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Archive for the ‘Housing’ Category

I have Republican friends who don’t trust Michael Bloomberg because he switched parties and Democratic friends who don’t trust him for the same reason. I tell all of them that it’s more important to focus on his policy agenda rather than his partisan identification.

Though that’s not a happy topic, at least from a libertarian perspective. For instance, I recently criticized his very bad tax plan.

And when he was mayor, I dinged him for his regressive views on the 2nd Amendment and his nanny-state approach to lifestyle choices.

Today, let’s consider his view on housing finance, which has generated controversy since video has surfaced with Bloomberg stating that the financial system got in trouble because anti-redlining policies required banks to make loans to customers in poor neighborhoods.

Other candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren, argue that this makes Bloomberg a supporter of racist practices (with the obvious implication that he might actually be a racist).

I’m reluctant to make such accusations, especially when I tracked down this longer version of the video and discovered that Bloomberg merely listed a bunch of policies that contributed to the housing bubble and financial crisis.

Redlining was the first thing he mentioned, but he also cites the Federal Reserve (dispenser of easy money) and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (dispensers of housing subsidies).

In the latter part of his answer, he focused on “securitization,” which is what happens when mortgages are bundled together and sold to investors (as “mortgage-backed securities”).

Much of what he says isn’t controversial.

But I want to point out a sin of omission.

Bloomberg mentioned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but only in passing. This is troubling because these two government-created entities, as explained in this video, deserve much of the blame for both the bubble and the subsequent crisis.

Yes, the Federal Reserve also deserves criticism for flooding the economy with too much liquidity.

But it was the government’s housing intervention, specifically Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that channeled much of that excess liquidity into the housing market.

Simply stated, financial institutions were willing to make sloppy loans because they knew those mortgages could be bundled into securities and sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Though many banks were steered into also investing in mortgage-backed securities thanks to other misguided government regulations.

P.S. The wise approach, needless to say, is to shut down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as part of an agenda to end government intervention in the housing sector.

P.P.S. Obama was bad on this issue and Trump is bad on this issue, so I won’t be surprised if Bloomberg also is bad on this issue if he gets to the White House.

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Just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, there are some consistent patterns with government.

Politicians, for instance, will enact a policy that distorts the economy and causes damage (with regards to trade, bailouts, guns, health, whatever). And they’ll then point to the damage and assert that even more intervention is needed.

I call this Mitchell’s Law, though I certainly don’t claim to be the first to observe this distressing tendency.

Today, we’re going to examine a classic example of this phenomenon by looking at how politicians are distorting the housing market with supply restrictions that produce higher costs, and then compounding their mistake with subsidies and price controls.

Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute offers some economic analysis.

Recently there has been a flurry of legislative proposals to add yet more housing subsidies to the housing sector, already one of the most heavily subsidized. …These are the most recent in a long history of ill-conceived policies that increase housing demand but do nothing about supply. The result: higher home prices and rents, particularly for low-income and minority households, the very ones these initiatives profess to help. …layers of subsidies combined with federal, state, and local regulations act to drive up costs while simultaneously constraining supply. …For example, Los Angeles has a median home price that is 8.8 times median income, up from 4.2 times in 1979. And median rent in LA is 49% of the median income, up from 32% in 1979. These results are largely driven by (i) easy access to credit which drive demand and prices ever higher, (ii) local land use restrictions and regulations that constrain new supply and drive building costs higher, and (iii) housing subsidies that make it even more difficult for market rate housing to compete. …Market-based solutions are the only way to bring home prices and rents back in line with median incomes and improve accessibility.

While there are plenty of bad housing policies in Washington (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Department of Housing and Urban Development, mortgage-interest deduction, etc), much of the problem is caused by state and local governments.

Kevin Williamson of National Review cites a regulation in Dallas to show that government intervention causes problems.

…smaller secondary residences built on the lots of other houses..have long been a go-to source of cheap housing in college towns and other places with substantial itinerant populations of temporarily penniless young people. …Dallas…prohibited the building and rental of these residences in the 1970s on the theory that this would help to improve the living conditions on the south side of town… To the great surprise of nobody except politicians and their creatures, prohibiting the construction and rental of affordable housing did not do much to help poor people in Dallas connect with affordable housing. …The politicians have decided that there is an affordable-housing crisis in America. They should know: They created it. …Why? Because people who own homes have more political power than people who might want to buy one at some point in the future.

The Wall Street Journal opined today about the inane anti-housing policies in the Beaver State.

Politicians bemoan the lack of affordable housing, but their policies often create the problem. Look no further than Oregon… Oregon’s population grew by nearly 400,000 between 2010 and 2019. But the state added a mere 37 housing permits for every 100 new residents… Oregon’s land-use rules have been dysfunctional for decades. …strict limits on urban expansion…urban growth boundaries… Rising housing prices are the inevitable result of this government-imposed scarcity. …Portland has enforced an “inclusionary zoning” requirement on new residential buildings with 20 or more units. The city now compels many landlords to rent up to a fifth of new units at below-market rates. …Permits for 20-plus-unit residential buildings plummeted 64% in 25 months after inclusionary zoning took effect, while applications to build smaller multi-family structures spiked… The rest of Oregon is following Portland’s bad example with more price controls. Last year it became the first state to impose universal rent control.

