Monday, March 29, 2010

Is Government Intervention Delaying A Housing Recovery?

Even after the stimulus of low interest and homebuyer tax credits, the government is launching another program to help homeowners and support home prices. However, these ongoing programs are preventing the market from reaching a bottom. See the following post from The Mess That Greenspan Made.

Well, it looks like many more billions of dollars will be spent to aid the nation's housing market in what is, in large part, an ultimately futile attempt to keep home prices above where the market would like to take them.

Freakishly low interest rates and $8,000 or more in tax credits for homebuyers apparently hasn't done the trick, so the White House today is launching a new program to help homeowners who can't afford to stay in their house by lowering payments through government subsidized financing and, in some cases, reducing mortgage balances.

Not long ago, a commenter here noted the following:
I feel that another leg down is inevitable. I also think the government will try to intervene which may keep us in limbo for longer than necessary. The end could come and we could get back to business in a more stable, albeit lower price level, market if the government would just get out of the way. It is much harder to sell or rent in a market that is still trending downward or where there is a lot of lingering doubt. If we could reach a bottom and have prices stabilize on their own for a few months without any government action, it would become obvious to all that the worst truly is behind us and then all the pent up buying could come back. But as long as the market is being propped up superficially, the skeptics will continue to wait on the sidelines making recovery impossible. We need to bottom and start over so we can develop business models that will work. With the government involved and more bad news waiting in the wings, it is impossible to make long-term plans. The economy will just have to wait until the government gets out of the way, IMHO.
Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be one of the options now being considered...

While I'm as sympathetic as anyone about a family down on their luck after job losses and a collapsing real estate market, this misplaced notion of the sanctity of homeownership and how people losing their houses to foreclosure is somehow such a terrible tragedy is ultimately doomed to make things much worse than they would otherwise be.

The vital lesson that, apparently, has not yet been learned through previous efforts at bailing out homeowners is that most of these people had no business buying the place in the first place and, while the feeling that "Banks got their bailout so I want mine too" is both understandable and pervasive, it is no reason to make a bad situation even worse.

Caroline Baum has some similar thoughts in today's column at Bloomberg:
Between them, the federal government and central bank can lower mortgage rates, modify mortgages, use their power to get private lenders to modify mortgages, and create incentives to move inventory, such as the first-time homebuyer’s tax credit.

What they can’t do is manufacture enough artificial demand for an asset that was artificially inflated to begin with. Prices will have to fall, which is how supply is allocated in a market economy. (An occasional reminder is in order given the current spend-money-to-save-money mindset.)
I’m all for charity and doing what makes sense. If a lender decides it’s in his self-interest to reduce the loan balance on underwater or delinquent mortgages -- if modification is cheaper than foreclosure -- that’s between management and shareholders.

With government programs, those who lived within their means, who bought a home they could afford, are being asked to pay for the mistakes of others. Bankers and insurance companies weren’t the only ones who were greedy.
Barry Ritholtz also had some thoughts on this, arguing we need more foreclosures, not less:
I have been dismayed about the latest actions out of Washington and Wall Street. The banks are now pushing all manner of mortgage mods and foreclosure abatements. These are little more than “extend & pretend” measures, designed to put off the day of reckoning. They are not only ineffective, they are counter-productive. They reward the reckless and punish the responsible, and create a moral hazard. Worse yet, they penalize middle America for the sake of giant Wall Street banks.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best thing for the nation (but not necessarily the banks) is to allow the foreclosure process to proceed unimpeded. We need more, not less foreclosures.
We should allow the real estate market to experience a healthy price normalization process. Even though home prices have fallen dramatically, they have yet to reach their historical means relative to income or the cost of renting. This is to say nothing of the usual careening past the median towards under-valuation that typically follows a massive mis-allocation of capital.
Yes folks, this is how you get a "lost decade", by again and again trying to: a) prop up assets that desperately want to return to levels supported by market fundamentals; b) keep insolvent banks solvent; and c) sustaining the misguided belief that a 70 percent homeownership rate is or ever was a desirable goal.

This post has been republished from Tim Iacono's blog, The Mess That Greenspan Made.

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