Life support is expensive. When that troubled borrower gets a 20 percent haircut, his bank has to take a loss, and the bank is compensated for the loss by you, through the $50 billion Home Affordable Modification Program. The Treasury Department has paid more than $100 billion to allow the failed government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to keep on guaranteeing questionable loans. Fannie and Freddie, in turn, have been expanding rather than reducing their loan portfolios—the opposite of what you’re supposed to do when you’ve got an unmanageable debt load.
It’s easy to see why interested parties such as the National Association of Realtors would support interventions such as those above and the $8,000 Home Buyer Tax Credit. (It’s notable, however, that sales data in the three years since the beginning of the real estate collapse strongly suggest that a low asking price is by far the most important factor in whether a house sells.) What’s not as clear is why so many other interventionists are convinced that re-inflating the real estate bubble serves the common good.
More to the point, keeping real estate inflated is not an abstract public choice experiment, in which the benefits are concentrated and the costs distributed. The policy has a very discernable victim class: would-be home buyers, whose interests are served not by tax credits or massive debt commitments but by lower asking prices. Perversely, foreclosures are the highest they’ve ever been in American history, yet it’s harder than ever to buy a house. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median down payment by first-time buyers, even after a three-year, debt-driven economic shock, is just 4 percent. One-third of homes are still being purchased with no money down. As we learned (or thought we learned) in 2006, numbers like these are a recipe for cascading misfortunes. Renters should be angrier than ever.
Imagine a yard sale outside the biggest, fanciest house in town. You get there early, eager to buy cool stuff cheap. But every time you see something you like, a police officer comes along with a Sharpie, crosses out the price, and writes in another number that’s two or three times higher. Scale that up a bit, and you have the Obama housing plan.