Peter Wallison, who was White House Counsel under President Reagan and has long been a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told NYT readers today that the housing bubble is back. Wallison is right to be concerned about the return of a bubble, as I have pointed out elsewhere, but his account of the last bubble and the risks of a new one are strangely off the mark.
Wallison wants to blame the bubble on government policy of promoting homeownership. There certainly has been a problem of a housing policy that is far too tilted toward homeownership, but this does not explain the bubble. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors in the bubble years, buying up trillions of dollars of loans issued on houses purchased at bubble inflated prices, as I said at the time.
However the worst loans were securitized by folks like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs. They weren't securitizing junk mortgages to meet government goals for low-income homeownership, they were doing it to make money. And they made lots of money in these years. In fact, the private securitizers were so successful in securitizing junk mortgages that they almost put the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) out of business. Since the FHA maintained its lending standards it couldn't compete with the zero down payment loans being securitized on Wall Street. It saw its market share fall to 2 percent at the peak of the bubble. Some of us warned about the problem posed by the bubble in low-income communities at the time.
Anyhow, Wallison's chronology of the last bubble is more than a bit off. He tells readers;
"In 1997, housing prices began to diverge substantially from rental costs. Between 1997 and 2002, the average compound rate of growth in housing prices was 6 percent, exceeding the average compound growth rate in rentals of 3.34 percent. This, incidentally, contradicts the widely held idea that the last housing bubble was caused by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. Between 1997 and 2000, the Fed raised interest rates, and they stayed relatively high until almost 2002 with no apparent effect on the bubble, which continued to maintain an average compound growth rate of 6 percent until 2007, when it collapsed."
I also date the bubble as beginning in the mid-1990s, but there was a qualitative difference in the price rises of the late 1990s and the 2000s. If prices had stopped rising in 2000, house sale prices would have been somewhat higher relative to rents, but there would have been no serious risk of a recession and financial collapse if they fell back to their historic levels. However house price growth accelerated in the 2000s, with prices rising at a 10 percent annual rate from the 4th quarter of 2000 to their peak in the 2nd quarter of 2006 (not 2007). [Doesn't the NYT do any fact checking? The interest rate story is wrong also, with the federal funds rate having been lowered to 3.0 percent by September of 2001.] And this more rapid price growth is from an already inflated level.
Levels are important also in assessing Wallison's claim that we have a new bubble because:
"Today, after the financial crisis, the recession and the slow recovery, the bubble is beginning to grow again. Between 2011 and the third quarter of 2013, housing prices grew by 5.83 percent, again exceeding the increase in rental costs, which was 2 percent."
This rate of growth is from a more normal level of house prices. As I have frequently noted, house prices were growing very rapidly in the first half of 2013 posing a real risk of a return to a bubble. However Bernanke's taper talk in June and the resulting rise in mortgage rates appears to have curbed the irrational exuberance, although it will be important to watch future price appreciation closely. In any case, it appears that the main culprits today are private equity funds and hedge funds who have been buying up large blocks of homes as investment properties, not low income buyers.
Through the Twitterverse I received a link to this Wallison piece from 2002 in which he critcized the GSEs for not doing enough to provide mortgage credit to moderate income households. Here's the key part:
"Any claim that they are discharging a public trust is an illusion. To the degree that they do anything less than maximizing profits it is to maintain their valuable franchise by reducing their political risk, not because they are voluntarily fulfilling some public trust. It can't be otherwise; they are legally bound to a duty only to the corporation and its shareholders.
"This is very clearly seen in Fannie and Freddie's activities in affordable and minority housing. Study after study has shown that they are doing less for those who are underserved in the housing market than banks and thrifts. Not only do they buy fewer mortgages than are originated in minority communities, the ones they buy tend to be seasoned and thus less risky. Despite Fannie's claims about trillion dollar commitments, they are meeting their affordable and minority housing obligations by slipping through loopholes in the loosely written and enforced HUD regulations in this area.
"In other words, two companies that are immensely profitable and claim to have a government mission, are doing as little as they can get away with for those who most need assistance--while swamping the airwaves with advertising that they are putting people in homes. This should be no surprise, since their incentives push them in this direction. As shareholder-owned companies, they are maximizing their profits--as they must--while doing just enough to avoid the criticism that might result in the loss of the government support that enables them to earn these profits."
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