December 12, 2017

Kill the Mortgage Interest Deduction Now!

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 11 Dec 2017

Thankfully, one of the biggest scams in the American tax code is finally under attack in the House version of Republican tax reform.

It’s the mortgage-interest deduction, which lets homeowners deduct interest paid on mortgages of up to $1 million for two houses. Ever since owning a home has been a central tenet of the American Dream since the end of World War II and the rise of suburbia, it’s been a given that deducting mortgage interest from your taxes is as American as apple pie.

The House plan would limit filers to deducting interest on the first $500,000 of a mortgage on just one house, sending a blind panic through wealthy home owners, realtors, and the building trades, all of whom are terrified that a government subsidy is being yanked away from them.

But the real problem with the House bill is that it doesn’t go far enough. We should scrap the mortgage-interest deduction altogether and let housing prices reflect real market values.

The mortgage-interest deduction is typically justified by claiming that it lets people—especially vaguely defined “middle-class” people–afford homes. But it also increases the price of housing by making it artificially cheap to borrow, meaning homebuyers are willing to pay more. England, Canada, and Australia don’t let their taxpayers deduct their mortgage interest and they all have higher rates of homeownership than the United States.

The mortgage-interest deduction disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans, who soak up almost all the $70 billion a year it costs in foregone revenue each year. Reason Foundation’s director of economic research, Anthony Randazzo calculates that only 20 percent of tax filers claim the mortgage-interest deduction. That group by and large are part of six-figure households in a country where the median household income is $57,000.

Killing the mortgage-interest deduction might cause a one-time 7 percent drop in real estate prices, according to one estimate, with wealthy homeowners feeling most of the pain.

As a homeowner, that seems like a small price to pay to end a policy that distorts the real estate market, complicates the tax code, and benefits mostly wealthier Americans on the false promise that it makes home-owning affordable for the middle class.

The mortgage-interest deduction is just special interest pandering wrapped in a gooey story that equates “the American Dream” with having a mortgage. The tax code should be designed to raise the revenue necessary to pay for essential services, not to nudge and prod us into spending money on something the government decides is good for us.

Produced by Todd Krainin. Written and narrated by Nick Gillespie.

October 11, 2017

The Great Recession

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Marginal Revolution University
Published on 9 Aug 2016

There’s already been much discussion over what fueled the Great Recession of 2008. In this video, Tyler Cowen focuses on a central theme of the crisis: the failure of financial intermediaries.

By 2008, the economy was in a very fragile state, with both homeowners and banks taking on greater leverage, many ending up “underwater.” Why did managers at financial institutions take on greater and greater risk? We’ll discuss a couple of key reasons, including the role of excess confidence and incentives.

In addition to homeowners’ leverage and bank leverage, a third factor played a major role in tipping the scale toward crisis: securitization. Mortgage securities during this time were very hard to value, riskier than advertised, and filled to the brim with high risk loans. Cowen discusses several reasons this happened, including downright fraud, failure of credit rating agencies, and overconfidence in the American housing market.

Finally, a fourth factor joins homeowners’ leverage, bank leverage, and securitization to inch the economy closer to the edge: the shadow banking system. On the whole, the shadow banking system is made up of investment banks and various other complex financial intermediaries, highly dependent on short term loans.

When housing prices started to fall in 2007, it was the final nudge that pushed the economy over the cliff. There was a run on the shadow banking system. Financial intermediaries came crashing down. We faced a credit crunch, and many businesses stopped growing. Layoffs ensued, increasing unemployment.

What could have been done to prevent all of this? You’ll have to watch the video to find out.

September 16, 2017

QotD: The US housing market

Filed under: Economics, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… up until fairly recently, the home mortgage market was the most conservative financial market out there. The market was not a big money maker because risks were very low and the money was steady. The home mortgage market was the realm of community banks who held the mortgages as assets for the life of the loan. It was the 3-6-3 lifestyle. Borrow from the financial markets at three percent, make home mortgages at six percent and hit the links at 3:00 PM. That all changed in the early 1990’s when Democrat policymakers passed the Community Reinvestment Act and then forced banks to make loans that were far more risky in areas that the banks, for good reasons traditionally stayed away from. Then through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac the “policymakers” bundled the good and bad paper and sold it on the financial markets creating the current mess. What I don’t understand is how increased home ownership was supposed to increase rents.

Home ownership has been a policy of multiple administrations since WW2, as has suburbanization. There are a bunch of reasons for this. One big one was that the policymakers were, for a bunch of reasons, not fond of urban life. It was considered dirty, old fashioned and perhaps most importantly a big target. This was not a small consideration to people coming back from all those ruined cities overseas.

