Recent steps by federal regulators make it clear: low down-payment loans, a feature of the housing market’s boom, are coming back.
On Monday, Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt announced that mortgage-finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would start backing loans with down payments as low as 3%.
And on Tuesday, three federal agencies approved a loosened set of mortgage-lending rules, removing a requirement for a 20% down payment for a class of high-quality loan known as a “qualified residential mortgage.”
Loans with little to no down payment were a common feature of the lax lending practices that were prevalent during the housing market’s bubble years.
Yes, my friends. Not content with easy mortgages wrecking the economy and destroying what little wealth the poor and middle class had accumulated, our government is back for more.
Why on Earth would they want to do this? McArdle:
Because, I think, most of us still haven’t managed to shed the idea that buying a house is a good way to get some unearned bonus wealth. Too many people managed to do just that for too many years. We think of 2008 as an aberration, rather than reversion to the mean. And that’s a costly mental error.
The long, steep increase in American home prices from 1946 to 2008 was driven by a whole lot of trends that are hard to repeat: the invention of the 30-year, fixed-rate, self-amortizing mortgage, which allowed people to pay more for a house by lowering the monthly payments. The securitization revolution, which lowered mortgage risk by bundling the loans into large, diversified portfolios, thereby lowering rates. Rising inflation, which pushed up the price of houses. Falling inflation, which lowered interest rates and monthly payments still further and allowed people to pay even more for those houses. The credit-scoring revolution, which allowed banks to offer loans to more people, increasing demand for the existing housing stock. And in dense coastal areas, you also had the rise of NIMBY zoning laws, which made housing scarcer and therefore more expensive.
The problem is, these things have already happened. Most of them cannot happen again — interest rates can’t really go much lower.
Out government is consumed with the idea that home ownership is the path to wealth for the poor and lower middle class. But nothing could be further from the truth, as the last decade proved. The housing bubble hurt the wealthy … a bit. But it completely burned what little wealth existed in the lower quintiles of our society.
The reason is that houses aren’t a great investment. They’re a good investment … if you have a stable income and employment situation and can manage money well. They’re a stable investment … if you have some equity. But people are besotted with idea of real estate as the gate to wealth.
Low down-payment loans are especially dangerous for people trying to climb the economic ladder. They can allow people to make a quicker entry into housing. The danger, however, is that a house with low equity is a highly leveraged investment. If you make a down payment of 3% and housing prices fall 3%, 100% of your equity goes up in smoke. The reason so many people ended up in underwater mortgages with negative wealth was because they had such a thin margin of equity.
But … they never learn. This will happen again and they still won’t learn. The people running our government and their cheerleaders in places like the Center for American Regress will continue to believe that there is a alchemical formula for creating middle-class wealth out of thin air. I guess you have to believe in something when you think that businesses don’t create jobs.