Dealers vs. Brokers in Housing

Tyler Cowen points to a WSJ story about a start-up that will buy your house and flip it, so that you don’t have to spend time selling it.

In securities markets, we differntiate between brokers and dealers. A broker brings together buyers and sellers. A dealer buys from sellers, holds securities in inventory, and sells to buyers out of this inventory.

One challenge with trying to be a housing dealer is that it adds another transaction in a market where transaction costs are artificially high. Some jurisdictions have transfer taxes. You might have to pay for an extra title search. Another home inspection. Etc. Also, while a security still accrues interest while it is in inventory, an unoccupied house does not generate rent.

Sharing Home Equity

From an NYT blog post,

With the right financial vehicle, Mr. Rampell said, such a fund could invest to co-own houses in, say, pricey Palo Alto, Calif., making it easier for prospective home buyers to make down payments and reduce their mortgage burden. “They could own 10 percent or 15 percent of your house, so you don’t have to borrow as much,” Mr. Rampell said. “I think there’s a lot of room for more of those kind of new asset classes.”

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

1. This is not the first time someone has proposed such an idea. In the early 1980s, with sky-high interest rates, somebody came up with the Shared Appreciation Mortgage, where you would get a lower interest rate from the lender in exchange for which the lender would get a percentage of the appreciation in 10 years or when you sold your home, whichever came first.

2. So what is the asset, exactly? I think of it as a second mortgage, with a variable interest rate that depends on the rate of appreciation of the property and on the size of what I would call the “discount,” because the third-party owner is going to pay less than $10,000 for a 10 percent share of a $100,000 house. Why? Because the third party does not get to live in the house and enjoy the implicit rental income. In the extreme case where a third party has 100 percent of the equity but for some reason pays the full $100,000 price. In that case, in exchange for giving up all the equity, the “buyer” would be living in the house rent-free!

3. There are no magic tricks in mortgage finance that make housing affordable to people who cannot save enough for a reasonable down payment. The only way to make housing affordable is for the price of homes to come down to where people can afford them. That’s true even in California, although folks there go through periodic episodes where they refuse to believe it.

James Poterba on the Mortgage Interest Deduction

He says,

the real place where the tax code provides a subsidy for owner-occupied housing is not by allowing mortgage deductibility, because if you or I were to borrow to buy other assets — for instance, if we bought a portfolio of stocks and we borrowed to do that — we’d be able to deduct the interest on that asset purchase, too. If we bought a rental property, we could deduct the interest we paid on the debt we incurred in that context. What we don’t get taxed on under the current income tax system is the income flow that we effectively earn from our owner-occupied house, what some people would call the imputed income or the imputed rent on the house. The simple comparison is that if you buy an apartment building and rent it out, and you buy a home and you live in it, the income from the apartment building would be taxable income, but the “income” from living in your home — the rent you pay to yourself — is never taxed. This is the core tax distortion in the housing market: the tax-free rental flow from being your own landlord.

Pointer from Timothy Taylor. The interview covers other topics, all interesting.

He goes on to say that it is unlikely that people would accept being taxed on a made-up number representing this “rental flow from being your own landlord.” However, people do accept being taxed on the appraised value of their property, which is arguably also a made-up number. It seems to me that you could tax homeowners on a made-up “appraised rental value” just as easily. Or just tax them a percent of the appraised value, as is done now.

Let’s go with the notion that the goal is to tax owner-occupied and investment property identically. Then my thought is you should just exempt landlords from paying tax on their rental income. But I find the whole notion of how the tax system should and should not work to give me a headache. Even if you start with the idea of a consumption tax, do you want to include the use of housing as consumption? Presumably you do, and then you are right back into these conundrums of rental vs. owner-occupied, are you not?

Real Estate is a Difficult Market to Arbitrage

Nick Timiraos has some useful charts related to house prices. The ones that interest me the most are the last ones, which show price-rent ratios. For LA, it is 25, and for SF it is over 30. But for NY, Boston, and DC it is all under 20.

I think of the inverse of the price-rent ratio as a measure of the real interest rate. Thinking of it that way, the real interest rate in San Francisco is about 3 percent, while the real interest rate in New York is about 7 percent. That suggests that you want to borrow in SF to lend in NY. Or, in this case you want to go short housing in SF and go long housing in NY.

