The Opportunity Cost of Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 16th, 2013

Economics 101

Housing Sales drive the Economy because almost Everything for Sale is for the Household

Once upon a time the rule of thumb was to buy the most expensive house we could possibly afford.  We saved 20% for a down payment on a conventional mortgage.  We lived on a shoestring budget and paid our mortgage no matter what.  Even if we had to live on meatloaf and macaroni and cheese for the next five years.  Or longer.  We did this because we would be paying that mortgage payment for 30 years.  And though tough at first during those 30 years we advanced in our careers.  And made more money along the way.  Making that mortgage payment easier to pay as time went by.

So that was the way it used to be.  And it was that way for a long time.  Until the Federal Reserve started playing with interest rates to stimulate economic activity.  Altering the banking system forever.  Instead of encouraging people to save their money so banks could loan money to homebuyers they printed money.  Flooded the market with it.  Ignited inflation.  And caused housing bubbles.  Then the government took it up a notch.

Housing sales drive the economy.  Almost everything for sale is for the household.  Furniture and appliances.  Beds and ceiling fans.  Tile and paint.  Cleaning supplies and groceries.  Dishes and cutlery.  Pots and pans.  Towels and linen.  Lawnmowers and weed-whackers.  Decks and patio furniture.  When people buy a house they start buying all of these things.  And more.  Creating a lot of economic activity with every house sold.  So the government did everything they could to encourage home ownership.  And few governments did more than the Clinton administration.  By applying pressure on lenders to qualify the unqualified for mortgages.  Which gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.

Lenders used Subprime Lending to Qualify the Unqualified to Comply with the Clinton Administration

People in poor neighbors tended to be poor.  And unable to qualify for a mortgage because they couldn’t afford the house payments.  When these poor people happened to be black the Clinton administration said the banks were racist.  They were redlining.  And advised these lenders that if they don’t start qualifying these people who couldn’t afford a house that the full weight of the government will make things difficult for them to remain in the lending business.  So they complied with the Clinton administration.  Using subprime lending to put people into homes they couldn’t afford.

The main reason why people can’t afford to buy a house is the size of the mortgage payment.  Which can be pretty high if they can’t afford much of a down payment.  So these lenders used special mortgages to bring that monthly payment down.  The adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).  Which had a lower interest rate than conventional mortgages.  Because they could raise it later if interest rates rose.  Zero-down mortgages.  Which eliminated the need for a down payment.  Coupled with an ARM when interest rates were low could put a poor person into a good sized house.  No-documentation loans.  Which removed the trouble of having to document your earnings to prove you will be able to make your house payment.  Making it easier to approve applicants when you don’t have to question what they write on their application.  Interest-only loans where you only had to pay the interest for, say, 5 years.  Greatly reducing the size of the monthly payment.  But after those 5 years you had to pay that loan back in full with a new mortgage for the full value of the house.  Which may be more costly in 5 years.

So these lenders were able to meet the Clinton administration directive.  They were putting people into homes they couldn’t afford.  Just barely.  These people had house payments they could just barely afford.  Thanks to the low interest rate of their ARM.  But then interest rates rose.  Making those mortgage payments unaffordable.  With zero-down they had little to lose by walking away.  And a lot of them did.

The Interest on the Debt is so large we have to Borrow Money to Pay for the Cost of Borrowing Money

Buying a house is a huge investment.  One that we finance.  That is, we borrow money.  Sometimes a lot of it.  Because we don’t want to wait and save money for a down payment.  And because we want so much right now we buy as much as we can with those borrowings.  Doing whatever we can to lower the monthly payment.  With little regard to long-term costs.  For example, assume a fixed 30-year interest rate of 4.5%.  And we finance a $150,000 house with zero down.  Because we have saved nothing.  The monthly payment will be $790.03.  But if we waited until we saved enough for a 10% down payment that monthly payment will only be $684.03.  And if we saved enough for 20% down the monthly payment will only be $608.02.  That’s $182.01 less each month.  The total interest paid over the life of this mortgage for zero down, 10% down and 20% down is $123,610.07, $111,249.06 and $98,888.05, respectively.  Adding that to the price of the house brings the total cost for that house to $273,010.07, $246,249.06 and $218,888.05, respectively.  So if we wait until we save a 20% down payment we will be able to buy a $150,000 house and $54,723.02 of other stuff during those 30 years.  This is the opportunity cost of debt.