To show the impact of regulatory restrictions, the invaluable Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute has a must-read comparison of Los Angeles with two Texas cities.

Adjusting for population, there are about 600 homeless people per 1 million population in Houston and Dallas, but nearly five times as many in LA at 2,707. The comparisons…highlight the simple economic logic that if you restrict the supply of new housing units (especially multifamily homes, duplexes, and large apartment buildings) in states like California with onerous building, land use, and zoning regulations, those restrictions are guaranteed to result in higher housing costs, higher apartment rents, and ultimately a greater homeless population. …The increasing rents, escalating home prices, and growing homelessness problem in California cities like LA are a direct result of local and state restrictions that artificially constrict the supply of new housing units. The solution is therefore simple, but politically unpopular and probably not politically feasible: California should increase its supply of housing by reducing its onerous restrictions on building new housing units.

Here’s his accompanying table. Notice how Dallas and Houston are much more affordable than Los Angeles.

And there’s less homelessness as well, in large part because housing is cheaper.

Kevin Williamson wrote in National Review about the anti-housing policies of New York’s governor.

Some of the inflated expenses associated with life in New York can be avoided… But you have to live somewhere. As in the Bay Area, Washington, and other Democrat-dominated cities, housing is the real killer in New York City and environs. …Like most U.S. cities advertising themselves as “progressive,” New York has a lot of political leaders who talk about affordable housing and a lot of political policies that keep affordable housing — and many other kinds of housing — from being built. This is not accidental: People who already own property typically have a lot more political influence than people in the first-time home-buyer market. …At the behest of moneyed environmental interests, Cuomo has stood athwart the building of practically any new conventional energy infrastructure, including pipelines for clean-burning natural gas. …Much of New York’s gas comes from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but there isn’t enough carrying capacity to get it to New York. And New York has plenty of gas of its own, too, but New Yorkers can’t use it — thanks again to Cuomo, who has banned modern gas-extraction techniques in the state, again at the behest of the anti-energy ideologues who enjoy an outsized financial footprint in the Democratic party.

In addition to zoning laws and other land-use restrictions, the government also makes construction more expensive, as explained in a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The average cost for home builders to comply with regulations for new home construction has increased by nearly 30% over the last five years, according to new research from the National Association of Home Builders. Regulatory costs such as local impact fees, storm-water discharge permits and new construction codes, which have risen at roughly the same rate as the average price for new homes, make it increasingly difficult for builders to pursue affordable single-family construction projects… The cost of regulation imposed during the land development and construction process on average represented $84,671 of the cost of the average new single-family home in March. That is up from $65,224 in 2011, the last time the home-building industry group conducted a similar survey on regulatory costs. …A study this week from housing research firm Zelman & Associates found that local infrastructure “impact fees” have increased by 45% on average since 2005 in 37 key home building markets across the country, to about $21,000 per home.

Here’s a sobering graphic from the article.

All this regulation is bad for macroeconomic performance.

A recent study by two economists finds that land-use restrictions result in substantial misallocation of labor, causing a non-trivial reduction in economic output and family income.

The increase in spatial wage dispersion is driven at least in part by cities like New York, San Francisco, and San Jose, which…adopted land use restrictions that significantly constrained the amount of new housing that can be built. As described by Glaeser (2014), since the 1960s coastal US cities have gone through a property rights revolution that has significantly reduced the elasticity of housing supply… Instead of increasing local employment, productivity growth in housing-constrained cities primarily pushes up housing prices and nominal wages. The resulting misallocation of workers lowers aggregate output and welfare of workers in all US cities. This paper measures the aggregate productivity costs of local housing constraints… We use data from 220 metropolitan areas in the United States from 1964 to 2009… we calculate that increasing housing supply in New York, San Jose, and San Francisco by relaxing land use restrictions to the level of the median US city would increase the growth rate of aggregate output by 36.3 percent. In this scenario, US GDP in 2009 would be 3.7 percent higher, which translates into an additional $3,685 in average annual earnings. …We conclude that local land use regulations that restrict housing supply in dynamic labor markets have important externalities on the rest of the country. Incumbent homeowners in high productivity cities have a private incentive to restrict housing supply. …this lowers income and welfare of all US workers.

So how can this problem be fixed?

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Cathy Reisenwitz explains that state and local politicians need to remove barriers.

America is in the middle of a housing crisis. The cause is simple: we’re not building housing fast enough to keep up with jobs. While the number of U.S. households grew by 11.2 million between 2005 and 2015, we only added about 9.9 million new housing units. …this isn’t a problem Washington can fix. That’s because this problem, and its solution, lies in cities and towns across the country. …Cities across the country make it impossible to build enough housing to meet demand by blocking, restricting, and delaying housing developments. …Even in areas where you can technically build multi-unit homes, other land-use restrictions make it all-but-impossible. These exclusionary land use practices include height restrictions, setback requirements, parking minimums, community review, aesthetic considerations, and minimum lot sizes. …A recent statistical analysis…showed that in 44 out of 50 states, the more land-use regulations on the books, the more homes cost. Reducing land use regulations is the right move for getting Americans out of poverty and into work.