Some reasons why this does not happen:

1. It is hard to go short in real estate.

2. It is hard to go long the “average” price in a city. You can only buy specific houses.

3. The market can stay mis-priced (and get more mis-priced) longer than you can stay solvent.

Dean Baker, Watch Your Back

He writes,

This argument seriously misrepresents the issues with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The real problem was that they issued trillions of dollars in MBS that were implicitly backed up by the government. At the time they failed in the summer of 2008, the generally held view in financial circles was that the government would be obligated to honor their MBS regardless of whether or not it kept Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in business. In other words, the issue was not the $180 billion bailout (about which elite types routinely and misleadingly say we made a profit) the issue was the huge amount of bad MBS that helped propel the housing bubble.

This was a direct result of the perverse incentives created by a system where private shareholders and top executives stood to profit by passing risk off to the government. This incentive does not exist today. This incentive does not exist today. (The line is repeated because policy folks have a hard time understanding it.) As long as Fannie and Freddie are essentially public companies, that do not offer high returns to shareholders and pay outlandish salaries to CEOs, no one has incentive to take excessive risks.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. The argument to which he refers is that government support for mortgage securitization is fine, you just do not want to depend on one or two big securitizers.

I think that Baker should watch his back, because the ruthless housing finance lobbyists are back in action. For saying similar things, I have had quite a few epithets hurled at me (“Koch brothers mouthpiece” being one of the milder ones). Agree or disagree with Dean Baker, at least you can say that his opinions are not for sale to the mortgage finance lobby.

Useful Housing Market Charts

From the San Francisco Fed. Pointer from Mark Thoma.

II mostly wanted to keep this link for future reference. It charts some key housing market indicators before and after 2008. One bit of text:

The price-to-rent ratio (red line) reached an all-time high in early 2006, marking the apex of the housing bubble. Currently, the price-to-rent ratio is about 25% below the bubble peak.

My reading of the charts is that after the bubble burst, housing construction really fell off. The result has been an increase in rents, which in turn justifies an increase in house prices. You can argue about how much overbuilding there was prior to 2007 and how much underbuilding there has been since. I doubt that one can give a definitive answer. The problem is that I do not think that anyone can say what the “right” amount of average housing space per person is. And we are in the midst of trend increases in urban and outer suburban population, and I do not know how that affects things.

Houses and Land

Kevin Erdmann writes,

The real long term natural rate right now is about 2.5%. If you have tons of cash or you can run the gauntlet and get a mortgage, or if you are an institituional investor going through the difficult organizational process of buying up billions of dollars of rental homes, you get the preferred rate of 4% real returns.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen. Erdmann thinks that we have not built enough houses, so rents will be rising, so owning rental property is a great investment. My comments:

1. I would have thought so, too. I put a lot of money in REITs. It has not done well. I also invested a lot of money in firms that own/manage a lot of apartments. It did not do well. Maybe all that says is that I played in a segment of the market that is efficient, when the point is to try to exploit the inefficient segment.

2. If I understand his thinking, there are not enough buyers to bid house prices to their fair market value. So you can own an apartment building at a high rent/price ratio. But it seems to me that, at least in some markets, the price/rent ratio has gone up rather than down in the past few years.

3. I am not sure that I trust my intuition about housing markets. My friends and relatives tend to be located in Blue cities where regulation restricts supply. I do not have a good feel for less-regulated markets.

Idiosyncratic Charts

Kevin Erdmann writes,

there was little change in the share of securitized mortgages during any of the boom years from the mid-1990s to the height of the boom. The share of these pools was 57% in 1995 when rent inflation began to rise, it peaked at 62% by 2002 before the steepest moves in home prices, and then declined back to 59% at the end of 2005 when housing starts and home prices peaked.

Within this group, there was a shift to private pools, much of which were subprime. But, as we can see in the graph, there was a gradual shift from Ginnie Mae to private pools from about 1990 to 2003.

