Insuring Homeownership — Best of the ABA

The American Bar Association selected my short article, Insuring Sustainable Homeownership, as part of “The Best of ABA Sections”–a compilation of some of the best articles published by the ABA’s sections, forums, and divisions.  It was published in the ABA’s journal, GPSolo and it is drawn from Insuring Sustainable Homeownership,  published in  20 (March/April 2018).  It opens,

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has suffered from many of the same unrealistic underwriting assumptions that did in so many lenders during the 2000s. It, too, was harmed by a housing market as bad as any seen since the Great Depression. As a result, the federal government announced in 2013 that the FHA would require the first bailout in its history. At the same time that it faced these financial challenges, the FHA came under attack for poor execution of some of its policies attempting to expand homeownership opportunities. This article examines the criticism that has been leveled at FHA and the goals the agency should pursue.

The Housing Market Since the Great Recession

photo by Robert J Heath

CoreLogic has posted a special report on Evaluating the Housing Market Since the Great Recession. It opens,

From December 2007 to June 2009, the U.S. economy lost over 8.7 million jobs. In the months after the recession began, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, reaching double digits for the first time since September 1982, and American households lost over $16 trillion in net worth.

After a number of economic stimulus measures, the economy began to grow in 2010. GDP grew 19 percent from 2010 to 2017; the economy added jobs for 88 consecutive months – the longest period on record – and as of December 2017, unemployment was down to 4 percent.

The economy has widely recovered and so, too, has the housing market. After falling 33 percent during the recession, housing prices have returned to peak levels, growing 51 percent since hitting the bottom of the market. The average house price is now 1 percent higher than it was at the peak in 2006, and the average annual equity gain was $14,888 in the third quarter of 2017.

However, in some states – including Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida – housing prices have failed to reach pre-recession levels, and today nearly 2.5 million residential properties with a mortgage are still in negative equity. (4, footnotes omitted)

By the end of 2017, ” the most populated metro areas in the U.S. remained at an almost even split between markets that are undervalued, overvalued and at value, indicating that while housing markets have recovered, many homes have surpassed the at-value [supported by local market fundamentals] price.” (10) This even split between undervalued and overvalued metro areas is hiding all sorts of ups and downs in what looks like a stable national average.  You can get a sense of this by comparing the current situation to what existing at the beginning of 2000, when 87% of metro areas were at-value.

And what does this all mean for housing finance reform? I think it means that we should not get complacent about the state of our housing markets just because the national average looks okay. Congress should continue working on a bipartisan fix for a broken system.

 

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.

A Shortage of Short Sales

Calvin Zhang of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia has posted A Shortage of Short Sales: Explaining the Under-Utilization of a Foreclosure Alternative to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The Great Recession led to widespread mortgage defaults, with borrowers resorting to both foreclosures and short sales to resolve their defaults. I first quantify the economic impact of foreclosures relative to short sales by comparing the home price implications of both. After accounting for omitted variable bias, I find that homes selling as a short sale transact at 8.5% higher prices on average than those that sell after foreclosure. Short sales also exert smaller negative externalities than foreclosures, with one short sale decreasing nearby property values by one percentage point less than a foreclosure. So why weren’t short sales more prevalent? These home-price benefits did not increase the prevalence of short sales because free rents during foreclosures caused more borrowers to select foreclosures, even though higher advances led servicers to prefer more short sales. In states with longer foreclosure timelines, the benefits from foreclosures increased for borrowers, so short sales were less utilized. I find that one standard deviation increase in the average length of the foreclosure process decreased the short sale share by 0.35-0.45 standard deviation. My results suggest that policies that increase the relative attractiveness of short sales could help stabilize distressed housing markets.

The paper highlights the importance of aligning incentives in the mortgage market among lenders, investors, servicers and borrowers. Zhang makes this clear in his conclusion:

While these individual results seem small in magnitude, the total economic impact is big because of how large the real estate market is. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that having 5% more short sales than foreclosures would have saved up to $5.8 billion in housing wealth between 2007 and 2011. Thus, there needs to be more incentives for short sales to be done. The government and GSEs already began encouraging short sales by offering programs like HAFA [Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives] starting in 2009 to increase the benefits of short sales for both the borrower and the servicer, but more could be done such as decreasing foreclosure timelines. If we can continue to increase the incentives to do short sales so that they become more popular than foreclosures, future housing downturns may not be as extreme or last as long. (29)

Rental Housing Landscape

A Row of Tenements, by Robert Spencer (1915)

NYU’s Furman Center released its 2017 National Rental Housing Landscape. My two takeaways are that, compared to the years before the financial crisis, (1) many tenants remain rent burdened and (2) higher income households are renting more. These takeaways have a lot of consequences for housing policymakers. We should keep these developments in mind as we debate tax reform proposals regarding the mortgage interest deduction and the deduction of property taxes. When it comes to housing, who should the tax code be helping more — homeowners or renters?