Let’s close with some good news.

Salim Furth has a new article for City Journal, and he argues that all the evidence is actually changing minds and leading to some deregulation.

Last year, Democratic- and Republican-led states and municipalities passed legislation addressing housing affordability, a hopeful sign that housing deregulation is beginning to attract bipartisan support… Encouragingly, Arkansas and Texas have squelched such requirements through bipartisan state legislation. Arkansas has restored autonomy to homeowners on virtually all building-design choices, from color to roof pitch, while Texas has purged local restrictions on building materials. …North Carolina and Texas…passed legislation requires cities and counties to issue project approvals within a few weeks. In Texas, a developer can now move forward with construction if a municipality takes more than 30 days to review a completed application. North Carolina now imposes a 15-business-day limit for building permits involving one- and two-family dwellings. …State legislators will likely continue to address housing-supply restrictions in the years ahead. …The battle over rent control and inclusionary zoning could intensify as well, as it already has in California and Oregon. …policymakers in blue and red states alike should consider how current regulations restrict housing supply and drive up prices.

The bottom line is that housing across the nation will be much more affordable if state and local governments let markets operate.

Here’s a map showing estimates of land-use restrictions in major metropolitan areas. The goal for the nation should be more green and less red.

Incidentally, Fairfax, VA, is part of the D.C. area, so that red spot indicates that my home’s value is being subsidized (as are the homes of Washington’s parasite class).

But since I believe in a just society, I hope my part of the map becomes green, even if it means my home becomes less valuable (folks on the left are willing to hurt the poor so long as they also hurt the rich, whereas I’m willing to sacrifice myself so long as unjust favoritism for others also vanishes).

 

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The 2008 financial crisis was largely the result of bad government policy, including subsidies for the housing sector from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This video is 10 years old, but it does a great job of explaining the damaging role of those two government-created entities.

The financial crisis led to many decisions in Washington, most notably “moral hazard” and the corrupt TARP bailout.

But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that Fannie and Freddie were placed in “conservatorship,” which basically has curtailed their actions over the past 10 years.

Indeed, some people even hoped that the Trump Administration would take advantage of their weakened status to unwind Fannie and Freddie and allow the free market to determine the future of housing finance.

Those hopes have been dashed.

Cronyists in the Treasury Department unveiled a plan earlier this year that will resuscitate Fannie and Freddie and recreate the bad incentives that led to the mess last decade.

This proposal may be even further to the left than proposals from the Obama Administration. And, as Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explained in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, this won’t end well.

…the president’s Memorandum on Housing Finance Reform…is a major disappointment. It will keep taxpayers on the hook for more than $7 trillion in mortgage debt. And it is likely to induce another housing-market bust, for which President Trump will take the blame.The memo directs the Treasury to produce a government housing-finance system that roughly replicates what existed before 2008: government backing for the obligations of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , and affordable-housing mandates requiring the GSEs to encourage and engage in risky mortgage lending. …Most of the U.S. economy is open to the innovation and competition of the private sector. Yet for no discernible reason, the housing market—one-sixth of the U.S. economy—is and has been controlled by the government to a far greater extent than in any other developed country. …The resulting policies produced a highly volatile U.S. housing market, subject to enormous booms and busts. Its culmination was the 2008 financial crisis, in which a massive housing-price boom—driven by the credit leverage associated with low down payments—led to millions of mortgage defaults when housing prices regressed to the long-term mean.

Wallison also authored an article that was published this past week by National Review.

He warns again that the Trump Administration is making a grave mistake by choosing government over free enterprise.

Treasury’s plan for releasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from their conservatorships is missing only one thing: a good reason for doing it. The dangers the two companies will create for the U.S. economy will far outweigh whatever benefits Treasury sees. Under the plan, Fannie and Freddie will be fully recapitalized… The Treasury says the purpose of their recapitalization is to protect the taxpayers in the event that the two firms fail again. But that makes little sense. The taxpayers would not have to be protected if the companies were adequately capitalized and operated without government backing. Indeed, it should have been clear by now that government backing for private profit-seeking firms is a clear and present danger to the stability of the U.S. financial system. Government support enables companies to raise virtually unlimited debt while taking financial risks that the market would routinely deny to firms that operate without it. …their government support will allow them to earn significant profits in a different way — by taking on the risks of subprime and other high-cost mortgage loans. That business would make effective use of their government backing and — at least for a while — earn the profits that their shareholders will demand. …This is an open invitation to create another financial crisis. If we learned anything from the 2008 mortgage market collapse, it is that once a government-backed entity begins to accept mortgages with low down payments and high debt-to-income ratios, the entire market begins to shift in that direction. …why is the Treasury proposing this plan? There is no obvious need for a government-backed profit-making firm in today’s housing finance market. FHA could assume the important role of helping low- and moderate-income families buy their first home. …Why this hasn’t already happened in a conservative administration remains an enduring mystery.

I’ll conclude by sharing some academic research that debunks the notion that housing would suffer in the absence of Fannie and Freddie.

A working paper by two economists at the Federal Reserve finds that Fannie and Freddie have not increased homeownership.

