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Archive for the ‘Housing’ Category

There’s a problem in California. No, I’m not referring to the punitive tax laws. Nor am I talking about the massive unfunded liabilities for bureaucrat pension.

Those are big problems, to be sure, but today’s topic is the state’s government-created housing crisis. The population keeps expanding, but local governments use zoning laws to restrict development of new homes and apartments.

And guess what happens when supply is constrained and demand keeps climbing? Even a remedial student in Economics 101 will probably understand that this is a recipe for ever-rising prices.

The solution, of course, is to expand the housing stock. Build more homes, apartments, and condos.

But local governments don’t like that option because existing homeowners (who vote) benefit from scarcity-induced increases in home values. And environmentalists also don’t like any development because of ideology.

Moreover, why fix the problem when politicians in Washington are willing to promote crackpot ideas. And that’s a very apt description of Senator Kamala Harris’ scheme to subsidize rental payments.

Why is this a crackpot idea? Because prices go up in every sector of the economy that is subsidized. This is why health care keeps getting more expensive. It’s why higher education keeps getting more expensive.

And if Washington politicians decide to subsidize rent, the same thing will happen.

Writing for National Review, Jibran Khan explains why Harris has the wrong solution for the wrong problem. He starts by explaining why there’s a housing shortage.

Harris’s subsidy won’t improve the situation, and could even make things worse by drawing attention away from actual solutions. The Bay Area’s rent crisis is driven by a drastic shortage in housing. Strict rent control in San Francisco and “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) zoning policies have ensured that the area constructs only a fraction of the housing it needs. The San Francisco metro area added 373,000 new jobs between 2012 and 2017, but it allowed the construction of only 58,000 new units of housing. …Per Lawrence Yun, an economist who studies housing trends, the norm is for one housing unit to be built for every two jobs created. In the San Francisco area, there is less than one unit built for every six jobs created. …under Harris’s proposal, the currently homeless would remain homeless, while renters would receive some very short-term relief at the cost of other taxpayers.

He then explains why a subsidy will lead to higher rents, and a windfall for landlords.

Why would the relief be short-term? Because as landlords become aware that renters are receiving a subsidy, they will simply raise rents by the amount of the subsidy. The cost will be the same for the renters — who today are lining up for a chance to rent, showing that they are willing to pay it. In the end, then, this would be an effective subsidy for landlords, not renters.

Which, as mentioned above, is exactly what’s happened in other sectors that have received subsidies.

It’s not just libertarians who understand that Harris will make a bad situation worse.

Matt Yglesias is hardly a small-government zealot. He’s accused me, for example, of being insane and irrational because of my libertarian views. But we both agree that the real problem in California is government rules that limit development.

And I assume he also would agree that Harris’ plan will wind up enriching landlords rather than helping renters.

So why, then, is Harris proposing such a destructive policy?

There are three possible answers.

  1. She’s ignorant, and her staff is ignorant. Simply stated, there’s no understanding of indirect effects. Bastiat would be very disappointed.
  2. She’s malicious. In other words, she’s smart enough to realize the policy is bad, but she doesn’t care. Call this the Venezuela approach.
  3. She’s ambitious. In this scenario, she has no intention of pushing a bad idea, but she thinks it’s a good way of getting votes from renters.

I assume #3 is the right answer.

Regardless of her motives, she’s doing the wrong thing.

I’ve shared this chart on many occasions because it does a great job of showing that subsidized sectors are characterized by rising prices.

Give politicians enough leeway and maybe the entire economy can be dysfunctional!

P.S. I’m not being partisan. Republicans are quite capable of supporting very stupid policies in exchange for votes or campaign contributions. Just look at the GOPers who support the Export-Import Bank, Fannie-Freddie subsidies, or ethanol handouts.

P.P.S. Needless to say, I also object to the Harris scheme because it would make the tax code an even bigger mess. I realize it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see a simple and fair flat tax, but is it too much to ask for politicians not to make the system even worse?

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Both the House and Senate have approved reasonably good tax reform plans.

Lawmakers are now in a “conference committee” to iron out the differences between the two bills so that a consensus package can be a approved and sent to the White House for the President’s signature.

Sounds like we’re on the verge of getting a less-destructive tax system, right?

I hope so, but there are still some major hurdles. The conference committee has a difficult task. They’re only allowed $1.5 trillion in tax relief in the short run and have to produce a bill that is “revenue neutral” in the long run. That won’t be easy in an environment where interest groups are putting heavy pressure on lawmakers.

I joked that doing tax reform with these restrictions is like trying to fit an NFL lineman in Pee Wee Herman’s clothes. But the serious point is that genuine tax reform requires some revenue-raising provisions to offset the parts of the bill that reduce revenue.

Needless to say, the right way of doing this is by going after economically harmful tax preferences. I’ve already written (over and over and over again) that the deduction for state and local taxes should be on the chopping block. To their credit, lawmakers are curtailing that loophole.

Today, I want to make the case that housing preferences in the tax code also should be targeted. I’m not naive enough to think politicians are suddenly going to decide to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. But the bills – especially the House version – slightly curtail preferences for housing and it would be nice if they went a bit further.

That would free up more revenue for pro-growth tax cuts and also be smart policy. Let’s look at what some expert voices, starting with market-oriented people.

Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explains the provisions in the House bill for the Wall Street Journal.

Tax reform could make housing more affordable. Done correctly, it could increase the supply of homes by reducing federal tax subsidies for homeownership. The House’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act furthers this aim in several ways—by raising the standard deduction, capping new loans qualifying for the mortgage-interest deduction at $500,000, eliminating the deduction on loans for second homes and the deduction on cashing out home equity, and capping the property-tax deduction at $10,000.

