Pros and Cons of the Treasury's Housing Finance Options

Now that we finally have the much-anticipated housing policy plan authored by the Obama administration, we can begin to evaluate the options it provides. Most of the report (.pdf) is fairly uncontroversial. It explains problems with the government-sponsored entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that we have known about for years now. It provides straightforward ideas for making the housing market safer, like requiring higher down payments. There really isn't a whole lot of room for debate until you get to the end of the report -- when the Treasury lays out three options for the future of housing finance policy. What are their pros and cons?

As explained earlier, all three plans would provide government support for affordable housing initiatives through programs within the Federal Housing Authority, USDA, and Veterans' Affairs. So the following options would affect the other 85% or so of mortgages. In what follows, I'll briefly explain the three options, and then lay out several of the potential pros and cons of each plan.

Option 1: Go Private

The first option provides a truly private framework. There would be no government guarantees or other support in place for mortgage financing. It would be entirely up to the market to step in and take on all mortgage risk.

Potential Pros

  • The taxpayer has no exposure to the market.
  • Since the government won't be standing behind mortgages, moral hazard should be limited. That should make for less severe housing bubbles, if any. 
  • The potential for losses should prevent overinvestment in residential real estate and provide more investment for other sectors of the economy instead.

Potential Cons

  • It's unclear if banks and investors alone will be willing to support as robust a mortgage market as the U.S. has enjoyed over the past few decades.
  • The availability of the 30-year fixed mortgage may decline. For some, it will be replaced by adjustable rate products. 
  • Mortgage interest rates will rise, possibly by as much as or more than 100 basis points. 
  • If the government hasn't solved the "too big to fail problem," then a housing market downturn could wreck the economy again and bailouts would ensue. 
  • Home ownership levels may decline. 
  • In times when poor economic conditions cause a credit crunch, mortgage funding may be difficult to get.

Option 2: Crisis Funding Mechanism

Here, the government will offer mortgage guarantees, but the premiums will be so expensive that they won't be competitive with the private market in normal times. But at times when the housing market struggles and private sources of credit dry up, then the infrastructure will be in place for the government to continue to provide guarantees. That will make funding easier to get in a credit crunch, while private mortgage guarantors will likely be sitting on the sidelines.

Potential Pros

  • The private market will be responsible for mortgage risk under normal circumstances, protecting taxpayers.
  • Moral hazard should be limited during those times, since the government guarantees will be rarely used, which should prevent severe housing bubbles. 
  • Again, overinvestment in residential real estate should be avoided.
  • When a poor economy threatens credit, the government guarantee option can ensure that mortgages keep flowing.

Potential Cons

  • Again, it's unclear if the private market will support as robust a mortgage market in normal times.
  • Again, the availability of the 30-year fixed rate mortgage will decline. 
  • Again, mortgage interest rates will rise. 
  • Again, bailouts could ensue if banks and investors' mortgage-related losses threaten the economy. 
  • Again, homeownership levels may decline.
  • If banks find a way to game the system, then they can use the expensive government guarantees for only the very risky mortgages, threatening taxpayers.

Option 3: The Catastrophic Guarantee

Presented by

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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