The Economics of Housing Supply

chart by Smallman12q

Housing economists Edward L. Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko have posted The Economic Implications of Housing Supply to SSRN (behind a paywall but you can find a slightly older version of the paper here). The abstract reads,

In this essay, we review the basic economics of housing supply and the functioning of US housing markets to better understand the distribution of home prices, household wealth and the spatial distribution of people across markets. We employ a cost-based approach to gauge whether a housing market is delivering appropriately priced units. Specifically, we investigate whether market prices (roughly) equal the costs of producing the housing unit. If so, the market is well-functioning in the sense that it efficiently delivers housing units at their production cost. Of course, poorer households still may have very high housing cost burdens that society may wish to address via transfers. But if housing prices are above this cost in a given area, then the housing market is not functioning well – and housing is too expensive for all households in the market, not just for poorer ones. The gap between price and production cost can be understood as a regulatory tax, which might be efficiently incorporating the negative externalities of new production, but typical estimates find that the implicit tax is far higher than most reasonable estimates of those externalities.

The paper’s conclusions, while a bit technical for a lay audience, are worth highlighting:

When housing supply is highly regulated in a certain area, housing prices are higher and population growth is smaller relative to the level of demand. While most of America has experienced little growth in housing wealth over the past 30 years, the older, richer buyers in America’s most regulated areas have experienced significant increases in housing equity. The regulation of America’s most productive places seems to have led labor to locate in places where wages and prices are lower, reducing America’s overall economic output in the process.

Advocates of land use restrictions emphasize the negative externalities of building. Certainly, new construction can lead to more crowded schools and roads, and it is costly to create new infrastructure to lower congestion. Hence, the optimal tax on new building is positive, not zero. However, there is as yet no consensus about the overall welfare implications of heightened land use controls. Any model-based assessment inevitably relies on various assumptions about the different aspects of regulation and how they are valued in agents’ utility functions.

Empirical investigations of the local costs and benefits of restricting building generally conclude that the negative externalities are not nearly large enough to justify the costs of regulation. Adding the costs from substitute building in other markets generally strengthens this conclusion, as Glaeser and Kahn (2010) show that America restricts building more in places that have lower carbon emissions per household. If California’s restrictions induce more building in Texas and Arizona, then their net environmental could be negative in aggregate. If restrictions on building limit an efficient geographical reallocation of labor, then estimates based on local externalities would miss this effect, too.

If the welfare and output gains from reducing regulation of housing construction are large, then why don’t we see more policy interventions to permit more building in markets such as San Francisco? The great challenge facing attempts to loosen local housing restrictions is that existing homeowners do not want more affordable homes: they want the value of their asset to cost more, not less. They also may not like the idea that new housing will bring in more people, including those from different socio-economic groups.

There have been some attempts at the state level to soften severe local land use restrictions, but they have not been successful. Massachusetts is particularly instructive because it has used both top-down regulatory reform and incentives to encourage local building. Massachusetts Chapter 40B provides builders with a tool to bypass local rules. If developers are building enough formally-defined affordable units in unaffordable areas, they can bypass local zoning rules. Yet localities still are able to find tools to limit local construction, and the cost of providing price-controlled affordable units lowers the incentive for developers to build. It is difficult to assess the overall impact of 40B, especially since both builder and community often face incentives to avoid building “affordable” units. Standard game theoretic arguments suggest that 40B should never itself be used, but rather work primarily by changing the fallback option of the developer. Massachusetts has also tried to create stronger incentives for local building with Chapters 40R and 40S. These parts of their law allow for transfers to the localities themselves, so builders are not capturing all the benefits. Even so, the Boston market and other high cost areas in the state have not seen meaningful surges in new housing development.

This suggests that more fiscal resources will be needed to convince local residents to bear the costs arising from new development. On purely efficiency grounds, one could argue that the federal government provide sufficient resources, but the political economy of the median taxpayer in the nation effectively transferring resources to much wealthier residents of metropolitan areas like San Francisco seems challenging to say the least. However daunting the task, the potential benefits look to be large enough that economists and policymakers should keep trying to devise a workable policy intervention. (19-20)

Why Doctors Buy Bigger Homes Than Lawyers


photo by Ben Jacobson quoted me in Why Doctors Buy Bigger Homes Than Lawyers (and What It Means to You). It reads, in part,

Take that, Alan Dershowitz: Although both doctors and lawyers can typically afford better-than-decent-sized homes, a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in states with a certain legal provision, physicians’ houses are bigger. Often much bigger.

