Tuesday 29 December 2009

The US (and UK) mortgage crisis continues

Update: China may now be experiencing a housing bubble


Economist Mark Thoma comments on news (which was released on Christmas Eve - a "good time to bury bad news"?) that the US Treasury is considering doubling its line of credit to "Fannie Mae" and "Freddie Mac", from $400 billion to $800 billion. What does this mean?

Let's start with the background to these two "government-sponsored enterprises" (GSEs).

"Fannie Mae" is the familiar term for the Federal National Mortgage Association, set up in 1938 at the tail end of the American Great Depression to help make mortgages more easily available to low-income housebuyers, by buying the loans from mortgage lenders. Effectively, this was a way of guaranteeing poorer-quality loans and so it supported and encouraged lenders as well as borrowers.

In 1968, Fannie Mae was split into two companies; one private, doing the same job as before, but without an explicit guarantee against losses from defaults. The other part was a new public organisation, the Government National Mortgage Association, aka "Ginnie Mae"; this did guarantee mortgage-backed investments, but was originally intended to serve defined groups of borrowers, e.g. public employees and veterans (ex-military personnel).

In 1970, "Freddie Mac" (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) was created to do much the same as Fannie Mae, so providing competition and helping to increase the supply of mortgages.

Given the quality of the loans that underpinned their products, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were particularly vulnerable to problems in the credit market and were so badly damaged in the "Credit Crunch" of 2008 that they were taken into public control, or "conservatorship". This helped maintain confidence in the banking system, but at a cost: the Treasury has, in effect, become the guarantor against losses, which now become the liability of the taxpayer. Some would say that a second cost is "moral hazard", in that reckless lenders have been shielded from the consequences of their actions, and so will not properly learn their lesson.

Returning to Mark Thoma, we find that mortgage defaults may eventually total $400 billion, which in inflation-adjusted terms is similar to the losses sustained in the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s. (The root cause of the problem then was the same - treating houses as another type of speculative investment - and the trigger for the fallout was the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which (among many other changes) removed or reduced tax breaks relating to residential property investment.)

Why, after all this official support, are we expecting heavy losses on the housing market?

The answer, as I understand it, is that the wrong problem has been solved. By bailing-out banks and other lenders, governments on both sides of the Atlantic have attempted to preserve "liquidity" - the availability of money. But this doesn't tackle the real problem, which is "insolvency" - i.e. when debts outweigh assets. Housing is overpriced - valuations swiftly doubled in the four years after 2002 - and when people perceive that the prices are unrealistic in the long term, the prices have to come down. However, home loans don't come down; they are fixed amounts of debt, that is either paid or defaulted. So as house valuations decline, more and more homeowners find themselves owing more than the resale value of their property. Behind them stand many others who fear that they may find themselves in the same situation, or who realize that renting would be even cheaper than paying their mortgage.

For although interest rates have dropped to historically low levels, the capital still has to be repaid, and so the total monthly cost can't be reduced much more. In an economic downturn, the weight of this obligation is unlikely to lighten because of quickly-rising wages, and until house prices rise significantly, they will also look like a poor capital investment to the borrower. For millions, a mortgage is now a useless millstone around the neck.

Back in September 2008, I floated the wild idea of paying off all US mortgages and making all such loans illegal in future; a comment by one reader, "Sobers", suggested the more moderate approach of partial debt forgiveness. Thoma speculates that one reason for the increased Treasury line of credit for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may indeed be a preparation for writing-off a proportion of mortgage debt.

This would be a radical step and maybe it's more likely that the US Treasury simply wishes to make enough money available to cover all likely defaults, with enough extra to prevent the spread of panic in the housing market. After all, people who bought their houses 10 years ago or earlier, are less likely to be in "negative equity" now; unless they took out extra property-backed loans for consumer spending (known as "secured loans" in the UK, and "home equity line of credit" - or HELOC - in the US). Paying off part of everyone's debt would give help to those who didn't need it as well as those who did; and might carry its own "moral hazard" by allowing future borrowers to hope that they might one day be bailed-out, too, so encouraging them to spend too much and get into unaffordable debt. Better, on the whole, to underwrite the losses of the worst cases and discipline the defaulting borrowers with the stigma of repossession, which is a warning to other borrowers, though sadly not so much of an object lesson to lenders.

Another strategy, since interest rates are so low, would be to reduce monthly costs of borrowing by extending the term of mortages and so cutting the amount of capital that has to be repaid each month. You can play with variants on interest rates and mortgage terms here - Yahoo offers some American versions here - and as you can see, extending the term offers some relief. However, there's only so long you're likely to want to have a mortgage, unless we descend to the 100-year mortgages of Japan.

There's also not much scope for cutting interest rates further. The banks loaned out far too much money in the good times and cut their reserves to a dangerous minimum. When the governments made more cash available to them, they kept a lot of it as a temporary buffer, so borrowing for housebuyers and businesses has continued to be on difficult terms. And the banks haven't passed on much of the drop in interest rates, because they are trying to rebuild their reserves. The central banks could cut the interest rate to zero and the banks that borrow from them would still be charging us something like 4%. Until the banks are solvent, we are going to remain hard up; unless there is debt forgiveness, and I don't think that will come for quite some time yet.

In short, I expect the current half-optimistic mood to evaporate gradually in the coming year, as people realize that the problems are enduring and begin to adjust their expectations and behaviour accordingly. I anticipate a longer-term reduction in the inflation-adjusted valuations of houses, though there may be temporary rallies from time to time, just as you get them in a "bear market" in stocks and shares.

I said years ago to friends and colleagues that whatever you treat like an investment will behave like one, and not for the first time, the housing market is copying the behaviour of equities, with the added disadvantages of being less easily and more expensively sold, and of being bought with borrowed money.

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