Tag: Housing

Uh-Oh: Bipartisan Housing Commission Announced

The words “bipartisan” and “commission” usually send a chill down my spine. I felt such a chill when I learned that the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) had formed a Housing Commission to “address the long-term challenges facing a struggling housing sector.” My initial reaction was confirmed when I read that it would be chaired by former government officials and politicians of the establishment type:

  • Christopher “Kit” Bond – former U.S. senator (R-MO)
  • Henry Cisneros – Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary under President Bill Clinton
  • Mel Martinez – former U.S. senator (R-FL) and HUD secretary under President George W. Bush
  • George Mitchell – former Senate majority leader (D-ME) and BPC co-founder

The most disturbing name is Henry Cisneros. Policies implemented by Cisneros’s HUD helped lead to the housing bubble and bust (see this section on Cisneros from a Cato essay on HUD Scandals). What’s next, Dick Cheney on a hunting safety commission?

Christopher “Kit” Bond, former appropriator and proud porker, hangs himself with his statement on the BPC’s website:

Since serving as Missouri’s Governor, and then as a United States Senator, I have worked to be an advocate for improving public housing and advancing community development. Some of my proudest achievements are helping shape housing policy and programs in homelessness, rural housing, public housing, HOPE VI, and affordable housing. None of these successes would have been possible without strong partners on the other side of the aisle.

In fact, my fellow Commission Co-Chair, and former HUD Secretary, Henry Cisneros and I, were referred to in a 1996 Wall Street Journal article as the ‘Odd Couple’ of federal housing policy – a moniker I still wear as a badge of honor. Though it was a different time in our nation’s history, Henry and I were then – as we are now – committed to coming together to address long-ignored problems with immense implications.

The federal government’s abysmal record on housing (see these Cato essays here for more) is a poster child for government failure. But not only does Bond consider his support for these programs to be among his “proudest” achievements, he actually states that collaborating with Cisneros back in the 1990s is a “badge of honor.”

I’m not sure what Mel Martinez has going for him on housing policy other than that his relatively short tenure as HUD secretary under Bush wasn’t marred by scandal like his successor’s, Alphonso Jackson. At least Martinez acknowledges that the Bush administration continued the Clinton administration’s misplaced emphasis on expanding homeownership.

As for George Mitchell, his claim to federal housing policy fame is that he authored the creation of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. Here’s what a Cato essay on public housing has to say about the LIHTC:

Another response to the failure of traditional public housing has been the creation of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in 1986, which currently subsidizes construction or rehabilitation of roughly 70,000 units of low-income housing each year. This is another failed attempt to manipulate markets, and it has a variety of negative effects. For one thing, the structure of the tax credit program encourages the location of projects in particularly low-income areas, thus exacerbating the concentration of poverty in cities, just as traditional public housing did. Also, the method of allocating tax credits to the states results in many subsidies going to areas of the country where few housing affordability problems exist.

Further, the projects built under the LIHTC program have income caps for tenants, which create the same disincentive effects for personal advancement that traditional welfare programs do. Finally, the program essentially functions as a subsidy program for developers. Economists Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko argue that developers effectively pocket the $4 billion or so in annual federal tax credits, while the rents in buildings constructed under the program are generally no lower than they would have been in the absence of the program.

In a nutshell: an establishment commission is planning to “reform the nation’s housing policy by crafting a package of realistic and actionable policy recommendations” for the Beltway establishment’s consideration. Hold onto your wallets, taxpayers.

Are We Building Enough Housing?

One of the primary reasons the labor market remains weak is that construction activity is relatively low, resulting in a reduced demand for construction workers.  My friends in the building industry argue that because housing starts are at historic lows, we are actually not building enough housing.  While I’m open to that as a possibility, and believe it to be the case in select markets, nationally the evidence suggests otherwise.

First of all, the monthly supply of new homes — that is the time that would be required to sell off the current inventory — is still relatively high at just under seven months, as shown in the following figure. Granted this is significantly below the 12 month peak we saw at the beginning of 2009. So without a doubt this number is moving in the right direction, but it still has a little ways to go. I will be far more optmistic about the housing market when we get to around five months’ new supply.

Second, if you compare sales to new housing starts*, which the next graph does, you see that we are back in the range of where these two numbers are largely in historical balance.  Sales are no longer working off the existing inventory, not like we were in 2009.  So while construction activity is low, it is still more than sufficient to meet current levels of demand.  The question for debate is, really, when will demand increase and how much will it increase?  Personally I have a hard time seeing a lot of the speculative demand for housing coming back soon, at least not without further large price declines.  In terms of additional demand coming from delayed household formations, I am confident that builders will be more than able to meet that demand when it comes back — but I also doubt that demand will be large enough to put 2 million unemployed construction workers back to work. 