So what’s the deal? It seems to come down to two factors: First, the skyrocketing costs of financially devastating medical malpractice suits; second, a once-obscure provision called “homestead exception” which can protect the assets of doctors in some states from being wiped out by those suits when they invest their cash in their homes.

“We have been interested in understanding how does that pervasive aspect of a physician’s career influence the decisions they make … whether it means they invest more in houses to protect themselves against liability,” Anupam Jena, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the paper, tells the Washington Post.

Here’s how homestead exception works: If creditors are hounding you for unsecured debts—as opposed to secure ones, like your mortgage—they can’t take your home as collateral, as long as you declare bankruptcy. In fact, they can’t even place a lien on the property to collect when you sell. These exemptions vary by state: Some, such as New Jersey, have no such safeguard; in California, individuals’ homes are protected up to $75,000 (which generally won’t get you past the front porch).

Yet a handful of states—Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, as well as the District of Columbia—have unlimited homestead exemption. Doctors in those states bought homes that were 13% more expensive than the homes of doctors elsewhere. The homes of medical doctors (and dentists, who are essentially in the same medical malpractice boat) were markedly more expensive than the homes of professionals making similar salaries—even lawyers, who know a thing or two about malpractice suits. The authors drew from U.S. Census Bureau data on 3 million households about profession, household income, and home value.

So why should you care? Because homestead exemptions apply to you, too—even if the closest you come to the medical profession is annual checkups and late night reruns of “ER.”

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But don’t get the wrong idea: The homestead exemption isn’t a bulletproof way to ward off foreclosure. Remember, it applies only to unsecured debt such as credit cards—not secured debt like your mortgage.

“If you borrow money for a home, the homestead exemption typically does not apply,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. In other words, if you don’t pay your mortgage and default on your loan, your lender can foreclose and seize your home.

And we’re not saying you should run from your creditors, because eventually they’ll catch up to you. But if you are in financial straits and scared sick of losing your house, check your local homestead exemption laws first—you might be safer than you think.

Failure to Refinance

photo by GotCredit

Benjamin Keys, Devin Pope and Jaren Pope have recently had their Failure to Refinance paper accepted in the Journal of Financial Economics.  A version of the paper can be found on SSRN. This academic paper has a lot of relevance to many a homeowner. The abstract reads,

Households that fail to refinance their mortgage when interest rates decline can lose out on substantial savings. Based on a large random sample of outstanding U.S. mortgages in December of 2010, we estimate that approximately 20% of households for whom refinancing would be optimal and who appeared unconstrained to do so, had not taken advantage of the lower rates. We estimate the present-discounted cost to the median household who fails to refinance to be approximately $11,500, making this a particularly large consumer financial mistake. To shed light on possible mechanisms and corroborate our main findings, we also provide results from a mail campaign targeted at a sample of homeowners that could benefit from refinancing.

 The authors conclude,

Our results suggest the presence of information barriers regarding the potential benefits and costs of refinancing. Expanding and developing partnerships with certified housing counseling agencies to offer more targeted and in-depth workshops and counseling surrounding the refinancing decision is a potential direction for policy to alleviate these barriers for the population most in need of financial education.

In addition, the magnitude of the financial mistakes that households make suggest that psychological factors such as procrastination, trust, and the inability to understand complex decisions are likely barriers to refinancing. One policy that has been suggested to overcome the need for active household participation would require mortgages to have fixed interest rates that adjust downward automatically when rates decline To the extent that it is undesirable to reward only those households that are able to overcome the computational and behavioral barriers of the refinance process, policies such as an automatically-refinancing mortgage may be beneficial. Although an automatically-refinancing mortgage contract would be more expensive up-front for all borrowers in equilibrium, it would remove the cross-subsidization in the current mortgage finance system, where savvier homeowners who use their refinancing option when rates decline are subsidized by those households who fail to do so. (20, citation omitted)

I have heard a number of proposals that call for automatically refinancing mortgages. Such a mortgage product would shake up the mortgage market in its current form and require a transition period to figure out how it should be priced. But the net result would certainly benefit homeowners in the aggregate.