The U.S. government guarantees a majority of mortgages, which is often justified as a means to promote homeownership. In this paper, we estimate the effect by using a difference-in-differences design, with detailed property-level data, that exploits changes of the conforming loan limits (CLLs) along county borders. We find a sizable effect of CLLs on government guarantees but no robust effect on homeownership. Thus, government guarantees could be considerably reduced,with very modest effects on the homeownership rate. Our finding is particularly relevant for recent housing finance reform plans that propose to gradually reduce the government’s involvement in the mortgage market by reducing the CLLs.

For those who care about the wonky details, here’s the most relevant set of charts, which led the Fed economists to conclude that, “There appears to be no positive effect of the CLL increases in 2008 and no negative effect of the CLL reductions in 2011.”

And let’s not forget that other academic research has shown that government favoritism for the housing sector harms overall economic growth by diverting capital from business investment.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie are cronyist institutions that hurt the economy and create financial instability, while providing no benefit except to a handful of insiders.

As I suggested many years ago, they should be dumped in the Potomac River. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is choosing Obama-style interventionism over fairness and free markets.

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In my libertarian fantasies, we dramatically shrink the size of the federal government and return to pre-1913 policy by getting rid of the income tax.

But if I’m forced to be at least vaguely realistic, the second-best option is scrapping the current tax code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax based on the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

The third-best option (i.e., the best we can hope for in the real world) is to adopt incremental reforms that move the tax code in the right direction.

That happened in 2017. I’ve written many times about why it was a very good idea to reduce the tax rate on corporate income. And I’ve also lauded the 2017 law’s limitation on the state and local tax deduction.

Today, let’s focus on the changes in that law that reduced the tax preference for residential real estate.

The housing lobby (especially builders and realtors) tried to scare lawmakers that any reduction in their privileged tax status would cause a large amount of damage.

Yet, as reported last year by the New York Times, there was no adverse effect in the first year of the new tax law.

It wasn’t supposed to take long for the Trump tax cuts to hobble housing prices… Nearly nine months later, those warnings have not materialized. …Economists see only faint effects from the new law so far in housing data. They’re small, and they’re contained to a few high-priced, highly taxed ZIP codes, largely in blue states. They’re nothing close to the carnage that real estate groups warned about when the law was under debate last fall. …the tax law has unquestionably diminished the value of several federal subsidies for homeowners. It limits deductions for state and local taxes, including property taxes, to $10,000 per household, which hurts owners of expensive homes in high-tax states. It lowers the cap on the mortgage interest deduction, which raises housing prices by allowing homeowners to write off the interest payments from their loans, to $750,000 for new loans, down from $1 million.

To the extent the impact could even be measured, it was a net plus for the economy.

After the law passed, ZIP codes in the Boston area saw a 0.6 percentage point slowdown in home appreciation on the Massachusetts side — and a 0.1 percent acceleration on the New Hampshire side. The effect there is “not huge, it’s small,”… Experts say several forces are helping to counteract the diminished federal home-buying subsidies. …said Kevin Hassett, “…if you’re getting a lot of income growth, the income growth increases the demand for housing, and the mortgage interest deduction reduces it. And the effects offset.”

This chart from the story is particularly persuasive. If anything, it appears housing values rose faster after the law was changed (though presumably due to bad policies such as building restrictions and zoning laws, not just the faster growth caused by a a shift in tax policy).

There’s also no negative effect one year later. A report from today’s New York Times finds that the hysterical predictions of the housing lobby haven’t materialized.

Even though the tax preference was significantly reduced.

The mortgage-interest deduction, a beloved tax break bound tightly to the American dream of homeownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it nearly vanished in middle-class neighborhoods across the country, and it appears that hardly anyone noticed. …The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction — to $24,000 for a couple filing jointly — on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming itemized deductions. As a result, far fewer families — and, in particular, far fewer middle-class families — are claiming the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, about one in five taxpayers claimed the deduction, Internal Revenue Service statistics show. This year, that number fell to less than one in 10. The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it once was: The 2017 law capped the maximum value of new mortgage debt eligible for the deduction at $750,000, down from $1 million.

Once again, the evidence shows good news.

…housing professionals, home buyers and sellers — and detailed statistics about the housing market — show no signs that the drop in the use of the tax break is weighing on prices or activity. …Such reactions challenge a longstanding American political consensus. For decades, the mortgage-interest deduction has been alternately hailed as a linchpin of support for homeownership (by the real estate industry)…. most economists on the left and the right…argued that the mortgage-interest deduction violated every rule of good policymaking. It was regressive, benefiting wealthy families… Studies repeatedly found that the deduction actually reduced ownership rates by helping to inflate home prices, making homes less affordable to first-time buyers. …In the debate over the tax law in 2017, the industry warned that the legislation could cause house prices to fall 10 percent or more in some parts of the country. …Places where a large share of middle-class taxpayers took the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, have not seen any meaningful difference in price increases from less-affected areas.

Incidentally, here’s a chart from the story. It shows that the rich have always been the biggest beneficiaries of the tax preference.

And now the deduction that remains is even more skewed toward upper-income households.

As far as I’m concerned, the tax code shouldn’t punish people simply because they earn a lot of money.

But neither should it give them special goodies.

For what it’s worth, the mortgage interest deduction is not a left-vs-right or statism-vs-libertarian issue.

