Tag: housing market

Ed DeMarco Deserves a Medal

The same people who helped create the $180 billion bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are now demanding the head of Ed DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Some commentators have gone as far to say that the “single largest obstacle to meaningful economic recovery is a man who most Americans have probably never heard of, Edward J. DeMarco.” Of course, such a statement shows a stunning lack of understanding of both the mortgage market and the economy in general.

Why are so many upset with Mr.DeMarco? One simple reason: he is following the law. Some believe that broadly writing down the mortgages of underwater borrowers would turn the economy around, regardless of the cost to the taxpayer. While that assumption itself is highly questionable, it doesn’t matter. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, the current statutory language governing FHFA limits Mr. Demarco from doing so. Yes, some proponents have found language elsewhere in the statute they believe allows sticking it to the taxpayer for another $100 billion. But their argument relies on general introductory sections of the statute, not the powers and duties of FHFA as a conservator. Statutory interpretation 101 is that more specific sections trump general introductory sections. General sections have “no power to give what the text of the statute takes away” (Demore v. Kim, 538 U.S. 510, 535). One would expect senior members of Congress to understand that.

Of course, if some members of Congress believe we should spend $100 billion bailing out deadbeats, then why don’t they simply offer a bill on the floors of the House and Senate doing so? I’m sure House leadership would be happy to have a vote on the issue. The notion, instead, that an unelected, un-appointed, acting agency head should, in the absence of clear authority to do so, spend $100 billion is simply offensive to our system of government. Not to mention it probably violates the Anti-Deficiency Act, and would be hence subject to criminal prosecution.

Unfortunately, one of the common themes of the financial crisis was outright unlawful behavior by the financial regulators, such as the FDIC broad guarantee of bank debt, which lacked any statutory basis. Mr. DeMarco is to be commended for staying within the letter of the law. If Congress had wanted Fannie and Freddie to bailout underwater borrowers, they could have simply written that into the statute. Congress didn’t, regardless of whatever spin any current members of Congress might want to place on the issue.

It Was those Bad Speculators That Drove the Housing Bubble….

A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York examines the role of speculators in driving the housing bubble. Setting aside the fact that almost everyone who bought a house was “speculating” to some degree, the researchers focus on those who were buying homes they did not intend to live in.

Some have already tried to paint this study as proving the government had little to do with the housing crisis. To their credit, the study’s authors do not go that far. Others, Mark Thoma for instance, show no such constraint:

“This is pretty far away from the (false) story that Republicans tell about the crisis being caused by the government forcing banks to make loans to unqualified borrowers.”

Of course, I’m sure that even Thoma knows that he’s set up a straw-man. Does anyone really believe that the Community Reinvestment Act and the Government Sponsored Enterprises housing goals were the only factors behind the crisis? Perhaps if the New York Fed really wanted to understand the crisis, it should look in the mirror.  It would seem reasonable to me that three years of a negative real federal funds rate might have had some impact on the housing market, particularly in encouraging speculators. After all, the Fed was basically paying people to take money.

None of this takes away from the role that Fannie and Freddie played in the housing market. For mortgages they purchased directly, Freddie’s investor share increased from three percent in 2003 to seven percent in 2007. And this ignores the massive volume of private label mortgage backed securities purchased by Fannie and Freddie. I think its reasonable to believe some of those were investor loans. In addition, the FBI has reported that the most frequent form of mortgage fraud has been borrowers stating the loan was for a primary residence when it was not.  But then it would be impolite of me to suggest we actually prosecute borrowers who committed fraud.

As I argued over two years ago, the relatively high percentage of foreclosures that are driven by pure speculators should make us question the many efforts to slow or stop the foreclosure process. If so many of these foreclosures are speculators, then why do we continue to protect them from losing the homes? They gambled, they lost. It’s time to move on and let the markets continue to adjust.

Now, one can continue to blame private sector actors for following the perverse incentives created by government. After all, the banks didn’t have to make the loans and the borrowers didn’t have to take the money. But it should be the primary objective of public policy to get the incentives correct. It should by now be crystal clear that all of the massive speculation in the housing market didn’t “just happen”—it was the result of massive government distortions in our housing and financial markets.


