Tag Archives: housing

The Case against Subsidizing Housing Debt

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SINGAPORE — At the end of the first quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, American consumer debt for the first time exceeded its previous peak (in dollars).  That peak was in the 3rd quarter of 2008, just as the global financial crisis hit.  Although car loans and student debt have been rising especially rapidly, housing debt remains more than 2/3 of the total ($8.6 trillion out of $12.7 trillion).

As a share of income, household debt is nothing like the threat to the national economy that it was ten years ago.   But the new statistic is a good reminder that American households don’t save enough.

Some would say that there must be something cultural in the tendency of Americans to spend while Asians, for example, tend to save.   But there is an important policy component as well.  US government policy is designed as if to encourage as many American families to take on as much housing debt as possible.

Economists hesitate to explain to people that they should borrow less.  The advice sounds too “schoolmarmish.”   It seems to lack sympathy for those whose incomes are not keeping up with the standard of living that they had expected based on historical trends.   But for those concerned with the reach of the nanny state, the state is precisely what encourages citizens to borrow.  And it does nobody any favors to get them overly indebted, as the millions of homeowners who went underwater in the housing crisis ten years ago discovered.

Does homeownership have spillover effects?

Owning your own home is said to be an essential part of the American dream.   There is nothing wrong with planning for a good future.  But there is nothing wrong with renting, either.   Buying a house is not a cause of a family’s prosperity, it is typically a consequence.   Owning is a blessing; over-indebtedness is a curse.

The Economist magazine estimates that the overall effective subsidy to American housing debt runs about 1% of national income per year.   Does owner-occupied housing have spillover benefits to justify this subsidy?

The “ownership society” view argues that homeowners take better care of their properties than renters, which has positive externalities for the neighborhood.   But there is also an argument against artificial public encouragement of home owning:  It contributes to the decline in labor mobility.  In the last recession many who lost their jobs could not move to other parts of the country where jobs were more plentiful, because they couldn’t sell their homes.  There is good evidence that the housing crisis boxed in job seekers.

The mortgage tax deduction

What are the US policies that artificially encourage housing debt?   Top of the list is the tax-deductibility of home mortgage interest.  The deduction, though very popular, is hard to justify on grounds of income distribution:  the benefit only goes to those who have a high enough income to itemize deductions.  Also it loses the treasury a lot of revenue.

Republicans say they want revenue-neutral efficiency-enhancing tax reform, which is properly defined as lowering marginal tax rates but simultaneously eliminating distortionary deductions, so that total tax revenue does not fall and the budget deficit does not rise.  If the desire for revenue-neutrality were genuine, the home interest deduction should probably be the first one to curtail.  Outright elimination is too radical politically.  But the deduction could be limited to $250,000 per person and second homes could be excluded.

If Donald Trump manages to get any economic legislation passed at all, even next year, it is likely to be a tax cut.   The White House has already explicitly said that the home interest mortgage deduction is off the table, a sign that they are not serious about genuinely revenue-neutral tax reform.

Five other policies that subsidize housing finance

Particularly suspicious in the case of Trump is his support for giveaways in the tax code that benefit only real estate developers like him.  One such loophole lets them deduct real estate losses that exceed their investments in the business.  This is how he is presumed to have avoided paying taxes for many years, though the experts have to guess since he won’t release his tax returns.  Another loophole is the use of “like-kind exchanges” to avoid capital gains tax.

But the problem goes well beyond Trump or the Republicans.   The policies that favor mortgage debt are extremely popular.  Virtually all politicians of both political parties have long supported them, taking the goal of maximizing home-ownership as self-evident.  And of course they reflect the views of their constituents.

The list of ways in which the US system tilts toward housing debt goes on.

Some borrowers are encouraged to make down payments as little as 5 per cent (or even less) of the value of the house they buy, rather than the more standard 20%.  Such low capital ratios can quickly go to zero and worse if the house price falls even a little.   Many other countries, such as Korea and Singapore, have ceilings on loan-to-value ratios and other regulations limiting how much households can borrow.   They even manage to tighten the loan limits and tax measures counter-cyclically.  Such macroprudential regulation is the recommended way to help stabilize the housing cycle.

But the US is not the only country with measures that distort decisions toward excessive housing debt.  The United Kingdom has had a sequence of programs such as the Help to Buy initiative, which subsidizes purchases with down payments of only 5%.

Another way the US government has long subsidized housing debt is the role of huge public underwriters, particularly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.   They were privately owned leading up to the financial crisis but had an implicit government guarantee from taxpayers, a classic case of moral hazard.  Sure enough, they were put in federal conservatorship in 2008.  Congress could easily repeat the mistake of privatizing them while failing to credibly eliminate the implicit guarantee.   Their capital standards should be raised, just as the regulators have appropriately done for banks.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, had many good features to help reduce the chances of another big financial crisis. But the law would have moved us further in the right direction if many in Congress had not spent the last seven years chipping away at it. Here is one example.

