Argument: increase the value of federally-backed mortgages, finance more McMansions

With a headline of “Rising Loan Limits Are a New Federal McMansion Subsidy,” the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal does not approve of recent mortgage changes:

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) said Tuesday it will increase the maximum size of mortgages that Fannie and Freddie will cover—known as the conforming loan limit—to $1,089,300 in high-cost areas from $970,800 this year and $765,600 in 2020. The conforming loan limit in other areas will rise to $726,200, from $510,400 two years ago…

Instead, the Administration wants to prop up housing demand and prices by raising the guarantee limit. This will please the Realtors and affluent, especially in California areas where the median home price exceeds the new limit, such as Orange County ($1.2 million), San Francisco ($1.3 million) and San Jose ($1.7 million).

Sorry to state the obvious, but anyone who can qualify for a million-dollar mortgage doesn’t need the government to subsidize it with a guarantee. The average 30-year interest rate on a jumbo loan is 6.8%, which is similar to a government-backed mortgage.

Borrowers with jumbo loans tend to have higher incomes and credit scores. But these mortgages are getting riskier as borrower monthly payments have risen faster than incomes. Layoffs are increasing in higher-paying fields like tech, and a recession could result in foreclosures. The FHFA is expanding the taxpayer liability at an especially risky time…

The more the government intervenes in the housing market, the more damage it does.

There is a lot here that relates to work I have done. A few thoughts in response:

  1. The final line is interesting. Is the assumption that the federal government should not be very involved or involved at all in the housing market? One journalist reported this quote from a European finance official a few years ago: “Most countries have socialized health care and a free market for mortgages. You in the United States do exactly the opposite.” This government intervention was instrumental in helping to create suburbs and promote homeownership.
  2. This move might help people in more expensive housing markets. Does one have to be rich to access housing in Orange County or San Jose or is this needed because the housing prices are so high there?
  3. The headline mentions McMansions but the word is not used in the editorial. Is the term shorthand for expensive homes? Or, commentary on the kinds of homes people with this level of resources purchase? Is the Wall Street Journal against McMansions? (If I had to guess based on my work looking at the use of McMansion in the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News, the WSJ would fit somewhere in between these two sources.)

US government thinking of renting foreclosed homes

Different people have different opinions about what to do with the glut of foreclosures: perhaps convert them into multi-family units, bulldoze them, or donate them. It appears the federal government might try another route: renting them.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency said Wednesday it is seeking input from investors on how to rent roughly 250,000 homes owned by government-controlled mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration. All of the homes are foreclosures…

Converting the homes into rentals may reduce “credit losses and help stabilize neighborhoods and home values,” said Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie and Freddie.

Homes in foreclosure sell at a 20 percent discount on average, which can hurt prices of surrounding homes.

It also might meet the growing demand for rentals. Since the housing meltdown, nearly 3 million households have become renters. At least 3 million more are expected by 2015, according to census data analyzed by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and The Associated Press.

This sounds like it could turn into a large program with a lot of moving pieces. Would these homes essentially be converted into temporary public housing?

If done well, this could help deal with a rental problem. Even before the economic crisis, a number of metropolitan areas suffered from issues of affordable housing: there simply were not enough cheaper and good units available. Additionally, there was often a mismatch between where these homes were located and where jobs were located. Could renting these foreclosures be a viable solution?

How many communities would be interested in supporting a program like this? I could imagine some interesting battles within better-off suburbs. On one hand, as the article mentions, foreclosures tend to drag down home values. On the other hand, having the federal government actively involved as a landlord in more neighborhoods would make a lot of people nervous.

Might the 30-year mortgage disappear?

An article suggests that the 30 year mortgage might “fade away.” As both Republicans and Democrats think about eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it is unclear whether a purely private mortgage industry would retain features like a 30-year payment period:

Life without Fannie and Freddie is the rare goal shared by the Obama administration and House Republicans, although it will not happen soon. Congress must agree on a plan, which could take years, and then the market must be weaned slowly from dependence on the companies and the financial backing they provide.The reasons by now are well understood. Fannie and Freddie, created to increase the availability of mortgage loans, misused the government’s support to enrich shareholders and executives by backing millions of shoddy loans. Taxpayers so far have spent more than $135 billion on the cleanup.