The Senate bill raises the standard deduction as well, but otherwise basically gives housing a pass. In the conference committee, Senators should agree to the House approach. Pinto explains that homeownership will be higher with less “help” from Washington.

…the House tax bill would create about 870,000 additional available units over 10 years. This represents a boost of 14% (the current build rate will yield about 6.2 million units over 10 years). Cutting homeowner subsidies out of the tax code provides other important benefits. The percentage of mortgage holders who itemize would drop from about 60% to 12%. This would free nearly half of mortgaged homeowners from a massive federal tax incentive hanging over their financial decisions, thereby greatly reducing the market-distorting impact produced by the interest deduction. …Lower prices due to loss of subsidies will ultimately allow more low-wealth Americans to become homeowners, since less cash will be needed to close a purchase. Rents will remain roughly constant as house prices decline, thus reducing the cost of homeownership compared with renting—another positive outcome. …It is time to put the interests of taxpayers and aspiring homeowners ahead of the interests of the housing lobby. Tax reform—especially if the final bill fully implements the House’s subsidy cuts—will improve the housing market and make homeownership more accessible to all.

Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia (home of the national championship-bound Bulldogs, I can’t resist pointing out) discusses the issue in Forbes.

About 64% of Americans own a house. Roughly two-thirds of those homeowners have a mortgage. Only 6% of all mortgages are for $500,000 or more. Put all those numbers together and you will find that home builders and realtors think their world is ending over policy changes to the mortgage interest deduction that impact only about 2.5% of American households. Plus, existing mortgages are grandfathered in, so anyone who purchased a home expecting the deduction will continue to enjoy it. …doubling the standard deduction means fewer people will itemize, meaning fewer will use the mortgage interest deduction. Importantly, those households that stop itemizing are doing so because the newly enlarged standard deduction provides them a lower tax burden. Households that have more after-tax income have more money to spend on houses, mortgage payments, and everything else in the economy. Housing is not being made unaffordable by the proposed tax reform since the vast majority of Americans will receive a moderate tax cut under the plan. Home builders and realtors seem concerned that a few rich Americans might not buy as expensive houses without as big a tax break, even though they will have more disposable income. …Housing depends much more on disposable income, the health of the job market, and Americans’ confidence in the economic future than it does on tax breaks. Don’t listen to the real estate industry; they will be just fine if the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passes.

George Will is not a fan of housing preferences in the tax code.

…only around 30 percent of taxpayers itemize their deductions. …not even half of all homeowners use the deduction. …the unpleasantness of 2008 demonstrated the downside of encouraging too much homeownership. Furthermore, the deduction might actually suppress homeownership by being priced into rising housing costs. Besides, Australia, Canada and Britain, which have no mortgage interest deductions, have homeownership rates comparable to that of the United States. …Homeownership is…not an investment because “it does not improve the productive capacity of the economy.” Indeed, the more money that flows into housing, the less flows into stocks, bonds or banks.

Amen. We should have learned from 2008 that it’s bad news for government to muck around in housing.

Yet some politicians can’t resist because of their desire to buy votes.

Kevin Williamson of National Review adds his two cents.

It’s time for…a proposal to reduce or eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction, a tax subsidy that makes having a big mortgage on an expensive house relatively attractive to affluent households… Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing…significant tax increases on the rich. …Slate economics editor Jordan Weissmann, who is not exactly Grover Norquist on the question of taxes, describes the mortgage-interest deduction as “an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. It distorts the housing market in favor of higher prices, which is great if you are old and rich and own a house or three like Bernie Sanders but stinks if you are young and strapped and looking to buy a house. It encourages buyers to take on more debt at higher interest rates than they probably would without the deduction, and almost all of the benefits go to well-off households in the top income quintile. It is the classic example of upper-class welfare. …mortgage subsidies are not randomly distributed. The mortgage-interest deduction is much more important to rich people in San Francisco, where the median home price exceeds $1 million, than it is to middle-class people in Tulsa, where the median home price is about $110,000. …The best course of action would be to eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction entirely over a relatively short period of time, say five years. …it is difficult to make a compelling case that subsidizing Lena Dunham’s mortgage on her $5 million Brooklyn apartment (or helping out whoever took that $4.2 million Trump apartment off Keith Olbermann’s hands) needs to be a top national policy priority.

Writing for the City Journal, Howard Husock explains why the deduction is bad policy.

…the deduction should be pruned or eliminated—not just because it is inequitable but also because it distorts the housing market. Currently, a taxpayer can deduct interest on a mortgage up to $1.1 million—substantially more than the median U.S. home value ($203,000). Not surprisingly, the Government Accountability Office has found that higher-income households are generally more likely to use the mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions. In 2008, the most recent tax year for which data are available, taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of $100,000 or more “accounted for 13 percent of all returns but claimed nearly half (47 percent) of all mortgage interest and property tax deductions.” …The core problem with the MID, though, lies in how it affects housing markets. Inevitably, any policy that provides a tax reduction for those who buy or own homes increases the price of housing, through the implicit promise that the tax code will lower the effective house payments. MID supporters say that it encourages homeownership, but the Urban Institute finds that it mostly “rewards affluent households who would have bought homes anyway,” …Not surprisingly, the homebuilders lobby—among the hardiest of Washington swamp creatures—is fighting the proposal. …Reducing tax deductions that put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage should not be impeded by a special-interest group that has achieved its purported social goal—homeownership—in the U.S. at a rate (64 percent) that lags that of Canada (67 percent), where mortgage interest is not deductible.

Even folks on the left realize that housing preferences are bad policy.

Here are some excerpts from a Slate column.

