Housing Crisis Causes

A wide array of suspects have been lined up as the causes of the mortgage crisis in this country. They include subprime borrowers, poor underwriting standards, adjustable rate mortgages that lured buyers with low teaser rates then reset at unaffordable rates several years after the initiation of the mortgage.

A professor of economics, Stan Liebowitz, analyzed data from 30 million mortgages and states his findings in an 7/3/09 WSJ op-ed. The chief culprit, the Darth Vader of the meltdown, is an ancient villian familiar to anyone in the business of providing credit. When customers have none of their own money in a purchase, no “skin in the game”, they are more likely to default on a loan.

The fault for this practice is the lender’s. When a lender is asked why they would do something that they have been told will surely put the loan at risk, they answer with a variety of reasons: “I wanted to make the sale”, “I thought they were good for it”, and “the competition was doing it so I had no choice” are some of the more common.

Prof. Liebowitz cites a simple statistic for home foreclosures in the 2nd half of 2008: “although only 12% of homes had negative equity, they comprised 47% of all foreclosures.” His analysis found that “interest rate resets did not measurably increase foreclosures until the reset was greater than four percentage points.”

Following negative equity as the prime culprit in foreclosures, unemployment had the second greatest impact. Prof. Liebowitz concludes that “a significant reduction in foreclosures will happen when and only when housing prices stop falling and unemployment stops rising”.

Government efforts to reduce interest rates spur refinancing but not home purchases and it is purchases, not refinancing, that stabilizes home prices. Government programs to inflate home ownership rates only threaten to recreate the housing bubble that led to this crisis. Mortgage payments that were greater than the 31% target level of the “Making Homes Affordable” plan had so significant contribution to foreclosures and the author doubts that this program will have much effect in reducing foreclosures.

As housing prices are approaching their long term inflation adjusted levels, the author predicts a natural stabilization of prices without any government interference. We can only hope that our political leaders will know when to stop “helping”.

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