Preparing for the Next Housing Tsunami

Greg Kaplan et al. posted The Housing Boom and Bust: Model Meets Evidence to SSRN. The abstract reads,

We build a model of the U.S. economy with multiple aggregate shocks (income, housing finance conditions, and beliefs about future housing demand) that generate fluctuations in equilibrium house prices. Through a series of counterfactual experiments, we study the housing boom and bust around the Great Recession and obtain three main results. First, we find that the main driver of movements in house prices and rents was a shift in beliefs. Shifts in credit conditions do not move house prices but are important for the dynamics of home ownership, leverage, and foreclosures. The role of housing rental markets and long-term mortgages in alleviating credit constraints is central to these findings. Second, our model suggests that the boom-bust in house prices explains half of the corresponding swings in non-durable expenditures and that the transmission mechanism is a wealth effect through household balance sheets. Third, we find that a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.

I think the last sentence is worth pondering a bit:  “a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.” During the Great Depression, the federal government took steps that relieved the debt burden of over a million households by extending the terms of their mortgages and lowering the interest rates on them.

While this was no panacea, it did let millions stay in their homes during a period of great financial stress. The steps taken to help struggling homeowners during the recent Great Recession were much more timid than those taken during the Great Depression. This paper adds to a body of literature that suggests we should not be so timid the next time we are hit by an economic tsunami.

Borrowing Constraints and The Homeownership Rate

photo by Victor

Arthur Acolin, Jess Bricker, Paul Calem and Susan Wachter have posted a short paper on Borrowing Constraints and Homeownership to SSRN. The abstract reads,

This paper identifies the impact of borrowing constraints on home ownership in the U.S. in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The existence of credit rationing in the U.S. mortgage market means that some households for whom it would be optimal to choose to be homeowners may not be able to do so. Borrowers with certain wealth, income and credit characteristics are unable to obtain a loan even if they are willing to pay a higher cost of credit (Linneman and Wachter 1989). The Stiglitz and Weiss (1981) canonical model sets up the rationale for this credit rationing. Using data from the 2001, 2004-2007 and 2010-2013 Surveys of Consumer Finance (SCF), this paper measures the impact of changes in the income, wealth and credit constraints on the probability of home ownership. Credit supply eased and then became considerably more restricted in the wake of the Great Recession. The loosening of borrowing constraints was accompanied by an increase in home ownership from the late 1990s until the start of the housing crisis. In this paper we estimate the role the tightening of credit has had on the probability of individual households to become homeowners and the decline in the aggregate home ownership rate following the crisis. The home ownership rate in 2010-2013 is predicted to be 5.2 percentage points lower than it would be if the constraints were at the 2004-2007 level and 2.3 percentage points lower than if the constraints were set at the 2001 level.

This paper builds on some of the other work of the authors (see here for instance) on the homeownership rate. The paper makes a valuable contribution by estimating the impact of credit rationing on the homeownership rate. To the extent we can identify an optimal amount of credit supply, it should help us to determine a target homeownership rate to guide policymakers.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

State of the Nation’s Housing Finance

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University has released the 2014 edition of The State of the Nation’s Housing. As to the nation’s housing finance system, the report finds that

The government still had an outsized footprint in the mortgage market in 2013, purchasing or guaranteeing 80.3 percent of all mortgages originated. The FHA/VA share of first liens, at 19.7 percent, was well above the average 6.1 percent share in 2002–03, let alone the 3.2 percent share at the market peak in 2005–06. Origination shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were also higher than before the mortgage market crisis, but less so than that of FHA. According to the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center, the GSEs purchased or guaranteed 61 percent of originations in 2012 and 2013, up from 49 percent in 2002 and 2003.

Portfolio lending, however, has begun to bounce back, rising 8 percentage points from post-crisis lows and accounting for 19 percent of originations last year. While improving, this share is far from the nearly 30 percent a decade earlier. In contrast, private-label securitizations have been stuck below 1 percent of originations since 2008. Continued healing in the housing market and further clarity in the regulatory environment should set the stage for further increases in private market activity. (11)

As usual, this report is chock full of good information about the single-family and multi-family sectors. I did find that some of its characterizations of the housing market were lacking. For instance, the report states

Many factors have played a role in the sluggish recovery of the home purchase loan market in recent years, including falling household incomes and uncertainty about the direction of the economy and home prices. But the limited availability of mortgage credit for borrowers with less than stellar credit has also contributed. According to information from CoreLogic, home purchase lending to borrowers with credit scores below 620 all but ended after 2009. Since then, access to credit among borrowers with scores in the 620–659 range has become increasingly constrained, with their share of loans falling by 6 percentage points. At the same time, the share of home purchase loans to borrowers with scores above 740 rose by 8 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) have also concentrated both their purchase and refinancing activity on applicants with higher credit scores. At Fannie Mae, only 15 percent of loans acquired in 2013 were to borrowers with credit scores below 700—a dramatic drop from the 35 percent share averaged in 2001–04. Moreover, just 2 percent of originations were to borrowers with credit scores below 620. The percentage of Freddie Mac lending to this group has remained negligible.

Yet another drag on the mortgage market recovery is the high cost of credit. For borrowers who are able to access credit, loan costs have increased steadily. To start, interest rates climbed from 3.35 percent at the end of 2012 to 4.46 percent at the end of 2013. This increase was tempered somewhat by a slight retreat in early 2014. In addition, the GSEs and FHA raised the fees required to insure their loans after the mortgage market meltdown, and many of these charges remain in place or have risen. The average guarantee fee charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac jumped from 22 basis points in 2009 to 38 basis points in 2012. In 2008, the GSEs also introduced loan level price adjustments (LLPAs) or additional upfront fees paid by lenders based on loan-to-value (LTV) ratios, credit scores, and other risk factors. LLPAs total up to 3.25 percent of the loan value for riskier borrowers and are paid for through higher interest rates on their loans. (20)

Implicit in this analysis is the view that lending should return in some way to its pre-bust levels. But, in fact, much of the boom lending was unsustainable for many borrowers. The analysis fails to identify the importance of promoting sustainable homeownership and instead relies on one dimensional metrics like credit denials for those with low credit scores. Until we are confident that borrowers with those scores can sustain homeownership in large numbers, we should not be so quick to bemoan credit constraints for people with a history of losing their homes to foreclosure.

The Center’s analysis also takes a simplistic view about guarantee fees.  The relevant metric is not the absolute size of the g-fee. Rather, the issue should be whether the g-fee level achieves its goals. At a minimum, those goals include appropriately measuring the risk of having to make good on the guarantee.

Finally, the Center demonstrates symptoms of historical amnesia when it characterizes an interest rate of 4.46% as “high.” This is an incredibly low rate of interest and one would expect that rates would rise as we exit from the bust years.

I have made the point before that the Center’s work seems to reflect the views of its funders. The funders of this report (not identified in the report by the way) include the National Association of Home Builders; National Association of Realtors; National Housing Conference; National Multifamily Housing Council; and a whole host of lenders, builders and companies in related fields that make up the Center’s Policy Advisory Board. These organizations benefit from a growing housing sector. This report seems to reflect an unthinking pro-growth perspective. It would have benefited from a parallel focus on sustainable homeownership.