Housing Market on Government Crutches

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My house has been on the market for a month and it has drawn a lot more looks than I expected. I’ve been quizzing realtors as they come through, and each one tells me the same story: the government is single-handedly propping up the demand for housing. In addition to the homebuyer tax credit and government-induced low mortgage interest rates, most sales are being done with Federal Housing Administration backing.

As a seller, I’m looking to get out before the tax credit expires and interest rates starting ticking upward. But when I do sell, I certainly won’t be looking to buy a house, particularly since I’ll be selling at a loss. If my situation is representative of other current sellers, the housing market could be in for another tumble if the government crutches are removed. However, if the government instead continues trying to prop up the housing market, the risk that taxpayers will take another bath goes up. It’s a nasty Catch-22 that demonstrates the problems with the government distorting the housing market to begin with.

A recent New York Times article looked at the housing market in the “beleaguered” manufacturing city of Elkhart, Indiana, which has twice served as a prop for President Obama. The Times says Elkhart “symbolizes the failure of federal efforts to turn around the housing slump at the heart of the economic crisis” and that “[h]ousing in this community has become almost entirely dependent on a string of federal support programs.” 

The situation in Elkhart described by the Times matches perfectly with what realtors are telling me:

To the extent that the real estate market is functioning at all, people here say, it is doing so only because of the emergency programs, which have pushed down interest rates on mortgages and offered buyers a substantial tax credit. Equally important is an expanded mortgage insurance program run by the Federal Housing Administration, which encourages private lenders to accept borrowers with small down payments. The government takes the risk of default.

The one problem with the Times piece is that it doesn’t completely connect the dots. Namely, the problem the government is trying to solve is a problem that its housing policies instigated: the housing boom and bust. For instance, the article cites a good example of government policies mimicking the irresponsible lending that helped create this mess in the first place:

The programs favor first-time buyers, who have the fewest resources to bring to a deal. Heather Stevens, a 23-year-old nurse here, is closing on a three-bedroom house this week. Since her loan was insured by the Federal Housing Administration, she had to put down only 3.5 percent of the $74,900 purchase price.
“It was a breeze to get approved,” she said.
The sellers are covering her closing costs, which agents say is often the case here. That meant Ms. Stevens had to come up with only the $2,600 down payment, which still took all her savings.
But the best part is the $7,500 tax credit. She will use that to remodel the kitchen. “If it wasn’t for the credit, we would have waited to buy,” said Ms. Stevens, who is getting married this year.
Buying houses with no money down was a feature of the latter stages of the housing bubble. It gave prices a final push into the stratosphere. But buyers with no equity were the first to abandon their properties as the market turned south.

But there’s no mention of the role Fannie and Freddie, HUD, or the FHA played in fostering that bubble

The article continues:

With housing prices stagnant, bolstering the market by again letting people buy with hardly any money down is viewed in some quarters as a bad bet.
Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, wrote in his most recent report to Congress that “the federal government’s concerted efforts to support” housing prices “risk reinflating” the bubble.
He noted one difference from the last bubble: taxpayers, rather than banks, are now directly at risk in these new mortgages.

I would argue that the mere existence of TARP is proof that taxpayers were directly at risk to begin with. The risk may be more explicit now, but that’s only because the bubble’s bursting washed away a lot of the private sector’s bad actors. But the ultimate bad actor, Uncle Sam, who encouraged the private sector’s risky lending activities, has stepped in to fill the void. Just how badly this turns out for taxpayers remains to be seen.