Friday, March 09, 2012

Nest Eggs and Nests: A Brief Meditation on Neil Buchanan, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Arrow Securities, Unicorns, Zebras, Dogs, Fire Hydrants and ... Oh Yah, Mortgage Relief

By Bob Hockett

Neil's characteristically brilliant and trenchant posts over the past week on the American romance with home-ownership prompt me to say a bit more on the subject myself. The following observations are of course not offered as counterclaims to Neil's claims, but as complements to them - even as this post itself is best seen as a compliment to Neil.

So the first thing to say, if only in passing, is that Neil is quite right in recognizing that the remark made in my last post, to the effect that I did not wish to offer aid and comfort to those who characterize the recent mortgage crisis as proof that the non-wealthy are not fit to own homes, was not occasioned by anything Neil has argued here in previous posts. Those posts have indeed been very important interventions in the national conversation concerning finance, and I would never wish to be taken to be associating them in any way with another class of interventions by others which I did have in mind. I should have been clearer about that before, so let me be as explicit as I can now: The people I had in mind in making the collateral observation to which Neil referred are those, primarily if not indeed exclusively on the right, who regularly characterize our recent financial woes as the product of possibly good-hearted but ultimately wrong-headed efforts to make home-owners of non-wealthy Americans who 'just aren't yet ready' for home-ownership. That claim, with the makers of which Neil would be just about the last person on earth to make common cause, of course feeds all too nicely into the complementary (and indeed complementarily absurd) rightwing narrative which has it that the existence of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Barney Frank, and, who knows, now perhaps even Barny Rubble, 'socialism,' Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the NAACP, foodstamps, the Democratic Party, President Obama's birth certificate, MSNBC, Sandra Fluke, and contraception caused the financial meltdown of 2008. And so it is that claim which I was keen to go out of my way to avoid any association with.

All of that being said, it might be well now to say a bit more about both (a) why it is that the rightwingers are wrong about home-ownership, and (b) why it is that I'm more optimistic about home-ownership than I take Neil to be even while acknowledging that both Neil and I come at the question from 'progressive' orientations. And as it happens, notwithstanding the infinite gulf between Neil and the rightwingers, some of my reasons for (a) also serve partly as reasons for (b) - though there are also of course other reasons I shall offer for (b).

So to begin with the rightwingers, there are quite a few reasons to dismiss their claims about home-ownership's role in the lead-up to crisis nearly as quickly as these are offered. One is that the excess credit-money supply that glutted American (and indeed global) financial markets over the late 'nineties and early 'naughties was the relevant cause of the bubble, with subprime MBS constituting no more than a trigger. Readers can read more of that here at this blog, for example, here and here; or they can consult any of the following three papers: one; two; three. Another reason to dismiss the rightwing story is that, even were one to insist as an article of faith that suprime MBS were the relevant cause, s/he would be faced with the inconvenient fact that the GSEs never held more than a tiny fraction of subprime MBS, the non-GSE financial institutions having both pressed for the origination of and then purchased the overwhelmingly greater part of them. Finally, the rightwingers who fondly blame all on the existence of the GSEs always fall strangely silent when asked how it came to pass that these institutions functioned, beginning with Fannie in 1938, without flaw for nearly seventy (70) years, converting us from a nation in which barely over 30% of households owned their own homes to one in which nearly 70% did in the process. Seventy years is a long time for a mistake to prove itself to have been a mistake, if mistake the American system of government-facilitated home-buying was. I don't think it's unreasonable, then, to ask the rightwingers to get a bit more specific in locating the time at which things actually went sour. If they require tutoring on the subject, I recommend the pieces linked to above, as well as a couple more to which I shall link in a moment.

Now, the first two the the three reasons just given to reject the rightwing story are not reasons also to be more optimistic about home-owning than Neil might be. They are difficulties for adherents of the rightwing articles of faith alone. The third reason just given to reject the rightwing story, however, also affords some support for a bit of the extra measure of optimism about home-owning to which I am prey but Neil is not. And there are more. So I turn to these now.

