Friday, October 23, 2015

Housing, A Series: Part 70 - The cognitive bias at the heart of our hobbled economy

Maybe human beings will always be uncomfortable with voluntary exchange.  There is a pretense in political economy that there are free market ideologues who ignore inhumane power imbalances and there are those to oppose markets in the name of egalitarianism.  This is wrong on both counts.  Markets can be one of the most dependable threats to entrenched power.  And, it isn't the power imbalance itself that tends to make us feel uncomfortable about markets; it's the inscrutability of that power that bothers us.  We don't tend to be bothered by power imbalances that are part of a stable legacy or process.

So, we are more comfortable when pre-selected market makers pay millions of dollars for the right to manage a 25 cent spread on traded equities than we are with high frequency traders who spend millions of dollars for the ability to capture a 3 cent spread with unpredictable, volatile trading activity.

I might go so far as to say that the recent crisis was a self-inflicted wound created by this bias.  New readers may consider that to be a dumb thing to say.  I've spent the better part of this year discovering the evidence for the "self-inflicted" part.  The funny thing about the bias part is that the evidence for it seems so outrageous and clear, I wouldn't know how to convince someone who isn't convinced already.

I have posted this graph before, which shows the proportion of mortgages outstanding by type of holder.  It shows a few things that either most people seem to believe in error or that they just don't know.

First, there was a significant shift to securitized mortgages (Ginnie Mae, private pools, and other agencies) from the late 1960s until the early 1990s.  Then, the securitized share of mortgages leveled off.  Home prices were, if anything, fairly low at the point when the relative use of securitized mortgages leveled off.  There was no relationship between the Price/Rent ratio of homes and the growth of securitization, and there was little change in the share of securitized mortgages during any of the boom years from the mid-1990s to the height of the boom.  The share of these pools was 57% in 1995 when rent inflation began to rise, it peaked at 62% by 2002 before the steepest moves in home prices, and then declined back to 59% at the end of 2005 when housing starts and home prices peaked.

Within this group, there was a shift to private pools, much of which were subprime.  But, as we can see in the graph, there was a gradual shift from Ginnie Mae to private pools from about 1990 to 2003.  These are both pools for borrowers who can't generally qualify for conventional loans.  Ginnie Mae covers the credit risk of those loans by making borrowers purchase mortgage insurance while the private pools mimic the math of insurance by charging borrowers a premium rate and paying out that premium to the riskier tranches of the securitization.  Much of that shift happened while real home prices were falling in the 1990s and homeownership rates were level.  It continued at about the same pace in the late 1990s when homeownership began to rise while prices remained stable, and continued still until the end of 2003 when homeownership and home prices were both rising.  In fact, during that period, the decline of Ginnie Mae accelerated and private pools were not capturing all of the shift away from Ginnie Mae.

After 2003, the GSE's began to decline as a portion of the market also.  It was during this period that private pools shot from about 10% to about 20% of the market, until the private pool market collapsed in 2007.  This period was not associated with a rise in homeownership, and included the last period of sharply rising prices followed by two years of flat prices.

In short, private pools were mostly an alternative to Ginnie Mae, which had always made loans with many of the characteristics of subprime loans, and there is no obvious correlation between their increased use and any particular behavior in the housing market.  Of course, if you have read the previous 40 parts or so of the series, you already know that demand-side factors can't be responsible for more than a very small fraction of home price movements at the time, so this idea shouldn't be surprising.

I've taken too long to get to my point.  The point is that our bias about these things is so strong that just having that little sliver of mortgages outstanding shift from a public process to a private process caused everyone to have a freak out.  Ginnie Mae helps "make affordable housing a reality for millions of low- and moderate-income households across America by channeling global capital into the nation's housing markets....What Ginnie Mae does is guarantee investors the timely payment of principal and interest on MBS backed by federally insured or guaranteed loans."  What a great program, right?  Low income households have to pay a little more for Ginnie Mae loans, but they get access to the world of homeownership.  And taxpayers make good on any defaults so that investors can rest easy.  Great idea.  This is exactly what private MBS were doing, except the investors were taking the default risk instead of taxpayers.  But, we know one is benign and the other is predatory, right?  That's just a thing that we know about them.  That makes them different from each other.  And the outcome proves it, right?

