December 14, 2015

This post is an excerpt from a commentary posted at TSI about two months ago.

Whenever the government intervenes in the economy in order to bring about what it deems to be a more beneficial outcome than would have occurred in the absence of intervention, there will be winners and losers but the overall economy will invariably end up being worse off. Moreover, it is not uncommon for one of the long-term results of the intervention to be the diametric opposite of the intended result.

A great example of the actual result of government intervention being the opposite of the intended result is contained in a chart that formed part of a recent article at The chart, which is displayed below, shows the home ownership rate in the US.

Here, in brief, is the story behind the above chart.

During the Clinton (1993-2000) and Bush (2001-2008) administrations the US Federal Government decided that it would be beneficial if a larger number and a broader range of people were home-owners. The government therefore began making a concerted effort to not only increase the US home-ownership rate, but also to make home loans easier to obtain for less-qualified buyers.

This was achieved in part by the more aggressive implementation, beginning in 1993, of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977. Under the cover of the CRA, banks were forced to reduce their lending standards for lower-income groups in general and ‘minorities’ in particular. For example, government regulations created during the 1990s set bank loan-approval criteria and quotas with the aim of increasing loan quantities, and even went so far as to require the use of “innovative or flexible” lending practices to address the credit needs of low-and-moderate-income (LMI) borrowers. Of course, banks that are forced by the government to lower their standards when assessing the loan applications of less-qualified borrowers must also lower their standards for other borrowers, because they can’t reasonably approve an application from one customer and then reject an application from a better-qualified customer.

An increase in the home-ownership rate was also achieved by assigning an “affordable housing mission” to the government-sponsored enterprises (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). To make it possible for Fannie and Freddie to achieve this mission their automated underwriting systems were modified to accept loans with characteristics that would previously have been rejected. In addition, Fannie and Freddie cited the new “mission” as a reason that their mortgage portfolios should not be constrained.

At this point we would be remiss not to mention the helping hand provided by the Fed. Without the Fed’s aggressive money-pumping and lowering of interest rates during 2001-2003 there would have been less credit and less money available to the buyers of homes. The Fed’s actions ensured that there would be a credit bubble, while the government’s actions ensured that the residential housing market would be the focal point of the bubble.

The above chart shows that the government was initially — and predictably — successful in its endeavours. The home-ownership rate sky-rocketed as it became possible for almost anyone to borrow money to buy a house. The chart also shows that the home-ownership rate has since collapsed to its lowest level since the 1960s. This collapse was a natural consequence of the credit bubble, in that household balance-sheets were drastically weakened by the taking-on of debt-based leverage during the bubble and the post-bubble plunge in asset prices.

The bottom line is that the interventions designed to increase home ownership ultimately contributed to the home-ownership rate falling to the point where it is now at a multi-generational low. Not just an unintended consequence, but the opposite of the intended consequence.

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