The Milken Institute’s Michael Bright and Ed DeMarco have posted a white paper, Why Housing Reform Still Matters. Bright was the principal author of the Corker-Warner Fannie/Freddie reform bill and DeMarco is the former Acting Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. In short, they know housing finance. They write,
The 2008 financial crisis left a lot of challenges in its wake. The events of that year led to years of stagnant growth, a painful process of global deleveraging, and the emergence of new banking regulatory regimes across the globe.
But at the epicenter of the crisis was the American housing market. And while America’s housing finance system was fundamental to the financial crisis and the Great Recession, reform efforts have not altered America’s mortgage market structure or housing access paradigms in a material way.
This work must get done. Eventually, legislators will have to resolve their differences to chart a modernized course for housing in our country. Reflecting upon the progress made and the failures endured in this effort since 2008, we have set ourselves to the task of outlining a framework meant to advance the public debate and help lawmakers create an achievable plan. Through a series of upcoming papers, our goal will be to not just foster debate but to push that debate toward resolution.
Before setting forth solutions, however, it is important to frame the issues and state why we should do this in the first place. In light of the growing chorus urging surrender and going back to the failed model of the past, our objective in this paper is to remind policymakers why housing finance reform is needed and help distinguish aspects of the current system that are worth preserving from those that should be scrapped. (1)
I agree with a lot of what they have to say. First, we should not go back to “the failed model of the past,” and it amazes me that that idea has any traction at all. I guess political memories are as short as people say they are.
Second, “until Congress acts, the FHFA is stuck in its role of regulator and conservator.” (3) They argue that it is wrong to allow one individual, the FHFA Director, to dramatically reform the housing finance system on his own. This is true, even if he is doing a pretty good job, as current Director Watt is.
Third, I agree that any reform plan must ensure that the mortgage-backed securities market remain liquid; credit remains available in all submarkets markets; competition is beneficial in the secondary mortgage market.
Finally, I agree with many of the goals of their reform agenda: reducing the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts of private actors; finding a consensus on access to credit; increasing the role of private capital in the mortgage market; increasing transparency in order to decrease rent-seeking behavior by market actors; and aligning incentives throughout the mortgage markets.
So where is my criticism? I think it is just that the paper is at such a high level of generality that it is hard to find much to disagree about. Who wouldn’t want a consensus on housing affordability and access to credit? But isn’t it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will be very far apart on this issue no matter how long they discuss it?
The authors promise that a detailed proposal is forthcoming, so my criticism may soon be moot. But I fear that Congress is no closer to finding common ground on housing finance reform than they have been for the better part of the last decade. The authors’ optimism that consensus can be reached is not yet warranted, I think. Housing reform may not matter because the FHFA may just implement a new regime before Congress gets it act together.