Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

April 1, 2015

Mortgaging the Future

By David Reiss

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s most recent Economic Letter is titled Mortgaging the Future? In it, Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan M. Taylor evaluate the “Great Mortgaging” of the American economy:

In the six decades following World War II, bank lending measured as a ratio to GDP has quadrupled in advanced economies. To a great extent, this unprecedented expansion of credit was driven by a dramatic growth in mortgage loans. Lending backed by real estate has allowed households to leverage up and has changed the traditional business of banking in fundamental ways. This “Great Mortgaging” has had a profound influence on the dynamics of business cycles. (1)

I was particularly interested by the Letter’s Figure 2, which charted the ratio of mortgage debt to value of the U.S. housing stock over the last hundred years or so. The authors write,

The rise of mortgage lending exceeds what would be expected considering the increase in real estate values over the same time. Rather, it appears to also reflect an increase in household leverage. Although we cannot measure historical loan-to-value ratios directly, household mortgage debt appears to have risen faster than total real estate asset values in many countries including the United States. The resulting record-high leverage ratios can damage household balance sheets and therefore endanger the overall financial system. Figure 2 displays the ratio of household mortgage lending to the value of the total U.S. housing stock over the past 100 years. As the figure shows, that ratio has nearly quadrupled from about 0.15 in 1910 to about 0.5 today. (2)

An increase in leverage for households is not necessarily a bad thing. it allows households to make investments and to smooth their consumption over longer periods. But it can, of course, get to be too high. High leverage makes households less able to handle shocks such as unemployment, divorce and death. it would be helpful for economists to better model a socially optimal level of household leverage in order to guide regulators. The CFPB has taken a stab at this with its relatively new Ability-to-Repay regulation but we do not yet know if they got it right.

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