There is still no better place to observe the consequences of the credit inflation of the last fifty years than the housing market.
Politically, this is democracy at work. Every wave of political change in the post-World War II period has focused on the housing market and putting “Americans” in their own homes in order that the new majority in Congress can get re-elected.
I was in Washington, D. C. during the time period that the mortgage-backed securities were being designed. The rationale for this innovation? Almost all mortgages were made in local depository institutions at that time. But, insurance companies and pension funds had lots of money to invest in longer term securities. If an instrument could be constructed that would allow local depository institutions to sell their mortgages to these companies that wanted long term investment vehicles then the local depository institutions would still have funds available to make more mortgages and put more “Americans” into their own home. And, the incumbent politicians could show their constituents the role they played in not only helping people acquire a home, but also how this effort helped to stimulate the local economy through additional home building. This surely would help the incumbents to get re-elected.
Economically this effort seemed to be sound because it would provide for an almost continued stimulus to the economy, spurring on economic growth and raising employment. A little “inflationary bias” along with this was not bad because almost all the economic models used at this time period showed a positive relationship between inflation and higher levels of employment. Inflation was good for the country!
And, these basic efforts were supplemented by the activities at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) along with the creation of Freddie Mac and Ginny Mae and the work of the Federal Housing Authority, the Federal Home Loan Bank System, and other initiatives forthcoming from both presidential administrations and the Congress. Who could be opposed to such a worthwhile idea?
What we see is that maybe inflation was not all it was said to be. Maybe inflation, in the longer run, can actually be harmful to many of the people it was supposed to help. Maybe one of the “lessons learned” from application of the economic philosophy that dominated Washington in the last fifty years is that you can’t artificially “force” people into situations that are not fundamentally sound on an economic basis.
The efforts of the federal government over the last fifty years or so culminated in the Greenspan/Bernanke credit inflation of the 2000s. The United States experienced a housing bubble during this time period that really capped off the government’s effort to promote homeownership. Asset prices were artificially “forced” to rise further and further. And, as we saw, in the longer run the run-up in housing prices was unsustainable. So the bubble popped!
The consequence? The New York Times reports that “About 11 million households, or a fifth of those with mortgages” are underwater (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/26/business/26housing.html?hp). One in five homeowners with a mortgage faces a mortgage that is larger in value than the market price of their home! In addition, many of these homeowners have lots and lots of other debts which they assumed in the Greenspan/Bernanke period of credit inflation. Thus, the default or bankruptcy problem does not exist just in the mortgage area.
Inflation, in the longer run, does not help the lower income brackets and it does not help the middle class. Most people cannot protect themselves against inflation, as can the wealthier classes in society, and the tendency is for those that are not of the wealthy classes to “stretch” their budgets, especially during periods of inflation, to acquire more than they can comfortably carry, financially. Furthermore, as we have seen, inflation tends to increase those that are underemployed in the economy as well as those that are unemployed. When the music stops, the family budget problems extend beyond just paying a mortgage.
This is the dilemma faced by the government in attempting to create a program that will prevent or slowdown defaults and foreclosures. It is not just the fact that the homeowner is underwater. The problem is that the mortgagee is over-extended in other areas and has a real cash flow problem.
The initial effort to provide relief to these troubled borrowers was to reduce interest payments that would reduce monthly mortgage payments. Over the past 12 months over 50% of all mortgages modified in this way defaulted, according to a report just released by the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision. Mortgages that are at least 30 days late climbed to about 58% over the last twelve months. This seems to be evidence that the problem is more than just one of meeting mortgage payments. (See http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601010&sid=aVYxPZ56vjys.)
The next effort, promised to be released by the White House today, will focus more on writing down the value of mortgages. It is expected that this will prove to be more beneficial to homeowners because it will result in a greater reduction in monthly payments and will reduce the psychological effect of having to pay off something that is larger than the underlying value of the asset it is financing. Another portion of the effort will be to have the F. H. A. insure mortgages that are re-written with lower loan balances, a risky effort for a tax-payer supported institution that is already facing financial difficulties.
There are several problems associated with such a program. First, if financial institutions re-write or re-finance underwater mortgages, the issue becomes one of the solvency of the underwriter. Almost one in eight banks in the United States is either on the problem list of the FDIC or near to being on this list. Can these banks afford to be forced to write off these losses in the near term?
Analysts argue that one of the things the initial effort did (the effort to reduce interest rates) is that it just “spread out” the banks having to deal with foreclosures and capital write-downs over several years. This, at least, allowed the banks to slow down the write-off process allowing them to continue to “stay alive” while they worked out their loan problems. This new program threatens these banks: the losses on these loans would have to be written-off sooner rather than later. Could this accelerate the closing of banks?
Another issue relates to whether or not these problems of “underwater” mortgages are connected to bigger issues than just the foreclosure on houses. It is the case that many of the people that purchased these houses were “stepping up” to a higher living standard and doing so created other payment obligations connected with the higher living standards. Many of the people that are underwater now re-financed in the years before the financial “collapse” and took out a lot of the equity built up in their homes to finance other purchases, perhaps a second home or an addition on the home or some other expenditure that allowed them to “step up.” Without the credit built up through the inflation in their home price they would not have been able to afford the purchases out of their cash flow, even if they continued to remain employed. In these cases the cash flow problem is more than just the difficulty in covering the monthly mortgage payment.
The point is that when a person, a business, or a society attempts to live beyond their means, events will, sooner or later, catch up with them. Inflation incents people to live beyond their means. We are observing the consequences of such behavior in the problems being experienced in the housing market.