Tag: Housing

Obama’s Housing Speech: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Yesterday, President Obama went to what was perhaps ground-zero of the housing crisis: Phoenix. He laid out his vision for the role of housing in building a middle class, as well as his solutions for avoiding bubbles.    

On the rhetorical side, the president certainly laid out some principles that anyone would be hard-pressed to disagree with. For instance, he characterized the business mode of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as “heads we win, tails you lose”–which of course it was. The president was correct in calling it “wrong.”  If only then-Senator Obama had aided the efforts to reform Fannie and Freddie by Senator Richard Shelby and others, perhaps this mess could have been avoided. But, hey–better late than never.  

The president is also correct in highlighting the issue of local barriers that increase the cost of housing. Both Cato’s Randy O’Toole and I have written regularly on this topic. You don’t get bubbles without supply constraints. But then every president since Reagan, at least, has pointed to this problem and yet it has only gotten worse. If the president has a substantial plan to bring down regulatory barriers in places like California, then I would love to see it.

Perhaps most importantly, the president recognized that what we had was a housing bubble, and the solution isn’t to “just re-inflate” it. As the president urged, we must “turn the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality” behind the housing crisis. That was the good, and again I applaud the president for recognizing those facts.  

Unfortunately, what details we have of his vision are not exactly consistent with these facts–which are bad and ugly. The president wants “no more leaving taxpayers on the hook for irresponsibility or bad decisions,” but then he implies that government should continue to stand behind risk in the housing market. The primary purpose of FHA, which the president commends, is to allow lenders to pass along the costs of their mistakes to the taxpayer.  

Mr. President, there is only one way to take the taxpayer off the hook:  get the government out of the mortgage market.  Anything short of that will continue to undermine the incentive for lenders to make responsible loans.  

Immigrants Are Attracted to Jobs, Not Welfare

Unauthorized and low skilled immigrants are attracted to America’s labor markets, not the size of welfare benefits.  From 2003 through 2012, many unauthorized immigrants were attracted to work in the housing market.  Housing starts demanded a large number of workers fill those jobs.  As many as 27 percent of them were unauthorized immigrants in some states.  Additionally, jobs that indirectly supported the construction of new houses also attracted many lower skilled immigrant workers.

Apprehensions of illegal crossers on the Southwest border (SWB) is a good indication of the size of the unauthorized immigrant flow into the United States.  The chart below shows apprehensions on the SWB and housing starts in each quarter:

 

Fewer housing starts create fewer construction jobs that attract fewer crossings and, therefore, fewer SWB apprehensions.  The correlation holds before and after the mid-2006 housing collapse. 

What about welfare? 

Here is a chart of the national real average TANF benefit level per family of three from 2003 to 2011 (2012 data is unavailable) and SWB apprehensions:

 

Prior to mid-2006, TANF benefit levels fell while unauthorized immigration rose.  During the housing construction boom, unauthorized immigrants were attracted by jobs and not declining TANF benefits.  After mid-2006, when housing starts began falling dramatically, real TANF benefit levels and unauthorized immigration both fell at the same time.  If unauthorized immigration was primarily incentivized by the real value of welfare benefits, it would have fallen continuously since 2003.   

The above chart does not capture the full size of welfare benefits or how rapidly other welfare programs increased beginning in 2008.  As economist Casey Mulligan explained in his book The Redistribution Recession, unemployment insurance, food stamps (SNAP), and Medicaid benefits increased in value and duration beginning in mid-2008.  Including those would skew welfare benefits upward in 2008 and beyond, but unauthorized immigration inflows still fell during that time.

In conclusion, housing starts incentivize unauthorized immigration while TANF does not. 

Yes, Land-Use Regulation Does Increase Income Inequality

Harvard economists have proven one of the major theses of American Nightmare, which is that land-use regulation is a major cause of growing income inequality in the United States. By restricting labor mobility, the economists say, such regulation has played a “central role” in income disparities.

When measured on a state-by-state basis, American income inequality declined at a steady rate of 1.8 percent per year from 1880 to 1980. The slowing and reversal of this long-term trend after 1980 is startling. Not by coincidence, the states with the strongest land-use regulations–those on the Pacific Coast and in New England–began such regulation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Forty to 75 percent of the decline in inequality before 1880, the Harvard economists say, was due to migration of workers from low-income states to high-income states. The freedom to easily move faded after 1980 as many of the highest-income states used land-use regulation to make housing unaffordable to low-income workers. Average incomes in those states grew, leading them to congratulate themselves for attracting high-paid workers when what they were really doing is driving out low- and (in California, at least) middle-income workers.

As Virginia Postrel puts it, “the best-educated, most-affluent, most politically influential Americans like th[e] result” of economic segregation, because it “keeps out fat people with bad taste.” Postrel refers to these well-educated people as “elites,” but I simply call them “middle class.”

Middle class doesn’t mean middle income; it means people with managerial, creative, or other jobs that require thinking, not repetitive or physical labor. As a proxy, I use college education: less than 30 percent of working-age Americans have a bachelor’s degree or better. Though some people with college degrees flip burgers just as some without such degrees gained enough knowledge on the job to be promoted into management, it seems likely that about 30 percent of the population are middle- or upper-class while 70 percent are working- or lower-class.

Census data show that, in the late 1970s, the average worker with a high school diploma but no college education earned more than 64 percent as much as the average worker with a bachelor’s degree. By 2010, it was less than 53 percent.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the barrier between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is far more porous than the one between middle class and working class. The rising cost of higher education and the high cost of moving into regions with land-use regulation prevent less-educated people from bettering themselves. Increased regulation of commercial operations limit people’s ability to start small businesses. Increased traffic congestion (favored by “progressive” anti-auto cities) also hits working-class people harder than middle-class workers as the former are less likely to be able to take advantage of flex-time, telecommuting, and other ways of avoiding congestion.

Britain, which has regulated land use since 1947, is suffering many of the same problems. As the Telegraph reports, this regulation has divided “the nation between old and young, haves and have-nots.”

Of course, many urban planners still refuse to believe that land-use regulation makes housing expensive. Never mind the fact that economists at Harvard, Whartons, and a wide range of other universities agree that it does. Let’s just ignore the fact that such regulation is destroying our economy and oppressing low-income families. All that is important is that the middle-class elites who benefit are happy.

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.