I’ve crossed swords on a few occasions with Bill Gale of the Brooking Institute, but his column a few months ago in the Wall Street Journal wisely calls for full repeal of this tax preference.

With any luck, the 2017 tax overhaul will prove to be only the first step toward eventually replacing the century-old housing subsidy… This is a welcome change. The mortgage-interest deduction has existed since the income tax was created in 1913, but it has never been easy to justify. …Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have no mortgage-debt subsidies, yet their homeownership rates are slightly higher than in the U.S. A large reduction in the mortgage-interest deduction in Denmark in 1987 had virtually no effect on homeownership rates. …The next step should be to eliminate the deduction altogether. The phaseout should be gradual but complete.

Here’s another example.

Nobody would ever accuse the folks at Slate of being market friendly, so this article is another sign that there’s a consensus against using the tax code to tilt the playing field in favor of residential real estate.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement, but the GOP aggressively curtailed it in order to pay for cuts elsewhere in the tax code. …just 13.8 million households will subtract mortgage interest from their 2018 returns, down from 32.3 million in 2017. …if Democrats ever get a chance to kill off the vestigial remains of the mortgage interest deduction down the line, they might as well. …any negative effect of the tax law seems to have been drowned out by a healthy economy.

I’ll close by digging into the archives at the Heritage Foundation and dusting off one of my studies from 1996.

Analyzing the flat tax and home values, I pointed out that rising levels of personal income were the key to a strong housing market, not the value of the tax deduction.

Everything that’s happened over the past 23 years – and especially the past two years – confirms my analysis.

Simply stated, economic growth is how we get more good things in society. That’s true for housing, as explained above, and it’s also true for charitable giving.

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What’s the worst thing the government does?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve argued that giving U.S. tax dollars to the OECD is the worst item in the budget, on a per-dollar-spent basis.

And I’ve expressed scathing disdain for the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. There are also really destructive features of the tax system, such as FATCA and the death tax.

But you could make a strong case for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well.

These two government-created corporations not only reduce long-run growth by distorting the allocation of capital, they also bear considerable responsibility for last decade’s financial crisis since they played a major role in fueling the housing bubble.

The U.K.-based Economist describes America’s interventionist regime as a form of socialism.

…the mortgage system…is…largely nationalised and subject to administrative control. …America’s mortgage-finance system, with $11 trillion of debt, is probably the biggest concentration of financial risk to be found anywhere. …The supply of mortgages in America has an air of distinctly socialist command-and-control about it. …The structure of these loans, their volume and the risks they entail are controlled not by markets but by administrative fiat. …the subsidy for housing debt is running at about $150 billion a year, or roughly 1% of GDP. A crisis as bad as last time would cost taxpayers 2-4% of GDP, not far off the bail-out of the banks in 2008-12. …the securitisation of loans, most of which used to be in the private sector, is now almost entirely state-run. …There are at least 10,000 relevant pages of federal laws, regulatory orders and rule books. …In the land of the free, where home ownership is a national dream, borrowing to buy a house is a government business for which taxpayers are on the hook.

In other words, our system of housing finance is mucked up by government intervention (very much akin to the way healthcare is a mess because of government).

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Fannie and Freddie have been in “conservatorship” every since they got a big bailout last decade. And that means the two cronyist firms are now somewhat constrained. They can’t lobby, for instance (though Republicans and Democrats still seek to expand subsidies in response to campaign cash from other housing-related lobbyists).

But the worst news is that there are people in the Trump Administration who want to go back to the bad ol’ pre-bailout days.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue as Trump prepared to take office. The editorial noted that the implicit government guarantee for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac led to an explicit bailout.

Fan and Fred’s owners feasted for decades on an implied taxpayer guarantee before the housing crisis. Since everyone knew the two government-created mortgage giants would receive federal help in a crisis, they were able to run enormous risks and still borrow cheaply as they came to own or guarantee $5 trillion of mortgage paper. When the housing market went south, taxpayers had to stage a rescue in 2008 and poured nearly $190 billion into the toxic twins.

As part of that bailout and the subsequent “conservatorship,” Fannie and Freddie still get to operate, and they still have a big implicit subsidy that allows near-automatic profits (at least until and unless there’s another big hiccup in the housing market), but the Treasury Department gets those profits.

Needless to say, this upsets the shareholders. They bought stock so they could get a slice of the undeserved profits generated by the Fannie/Freddie cronyist business model.

They claim going back to the pre-bailout days would be a form of privatization, but the WSJ editorial correctly warns that it’s not pro-free market to allow these two government-created companies to distort housing markets with their government-granted favors, preferences, and subsidies.

…the expectation that Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin is going to revive the Beltway model of public risk and private reward. …private shareholders of these so-called government-sponsored enterprises keep pretending that something other than the government is responsible for their income streams. As if anyone would buy their guarantees—or give them cheap financing—if Uncle Sam weren’t standing behind them. …what they really want is to liberate for themselves the profits that flow from a duopoly backed by taxpayers. …We’re all for businesses getting out of government control—unless they’re playing with taxpayer money. Americans were told that Fannie and Freddie were safe for years before the last crisis. The right answer is to shut them down.