We are better off the less we finance.  Because long-term debts are with us for a long time.  And they don’t go away if we lose our job.  Or if interest rates go up.  Like with an ARM.  A large driver of the subprime mortgage crisis.  Let’s see what was happening before the housing bubble burst.  Let’s say we could buy that $150,000 house with a zero down mortgage with an adjustable interest rate of 2%.  Giving us a monthly payment of $554.43.  Very affordable.  Which helped get a lot of people into houses they couldn’t afford.  But then the interest rate went up.  And what did that do to someone who could just barely pay their house payment when it was $554.43?  Well, if it reset to 4% that payment increased to $716.12 ($161.69 more per month).  If it reset to 6% that payment increased to $899.33 ($344.90 more per month).  Bringing the total cost of the house to $323,757.28 ($150,000 principle + 173,757.28 interest).  Which is why a lot of these people walked away from these houses.  There was just no way they could afford them at these higher interest rates.

Interest payments on long-term debt at high interest rates can overwhelm a borrower.  Making the Clinton administration’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending insidious.  It destroyed people’s lives.  Putting them into houses they couldn’t afford with subprime lending.  But if you think that’s bad consider the national debt.  These are long-term obligations just like mortgages.  And currently we owe $16,738,533,025,135.63 (as of 9/13/2013).  At an interest rate of 3.9% the annual interest we must pay on this debt comes to $652,802,787,980.29.  That’s $652.8 billion.  Which is more than we spend on welfare ($430.4 billion).  Almost what we spend on Social Security ($866.3 billion).  And more than half of the federal deficit ($972.9 billion).  This is the opportunity cost of debt.  It limits what we can spend elsewhere.  On welfare.  Social Security.  Etc.  The interest on the debt has grown so large that we even have to borrow money to pay for the cost of borrowing money.  And there is only one way this can end.  Just like the subprime mortgage crisis.  Only worse.

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Housing Boom, Bubble and Bust

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 15th, 2013

Economics 101

Building and Furnishing Houses creates Great Economic Activity

Central to any booming economy are healthy home sales.  For home sales unleash great economic activity.  From the first surveys of a new subdivision.  To the new sewers and water systems.  Gas and telephone.  Cable television and broadband Internet.  Concrete for basements, driveways and sidewalks.  Structural steel (that beam in the basement and steel poles holding up the house).  Rough carpentry.  Electrical work and plumbing.  Drywall, windows and roofing.  Painting, flooring, doors and hardware.  Heating and air conditioning.  Lighting and plumbing fixtures.  Brick, siding and landscaping.  Etc.

All of this takes manufacturing to make these construction products.  All these manufacturers need raw materials.  And raw material extraction needs heavy equipment and energy.  At all of these stages of production are jobs.  Extracting raw materials.  Processing raw materials.  Manufacturing products out of these raw materials.  Building this production equipment.  Interconnecting these stages of production is every form of transportation.  Rail, Great Lake freighter, river barge and truck.  Requiring even more jobs to build locomotives, rolling stock, ships and trucks.  And jobs to operate and maintain them.  And build their infrastructure.  Filling all of these jobs are people.  Earning a paycheck that will let them buy a house one day.

