Surely 2015 is to be the year when the housing market would bounce back from its recent disappointing performance; at least that’s what I wrote back in November. But as January’s news from the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) is not as rosy as we expected; a housing policy debate, that has been subdued since 2010, gets heated.
The NAR revealed in a February 23rd press release (realtor.org) that although the pace of home sales increased compared to the same time last year, existing homes sales have declined to the lowest rate in nine months. The typically optimistic Lawrence Yun (NAR Chief Economist) was cited as saying “the housing market got off to a somewhat disappointing start to begin the year with January closings down throughout the country.” Adding that “seasonal influences” can make January data erratic, the combination of low inventory and home price gains over the pace of inflation seems to have slowed home sales – notwithstanding low mortgage interest rates.
Keeping mortgage interest rates low is not the sole solution; however, if it was, the housing market may have bounced back several years ago. Although a myriad of causes have been blamed for a lackluster housing market that has been trying to make a comeback for six years, most are correlational and incidental.
However, Richard X. Bove (Equity Research Analyst at Rafferty Capital Markets) recently made a case for a sole cause in his February 23rd commentary (There’s a new mortgage crisis brewing; cnbc.com/id/102447414). Bove described how mortgage markets are in trouble; rules and regulations put into place to strengthen the market by increasing borrower standards have dried up a lot of the funding. And not necessarily in the way you might expect; besides shrinking the pool of qualified buyers, Bove suggested that the rules and regulations have made mortgage lending unprofitable and unpalatable for some lenders (leading them to walk away from the business).
As a response, it would seem as if the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) took steps to make mortgages increasingly available (returning to 3% down payment loans, and increasing the number of loans on Fannie and Freddie’s balance sheets). These actions, along with recorded losses in Q4 2014, Bove described, is making some nervous.
If you don’t remember, the FHFA was created in 2008 as a temporary conservator to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; whose original goals included: ensuring a positive net worth for Fannie and Freddie; reducing Fannie and Freddie’s mortgage portfolios; and facilitating a streamlined and profitable model for Fannie and Freddie.
Bove’s catch-22 conclusion, of either hindering the housing market by stopping Fannie and Freddie’s growth or increasing Fannie and Freddie’s debt obligations with continued growth, is not a new dilemma. The debate has been ongoing since 2008.
Having faded somewhat since 2010, the housing policy debate heated up during testimony given by FHFA Director Mel Watt on January 27th during the congressional hearing, “Sustainable Housing Finance: An Update from the Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.” Trey Garrison of HousingWire succinctly portrayed opposing views (January 27, 2014; FHFA hearing: GOP fear housing policy headed for Crash 2.0; housingwire.com): “Democrats said policies in the past year are necessary to expand housing opportunities to lower income and challenged borrowers…” while, “…Republicans…said the administration is adopting dangerous policies that risk another housing crash that will put taxpayers on the hook for billions.”
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