The Future of the US Mortgage Market

by Ken Gibb

“The trigger for the most recent crisis remains the part of the global financial system that has been least reformed”. The Economist, August 20, 2016.

There is a thorough and thought-provoking diagnosis of contemporary US mortgage markets in the USA in the new edition of the Economist. You may ask why this is a significant issue worth attention. First, the proximity of US mortgage securitisation to the global financial crisis and the extent to which earlier structural and other challenges have been repaired is important for the world financial system not least because the rest of the world owns trillions of dollars of US mortgage debt. Second, the US market has had a lengthy and difficult period which has had all manner of knock-on effects for housing, communities and the economy. Third, there is the key question of the future – how stable, resilient and sustainable is the current system and also proposals for reform. Finally, how relevant is any of this to the UK’s mortgage market?

The article argues that despite the rebalancing of Wall Street banks since 2008, alongside the banks sits the mortgage sector, which creates almost as much credit as the banks but unlike them the housing credit sector is much less capitalised and only just in profit. US mortgage debt is of the order of $11 trillion. The Economist argues that the taxpayer subsidies the system to the tune of $150 billion a year (tax breaks but also the indirect effect on interest rates of the Fed purchasing mortgage bonds). This is in part because of the conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or de facto nationalisation of the great majority of the US mortgage sector (at least 2/3 of new mortgages originate from agencies of government). The economist concludes that it is not the market but ‘administrative fiat’ which determines mortgage volumes, the structure of loans and attitudes to risk.

The collapse after 2008 led to major changes in the regulation, ownership and practice operating in the mortgage lending sector. The Economist stresses the withdrawal of traditional lenders from mainstream new home loans to be replaced by specialist orginators. Second, the Government’s rescue of the system between 2008-2012 left them in control of large parts of that system and in particular of securitization of mortgages. Third, although the old derivatives market has been largely removed, it is still the case that the ownership of mortgage assets is still widely distributed across the banks and internationally.

This is where the Economist’s argument gets a bit schizophrenic – they argue that on the one hand there is too little regulation of the new originators of mortgage loans is too loose but at the same time the rest of the mortgage market is far too regulated – with 10,000 pages of law and rules that tighten up who gets loan, what kinds of property and loan types are eligible. Yet loan to value ratios are weakly controlled and 95% LTV loans are increasing (25% of new loans in 2012) and down payment regulations have been loosened.

The upshot for the authors is that the US mortgage system seems to be playing two roles – providing liquidity in the mortgage bond market but also using implicit and explicit subsidy to boost home ownership. What is to be done –the Economist is not keen on just leaving it alone (which itself is a common response after the shocks of 2008 and thereafter). Instead, they want a market solution but also note that with the status quo remaining because of the dominant role of the state, a future default crisis in the mortgage market will need to be bailed out by the taxpayer and this might be huge.

What is the market alternative? Force mortgage lenders to recapitalise like the banks on Wall Street and at the same time raise fees to create profit signals and incentives to take risks (and bear their costs). Administrative control and subsidy would be reduced and mortgage rates would probably go up a bit too. The Economist reckons this would require about $400 billion of new capital.

There are however difficult political economy barriers to such reform: the Government currently receives income from its conservatorships (but does not have their debts on its books) and of course the twin reduction of subsidy and higher interest rates (plus potentially sounder market criteria and regulation for lending) does not win support from the middle classes.

This all sounds like the policy reform problems we have discussed many times before – important coalitions and stakeholders who thwart reform even when it is in society’s long term interests. Figuring out ways to build consensus or use opportunities to act while sorting out the design and implementation of system wide reform, and indeed to compensate or mitigate the impacts on losers from reform – is a challenging mix. Default to inaction is made all the more likely by the need to get new enacting legislation through a partisan Congress.

While one may not necessarily agree with the precise policy thrust in the article, the problems are real enough. While not accepting the prognosis we still have to confront how to make policy well in a complex and uncertain setting. For those thinking about wishing to tilt the UK mortgage market to or from further regulation, it is worth considering the experience of the different and distinctive US setting.