The Dodd-Frank law wisely required banks and other mortgage originators to retain on their books at least 5% of the housing loans they made, rather than repackaging every last mortgage and reselling it to others. The reason is that the originators need to have “skin in the game” in order to have an incentive to take care that the borrowers would reasonably be able to repay the loans. Under heavy pressure from Congress, that requirement was gutted in 2014.  This was yet another way to encourage the borrower and lender to skip the part of the meeting in the lender’s office where they check to see if the borrower will be able to pay back the loan.

Home ownership rates

One would think that the US encouragement of housing debt would at least raise home ownership rates.  But it doesn’t seem to, relative to other countries.  Even at the peak of the housing boom, the subsidies bid up the price of housing more than they increased the quantity.  Home ownership was no higher than in many countries with more sensible mortgage policies like Canada (which has no tax deduction for interest).  The result of the 2007-09 crisis was to bring ownership rates down, from 69% to 63%.  And of course the housing debt distortion was itself a key contributor to the housing bubble and crash — perhaps the policy mistake that was most easily identified ahead of time.

People are not aware that most economists have long considered these policies bad for the economy.  They may not care:   We are told that they no longer want to hear from experts.  When did that loss of faith happen?   Wasn’t it when the economy was hit by a housing and financial crisis — which economists supposedly failed to predict?

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A Review of Predictions of the Last Decade

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         December 31 is technically the end of the first decade of the 21st century.  It is perhaps an appropriate time to review one’s predictions.    It seems to me that I got some things right over the last decade.  Indulge me while I review the predictions that came true, before turning to those that did not work out as well.

Stock market peak     At the end of the 1990s, I felt that the dizzying ascent of equity prices could not continue into the new decade, that there was “…a bubble component in the stock market”  (Nov. 20, 1999).   This was four months before the bubble burst in 2000.  So far so good.

The Euro        Also at the start of the decade, I thought the european currency was undervalued.   My prophesy: “… there will be a major appreciation of the euro against the dollar” (June 21, 2000).  Over the next eight years the euro in fact rose 60% in value.    (But, incidentally, “I don’t mean to express an optimistic forecast regarding European economics or governance…. Europeans have made many mistakes, the leaders and public alike.” 2006.)

The Yen       In January 2008, I wrote about “…the carry from the yen to the euro:  it has been predictably profitable for the last five years, and this will predictably end soon, as the yen reverses its depreciation against the euro.”  (“Getting Carried Away: How the Carry Trade and Its Potential Unwinding Can Explain Movements in International Financial Markets,”  Milken Institute Review 10, no.1, pp.38-45)   By November 2008 the yen had sharply reversed, precisely in the way predicted.

TIPS           I recommended Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities to my blog readers, early in what turned out to be a period of steep rise in their value.  (Feb. 2009.)

            The big economic story  of the decade of course was its second recession, the worst in 70 years, and the severe financial crisis that caused it.    A number of economists got important parts of the 2007-09 crisis right ahead of time (although nobody got all of it right).   I give credit in particular to Krugman, Shiller, Gramlich, Rajan, Borio and White at the BIS, Rogoff, and Roubini.  A 2009 paper identifies 12 commentators as having warned that the US housing market would end in a serious recession.

What parts of the crisis did I get right?

Severity of 2008-09 recession             After the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, I predicted that spending growth and deficits would rise rather than fall, and that the legacy of high debt would mean that the next recession would be longer and more severe than past recessions:

 “Good economic logic does not support the idea that Bush fiscal policies caused the weak economy of the last three years. Good economic logic supports, rather, a causal link between Bush fiscal policies and the next recession. The future downturn is likely to be far worse than the recent one…They also created long-range uncertainty that makes planning difficult (nobody from either party expects the relevant tax law to remain as it is currently written)… It is impossible to say when the next recession will come. But when it does, it is likely to be worse than the 2001 recession. Why? Precisely because we will enter it at a time when the budget deficit and national debt are already alarmingly high…Thus when the next recession hits, we will not have luxury of being able to cut taxes and increase spending as George II has done. … The resulting pain will make the economic travails of George II’s first term pale in comparison…”  (Oct. 30, 2003.  Also Dec.2003 and Nov.2004).    

I said it again as the downturn began:”… if the economy does go into a recession, Mr. Frankel says, “it is likely to be worse than the last one” (WSJ, 1/21/2008).

That seems to me precisely what happened.

Budget deficits   At the start of the decade:  “We need to think about using our budget surplus to provide for the retirement of the baby boom generation, not to blow it on a big tax cut” (May 16, 2001).  But of course the Administration chose the latter policy.   Like many others, I continued throughout the decade to warn that fiscal policy was irresponsible.  The “White House forecast of cutting budget deficit in half by 2009 will not be met,” and “Further, the much more serious deterioration will start after 2009.”  (May 24, 2006.)   Indeed.