Then even more economic activity follows.  As people buy these homes and furnish them.  Washers and dryers.  Refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, food processors and coffee makers.  Furniture and beds.  Light fixtures and ceiling fans.  Rugs, carpeting and vacuum cleaners.  Telephones, televisions, music systems, modems and computers.  Curtains, drapes, blinds and shades.  Shower curtains, bath mats, towels and clothes hampers.  Mops, buckets, cleaning supplies and waste baskets.  Lawnmowers, fertilizers, hoses and sprinklers.  Snow shovels and snow blowers.  Cribs, highchairs, diapers and baby food.  Etc.  All of these require manufacturers.  And all of these manufacturers require raw materials.  As well as transportation to move material and product between the stages of production.  And to our wholesalers and retailers.  More jobs.  More people earning a paycheck.  Who will one day buy their own home.  And create even more economic activity.

Bill Clinton pressured Lenders to Lower their Requirements and Subprime Lending took Off

This is why governments love housing.  And try to do everything within their power to increase home ownership.  Which is why they changed the path to home ownership.  After World War II when the building of subdivisions took off there was the 3-6-3 savings and loan.  Where savings and loan paid 3% interest on savings accounts.  Loaned money to home buyers at 6%.  And were on the golf course by 3 PM.  And the mortgage was the 30-year conventional mortgage with a 20% down payment.

The conventional mortgage was the mortgage of our parents.  Who had no problem putting off their wants to save money for that 20% down payment.  They prioritized.  And planned for the future.  But the conventional mortgage has an obvious drawback.  It limits home ownership to those who can save up a 20% down payment.  Pushing home ownership further out for some.  Or just taking that option away from a large percentage of the population.  So the government stepped in.  To help those who couldn’t save 20% of the house’s price.

Mortgage Qualification Decreasing Down Payment

As we lowered the down payment amount it allowed lower-income people the opportunity of home ownership.  But it didn’t get them a lot of house.  That is, those who could afford a 20% down payment could buy more house for the same monthly payment than those who couldn’t afford it.  And a house in a better neighborhood.  Which some said was unfair.  Some in government even called it discriminatory.  As Bill Clinton did.  Who pressured lenders to lower their lending requirements to qualify the unqualified.  His Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending helped to fix that alleged problem.  And kicked off subprime lending in earnest.  Leading to the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Conventional Wisdom was to Pay the Most you could Possibly Afford when Buying a House

But lowering the down payment wasn’t enough.  Even eliminating it all together.  The people needed something else to help them into home ownership. And to generate all of that economic activity.  And this was something the government could fix, too.  By printing a lot of money.  So banks had a lot of it to lend.  Thus keeping interest rates artificially low.  And we can see the effect this had on home ownership combined with a zero down payment.  It allowed people to buy more house for the same given monthly payment.  Even more than those buying with the 3-6-3 conventional mortgage.

Mortgage Qualification Decreasing Mortgage Rate

Falling interest rates bring in a lot more people into the housing market.  Which is good for sellers.  And good for the economy.  A lot more people than just those who could afford a 20% down payment can now buy your house.  As people bid against each other to buy your house they bid up your price.  Raising home prices everywhere.  Increasing the demand for new housing.  Which builders responded to.  Creating a housing boom.  As builders flood the market with more houses.  At higher prices.  That new homeowners move into.  And max out their credit cards to furnish.  Creating a lot of debt people are servicing at these artificially low interest rates.  But then the economy begins to overheat.  And other prices begin to rise.  Leaving people with less disposable income.  The housing boom turns into a housing bubble.  House prices are overvalued.  Those artificially low interest rates created a lot of artificial demand.  Bringing people into the market who weren’t planning on buying a house.  But decided to buy only to take advantage of those low interest rates.

