VIEWPOINT: Two Steps to Stop Bleeding in Housing

By Hilliard, Bill | American Banker, February 25, 2009 | Go to article overview

VIEWPOINT: Two Steps to Stop Bleeding in Housing


Hilliard, Bill, American Banker


Byline: Bill Hilliard

On Feb. 16, President Obama announced that the Treasury Department would add $200 billion to the Federal Reserve Board's $500 billion program to purchase mortgage-backed securities. This idea seems smart on the surface, but careful study reveals the opposite.

As currently structured, the Fed's spending has accelerated the housing downturn and added fuel to a recessionary spiral. The president can mandate simple changes to the Fed's program to correct this problem.

We have two home mortgage markets in the United States. The first is the "agency" market, and this year's ceiling for such mortgages is $417,000 in most of the country. The second is the "nonagency" market, which includes all jumbo loans (for larger amounts than are permitted within the agency market).

Nonagency loan volume in the first nine months of last year fell 70% from a year earlier. They now make up less than 10% of the market. A paucity of nonagency lending compresses housing prices, creating a recessionary spiral in every urban market nationwide.

Until last year homebuyers could qualify for much more credit in relation to their incomes than is currently available.

For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates the median household income in Chicago was $71,600 last year. Families meeting that criterion make up Chicago's middle class, and using pre-crisis debt-to-income ratios, they qualified for about $496,000 of nonagency mortgage financing. Depending on the down payment, these families could purchase homes valued anywhere from $550,000 to $620,000. These were not reckless speculators. They were simply middle-class households purchasing family homes in conventional urban neighborhoods.

Today homebuyers with the same qualifications are hard-pressed to obtain a loan above $417,000. Even with a 20% down payment, new buyers can only pay up to $525,000. As a result, home values have compressed for Chicago homeowners. The effect is similar nationwide.

Two things are needed to stop deflationary housing compression. Credit must be restored to all qualified middle-class homeowners purchasing or refinancing a primary residence, and a new form of mortgage contract is needed to entice secondary buyers to return to the nonagency market.

Increasing credit availability is easy. When Congress set the formula for agency loan limits, they granted Alaska and Hawaii limits 150% higher than the highest limits approved elsewhere in the United States; the government-run agencies can purchase and insure loans of up to $1,094,625 (though in practice, the agencies have limited loans to $793,750 or less). That limit should be extended to all agency mortgages nationwide.

Moreover, this policy would not inflate home prices in lower-priced communities any more than it has inflated Honolulu's $610,000 median price. …

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