Free Markets, Free People
On the heels of last weeks delightfully mixed bag of employment data (job creation looks like it may be out of reverse and into neutral) we get some new housing data. There the signals are more disquieting, if expected (at least by me.) The housing market may now be heading back down.
The interesting aspect of this is that so many people see this as unlikely. So let us list some reasons why this is a real risk, if probably not as rapid a fall as we saw previously.
- Prices are still above a long term stable level. This could be taken care of by stagnating prices and inflation, but there is little inflation right now.
- The price to rent ratio is out of whack, and rents are still falling, in fact, accelerating. Little wonder, since there is an 11% vacancy rate.
- There are 231,000 newly built housing units sitting vacant.
- There are 3.29 million vacant homes for sale.
- Then there is the shadow inventory of homes that are off the market for various reasons (such as foreclosed homes banks are unwilling to sell yet to avoid realizing losses.)
- Defaults are accelerating, with the largest source of pain now prime loans. As I have maintained for a long time this is not, and never has been, a subprime problem. Subprime was just what collapsed first being the weakest link in the housing market.
- That acceleration is unlikely to slow any time soon as not only are workers still losing jobs and few new potential owners getting jobs, but the length of unemployment is unprecedented in the post war era. The longer a worker is unemployed, the more likely they are to default.
- Lending is still tight for many mortgage seekers.
- We are forming households at a reduced rate, thus lessening demand for new homes.
- More than 20% of homeowners are currently underwater. Nothing correlates more closely with default rates than negative equity.
- Worst of all, we need to revisit an old topic of mine that is no longer a longer term risk, but right around the corner. The likely huge wave of defaults represented by Alt-A and Option Arm Loans about to reset. Defaults have followed with a lag each wave of resets, and the largest wave, from the era with the worst underwriting is about to hit. Notice, subprime is receding. With the system as fragile as it is now, what will this wave bring on?
I always am nervous about calling anything a prediction, but further housing deterioration is a very grave possibility.
Needless to say, this has led to further problems at Fannie, Freddie with more to come. Not that you should be concerned about that, the mission has changed. On their way to probably 400 billion in losses (I remember when I was an alarmist claiming that the losses would be far more than the 20-30 million the government was claiming, probably 200 billion. It turns out I was a cockeyed optimist) the government has officially eliminated any limit on their exposure. Why? It seems to be so that they can take losses!
Freddie’s federal overseers nevertheless have instructed Mr. Haldeman to focus on something that isn’t likely to make the bleak balance sheet look any better: carrying out the Obama administration plan to allow defaulted borrowers to hang onto their homes.
On a recent afternoon, employees at Freddie’s headquarters here peppered Mr. Haldeman with concerns about the company’s future. He responded that they were “fortunate” to have such a clear mission—the government’s foreclosure-prevention drive. “We’re doing what’s best for the country,” he told them.
FT Alphaville is certainly in the skeptical camp referred to by Ms Burns, and we were not reassured when the housing agency released its December monthly report on Tuesday.
According to the report, the default rate in the FHA’s single-family portfolio hit 9.12 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with 6.82 per cent in the same period a year prior.
In absolute terms, that means the number single-family mortgages insured by the FHA and in default reached 531,671 in the fourth quarter of 2009. That’s a 66 per cent increase versus the same period in 2008.
The agency is being hit hardest by the 2007 and 2008 mortgage vintages; the performance of these loans is so dismal the FHA expects to have to pay claims on at least one out of every four loans made in those years.
Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff
Since the inception of the current downturn, free market capitalism has taken quite the bashing. Supporters of significant government involvement in the economy deride the horrors of “unfettered capitalism” and a “free market run amuck.” Frequently, deregulation of capital markets is singled out as the most dastardly culprit, to which Pres. Obama seems to be alluding when he blames “relying on the worn-out dogmas of the past,” and “too little regulatory scrutiny.” Yet, after the last eight years in which we witnessed Sarbanes-Oxley, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and numerous attempts to reign in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shoved aside by legislators, evidence of unregulated economic activity being the source of our crisis seems rather scant.
The idea that “deregulation” was somehow responsible for the mortgage meltdown is a particularly shaky proposition. Shannon Love explains why:
Leftists have to answer a question: if greedy, irresponsible, unregulated etc. capitalism caused the housing bubble, why didn’t we see a similar bubble in commercial real-estate markets which operate under even less regulation than the residential markets? Why does the politically neglected and unregulated commercial real-estate market exhibit much milder swings?
The differences between residential and commercial real estate provide the means to test the hypothesis that government intervention or the lack thereof caused the housing bubble and subsequent collapse of the financial system. We can compare the two markets because the same institutions ultimately make residential and commercial loans. They make loans in the same communities and regions. Changes in the economy affect both types of real estate at the same time and to the same rough degree. The only major difference between the two markets lies in the degree of government intervention.
After dispensing with some obvious questions about the comparison, Love highlights how the residential market was essentially turned into a Lemon’s Market:
As Love points out, the commercial real estate market has no such mechanism muddying its waters, and information is comparatively less asymmetric. Without the government interference, commercial mortgage lenders let the potential for bad outcomes drive their decision making:
More than any other policy, the creation of Freddie Mac and Fanny May distorted the residential mortgage market in a way that the commercial market escaped. The FMs exist solely to induce lenders to make residential loans that the free market judged too risky. The FMs buy up residential mortgages from primary lenders and bundle them together in securities. They do so precisely in order to short-circuit the free-market feedback system that communicates to banks when the financial system as a whole has lent out as much money as it safely can. That feedback system worked like a governor on an engine. It kept the system from running away and lending more money than it could recoup, but also prevented people with poorer credit from getting loans.
Politicians who wanted the engine to run faster created the FMs to bypass the governor in order to get higher performance in the short run. Since the FMs would buy up almost any mortgage, lenders could make riskier and riskier loans without suffering any negative consequence. The FMs replaced the self-interested secondary-market buyers with people playing with government money and a mandate to induce more and more lending. Special dodgy accounting rules allowed the FMs to hide the risk behind the securitized mortgages they sold.
Tellingly, no such intervention occurred in commercial markets. The FMs’ charters expressly prevented them from buying commercial mortgages. As a result, the commercial mortgage market functioned with a free-market governor. When lenders made too many risky loans, free-market secondary buyers stopped buying their mortgages and the system cooled down. As a result, commercial markets saw no runaway boom and subsequent colossal bust.
Although I think that laying the crisis solely at the feet of the residential mortgage market is overly simplistic (for example, what was up with the ratings agencies?), Love does point to a very apt comparison as to how government intervention in the market changes incentives and behavior. If you guarantee risks against bad loans, and subsidize the debtors, then more of such loans will be made. Remove such a guarantees and subsidies and market forces will severely punish improperly compensated risk taking.
The trade off, of course, is that free markets do not allow much opportunity for rent-seeking. Which is why Love’s final lament is so true:
Sadly, experience suggests that mere empiricism has no place in political economics.
That’s because empiricism does not buy votes.