John C. Carlton, “Who ‘Stole’ The Country’s Wealth, The Rich, Or Government ‘Policy Makers?'”, The Arts Mechanical, 2015-10-16.

February 3, 2017

Here are some tax cuts that would actually hurt the wealthy

Filed under: Economics, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Last week, Kevin Williamson outlined a couple of tax reforms that really would make a difference, being both more fair to all taxpayers and appealing (in theory) to both left and right:

Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration will disagree about many things, but it is rare to find a Republican of almost any description who will turn his nose up at a tax cut of almost any description. As Robert Novak put it: “God put the Republican Party on earth to cut taxes. If they don’t do that, they have no useful function.” And tax cuts are coming. But there are two proposals in circulation that would constitute significant tax increases — tax increases that would fall most heavily on upper-income Americans in high-tax progressive states such as California and New York. The first is a proposal to reduce or eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction, a tax subsidy that makes having a big mortgage on an expensive house relatively attractive to affluent households; the second is to reduce or eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, a provision that takes some of the sting out of living in a high-tax jurisdiction such as New York City (which has both state and local income taxes) or California, home to the nation’s highest state-tax burden.

Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing these significant tax increases on the rich. Expect lamentations and the rending of garments, instead.

Slate economics editor Jordan Weissmann, who is not exactly Grover Norquist on the question of taxes, describes the mortgage-interest deduction as “an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. It distorts the housing market in favor of higher prices, which is great if you are old and rich and own a house or three like Bernie Sanders but stinks if you are young and strapped and looking to buy a house. It encourages buyers to take on more debt at higher interest rates than they probably would without the deduction, and almost all of the benefits go to well-off households in the top income quintile. It is the classic example of upper-class welfare. And it has a nasty side, too: Those sky-high housing prices in California’s most desirable communities serve roughly the same function as the walls of a gated community or the tuition at Choate: keeping the riff-raff out. Pacific Heights is famous for its diversity: They have all kinds of multimillionaires there.

November 23, 2016

The History of Paper Money – III: Barebones Economy – Extra History

Filed under: Britain, Economics, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on Oct 15, 2016

Poor England. First Charles I and civil war, then losing to the French, then the Great Fire of London in 1666. Luckily, Nicholas Barbon comes along to help. And make obscene amounts of money. Who says you can’t do both?

September 23, 2015

In debt to the bank? Underwater on your mortgage? You might want to check the document carefully…

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At The Intercept, David Dayen says that there are a lot of sketchy documents that banks are hoping will stand up in court, but they might well be wrong:

A Seattle housing activist on Wednesday uploaded an explosive land-record audit that the local City Council had been sitting on, revealing its far-reaching conclusion: that all assignments of mortgages the auditors studied are void.

That makes any foreclosures in the city based on these documents illegal and unenforceable, and makes the King County recording offices where the documents are located a massive crime scene.

The problems stem from the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS), an entity banks created so they could transfer mortgages privately, saving them billions of dollars in transfer fees to public recording offices. In Washington state, MERS’ practices were found illegal by the State Supreme Court in 2012. But MERS continued those practices with only cosmetic changes, the audit found.

That finding has national implications. Every state has its own mortgage laws, and some of the audit’s conclusions may not necessarily apply elsewhere. But it shows how MERS reacted to being caught defrauding the public by trying to sneak through foreclosures anyway. Combined with evidence in other parts of the country, like the failure to register out-of-state business trusts in Montana, it suggests that the mortgage industry has been inattentive to and dismissive of state foreclosure laws.

May 13, 2015

QotD: Mono-culture banking

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the factors in the financial crisis of 2007-2009 that is mentioned too infrequently is the role of banking capital sufficiency standards and exactly how they were written. Folks have said that capital requirements were somehow deregulated or reduced. But in fact the intention had been to tighten them with the Basle II standards and US equivalents. The problem was not some notional deregulation, but in exactly how the regulation was written.

In effect, capital sufficiency standards declared that mortgage-backed securities and government bonds were “risk-free” in the sense that they were counted 100% of their book value in assessing capital sufficiency. Most other sorts of financial instruments and assets had to be discounted in making these calculations. This created a land rush by banks for mortgage-backed securities, since they tended to have better returns than government bonds and still counted as 100% safe.

Without the regulation, one might imagine banks to have a risk-reward tradeoff in a portfolio of more and less risky assets. But the capital standards created a new decision rule: find the highest returning assets that could still count for 100%. They also helped create what in biology we might call a mono-culture. One might expect banks to have varied investment choices and favorites, such that a problem in one class of asset would affect some but not all banks. Regulations helped create a mono-culture where all banks had essentially the same portfolio stuffed with the same one or two types of assets. When just one class of asset sank, the whole industry went into the tank,

Well, we found out that mortgage-backed securities were not in fact risk-free, and many banks and other financial institutions found they had a huge hole blown in their capital.

