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.
The Federal Housing Administration is heading toward a taxpayer bailout, yet the president’s latest mortgage modification plan would further increase the agency’s exposure to risky mortgages. Mark Calabria calls it a “Backdoor Bank Bailout.”
The administration’s plan would encourage borrowers who owe more than their house is worth to refinance into FHA-insured mortgages. Therefore, the risk of a future foreclosure on these mortgages would fall to the government and taxpayers instead of private lenders.
A recent study from economists at New York University found that the FHA is underestimating its risk exposure. One of the problems is that the FHA isn’t properly accounting for the risk to underwater FHA mortgages that have been refinanced into new FHA mortgages. So it’s hard to see how the president’s plan to refinance private underwater mortgages into FHA mortgages won’t further exacerbate the situation.
To get these mortgages in better shape so the FHA can insure them, $14 billion in TARP money is going to be used to pay private lenders to reduce the amount borrowers owe on their mortgages. Some of this money will also be used to cover eventual losses on these loans. As a taxpayer whose mortgage is underwater, and who would rather go bankrupt than accept a government handout, I find it infuriating that my tax dollars are being used to bail out others in a similar situation.
But with government housing programs, it’s standard practice for officials to cannonball into the pool and worry about who gets splashed by the water later. On Sunday, CNN.com reported on “FHA’s Florida Fiasco,” where the collapse of the heavily FHA-insured condo market has contributed to the possibility of a FHA bailout. The FHA has now tightened its condo standards, but once again it’s a day late and possibly more than few bucks short.
The new FHA initiative is the latest in a series of efforts to “stabilize” the housing market with more subsidies. Policymakers seem oblivious that it was government interventions that helped instigate the housing meltdown to begin with. The housing market would stabilize itself if the supply of and demand for housing was allowed to be brought back into equilibrium. There would be pain in the short-term, but in the long-term we would have a smoother functioning housing market. Unfortunately, for politicians the long-term means the next election.
As the Federal Housing Administration edges closer to a taxpayer bailout due to the large number of risky mortgage loans it has insured, it continues to insist that no such bailout will be required. However, a new study from a group of economists at New York University finds that the FHA’s assurances might not be based in reality.
According to the study, the actuarial analysis FHA used to determine it won’t need a bailout seriously understates its exposure to risk:
- More FHA mortgages are underwater than the FHA’s analysis identifies, and unemployment is naturally particularly high in areas where FHA borrowers are furthest underwater. Therefore, potential default costs are underestimated.
- FHA’s analysis relies on house values that are inaccurate. Overvalued houses means the FHA could end up recouping less than expected on defaults.
- Underwater FHA mortgages that were “streamlined” into new FHA mortgages are not properly accounted for, which further underestimates risk.
- The FHA got clobbered on a previous no-downpayment assistance program. However, the current homebuyer tax credit can effectively eliminate downpayments on FHA loans, but its analysis doesn’t take this into consideration.
One of the study’s authors, Prof. Andrew Caplin, writes the following on his website:
Rather than looking to structure the markets of the future, they [policymakers] have stumbled along in business as usual mode, waiting for kind fate to save them. It may. Then again, it may not. Either way, this is not a good way to run a business, or a government for that matter.
How does he see this story playing out?
My best guess is that it will end with a crash in the housing finance sector, with the federal government forced by popular revulsion at mushrooming losses to remove itself almost entirely from the housing finance equation. The Resolution Trust Corporation will look like an amateur warm-up act…
The bottom line is simple. The continuation of “business as usual” is re-creating the essential problem that made the sub-prime crisis so disastrous. Once again, taxpayers have been forced to subsidize the private purchase of massive amounts of residential housing, and to offer guarantees against future losses, without any effort to reduce costs should their funding help turn some markets around. Warren Buffett made huge profits for his shareholders by investing in under-valued assets. By contrast, our leaders are making massive losses for taxpayers by investing in over-valued assets.
See this essay for more on the problems with housing finance and government intervention.