GSE Loan Limits Fell…and Home Sales Went Up

On October first, the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac maximum loan limit fell (from around $729,000 to $625,000). The Senate later voted to extend that limit until December 2013. Some House members, such as Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) warned that if the loan limits were not raised back to their previous levels, our housing market would “crater.” And of course the special interests in the real estate industry all but implied that if the taxpayer did not remain on the hook, then we’d all be living in caves before too long.

It was easy enough to make such outlandish statements in the absence of data. Now we have some data, and from of all people, the real estate industry. According to the National Association of Realtors (full disclosure: I worked there about 10 years ago):

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 1.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.97 million in October from a downwardly revised 4.90 million in September, and are 13.5 percent above the 4.38 million unit level in October 2010. [emphasis added]

You read that correctly. The loan limits fell and then home sales actually rose, which is the opposite of crater. I’m not claiming that the decline in loan limits caused home sales to increase, but I am claiming that the housing market did not crater, as was predicted.

Raising Interest Rates to Help the Housing Market

Last week I offered a few proposals to help move along the housing market. Given the need for brevity, the rationales for each were short. As almost all of them were counter to the conventional wisdom, they do merit a little more explaining, in particular the suggestion to raise interest rates.

Before I could offer a further discussion of the fact that the mortgage market is driven by both demand and supply, Daniel Indiviglio at the Atlantic was quick enough to provide much of that detail. Rather than repeat his analysis here, which I agree with, let’s focus on a few other points.

David argues that “at rates like 4 percent, those loans had better be pristine if the bank wants to ensure that its default risk is covered by the small amount of interest it receives.” Let’s dig a little deeper. What lenders care about are real rates. With inflation running approximately 2 percent, the real return on a prime mortgage today, before credit cost, is around 2 percent. But today about 3.5 percent of prime loans are in foreclosure. Assuming a 50 percent recovery rate, 1.75 percent is needed to cover credit losses. Even in good times, prime loans foreclosure at about a 0.6 percent rate. With subprime foreclosures running about 14 percent, you’d need to charge at least 9 percent to break-even in real terms. At today’s rates, lenders are barely breaking even on prime loans, they’d bleed money if they charge similar rates to subprime borrowers.

But then why don’t lenders just charge higher rates for the higher risk borrowers? After all that’s what they did during the bubble years.  Well a lot has changed since then. For instance, in 2008 the Federal Reserve, under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA), lowered the threshold for what is considered a “higher-cost” mortgage, from treasury +8 percent, which excluded much of the market, to prime mortgage +1.5 percent, which under current rates makes anything over 5.5 percent a “high cost” mortgage. When Congress passed HOEPA in 1994, it shut down that segment of the market, due to what is tremendous litigation risk. Now the Fed’s extension of HOEPA has done the same for much of the mortgage market. According to the Fed, 22 percent of the market was “higher-cost” in 2005. After the new regulation, that share had fallen to 2.4 percent in 2010. Yes the housing bubble and credit crisis would have shrunk that market, but by almost 90 percent? And yes, many of those loans we didn’t want to come back, but many we did.

The point here is that the Fed actually does impose, via legal risk, a de facto ceiling on mortgage rates. If we want to bring back housing/mortgage demand among higher risk borrowers, which were a significant source of demand, then the Fed would be wise to suspend its current HOEPA rules. If we don’t want to bring that demand back, then fine, just stop complaining about a weak housing market. As an aside, I was of the view in 2008 and still today that the Fed lacked legal authority for its 2008 HOEPA rule, but then the Fed has rarely let a lack of legal authority get in its way.

Random Thoughts on Obama’s New Mortgage Plan

In case you missed it, President Obama gave a big speech out in Las Vegas about both his “jobs” plan and a new plan to help underwater borrowers re-finance their mortgage. First, let’s recognize that it is not really “his” plan. The proposal is being issued by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), an independent regulator that the President is supposed to have no control over. Frankly, I find it troubling for a president to be so involved with an independent agency. If a president was out giving speeches when the Federal Reserve changed interest rates, we would all call that bizarre. It is no different here. As someone involved in drafting the law that created FHFA, I can say Congress considered, and rejected, the option of having this agency accountable to the president.