*(Sales to starts generally falls far below 1.0 for a varietyof reasons, including that some starts do not ever reach completion, and that some are built by the owner and never sold.  It is extremely unusual to see that ratio surpass 1.0, as it did in 2009.)

Is Housing Holding Back Inflation?

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the consumer price index (CPI) numbers for April, which generally gives us the best picture of inflation.  The headline number is that between April 2010 and April 2011, consumer prices increased 3.2 percent, as measured by the CPI.  Obviously this is well above 2 percent, the number Ben Bernanke defines as “price stability.”  Setting aside the reasonableness of that definition, there is definitely some mild inflation in the economy.

Also of interest in the April numbers is that if you subtract housing, which makes up over 40% of the weight of the CPI, then prices increased 4.2 percent — twice Bernanke’s measure of stability.  What has always been problematic of the housing component is that its largest piece is an estimate of what owners would pay themselves if they rented their own residence.  This estimate makes up about a fourth of the CPI.  As the chart below demonstrates, for much of 2010, the direction in this number was actually negative, which held down CPI over the last year.  The current annualized figure for owner’s rent is 0.9 from April 2010 to April 2011.  Oddly enough, this is below the actual increase in rents, which was 1.3.  For most homeowners, the real cost of housing — their mortgage payment — has likely been flat, not decreasing.  So whatever benefit there has been to declining housing costs, most consumers are unlikely to feel any benefit from those declines, if they are actually real.

While the primary driver of CPI has been energy costs, food prices have also garnered considerable attention.  Excluding food from the CPI does not change the headline number, although this is due to the fact that the cost of eating out has been rising considerably slower than the cost of eating at home.  So as along as you’ve been eating out every night, you’ve apparently been fine.  This touches upon what is one of the less recognized features of current inflation trends:  the regressive nature of these prices increases.  If you rent, then you’ve seen costs increase more than if you own.  If you mostly eat at home, then you’ve seen prices increase more than if you dine out a lot.  If you have a lot of leisure time, the you’ve gained by the decrease in reaction prices.  While I don’t think one’s position on inflation should be driven purely by distributional concerns, the fact that working middle-income households have been hit harder by recent inflation trends than higher-income households should cut against the claims that inflation is somehow good for the poor or working class.

Do We Need China to Fund Our Mortgage Market?

Earlier this week I repeatedly heard the claim that if the federal government does not guarantee credit risk in the mortgage market, foreigners won’t buy U.S. mortgage-related debt.  Before we test whether that claim is true, let’s first determine just how important are foreign investors in the U.S. mortgage market.

For the most part, foreign investors do not hold U.S. mortgages directly, but either hold Fannie and Freddie debt and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) or hold private-label MBS.  As the private-label securities lack a government guarantee, we can ignore that segment of the market.  The chart below depicts the percentage share of foreign ownership of these securities in recent years:

The chart illustrates that, at times (particularly around the peak of the recent housing bubble), foreign investors have been large providers of capital to the GSEs.  In 2007, over 20% of GSE debt was held outside the United States, double the percentage from only a few years earlier.  The increase was driven almost exclusively by purchases by foreign governments (mostly central banks for the purpose of currency manipulation).  In 2007, this amounted to just over $1.5 trillion. 

However, if we went back and looked at a year prior to the super-heated housing market — say 2003 — then this total is about $650 billion.  Given that U.S. commercial banks now have about $1 trillion in cash sitting on their balance sheets, it appears that domestic sources could completely fund the U.S. mortgage market without any foreign funds.

But let’s say we want to keep the option of living beyond our means and have the rest of the world fund a large part of our mortgage market.  Would they?  Given that foreign investors currently hold over $5.4 trillion in U.S. corporate bonds and equities (not all guaranteed by the U.S. taxpayer), I think it’s fair to assume that these foreign investors have some appetite for U.S.  assets. 

Now does that mean foreigners would buy the debt of massively leveraged, mismanaged mortgage companies subject to constant political-cronyism, without some guarantee?  Probably not.  But then, it strikes me that a better way to attract foreign investment into the U.S. mortgage market is to deal with those issues, rather than paper over those problems with a taxpayer-funded guarantee. 

It is also worth noting that when we most needed foreign support for the U.S. mortgage market, in 2008, foreign investors were dumping Fannie and Freddie debt in significant amounts.  And obviously I think we’d prefer that the Chinese Central Bank stop using the purchase of Fannie and Freddie debt to depress the value of their own currency.

Another Day in the Life of the IRS

A previous post of mine at International Liberty addressed the debate over whether Republicans should trim the IRS’s budget. The following case study should convince everyone that the answer is a resounding yes.

First, some background from a Joe Nocera column in the New York Times. The federal government made a rather troubling decision a few years ago to investigate, prosecute, and ultimately imprison a random home-loan borrower named Charlie Engle for the crime of mortgage fraud.