My house has been on the market for a month and it has drawn a lot more looks than I expected. I’ve been quizzing realtors as they come through, and each one tells me the same story: the government is single-handedly propping up the demand for housing. In addition to the homebuyer tax credit and government-induced low mortgage interest rates, most sales are being done with Federal Housing Administration backing.
As a seller, I’m looking to get out before the tax credit expires and interest rates starting ticking upward. But when I do sell, I certainly won’t be looking to buy a house, particularly since I’ll be selling at a loss. If my situation is representative of other current sellers, the housing market could be in for another tumble if the government crutches are removed. However, if the government instead continues trying to prop up the housing market, the risk that taxpayers will take another bath goes up. It’s a nasty Catch-22 that demonstrates the problems with the government distorting the housing market to begin with.
A recent New York Times article looked at the housing market in the “beleaguered” manufacturing city of Elkhart, Indiana, which has twice served as a prop for President Obama. The Times says Elkhart “symbolizes the failure of federal efforts to turn around the housing slump at the heart of the economic crisis” and that “[h]ousing in this community has become almost entirely dependent on a string of federal support programs.”
The situation in Elkhart described by the Times matches perfectly with what realtors are telling me:
To the extent that the real estate market is functioning at all, people here say, it is doing so only because of the emergency programs, which have pushed down interest rates on mortgages and offered buyers a substantial tax credit. Equally important is an expanded mortgage insurance program run by the Federal Housing Administration, which encourages private lenders to accept borrowers with small down payments. The government takes the risk of default.
The one problem with the Times piece is that it doesn’t completely connect the dots. Namely, the problem the government is trying to solve is a problem that its housing policies instigated: the housing boom and bust. For instance, the article cites a good example of government policies mimicking the irresponsible lending that helped create this mess in the first place:
The programs favor first-time buyers, who have the fewest resources to bring to a deal. Heather Stevens, a 23-year-old nurse here, is closing on a three-bedroom house this week. Since her loan was insured by the Federal Housing Administration, she had to put down only 3.5 percent of the $74,900 purchase price.
“It was a breeze to get approved,” she said.
The sellers are covering her closing costs, which agents say is often the case here. That meant Ms. Stevens had to come up with only the $2,600 down payment, which still took all her savings.
But the best part is the $7,500 tax credit. She will use that to remodel the kitchen. “If it wasn’t for the credit, we would have waited to buy,” said Ms. Stevens, who is getting married this year.
Buying houses with no money down was a feature of the latter stages of the housing bubble. It gave prices a final push into the stratosphere. But buyers with no equity were the first to abandon their properties as the market turned south.
But there’s no mention of the role Fannie and Freddie, HUD, or the FHA played in fostering that bubble.
The article continues:
With housing prices stagnant, bolstering the market by again letting people buy with hardly any money down is viewed in some quarters as a bad bet.
Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, wrote in his most recent report to Congress that “the federal government’s concerted efforts to support” housing prices “risk reinflating” the bubble.
He noted one difference from the last bubble: taxpayers, rather than banks, are now directly at risk in these new mortgages.
I would argue that the mere existence of TARP is proof that taxpayers were directly at risk to begin with. The risk may be more explicit now, but that’s only because the bubble’s bursting washed away a lot of the private sector’s bad actors. But the ultimate bad actor, Uncle Sam, who encouraged the private sector’s risky lending activities, has stepped in to fill the void. Just how badly this turns out for taxpayers remains to be seen.
Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:
- Will Obama's deficits turn out to be as low-balled as Bush's?
- Obama blames Bush for his problems, but his new budget is worse.
- Obama's budget would kill the Constellation program, but his budget still goes to the moon.
- The Federal Housing Administration bailout watch continues.
- There's nothing "fiscally responsible" about Sen. Kent Conrad.
- The government is creating jobs — federal government jobs.