Amen. Not just shut them down, dump them in the Potomac River.

The Wall Street Journal then revisited the issue early last year, once again expressing concern that the Treasury Secretary wants to go back to the days of unchecked cronyism.

Fannie Mae is again going hat in hand to taxpayers… Washington should take this news as a kick in the keister to finally start winding down the mortgage giant and its busted brother, Freddie Mac . But the Trump Administration seems to be moving in the opposite direction. …The pair, now in “conservatorship,”…were left in limbo. Hedge funds bought up their shares, betting they could pressure Washington into bringing back the old business model of public risk and private reward. …Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the Senate Banking Committee: “I think it’s critical that we have a 30-year mortgage. I don’t believe that the private markets on their own could support it.” But many countries have robust housing markets and ownership rates without a 30-year mortgage guarantee. Mr. Mnuchin sounds like his predecessor, Democrat Jack Lew. Wasn’t Donald Trump elected to eliminate crony capitalism?

This issue is now heating up, with reports indicating that the Treasury Secretary is pushing to restore the moral hazard-based system that caused so much damage last decade.

The Trump administration is at war with itself over who should take the lead in the reform of the government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac… The battle centers on whether the Treasury Department should continue to advocate what it views as a plan for the future of the mortgage companies or cede control of those efforts to the incoming chief of the Federal Housing Financial Agency (FHFA), economist Mark Calabria.

The good news is that Trump has nominated a sensible person to head FHFA, which has some oversight authority over Fannie and Freddie.

And it’s also good news that some of the economic people at the White House understand the danger of loosening the current limits on Fannie and Freddie.

White House economic officials…are seeking to prevent a repeat of the risk-taking activities by the companies that contributed to the mortgage bubble, leading to its 2008 collapse and $200 billion government bailout. These officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also say any reform must have the blessing of Calabria, a long-time libertarian economist and frequent critic of the outfit’s pre-crisis business model. ..He is also wary of returning Fannie and Freddie to their previous incarnations as private companies that have shareholders, but also receive backing from the federal government if they get in trouble as they did in 2008.

But it seems that the Treasury Department has some officials who – just like their predecessors in the Obama Administration – learned nothing from the financial crisis.

They want to give Fannie and Freddie free rein, perhaps in order to help some speculator buddies.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his top house advisor Craig Phillips, have so far taken the lead… In January, acting director of the Federal Housing Agency Joseph Otting privately told employees about plans…, referring to Mnuchin’s past statements on the matter… Mnuchin also has business ties with at least one of the major investors in the GSE’s stock that has benefited amid the speculation… Paulson – who has stakes in the GSE’s preferred class of stock — has also submitted a proposal… A key feature of the framework touted by Mnuchin, Phillips, Otting and Paulson is that both Fannie and Freddie would have some backing from the federal government in times of emergency while remaining public companies, a business model similar to the one the GSEs operated with before 2008.

Given the Treasury Department’s bad performance on other issues, I’m not surprised that they’re on the wrong side on this issue as well.

Tobias Peter of the American Enterprise Institute outlines the correct approach.

The GSEs, however, do very little that cannot be done – and is not already done – by the private sector. In addition, these institutions pose a significant financial risk to U.S. taxpayers. Weighing this cost against the minimal benefits makes the case that the GSEs should be eliminated. …regulators have tilted the playing field in favor of the GSEs. …GSE borrowers can thus take on more debt to offset higher prices. With inventories lower than ever, this extra debt ends up driving prices even higher, creating a vicious cycle of more debt, higher prices, greater risk and, ironically, more demand for the GSEs. What keeps the GSEs in business are the same failed housing policies that brought us the last financial crisis. The GSEs are not needed in the housing market – and they have become detrimental to the market’s long-term health. They could be eliminated… This would create space for the re-emergence of an active private mortgage-backed securities market that ensures a safer and more stable housing finance system with access for all while letting taxpayers off the hook.

Mr. Peter is correct.

Here’s a flowchart that shows what happened and the choice we now face.

At the risk of stating the obvious, real privatization is the right approach. This would mean an end to the era of special favors and subsidies.

  • No taxpayers guarantees for mortgage-backed securities
  • No special exemption from complying with SEC red tape.
  • No more special tax favors such as special exemptions.

Sadly, I’m not holding my breath for any of this to happen.

The real battle in DC is between conservatorship and fake privatization (which really should be called turbo-charged and lobbyist-fueled cronyism).

And if that’s the case, then the obvious choice is to retain the status quo.

P.S. This is a secondary issue, but it’s worth noting that Fannie and Freddie like to squander money. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the Washington Free Beacon.

Fannie Mae is charging taxpayers millions for upgrades to its new headquarters, including $250,000 for a chandelier. The inspector general for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which acts as a conservator for the mortgage lender, recently noted $32 million in questionable costs in an audit for Fannie Mae’s new headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. …The inspector general reported that costs for the new headquarters have “risen dramatically,” to $171 million, up from $115 million when the consolidated headquarters was announced in 2015. …After the inspector general inquired about the chandelier, officials scrapped plans for a $150,000 “hanging key sculpture,” and $985,000 for “decorative screens” in a conference room.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie, at best, undermine prosperity by diverting money from productive investment, and, at worst, they saddle the nation with financial crisis.

