Is a Hybrid Public-Private Mortgage System the Answer?

As the debate on housing finance policy continues to heat up, another proposal has entered the picture. While the two extreme ends of the spectrum are those generally being discussed -- the government leaving the market entirely or it backing the market entirely -- there's another possibility. A hybrid system could be developed where the government provides a partial guarantee. Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi and credit analytics director Cristian deRitis suggest this alternative in a paper (.pdf) released today. Would it work?

First, the proposal provides what it believes to be clear benefits of a hybrid system. The problem with full government guarantees is that they exposes taxpayers to huge losses and increases moral hazard. A hybrid system would reduce taxpayers' potential losses, while encouraging banks to take prudent risks. This proposal, in particular, would force the banks to take the first losses up to some threshold after which time the government would cover the remainder. In other words, it's a catastrophic insurance system. In most situations, the private market would cover the losses, but in extreme situations, the government would have to absorb deep losses.

Of course, a fully private system would do an even better job of achieving the desired ends above: it would provide taxpayers with no loss exposure and banks would have to create mortgages knowing that they'll be on the hook if the loans go bad. So why bother with the hybrid model? There are three reasons. First, these authors worry that if credit dries up due to a financial crisis, the mortgage market will shut down. Second, an entirely private mortgage market will demand higher mortgage interest rates. Third, the paper asserts that a hybrid system will ensure that the 30-year fixed rate mortgage doesn't go away, something that mortgage bankers have been threatening will happen if a fully private system is adopted.

The hybrid model solves all these problems, the authors say. Because the government will cover a large portion of potential losses, banks won't be scared to create new mortgages during a credit crunch. Since banks' risk is limited, the 30-year fixed rate mortgage would also be safe. The authors also say that the premium added to mortgage interest rates in the hybrid system they propose, compared to the nationalized system, would be relatively small. 

After a heap of assumptions, Zandi and deRitis write that a totally private system would add around 100 basis points to the average mortgage interest rate compared to a fully nationalized system. But the hybrid system they propose would only add about 10 basis points. Put another way, the privatized system would cost borrowers with a $170,000 (the U.S. median home price) mortgage about 9% more than the hybrid system, if you assume a 6% mortgage interest rate is common once the nationalized housing market stabilizes. The authors say their plan would boost home ownership, as it keeps payments relatively low.

This sounds pretty good, but it raises a few questions. First, why does the hybrid model provide such cheap mortgages? That additional interest rate spread that the private market demands would presumably not be required by the government, because it has a lower cost of capital. But can we be sure that the government will charge a premium actuarially identical to whatever the private market would have charged? Policymakers may be tempted underestimate the cost of the guarantees and provide a benefit even beyond what its relatively low cost of capital would imply. If that occurs, the lower interest rate that borrowers would obtain through a hybrid model will include a subsidy, which will ultimately be paid by taxpayers when mortgages go bad. So instead of charging homeowners a higher interest rate, the cost falls to taxpayers when the insurance premiums fail to cover all losses.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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