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

The Prime Crisis

Ben Franklin, Founder of the University of Pennsylvania

Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko, both at Penn’s Wharton School, have posted A New Look at the U.S. Foreclosure Crisis: Panel Data Evidence of Prime and Subprime Borrowers from 1997 to 2012 to SSRN. Unfortunately it is behind a National Bureau of Economic Research paywall. The paper makes the case for “a reinterpretation of the U.S. foreclosure crisis as more of a prime, rather than a subprime, borrower issue.” (1) The authors conclude,

The housing bust and its consequences are among the defining economic events of the past quarter century. Constructing and analyzing new and very large micro data spanning the cycle and all sectors of the mortgage market leads us to reinterpret the ensuing foreclosure crisis as something much more than a subprime sector issue. Many more homes were lost by prime mortgage borrowers, and their loss rates not only increased relatively early in the crisis, but stayed high through 2012. This new characterization of the crisis motivates a very different empirical strategy from previous research on this topic. Rather than focus solely on the subprime sector and subprime traits, we turn to the traditional home mortgage default literature that explains outcomes in terms of common factors such as negative equity and borrower illiquidity.

The key empirical finding is that negative equity conditions can explain virtually all of the difference in foreclosure and short sale outcomes of Prime borrowers compared to all Cash owners. This is true on average, over time (including the spike in their foreclosure rate beginning in 2009), and across metropolitan areas. Given the predominance of this group in terms of foreclosures and short sales, this is tantamount to explaining the crisis itself. We can explain much, but not all, of the variation in Subprime borrower outcomes in terms of negative equity or borrower illiquidity conditions, so something potentially ‘special’ about the subprime sector still is unaccounted for. That said, it also could be that a less noisy measure of borrower illiquidity would be able to account for this residual variation. That remains for future research.

None of the other ‘usual suspects’ raised by previous research or public commentators change this conclusion. Housing quality traits, household demographics (race or gender), buyer income, and speculator status do not have a material influence on outcomes across borrower types. Certain loan-related attributes such as initial LTV, whether a refinancing occurred or a second mortgage was taken on, and loan cohort origination quarter do have some independent influence, but they are much weaker than that of current LTV. (27)

I will have to leave it to other empiricists to evaluate whether this sure-to-be-controversial study is methodologically sound, but I sure did find their policy conclusion to be interesting:

We are not able to provide a definitive recommendation one way or another, but we can rule out one noteworthy reason offered for not aiding homeowners—namely, that the crisis was mostly about irresponsible subprime sector actors (both lenders and borrowers) who were undeserving of transfers. Of course, this is not to say that there was no such behavior. The evidence from other research and serious journalists is that there was. However, it is clear from the passage of time (and the accumulation and analysis of new data that provides) that the problem was much more widespread and systemic.  (28)

Hopefully, this is a lesson that we can take with us into the next (inevitable) housing crisis so we lay the foundation for policy solutions based on facts and not rely on moral judgments about borrowers that are built on shaky ground.

The Community Reinvestment Act: Guilty of What?

Ray Brescia recently posted the final version of The Community Reinvestment Act: Guilty, but not as Charged to SSRN. The article wades into a seemingly technical debate that has extraordinary political and ideological implications: did misguided liberal policies push financial institutions to engage in the risky lending practices that led to the financial crisis. I never gave this argument much credit because the supposed chain of causation seemed too attenuated to me. Nonetheless, the debate has had legs among some policy analysts. The article generally agrees with my own — admittedly impressionistic — views of the matter. It also argues that the CRA needs to be modernized to reflect how mortgage credit is extended in the 21st century. The abstract reads,

Since its passage in 1977, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) has charged federal bank regulators with “encourag[ing]” certain financial institutions “to help meet the credit needs of the local communities in which they are chartered consistent with safe and sound” banking practices. Even before the CRA became law – and ever since – it has become a flashpoint. Depending on your perspective, this simple and somewhat soft directive has led some to charge that it imposes unfair burdens on financial institutions and helped to fuel the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 and the financial crisis that followed. According to this argument, the CRA forced banks to make risky loans to less-than creditworthy borrowers. Others defend the CRA, arguing that it had little to do with the riskiest subprime lending at the heart of the crisis.