It also must be said that the mortgage interest deduction is an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed. Currently, it’s an estimated $80 billion-plus subsidy that disproportionately helps upper-middle-class and wealthy households—according to the Tax Policy Center, 72 percent of its benefits go to the highest-earning 20 percent of taxpayers. This is to be expected, since wealthier people can buy larger houses and take out bigger mortgages. It also explains much of its political invulnerability; people who earn low- to mid-six-figures vote and very much treasure their slice of the welfare state that’s submerged in our tax code. But as a result, the deduction mostly encourages people who could have afforded homes anyway to buy bigger. Research has shown it does little if anything to expand homeownership overall, and may actually discourage it among younger American by driving up prices.

Derek Thompson of the Atlantic points out that housing preferences are a reverse from of class warfare.

Although about two-thirds of American households own a home, only one-quarter of them claim the deduction…households earning more than $100,000 receive almost 90 percent of the benefits. …it makes it harder for poor renters to join the class of homeowners. …Desmond writes, “a 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way.”

Scholars also find he deduction is not good policy.

A just-released academic study confirms that the right kind of tax reform will be very good for society, the economy, and homeownership.

The model demonstrates that repealing the regressive mortgage interest deduction decreases housing consumption by the wealthy, increases aggregate homeownership, improves overall welfare, and leads to a decline in aggregate mortgage debt. The mechanisms behind these results are intuitive. When both house prices and rents are allowed to adjust, the repeal of the mortgage interest deduction decreases house prices because, ceteris paribus, the after-tax cost of occupying a square foot of housing has risen. Reduced house prices allow low wealth, credit-constrained households to become homeowners because the minimum down payment required to purchase a house falls. At the same time, the elimination of the tax favored status of mortgages, acting in concert with the fall in equilibrium house prices, causes unconstrained households to reduce their mortgage debt. Because rents remain roughly constant as house prices decline, homeownership becomes cheaper relative to renting, which further re-enforces the positive effect of eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on homeownership. Importantly, the expected lifetime welfare of a newborn household rises because the tax reform shifts housing consumption from high income households (the main beneficiaries of the tax subsidy in its current form) to lower income families for whom the additional shelter consumption is relatively more valuable.

Now let’s look at experts who have strong arguments against the deduction, but who also comment on the distasteful role of special interests.

Matt Mitchell and Tad DeHaven, in a column for U.S. News & World Report, point out that the only real beneficiary of the deduction are interest groups (I call them swamp creatures) that want homeowners to go into debt in order to spend more money.

Motivated in part by a need to find revenue offsets for its broader tax cut proposal, the House has proposed to reduce the amount of mortgage debt taxpayers may deduct interest on from $1.1 million to $500,000; the Senate version would slightly reduce it to $1 million. But even these modest reforms have raised the ire of Big Housing. Indeed, even if both chambers had proposed to leave the mortgage interest deduction alone, this powerful lobby would still be upset that Congressional Republicans intend to raise the standard deduction: Doing so would cause fewer taxpayers to itemize, which means fewer people would claim the deduction. … the mortgage interest tax deduction…benefits wealthier Americans and the housing lobby at the expense of the majority of taxpayers, who receive no benefit…even the benefit for wealthier taxpayers is illusory “because the tax gains to homeowners are largely offset by increases in home prices.” That leaves the powerful housing lobby – represented most prominently by the National Association of Realtors and National Association of Homebuilders – as the real beneficiary. …why, then, has Big Housing fought so hard to keep the mortgage interest deduction? The answer is that although the deduction doesn’t affect home ownership, it does incentivize people to purchase more expensive homes. That translates into more money for realtors and home builders. And because the deduction is taken against the interest payment and not the down payment, it encourages home buyers to put more of the purchase on credit. So in reality, the deduction encourages home-borrowship, not homeownership. Did we mention that the Mortgage Bankers Association is also a prominent defender of the mortgage interest deduction?

Since we’re on the topic of swamp creatures, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner explains that housing preferences are bad for families and good for interest groups.

That means a married couple who rents (or owns a modest house, say, less than $225,000) making $70,000 would probably see their federal income taxes fall by 25 percent. Some lower-income families — including homeowners — would have their federal income tax liability wiped out. Middle-class families who currently itemize their deductions (because they spend more $12,600 a year on mortgage interest and charitable giving) would have their taxes go down, and their tax-filing simplified. …Will this lower home prices? Probably yes, because the value of this deduction gets priced into homes. That is, this deduction wasn’t really helping homeowners anyway. Who was the deduction helping? Mortgage lenders and homebuilders mostly, also realtors. These are the special interests who created and who fight tirelessly to save this deduction. Removing an economic distortion that has inflated home prices will create some losers, sure, but that doesn’t make it bad. Inflated home prices have stultified mobility, delayed family formation, increased household debt, and otherwise tied up families’ assets.

Tom Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation also criticizes the interest groups defending special preferences.

One of the obstacles to fundamental tax reform has always been that there is an entrenched constituency that benefits in some way from every provision in the tax code, and that can be counted on to noisily oppose any change to it. These constituencies are often not taxpayers themselves but business interests that have built a business on a particular tax provision. An obvious example is the residential mortgage interest deduction. …current tax reform plans would increase the standard deduction available to taxpayers who choose not to itemize their deductions. In other words, the real estate industry has a targeted tax preference that is only available to home owners through the itemized deduction, and they don’t want to see that tax preference diluted by a higher standard deduction available to everyone else. This is an obnoxious argument for the real estate industry to be making. Giving a higher standard deduction to those who do not itemize doesn’t take anything away from taxpayers who do, and it would simplify tax filing for many taxpayers because it would make the standard deduction more attractive. Apparently the real estate industry doesn’t want Americans to get a tax break unless they agree to go into massive debt to buy a house.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about the odious role of interest groups.

