Sunday, March 01, 2009

Reality bites.

This Sunday, the New York Times asked a panel of economists, “When Will the Recession Be Over?” A few panelists offered hopeful words, ‘Perhaps later this year… if there are no more surprises.’ The eternally pessimistic Nuriel Roubini suggested three years… or more. One sage observer offered the wisdom of bubbles past: You don’t reach the bottom until people stop asking.

We are having a hard time accepting that recovery will take time. Leveraging, or getting into debt, is a lot of fun. For twenty years or so, as interest rates declined and lending standards loosened, America went on a debt-funded spending spree. Across the country, as housing prices rose and the home-equity lending came into vogue, Americans used their access to money to live beyond their current incomes, creating an illusion of prosperity and growth.

Deleveraging, on the other hand, is not fun. It ultimately requires reducing debt. Actually getting rid of it. For American households—whose real incomes have been flat for a decade or more—it means returning to the standard of living that they could afford before the borrowing spree started, adjusted further downward to allow them to pay off the debts they accumulated during the boom years.

So far, our public policy responses to the housing collapse and banking crisis have largely amounted to various strategies for shifting the debt burden around. In the name of stability, the TARP program socializes the losses from our financial sector. Now, in a similar vein, we are proposing to tackle the problem of home foreclosures. But unlike the TARP program that puts the bank losses on the broad shoulders of the Federal government, the strategies to boost the housing market will shift the losses experienced by current homeowner onto the next generation of homebuyers.

Consider this. In 1981, the median home price was $62,000, and the annual cost of funding the purchase of that home at the then-current 16.6% mortgage rates, and with a 20% down payment, was $8,900 per year. $8,900 was 47% of the median family income at the time of $19,000, indicating that the median priced home was not affordable for most families.

As interest rates declined through the 1980s and 90s, home prices escalated as affordability increased. By 1998, the cost of carrying an 80% mortgage on a $128,400, median priced home dipped to $8,228, or just 21% of the 1998 median family income.

By 2007, median home prices increased a further 70% to $217,800. 30-year mortgage rates only dip another 1% or so, but home priced increases were aided by the advent of all sorts of “creative” mortgages, that continued to reduce buyer monthly payments.

For more than two decades, the growth in home prices was made possible by the long-term decline in mortgage interest rates, and at the late stage of the bubble by interest only, variable rate, and teaser-rate mortgages. Despite all hopes for a revival of the real estate market, and particularly a new period of growth in home prices, this is not likely to happen.

Current Federal strategies to re-stimulate the housing market to address the foreclosure problem are ill-advised. Over the past several months, the Federal Reserve has initiated efforts to push long-term mortgage rates down toward 4.5% by purchasing mortgage-backed securities. In addition, the newly enacted stimulus package included an $8,000 first-time homebuyers tax credit.

The problem with these efforts is that they will not fix the fundamental problem, but instead will simply push the problem—the loss of home equity—onto the next generation of homebuyers.

Consider this example. Take the median US home that was worth $220,000 during the years 2005 to 2007, but which might be worth $180,000 today, reflecting a loss in value of nearly 20%. This reduced home price, with a market-rate, 6% mortgage and 80% down, would cost the new owner around $10,500 annually. However, with a 4.5% mortgage rate and the $8,000 tax credit, this new owner can afford to pay $215,000, and still owe only $10,500 annually.

This is the same game that we have watched for the better part of two decades. The buyer—who has been taught to focus on the monthly payment as the measure of “affordability”—is willing to pay the higher price for a home because of the availability of low-cost financing. The seller is happy, because they receive close to the 2005-2007 price of their home. For two decades, this logic worked, because interest rates were continuing to drop and home prices were continuing to rise.

But the situation today is different, creating two very real problems. First, these policies constitute deliberate inducements to entice homebuyers to pay over-market prices for homes, as a matter of public policy. It is reasonable to expect that once the Federal actions that induced the purchase are ceased––the artificially low mortgage rates and the tax credit—the market price of the home the buyer purchased for $215,000 in the example above will fall back to its current value of $180,000.

Therefore, the impact of these policies will be to benefit—or “bail out”—the current homeowners who are facing substantial losses, by passing those losses on to the new homebuyers.

Second, and equally important, new homebuyers should be on notice that the “great deals” that they might see in the real estate market today are only great in comparison to prices at the high point of the real estate bubble. The implied suggestion is that once the current mess is behind us, home prices will continue to rise once again. But that is not likely to be the case.

There are two simple reasons for this. First, tightened rules governing mortgage banking will end the lending practices that artificially lowered the carrying costs of purchasing a home and supported the run-up in home prices. Traditional conforming mortgages with real down payments and more conservative underwriting standards will once again tie home affordability to household incomes and long-term mortgage costs.

Second, long-term mortgage rates are more likely to rise than fall, once the Federal Reserve Bank curtails its market intervention to suppress mortgage rates, and particularly if Congressional action allows judicial rewriting of mortgage contracts, which will undermine the security of—and therefore increase the cost of—mortgage loans.

Many will argue that since we have chosen to bail out the banks, it is only fair that we bail out homeowners. That is a fair argument, and one that Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke and Congress should have considered before we began our long walk down this path.

But Federal actions to artificially boost home values will not socialize the losses in home values, but instead will literally pass one family’s loss on to the next. Like the TARP program, the fundamental problem is that the losses are real, and try as we might to shift them around to avoid the pain, they will not go away.

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