Repeating the Mistakes of the Mortgage Crisis

The Federal Housing Administration seems intent on repeating one of the key policy errors that played a major role in causing last year’s financial crisis. One of the main causes of the mortgage crisis that led to the broader financial crisis of 2008 was government subsidization of risky mortgages for people who were unlikely to be able to pay them back if real estate prices fell. Investors bought up dubious mortgages supported by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because they correctly perceived these “government-sponsored entities” as having an “an implicit government guarantee.” See this account by Charles Calomiris and Peter Wallison. Wallison also presciently warned of the possible dangers back in 2005. Government backing for dubious mortgages was a bipartisan policy backed by many Republicans as well as Democrats. President Bush, for example, sought, in his words, to “use the mighty muscle of the federal government” to expand homeownership by giving GSEs incentives to ease credit requirements.

Unfortunately, policymakers have still not learned their lesson. As columnist Steve Chapman points out, the FHA is again subsidizing the same types of dubious mortgages that the federal government backed with disastrous results in the years leading up to 2008:

Watching Washington policymakers in action, I sometimes think they make mistakes because of unrealistic goals, flawed thinking, blind obedience to party, or dubious information. And sometimes I think they make mistakes because they are—how to put this?—clinically insane.

There is no other way to explain what is going on at the Federal Housing Administration, which provides federal guarantees for home mortgages. Given the collapse in real estate prices, the weak economy, and the epidemic of foreclosures, banks are acting with more caution than before. They now commonly require home buyers to make down payments of 20 percent to qualify for a loan. But the FHA often requires only 3.5 percent.

That’s the equivalent of playing pool with a guy named Snake, and it’s had two predictable effects. The first is that the agency is insuring about four times as many home loans as it did just three years ago. The other is that the number of FHA-approved borrowers who are not repaying their loans is climbing. Since last year, the default rate has jumped by 76 percent.

Another likely consequence looms: you and I eating the losses. A former executive of mortgage giant Fannie Mae told a congressional subcommittee that the FHA “appears destined for a taxpayer bailout in the next 24 to 36 months.” Commissioner David Stevens had to assure the subcommittee that it would not need help—well, unless there is a “catastrophic home price decline.” But who says there won’t be? It’s not as though anyone at the FHA foresaw the housing bubble or the housing bust. Yet now it feels confident betting its $30 billion cash reserve that prices won’t fall.

Unlike Chapman, I don’t think the policymakers are “insane.” They are responding rationally to perverse incentives. If another mortgage crisis occurs, they hope to shift the blame to a supposedly insufficiently regulated private sector – which is more or less how many of them managed to escape blame the last time around. The public did punish the Republican Party in the 2008 presidential election. But most of the members of Congress and federal bureaucrats who supported the GSEs got off scott-free. Moreover, the full negative effects of risky government-backed lending may not become evident for years to come – perhaps at a time when some other administration and Congress will be in office. In the meantime, the administration, the FHA, and key members of Congress can reap the political benefits of getting support from grateful borrowers, real estate developers, and other interest groups that benefit from easy credit. This vicious circle could be forestalled if voters understood what is happening and punished the offending pols at the polls. However, widespread voter ignorance of both the details of federal policy and Economics 101 makes this unlikely.

I wish there were an easy solution to the problem of recurring bad policy caused by perverse political incentives. Sadly, I fear there is not. However, the beginning of wisdom is to at least recognize the nature of the problem.

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