Recovering from the Recession: Fiscal Drag Can Explain the Slow Recovery

I.  Introduction

Economic recovery from the 2008 financial collapse and economic downturn has been slow, with unemployment still high in 2012.  Republican political officials, whether the presidential candidates or the Republican leaders in Congress, have charged that this has been due to an unprecedented explosion in government spending during the Obama administration, and that the way to a fast recovery would be to slash drastically that government spending.  Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Leader in the Senate, for example, has repeatedly harped on what he has called the “failed stimulus package” of Obama, and has successfully blocked any effort to extend any fiscal stimulus to address the continued weak state of the recovery.

They point to the recovery during the Reagan years from the downturn that began in July 1981.  This was the sharpest downturn the US had suffered until then since the Great Depression, and the Republicans point to the subsequent recovery as an example of how (they assert) cutting back on government spending will lead to a strong recovery.  Unemployment reached a peak of 10.8% in the Reagan downturn in late 1982, surpassing even the peak of 10.0% reached in the current downturn.  But the unemployment rate then fell to 7.2% by election day in November 1984, and Reagan was re-elected in a landslide.

Recovery from the 2008 downturn has indeed been slow.  But it is simply false to say that fiscal spending has exploded during the Obama years, while it was contained during the Reagan years.  In fact, it was the exact opposite.  Understanding begins with getting the facts right.  And once one does, one sees that fiscal drag can fully explain the slow recovery from the 2008 downturn, while the recovery during the Reagan years was helped by the largest expansion of fiscal spending in any downturn of at least the last four decades.

II.  The Path of Real GDP

Start with the path of real GDP at each of the downturns since the 1970s (with the data here and below from the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the US Department of Commerce):

The graph shows the path of real GDP in the three years (12 quarters) before each business cycle peak since the 1970s (as dated by the NBER, the recognized entity that does this for the US), to four years (16 quarters) after the peak.  Recessions start from the business cycle peaks, with negative growth then for varying periods (of between 6 months and 18 months in the recessions tracked here) before the economy starts to grow again.  Six recessions have been called by the NBER in the US over the last four decades.  The NBER stresses that it concludes whether or not the economy went into recession based on a wide range of indicators, and not simply real GDP decline, but generally, negative GDP growth of two quarters or more is commonly associated with a recession.

As the graph shows, the downturn that followed the business cycle peak of December 2007 was the largest of any of those tracked here, with most of the decline occurring in 2008, before Obama took office, and in the first quarter of 2009, when Obama was inaugurated.  The economy stabilized quickly under Obama, and then recovered but only slowly.  By 16 quarters after the quarter of the business cycle peak (i.e. by the fourth quarter of 2011, the most recent period for which we have data), real GDP was barely above where it had been at the peak.  This was the worst performance for GDP of any downturn of those tracked here, and indeed the worst since the Great Depression (other than the fall in output after 1945, which is a special case).

The recession that began in July 1981 (shown in green in the figure) at first followed a strongly negative path, but after five quarters began to recover.  The economy then recovered faster than in any other US downturn of the last four decades, and by 16 quarters out, real GDP was over 14% above where it had been at the pre-recession peak. Republican officials argue that government cut-backs under Reagan account for this strong recovery.

III.  The Path of Government Spending

But what was in fact the path of government spending?  There are a couple of different measures of government expenditures one can use, but they tell similar stories.  First, one can look at direct government expenditures, for either consumption or investment.  This is the concept of government spending which enters directly as one component of demand in the GDP accounts:

In the downturn following the December 2007 peak, government expenditures rose in the first six quarters following the business cycle peak in the middle of the range seen in the other downturns.  But then it flattened out, and then it fell.  By the 16th quarter following the peak, real government spending was barely (less than 1%) above where it had been at the business cycle peak, four years before, and was the lowest for any of the six downturns of the last four decades (although close to that following the 1990 downturn, which was then into the Clinton years).  In contrast, government spending in the 1980s, during the Reagan years, continued to grow rapidly, so that by 16 quarters out it was almost 19% above where it had been four years earlier.  This growth in government spending during the Reagan period was by far the most rapid growth in such spending seen in any of the downturns.  Government spending growth following the March 2001 business cycle peak (i.e. during the Bush II years) was second highest after Reagan, but only a bit over 10% higher rather than 19% higher.