…doubling the standard deduction…would make the first $24,000 of income for a married couple tax-free. What’s not to like? Plenty, says the housing lobby. The National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and the National Association of Realtors each bashed the larger standard deduction on grounds that it would make the tax subsidy to their industries less appealing. …a reminder of how misguided the mortgage-interest deduction is. For starters, it distorts the allocation of capital by favoring housing, a form of consumption, over investments that might be more productive and raise everyone’s living standards. The deduction also disproportionately benefits the affluent, who buy more expensive homes with bigger mortgages. A 2013 Congressional Budget Office study found that 75% of the benefit of the mortgage-interest deduction goes to the top 20% of income earners. Two of three American tax filers don’t even itemize, which means they can’t deduct mortgage interest even if they have it. It’s also not clear the mortgage deduction is as critical to home ownership as advocates contend. Canada and Britain have similar rates of home ownership as the U.S. (nearly two thirds of their citizens) without a mortgage-interest deduction. …Republicans should reconsider giving housing a pass. For example, the GOP could limit the amount of mortgage-interest that could be deducted, or limit the deduction to borrowing below, say, $250,000. This would make the tax benefit less tilted to the affluent, and it would also provide more revenue for lower tax rates.

Since the WSJ editorial mentions that Canada has very high homeownership without any loopholes, let’s close today’s column by reviewing some additional global evidence.

In a chapter for a book on tax reform, Bill Gale of Brookings points out that the U.K. dramatically curtailed the tax benefit of housing without any adverse impact on homeownership.

Great Britain conducted a fascinating experiment showing both the political and economic viability of reducing mortgage subsidies.’ When tax subsidies for most forms of borrowing were eliminated in 1974-1975, subsidies for interest on the principal primary residence were retained, subject to a loan limit of £25,000. No subsidies were provided on second homes. The limit was raised to £30,000 in 1983-1984 and has stayed fixed since. …More recently, the subsidy has been provided only up to a fixed rate, set at 25 percent and then reduced to 15 percent for new loans in 1998. The British experience raises several interesting possibilities. …because the £30,000 limit is well below the average new mortgage loan, mortgage subsidies provide no marginal incentive for most taxpayers. …the decline in the value of the mortgage interest subsidy has been gradual, but huge. From 1974 to 1996, the value-thought of as the interest rate times the rate at which the subsidy is taken times the real loan limit-fell by about 90 percent. Nevertheless, finding much of an effect of the policies on the housing sector is difficult. From 1974 to 1994, homeownership rates, the ratio of mortgage debt to GDP, the ratio of mortgage debt to the housing stock, and the ratio of housing to fixed capital rose faster in the United Kingdom than in the United States. …the significant reduction in mortgage subsidies when homeownership rates were rising (by thirteen percentage points from 1974 to 1994) may make the events even more remarkable from a political perspective. The British experience and cross-country evidence that the presence of a deduction for mortgage interest does not greatly influence homeownership rates suggest that the value of subsidies for owner-occupied housing could be reduced.

Charles Hughes of the Manhattan Institute writes about the deduction’s downsides, but the part of his article that I want to highlight is the description of how Denmark curtailed housing preferences with no adverse consequences.

Many areas in the tax code introduce substantial distortions that are ripe for reform. One area is the mortgage interest deduction (MID), which allows claimants to deduct mortgage interest on their primary or secondary residences, up to a certain threshold. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the deduction for mortgage interest will reduce revenue by $72.4 billion this year, and by $234 billion through 2020, making it one of the most expensive tax expenditures in the tax code. Even at this magnitude, only about a quarter of tax filers claim the deduction… A new working paper analyzing the effects of the mortgage interest deduction in Denmark finds that it has no effect on homeownership rates in the long run, and it distorts decision-making about the size and price of which homes to buy. …the economists found no short- or long-run effects on home ownership.

Here’s a chart from that study. As you can see, dramatically curtailing the value of the deduction for mortgage interest did not have any noticeable impact on homeownership.

P.S. If you like the gory details of tax policy, I explained in 2012 that the problem with the tax code and housing isn’t the mortgage interest deduction, per se, but rather the fact that business investment doesn’t get the same treatment as residential real estate.

P.P.S. While lawmakers are debating whether to slightly limit preferences for housing, I should point out that there are two other huge loopholes – the municipal bond interest exemption and the healthcare exclusion – that basically were left untouched. Hopefully they will be on the chopping block for the next installment of tax reform.

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It’s not easy being a libertarian in the policy world of Washington. I view the flat tax as a timid intermediate step, with the real goal being a tiny federal government (like the Founding Fathers envisioned) that can be financed without any broad-based tax.

Yet even my timid intermediate step is considered radical and impractical by DC standards. There’s no discussion of fundamental tax reform. Instead, the  debate revolves around whether we can reduce a couple of tax rates in one part of the code and “pay for” those changes by altering some provisions in another part of the code.

This is very frustrating, which is why I joked with Neil Cavuto that we could kill two birds with one stone by trading Trump, Hillary, Manafort, and Podesta to Russia in exchange for that country’s 13 percent flat tax.

But I want to address a couple of serious points in the interview.

To conclude, most people assume that something will pass simply because GOPers desperately need some sort of victory to compensate for their failure to repeal (or even just tinker with) Obamacare.

That’s true, but that doesn’t change the fact that any bill can be defeated if Democrats are unified in opposition and a small handful of Republicans decide to vote no.

