Wednesday, April 2, 2008

How not to save housing...

I have pontificated previously regarding the value that landscaping provides in increasing perceived home values by enhancing curb appeal, etc. (see value of landscaping in the sidebar). In recent months, I have also reported on the record decline in home values. Intuitively, those who have landscaped their homes "properly" may have offset the devaluation of their home to some degree.

But several Congressional proposals seek to adjust home values artificially by authorizing the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to guarantee $300 billion of new home loans to strapped homeowners, allowing them to refinance their existing mortgages at lower rates and lower outstanding amounts. Under it, homeowners who borrowed from Jan. 1, 2005 to July 1, 2007 would be eligible for new loans if their monthly payments of interest and principal exceeded 40 percent of their income, well above a more prudent level of 30 percent.

Everyone wins from this arrangement, say its supporters. Homeowners (some perhaps victims of deceptive lending practices) stay in their houses. Neighborhoods don't suffer the potential blight of numerous foreclosures. Housing prices don't go into a free fall, depressed by an avalanche of foreclosures. Although lenders take a loss, the losses are lower than they would be if homes went into foreclosure.

But Bob Samuelson provides a differing perspective, saying not only does not make good moral sense, but less economic sense:

About 50 million homeowners have mortgages. Who wouldn't like the government to cut their monthly payments by 20 percent or 30 percent? But Frank's plan reserves that privilege for an estimated 1 million to 2 million homeowners who are the weakest and most careless borrowers. With the FHA now authorized to lend up to $729,750 in high-cost areas, some beneficiaries could be fairly wealthy. By contrast, people who made larger down payments or kept their monthly payments at manageable levels would be made relatively worse off. Government punishes prudence and rewards irresponsibility. Inevitably, there would be resentment and pressures to extend relief to other "needy" homeowners.

The justification is to prevent an uncontrolled collapse of home prices that would inflict more losses on lenders -- aggravating the "credit crunch" -- and postpone a revival in home buying and building. This gets the economics backwards. From 2000 to 2006, home prices rose by 50 percent or more by various measures. Housing affordability deteriorated, with home buying sustained only by a parallel deterioration of lending standards. With credit standards now tightened, home prices should fall to bring buyers back into the market and to reassure lenders that they're not lending on inflated properties.

If rescuing distressed homeowners delays this process, the aid and comfort that government gives some individuals will be offset by the adverse effects on would-be homebuyers and overall housing construction. Of course, there are other ways for the economy to come to terms with today's high housing prices: a general inflation, which would lift nominal (but not "real") incomes; or mass subsidies for home buying. Neither is desirable.

None of this means that lenders and borrowers shouldn't voluntarily agree to loan modifications that serve the interests of both. Foreclosure is a bad place for most creditors or debtors. Although the process is messy, promising to lubricate it with massive federal assistance may retard it as both wait to see if they can get a better deal from Washington, which would then assume the risk for future losses.

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