If one believes in the Republican assertions that fiscal spending will restrain growth and that fiscal cuts in periods of high unemployment will spur growth, then one would have seen slow growth during the Reagan period and rapid growth during the Obama period.  In fact, one saw the opposite.  Fiscal austerity is bad for growth, while fiscal expansion when the economy is in recession will spur growth.

It should be noted that government spending considered here is total government spending, at the state and local level as well as federal.  State and local spending is on the order of 60% of the total in recent years.  The cut-backs in recent years in total government spending has been driven by cut-backs in spending at the state and local levels, many of whom have followed conservative fiscal policy either by statute (balanced budget requirements when revenues are falling) or by choice.  In the four years following the December 2007 cyclical peak, state and local spending indeed fell by 6%.  This was offset to a degree by growth of 13% in spending at the federal level (of which 8.8% occurred in the last year of the Bush administration, while 4.1% total occurred over the three years of the Obama administration).  A similar breakdown during the Reagan years following the July 1981 downturn shows that state and local government spending rose by a total of 13.6% in the four years, while federal spending under Reagan rose by a total of 25.4% in those four years, for overall growth in government spending of 19%.  This large increase in federal spending does not support the common assertion that Reagan followed a policy of small government.  Federal spending grew almost twice as fast under Reagan as it did in the Bush II / Obama period following the 2008 downturn.

We therefore find that government spending on consumption and investment grew sharply during the Reagan years following the July 1981 downturn, more than in any other downturn in the US over the last four decades, and that the economy then recovered well.  In contrast, overall government spending (including state and local) was flat in the most recent downturn (rising at first in the last year of the Bush administration, but then flattening out and then falling), and the recovery has been weak.

It could be argued, however, that the government accounts that appear as a component of GDP (as direct consumption or investment of goods or services) do not capture the full influence of government spending on the economy, as it leaves out transfers.  Transfers include amounts distributed under Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and similar programs, which are indeed a significant component of government expenditures.  The purchases of good or services (or the amounts saved) are then undertaken by households, where it will appear in the GDP accounts.  But including transfers in the total for government spending will not change the story:

One again sees government spending increasing over the initial periods in each of the six downturns tracked, including that following the December 2007 peak.  This continues into the first complete quarter during the Obama administration, after which it flattens out and then falls.  By quarter 16, government spending including transfers in the Obama period is tied for the smallest growth seen in any of the six downturns (all at about 9% higher), along with that following the 1990 and 2001 downturns.  Once again, sharply higher growth is seen following the 1981 downturn, with total government spending including transfers was 21% higher after four years in this Reagan period.

By either measure of government spending, therefore, with or without transfers, government spending rose rapidly during the Reagan period while it flattened out and then fell during the Obama term.  This has produced a strong fiscal drag which has harmed the recovery.  In contrast, strong growth in government spending during the Reagan period was associated with strong GDP growth.

IV.  The Path of Residential Investment

There will, of course, be many other things operating on the economy at any given time, so it would be too simplistic to assign all blame or credit for GDP recovery on government spending alone.  Government spending is powerful, and does have a major impact on growth, but there are other things going on at the same time.  In the most recent downturn, the most significant other factor affecting aggregate demand for output has been residential investment.

Residential investment had risen sharply during the Bush II presidency, as has been discussed previously in this blog (see here).  The housing bubble then burst after reaching a peak in prices in early 2006 (see here), housing construction fell to levels not seen in decades, and such construction remains stagnant.

The collapse in residential investment seen in the most recent downturn in unprecedented.  While residential investment has typically fallen at the start of the downturn (and indeed was often already falling before the start of the overall economic downturn), the falls had never been so sharp and extended as now.  Four years since the business cycle peak in December 2007 (and six years since the peak in residential investment), residential investment remains weak, with no sign yet of recovery.  There are two reasons:  1)  The housing bubble reaching a peak in 2005/06 was unprecedented in size in the past half century, with residential investment reaching 6.3% of GDP in the fourth quarter of 2005, and then collapsing to just 2.2% of GDP in 2010/11; and 2) The downturn that started after the overall GDP peak in December 2007 was fundamentally caused by this bursting of the housing bubble, which led to mortgage delinquencies, financial stress in the financial institutions who held such mortgages, and then to collapse of the financial system.