By the way, I’m not completely unsympathetic to some of the Republicans who are wavering on whether to vote for a reform bill. Consider their predicament: If there’s a bill that cuts the corporate tax rate and gets rid of the deduction for state and local income taxes (to my chagrin, I’m assuming property taxes will still be deductible), that will be a net plus for the economy. But, depending on other provisions in the legislation, it may mean that a non-trivial number of voters (especially from high-tax states) will be hit with a tax increase.

Members of Congress who want good policy can explain to those voters that the economy will grow faster. They can tell those voters that their state politicians now will be more likely to reduce state income tax burdens. I think those assertions are true, but voters looking at higher tax burdens probably won’t care about those long-run effects.

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Remember the financial crisis and market meltdown from late last decade? That wasn’t a fun time, and we’re still dealing with some of the fallout.

Let’s specifically look at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two privately owned but government-created housing finance institutions (also known as government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs). Fannie and Freddie received giant bailouts during the crisis, but they weren’t shut down. Instead, they have continued to operate, continued to benefit from implicit government subsidies, and continued to dominate housing finance because of their government-protected status.

Under the conditions of the bailouts, however, the excess cash generated by this government-subsidized duopoly have gone to the Treasury rather than to shareholders (incidentally, I wrote “excess cash” rather than “profit” because I think of the latter as money that is fairly earned in a competitive marketplace, whereas the earnings of the GSE’s are the result of an artificial, subsidized, and protected system).

In any event, the bailout will have been repaid at some point in the near future, so the government has to decide the next step. Should Fannie and Freddie be allowed to simply go back to their old model?

As you might expect, Cato’s expert on the issue, Mark Calabria, has a lot to say about the issue. In a column co-authored with Alex Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute, he proposes a set of reforms.

Nobody wants the old Fannie and Freddie back; nobody wants them to stay on indefinitely in conservatorship. What is required are practical steps forward.

Mark and Alex identify specific requirements that should be met before allowing Fannie and Freddie off the leash, starting with basic capital requirements and other reforms so the GSEs are less likely to create instability and excessive risk.

Take away Fannie and Freddie’s capital arbitrage and set their equity capital requirements in line with other financial institutions of similar size. Equity of at least 5 percent of total assets should be their required leverage capital ratio. …Given their undiversified business, something more might be prudent. In any case, the hyper-leverage which allowed Fannie and Freddie to put the whole financial system at risk needs to be permanently ended. …Designate them as the Systemically Important Financial Institutions (SIFIs) they indubitably are. Fannie and Freddie…have conclusively demonstrated their ability to generate huge systemic risk.

They also say Fannie and Freddie should no longer have special privileges. If these GSEs want to act like private companies, the should be subjected to all the laws and rules that apply to private companies.

End all their securities law exemptions. …End all their preferences in banking law and regulation. …End their exemption from state and local income taxes. …End all their exemptions from consumer protection rules. …Open up their charters to competition just like banking charters.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, the former heads of the FDIC and Wells Fargo, William Isaac and Richard Kovacevich, point out that President-Elect Trump wants to do the right thing and shrink the risky role of government.

…the president-elect want[s] to privatize the home-mortgage market and “will get it done reasonably fast.” That’s good news for American homeowners, the economy and taxpayers who were forced to foot the bill after the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown. …this is not a radical proposal. The private sector provides mortgages in most major countries, and there is little difference in the share of homeownership between the U.S. and other developed countries. No other country has the equivalent of the private-public model of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—crony capitalism at its best.

Isaac and Kovacevich explain why the old approach is unacceptable.

…many politicians and industry participants believe that housing cannot prosper without government support. We disagree. The U.S. cannot afford to go through another financial crisis, which started with subprime mortgages and would never have been so large if the residential mortgage industry had been market-based. Subprime mortgages have existed for decades. But they were a small percentage of the mortgage market until Fannie and Freddie reduced credit standards to increase their market share and meet low-income homeownership targets mandated by Congress. By 2007 nearly 50% of mortgages originated in the U.S. were subprime and “alt-A” types with government agencies guaranteeing about 70% of those… Without these government guarantees, the subprime bubble and financial crisis would have never happened. Bank regulators and industry experts warned Congress for decades about Fannie and Freddie and their increasingly large and risky portfolios, but Congress failed to act.

They then point out how we can move to a system based instead on market, and that any subsidies and handouts should be limited and transparent.

The solution is straightforward: The public-private hybrid of Fannie and Freddie—“government-sponsored entities”—should be abolished, their existing business sold or liquidated, and the mortgage market privatized. …The current $686,000 cap on new mortgages guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie should be reduced by $100,000 a year. This would put the companies out of originating new mortgages within seven years. …if the government still wants to subsidize mortgages for low-income families and minorities, the cost should be on budget and transparent. The Federal Housing Administration already does this.

By the way, a private system wouldn’t mean an end to conventional mortgages.

Others speculate that, without Fannie and Freddie, mortgage rates would skyrocket and the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage would vanish. We disagree. Nonconventional or “jumbo” 30-year mortgages not guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie have existed for decades. In the decade preceding the financial crisis, the interest rate on these jumbo mortgages averaged only about 0.25% higher than similar guaranteed mortgages, a difference of a little over $40 a month on a $200,000 mortgage. Shouldn’t Americans, like homeowners throughout the world, pay a tax-deductible $40 extra a month so taxpayers aren’t on the hook for hundreds of billions to bail out Fannie and Freddie?

Amen. Fannie and Freddie never should have been created in the first place.

And today, with the memory of their disastrous impact still fresh in our minds, we should do everything possible to shut down these corrupt GSEs. I’ve argued for this position over and over and over again.

Sadly (but not surprisingly), there are many people who want to move policy in the wrong direction. The Obama Administration has pushed for more risky housing handouts, often aided and abetted by Republicans who care more about pleasing lobbyists rather than protecting taxpayers.