They should be shut down, not resuscitated.

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People sometimes ask me how I’ve managed to write a column every single day since November 2009.

Sadly, the answer has a lot to do with politicians having a vote-buying and power-grabbing incentive to produce a never-ending supply of bad policies.

Consider what just happened in Oregon.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a first-in-the-nation rent control bill Thursday…Senate Bill 608′s rent control and eviction protections go into effect immediately. …The law caps annual rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation throughout the state, which amounts to a limit of just over 10 percent this year. …The bill passed quickly through the House and Senate amid a Democratic supermajority.

This is spectacularly bad policy.

  • My first reaction is that such laws should be unconstitutional since politicians are violating a provision of the Bill of Rights by taking part of the value of private property without compensation.
  • My second reaction is that such laws will backfire because they address (in a bone-headed fashion) the symptom of rising rents rather than the (usually government-caused) problem of inadequate housing supply.
  • My third reaction is that price controls never work, regardless of the market or sector, so limits on rent will exacerbate housing problems.

By the way, economic illiteracy is not confined to Oregon. Or even to the United States

Berlin is contemplating rent control as well.

…local politicians here have proposed a radical idea to tackle the problem: introducing a rent cap that would freeze all existing rents for the next five years. …By freezing existing rents for five years, Zado said, the city could help prevent massive increases. …but there could also be significant downsides. Such a policy could exacerbate the city’s existing housing shortage: some experts say it might lead developers to seek buyers, not renters, for their new apartments. …said Michael Voigtländer of the German Economic Institute in Cologne. “That lack of housing won’t be solved if the rents are capped.” …head of the German Housing Industry association, told German newspaper Die Zeit it could even keep developers from building additional housing in the coming years: “A rent stop would lead to our member companies building about 50,000 fewer apartments in the next five years,” he said.

The national government also is acting in a self-destructive manner.

Germany has taken nationwide action in recent years to begin grappling with this problem: in 2015, parliament passed a law restricting how much landlords could raise rents. Under that legislation, the rental price on a new contract should be no more than 10% higher than the average price in that particular neighbourhood.

Let’s see what experts have to say about this issue.

We’ll start with the perspective of landlords, which was included in this New York Times report.

…landlords say that the legislation will compel owners to take their properties off the rental market because they will no longer be able to earn enough rent from them — deepening the housing crisis rather than easing it. …Mr. DiLorenzo said his primary fear was that lawmakers would ultimately bar rents from rising more than a bare minimum, which would prevent landlords from meeting their expenses and eventually drive them out of business. The real solution to rising rents, he said, is to make it easier to build decent and affordable housing in Oregon by eliminating a multitude of fees and regulations.

Landlords have an obvious interest in this issue, so let’s now share some insights from people who don’t have a dog in the fight, but who understand economics.

Megan McArdle debunks this inane example of price controls.

Serial experimentation with this policy has repeatedly shown the same result. Initially, tenants rejoice, and rent control looks like a victory for the poor over the landlord class. But the stifling of price signals leads to problems. …incomes rise, and rents don’t. People with higher incomes have more resources to pursue access to artificially cheap real estate: friends who work for management companies, “key fees” or simply incomes that promise landlords they won’t have to worry about collecting the rent. …lucky insiders come to dominate rent-controlled apartments, especially because having gotten their hands on an absurdly cheap apartment, said elites are loathe to move and free up space for others. The longer the rent-control policies remain, the more these imbalances grow. …Deprived of the ability to make a profit, landlords skimp on maintenance and refuse to build new housing.

Megan also explains that the damage of rent control is compounded by policies that restrict the development of additional housing.

Rent control is one of the most effective ways to destroy a city’s housing stock, but it’s far from the only one. You can also enact extremely strict building codes, with lengthy and highly bureaucratic processes, which will restrict the supply of housing. This is what has happened in many American cities… policymakers should remember that a price is just the intersection of supply and demand. If you alter the price, but don’t alter the supply or the demand, the problem doesn’t go away; rationing just shows up in different forms.

Mark Hemingway, originally from Oregon, explains in the Wall Street Journal what is happening in the state.

Virtually every mainstream economist, from Paul Krugman to Thomas Sowell, has condemned rent control as bad policy. Oregon’s problem isn’t rising rents. It’s the lack of affordable housing… the state remains resistant to new development. Oregon adopted widely hailed “smart growth” policies in the 1970s, imposing “urban growth boundaries” around cities to prevent sprawl. …This has artificially inflated the price of land within the boundaries. …On top of all this, Oregon has a red-tape problem that skews developer incentives. “Systems and development charges and permit fees for even a 500-square-foot unit in the city of Eugene right now are close to about $20,000 per unit,” says real-estate agent James St. Clair. “There’s no incentive to build small affordable units…” Rather than addressing the lack of housing supply, legislators have seized on rent control.

