Tag: mortgage market

Getting Our Money Back from Fannie and Freddie

Yesterday in the New York Times, Josh Rosner, co-author of Reckless Endangerment, asked one of the questions that almost everyone in Washington is avoiding: how do the taxpayers get back their money, currently about $180 billion (including dividends), from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Obviously Democrats do not want to be reminded that their social engineering of the mortgage market has been a disaster, but why have Republicans been quiet?

I suspect many Republicans, at least those not closely aligned with the real estate industry, are torn between wanting to immediately get rid of Fannie and Freddie and getting the taxpayers’ money back.  A common attitude in Washington also appears to be that the money put into Fannie/Freddie is gone, sunk, and will never be returned. I’m not so willing to just give up, on either getting rid of them or getting our money back.

First, let’s accept that any wind-down would likely take a few years, say six or so. So I would suggest we immediately take Fannie and Freddie into receivership. Impose any future losses on creditors, but also continue to run the companies. And continue to buy and package mortgages during the receivership. This would minimize disruptions to the housing and mortgage market.

Instead of simply running the companies, business as usual, levy a surcharge on all their purchases and use that surcharge to pay back the taxpayer. Fannie and Freddie, combined, will likely purchase about a $1 trillion annually in mortgages over the next few years. Assuming a six year wind-down, that’s $6 trillion. A 2 percent surcharge gets back most of the bailout. That’s also high enough to encourage private money to come into the mortgage market and compete with Fannie and Freddie. If my Realtor friends feel this is a ”tax on home-ownership” then they are free to drop their commissions by 2 percent, leaving buyers no worse off. Even better, they can encourage buyers to use a non-government mortgage.

Any forecast of housing activity is going to have some error. So the numbers above are likely off, in one direction or another. The point is a surcharge on the purchases made by these Government-Sponsored Enterprises can kill two birds with one stone: getting the taxpayers’ money back and reducing the GSEs’ footprint in the mortgage market.

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.

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.

Advocates Complain Banks Not Putting FHA at Enough Risk

A constant narrative of the financial crisis is that banks out-smarted the government by taking excessive risks, and that if only we had empowered regulators, the whole crisis would have been avoided.  The truth, however, is that government was often the driver of excessive risk-taking, and nowhere is that more true than in the mortgage market.

One of the worst offenders has been the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).  Even today, one can get an FHA backed loan with only a 3.5% downpayment.  After the financing of seller concessions, the borrower can leave the closing table with zero, or even negative, equity.  FHA will even offer these low equity loans to subprime borrowers, those with the worst credit history.  If there’s anything to be learned from the financial crisis, combining high risk borrowers with low downpayment loans is asking for default.

Despite FHA’s loose standards, several lenders have responsibly chosen to impose higher underwriting standards than FHA.  Sadly instead of being praised for being slightly more responsible than FHA, these lenders are being attacked by so-called consumer advocates for not taking enough risk.

The Washington Post reports that a coalition of advocates is planning to file complaints against lenders who have higher standards than FHA, claiming that higher standards discriminate against minorities, since minorities on average have lower credit scores.  It seems some have learned nothing, continuing to push the very same policies that contributed to the crisis.  If anything, FHA should start moving in the direction of the more responsible lenders and improve its woefully weak underwriting standards.  Congress should also move in the direction of requiring meaningful downpayments on FHA loans, as well as shifting some of the credit risk back to the lender.