And it goes without saying that Fannie and Freddie are proposing more handouts in order to create a bigger constituency that will advocate for their preservation.

Kevin Williamson of National Review looks at a crazy idea to create more risk from Fannie Mae.

…government-sponsored mortgage giant Fannie Mae roll[ed] out a daft new mortgage proposal that would allow borrowers without enough income to qualify for a mortgage to count income that isn’t theirs on their mortgage application. …Claiming that the money you are using for a down payment is yours when it has been lent to you by a family member or a friend was a crime… Fannie Mae, the organized-crime syndicate masquerading as a quasi-governmental entity, has other ideas. Under its new and cynically misnamed “HomeReady” program, borrowers with subprime credit don’t need to show that they have enough income to qualify for the mortgage they’re after — they simply have to show that all the people residing in their household put together have enough income to qualify for that mortgage. We’re not talking just about husbands and wives here, but any group of people who happen to share a roof and a mailing address. …That would be one thing if all these people were applying for a mortgage together, and were jointly on the hook for the mortgage payments. But that isn’t the case. HomeReady will permit borrowers to claim other people’s income for the purpose for qualifying for a mortgage, but will not give mortgage lenders any actual claim against that additional income. This is madness.

Madness is certainly an accurate description. If you want to be more circumspect, economic illiteracy is another option.

The bottom line is that government-subsidized risk is not a good idea.

And also keep in mind that shutting down Fannie and Freddie is just part of the solution. So long as deposit insurance exists, we’re going to have some instability in the financial system. And so long as government wants to subsidize housing for people with poor credit, taxpayers will be on the hook for losses. And so long as there are biases in the tax code for debt over equity and residential real estate over business investment, the economy won’t grow as fast.

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James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute has an intriguing idea. Instead of a regular debate, he would like presidential candidates to respond to a handful of charts from the recent Economic Report of the President that supposedly highlight very important issues.

We’d quickly find out — I hope — who has real deep knowledge on key economic issues and challenges facing America.

I don’t always agree with Pethokoukis’ views (see here, here, and here), but he has a very good idea. He may not have picked the charts I would rank as most important, but I think 5 of the 6 charts he shared are worthy of discussion (I’m not persuaded that the one about government R&D spending has much meaning).

Let’s look at them and elaborate on why they are important.

We’ll start with the chart of labor productivity growth, which has been declining over time.

I think this is a very important chart since productivity growth is a good proxy for the growth in living standards (workers, especially in the long run, get paid on the basis of what they produce).

So what should we think about the depressing trend of declining productivity numbers?

First, some of it is unavoidable. The United States has an advanced economy and we don’t have a lot of “low-hanging fruit” to exploit. Simply stated, it’s much easier to boost labor productivity in a poor country.

Second, to the degree we want to boost labor productivity, more investment is the best option. That’s why I’m so critical of class-warfare policies that penalize capital formation. When politicians go after the “evil” and “bad” rich people who save and invest, workers wind up being victimized because there’s less saving and investment.

But this isn’t just an issue of machines, equipment, and technology. We also should consider human capital, which is why it is a horrible scandal that America spends more on education – on a per-capita basis – than any other nation, yet we get very mediocre results because of a government monopoly school system that – at least in practice – seems designed to protect the privileges of teacher unions.

The next chart looks at the number of companies entering and exiting the economy. As you can see, the number of businesses that are disappearing is relatively stable, but there’s been a disturbing decline in the rate of new-company formation.

As with the first chart, some of this may simply be an inevitable trend. In a mature economy, perhaps the rate of entrepreneurship declines?

But that’s not intuitively obvious, and I certainly haven’t seen any evidence to suggest why that should be the case.

So this chart presumably isn’t good news.

Some of the bad news is probably because of bad government policy (capital gains taxes, regulatory barriers, licensing mandates, etc) and some of it may reflect undesirable cultural trends (less entrepreneurship, more risk-aversion, more dependency).

Speaking of which, the next chart looks at the share of the workforce that is regulated by licensing laws.

This is a very disturbing trend.

Licensing rules basically act as government-created barriers to entry and they are especially harmful to poor people who often lack the time and money to jump through the hoops necessary to get some sort of government-mandated certification.

By the way, this is one area where the federal government is not the problem. These are mostly restrictions imposed by state governments.

The next chart looks at how much money is earned by the rich in each country.

I think this chart is very important, but only in the sense that any intelligent candidate should know enough to say that it’s almost completely irrelevant and misleading.

The economy is not a fixed pie. Income earned by the “rich” is not at the expense of the rest of us (assuming honest markets rather than government cronyism). It doesn’t matter if the rich are earning more money. What matters is whether there’s growth and mobility for people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

A good candidate should say the chart should be replaced by far more important variables, such as what’s happening to median household income.

Lastly, here’s a chart comparing construction costs with housing prices.

This data is important because you might expect there to be a close link between construction costs and home prices, yet that hasn’t been the case in recent years.

There may be perfectly reasonable explanations for the lack of a link (increased demand and/or changing demographics, for instance).

But in all likelihood, there may be some undesirable reasons for this data, such as Fannie-Freddie subsidies and restrictionist zoning policies.

As with the licensing chart, this is an area where the federal government doesn’t deserve all the blame. Bad zoning policies exist because local governments are catering to the desires of existing property owners.

By the way, while I think Pethokoukis shared some worthwhile charts, I would have augmented his list with charts on the rising burden of government spending, the tax code’s discrimination against income that is saved and invested, declining labor-force participation, changes in economic freedom, and the ever-expanding regulatory burden.

If candidates didn’t understand those charts and/or didn’t offer good solutions, they would be disqualifying themselves (at least for voters who want a better future).

