Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Home Ownership Scam

Worth repeating, Willem Buiter on the social benefits of home ownership:

Home Loans in the U.S. the Biggest Racket Since Al Capone:

...Why do politicians of all political colours and parties get their knickers so twisted about people losing their homes? In the case of the Tories in the UK and the Republicans in the US, the answer is obvious. Both parties believe that home owners are conservative. Not it the sense that people who are inherently conservative are more likely to become homeowners (although they may believe that as well). This is not a selection story but an osmosis story. Home ownership makes people more conservative. So both Tories and Republicans do everything they can to encourage home ownership. But so do (New) Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US, so it’s no longer a left-right thing.

The one argument for encouraging home ownership that makes sense is that owner-occupiers look better after their property and its immediate surroundings than would a tenant. This is a simple principal-agent story where it is costly for the principal (the owner) to monitor the care and attention the agent (the tenant) bestows on his property. Add some neighbourhood externalities (I don’t want to live next door to a place where they don’t mow the lawn or paint the exterior of the house), and you have an argument for encouraging owner-occupancy, say by subsidising it.

But a subsidy for owner-occupancy is something completely different from subsidising borrowing using residential real estate as collateral. If they exist, the benefits from owner-occupancy are there regardless of whether the owner-occupier has a mortgage or not. It doesn’t matter whether she borrowed to buy the house, paid in cash, stole it, inherited it from her parents, or built it with sweat equity on land won in a raffle. The US does not encourage owner-occupancy directly, say by paying each head of household who is an owner-occupier, a given amount of cash each year. Instead it encourages and subsidises a particular form of borrowing, regardless of what that borrowing is spent on. Funds, after all, are fungible. I can withdraw equity from my house by taking out a first or second mortgage against it, or by increasing the size of an existing mortgage, and spend the proceeds on Cuban cigars.

All this is rather insane. Through the deductibility of mortgage interest from taxable income, the US tax payer gives vast subsidies to borrowing secured against a particular type of collateral - residential real estate. What so special about this borrowing and this collateral? Fortunately, the UK has abolished this boondoggle. In the US, other forms of preferential treatment for home ownership are piled on top of the mortgage interest-deductibility. Over half the stock of home loans, and virtually all new home lending in the US are heavily subsidized by the lending and guarantees of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Ginnie Mae and assorted smaller smaller government agencies. The direct interventions of the Fed and the Treasury in the market for residential mortgage-backed securities, announced as part of the credit-easing policies of the Fed represent further quasi-fiscal subsidies to housing finance.

This is on top of the creation by the Fed of at least a dozen facilities that accept RMBS as collateral for Fed loans in the earlier stages of the financial crisis. All these quasi-fiscal interventions by the GSEs and the Fed are deeply non-transparent as regards the magnitude of the subsidies involved. They also evade the normal scrutiny and accountability to Congress that is associated with explicit subsidies by the Treasury. The only priviliged treatment of residential housing that makes a modicum of sense from the perspective of encouraging owner-occupancy (as opposed to borrowing to fund whatever expenditures using residential housing as collateral), is the ability to postpone capital gains taxation on the sale of one’s principal residence, and to have one capital-gains-tax-free realisation during one’s lifetime (taken generally when people size down on retirement or when the kids have flown from the nest).

The extreme fiscal largesse bestowed on residential housing, directly and indirectly through mortgage interest deductibility, has led to a massive misallocation of investment in the US. There has been overinvestment in the private residential housing stock and underinvestment in just about every other form of fixed capital: infrastructure, public amenities of all kinds (sports facilities, public recreational facilities, parks etc.), commercial structures, plant and equipment. It is time to correct the distorted incentives that are at the root of this misallocation. The easiest way to do this, in the current tax system, is to end the deductibility of mortgage interest in the personal income tax, close down Fannie and Freddie and end the role of the US government in the provision of residential mortgages. A focused social housing program is of course a legitimate activity of the Federal government. It should be on-budget, that is, fiscal rather than quasi-fiscal.


But really, you should read the whole thing...

Buiter does a great job exposing the madness behind out-of-hand government promotion of home ownership, but he doesn't really get into the question of why governments act this way.

And it's not just the U.S. - Canada has gone down the same road with CMHC and a host of other incentives.

And over here, Steve Keen catalogues the extensive list of government interventions in Australia and again has little explanation for the magnitude of the government intervention in this particular area.

I do have a theory on why governments find this area particularly irresistible, but I'll have to save it for a few weeks until I've developed the appropriate background material first.

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  • A few weeks?!!!

    That's a longtime to leave us hanging.


    By Blogger RossK, at 10:28 PM  

  • Well, I've got vacation coming up, plus ski lessons, and sunrun training, only so many hours in the day :)

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:24 PM  

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