Conventional wisdom was to pay the most you could possibly afford when buying a house.  For all houses gained value.  You may struggle in the beginning and have to make some sacrifices.  Say cut out steak night each week.  But in time you will earn more money.  That house payment will become more affordable.  And your house will become more valuable.  Which will let you sell it for more at a later date letting you buy an even bigger house in an even nicer neighborhood.  But when it’s cheap interest rates driving all of this activity there is another problem.  For printing money creates inflation.  And inflation raises prices.  Gasoline is more expensive.  Groceries are more expensive.  As prices rise households have less disposable income.  And have to cut out things like vacations.  And any discretionary spending on things they like but don’t need.  Which destroys a lot of economic activity.  The very thing the government was trying to create more of by printing money.  So there is a limit to the good economic times you create by printing money.  And when the bad consequences of printing money start filtering through the rest of economy the government has no choice but to contract the money supply to limit the economic damage.  And steer the economy into what they call a soft landing.  Which means a recession that isn’t that painful or long.

The Price of Artificially Low Interest Rates is Inflationary Booms, Bubbles and Great Recessions

As interest rates rise home buying falls.  Leaving a lot of newly built homes unsold on the market.  And that housing bubble bursts.  Causing home values to fall back down from the stratosphere.  Leaving a lot of people owing more on their mortgage than their houses are now worth.  What we call being ‘underwater’.  And as interest rates rise so do the APRs on their credit cards.  As well as their monthly payments.  And those people who paid the most they could possible afford for a house with an adjustable rate mortgage saw their mortgage interest rates rise.  As well as their monthly payment.  By a lot.  So much that these people could no longer afford to pay their mortgage payment anymore.  As a half-point increase could raise a mortgage payment by about $50.  A full-point could raise it close to $100.  And so on.

Increasing Monthly Payment dur to Increasing Mortgage Rate

With the fall in economic activity unemployment rises.  So a lot of people who have crushing credit card debt and a house payment they can no longer afford lost their job as well.  Causing a rash of mortgage foreclosures.  And the subprime mortgage crisis.  As well as a great many personal bankruptcies.  Causing the banking system to struggle under the weight of all this bad debt.  Add all of this together and you get the Great Recession.

This is the price of artificially low interest rates.  You get inflationary booms.  And bubbles.  That burst into recessions.  That are often deep and long.  Something that didn’t happen during the days of 3-6-3 mortgage lending.  And the primary reason for that was that the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  Which prevented the government from printing money at will.  The inflationary booms and busts that come with printing money.  And Great Recessions.

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LESSONS LEARNED #24: “You cannot lobby a politician unless he or she is for sale.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 29th, 2010

BUILDING A RAILROAD ain’t cheap.  It needs dump trucks of money.  Especially if it’s transcontinental.  And that’s what the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were building.  Starting during the Civil War in 1863 (the year Vicksburg fell and Lee retreated from Gettysburg).  The Union Pacific was building west from Iowa.  And the Central pacific was building east from California. 

For the most part, Protestant, English-speaking Americans settled Texas.  Mexico had encouraged the American colonists to settle this region.  Because few Mexicans were moving north to do so.   The deal was that the colonists conduct official business in Spanish and convert to Catholicism.  They didn’t.  These and other issues soured relations between Mexico and the American Texans.  The Republic of Texas proclaimed their independence from Mexico.  America annexed Texas.  Mexico tried to get it back.  The Mexican-American War followed.  America won.  Texas became a state in 1845.  And that other Spanish/Mexican territory that America was especially interested in, California, became a state in 1850.  Hence the desire for a transcontinental railroad.

The U.S. government was very eager to connect the new state of California to the rest of America.  So they acted aggressively.  They would provide the dump trucks of money.  As America expanded, the U.S. government became the owner of more and more public land.  The sale of new lands provided a large amount of revenue for the federal government.  (Other forms of taxation (income taxes, excise taxes, etc.) grew as the amount of public lands to sell decreased.)  Land is valuable.  So they would grant the railroad companies some 44 million acres of land (i.e., land grants) for their use.  The railroad companies, then, would sell the land to raise the capital to build their railroads.  The government also provided some $60 million in federal loans.