The Federal Housing Administration will reportedly announce more stringent lending requirements and higher borrowing fees. The move comes in response to growing concerns that rising losses on mortgages it insures will require a taxpayer bailout. Although any credit tightening is welcome, the agency will not propose an increase in the minimum downpayment, currently 3.5 percent. (Borrowers with credit scores below 580 will be required to put down a minimum of 10 percent, but most FHA lenders already require a 620 minimum score.)
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal noted that “home builders are worried” the FHA would propose raising the minimum downpayment. The CEO of a Texas builder said it would be a “game changer,” meaning that it would hinder the nascent housing recovery. However, other industry observers believe otherwise:
In markets where home values are still falling, buyers who put little money down could see their equity wiped out quickly. The FHA is "just manufacturing more upside-down homeowners by the truckload in Arizona, California, and Nevada," says Brett Barry, a Phoenix real-estate agent who specializes in selling foreclosed homes.
FHA commissioner David Stevens counters that inhibiting lending by increasing downpayment requirements would “perpetuate” price declines. But falling prices are a painful, but necessary, correction needed to bring the housing market back into equilibrium. Government interventions in the wake of the housing bubble’s burst have created an artificial cushion. Thus, any alleged housing recovery could prove illusory when the cushion is removed. In addition, the longer the government tries to prop up the housing market, the greater the economic distortions and risk to taxpayers.
The article cites the example of a 42-year-old air-conditioning repairman who just bought a house with the FHA minimum 3.5 percent downpayment. To meet the requirement he had to borrow part of the money from his father-in-law, which he then repaid with the $8,000 first time homebuyer tax credit. He now has a $1,466 monthly mortgage payment on a $50,000 salary. Factoring in utilities and other homeownership costs, it’s not inconceivable that half of his pre-tax salary will be devoted to just his home. Is it any wonder the FHA is experiencing large default rates?
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan recently gave a speech in New York in which he spoke of a “new direction in housing.” If there’s one constant with cabinet secretaries, it’s that they all promise that their department will be new and improved. The following are a few of Donovan’s lines that deserve comment.
The Federal Housing Administration is providing another critical bridge to economic stability…And with nearly half of first-time buyers using FHA loans, it is clear that the FHA has been central to recovery.
Thanks to his predecessor, Alphonso Jackson, who was “absolutely emphatic about winning back our share of the market,” the FHA’s willingness to pick up the subprime lending slack when the housing bubble burst has opened the door for a potentially huge taxpayer bailout. In fact, the government hasn’t just come to dominate the housing finance market -- it practically is the housing finance market. Thus, there are plenty of doubts as to whether the housing “recovery” Donovan speaks of is sustainable without the government crutch.
In crisis comes enormous opportunity for change -- as Rahm Emanuel says, ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’ Ensuring we don’t starts with getting the government back into the business of building and preserving affordable housing. Homeownership is incredibly important. But if this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that it is long past time we had a balanced, comprehensive national housing policy – one that supports homeownership, but also provides affordable rental opportunities, and ensures nobody falls through the cracks.
Like his boss, Donovan’s use of the word “change” is just a euphemism for bigger government. His contention that the government needs to get “back” into affordable housing is laughable. When did it leave?
This crisis has illustrated that only the Federal government has the scale and mechanisms to deal effectively with some of the forces that caused it.
It was the federal government’s “scale and mechanisms” that helped cause the crisis! Only powerful institutions with national “scale” such as the Federal Reserve, Fannie and Freddie, and HUD had the power and potential to create such a nation-wide bubble, bust, and recession. Donovan wants the arsonist to put out the fire.
The Federal government can be a key partner in helping communities foster the kinds of synergies between housing, education, public safety, and health you’ve helped nurture at the neighborhood level.
Words like “synergy”, “nurture”, and “foster” are vacuous bureaucratic rhetoric. They are supposed to imply that the federal government can turn decaying urban centers into utopias with gobs of taxpayer money and bureaucratic meddling. That’s just bunk.
In my recent paper on three decades of scandals, mismanagement, and policy failures at HUD, I show that little has changed at HUD other than the individuals occupying the throne. The history of Shaun Donovan’s tenure is yet to be written, but his speech makes me pessimistic.