For those who prefer videos over words, here’s a succinct video from Johan Norberg on the folly of rent control.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute summarize the real problem in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

…rent control is making a comeback in response to rising housing prices in urban areas across the country in states like California, Illinois, Washington, and Massachusetts. …As the graphical Supply/Demand analysis…illustrates very clearly, rent control laws that artificially force the rental price of housing (Pabove) below the market-clearing equilibrium price (P0) are guaranteed to create a housing shortage by: a) increasing the number of rental units demanded at the artificially low rents (QD) and b) decreasing the number of rental units supplied to the market (QS). You can artificially restrict the amount of rent a landlord can legally charge for a rental unit, but you can’t force developers, builders, and landlords to build or supply more rental housing in the future. And the supply of rental housing in markets with rent control is guaranteed to decline. …Price controls aren’t the answer. Building more housing is the only real solution to increase the supply of affordable housing.

Here’s Mark’s graph.

In another column for FEE, Luis Pablo de la Horra summarizes why rent control is so misguided.

Rent control is one of those policies that continues to attract the favor of the public despite the fact it has repeatedly proven to be ineffective when it comes to improving the lives of those it is aimed at. …Rent controls often lead to a shortage of rental houses since landladies and landlords find it unprofitable to rent out their apartments at capped prices. In addition, the stock of dwellings tends to deteriorate because home-owners will have little incentive to invest in the maintenance and refurbishment of their houses. …here is some empirical evidence. A 2017 paper published by three Stanford economists shows that rent controls in San Francisco reduced rental housing supply by 15 percent, which in turn increased rental prices in the other parts of the city by around 5 percent. Another recent paper blames restrictions on the use of land (the so-called zoning) for the increasing housing prices in large US cities.

Let’s see what the other side has to say on the topic. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times is on the wrong side.

Here are some excerpts from an editorial that is a case study of economic illiteracy.

New York’s system of rent regulation, limiting how much landlords can charge tenants, began in the 1940s to help a growing middle class. There are about one million apartments covered under rent-restricting regulations now… here are some actions lawmakers can take: …Return control of the rent laws to New York City… Landlords’ ability to raise the rent by 20 percent every time an apartment is vacated is a perverse incentive… Lawmakers should scrap this incentive entirely. …the state agency that enforces rent laws…needs more funding… require landlords to submit receipts for improvements to individual apartments to the agency and the tenant.

This is remarkably bad. And sad as well. The New York Times in recent memory was actually economically sensible, endorsing a flat tax and urging elimination of the minimum wage.

Now it fully embraces policies that even rational left-leaning economists condemn.

Indeed, you can probably tell a lot about the ethics of your left-wing friends if you ask them about rent control.

The ones with good intentions will reject rent control while the demagogues (and the ignorant) will applaud this foolish example of price controls.

Minneapolis provides a good example of ethical leftists, as Elliot Kaufman explains in the Wall Street Journal.

Earlier this month the City Council overwhelmingly approved an ambitious plan to encourage higher-density development and increase the supply of housing. …The Comp Plan would allow the construction of duplexes and triplexes in areas once reserved for single-family homes, rezoning areas near public transportation for larger apartment buildings, and doing away with parking requirements for new housing. …The Comp Plan takes a market-based approach but proclaims left-wing goals. It vows to “eliminate” racial and economic disparities and aggressively fight climate change. …The Comp Plan promotes denser development, which urbanists on both left and right see as the solution to a host of problems. More density in a city like Minneapolis could help renew both geographic and economic mobility.

We’ll close with this great quote from a Swedish economist.

P.S. Rent control can be a great scam for privileged insiders.

P.P.S. Rent control also rewards and empowers unscrupulous and reprehensible people.

P.P.P.S. Amazingly, California voters actually rejected a state referendum to allow rent control (though this isn’t stopping one of their politicians from trying to muck up rental markets).

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I often write about the failure of government.

In other words, there’s lots of evidence that government spending makes things worse.

Needless to say, this puts a lot of pressure on folks who favor bigger government. They desperately want to find any type of success story so they can argue that increasing the size and scope of the public sector generates some sort of payoff.

And they got their wish. Check out the ostensibly good news in a story from the San Fransisco Chronicle.

Investing billions of dollars in affordable housing and homeless programs in recent years has apparently put the brakes on what had been a surge in California’s homeless population, causing it to dip by 1 percent this year, a federal report released Monday showed. …The report put California’s homeless population this year at 129,972, a drop of 1,560 in the number of people on the streets in 2017. …“I think San Francisco has shown that when targeted investments are made, we see reductions in homelessness here,” Kositsky said. He pointed out that family, youth and chronic veterans homelessness dropped in the city’s last full count — although the number of chronically homeless people went up.

Maybe I’m not in the Christmas spirit, but I don’t see this as a feel-good story.

Are we really supposed to celebrate the fact that the government spent “billions of dollars” and the net effect is that the homeless population dropped just 1 percent?

The story doesn’t contain enough details for precise measurements, but even if we assume “billions” is merely $2 billion, then it cost taxpayers close to $1.3 million to get one person off the street. For that amount of money, taxpayers could have bought each of them a mansion!

In other words, the program has been a rotten investment. Heck, it makes Social Security seem like a good deal by comparison.

To be sure, maybe the number isn’t quite so bad because we’re comparing multi-year outlays with a one-year change in the homeless population. Though maybe the number is even worse because taxpayers actually coughed up far more than $2 billion.

The bottom line is that if my friends on the left see this as an example of success, I’d hate to see their definition of failure.

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