Friday, November 21, 2008

The FHA tries to reinflate the housing bubble

Throughout this whole real estate bubble-induced economic disaster, the most shocking thing to hear has got to be the idea that we need to stop housing prices from falling. Fortunately, you aren't likely to hear it from any economist or anyone with passing knowledge of the matter. But unfortunately, the people who run the American government (both elected and unelected, it seems) don't seem to have caught on to the fact that the answer to the real estate bubble popping is not to pump air (money) back into the balloon (hole).

BusinessWeek reports on a downright stupid new trend in mortgage lending: subprime lenders metamorphizing into Federal Housing Administration loan purveyors. These lenders are substituting the implicit guarantee of the Fannie, Freddie, and the mortgage market in general and low interest rates of a bubble at its height with the artificially low interest rates that come with the explicit government guarantee of the FHA.

The scale of lending backed by the FHA has grown rapidly in the wake of the meltdown. BusinessWeek reports that "[b]y fall 2008, FHA loans accounted for 26% of all new mortgages being issued nationwide, up from only 4% a year earlier." Part of that is due to the fact that lending is down generally, but that's not the whole story: the FHA approved 140,000 new loans in September of this year, compared to 60,000 just eight months prior. The number of lenders "approved to market federally insured home loans" is up 140% since December 2006, as subprime lenders are driven by market incentives out o the subprime market, and by government incentives into the government housing sector. Financial heavyweights like Goldman Sachs have been cashing in on the government guarantees by buying subprimes and refinancing them as FHA-backed loans, reaping the rewards of arbitraging between the market rate and the subsidized rate.

The scope of the problem is much narrower than the interventions in the housing market that created the bubble in the first place, as the FHA only guarantees about half a billion dollars in single-family home loans. But it is nevertheless disturbing that lawmakers are still so eager to promote and subsidize personal home ownership after the most recent meltdown.

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