Now, it would need to be admitted that the profit motive can be insatiable, so the problem with the private version of this process is that it will expand and suck in victims until the system is unsustainable.  That's what greedy financiers do, m'I right?  That would definitely have to be admitted if it were true.  During the period where private pools suddenly jumped from 10% to 20% of the mortgage market, homeownership rates peaked and began to fall, and all the net new homeownership was in the top 40% of households, by income.

We need to sit on this piece of information for a second.  As I have sifted through the data on this issue, time and time again I have been floored by the gulf between what we think we know and what the data says is true.  This data is from the Survey of Consumer Finances that the Fed conducts every three years.  Nobody here is lying on a mortgage application in order to qualify for their loan.  They just happen to have conducted the survey in 2004 and 2007, which nicely bookends the period where private pools doubled from 10% to 20% of outstanding mortgages.  Homeownership among the bottom 60% of households declined during this period.  The proportion of mortgage debt held by the bottom 80% of households declined during this period.  The majority of net new mortgages during this period was from these private pools.

Here are a couple more graphs.  The average owner's home, in terms of rental value, was declining during this period, while renters' rent was rising.  The systemic movement of households into too much house simply did. not. happen.  Finally, here is a graph (in 2013 dollars) of the marginal new mortgage debt outstanding, by income.  There was some increase in debt among the bottom 40% of households before 2004.  This was before the sharp upturn in private mortgage pools.  During the sharp upturn in private mortgages, even in terms of absolute levels, almost all of the new outstanding mortgages were to households in the top 40% of incomes.

This isn't just a rounding error or a slight difference in scale.  When you look at these graphs, your priors should tell you to expect a huge, unmistakable bulge in low income borrowing, pointing to the defining story of our time.  Not only is it not there.  The data tells the opposite story.  The defining story of our time is fiction.  The best villain stories frequently are.

And, let's think about the criticism of these private pools and the various securities they supported from an investor perspective.  They are criticized both for (1) predatory lending that saddled low income borrowers with rates that were unsustainably high and (2) unrealistic assumptions about systemic risks that led ratings agencies to apply too optimistic ratings to the securities and investors to demand too little of a rate premium for them..........

As with many opinions about the housing bubble and the recession, these ideas achieve a sort of zen level of incoherence.  They manage to be wrong while also contradicting each other.  The first part (ignoring the fact that it can't be true if the second part is true) is wrong because borrowers always had the option of going through Ginnie Mae, and in the aggregate these pools were clearly outcompeting the terms of Ginnie Mae loans.

On the second part, if this was true, the consequence wouldn't be a total collapse of the MBS market followed by massive defaults of borrowers.  The consequence would have been that MBS buyers would have demanded higher premiums and borrowers might have transitioned back into Ginnie Mae loans.  This wouldn't stop investors from offering to purchase new securities with higher premiums.  But investors didn't just adjust their risk spreads.  Instead, capital just dried up.

This year, Ginnie Mae reduced their mortgage insurance premiums, and earlier this year the President announced (HT: Nick Timiraos) that the lower premium would keep more money in the pockets of new homebuyers.  Of course, since this effectively acts as a decrease in the real interest rate on the mortgage those households are using, in an efficient market we would expect there to be some shift from other loan types into Ginnie Mae/FHA loans and some increase in home prices.  According to the article, this is exactly what happened.

Now, in this case I would not have been surprised if there hadn't been a price reaction, because home prices since the crisis don't seem to have been efficient.  But, a commenter on Nick Timiraos' tweet posted this interesting graph on the total interest rate (with insurance premium) over time on FHA/Ginnie Mae loans.  Public policy has been procyclical on banking matters, so a large premium increase was implemented in 2008 after the crisis, and even now the premium remains high.  This put the effective interest rate on FHA loans at levels not seen since the 1980s.  It could well be that low home prices on the types of homes dominated by these loans are have been in equilibrium with the interest rate level implied by FHA loans.  In fact, what we would expect to see in that case is a market dominated by all cash buyers, because they would require a lower implied yield than buyers who only had access to these high rate loans.

For the intrepid reader, I tentatively suggest reading the transcript of the President's speech.  It is a litany of how activist government programs, non profits, and the toughness of the President's affiliates has brought back the housing market, and how lenders are predators, how the President is clamping down on them, how they did this to us.

