Mr. Melvin Watt runs FHFA, the Federal Housing Finance Agency charged with regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Yesterday Mr. Watt said:
To increase access for creditworthy but lower-wealth borrowers, FHFA is also working with the Enterprises to develop sensible and responsible guidelines for mortgages with loan-to-value ratios between 95 and 97 percent. Through these revised guidelines, we believe that the Enterprises will be able to responsibly serve a targeted segment of creditworthy borrowers with lower-down payment mortgages … [this] is yet another much needed piece to the broader access to credit puzzle.
Mr. Watt wants to return to the good old days when you could buy a house with 3% down, and in particular he wants poor people to be able to buy a house leveraged 33:1.
This is the return of a terrible idea, a zombie I thought was destroyed when the housing bubble burst. Many homeowners, of all income levels, were too highly leveraged and bought more home than they could afford. They gambled that housing prices would rise forever. Many lost that gamble. They were hurt, their neighbors were hurt, and the financial institutions that held their mortgages were hurt. When the housing bubble burst and financial institutions collapsed, the global economy tanked. Over leverage and tiny down payments (and not just for the poor) contributed significantly to the housing bubble, the financial crisis, and the resulting severe recession.
In May of last year I wrote:
By nominating Mr. Watt the President signals a return to the pre-crisis philosophy of regulating housing finance risk. That is a huge mistake. Mr. Watt should not be confirmed to head the FHFA.
There is a tradeoff you get when policies encourages expanding credit. More people are able to buy things they could not otherwise afford, but at the same time more people end up in credit trouble. This balance clearly went too far in the easy credit direction in the late 90s through the late 00s.
In their never-ending quest to be “pro homeownership,” for more than two decades policymakers and elected officials on both sides of the aisle took every opportunity to expand credit and subsidize home buying. The GSEs’ regulatory structure allowed them to ignore the costs and risks of these actions until it all imploded.
The usual left-right DC housing debate centers on whether one should distort policy to give preferential treatment to poor borrowers. The far left says yes, and many on the right say no. Mr. Watt’s announcement is consistent with the left’s view in that he appears to be considering lowering the down payment requirement for poor borrowers (technically “lower-wealth” borrowers, who will be highly correlated with lower-income borrowers).
But many on the right (including those who opposed aggressive GSE reforms and were quite friendly with Fannie and Freddie pre-crisis) were just as supportive of low down payments as long as they were available to middle- and upper-income homebuyers as well. Think carefully, Congressional Republicans, before you cast stones at your progressive friends on the left. Mr. Watt wants to make it easier for poor people to buy too much house. The problem is the too much house part, not the poor part.
My complaint is not particularly with lowering the GSEs’ down payment requirement for poor borrowers, it’s making this policy change for any borrowers. Policy should not be encouraging or subsidizing (explicitly or implicitly) anyone who buys a house leveraged 33:1, whether he is poor or rich. If policymakers want to encourage homeownership they should encourage responsible homeownership, which means that you have been patient and wise enough to save for a significant down payment.
For many poor people a larger down payment requirement will mean that they either have to buy a smaller house, or work and save longer to afford a bigger down payment, or rent rather than buy. I think all three outcomes are better than encouraging people to buy homes they cannot afford, than gambling (again) that housing prices will always go up, than inflating a new housing bubble, and than creating a new batch of toxic housing-related financial assets based on bad mortgages.
Mr. Watt’s announcement reinforces my view that the GSEs and their regulatory structure should be completely replaced by a purely private housing finance market. Any replacement regulatory structure that allows the government a role in determining the structure of mortgages will be subject to distortion like that which Mr. Watt is about to revive. If the balance of legislative power requires that housing for poor people be subsidized, then the right way to do it is to combine a free market in mortgages with explicit on-budget subsidies for the poor, and with those subsidies targeted at income rather than at making down payments cheaper.
Let’s remember the recent past and not repeat those mistakes anew.