To begin with, then, the seventy year history to which I alluded above is a remarkable one that I think all Americans would do well to know a bit more about. For it constitutes a most edifying and indeed even inspiring lesson in both (a) pragmatic bipartisanship, and (b) the promise that financial engineering offers to Main Streeters, not just Wall Streeters, when well guided by sensible policy. (The latter idea was floated here at this site not so long ago, in another connection, and I'll come back to it below.) So what is the history I reference? Well, the late 1920s and early 1930s brought to this country not just a stock market crash, but a real estate crash too. (Sound familiar?) The consequences were devastating. Millions of Americans were rendered homeless, millions lost their jobs in the construction industry or in industries dependent upon construction, and of course many banks that had leant to these parties went under as well. What most people don't seem to appreciate is that in those days one had typically to pay at least half of a home's value by way of down payment, borrowing the relatively small remainder. Loans, for their part, were extended only for short terms, meaning that borrowers had regularly to refinance if they had not come to own their homes outright within a few years. That in turn meant that even relatively brief credit contractions could result in mass mortgage default. And, of course, that happened. The response to this crisis, pioneered by the Hoover administration and completed by the Roosevelt, was a case study in sensible policy. First came the Hoover-wrought spread of the home loan bank system (1932), which brought cautious and well regulated saving, home-lending, and Fed-style risk- and liquidity-pooling nationwide to home finance. Next came the Roosevelt-wrought FHA mortgage-insurance and -refinance programs (1934), which got millions of Americans back into their homes, then millions more into homes who had not owned before, and in so doing revitalized and indeed vastly grew the home-building and complementary industries, all of which were of course major employers and, what is yet more, ineluctably domestic employers. FHA's mortgage insurance was key. For one thing, it rendered credit for home-buying much cheaper by socializing the risk of default. For another thing, by conditioning the insurance on particular attributes of the mortgage instruments themselves, as well as of the qualifying homes, it literally created the once-familiar, ever-safe 30 year, fixed-rate mortgage that dominated US home finance till the late 1990s, while also improving the quality of homes themselves. Finally (1938) came the first of the GSEs, Fannie Mae, which rendered home finance credit even more readily available by making a secondary market for mortgages, enabling banks readily to transfer these assets from their books when in need of liquidity. That development itself was facilitated, of course, by the now nationally standard mortgage instrument that FHA itself invented.

The upshot of all of this was, as mentioned above, that America converted from a nation with just over a 30% home-ownership rate in the late 1920s, to one with a nearly 70% rate by the late 1950s. So successful was the system that our system of higher education finance replicated it. (Heard of any other 'Mae's, for example, in connection with your student loans?) In effect, we more or less realized something like Thomas Jefferson's ideal of a sort of 'yeoman republic' in which most households were home-owning stakeholders. And we did it, moreover, by means associated with the name of Jefferson's great founding era adversary Alexander Hamilton - the means of finance. Talk about bipartisanship! Hoover/Roosevelt, Jefferson/Hamilton. You can read more about all of it in this strangely named article, A Jeffersonian Republic by Hamiltonian Means.

And so things continued till the early 2000s. So what went wrong? Well, there's a not altogether unsatisfactory progressive story that might focus on the decimation of the Hoover-era thrifts during the deregulation-wrought 'S&L Crisis' of the 1980s and early 1990s, which institutions were ultimately replaced by unregulated 'mortgage banks' like Countrywide in the 1990s. Or one might also point to the privatization of Fannie Mae in 1968, at which time Freddie Mac was instituted to compete with it. But I think ultimately there's a more convincing explanation to be found in the stagnation of incomes among all income strata save the top one from the 1970s onward, that in turn rooted in trade-liberalization accompanied by the quintupling of global labor supplies as more and more desperately poor denizens of the 'global south' and 'east' joined the world market. (This is the tale told in The Way Forward, to which Neil and I have referred here before.) That global shift resulted ultimately in both (a) the huge credit glut referenced above, and (b) the temptation by US authorities - notably but not exclusively Alan Greenspan's Fed - to encourage credit-fueled real estate and other asset price rises as means of counterbalancing real income stagnation so as to prop up employment-maintaining consumer demand in the domestic economy. (Therein the story of the vaunted 'wealth effect' so widely discussed from about 1996 to 2006.)

So where does this leave us? What does it tell us? I think it tells us, first, that home-ownership wasn't, and isn't, the problem. Real estate just happened to be the one asset that Greenspan and company could target in propping up consumer spending power via the wealth effect. And it was the one asset that he could do that with for the reason that Neil has effectively provided - it's been the one major asset that most American households actually own. Had it not been that, it would have been ... ah, but this takes me to the second thing that the tale I've just told tell us, and to my final point, and, of course, back to Neil...