On to the substance. Perhaps most striking is that this plan does nothing for the housing market. Does it increase demand for housing? No. Does it reduce the supply of excess homes or help move the massive shadow inventory? Again, No. Does it even help those most in need? No. It is available only to those who have already had a mortgage for over two years, are current on their mortgage, and have missed no more than one payment per year. Basically helping only those that do not need any help.

The logic of the plan is that by reducing mortgage rates, you reduce monthly payments, which would increase consumer spending. The flaw in that logic is that while a mortgage is one person’s liability, it is another person’s asset. So you are simply making one party wealthier while making another poorer. It is not clear that the impact on aggregate spending should be anything other than zero.

Most troubling about the the plan, is that the program it is based upon, HARP, is likely illegal. Both the Fannie and Freddie charters require that if a loan is above 80 percent loan-to-value, it must have mortgage insurance. Yet the heart of HARP is a waiver of this requirement. Apparently FHFA claims these are not “new” loans, but just modifications. In that case why in the world would you modify a loan that is current and does not appear in any danger of default. Sadly one of the many things lost in the financial crisis is a basic respect for the rule of law. Our financial regulators have too often embraced a culture of lawlessness in name of saving our financial system (with little to show for it).

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.

The CAP-AEI Fannie Mae Food Fight

It’s probably never wise to inject oneself into the middle of a food fight, but since I think both sides actually have something right and something wrong, its been a worthwhile debate to follow.  That is the ongoing debate between Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute and David Min at the Center for American Progress (at least we can all agree we love America) on the role of Fannie Mae (and Freddie Mac) in the financial crisis.  If you can’t guess, Peter says Fannie/Freddie caused the crisis, David says they didn’t.

David makes an interesting point, one I’ve actually argued, in his latest retort.  That is, this wasn’t exclusively a housing crisis/bubble.  Other sectors, like commercial real estate, boomed and then went bust; other countries, with different housing policies, also had bubbles.  True from what I can tell.  I will also add that the U.S. office market actually peaked and fell before the housing market, so we can safely say there wasn’t contagion from housing to other parts of the real estate market. 

But the problem with this argument, at least for David, is that it undercuts the Dodd-Frank Act, which he has regularly defended.  The implicit premise of Dodd-Frank is that predatory mortgage lending caused the crisis, so now we need Elizabeth Warren to save us from evil lenders.  But how does predatory lending explain the office market bubble?  Do we really believe that deals between sophisticated parties, poured over by lawyers, were driven by predatory lending practices?  Do we also believe that other countries were also plagued by bad mortgage brokers?  Again, I think David is right about the problem being beyond housing, but he can’t have it both ways.

What is the common factor driving bubbles in commercial real estate, housing, and foreign real estate markets?  Maybe interest rates.  This was a credit bubble after all.  Especially since the Fed basically sets interest rate policy for the world.  It is hard for me to believe that three years (2002–2004) of a negative real federal funds rate isn’t going to end badly.  This is what I think Peter misses, the critical role of the Federal Reserve in helping blow the bubble.  But Dodd-Frank does nothing to change this. 

Now there are a ton of things I think both still miss.  We could argue all day about what a subprime mortgage is.  I think the definitions used by Wallison (and Pinto) are reasonable.  There is also a degree, a large one, to which David and Peter are just talking past each other.  For instance, there is something special about the U.S. housing market that transfers much of the risk to the taxpayer.  In contrast, the bust in the office market didn’t leave the taxpayer to pick up the tab.  That has to count for something, unless one just doesn’t care about the taxpayer. 

There are a few other issues that make Fannie/Freddie uniquely important in the crisis, but I lack the space to go into them here. Instead, I’ll wrap up by saying that their role in the overnight repurchase (re-po) market is under-appreciated and their ability to essentially neuter the Fed was critical in keeping the bubble going.  What’s for dessert?