Mr. Engle is far from blameless in this saga, but I noted in another post that it was rather odd that the government would target a nobody while letting all the big fish swim away. This episode certainly paints a picture of a government that has one set of rules for ordinary people, but an entirely different set of rules for the political elite and those who make big campaign contributions to that ruling class.

But I also noted that I’m not a lawyer or legal expert and was unsure about the degree to which the big players actually broke laws, or whether they simply made stupid business decisions (often encouraged by bad government policy).

The most upsetting part of the story, though, is how the government wound up targeting Mr. Engle. It turns out that an IRS agent, Robert Norlander, must have been competing for the IRS’s Bully-of-the-Year Award because here are some of the things he did:

  • Norlander decided to snoop into Engle’s affairs because he saw a film about him training for a marathon. In other words, there was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, nothing. Just the perverse decision of an IRS bully to go after someone.
  • Norlander admitted a pattern of thuggish behavior, stating that he will snoop into someone’s private life simply because that person drives an expensive car.
  • Norlander continued to investigate and persecute Engle, subjecting him to undercover surveillance, even though his tax returns showed no wrongdoing.
  • Norlander even engaged in “dumpster dives” to look for evidence of wrongdoing in Mr. Engle’s garbage. Keep in mind that there is no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, and Engle’s tax returns were legit.
  • Norlander used a sleazy KGB tactic by sending an attractive woman to flirt with Mr. Engle in hopes of getting him to somehow admit to a crime.
  • Norlander failed to find any evidence of a tax crime. He couldn’t even hit Engle with a money-laundering offense. But the undercover agent who was part of the “honey trap” was wearing a wire and supposedly got Engle to admit to mortgage fraud and Norlander used that extremely flimsy evidence to justify a Justice Department case against Engle.

In other words, this whole thing has a terrible stench. Assuming the details in the story are accurate, we have an IRS agent engaging in a random vendetta against someone, and then apparently justifying his jihad by figuring out how to nail the guy on a very weak charge of mortgage fraud. I would describe Norlander as a “rogue agent,” but apparently this behavior is business-as-usual at the IRS.

Here are the relevant passages from Nocera’s column:

Mr. Engle received $30,000 for his participation. The film, “Running the Sahara,” was released in the fall of 2008. Eventually, it caught the attention of Robert W. Nordlander, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service. As Mr. Nordlander later told the grand jury, “Being the special agent that I am, I was wondering, how does a guy train for this because most people have to work from nine to five and it’s very difficult to train for this part-time.” (He also told the grand jurors that sometimes, when he sees somebody driving a Ferrari, he’ll check to see if they make enough money to afford it. When I called Mr. Nordlander and others at the I.R.S. to ask whether this was an appropriate way to choose subjects for criminal tax investigations, my questions were met with a stone wall of silence.) Mr. Engle’s tax records showed that while his actual income was substantial, his taxable income was quite small, in part because he had a large tax-loss carry forward, due to a business deal he’d been involved in several years earlier. (Mr. Nordlander would later inform the grand jury only of his much lower taxable income, which made it seem more suspicious.) Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly. In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments. …Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire. …No tax charges were ever brought, even though that was Mr. Nordlander’s original rationale. Money laundering, the suspicion of which was needed to justify the undercover sting, was a nonissue as well. As for that “confession” to Ms. Burrows, take a closer look. It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.

Stories like this explain why I’m a libertarian.

As George Washington supposedly said, ”Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Unfortunately, thanks to bad laws and thuggish bureaucrats, government is definitely now our master and no longer just a servant. The IRS is a grim example of this phenomenon. President Obama, not surprisingly, wants to increase their budget.

Is Buying a House with Cash Bad?

The Washington Post reported today that the increase in January home sales was driven mainly by an increase in all-cash sales.  Whereas I would have thought increasing sales, especially driven by cash buyers, was a sign of market strength; the Post and the National Association of Realtors portrayed this as a bad thing.  NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun went so far as to call this portion of the market “unhealthy.”

Of course, what NAR and the rest of the real estate lobby were complaining about was that home sales and prices were not being driven by easy credit.  For the housing industry, it would seem that the “correct” house price is the price that is propped up by loose credit. 

Yun goes on to say that ”investors are taking the advantage of conditions to purchase undervalued homes.”  I used to work with Yun, he’s a smart guy, but I don’t think anyone is smart enough to say that the homes being sold are ”undervalued.”  Consider that most non-industry forecasters are projecting further price declines.

More cash sales actually means less future foreclosures, because the cash buyers start out with 100% equity from day one.  They are very unlikely to walk away, regardless of the future path of prices.  Cash buyers also pay prices that are closer to reflecting the fundamentals of supply and demand, which are ultimately driven by income and demographics. 

What the high percentage of cash borrowers, at 37 percent, says to me, is that there is a significant demand for housing that isn’t dependent upon massive taxpayer subsidies to the mortgage industry.

Five Lessons from Ireland

The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counter-productive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.