The Executive Summary of the report reads,

This study examines rental housing trends from 2006 to 2015 in the 53 metropolitan areas of the U.S. that had populations of over one million in 2015 (“metros”), with a particular focus on the economic recovery period beginning in 2012.

Median rents grew faster than inflation in virtually every metro between 2012 and 2015, especially in already high rent metros.

Despite rising rents, the share of renters spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent (defined as rent burdened households) fell slightly between 2012 and 2015, as did the share spending more than 50 percent (defined as severely rent burdened households). Still, these shares were higher in 2015 than in 2006, and far higher than in earlier decades.

The number and share of renters has increased considerably since 2006 and continued to rise in virtually every metro from 2012 to 2015. Within that period, the increase in renter share was relatively larger for high socioeconomic status households. That said, the typical renter household still has lower income and less educational attainment than the typical non-renter household.

Following years of decline during the Great Recession, the real median income of renters grew between 2012 and 2015, but this was primarily driven by the larger numbers of higher income households that are renting and the increasing incomes of renter households with at least one member holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. The real median income of renter households with members with just a high school degree or some college grew more modestly and remained below 2006 levels in 2015.

Thus, the recent decline in the share of rent burdened households should be cautiously interpreted. The income of the typical renter household increased as the economy recovered, but part of this increase came from a change in the composition of the renter population as more high socioeconomic status households chose to rent their homes.

For almost every metro, the median rent in 2015 for units that had been on the market within the previous year was higher than that for other units, suggesting that renters would likely face a rent hike if they moved. The share of recently available rental units that were affordable to households earning their metro’s median income fell between 2012 and 2015. And in 2015, only a small share of recently available rental units were affordable to households earning half of their metro’s median income. (3, footnote omitted)

Treasury’s Overreach on Securitization Reform

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Being Sworn in by Vice President Pence

The Department of the Treasury released its report, A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities Capital Markets. I will leave it to others to dissect the broader implications of this important document and will just highlight what it has to say about the future of securitization:

Problems related to certain types of securitized products, primarily those backed by subprime mortgage loans, contributed to the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. As a result, the securitization market has acquired a popular reputation as an inherently high-risk asset class and has been regulated as such through numerous post-crisis statutory and rulemaking changes. Such treatment of this market is counterproductive, as securitization, when undertaken in an appropriate manner, can be a vital financial tool to facilitate growth in our domestic economy. Securitization has the potential to help financial intermediaries better manage risk, enhance access to credit, and lower funding costs for both American businesses and consumers. Rather than restrict securitization through regulations, policymakers and regulators should view this component of our capital markets as a byproduct of, and safeguard to, America’s global financial leadership. (91-92, citations omitted)

This analysis of securitization veers toward the incoherent. It acknowledges that relatively unregulated subprime MBS contributed to the Great Recession but it argues that stripping away the regulations that were implemented in response to the financial crisis will safeguard our global financial leadership. How’s that? A full deregulatory push would return us to the pre-crisis environment where mortgage market players will act in their short-term interests, while exposing counter-parties and consumers to greater risks.

Notwithstanding that overreach, the report has some specific recommendations that could make securitization more attractive. These include aligning U.S. regulations with the Basel recommendations that govern the global securitization market; fine-tuning risk retention requirements; and rationalizing the multi-agency rulemaking process.

But it is disturbing when a government report contains a passage like the following, without evaluating whether it is true or not:  “issuers have stated that the increased cost and compliance burdens, lack of standardized definitions, and sometimes ambiguous regulatory guidance has had a negative impact on the issuance of new public securitizations.” (104) The report segues from these complaints right to a set of recommendations to reduce the disclosure requirements for securitizers. It is incumbent on Treasury to evaluate whether those complaints are valid are not, before making recommendations based upon them.

Securitization is here to stay and can meaningfully lower borrowing costs. But the financial crisis has demonstrated that it must be regulated to protect the financial system and the public. There is certainly room to revise the regulations that govern the securitization sector, but a wholesale push to deregulate would be foolish given the events of the 2000s.