But it didn’t end there.  The federal government came up with incentives to speed things up.  They based the amount of loans upon the miles of track laid.  The more difficult the ground, the more cash.  So, what you got from these incentives was the wrong incentive.  To lay as much track as possible on the most difficult ground they could find.  And then there were mineral rights.  The railroad would own the property they built on.  And any minerals located underneath.  So the tracks wandered and meandered to maximize these benefits.  And speed was key.  Not longevity.  Wherever possible they used wood instead of masonry.  The used the cheapest iron for track.  They even laid track on ice.   (They had to rebuild large chunks of the line before any trains would roll.)  And when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met, they kept building, parallel to each other.  To lay more miles of track.  And get more cash from the government.

PAR FOR THE COURSE.  When government gets involved they can really mess things up.  But it gets worse.  Not only was government throwing dump trucks of American money down the toilet, they were also profiting from this hemorrhaging of public money.  As shareholders in Crédit Mobilier.

Thomas Durant of Union Pacific concocted the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  As part of the government requirements to build the transcontinental railroad, Union Pacific had to sell stock at $100 per share.  Problem was, few believed the railroad could be built.  So there were few takers to buy the stock at $100 per share.  So he created Crédit Mobilier to buy that stock.  Once they did, they then resold the stock on the open market at prevailing market prices.  Which were well below $100 per share.  Union Pacific met the government requirements thanks to the willingness of Crédit Mobilier to buy their stock.  The only thing was, both companies had the same stockholders.  Crédit Mobilier was a sham company.  Union Pacific WAS Crédit Mobilier.  And it gets worse.

Union Pacific chose Crédit Mobilier to build their railroad.  Crédit Mobilier submitted highly inflated bills to Union Pacific who promptly paid them.  They then submitted the bills to the federal government (plus a small administration fee) for reimbursement.  Which the federal government promptly paid.  Crédit Mobilier proved to be highly profitable.  This pleased their shareholders.  Which included members of Congress who approved the overbillings as wells as additional funding for cost overruns.  No doubt Union Pacific/Crédit Mobilier had very good friends in Washington.  Including members of the Grant administration.  Until the party ended.  The press exposed the scandal during the 1872 presidential campaign.  Outraged, the federal government conducted an investigation.  But when you investigate yourself for wrongdoing you can guess the outcome.  Oh, there were some slaps on the wrists, but government came out relatively unscathed.  But the public money was gone.  As is usually the case with political graft.  Politicians get rich while the public pays the bill.

(Incidentally, the investigation did not implicate Ulysses Grant.  However, because members of his administration were implicated, this scandal tarnished his presidency.  Grant, though, was not corrupt.  He was a great general.  But not a shrewd politician.  Where there was a code of honor in the military, he found no such code in politics.  Friends used his political naivety for personal profit.  If you read Grant’s personal memoirs you can get a sense of Grant’s character.  Many consider his memoirs among the finest ever written.  He was honest and humble.  A man of integrity.  An expert horseman, he was reduced to riding in a horse and buggy in his later years.  Once, while president, he was stopped for speeding through the streets of Washington.  When the young policeman saw who he had pulled over, he apologized profusely to the president and let him go.  Grant told the young man to write him the ticket.  Because it was his job.  And the right thing to do.  For no man, even the president, was above the law.)

THE FINANCIAL WORLD fell apart in 2007.  And this happened because someone changed the definition of the American Dream from individual liberty to owning a house.  Even if you couldn’t afford to buy one.  Even if you couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  Even, if you should get a mortgage, you had no chance in hell of making your payments.

Home ownership would be the key to American prosperity.  Per the American government.  Build homes and grow the economy.   That was the official mantra.  So Washington designed American policy accordingly.  Lenders came up with clever financing schemes to put ever more people into new homes.  And they were clever.  But left out were the poorest of the poor.  Even a small down payment on the most modest of homes was out of their range.  Proponents of these poor said this was discriminatory.  Many of the inner city poor in the biggest of cities were minority.  People cried racism in mortgage lending.  Government heard.  They pressured lenders to lend to these poor people.  Or else.  Lenders were reluctant.  With no money for down payments and questionable employment to service these mortgages, they saw great financial risk.  So the government said not to worry.  We’ll take that risk.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would guarantee certain ‘risky’ loans as long as they met minimum criteria.  And they would also buy risky mortgages and get them off their books.  Well, with no risk, the lenders would lend to anyone.  They made NINJA loans (loans to people with No Income, No Job, and no Assets).  And why not?  If any loan was likely to default it was a NINJA loan.  But if Freddie or Fannie bought before the default, what did a lender care?  And even they defaulted before, Fannie and Freddie guaranteed the loan.  How could a lender lose?

