to let customers know they are not with the program.

“We’re not going to lock you up in jail if you don’t compost,” said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom who proposed the measure that passed Tuesday. “We’re going to make it as easy as possible for San Franciscans to learn how to compost.”

A moratorium on imposing fines will end in 2010, after which repeat offenders like individuals and small businesses generating less than a cubic yard of refuse a week face fines of up to $100.

Businesses that don’t provide the proper containers face a $500 fine.

Most everyone wants to be loved.  But this sort of government “love” we can all do without!

Senators Want to Delay Housing Recovery

As discussed in a recent Bloomberg piece, several U.S. senators from both parties are pushing to almost double the recently enacted $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers to $15,000. The same senators are also pushing to remove the current income restrictions — $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples — while also removing the first-time buyer requirement.

The intent of the increase, and the original credit, is to increase the demand for housing and to create a “bottom” to the housing market. The flaw of this approach is that it creates a false bottom, one characterized by government-inflated prices and not fundamentals. It was excessive government subsidies into housing that helped create the housing bubble, additional subsidies to re-inflate the bubble will only prolong the actual market adjustment.

If it were only a matter of prolonging the adjustment, then the huge cost of the tax credit might be easier to justify. Yet by encouraging increased housing production, the tax credit will increase supply when we already have a huge glut of housing. Despite housing starts being near 50-year lows, there is still too much construction going on. The way to spur demand in housing is the same way you spur demand in any market: you cut prices.

Removing the income limits makes clear the real intention of the tax credit, to help the wealthiest households. About three-fourths of existing families already fall under the income cap of $75,000. As we move up the income latter, home equity makes up a smaller percentage of one’s total wealth. The richest families can make do with a decline in their housing wealth and continue spending; they have other substantial sources of wealth. If we have learned anything from the housing boom and bust, it should be that continued government efforts to rearrange the housing market have been costly failures.