V.  The Impact on GDP Recovery of the Fiscal Drag and of Housing

Finally, it is of interest to see what the impacts on GDP recovery might have been, had there not been the fiscal drag seen in recent years, or if residential investment had followed a different path.  There are many counterfactuals one could envision, but of particular interest would be the path of government spending seen during the Reagan years, as this is often held up by Republicans as the example to follow.  The following table shows what the impact would have been, along with a counterfactual scenario which keeps residential investment flat at the level it had been in 2007Q4.

Counterfactual Scenarios    All figures as a share of GDP.  Note that the shortfall from Full Employment GDP was 5.8% of 2011Q4 GDP (CBO estimate) Direct Impact Multiplier of 1.5
Government Consumption & Investment increases                                   as in 1981Q3-1985Q3 3.4% 5.1%
Total Government Spending (incl. Transfers) increases                             as in 1981Q3-1985Q3 4.0% 6.0%
Residential Investment flat at 2007Q4 level 1.4% 2.1%

The results indicate that the fiscal drag in recent years can by itself account for the shortfall of current GDP from its full employment level.  The estimate of full employment GDP comes from the January 31, 2012, economic baseline forecast of the Congressional Budget Office (see here), and is 5.8% above where current GDP was as of the end of 2011.  That is, if GDP were 5.8% higher, we would be at full employment (or “potential”) GDP, as estimated by the CBO.

In the first line of the table, government consumption and investment expenditure is increased by how much it was in 1981Q3 to 1985Q3 during the Reagan years, rather than the much slower growth (indeed essentially no growth) of 2007Q4 to 2011Q4.  The direct impact would have been to increase GDP by 3.4%.  Assuming a very modest multiplier of 1.5 (many would argue that the multiplier when the economy is in recession as now, with Federal Reserve Board interest rates close to zero, would be 2 or more), the impact would be 5.1% of GDP.  This is close to what would be needed to make up for the 5.8% gap.

In the scenario where total government spending (including transfers) is increased as it was during the Reagan years rather than the slow growth that has been chosen in recent years, GDP would have been 4.0% higher by the direct impact alone, and by 6.0% with a multiplier of 1.5.  This would have fully closed the gap.

One can also look at scenarios for residential investment.  Given how high the housing bubble had gone in 2005/6, it would be unrealistic to believe that housing would bounce back up quickly, and certainly not to the bubble levels.  But in a scenario where housing had simply recovered in real terms to the level seen in the fourth quarter of 2007 (when it was 4.0% of GDP), the direct impact on GDP would have 1.4%, or 2.1% assuming a multiplier of 1.5.  While still quite significant, these impacts are less than that resulting from the slow growth of government spending in recent years.

VI.  Conclusion

In summary:

1)  The recovery of GDP in the recent economic downturn has been slow, with unemployment still high.  Not only is a vast amount of potential output being lost, but long periods of unemployment is particularly cruel to the lives of those who must suffer this.

2)  Prominent Republican leaders have repeatedly asserted that the slow recovery has been due to an explosion of government spending under Obama.  This is simply not true.  Growth in government spending since the onset of the recession in December 2007 has been slower than in any other downturn of the last four decades in the US, and has been far less than the growth seen following the 1981 downturn during the Reagan years.

3)  Growth in government spending following the 1981 downturn during the Reagan period was in fact the highest by a substantial margin of any of the six downturns.

4)  If government spending had been allowed to grow in the recent downturn as it had during these Reagan years, the economy by the end of 2011 would likely have been at or close to full employment.

5)  Residential investment has also collapsed following the housing bubble that reached its peak in 2005/6, and has contributed substantially to the current downturn.  Its impact, while significant, is however quantitatively less than the impact of slow government spending, since residential investment is normally (and even at its peak) well less than government spending as a share of GDP.

A Comprehensive Mortgage Refinancing Program

Introduction

The US economy is stuck, with only weak growth.  While the 2008 economic collapse was stopped and then partially reversed through a number of bold government programs (including TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program launched under Bush, and the Obama stimulus package), the economy is now growing at too slow a rate to see a significant and sustained reduction in the still high rate of unemployment anytime soon.  The economy is operating far below potential, with a consequent huge loss in what living standards could be.  And the personal human cost of high unemployment is severe in itself.

A primary reason for this continued slow growth is the badly functioning housing market.  Housing prices (see this post) built up in a bubble in the middle of the last decade, reaching a peak in early 2006, and then collapsed.  With the collapse of that bubble, losses built up in US banks and in the US financial system more broadly, leading most spectacularly to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.  The TARP program as well as very aggressive actions by the US Federal Reserve Board succeeded in stabilizing the banks.  But homeowners also lost when the housing price bubble burst, with many now owing more on mortgages than the current value of the mortgaged house itself.

