Foreclosure Misery: Government’s Intervention in Housing
Today it was announced that banks foreclosed on 288,345 houses in the past three months, the highest amount of foreclosures in any three-month period since 2006. It’s estimated that 1.2 million homes overall will be foreclosed in 2010. Well, gee, looks like government bailouts of the financial industry have paid off! Despite hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts, piles of regulatory codes, and vastly expanded government power, the pinch on Main Street is tightening and more people are losing their homes. It makes you wonder, how did all this happen in the first place and why hasn’t increased government intervention solved the problem?
Since the early 20th century it has been the initiative and policy of the federal government to lower the price of housing so every single family could own a home. Other arrangements that would commonly arise in a free market (such as renting) just don’t fit into the government’s version of the “American dream.” One of the first to lobby for governmental support of individual home ownership was President Herbert Hoover. On July 22, 1932 Hoover signed the Federal Home Loan Bank Act, and he explained the purpose of the bill “is to establish a series of discount banks for home mortgages.” In other words, the federal government would help organize the mortgage loan industry and provide cheaper loans for people to obtain, thus increasing home ownership. Hoover went on to explain:
“In the long view we need at all times to encourage homeownership and for such encouragement it must be possible for homeowners to obtain long-term loans payable in installments. These institutions should provide the method for bringing into continuous and steady action the great home loaning associations which is so greatly restricted due to present pressures.” — Herbert Hoover (Emphasis added.)
The “present pressures” of course being the Great Depression, an eensy-weensy economic slump that resulted in banks giving out fewer loans. Still, Hoover thought this was an appropriate time for government to encourage people to buy a house even if the economy was in dire circumstances. So began the history of the federal government’s intervention in the mortgage market, often subsidizing or forcing banks to lower their lending standards and give loans to people regardless of their ability to pay them back.
Taking Hoover’s actions a step further, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill that led to the formulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 1938. Interestingly, these government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) were created to help bail out banks who were faced with (wait for it…) a growing number of mortgage defaults.
Essentially the scenario looks like this: First the government organized banks to lower the price of mortgages in 1932; once people bought the loans, however, many were unable to pay them back and forced to default; upon seeing this flow of events, Roosevelt attempted to bail out the industry by creating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 1938. This was the beginning of the secondary mortgage market, the practice where the GSEs (using taxpayer dollars) purchase mortgages from banks, thereby freeing up money for the banks to provide more mortgages.
“The GSEs are companies created by Congress to bring liquidity, stability, and affordability to the nation’s residential mortgage markets. Traditionally, we’ve fulfilled this role by purchasing mortgages in the secondary market and bundling them into mortgage-related securities that can be sold to investors or held in our portfolio.” — Ed Haldeman, Freddie Mac CEO
This new setup encouraged banks to offer loans to riskier clients who in an actual market scenario would not be eligible to purchase a mortgage. Because of government’s creation of the secondary mortgage market banks found themselves with extra liquidity, which was used to offer loans to financially-insecure individuals. It’s not tough to do the math: riskier customers lead to a higher likelihood of default. These policies have the least desirable impact on the poor people they are intended to help. In reality, it is much more economically feasible and sensible for a poor person/family to rent a house or apartment than to buy a house. However, artificially low mortgage rates lure poor people into an investment they won’t possibly be able to pay back. Government’s intervention creates a market imbalance that pushes the poor into buying a house when it is almost certainly not in their long-term interest to do so.
The painful effects of foreclosure we see today are the inevitable consequence of ongoing government meddling in the mortgage market. Government either subsidized or forced banks to offer risky loans to risky customers, but when the entire scheme begins to collapse we’re told it is a failure of the free market. (As if Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Administration, and other such entities were created through free, voluntary exchange and not by politicians and bureaucrats.)
Before someone blames the current economic mess on “deregulation” and injustices of the free market, consider this action undertaken by the Clinton Administration, as explained by the New York Times:
“In a move that could help increase home ownership rates among minorities and low-income consumers, the Fannie Mae Corporation is easing the credit requirements on loans that it will purchase from banks and other lenders.”
“In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980′s.” — New York Times; September 30, 1999
Historical evidence clearly shows that government has led the endorsement of subprime mortgages and lower lending standards, with complete disregard for the economic misery that erupts out of such policies and programs. Increasing bailouts will merely delay and worsen the inevitable collapse of the modern mortgage industry that government has played a major role in creating and sustaining.
Even so, you might say, on September 24, 2008, John McCain suspended his presidential campaign with the selfless objective to pass emergency legislation to “protect taxpayers and homeowners,” so the government must know what it’s doing, right? What America got in September 2008 were the TARP bailouts which, given the situation of the mortgage market today, haven’t done squat to “protect homeowners.” Given the government’s miserable record of attempting to provide affordable housing, who in the world expects more government intervention to save homeowners this time around? You can’t save a drowning person by throwing more water on him, nor can you save a government-manipulated economy with more government intervention.
The free market is the best tool to save the housing market and actually provide affordable housing for those who need it. Allowing liquidation of the housing market is necessary and would bring a short-term correction, but it would end the ongoing misery homeowners are experiencing due to government manipulation in the first place. Housing prices would drop to levels most potential homeowners could actually afford, and it wouldn’t require one dollar of government intervention.
For a true recovery to take place you don’t need increased government spending, intervention, or control; all that’s needed is a return to the free market, where individuals will manage their lives and economic decisions far better than any politician or bureaucrat in Washington D.C. The free market is the only option for a sustainable, lasting, and prosperous recovery.