A Socratic Dialogue About Bernie Madoff
Oats: A Grain that in England Is Fed to Horses, and in Scotland to People...

Socialism in One Sector--the Housing Sector

Glenn Hubbard and Charlie Mayer call for the effective nationalization of the mortgage finance sector:

Low-Interest Mortgages Are the Answer: Recent news articles suggest that the Treasury Department is considering a plan to offer a 4.5% mortgage for home buyers for a period of time. Let's hope it does. It would help arrest the decline in house prices that is at the base of the ongoing financial crisis and recession.

Raising the demand for housing makes sense now. While fundamental factors clearly played a role in driving down house prices that were at excessive levels two years ago, we have argued in a paper (to be published in the Berkeley Electronic Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy) that in most markets house values are today lower than what is consistent with the average level of affordability in the past 20 years.

Nonetheless, without policy action house prices are likely to continue falling, thanks largely to the meltdown in mortgage markets and the weakening employment outlook. Conversely, we see little risk that increasing the demand for housing will touch off another housing bubble. And indexing the mortgage rate to the Treasury yield could avoid this outcome in the future. While the economy is contracting, low interest rates would spur housing activity. When economic activity improves, the U.S. Treasury yield and mortgage rates would rise.

A 4.5% mortgage rate is not too low. The 10-year U.S. Treasury yield closed at 2.3% on Dec. 12, 2008. Hence a 4.5% mortgage rate is 2.2% above the Treasury yield, above the 1.6% spread that would prevail in a normally functioning mortgage market.

Some have argued that lenders should earn more than the average 1.6% spread, to compensate for the fact that housing is a much riskier investment today. We don't think so. Recall that a mortgage can be thought of as a risk-free bond plus two possibilities that increase risk to lenders: default and/or prepayment. Historically, the risk of default adds about 0.25% to the interest rate. The remaining spread of the mortgage rate over the Treasury yield represents the risk of prepayment and underwriting costs. With falling house prices, the risk of default could indeed add 0.75% or more for a newly underwritten and fully documented loan. But 4.5% would be the lowest mortgage rate in more than 30 years -- so the additional risk to lenders of prepayment would be almost nil. And low mortgage rates would substantially reduce the risk of further house price declines...

The Treasury doesn't have the know-how to offer mortgages. Fannie and Freddie do.

All in all, I approve of the plan: having Fannie and Freddie buy up mortgages at market prices and refinance them at 4.5% could do a lot of good for the country and make a fortune for the government.

I am, however, gobsmacked to see Glenn Hubbard proposing it.