So the second thing that the tale of the past thirty years or so tells us, I think, is that if we want to discuss the merits of a national policy promoting home-ownership, we do well to bracket the matter of the recent crisis and focus solely on the heart of the matter. That is of course what Neil has been doing in his posts on this question. What do I make of the merits? Well, that will ultimately make for a full separate post in its own right, I suppose, if not more, but I can give an at least summary account here. And per that account, there are what I believe to be multiple benefits offered by a policy that promotes home-owning, while there is also much room to mitigate the costs of such policy so well elaborated by Neil. So on the benefit side of the ledger, first, there does seem to be evidence out there that home-owning promotes familial and neighborhood stability by inducing a sort of stakeholder mentality. People 'invest' more in their homes and their neighborhoods, the claim here would run and can be at least provisionally supported (it is, e.g., here), when they 'rent to own' in the form of mortgage-paying. They also tend, relatedly, to participate more in local governance and like activities sounding in responsible citizenship when they 'invest' in this way. There seems, in other words, to be something to the old civic republican paeons to homesteading - at least in this country, which seems to have fancied itself a sort of knock-off of the old pre-imperial Roman Republic from its earliest days. (See cites referred to above, especially Whose Ownerhsip and Jefferson/Hamilton for more on this.) Second, and, as I'll suggest, relatedly, mortgage-paying turns out to constitute a very effective way of saving, a form of real investing, in a culture that, alas, tends not to encourage much saving these days. In that sense, it affords Americans a 'stake-holding mentality' even in their own futures, in a way that nothing else purchasable out there evidently does any longer. One shudders to contemplate the penury in which Americans right and left might all find themselves were they to blow even their present mortgage-payment moneys on bread and circuses of the sort that appeal to them now. Finally, and again relatedly, human beings - or Americans, anyway - seem to be subject to some sort of what I'll call 'substantiality heuristic,' pursuant to which financial assets simply do not feel as 'real' to them as does a house and a plot of land. That might indeed be why it is that mortgage payments are the only sizeable savings deposits they tend to make any longer. Doubtless this is linked somewhere down deep with the 'endowment' effect written about by behavioralists, a tendency I imagine is cognate with that of dogs to lift legs at fire hydrants. If we've indeed gone to the dogs in this way, I suppose that it's better we capitalize on it in a manner that leaves retirees with real assets than that we leave them to blow it all on potato chips.

But what about the costs of our home-ownership policies to which Neil so aptly draws our attention? Shouldn't we worry about the risk-concentration? Isn't diversification the key to value-retention in asset portfolios? The answer, of course, is: Yes. But. Two things to note here, with which I shall also quite mercifully close (for now). The first is that real estate tends generally to be quite value-retentive when not made the object of speculative frenzy - or of speculation-encouraging Greenspan-Fed credit-money policy. In other words, bracket the recent crisis as I proposed above we must do, and homes constitute one of very few assets in which one can by and large trust. But I won't rest on that alone. For the second point I wish to make is that we can actually diversify risks of home-price declines without relinquishing home-owning. And this takes me back to my earlier 'financial engineering for Main Street' point. As some of our readers know, prior to the crisis this was one of my principal scholarly schticks - and it will be again. Indeed the job talk I gave when I entered the teaching market eight years ago (good heavens, eight now?!) was titled 'Real Arrow Securities for All.' The basic idea was that it's actually much easier than people seem to think to design non-speculative hedging instruments usable by ordinary Janes and Joes to insure against risks that we presently think uninsurable. That includes risk not only of home price decline, but even of occupation-associated income decline. I'll spare our readers the details for now and confine myself to one more cite to an article from my student days (and it shows; but it's here). Suffice it to say, then, that I'm entirely with Neil on concern over the risk-concentration possibly entailed by some home-owning. I simply think (a) it's not nearly as significant a problem, when viewed over the long term, as the distorting lens of the recent crisis might make it look, while (b) if we finally turn to the project of financial engineering for ordinary folk rather than solely the bigshots, we can very well lay off such risk as remains.

Back, then, for now, to the project of mortgage relief - i.e., to the restoration of things to the state we were in before Baby Bush Babylon. That's something on which both the Zebra (me as Neil-characterized) and the Unicorn (Neil as Neil-characterized) are altogether in accord!

Many thanks again to Neil for his most thought-provoking reflections.