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I’ve written before about the tremendous success of Hong Kong. The jurisdiction routinely is ranked as being the world’s freest economy, and its fiscal policy is a role model for spending restraint.

One reason Hong Kong has prospered is that it has enjoyed a policy of benign neglect, particularly when it was a British colony prior to 1997. More specifically, the United Kingdom by happenstance appointed John Cowperthwaite to help govern the colony. And his view of governing was to leave things alone.

…while the mother country lurched in a socialist direction at home under Clement Attlee, Cowperthwaite became an advocate of what he called “positive non-interventionism” in HK.

Cowperthwaite was especially wise in realizing that collecting statistics was risky because advocates of big government would want to justify and implement intervention on the basis of data.

To Cowperthwaite, the planner’s quest for statistics was anathema. So he refused to compile them. When Friedman asked him in 1963 about the “paucity of statistics,” Cowperthwaite answered, “If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning.”

This may seem to be an arcane point, but imagine how much freer we would be if Washington didn’t have access to our private information.

Consider these examples.

  1. The burdensome modern income tax would be impossible if government didn’t have information on our income and assets.
  2. Disgusting examples of asset forfeiture would no long occur if the government didn’t have data on our bank accounts.
  3. Failed interventions such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core would be impractical if Washington didn’t have education statistics.
  4. Our medical system wouldn’t be messed up by Obamacare, Medicaid, and Medicare if politicians didn’t have data about healthcare.

The list is almost endless.

And now we have another disturbing example. As the New York Post reports, the Obama Administration is engaging in an intrusive and Orwellian data-collection exercise as a precursor for central planning of the economy and manipulation of private behavior.

Unbeknown to most Americans, Obama’s racial bean counters are furiously mining data on their health, home loans, credit cards, places of work, neighborhoods, even how their kids are disciplined in school — all to document “inequalities” between minorities and whites. This Orwellian-style stockpile of statistics includes a vast and permanent network of discrimination databases.

Why are they doing all this snooping? To justify more intervention, of course.

The bureaucrats are guided by the theory of disparate impact, which is based on the absurd notion that any difference in racial statistics somehow is a sign of malignant racism.

So it doesn’t matter if there isn’t any evidence of racism. It doesn’t matter if there’s any suggestion of actual discrimination.

What matters if that a bunch of bureaucrats want power to micro-manage the economy and control our lives.

Here’s what’s happening, for instance, in housing.

…the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing database, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development rolled out earlier this month to racially balance the nation, ZIP code by ZIP code. It will map every US neighborhood by four racial groups — white, Asian, black or African-American, and Hispanic/Latino — and publish “geospatial data” pinpointing racial imbalances. The agency proposes using nonwhite populations of 50% or higher as the threshold for classifying segregated areas. Federally funded cities deemed overly segregated will be pressured to change their zoning laws to allow construction of more subsidized housing in affluent areas in the suburbs, and relocate inner-city minorities to those predominantly white areas.

By the way, if you think this is just hyperbole, the federal government has been using Westchester County in New York as a guinea pig based on residential housing data. With terrible results, as you can imagine.

And the Department of Housing and Urban development also has been using subsidized housing as a tool for central planning of society.

Needless to say, this is the wrong approach. Instead of letting bureaucrats in Washington act as some sort of national zoning commission, we should shut down HUD and get the federal government completely out of the housing sector.

And, more broadly, we should heed the wise words of John Cowperthwaite, who helped Hong Kong become rich by denying bureaucrats access to data.

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Exactly one year ago, we looked at the best and worst policy developments of 2013.

Now it’s time for a look back at 2014 to see what’s worth celebrating and what are reasons for despair.

Here’s the good news for 2014.

1. Gridlock – I’ve been arguing for nearly three years that divided government is producing better economic performance. To be sure, it would have been difficult for the economy to move in the wrong direction after the stagnation of Obama’s first two years, but heading in the wrong direction at a slower pace is better than speeding toward European-style statism.

Indeed, the fact that policy stopped getting worse even boosted America’s relative competitiveness, so there’s a lot to be thankful for when politicians disagree with each other and can’t enact new laws.

David Harsanyi explains the glory of gridlock for The Federalist.

Gross domestic product grew by a healthy 5 percent in the third quarter, the strongest growth we’ve seen since 2003. Consumer spending looks like it’s going to be strong in 2015, unemployment numbers have looked good, buying power is up and the stock market closed at 18,000 for the first time ever. All good things. So what happened? …the predominant agenda of Washington was doing nothing. It was only when the tinkering and superfluous stimulus spending wound down that fortunes began to turn around. …spending as a percent of GDP has gone down. In 2009, 125 bills were enacted into law. In 2010, 258. After that, Congress, year by year, became one of the least productive in history. And the more unproductive Washington became, the more the economy began to improve. …Gridlock has caused an odd, but pervasive, stability in Washington. Spending has been static. No jarring reforms have passed — no cap-and-trade, which would have artificially spiked energy prices and undercut the growth we’re now experiencing. The inadvertent, but reigning, policy over the past four years has been, do no harm.

Amen. Though I should hasten to add that while gridlock has been helpful in the short run (stopping Obama from achieving his dream of becoming a second FDR), at some point we will need unified government in order to adopt much-needed tax reform and entitlement reform.

The key question is whether we will ever get good politicians controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

2. Restrained Spending – This is the most under-reported and under-celebrated news of the past few years, not just 2014.

Allow me to cite one of my favorite people.

In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion. In other words, there’s been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there’s been a spending freeze in Washington. …the fiscal restraint over the past five years has resulted in a bigger drop in the relative size of government in America than what Switzerland achieved over the past ten years thanks to the “debt brake.” …The bottom line is that the past five years have been a victory for advocates of limited government.