…After 2003, the GSE’s began to decline as a portion of the market also. It was during this period that private pools shot from about 10% to about 20% of the market, until the private pool market collapsed in 2007. This period was not associated with a rise in homeownership, and included the last period of sharply rising prices followed by two years of flat prices.

What I find idiosyncratic about the chart is that it is based (I think) on total mortgage debt outstanding. Also, he charts the share of mortgages, rather than total amounts. Both of those factors tend to make the chart tamp down changes in dollar mortgage flows.

One point is that the issuance of mortgages by agencies was affected by loan limits interacting with higher house prices. My guess is that the substitution of private mortgages for agency mortgages took place in locations where house prices were rising faster than the loan limits adjusted.

Yet another point is that a lot of lending was in the form of cash-out refinances (people using their homes as ATMs). I may be wrong, but I don’t think that FHA was in that business.

Another chart shows the increase in mortgage debt by income class. Kevin writes,

The proportion of mortgage debt held by the bottom 80% of households declined during this period [2004 to 2007].

What I would want to see is the behavior of the ratio of debt to equity by income class. Suppose that everybody is using their homes as ATMs. If a rich guy with a million dollar home raises refinances his $400,000 mortgage for $500,000 and a poor guy with a $100,000 home refinances his $90,000 mortgage for $100,000, then most of the new mortgage debt goes to the rich guy. But it’s the poor guy whose equity is disappearing.

Bethany McLean responds

In an email (which she gave me permission to post), she writes,

So first of all, thank you for your kind words about All the Devils. I’ve always been a fan of your work, and I wholeheartedly second the title of your blog! Secondly, I’m always fine with criticism of my work and disagreement with any interpretation I’ve made. In particular, the GSEs are a nuanced, difficult subject, and frankly, I learn new things all the time. I am always willing to change my mind if someone shows me that I’m wrong.

What I’m not ok with is mischaracterizations of my work, whether deliberate or because you didn’t actually read most of the book [her newest book, Shaky Ground]. My main reason for writing is that you say I dismiss Ed DeMarco as a free market ideologue. That is exactly the opposite of what I actually wrote, which is that you cannot dismiss him as just that! I think Ed is a good man who did the best job he could and held true to his beliefs – saving taxpayers money – under very difficult circumstances. I don’t want people reading your review to think I impugned someone’s character when in fact, I did the opposite. It’s really unfair of you.

You are intellectually dishonest about some other points as well, but frankly, everyone is intellectually dishonest about the GSEs, so I won’t bother with most of it. But since I’m writing, I’m going to point another one out.

You also say that the shareholders made a political bet, which they lost, fair and square. There are many different types of shareholders, but as I detail (gory detail – it’s hard to miss!) a number of them made a purely financial bet, and totally missed the poisonous politics. They did loan level analysis and saw that the GSEs were going to become profitable again. Their bet was not that they could buy special favors, but precisely the opposite: that the government would treat Fannie and Freddie as normal companies – ie, like AIG, like Chrysler, like the big banks. Which, not incidentally, is what Jim Lockhart said would happen at the time of conservatorship. And the government set up this situation by leaving the common and preferred shares outstanding. You can blame the investors for being politically naive, but I don’t see how you can fail to acknowledge that there’s a lot of blame to go around here. (It might be a fair point to say that the GSEs are only profitable again because of government support. But then, you’d have to say the same thing about the big banks. In fact, you’d have to say the same thing about our whole stock market, which is supported by the Fed! Etc, etc. )

I agree with your point about there being a powerful case to be made against the government caving into the housing lobby. Perhaps I do give in too easily to what I view as the political reality. That said, the history of the private market financing residential real estate is not a pretty one either! Look back to the booms and busts in the 1800s and the spectacular default rates in the Great Depression. I also would contest the idea that there is such a thing today as a private sector, as pertains to the mortgage market. If the big banks finance the mortgage market, they too will be GSEs, if they aren’t already. But on this, there is much grist for debate, and criticism is fair.

Anyway, the tag line on your blog, “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree,” is so important. Live up to it! Don’t set up straw men so that you can knock me down.