Market underestimation of risk        I was dubious of the “Great Moderation.”   By 2006, I was warning frequently of serious risks facing the economy, arguing that even though the odds of each sort of possible setback were small in any given year, the cumulative probability that at least one of them would hit the economy over the next couple of years was relatively high.  (May 24, 2006.)  The markets were underestimating this risk:
 “How can the implied volatility in options prices be so low?  Perhaps investors are judging risk solely from the statistics of recent history, and not from a forward-looking open-eyed consideration of the risks facing the global economy.”  (Nov. 2006.)    “The implicit volatilities in options prices are substantially too low, and will rise.  … market estimates of risk are lower than they should be.  … the market is basing its perception of risk on recent history, not on a forward-looking assessment of the risks facing the US and global economies.    Such risks include further falls in housing or rises in oil, a hard landing for the dollar, and geopolitical risks arising from the Middle East.”   (Jan.12, 2007. And again, May 14, 2007.)     
The VIX (the CBOE index of market-expected volatility) was close to 10 when that was written.  It was to go as high as 80 when the full financial crisis hit in 2008.

The carry trade “should be reversing.” (Jan.12, 2007.)    Market perceptions of risk had “fallen to irrational lows, as reflected in the low interest rates at which governments of developing countries, unqualified American homebuyers and high-risk businesses could borrow money.” (Nov.19, 2007, and Jan. 2008.)   

International crises    When asked Have financial developments made the International Monetary Fund obsolete?” my answer was “The IMF is by no means obsolete. …. It is foolhardy to think, just because emerging market spreads have been very low recently, that there will be no more crises in the future.”    (March 1, 2007)   I identified Hungary and other Eastern European countries as particularly vulnerable.  (Jan. 2008.)

The coming financial crash       The comments I made at a Cato conference held in November 2006, shortly before the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit in 2007, look good now:

 “The Greenspan Fed probably erred by providing too much liquidity in 2001-2004….If the Fed erred in keeping interest rates so low so long after the 2001 recession, what cost are we paying? None yet; but dangers lie in the future. It is not that I am especially worried about inflation at the moment. … what cost do I fear might come from the extraordinarily easy monetary policy of 2001-04? As the Bank for International Settlements points out, some of the biggest financial crashes and some of the longest recession periods have followed liquidity-fed booms that never did show up as goods inflation, but rather as asset inflation…”     (In Responding to Crises, Cato Journal, Spring 2007.)

Housing          Of the various asset markets, housing was the area where policy had most clearly gone awry.    I had long thought “that some people were being pushed to buy houses who couldn’t afford it, that (mirabile dictu) there was such a thing as too high a rate of national homeownership, and that the default rate would shoot up as soon as real interest rates rose or house prices stopped rising.”   (March 26, 2007.)    “Many people bought houses they could not afford unless prices continued to rise rapidly or real interest rates remained extraordinarily low, which predictably did not happen.”  (April 28, 2007.)     

The start of the recession     “[A]t the time of writing [Jan. 2008], the United States appeared to be poised on the brink of recession….A coming recession may be more severe and long-lasting than the last one in 2001….”   By May 2008 I had figured out that a recession was indeed probably underway– at a time when some Administration officials were still ruling it out and indeed GDP figures appeared to show positive growth in the first part of that year.   

Banking crisis resolution       When the Obama Administration announced its revised form of the Bush Administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, I argued that maybe they actually knew what they were doing and that the plan should be given a chance to work.  (March 23, 2009.)  I felt pretty isolated.  Others attacked the plan, from both left and right.  They expected Tim Geithner’s stress tests to be phony.  The critics were sure that the taxpayer would end up paying hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the banks.  They wanted either to nationalize the banks or leave everything to the free market.  As things developed, however, financial collapse was averted without nationalization and the banks have since repaid the Treasury with interest.   

The trough      Financial markets stabilized in the first half of 2009.  Turnarounds in the rates of growth and job loss led me to believe in the summer of 2009 that the economy had probably hit bottom by then.   This turns out in fact to have been the case: The record shows that the recession ended that June.

Predictions gone wrong          Needless to say, I got plenty wrong in the decade as well.   For one thing, I kept expecting U.S. long-term interest rates to rise, because of the alarming long-term fiscal profile. Yet the bond market correction never came.   For another thing, based on econometric estimation of reserve currency holdings, Menzie Chinn and I projected that the euro might eventually rival the dollar in international currency use by 2015 or 2022.    It now seems unlikely.   I certainly thought that the sort of financial crisis that began in the U.S. in 2007-08 would be accompanied by a fall in the dollar.  Yet flows into the U.S. showed that the dollar is still a safe haven.  For this reason I abandoned my euro-bullishness, even before the mismanaged Greek crisis in early 2010.

My most spectacularly wrong predictions were all in the area of politics.  I had thought that if any presidential candidate gained the White House without winning the popular vote, his entire term would be consumed by divisive efforts to reform the Electoral College.   (This did not happen after January 2001.)   I had thought that if a high-casualty international terrorist attack hit the U.S. (September 11, 2001), American foreign policy would thereafter become ruled less by jingoism and more by expertise.  (Not!)   In 2008 I suspected that a Democrat who was perceived as a northern liberal could not be elected president.   (Wrong again.)  

In the coming decade, I resolve to eschew political forecasts, and stick to economics.

[Comments can be posted on the Belfer site.]

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