These mortgage holders cannot refinance at the lower interest rates now available on the market, unless they can come up with cash at the time of the refinancing to pay off the balance of the old mortgage in excess of what their new mortgage could be (now normally only 80% of the current home value).  If they do not have such cash, they must struggle to pay the mortgage at the old, higher, interest rates that were obtained when they bought their house during the bubble years (or when they may have refinanced at that time to a higher mortgage amount, or taken out a home equity line of credit on the then higher home value).  Similarly, they cannot sell their house and move to a new location (perhaps in pursuit of a new job opportunity) without bringing cash to the table at the time of closing.

Hence such homeowners remain stuck.  As a consequence, the housing market is not performing as it normally would.  To be blunt, the housing markets, and as a consequence the economy more generally, are constipated.  Economists refer to this as a balance sheet recession, as households (in this case) face financial obligations (their mortgages) in excess of the value of the assets they hold (their homes).  Households hunker down, and try to service their expensive mortgages while trying to save enough to get out of their negative net worth position.  But this can take a long time, and meanwhile the overall economy stagnates.  Japan suffered such a balance sheet recession following the bursting of its asset bubble in 1989 (although for Japan the problem was centered in the corporate sector).  It took more than a decade to recover from this, and to a degree the problem in Japan continues.

One can take a fatalistic approach and say there is not much that can be done.  The Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published in its November 21, 2011, edition, appears to take this view.   Asked by the interviewer: “Which happens first?  The economy picks up and housing recovers, or a bottoming and slight recovery in housing helps the economy?”  Geithner responded:  “You can’t engineer a recovery in housing that can lift the broader economy.  It has to be the other way around.”

If true, this would be unfortunate, as the economy will not recover as long as housing is in difficulty.  The purpose of this note is to set out a program which, while ambitious, would be feasible, and which would help unlock those households now facing mortgages that are greater than their homes are worth, and with this unlock the housing markets and the economy more generally.  The scale of the program, as will be detailed below, would be similar in scale to TARP and related programs, which succeeded in stabilizing the banks.  There is a need now to stabilize the households who have similarly suffered from the bursting of the housing bubble, with a similar commitment.

I have labeled the proposal the Comprehensive Mortgage Refinancing Program (CMRP).  The first section below will present the basics of the program, through a simple numerical example.  The section that follows will then elaborate on some of the specifics in how it would work.  I will then present the numbers on how many mortgages would be eligible and the savings these homeowners would enjoy, and aggregate figures on the total costs.  Finally a concluding section will discuss the impact on each of the various entities that would be affected (the households, the lenders, and government), and how each would benefit from the program.  There is a shared interest by each in participating, but leadership by government will be necessary to make it happen.

CMRP in Summary

The program would be built around a government loan (not a grant) to the home owners to allow the mortgage balance to be brought down to 80% of the current estimated home value.  Specifically, all household borrowers with a mortgage balance in excess of 80% of their current home value could participate, if they choose.  It would not be compulsory.  If they do, the house would be appraised, and their existing mortgage balance would be refinanced at a 4% interest rate (approximately the current market rate for 20 or 30 year fixed rate mortgages), for 80% of the home value by the existing mortgage holders and for the remaining amount as a loan on the same terms from the government.  Should the home owner decide to sell his property, perhaps some years hence, the mortgage holders would be repaid (as long as the home is sold for more than the mortgage, which was set at 80% of the value of the home when the program was launched).  The government would be repaid half of any gain above the 80% (half in order to preserve an incentive for the home owner to try to get a good price), while the remaining amount would be treated as a personal loan on the same terms, to be repaid over time.

There are many details still to be covered, but it would be helpful first to present this with a simple numerical example.  Assume that the current value of the home is $200,000, but that the mortgage on it is $250,000.  In common usage, the homeowner is “underwater” by $50,000.  Eighty percent (80%) of the home value is $160,000.  Under CRMP, the mortgage would be refinanced with the existing mortgage holder (or holders, if there is a second lien or a home equity line) providing a new 30 year mortgage at 4% on the $160,000, while the government would provide a loan on the same terms (4%, 30 years) of $90,000.

