The Great, Government Induced Housing Bubble

by: Mark J. Perry
In his latest column, George Will reviews the scalding new book “Reckless Endangerment" by New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson and housing finance expert Joshua Rosner. Here's an excerpt from George Will:

"The book is another cautionary tale about government’s terrifying self-confidence. It is, the authors say, “a story of what happens when Washington decides, in its infinite wisdom, that every living, breathing citizen should own a home.”

The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act pressured banks to relax lending standards to dispense mortgages more broadly across communities. In 1992, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston purported to identify racial discrimination in the application of traditional lending standards to those, Morgenson and Rosner write, “whose incomes, assets, or abilities to pay fell far below the traditional homeowner spectrum.”

In 1994, Bill Clinton proposed increasing homeownership through a “partnership” between government and the private sector, principally orchestrated by Fannie Mae, a “government-sponsored enterprise” (NYSE:GSE). It became a perfect specimen of what such “partnerships” (e.g., General Motors) usually involve: Profits are private, losses are socialized.

There was a torrent of compassion-speak: “Special care should be taken to ensure that standards are appropriate to the economic culture of urban, lower-income, and nontraditional consumers.” “Lack of credit history should not be seen as a negative factor.” Government having decided to dictate behavior that markets discouraged, the traditional relationship between borrowers and lenders was revised. Lenders promoted reckless borrowing, knowing they could off­load risk to purchasers of bundled loans, and especially to Fannie Mae. In 1994, subprime lending was $40 billion. In 1995, almost one in five mortgages was subprime. Four years later such lending totaled $160 billion.

By 2003, the government was involved in financing almost half — $3.4 trillion — of the home-loan market. Not coincidentally, by the summer of 2005, almost 40 percent of new subprime loans were for amounts larger than the value of the properties."

The chart above helps tell the story, by showing graphically the unprecedented, government-induced rise in homeownership, from less than 64% in 1994 to more than 69% in 2004, a 5.4 percentage point increase in only one decade. In many ways, what has been called the "housing bubble" was at the same time an unsustainable "homeownership bubble" (fueled by the political obsession with homeownership) and the bursting of the home price bubble was at the same time a bursting of the "homeownership bubble" as the graph clearly demonstrates.