The Housing Experts on the WAPO's Rolodex Never Heard of Jumbo Mortgages

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Thursday, 02 May 2013 05:00

That's what readers of a Post article discussing the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would conclude. The piece includes assertions from two experts, David Stevens, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, and Julia Gordon, the director of housing finance and policy at the Center for American Progress, that 30-year fixed rate mortgages would disappear if the government did not guarantee these mortgages through the GSEs or some other mechanism.

This can easily be shown not to be true by the market in jumbo mortgages. These are mortgages that are too large in value to be insured by the GSEs. A large share of these mortgages are 30-year fixed rate mortgages. Also, while it is less common today, prior to the housing bubble banks did hold a substantial share of their mortgages, typically around 10-20 percent. Since the government was not guaranteeing these mortgages, the banks must have felt the guarantee was unnecessary to get them to issue 30-year fixed rate mortgages.

The issue with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is one of the interest rates that people will pay on mortgages, not whether they will exist or not. By having a government guarantee the government is providing a subsidy to homebuyers that comes at the expense of the rest of the economy. The government already provides a subsidy to homebuyers through the mortgage interest deduction, the question is whether it is desirable to provide a further subsidy through this government guarantee.

There is also a question of whether this is the most efficient way to provide the subsidy. The government guarantee can set up a complex system of financial intermediaries that may be difficult to regulate. It may be more efficient to provide any additional subsidy to homeownership through an enhanced tax deduction or credit that would not lead to a bloated financial sector.

These are the issues that should be at the center of the debate over the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Post should have been able to recognize the absurdity of claims about the end of 30-year fixed rate mortgages and have found an expert to clarify this point.

 

Note: Corrected acronym to "GSE." Thanks to David Stevens.