Housing Boom, Subprime Lending, ARMs, Housing Bubble, CDOs, Subprime Mortgage Crisis, Housing Inventories & Sales and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 24th, 2012

History 101

Artificially Low Interest Rates and Federal Pressure to Qualify the Unqualified created a Housing Bubble

The federal government loves home sales.  Because they generate a lot of economic activity.  From the washing machines and refrigerators new homeowners buy to furnish them.  To the raw materials extracted from nature to make the concrete, bricks, wood, pipes, wires, shingles, glass, plastic, paints, carpeting, insulation, etc., to build them.  Enormous amounts of economic activity at every level throughout the stages of production.  It reduces down to a simple formula.  Make it easy for people to buy houses.  Enjoy a booming economy.  And how best to do that?  Make mortgages cheap.  By keeping interest rates cheap.  Artificially low.  To stimulate a housing boom.

This is Keynesian economics.  Government intervention into the private market.  By having the Federal Reserve keep interest rates lower than the market would have them.  To encourage more people to buy houses.  Then the Clinton administration took it up a notch with their Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Investor’s Business Daily reported (see Smoking-Gun Document Ties Policy To Housing Crisis by PAUL SPERRY posted 10/31/2011 on Investors.com) that this policy statement forced lenders basically to qualify the unqualified.

At President Clinton’s direction, no fewer than 10 federal agencies issued a chilling ultimatum to banks and mortgage lenders to ease credit for lower-income minorities or face investigations for lending discrimination and suffer the related adverse publicity. They also were threatened with denial of access to the all-important secondary mortgage market and stiff fines, along with other penalties…

“The agencies will not tolerate lending discrimination in any form,” the document warned financial institutions.

The unusual full-court press was predicated on a Boston Fed study showing mortgage lenders rejecting blacks and Hispanics in greater proportion than whites. The author of the 1992 study, hired by the Clinton White House, claimed it was racial “discrimination.” But it was simply good underwriting.

There was no racial discrimination.  Just people who couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  But that didn’t stop the Clinton administration.  So there were artificially low interest rates.  And federal pressure to qualify the unqualified.  To let those who can’t afford to buy a house buy a house.  Enter subprime lending.  A way lenders could approve the unqualified for a mortgage.  With adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs).  Interest only mortgages.  Zero down mortgages.  No documentation loans (say you earn whatever you want and we’ll enter it into the application without documenting it).  Anyone who wanted to have a house could have a house.  And a lot of people bought houses.  Even those with insufficient incomes to pay their mortgage payment if interest rates ever rose.

When the Housing Bubble Burst it Destroyed a lot of Economic Activity and a lot of Jobs

The economy was heating up.  There was a housing boom.  The boom turned into a housing bubble.  Housing prices soared demand was so high.  Builders couldn’t build them fast enough.  And people couldn’t buy a house big enough.  McMansions entered the lexicon.  Houses in excess of 3,000 square feet.  For a family of four.  Or smaller.  But then these artificially low interest rates began to heat up inflation.  And it was the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to keep that from happening.  So they raised interest rates.  Causing the interest rates on those ARMs to reset at a higher rate.  Making a lot of those monthly payments beyond the homeowners’ ability to pay.  Homeowners defaulted in droves.  Causing the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Facilitating this economic carnage was the secondary mortgage market.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Who bought those very risky mortgages from the lenders.  Repackaged them into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).  And sold them to unsuspecting investors.  Who thought they were buying high-yield safe investments.  Because they were backed by historically the safest investment.  A mortgage.  But that was before subprime lending.  For these subprime mortgages weren’t your father’s mortgage.  These mortgages were toxic.

So when the housing bubble burst it not only destroyed a lot of economic activity, and a lot of jobs, it wreaked financial destruction in people’s investment portfolios.  All because of a formula.  Make it easy for people to buy houses.  But when you play with the economy too much you don’t create economic growth.  You created bubbles.  And the bigger the bubble the longer and the more painful the recession will be when that bubble bursts.  As those artificially high house prices fall out of the stratosphere back to real market levels.

The Current Gulf between Housing Inventories and Sales is what made this Recession the Great Recession

If you look at the housing inventories and housing sales for the decade from 2001 to 2011 you can see how bad the recession was.  And will continue to be.  We took housing data from the United States Census Bureau.   Housing inventories from Table 7A.  And housing sales from Houses Sold.  The data shows housing units in inventory and sold.  We used 2001 as a base year, dividing each number by the 2001 base numbers.  Graphing the results shows how inventories and sales trended for this decade.

From 2001 to 2005 housing sales were rising at a greater rate than inventories.  Indicating demand for houses was greater than the supply of houses.  Causing house prices to rise.  Encouraging builders to build more houses.  Heating up the housing market.  Sending prices higher.  Creating the great housing bubble.  Then around 2005 the Federal Reserve began to raise interest rates to tamp out inflation.  And those ARMs began to reset at higher rates.  Causing housing sales to fall.  From about 2005 to 2008 inventories continued to rise while sales collapsed.  Leaving the available housing supply far outstripping demand.  Causing house prices to collapse.  Leaving people underwater in their mortgage (owing more than their house is worth).  Or living in paid-off houses that lost up to half their value.  Or more.

The gulf between inventories and sales is what made this recession the Great Recession.  And is why the Great Recession lingers on.  There are just so many more houses than people want to buy.  Killing new housing starts.  And all that economic activity that building a house generates.

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