Research into the relationship between the mortgage crisis and the CRA generally vindicates those in the camp that believe the CRA had little to do with the risky lending that fueled these crises. At the same time, recent research by the National Bureau of Economic Research attempts to show that the CRA led to riskier lending, particularly in the period 2004-2006, when the mortgage market was overheated.

This paper reviews this and other existing research on the subject of the impact of the CRA on subprime lending to assess the role the CRA played in the mortgage crisis of 2007 and the financial crisis that followed. This paper also takes the analysis a step further, and asks what role the CRA played in failing to prevent these crises, particularly their impact on low- and moderate-income communities: i.e., the very communities the law was designed to protect. Based on a review of the best existing evidence, the initial verdict of not guilty – that the CRA did not cause the financial crisis, as some argue – still holds up on appeal. At the same time, as more fully described in this piece, an appreciation for the weaknesses inherent in the law’s structure, when combined with an understanding of the manner in which it was enforced by regulators, lead one to a different conclusion; although the CRA did not cause the crisis, it failed to prevent the very harms it was designed to prevent from befalling the very communities it is supposed to protect.

The defects in the CRA that emerge from this review, in total, suggest not that the CRA was too strong, but, rather, too weak. They also point to important reforms that should be put in place to strengthen and fine-tune the CRA to ensure that it can meet its important goal: ensuring that financial institutions meet the needs of low- and moderate-income communities, communities for which access to capital and banking services on fair terms is a necessary condition for economic development, let alone economic survival. Such reforms could include expanding the scope of the CRA to cover more financial institutions, creating a private right of action that would grant private and public litigants an opportunity to enforce the law through the courts, and having regulators enforce the CRA in such a way that will put more pressure on banks to modify more underwater mortgages.

I doubt that this article will be the final word on this topic, both because the existing empirical work seems inconclusive and also because the topic is one that has important ideological implications for the right and the left (‘government caused the financial crisis’ versus ‘corporate greed run amok caused the crisis’). Nonetheless, this article provides a thorough critique of one of the leading empirical studies of the topic.

Strip-Downs Are Good

The Philadelphia Fed has posted a Working Paper, Using Bankruptcy to Reduce Foreclosures: Does Strip-Down Of Mortgages Affect The Supply of Mortgage Credit? The paper’s abstract reads,

We assess the credit market impact of mortgage “strip-down” — reducing the principal of underwater residential mortgages to the current market value of the property for homeowners in Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Strip-down of mortgages in bankruptcy was proposed as a means of reducing foreclosures during the recent mortgage crisis but was blocked by lenders. Our goal is to determine whether allowing bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages would have a large adverse impact on new mortgage applicants. Our identification is provided by a series of U.S. Court of Appeals decisions during the late 1980s and early 1990s that introduced mortgage strip-down under both bankruptcy chapters in parts of the U.S., followed by two Supreme Court rulings that abolished it throughout the U.S. We find that the Supreme Court decision to abolish mortgage strip-down under Chapter 13 led to a reduction of 3% in mortgage interest rates and an increase of 1% in mortgage approval rates, while the Supreme Court decision to abolish strip-down under Chapter 7 led to a reduction of 2% in approval rates and no change in interest rates. We also find that markets react less to circuit court decisions than to Supreme Court decisions. Overall, our results suggest that lenders respond to forced renegotiation of contracts in bankruptcy, but their responses are small and not always in the predicted direction. The lack of systematic patterns evident in our results suggests that introducing mortgage strip-down under either bankruptcy chapter would not have strong adverse effects on mortgage loan terms and could be a useful new policy tool to reduce foreclosures when future housing bubbles burst.
This paper seems to cut through some of the hyperbole that surrounds this topic. Its concluding paragraphs indicate how a modest introduction of strip-downs would have only a modest impact on the availability of mortgage credit. It contrasts such a modest step with more far-reaching proposals, such as using eminent domain to take underwater mortgages throughout an entire jurisdiction. The paper seems to argue that the more modest proposal could be acceptable to the lending industry. I am not so sure that that is true, particularly in the current political environment. But it is certainly true that strip-downs could be a useful tool to have when “future housing bubbles burst,” as they most certainly will.