Insider's Game

Selected writings by David Fiderer

When “New Evidence on the Foreclosure Crisis” on The Journal’s Op-Ed Page Is Really a Pretext to Impugn the Democrats

First published in The Huffington Post on July 3, 2009

“What is really behind the mushrooming rate of mortgage foreclosures since 2007?” asked Professor Stan Liebowitz of the University of Texas, Dallas on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. His answer might have seemed revelatory to someone utterly bereft of common sense. After studying a huge national data base, he said the evidence “strongly suggests that the single most important factor is whether the homeowner has negative equity in a house.”


Duh. That’s like saying, “What is really behind the poverty rate? Evidence strong suggests that the most single important factor is a lack of money.”


Think about it for 10 seconds. If you can’t afford your mortgage payments and you have positive equity, you either refinance or sell your house. If you have negative equity, you don’t have those options, so the lender forecloses. In key markets in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, home prices have fallen about 50% since their 2006 peaks.


It’s an old and familiar stunt. Professor Liebowitz knocks down the proverbial straw man in order to justify his unsupported claim, or as he puts it, “This means that most government policies being discussed to remedy woes in the housing market are misdirected.”


Professor Liebowitz’ intent was not to explain or to analyze, but to confuse. First he confuses readers as to the causes (e.g. subprime securitizations, liar’s loans) with the effects (e.g. negative equity) of the real estate bubble. Then he gets to his real point, which is to trash the Democrats.


What policies are being misdirected?


Although the government is throwing money — almost $2 trillion and counting — at the mortgage markets with the intent of stabilizing house prices, its methods are poorly targeted. While Federal Reserve actions have succeeded in reducing mortgage interest rates, low interest rates induce refinancings more than they do home purchases.


To be sure, refinancings may put money in peoples’ pockets, but it is home purchases that directly impact house prices. Nevertheless, housing prices are likely to stop falling fairly soon with or without government policies. That’s because current prices are approaching their long-term, inflation-adjusted pre-bubble level. These pre-bubble prices appeared to be a long-term equilibrium, meaning that prices would be expected to return to those levels once the government’s efforts to artificially increase homeownership receded. Unfortunately, recent attempts by politicians such as Barney Frank (D., Mass.) to again artificially increase homeownership levels might delay this return to sustainable equilibrium prices.


How is Professor Liebowitz disingenuous? Let’s count the ways:


1. With regard to the Fed’s low interest rate policy, he insinuates some false distinction between stimulating the housing market and stimulating the overall economy, which has been teetering on the brink of disaster for a while now.


2. He suggests that housing prices are likely to stop falling fairly soon with or without government policies. But he has no real evidence to back up his claim. About one in three homeowners in California has negative equity. If all those homeowners walked away, market prices would spiral further downward in a state with rising unemployment and a paralyzing fiscal crisis.


3. All of this sets up the hit-and-run smear, wherein Liebowitz calls Barney Frank’s efforts to arrest the downward spiral in the mortgage markets as an attempt “to again artificially increase homeownership levels [that] might delay this return to sustainable equilibrium prices.”


But here’s the kicker:


Other government policies are likely to be even less effective in reducing foreclosures. The Obama administration’s “Making Homes Affordable” plan focuses on having the government help lower obligation ratios (the share of income devoted to house payments) down to 31% from levels somewhat above 38%. But my analysis finds that mortgages having such obligation ratios at closing did not later experience high foreclosure rates. This suggests that reducing these ratios is not likely to significantly improve the foreclosure problem.


Once again, Liebowitz tries to confuse his readers as to cause and effect. He claims that 38% obligation levels do not correlate to high foreclosure rates. But the “Making Homes Affordable” plan was not created to lower obligation ratios. It’s extended only homeowners who are at serious risk of foreclosure, either because they have negative home equity or because they have suffered some documented economic hardship.


Don’t be surprised if Liebowitz, the director of the Center for the Analysis of Property Rights and Innovation, starts making the rounds on the right wing talk show circuit.