The much more divisive question is whether the government should preserve the benefits that the companies provide to middle-class borrowers, including lower interest rates, lenient terms and the ability to get a mortgage even when banks are not making other kinds of loans…

Hanging in the balance are the basic features of a mortgage loan: the interest rate and repayment period.

Fannie and Freddie allow people to borrow at lower rates because investors are so eager to pump money into the two companies that they accept relatively modest returns. The key to that success is the guarantee that investors will be repaid even if borrowers default — a promise ultimately backed by taxpayers.

A long line of studies has found that the benefit to borrowers is relatively modest, less than one percentage point. But that was before the flood. Fannie, Freddie and other federal programs now support roughly 90 percent of new mortgage loans because lenders cannot raise money for mortgages that do not carry government guarantees.

The issue of a 30-year mortgage would be up for debate within a broader restructuring of an important industry. Both organizations, Fannie Mae founded in 1938 and Freddie Mac created in 1970,  were intended to help Americans become homeowners. Fannie Mae, along with several other government programs, particularly helped to boost homeownership rates after World War II. During this postwar housing boom, government programs helped lower down payments and lengthened the years in a mortgage. If I remember correctly, mortgages prior to this postwar period were 15 or 20 years at most, required much larger down payments, and were available from mortgage lenders or savings and loans associations.

Where this article needs to go next is to ask whether this means fewer Americans will have access to mortgages and homeownership. If the industry is indeed restructured in the coming years, will the homeownership rate continue to drop? If politicians from both sides of the aisle are interested eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, does this mean the federal government is pulling away from more explicit endorsements of homeownership? It is intriguing to note that all of this might take place because of a large economic crisis (though both of these programs have had their critics for decades) while Fannie Mae was instituted in response to an earlier crisis.

WSJ: more regulations for law schools?

When the Wall Street Journal starts countenancing additional regulations for law schools, you know that the world really has changed:

Regulation? all you free-marketeers are asking. Really? Won’t regulation further drive up the cost of education, which is already stunningly high?

However, rather than dismissing the suggestion of greater regulation out of hand, WSJ blogger Ashby Jones finds Tung Yin’s argument for Sarbanes-Oxley-like regulation over at PrawfsBlawg “compelling”.  As Yin puts it:

If anything, it seems to me there’s arguably a stronger call for enforcing these sorts of disclosure and accuracy provisions on law schools (and universities in general) than on corporations. After all, the cost of corporate malfeasance with regard to balance sheets and the like is diffused across a huge number of investors, who are presumably not taking out huge loans with which to invest in said corporate stock.  (I guess there are margin traders, but really, they seem a less sympathetic group for concern than poor students with huge education debt.)  The cost of law school malfeasance in terms of misleading or false employment data is visited upon a (relatively) small number of students who are saddled with $50,000 or more in student debt.  Shouldn’t they be entitled to at least the same level of informational protection that stock investors now get?

I disagree with Yin’s analysis somewhat.  While it is true that there are “a (relatively) small number of students” with extreme educational debt, malfeasance by academic institutions has the same sorts of diffuse, wide-ranging implications that malfeasance by corporations has.  The federal government subsidizes or provides outright the bulk of law student loans.  Were it not for this subsidy, it is highly doubtful that law schools would attain their currently high enrollment numbers since no rational (i.e., unsubsidized) lender would loan six figures each to tens-of-thousands of 22-year-olds (at least, not on terms that would result in tens-of-thousands of new law students each year).

Like it or not, the U.S. government is heavily subsidizing legal education by providing students with access to virtually unlimited capital.  One can argue whether or not this represents a prudent investment in the nation’s future or an impending boondoggle on the scale of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but it seems clear to me that somebody should be requiring law schools to reveal the cold, hard facts on the value they are providing to their graduates.

The tired free-market-vs.-regulation arguments don’t really work here.  Law schools are not a free market; they’re a heavily subsidized one.  Unless and until that changes, I for one think the government is perfectly (and prudently) within its rights as the subsidizer to require fair, full, and accurate employment disclosure from law schools.