Monday, November 7, 2011

Government Incentives Do Matter--Part II: US Home Ownership

Just saw another example of the role that government incentives play within an economy. 

On Friday, I took off on the interesting essay by Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett about the impacts that the regulatory declaration that European sovereign debt was “risk free” had on the European sovereign debt crisis. (

The conclusion presented by Ms. Tett was that declaring the debt of a government as “risk free” results in too much government debt being issued because it is so cheap to issue it.  Continuing to maintain the “risk free” tag after it becomes obvious that the debt is no longer “risk free” just exacerbates the situation.  Too much sovereign debt gets issued and a financial crisis can result.

Within that post I pointed to another situation in which government incentives produce a result that inconsistent with the original goal of the economy.  I argued that the credit inflation policies followed by many western governments over the past fifty years to keep people employed and provide a buoyant economy so that the income/wealth distribution of the country can stay more balanced or at least not deteriorate has had the exact opposite effect of making the income/wealth distribution more skewed toward the wealthy end of the spectrum.

Today in the Financial Times there is a major article on the United States housing market. (
Included within this article is more evidence of how government incentives, created with the best intentions, have produced results that are inconsistent with the original goals and objectives of the government’s policy. 

The specific programs at issue in this article are those US government programs intended to bring home ownership to more and more Americans.  These governmental efforts were an integral part of the credit inflation program of the United States government over the past fifty years, in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The housing programs of the American government appeared to be very successful for a long period of time and with the underlying credit inflation policies in place, it seemed as if this success would continue on unabated.  Not only could people own their own home, home ownership seemed to be the “piggy bank” that accounted most of the wealth increases being experienced by the middle class. 

This was income/wealth re-distribution at its best because it was achieved without any overt or explicit governmental policies aimed a achieving such a re-distribution!

The numbers: in 1960, approximately 62.0 percent of Americans owned their own home; in 2004 69.4 of all Americans owed their own homes.  And, it looked like this number would continue to rise for the foreseeable future. 

The government programs worked!

Unfortunately, the current number is slightly more than 66.0 percent. 

And, analysts at Morgan Stanley argue that the true number is around 60.0 percent because many delinquent borrowers who say they are “merely renting” homes will soon be forced to give these homes up.  Hence, the number of actual homeowners in the country is substantially over-estimated. 

Behind this argument is the fact that about 20.0 percent of homeowners are either unable or unwilling to make their mortgage payments. This is consistent with those analysts who predict that one in five borrowers will default in the near future.  This problem only places more pressure on the prices of homes to continue to fall. 

The actual rate of home ownership in the United States could drop below 61.0 percent in the next three- to five-years.  This estimate is attributed to Karen Weaver at Seer Capital Management.  The shrinking of the American middle class will only add to this decline.

Thus, the picture of the United States as “a nation of renters.”

Who would have thought?

The structure of the United States housing industry, as we know it at the start of the twenty-first century, was built on the foundation of the continuation of credit inflation as the basis of the government’s fiscal policy.  This credit inflation and the ease with which someone could become a home builder helped to account, not only for the number of builders that existed within the industry, but also the size of many construction companies that were able to achieve substantial scale in home-building.

This structure is changing and will continue to change in the near future. 

But, all the firms and businesses that supported this structure will also have to change.  Business, especially if America becomes that “nation of renters”, will have to change and this will include real estate agents, mortgage brokers, security bundlers, and so forth. 

This is not a philosophical question, it is a reality for hundreds, even thousands, of people who have worked in the real estate area.  What is going to happen in this area and how will this impact investment opportunity in the “housing” space?

But, perhaps even more important is the question about how will this situation impact the federal government and the federal programs and the incentives that they create?  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are insolvent and costing the American taxpayer billions of dollars.  Who is going to finance mortgages in the future?  Security bundling and packaging is under scrutiny and is going to change.  And, who is going to buy these mortgage securities in the future?  The Federal Reserve? The rating agencies have been under attack and there is a movement for government to oversee or control them.  And, how about the subsidy of construction... and the construction of low-income units…that the government has played such a large role it?

The governmental incentives related to home ownership are changing as it the behavior of the American public with respect to whether or not people want own their own home.  As individuals continue to de-leverage, home ownership does not seems to be such a desirable allocation of their income/wealth. 

Government incentives obviously are important.  But, as with most incentives, one has to separate the impacts of the incentives in the short-run from the consequences of the incentives in the longer-run.    

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