My remarks:

1. I am glad that she respects Ed DeMarco, and I am sorry that I interpreted her as siding with his opponents.

2. She and I will have to agree to disagree about the hedge fund investors in Freddie and Fannie stock. I see no role for financial calculation, or “loan-level analysis.” Instead, it would have been obvious that the GSEs could be restored to profitability if you kept them going long enough using Treasury funds to borrow while having the entire mortgage market to themselves. The wild, speculative bet was that in the meantime there would be no reform of the housing finance system and that politicians would then decide to return Freddie and Fannie to the status quo prior to 2008. However, neither the Bush Administration nor the Obama Administration indicated any intent to do that. If you bought GSE stock for pennies in 2009 or 2010, you were making a bet that could pay off spectacularly, but only if Congress and the Administration were to do something very different from what they were saying.

In dealing with the crisis, the only purist, follow-the-law approach would have been to put the firms (including big banks) through bankruptcy. I would have preferred that, although I understand the fears that policy makers had about such a process. In my view, the next best alternative would have been to nationalize the GSEs and the failed banks, on the grounds that taxpayers were on the hook for the losses of those firms. Then the government would gradually wind these firms down. Instead, the policy makers chose bailouts, which necessarily involved arbitrary treatment of stakeholders. I do not think that any of those stakeholders has a compelling legal complaint at this point, because the rule of law went out the window with TARP and the bailouts.

Just the other day, some bloggers at the New York Fed wrote,

our view is that an optimal intervention into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would have involved the following elements:

The firms would be able to continue their core securitization function as going concerns, supporting the supply of mortgage credit.

The firms would continue to honor their debt and mortgage-backed securities obligations.

The value of the common and preferred equity in the two firms would be extinguished, reflecting their insolvent financial position.

Note that last sentence.

3. For writing my earlier post, I have been subjected to vicious, ad hominem attacks from former members of the Fannie Mae lobbying arm. If nothing else were to convince me that restoring the status quo for the GSE’s is a bad idea, then these crude, juvenile social media posts would suffice. Perhaps government backing for housing finance is inevitable in America. But at least let us hope that the institutions that receive such support do not replicate Fannie Mae’s aggressive and unprincipled lobbying machine.

In an opinion piece in today’s WaPo, McLean dismisses this lobbying with an “everybody does it” line.

One legitimate complaint about the old Fannie and Freddie was the way they garnered political clout through their promotion of homeownership. In their heyday, it was immense and ugly. (“Fannie has this grandmotherly image, but they will castrate you, decapitate you, tie you up, and throw you in the Potomac,” a congressional source told the International Economy in the late 1990s. “They are absolutely ruthless.” That would pale next to the political clout of a big bank that also controlled the mortgage market, and whatever evils grew out of the GSEs’ need to please politicians, there could be worse. Imagine the conversation in a back room between the politicians and the bank executives, where they agree that if the bank will loosen up credit in their states, the politicians will go easy on, say, derivatives regulation. It almost makes the old Fannie and Freddie look pure.

No it doesn’t. And the rest of her piece consists of cheerleading for housing finance subsidies, which is exactly what makes her new book such a disappointment.

Housing Finance Policy and African-Americans

From The Atlantic:

“Becoming a homeowner was not a fruitful asset accumulation strategy for low- and moderate-income black families in the 2000 decade, in either the short- or medium-term,” write Sandra J. Newman and C. Scott Holupka, authors of a new study from Johns Hopkins University.

…Black families who bought in 2005 lost almost $20,000 of net worth by 2007, according to the paper. By 2011 those losses were more like $30,000. White homeowners didn’t have quite the same problem. Those who purchased in 2007 saw their net worth grow by $18,000 in two years, and then those gains eroded, leaving them with an increase of $13,000 by 2011. All told, the black families lost, on average, 43 percent of their wealth.

…in general black families would have been better off if they hadn’t bought homes at all.

And yet, the advocates of mortgage subsidies and other misguided government housing policies are as active as ever lobbying for more.

Why did the sample of comparable white home owners not do as poorly?

Presumably, the value of their homes declined less. One possibility is that “affordable housing goals” for lenders temporarily increased the prices of homes in black neighborhoods and also created pockets of foreclosures concentrated in those neighborhoods. There are other possibilities, of course.