If the house is then sold for $200,000, the $160,000 mortgage would be paid off, while the government would receive $20,000 (half the difference between the sale price and the $160,000 mortgage), with the remaining $70,000 balance on the government loan to be repaid on the same terms (30 years, 4%) as if it were now a personal loan.  The homeowners could take out the $20,000 and use it as a downpayment on a new home, or could prepay the government if they wish.

Elaboration on the Program

Some of the specifics:

  1. The lender with the first lien on the home (and normally the largest single lender) would cover all the closing costs involved (including the cost of the appraisal by an independent professional firm, chosen by the government) as well as all the administrative costs involved both initially and over time.  No points would be charged on the new mortgage either.  The lenders will benefit greatly by this program, and can absorb such costs.
  2. The program would only be for households where the mortgage is for their principal residence.  The program is not designed to rescue businessmen or others who speculated on a continual rise in home prices during the bubble, nor for the lenders to such speculators.
  3. The program is also not designed for borrowers who cannot cover the debt service on these loans.  It is designed for those households who are servicing their debt, perhaps with difficulty but servicing it nevertheless.  They will gain as the new mortgage terms will be at 4%, versus the higher rates that they currently pay (probably normally in the 6 to 7% range, as these rates were typical during the bubble, or possibly even higher if they took out loans at low initial rates which then stepped up after a few years to higher rates).  There are, unfortunately, also households who cannot afford the homes they moved to even at a 4% rate.  Such cases need to be addressed on an individual basis, where there will be foreclosures as well as major losses to the mortgage holders who made such irresponsible loans.  Other programs exist to help in such cases, but this is not the objective of the proposed CRMP.
  4. The new loans from the government ($90,000 in the example) would be for 30 years at a fixed 4% rate, with the same level payments as for a 30 year fixed rate mortgage.  But one might include an incentive to pre-pay such loans, so that they do not last for decades unless truly needed.  One might include an automatic increase in the rate by say 1% point in year 10, 1% point again in year 15, and so on.  Even with a modest 2% annual inflation in home prices on average from their current level, prices would be 22% higher in 10 years and 35% higher in 15 years.  Homeowners could refinance at that point with a regular commercial mortgage, if beneficial to them, and repay the government obligation.
  5. The seniority of the creditors (i.e. the holders of the first lien, the second lien, any home equity credit lines, etc.) would be kept as they are now.  In the initial refinancing to 80% of the current home value (i.e. to the $160,000 in the example, from the $250,000 initial exposure), each lender will have a proportional reduction in their exposure.  But then if the house is sold for less than $160,000 (or whatever the current mortgage balance would be at some future date, after some period of repayment), there would be losses taken by these mortgage holders, in the order of their seniority as now.  That is, the mortgage holder with a first lien would be paid first, then those with a second lien, and so on.  The holders of these second liens and home equity lines will still benefit a great deal under this program, as the government has in effect already paid them the difference between the initial total mortgage exposure and the 80% home value ($90,000 in the example).  Plus there will not be further losses unless home prices fall by a further 20% from where they are now (as the new mortgages will be 80% of the current value).  But to the extent there are such further major losses, they will bear this.

The Overall Magnitude

An important question to address is what might be the scale of such a program, in terms of the amounts to be refinanced and what the government share of this would be.  The best data from which one can compute this is provided by CoreLogic, a private firm that provides analytical and consulting services on real estate.  They maintain a comprehensive state-by-state data base with estimates of the numbers of mortgages that are underwater, and by how much.  The figures can be worked out from numbers quoted in their most recent press release, available here.

Specifically, CoreLogic estimates that as of the third quarter of 2011, 22 million mortgage borrowers in the US have loans which are greater than 80% of their current home values.  This would define the pool of potential participants under CRMP.  Of the 22 million, CoreLogic estimates that 10.7 million face a mortgage loan greater than 100% of their current home value (i.e. are underwater), with 6.3 million of these having only a first lien on the home, while the remaining 4.4 million have a first lien as well as a second lien (or more).

For the 6.3 million underwater with only a first lien, the average mortgage balance was $222,000, and they were underwater by an average of $52,000, thus implying that their average estimated home value was $170,000.  For the 4.4 million with also a second or other liens, the average mortgage balance was $309,000, and they were underwater by an average of $84,000, implying an average estimated home value of $225,000.  I assumed that the average home value of those 11.3 million with loans between 80 and 100% of their home value, was the same as the weighted average of the homes underwater (equal to about $192,600), and that on average the mortgage balance outstanding on these homes was halfway between the 80 and 100% bounds.

