What’s not to like about cheap, easy housing credit? It would be hard to criticize if it developed in response to real risks and rewards in a free market, devoid of interference by public authorities. Lenders with their own capital at risk tend to keep their pencils sharp when assessing collateral and borrower repayment capacity; borrowers respond to rate incentives by adjusting the timing of their consumption and their borrowing demands. This helps keep the extension of credit at manageable levels relative to earning power, and discourages destructive boom and bust cycles in housing prices. Conceivably, such arrangements could give rise to a more stable and prosperous economy with relatively, realistically easy credit as a by-product. If so, I’m all for it.
Unfortunately, that is not the sort of housing finance market we have in the U.S. In particular, bank lending often carries little real risk to anyone but taxpayers. Depositors who fund bank lending are almost always 100% federally-insured. As for bank capital, large institutions may be rational to regard themselves as too-big-to-fail, meaning that federal authorities will come forward with bailout money should they fall on hard times. Borrowers are encouraged by mortgage agency buyers (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) whose implicit federal guarantees reduce the nominal cost of borrowing, and whose standards of credit quality tend to move procyclically. Borrowers are subsidized by the tax deductibility of interest costs. Bankruptcy laws and foreclosure rules make collecting on bad debts more difficult. Finally, there is always pressure on lenders to engage proactively in high-risk community lending.
When risks are meaningless to market participants and rewards are inflated, the normal self-regulatory function of the market is suspended. Who cares about mistakes when you don’t have to pay the consequences? But society ultimately pays in misallocated resources, higher taxes and unstable markets. And while the costs to lenders and borrowers are blunted, most don’t get off scot-free: other consequences may include falling housing prices, widespread personal bankruptcies and damaged credit, foreclosures, stricter regulatory oversight, and a prolonged follow-on episode of hard credit.
The expansion of credit leading up to the housing crisis was marked by the rise of non-traditional mortgage products, which typically involve risky collateral and borrowers with tenuous credit. Interest-only mortgages reduce the borrower’s monthly payments, but the borrower fails to build their equity cushion over time. Payment option adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) can be criticized on the same grounds, except they are arguably worse. Subprime mortgages are characterized by high loan-to-value ratios and tend to be marketed to borrowers with less than stellar credit histories.
Arnold Kling reviews a new book by Peter Wallison on the role of “non-traditional” mortgages in the financial crisis. Wallison highlights the culpability of government in encouraging the subprime lending boom, especially Fannie and Freddie. He also points to the failure of government to institute real reforms to prevent the recurrence of such a crisis:
“Congress mandated regulation of practices that played no role in the crisis, either because legislators wanted to mislead the public or were themselves misled. Meanwhile, they did not confront the issue of what do about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and they left the door open for the return of nontraditional mortgages. Indeed, Melvin L. Watt, the recently appointed regulator of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, is once again calling for the loosening of underwriting standards.”
The drift back to risky lending is underway. Dodd-Frank will not stop it or end “too-big-to-fail” risk-taking and cronyism. The best advice to potential borrowers is to emphasize adverse personal and economic scenarios when evaluating a loan offer, and try to resist the temptation to over-invest in housing. AS voters, we should demand an end to destructive government intervention in housing markets and home lending.