And this spending restraint is producing economic dividends, though Paul Krugman somehow wants people to believe that Keynesian economics deserves the credit.

3. Limits on Unemployment Benefits – Although the labor force participation rate is still disturbingly low, the unemployment rate has declined and job creation numbers have improved.

The aforementioned policies surely deserve some of the credit, but it’s also worth noting that Congress wisely put a stop to the initiative-sapping policy of endlessly extending unemployment benefits. Such policies sound compassionate, but they basically pay people not to work and cause more joblessness.

Phil Kerpen of American Commitment elaborates, citing recent research from the New York Fed.

According to empirical research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York: “most of the persistent increase in unemployment during the Great Recession can be accounted for by the unprecedented extensions of unemployment benefit eligibility.” Those benefits finally ended at the end of 2013, triggering a sharp rise in hiring… Specifically, they found that the average extended unemployment benefits duration of 82.5 weeks for four years had the impact of raising the unemployment rate from 5 percent to 8.6 percent. …Good intentions are not enough in public policy.  It might seem kind and compassionate to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on “emergency” unemployment benefits forever, but the effect is to keep millions of people unemployed.  Results matter.

Phil’s right. If you pay people not to work, you’re going to get foolish results.

But the three above stories are not the only rays of sunshine in 2014. Honorable mention goes to North Carolina and Kansas for implementing pro-growth tax reforms.

I’m also pleased that GOPers passed the first half of my test and told the Democrat appointee at the Congressional Budget Office that he would be replaced. Now the question is whether they appoint someone who will make the long-overdue changes that are needed to get better and more accurate assessments of fiscal policy. That didn’t happen when the GOP had control between 1995 and 2007, so victory is far from assured.

And another honorable mention is that Congress has not expanded the IMF’s bailout authority.

Now let’s look at the three worst policy developments of 2014.

1. Obamacare Subsidies – Yes, Obamacare has been a giant albatross for the President and his party. Yes, the law has helped more and more people realize that big government isn’t a good idea. Those are positive developments.

Nonetheless, 2014 was the year when the subsidies began to flow. And once handouts begin, politicians get very squeamish about taking them away.

This is why I wrote back in 2012 that Obamacare may have been a victory (in the long run) for the left, even though it caused dozens of Democrats to lose their seats in the House and Senate.

I think the left made a clever calculation that losses in the last cycle would be an acceptable price to get more people dependent on the federal government. And once people have to rely on government for something like healthcare, they are more likely to vote for the party that promises to make government bigger. …This is why Obamacare – and the rest of the entitlement state – is so worrisome. If more and more Americans decide to ride in the wagon of government dependency, it will be less and less likely that those people will vote for candidates who want to restrain government.

Simply stated, when more and more people get hooked on the heroin of government dependency, I fear you get the result portrayed in this set of cartoons.

2. Continuing Erosion of Tax Competition – Regular readers know that I view jurisdictional competition as a very valuable constraint on the greed of the political class.

Simply stated, politicians will be less likely to impose punitive tax policies if the geese with the golden eggs can fly away. That’s why I cheer when taxpayers escape high-tax jurisdictions, whether we’re looking at New Jersey and California, or France and the United States.

But this also helps to explain why governments, either unilaterally or multilaterally, are trying to prevent taxpayers from shifting economic activity to low-tax jurisdictions.

And 2014 was not a good year for taxpayers. We saw further implementation of FATCA, ongoing efforts by the OECD to raise the tax burden on the business community, and even efforts by the United Nations to further erode tax competition.

Here’s an example, from the Wall Street Journal, of politicians treating taxpayers like captive serfs.

Japan could become the latest country to consider taxing wealthy individuals who move abroad to take advantage of lower rates. The government and ruling party lawmakers are considering an “exit tax”… Such a rule would prevent wealthy individuals moving to a location where taxes are low–such as Singapore or Hong Kong… some expats in Tokyo are concerned the rule could make companies think twice about sending senior professionals to Japan or make Japanese entrepreneurs more reluctant to go abroad.

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is that Japan should reduce tax rates if it wants to keep people (and their money) from emigrating.

3. Repeating the Mistakes that Caused the Housing Crisis – A corrupt system of subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, combined with other misguided policies from Washington, backfired with a housing bubble and financial crisis in 2008.

Inexplicably, the crowd in Washington has learned nothing from that disaster. New regulations are being proposed to once again provide big subsidies that will destabilize the housing market.

Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute warns that politicians are planting the seeds for another mess.

New standards were supposed to raise the quality of the “prime” mortgages that get packaged and sold to investors; instead, they will have the opposite effect. …the standards have been watered down. …The regulators believe that lower underwriting standards promote homeownership and make mortgages and homes more affordable. The facts, however, show that the opposite is true. …low underwriting standards — especially low down payments — drive housing prices up, making them less affordable for low- and moderate-income buyers, while also inducing would-be homeowners to take more risk. That’s why homes were more affordable before the 1990s than they are today. … The losers, as we saw in the financial crisis, are borrowers of modest means who are lured into financing arrangements they can’t afford. When the result is foreclosure and eviction, one of the central goals of homeownership — building equity — is undone.

Gee, it’s almost as if Chuck Asay had perfect foresight when drawing this cartoon.

Let’s end today’s post with a few dishonorable mentions.

In addition to the three developments we just discussed, I’m also very worried about the ever-growing red tape burden. This is a hidden tax that undermines economic efficiency and enables cronyism.

I continue to be irked that my tax dollars are being used to subsidize a very left-wing international bureaucracy in Paris.

And it’s very sad that one of the big success stories of economic liberalization is now being undermined.

P.S. This is the feel-good story of the year.

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