From these numbers, one can calculate that the total mortgage balance outstanding in the US in excess of 100% of the underlying home value, is $699 billion.  In addition, a further $630 billion is outstanding on the mortgage amounts between 80 and 100% of the home values (including all of the 22 million homes with mortgages in excess of 80% of the home values).  Hence the total amount that the government might possibly need to lend, if there is 100% participation by all such eligible mortgage borrowers, would be $1,329 billion.  And the amounts that the lenders would need to provide (for the uniform 80% mortgages) would be $3,390 billion, down from their current exposure of $4,719 billion (where the government share makes up the difference).

These would be the maximum exposures.  However, it is doubtful that 100% of home mortgage borrowers would participate.  The reasons would be various, but would include the requirement that only mortgages on principal personal residences would be eligible.  In addition, CoreLogic noted that in its data, only 69% of the 22 million home mortgage borrowers with outstanding loans greater than 80% of their current home value, have mortgages at interest rates of 5% or more.  It would be these home owners, with high interest rate mortgages, who would gain the most from participation in the proposed program.

While it is impossible to say with any certainty how many mortgage borrowers would choose to participate (a reasonable guess might be somewhere in the 50 to 75% range), for the purposes here, I will assume that 69% do.  Therefore, the outstanding loans to be made by the government to the households would total $917 billion (69% of $1,329 billion), while the new 80% mortgages from the private lenders would total $2,339 billion (69% of $3,390 billion).

A $917 billion program from the government to benefit homeowners and unlock the housing market is of course huge.  But it is similar in scale to the potential exposure the government took on under TARP and related programs to stabilize the banking system.  TARP itself was approved for up to $700 billion, although substantially less was in the end used.  Similar US Federal Reserve Board support to AIG and to JP Morgan for the Bear Stearns purchase totaled $140 billion.  There has also been approved purchases by the US Treasury of equity in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of up to $400 billion.   These programs have thus totaled $1,240 billion, plus there were a number of smaller programs.

But it should also be noted that while the potential government losses totaled this $1,240 billion, the actual losses so far have been small.  The US Fed has not lost anything on its programs, including programs that provided massive liquidity support to the banks.  The current estimate of the net cost of TARP to the government is only $19 billion, mostly on programs to support housing where recovery of the funds was never anticipated.  The Government in fact made a significant profit on TARP funds lent to the banks.

Indeed, the main anticipated cost to government of these programs to stabilize the financial system is expected to come from losses in the support provided to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The Congressional Budget Office expects that these losses will total $389 billion over the next ten years.  To the extent the CRMP proposal being made here is implemented, these losses to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would likely be reduced.

One also needs to note that while the government would make loans to the home owners of an estimated $917 billion, these loans would be made at an interest rate of 4% initially (and then possibly bumped up by a percentage point in years 10, 15, and so on, until the loans are paid off).  But the current cost of a 10-year US Treasury bond is less than 2.0%  (indeed only 1.90% as of this writing).  Thus the US Treasury will be earning a positive spread on these loans, where one should note that all administrative expenses under this program would be covered by the primary mortgage lender.  But there will still be defaults, and it is not possible to predict with any certainty how large these will be.

Overall, however, the positive spread the government will earn on the loans that are repaid, plus the savings in terms of reduced losses by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, make it possible that the final net cost to government will be small, as it was on TARP.  Plus there will be the broader benefits to the economy from a program to unlock the housing markets, which will in turn lead to more tax revenue to the government.

Finally, the individual home owners will benefit from the lower interest rates on the refinanced mortgages.  While no portion of the loan is being forgiven, they will now pay at a uniform 4% rate rather than the higher rates they are paying currently.  The savings to them will depend on what their current mortgage rates are, and these will vary.  The rates will also be higher on second liens and on home equity lines than on mortgages holding a first lien, and will vary based on whether they have fixed or floating rate loans, step-up payments due, and so on.

But to illustrate, for an average mortgage outstanding of $214,400 (the weighted average in the CoreLogic data cited above), and assuming their current interest rate is 6 1/2% on a 20 year fixed rate loan, the savings would be $6,900 per year in moving to a 30 year fixed rate loan at 4%.  This is a savings of 36%, and would total $152 billion (about 1% of GDP) for all the households.  This in itself would provide a substantial boost to the economy, as much of this will likely be spent.  And for the households that are underwater, and who have second liens and/or home equity lines in addition to a first mortgage, where the average mortgage is $309,000, the savings would be $9,950 per year.