There are predators and profiteers.  Then, there are politicians, their supporters, and non-profits, who cause recovery, who make things happen.  Then you get jobs and production as a result of that work, which, you know, the President is so generous, he isn't even going to begrudge some profiteer if they benefit from the hard work he did along the way to save our housing market.

I'm not that interested in critiquing the speech.  It's a religious speech.  The sole purpose of that speech is a relentless lining up of sinners and saints, insiders and outsiders, doers and takers.  What is politics, after all?  I'm interested in how these cognitive biases are manicured and intensified.  In community, human beings are willing to believe really insane things without evidence when our minds move into affiliation mode.  A signal to move into that mode is language that is broad and absurd.  You don't argue about how many goats need to be sacrificed in order to ensure a good harvest on factual grounds.  The absurdity of the conceit prevents it.  Our minds are built to be taken in by this language.  When we hear language with generalized absurdities, we switch from practical, sane skepticism to a question of whether the speaker is one of us or one of them.

Now, don't get me wrong, the FHA needs to reduce their premiums even farther.  But, think about the President bragging, to applause, about lowering interest rates to get low income families into homes.  There is one while lie there, that that money stays in the buyers' pocket as opposed to going to the seller.  But, can you imagine the President getting applause for giving a speech for exactly the same loan with exactly the same terms, but through private markets?  That's supposedly one of the reasons we had the crisis, right? Those villains were lined up as the cause of the crisis by 2001, if not sooner.  We applaud for the benign public servants.  We aren't going to applaud for the people who did this to us, and who we knew all along were going to do this to us.  "Why aren't there more bankers in jail, Mr. President?"

Ignoring all the evidence I have gathered that undermines the demand story of the boom, what we have here is a mortgage program set by public policy, with effective interest rates moved up and down somewhat arbitrarily.  No wonder private markets that can fine tune the assumption of risk and adjust spreads daily were outcompeting Ginnie Mae.  It would be very difficult, in practical terms, to justify setting mortgage spreads this way,  But, we feel safer with it.

Imagine if we set, say, gas prices this way.  About 1/3 of the time, we would be hoarding or waiting in line for gas rations, until the pricing committee happened to meet and guess the correct price.  I wonder how much these high mortgage insurance premiums have been holding back both home prices and mortgage expansion.

PS.  The Federal Reserve is in a funny position here.  It is public and, so, benign.  And it also has the impossible task of trying to use a committee to guess the price of something important.  But, it is, for some reason, tainted by its connection to financial villains in a way that Ginnie Mae isn't.  So, while nobody can agree whether the Fed is loose or tight, and nobody can agree whether low rates are due to tight money or loose money.  Just about everyone can agree that, whatever the policy is, the Fed clearly set it to favor Wall Street over Main Street.  High or low inflation, in combination with either high or low interest rates, all favor Wall Street.  We really do live in times where the common man cannot catch a break.

I was happy to see Bernanke push back against this today, "It's ironic that the same people who criticise the Fed for helping the rich also criticise the Fed for hurting savers," Bernanke told the FT's Martin Wolf. "And those two things are inconsistent. But what's the alternative? Should the Fed not try to support a recovery?"

The sad fact is that, unwittingly, these errors of judgment do lead us not to support recovery.  I am afraid, though, that I must come to the conclusion that Ben Bernanke himself was drawn into this error, and played a role, not just in having a slow recovery, but in needing a recovery at all.


  1. Great post. Disentangling reality from calumny, politics, hagiography and mythology is a tough chore.

    And remember: we believe in free enterprise and single family detached housing regulations. And we want to help poor people afford housing, by limiting the supply in our major urban areas.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. on the coincidence of ex-Ginnie preeminence and prime borrowers: excellent detective research

    in a time of crisis, politics with winners is a likelier winner politics without, I think. looking upward for them is the safest bet in a Christian / post-Christian country

    for Rs that's government (non-whites, modernity at the grassroots), for Ds that's Wall Street (markets, fun, rule of law, modernity at the grassroots). if mob assembly requires enemies, I prefer enemies who r few and distant enough that nobody notices we're not really decommissioning them

    btw I don't want to suggest that Obama's anti-capitalist posture is cynical theater. I think you're correct in identifying his theory of the economy as sincere and wrong. in failing to appoint Romer and Summers to the Fed and signing massive procyclical bills, he hurt himself and his party as much as he hurt the economy

    here's hoping his regulators get a bit more partisan going into 2016 and ease money downstream