Once upon a time, there was no safer loan than a home mortgage.  Why?  Because it would take someone’s lifesavings to pay for the down payment (20% of the home price in the common conventional mortgage).  And people lived in these houses.  In other words, these new home owners had a vested interested to service those mortgages.  Someone who doesn’t put up that 20% down payment with their own money, though, has less incentive to service that mortgage.  They can walk away with little financial loss.

ARE YOU GETTING the picture?  With this easy lending there was a housing boom.  Then a bubble.  With such easy money, housing demand went up.  As did prices.  So housing values soared.  Some poor people were buying these homes with creative financing (used to make the unqualified qualify for a mortgage).  We call these subprime mortgages.  They include Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  These have adjustable interest rates.  This removes the risk of inflation.  So they have lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages.  If there is inflation (and interest rates go up), they adjust the interest rate on the mortgage up.  Other clever financing included interest only mortgages.  These include a balloon payment at the end of a set term of the full principal.  These and other clever instruments put people into houses who could only afford the smallest of monthly payments.  The idea was that they would refinance after an ‘introductory’ period.  And it would work as long as interest rates did not go up.  But they went up.  And house prices fell.  The bubble burst.  Mortgages went underwater (people owed more than the houses were worth).  Some people struggled to make their payments and simply couldn’t.  Others with little of their own money invested simply walked away.  The subprime industry imploded.  So what happened, then, to all those subprime mortgages?

Fannie and Freddie bought these risky mortgages.  And securitized them.  They chopped and diced them and created investment devices called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).  These are fancy bonds backed by those ‘safe’ home mortgages.  Especially safe with those Fannie and Freddie guarantees.  They were as safe as government bonds but more profitable.  As long as people kept making their mortgage payments.

But risk is a funny thing.  You can manage it.  But you can’t get rid of it.  Interest rates went up.  The ARMs reset their interest rates.  People defaulted.  The value of the subprime mortgages that backed those CDOs collapsed, making the value of the CDOs collapse.  And everyone who bought those CDOs took a hit.  Investors around the globe shared those losses. 

Those subprime loans were very risky.  Lenders would not make the loans unless someone else took that risk.  The government took that risk in the guise of Fannie and Freddie.  Who passed on that risk to the investors buying what they thought were safe investments.  Who saw large chunks of their investment portfolios go ‘puff’ into thin air.

SO WHAT ARE Freddie and Fannie exactly?  They are government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).  They key word here is government.  Once again, you put huge piles of money and government together and the results are predictable.  In an effort to extend the ‘American Dream’ to as many Americans as possible, the federal oversight body for Freddie and Fannie lowered the minimum criteria for making those risky loans.  Even excluding an applicant’s credit worthiness from the application process (so called ‘no-doc’ loans were loans made without any documentation to prove the credit worthiness of the applicant.)  To encourage further reckless lending.  Ultimately causing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

And, of course, members of Congress did well during the good times of the subprime boom.  They got large campaign contributions.  Some sweetheart mortgagee deals.  A grateful voting bloc.  And other largess from the profitable subprime industry.  Government did well.  Just as they did during the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  And the American taxpayer gets to pay the bill.  Some things never change.  Government created both of these scandals.  As government is wont to do whenever around huge piles of money.  For when it comes to stealing from the government, someone in the government has to let it happen.  For it takes a nod and a wink from someone in power to let such massive fraud to take place. 

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