Conclusion:  The Impact on Each Party

It is important to recognize that each of the major groups involved in CRMP would benefit from its implementation:

  1. The home owners who cannot now refinance their mortgage because the mortgage is greater than 80% of the current value of their home, will be able to refinance at 4%, the current market rate.  They will not only realize regular monthly savings compared to what they currently often have to struggle to pay, but they will also be able to sell their house, should they now wish, perhaps to move to a different part of the country to pursue a job opportunity.  This will also help unlock the housing market, with attendant broader benefits to all the home owners in the country.
  2. Mortgage lenders would with CRMP face fewer mortgage defaults and losses from foreclosures.  And losses from foreclosures are normally much more than simply the excess of the mortgage amount over the estimated current home value, as foreclosed homes typically sell at a significant further discount, plus there are substantial legal and other costs in going through the foreclosure process.  Hence they will welcome a government program where the government provides a personal loan to cover the amount of the mortgage in excess of 80% of the current home value.  It is true that such lenders would prefer the home owners to continue to pay at the above market interest rates of perhaps 6 1/2% or so that they are locked into, but they also recognize that many such borrowers will soon choose to walk away from these mortgage commitments.
  3. And while the Federal Government will take on substantial new debt to fund the loans it will make, the net cost in the end is likely to be small.  It will lend the funds at a positive spread, and while there will be costs from defaults, government will also gain from lower losses incurred by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  There will also be higher tax revenues from a better functioning economy, due to a better functioning housing market and as consumer spending rises in a sustainable way.

But while a program such as CRMP makes sense, it is difficult to see in the current political environment that something of this nature will be implemented.   The country’s vision has become too narrow, with no willingness to take bold actions.  As a result, it is much more likely that one will see the slow and unsteady recovery typical of balance sheet recessions where little is done to cure the underlying structural problems.

Home Prices Stagnate, at Levels Similar to Those of 2003

US home prices, Case-Shiller 10-City index, 1987 to 2011

US home prices continue to stagnate, at levels well below the peak reached in 2006 during the housing bubble. They fell sharply in 2007 and 2008 during the last two years of the Bush Administration and then stabilized under Obama, first rising a bit and then falling back a bit, but with no overall trend so far.  Based on the 10-city composite home price index of S&P / Case-Shiller, the prices of single-family homes in September 2011 were 33% below the peak reached in April 2006.

It is useful to view this in the longer term context, as presented in the graph above.  While home prices are fully a third off their peak, they are still higher than they ever were prior to 2003.  The sharp fall in prices is a reflection of the sharp rise in the middle of the decade, as a bubble built up and policy makers decided not to try to do anything to moderate it.  Indeed, many politicians, as well as many existing homeowners, felt quite good about the rapidly rising prices.

Then the bubble burst, and the consequences for the economy have been clear, as the economy collapsed in the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression.  This was then followed by an anemic recovery, with still high unemployment.  Recovery from such “balance sheet recessions” are normally slow, as the entities with the over-extended balance sheets (mortgage holders in the US; the corporate sector in Japan in the 1990s) seek to hunker down and save their way out of their predicament.  Asset prices recover only slowly at best.

If nothing is done, US home prices are likely to continue to stagnate, and may well fall further.  As indicated above, while prices after the bubble burst fell by a third, they are still only at the level seen in 2003.  Yet between 1997 and 2003 they had already doubled.  That home prices have not now fallen further than simply to 2003 levels is therefore even a bit of a surprise.  They could fall more.  And as seen prior to 1997, there can be long periods when prices are basically just flat.

Those households with negative equity in their homes (commonly referred to as “underwater”) face major difficulties, even if they can afford to make continued payments on their homes.  They cannot refinance at the current low rates for mortgages, unless they can come up with extra cash to bring the mortgage down to 80% (generally) of their current lower home value.  And they cannot sell their house to someone else, perhaps to move elsewhere for a new job, without bringing extra cash to the closing to pay off the remaining mortgage balance.  The housing market remains frozen, and with that, the economy remains in the doldrums.

Unless something major is done, this weak housing market will likely keep the economy in the doldrums.  And there is no reason to believe that there will be a jump in housing prices to levels similar to those at the peak of the bubble, with this then curing the problem of the underwater mortgages.   Rather, a comprehensive program, led by government, will be necessary to restructure these mortgages, to unfreeze this market and allow the economy to recover.