Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

October 10, 2013

Pandora’s Credit Box

By David Reiss

Jim Parrott and Mark Zandi posted Opening the Credit Box, a call for “[e[asing mortgage lending standards.” (2) Parrott has had high level positions in the Obama Administration and Zandi, Moody’s Analytics’ chief economist, was mentioned as a possible Director for the FHFA. Given the importance of these two authors to debates about the housing market, I think it is worth evaluating their views carefully. I have to say, they are somewhat worrisome.

They favor easing “mortgage lending standards so that more creditworthy borrowers can obtain the loans needed to purchase homes” in order to support “the current recovery,” but also to support “the economy’s long-term health.” (2) This is wrongheaded, as far as I am concerned.  Mortgage underwriting standards should not be set to support the economy. They should be set to balance the availability of credit with the likelihood of default. If we want to support the economy through the housing sector, we can do so through various tax credits or direct subsidies. But starting down the path of employing underwriting standards to do anything other than evaluate credit risk will quickly lay the foundation for the next housing bubble.

The paper contained a number of similarly disturbing cart-leading-the-horse statements. For instance, they write that for “the housing recovery to maintain its momentum, first-time and trade-up homebuyers must fill the void left by investors.” (2) Again, the goal of of encouraging new entrants in the market should not be to drive demand in the short-term. Rather, it should be done in order to allow creditworthy potential homeowners to have the opportunity to purchase a home on sustainable terms.

The authors take pains to step back from the extreme version of their position.  For instance, they write, “To be clear, the objective is not, and should not be,a return to the recklessly loose standards of the bubble years, but to strike a sensible balance between risk management and access to credit. Today’s market has overcorrected and it is hurting the nation’s recovery.” (2) But given the arguments that they have made, I find this coda to be too little too late.

I also found disturbing their analysis of put-back risk (whereby Fannie and Freddie can make loan originators buy back loans that violate various representations and warranties). Their analysis portrays originators as victims of unfairly tightened standards. The fact is, however, that originators had a long run of pushing off junk mortgages onto Fannie and Freddie. The industry will certainly need to figure out a new normal for put-backs and reps and warranties. It seems a bit premature, however, to say that Fannie and Freddie should just loosen up just as it is settling suits with these same originators for billions of dollars.

We should work toward housing market that balances access to homeownership with mortgages that households are likely to be able to afford in the long term. Once that relatively undistorted market finds its baseline, we can talk about tweaks to it. But jumping in today with policies intended to fill a void left by speculative investors seems like a recipe for disaster. In the Greek myth, Pandora opens up the box and lets loose all of the evils of humanity. I worry that rashly opening up the credit box will do the same for the housing market, once again.

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