Policy and housing: someone’s gotta give!

by Rebecca

Housing demand is being propped up by government subsidies and low mortgage rates, and the level of supply is held back by low prices. Right now, the housing market is a complicated hodgepodge of policy, foreclosures, and very weary potential home-buyers.

Home sales are stabilizing; home building is stabilizing; and home prices (might be) stabilizing – the chart to the left illustrates a positive trend in sales away from distressed and first-time home-buyers, the targets of policy, according to the NAR. But what would the housing market look like if the massive policy expired this year? Not good, and it will.

Some points on the housing market:

  1. Subsidies are set to expire. If the Fed continues to buy its average of $105 billion in GSE-backed MBS per month (see the NY Fed’s website for weekly updates), it will max out the announced $1.25 trillion in four months. The $8,000 tax credit for first-time home-buyers expires at the end of this year. The Fed’s Treasury buyback program will run its course by October.
  2. There are several home price indices out there, each painting a slightly different picture of the level and trend in aggregate home values (see AB post).
  3. The foreclosure modifications program is holding off some foreclosures; but the program is no match for market forces.
  4. There is a large shadow inventory out there – potential sellers that are reluctant or unwilling (TIME calls some of these sellers “accidental landlords”) to relinquish home ownership at current prices. However, if home values continue to take baby steps forward, shadow sellers (new supply) will emerge.
  5. There is a bimodal distribution of sales across the high-end and low-end housing markets. Low-end sales are hot, while the upper end is not.

The housing market still has a long, long way to go before unsubsidized demand equals supply at a price that doesn’t exacerbate foreclosures – strategic or otherwise. With virtually all of the subsidies expiring within four months, it’s hard to believe that policymakers won’t give.

So who’s gonna cry uncle? My bet’s on the Fed, as it lacks does not require Congressional approval. Some Fed officials even tout that the MBS program should be scaled back; that’s ridiculous, given points 1. through 5. above. I agree with Daniel Indiviglio at the Atlantic: the Fed is more likely to increase its MBS purchase program, rather than to curtail or even adhere to the current limit.

By the way, the Fed and the Treasury have successfully dropped mortgage spreads to 2006 levels, even lower on the 30-yr; but it took an accumulation of $1 trillion in MBS to date to do that.

Rebecca Wilder

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