Thursday, March 4, 2010

Taboos of the Real Estate Crisis

Today's housing news was that contracts to purchase existing homes fell 7.6% in January from the December 2009 level. Last week, we learned that new home sales fell 11.2% to the lowest level ever recorded since 1963, when the Census Bureau began tracking new home sales. Clearly, in spite of an expanded buyer's tax credit, the housing market remains a sick puppy.

Relief measures have treated symptoms. Defaulting homeowners get opportunities to restructure their mortgages, but lasting success is infrequent. Homeowners who haven't defaulted have trouble getting relief, especially if they are underwater. Underwater homeowners are increasingly tempted to walk away from their mortgages, especially if the loans are nonrecourse.

Treating symptoms often doesn't cure illnesses. Dealing with underlying causes is usually more effective. But the underlying causes of the real estate crisis are taboo. They cannot be discussed openly, not by government officials, nor Wall Street bankers, nor real estate industry professionals, nor consumer advocates. Candor would reveal the intractability of the crisis. At the risk of offending everyone having anything to do with real estate, we offer a little candor.

The 30-year fixed rate mortgage doesn't make commercial sense. It is a difficult loan for banks to manage, since their costs (i.e., the interest expense of deposits and other borrowings) fluctuate while the rate on the mortgage remains fixed for a very long time. Before the 1930s, the 30-year mortgage didn't exist. For all practical purposes, it wouldn't exist today except that, since the Great Depression, the government has promoted it as a way to make home ownership affordable. We can't get away from it, because real estate values would probably take a great fall without its easy terms. Even today's shorter term adjustable rate loans have amortization schedules that contemplate a long term loan of 30 or sometimes more years, so they're really just an elaboration on the 30-year fixed rate.

Banks don't like to hold 30-year mortgages. These loans can be made only by mismatching a bank's shorter term liabilities (like deposits) against a long term fixed rate asset. This mismatch is a formula for lending disaster when short term rates exceed long term rates, and they have periodically, going back to the 1970s. That's why the secondary mortgage market grew so large, first through federal agencies like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, and later through private sector innovations like the mortgage-backed security, the CDO, the CDO squared, and so on. Banks became accustomed to offloading their mortgage risks. But the securitization market blew up along with the real estate crisis and remains moribund. Banks haven't been able to adapt to a world without securitization. Mortgage loans are almost entirely unavailable except when they can be guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or another federal agency, and resold. Securitization is now a federal program, not a commercial market.

The government and many others continue to believe that if home ownership is good, more home ownership is better. While this argument might make some abstract sense in a middle school civics class, reality is that home ownership in America usually requires credit. Even if some level of home ownership acquired with credit is good, that doesn't make more credit-fueled home ownership better. Only so many people are good bets for mortgage loans, and after that borrowers become riskier. We found that out the hard way in the 2000s, when defaults by the risky borrowers drove down home prices. In a society where home ownership is largely based on credit, there is an optimal level of home ownership, and after that it's a bad idea. However, not one policymaker in a trillion will openly endorse this point.

Another taboo is the proposition that banks should book the full extent of their home loan lending losses. America's banking system continues to hold hundreds of billions of dollars of losses attributable to home financing. Booking these losses would require more embarrassment on the part of banks (along with more capital raising efforts), more official consternation over the stability of the financial system and kabuki outrage over banker bonuses, and more houses in foreclosure sales pressuring prices downward. But not booking them is clogging up the banking system. Banks are afraid to lend because they want to hold onto their cash as a reserve against these unbooked losses. The paucity of bank credit is a crucial reason why the economic recovery is so tenuous. Economic stagnation is likely with the banking system in neutral.

So the wheels spin, caught in the muck of mortgages that don't make commercial sense, a secondary mortgage market that doesn't function except as a government program, the assumption that we need to make more, and then even more, bad mortgage loans in order to advance the goal of home ownership, and the unwillingness of banks and their regulators to fully face up to the losses of the mortgage mess. There's hardly any room for market forces to operate--and that's why they hardly do. Housing isn't a market. It's a government program. It's kept on life support by government subsidies, and can't be weaned off of them because the price collapse that would follow would bankrupt America's middle class.

Perhaps over the next ten years, the housing market will gradually revive. But it will surely continue to be built on the precarious edifice of taboos. Too much of America's capital will be misdirected into housing. Government borrowings will absorb vast amounts of what's left. Manufacturing and other activities fundamental to economic strength will be left with scraps. Growth will be stunted. Americans will squabble over who pays for health care, Social Security and other obligations that seem overwhelming when a slow growing economy doesn't produce wealth commensurate with society's generosity. But taboos cannot be discussed, so we end this essay. Good luck.

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