Our government forays into the housing market have been a disaster, to say the least.
The mortgage interest deduction goes solely to the wealthy and costs the government nearly $100 billion a year. For some perspective of how out of whack this subsidy is, the residents of Nancy Pelosi’s pricey San Francisco neighborhood get roughly 100 times the benefit, per household, of the denizens of my middle class home town in central Illinois.
Of course, our government-sponsored enterprises are an even more ill-conceived subsidy for home buying. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ostensibly increase the amount of capital available to finance home buying by purchasing mortgages from banks and other mortgage originators, packaging them into mortgage-backed securities, and then selling them to pensions, hedge funds, and the like. But it is dubious that their existence meaningfully increases home ownership rates: The Census Bureau announced last month that the U.S. homeownership rate was 62.9 percent, its lowest since 1965 and well below most EU countries, virtually none of which has anything akin to either the mortgage interest deduction or government-sponsored enterprises buying up mortgages.
Not only does the MID and the GSEs fail to boost home ownership but they also can exacerbate broader problems in the housing market, and financial markets in general. The MID encourages people to purchase as much house as they can possibly afford in order to take full advantage of the tax break, which set up many people for disaster when they lost their job in the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
The pressure the federal government put on the GSEs to extend credit to low-income borrowers in order to help boost home ownership amongst the middle and lower-classes ended in tears for millions of Americans as well, as the swings in the housing market destroyed the value in their homes and left them unable to afford to continue living there.
The plunging home prices cratered the portfolio of the GSEs and led the Treasury to use the 2008 Home Equity and Recovery Act, or HERA, to place them into a conservatorship, with the shareholders seeing their share of the company slashed to just 20%, with the government assuming the rest.
However, the demise of Fannie and Freddie was premature: the reported losses of the GSEs were just temporary, a fact that was clear to many shareholders who held onto their stock or jumped into the company post-crisis. For these people, holding onto the stock post-crisis appeared as if it would work out to be a good bet, especially once real estate prices returned to their previous levels.
Unfortunately for them such a bet failed to account for the vagaries of government action. In 2012 the Treasury imposed an amendment to HERA that effectively nationalized the GSEs and cut out the shareholders from any residual profits. The massive profits generated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac–which Treasury officials fully anticipated prior to the takeover–went directly into Treasury’s coffers, helping the Obama Administration claim a victory over the federal budget. The 2012 deficit was “just” $1.1 trillion, or $200 billion less than the previous year, helped by th outsized GSE profits that year.