Looking at how consumers are the major beneficiaries of fixed-rate mortgages

The historical development of the fixed-rate mortgage, usually 30 years in the United States, helped contribute to the post-World War II suburbanization boom in the United States. Several scholars take a look at who exactly benefits from the fixed-rate mortgage (FRM):

The FRM clearly occupies a central role in the U.S. housing finance system. It has been the dominant instrument since the Great Depression and currently accounts for more than 90 percent of mortgage originations. The FRM is regarded as a consumer-friendly instrument, which is one reason why it enjoys enduring popularity. But the instrument can cause problems for both current and prospective borrowers. And part of its popularity is due to government support as well as past regulatory favoritism. The FRM is heavily subsidized through the securitization activities of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These subsidies, which lower the relative cost of the instrument, are an important factor in its popularity. The FRM also imposes costs on the mortgage industry and on investors in mortgage securities—costs that are likely to rise as the economy recovers. Importantly, the FRM is a onesided design. Consumers, particularly those who utilize the prepayment option, benefit while investors and taxpayers bear the cost.

The PDF file linked to from this document has a lot of interesting information. A few thoughts about this:

1. The fixed-rate mortgage came about because of particular historical conditions and interests. Prior to World War II, other kinds of mortgages were sold.

2. The fixed-rate mortgage is not as common in lot of other countries around the world. There are other ways the mortgage market could be set up.

3. The authors suggest that the FRM is the primary mortgage instrument in this country because of governmental approval. Here are the final two sentences in the conclusion of the PDF:

There is nothing so special about housing finance that necessitates the government absorbing the credit risk of the vast majority of the mortgage market or underwriting the interest-rate risk of the that market. Two episodes with massive taxpayer loss should convince us of that fact.

But I think this may be overlooking the cultural and symbolic value Americans place on owning a home. While this scheme may put taxpayers on the hook, Americans also value homeownership, particularly as a lynchpin of the American Dream. Most (if not all) presidents since Calvin Coolidge have pushed policies that would boost the homeownership rate. From FHA and VA loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government has poured billions into homeownership. So while consumers might benefit from this setup, would we be willing as a nation to push for different types of mortgages that might make it more difficult for Americans to purchase a home?

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