State of the Nation’s Housing 2017

photo by woodleywonderworks

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies has released its excellent State of the Nation’s Housing for 2017, with many important insights. The executive summary reads, in part,

A decade after the onset of the Great Recession, the national housing market is finally returning to normal. With incomes rising and household growth strengthening, the housing sector is poised to become an important engine of economic growth. But not all households and not all markets are thriving, and affordability pressures remain near record levels. Addressing the scale and complexity of need requires a renewed national commitment to expand the range of housing options available for an increasingly diverse society.

National Home Prices Regain Previous Peak

US house prices rose 5.6 percent in 2016, finally surpassing the high reached nearly a decade earlier. Achieving this milestone reduced the number of homeowners underwater on their mortgages to 3.2 million by year’s end, a remarkable drop from the 12.1 million peak in 2011. In inflation-adjusted terms, however, national home prices remained nearly 15 percent below their previous high. As a result, the typical homeowner has yet to fully regain the housing wealth lost during the downturn.

*     *     *

Pickup In Household Growth

The sluggish rebound in construction also reflects the striking slowdown in household growth after the housing bust. Depending on the government survey, household formations averaged just 540,000 to 720,000 annually in 2007–2012 before reviving to 960,000 to 1.2 million in 2013–2015.

Much of the falloff in household growth can be explained by low household formation rates among the millennial generation (born between 1985 and 2004). Indeed, the share of adults aged 18–34 still living with parents or grandparents was at an all-time high of 35.6 percent in 2015. But through the simple fact of aging, the oldest members of this generation have now reached their early 30s, when most adults live independently. As a result, members of the millennial generation formed 7.6 million new households between 2010 and 2015.

*     *     *

Homeownership Declines Moderating, While Rental Demand Still Strong

After 12 years of decline, there are signs that the national homeownership rate may be nearing bottom. As of the first quarter of 2017, the homeownership rate stood at 63.6 percent—little changed from the first quarter two years earlier. In addition, the number of homeowner households grew by 280,000 in 2016, the strongest showing since 2006. Early indications in 2017 suggest that the upturn is continuing. Still, growth in renters continued to outpace that in owners, with their numbers up by 600,000 last year.

*     *     *

Affordability Pressures Remain Widespread

Based on the 30-percent-of-income affordability standard, the number of cost-burdened households fell from 39.8 million in 2014 to 38.9 million in 2015. As a result, the share of households with cost burdens fell 1.0 percentage point, to 32.9 percent. This was the fifth straight year of declines, led by a considerable drop in the owner share from 30.4 percent in 2010 to 23.9 percent in 2015. The renter share, however, only edged down from 50.2 percent to 48.3 percent over this period.

With such large shares of households exceeding the traditional affordability standard, policymakers have increasingly focused their attention on the severely burdened (paying more than 50 percent of their incomes for housing). Although the total number of households with severe burdens also fell somewhat from 19.3 million in 2014 to 18.8 million in 2015, the improvement was again on the owner side. Indeed, 11.1 million renter households were severely cost burdened in 2015, a 3.7 million increase from 2001. By comparison, 7.6 million owners were severely burdened in 2015, up 1.1 million from 2001.

*     *     *

Segregation By Income on The Rise

A growing body of social science research has documented the long-term damage to the health and well-being of individuals living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Recent increases in segregation by income in the United States are therefore highly troubling. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of the poor population living in high-poverty neighborhoods rose from 43 percent to 54 percent. Meanwhile, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods rose from 13,400 to more than 21,300. Although most high-poverty neighborhoods are still concentrated in high-density urban cores, their recent growth has been fastest in low-density areas at the metropolitan fringe and in rural communities.

At the same time, the growing demand for urban living has led to an influx of high-income households into city neighborhoods. While this revival of urban areas creates the opportunity for more economically and racially diverse communities, it also drives up housing costs for low-income and minority residents. (1-6, references omitted)

One comment, a repetition from my past discussions of Joint Center reports. The State of the Nation’s Housing acknowledges sources of funding for the report but does not directly identify the members of its Policy Advisory Board, which provides “principal funding” for it, along with the Ford Foundation. (front matter) The Board includes companies such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Zillow which are directly discussed in the report. In the spirit of transparency, the Joint Center should identify all of its funders in the State of the Nation’s Housing report itself. Other academic centers and think tanks would undoubtedly do this. The Joint Center for Housing Studies should follow suit.