Friday, November 25, 2011

Hypocrisy and McMansions

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

With the national economy sputtering and unemployment around 9%, many Americans will need to tighten their belts this holiday season. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans in Washington teamed up to serve up a big order of Hypocrisy on a silver platter.

On November 18, President Obama signed into law a bill that reinstates higher conforming loan limits for the Federal Housing Administration through 2013.

In plain English, home purchasers can now receive cheaper financing on home loans up to $729,750. The financing is "cheaper" because it's effectively guaranteed by the federal government (i.e., taxpayers). The interest rate on non-conforming jumbo loans is roughly 0.75% higher that the interest rate on conforming loans.


Gee, isn't this a sign of progress? Team Obama was finally able to hammer out a bipartisan consensus with Republicans. The House passed the bill with a healthy 298-121 majority. Of the dissenters, 101 were Republicans and 20 were Democrats.

The main progress here was the blatant display of hypocrisy. Politicians didn't hold their noses against the stench and enact this bill in the dead of night. They transparently abandoned their "core principles" in broad daylight.

Let's start with the Democrats. The Obama administration and Congressional Democrats have relentlessly spun the following narrative:
The Great Recession was brutally difficult for lower- and middle-income Americans. But upper-income Americans emerged largely unscathed. And many of them actually profited from the economic downturn. The top 1-2% have "unclean hands" because they have not suffered the harshest effects of the economic downturn. And it is time to "spread around" some of their wealth by creating or expanding government programs funded by increased taxes on the top 1-2%.
Rhetoric aside, these tireless advocates for the middle class understand where their bread is buttered. The most expensive real estate in the United States is concentrated in Democratic strongholds on the East and West Coasts. Wealthy liberal enclaves provide enormous financial support to Democratic politicians. Note that House Democrats overwhelmingly supported the legislation.

A middle-class American cannot afford a million-dollar McMansion. She does not need a $700,000 jumbo loan, conforming or non-conforming. This legislation was nominally intended to keep an ailing real estate market on life support. But the main people hurt by a softer real estate market are the affluent real estate brokers and financial institutions that service upscale local markets. To quote tax blogger James Maule, "boo hoo" for affluent real estate brokers. Democrats howl about cuts to services for the "most vulnerable" Americans. Yet when push comes to shove, they prioritize subsidies to affluent real estate brokers by propping up home values in the wealthiest communities.

How about the Republicans? Most Republicans argue that free markets work, and that government intervention tends to cause more problems than it solves. Many Republicans have criticized government policy for exacerbating the housing bubble that burst in 2007 with such a devastating effect.

But Democrats do not have a monopoly on wealthy political donors in expensive homes. The "crony capitalism" that riled up the Occupy Wall Street crowd has deep roots on both sides of the political aisle. The main Republican advocate of the bill was John Campbell (R-Calif), whose constituents in Orange County have taken large haircuts on million-dollar homes. Republicans lose all credibility when they argue that certain sectors of the economy should remain on taxpayer-funded life support.

Republican also like to play the "certainty" card. They frequently argue that the economy is sputtering because individuals and businesses are uncertain about the future of government policy. But in this case, Republicans reversed course on a prior aspiration to scale back the federal government's role in residential housing finance. The acting director of the Federal Housing Authority bluntly criticized the legislation as "sending the wrong signal."

...and McMansions

The federal government (i.e., you and me as taxpayers) provide two main subsidies to the residential housing market. The first involves federal loan guarantees, which shift risk from private lenders to the government and, ultimately, taxpayers. Federal loan guarantees make it cheaper for homeowner to borrow money, which means that they can bid more for homes.

The second involves the deduction for home mortgage interest. Effectively, the mortgage interest deduction is a tax subsidy for home owners. Although the mortgage interest deduction is capped, it has the same overall effect as the federal loan guarantees. By reducing tax liabilities, the mortgage interest deduction frees up cash to service home mortgage principal and interest payments.

Here's the funny thing about the federal subsidies. They are nominally intended to make home ownership more accessible. But they don't make housing more affordable. On the contrary, the subsidies make housing less affordable, because they permit home buyers to qualify for bigger mortgages and pay for more expensive homes than would be possible without the subsidies.

Okay, if homes aren't more affordable, then who benefits from the subsidies? In other words, who benefits from government policies that increase the cost of housing above market rates?

Primarily the housing lobby, comprised of home builders and real estate agents. The former group (home builders) employs large numbers of union and other blue-collar workers in the construction industry. No surprise that Congress might want to direct economic subsidies to this group. In addition, local governments benefit from higher real estate prices, which translates into higher property tax revenues. Many local governments jumped on the bandwagon during the bubble years, assuming that real estate prices and property taxes would increase in perpetuity. They developed long-term budgets and entered into contractual obligations with service providers (teachers, police officers, bureaucrats) that have become unsustainable after the bubble popped.

The deduction for mortgage interest is second largest tax expenditure (estimated to cost $99 billion in 2012). Eliminating it would tend to make housing more affordable over time (by reducing the inflation-adjusted value of residential real estate). That's a bad result for many existing homeowners, but a good result for new homeowners. If political actions mirrored rhetoric, we would expect that Democrats and Republicans could agree on a plan to phase out the deduction over time. Home prices would become more affordable for the 99%. And individuals would re-allocate capital away from (subsidized) housing into more productive activities.

But political hypocrisy is just as certain as death and taxes.


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