Warren Meyer, “When Regulation Makes Things Worse — Banking Edition”, Coyote Blog, 2014-07-07.

September 23, 2013

The growth of Canadian cities in the postwar era

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:23

Caleb McMillan has a brief history of the Canadian city after World War 2:

The end of World War 2 marks a good beginning point for this history. North American society went through some big changes and the cities reflect that. In Canada, The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation was created and with it came the regulatory framework that vastly increased the government’s presence in housing. Government intervention — however — always has its unintended consequences. Post WW2, the Canadian government expanded its highway system, got involved in the mortgage business, and allowed provincial and municipal governments to plan and amalgamate city communities. Through monopoly power, central plans have a tendency to hollow out downtown cores that serve the interests of the market. The “Suburban City” is the result of government control over zoning laws and highway construction. These types of communities are sometimes very different from ones created by market means.

While high urban density can be viewed as good or bad, in terms of city functionality, density is a prerequisite for prosperity. City downtowns are market centres. Resources from the periphery are brought to market centres for trade, and within these centres live the people who deal with this market everyday. It has always been the rural farmers and trappers who were the ones on the edge of poverty — surviving the bare elements of nature to reap the rewards later in the city. The city was the centrepiece in the division of labour; a place to go to make a name of ones self. “Simple country living” that suburbia is supposed to reflect was always a Utopian dream. That somehow one could live out in the boonies yet receive the luxuries of a city.

The very idea of “simple country living” was probably an aristocratic notion that somehow took hold of the middle class imagination, because until the 20th century, only the upper classes could afford the luxury of maintaining a residence well outside the cities, yet still well-supplied with the comforts otherwise only available in the city.

This Utopian dream became a reality with the advent of the car. And with government roads, the possibility of suburbia became technically possible. But just because something is technically possible, doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be done. Market signals are the best means of discovering this information. Individual prices revealed through exchange embody information entrepreneurs use to discover consumer demand and determine scarcity. A major factor in Post WW2 Canada was exempt from this process. Roads, and the whole highway system, were already monopolized by the centralized state. The sudden profitability found in developing rural lands for residential purposes was aided by the non-market actions of building government roads.

Critics of suburban life (usually urban types themselves) are at least somewhat correct in their criticism of the suburbs:

But markets in the Suburban City are, in a way, non-existent. For many, the suburban home is an island of private life surrounded by other private islands. Everyone commutes somewhere. The suburban neighbourhood offers nothing more than residential homes, ensuring that streets remain empty and void of commercial activities. Children may play in the streets, but there is no natural adult supervision. Contrast this to a city neighbourhood, where the streets are the best places for children. With a mixture of commercial activity, residential homes, apartments and other city neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to either side — the presence of people is always guaranteed. There is a natural “eyes on the street,” where people ensure law and order through their everyday actions.

July 14, 2013

Signs of an economic Sharknado

Filed under: Economics, Government, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:51

Feeling positive about the economy? Michael Snyder has ten reasons to change your mind:

Have you ever seen a disaster movie that is so bad that it is actually good? Well, that is exactly what Syfy’s new television movie entitled Sharknado is. In the movie, wild weather patterns actually cause man-eating sharks to come flying out of the sky. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, and it is. You can view the trailer for the movie right here. Unfortunately, we are witnessing something just as ridiculous in the real world right now. In the United States, the mainstream media is breathlessly proclaiming that the U.S. economy is in great shape because job growth is “accelerating” (even though we actually lost 240,000 full-time jobs last month) and because the U.S. stock market set new all-time highs this week. The mainstream media seems to be absolutely oblivious to all of the financial storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon. The conditions for a “perfect storm” are rapidly developing, and by the time this is all over we may be wishing that flying sharks were all that we had to deal with. The following are 10 reasons why the global economy is about to experience its own version of Sharknado

#1 The financial situation in Portugal continues to deteriorate thanks to an emerging political crisis. […]

#2 The economic depression in Greece continues to deepen, and it is being reported that Greece will not even come close to hitting the austerity targets that it was supposed to hit this year […]

#3 The economic crisis in the third largest country in the eurozone, Italy, has taken another turn for the worse. […]

#4 There are rumors that some of the biggest banks in the world are in very serious trouble. […]

#5 Just before the financial crisis of 2008, the price of oil spiked dramatically. […]

#6 Mortgage rates are absolutely skyrocketing right now […]

#7 This upcoming corporate earnings season is shaping up to be an extremely disappointing one. […]

#8 U.S. stocks are massively overextended right now. […]

#9 Rapidly rising interest rates are causing the bond market to begin to come apart at the seams. […]

#10 Rapidly rising interest rates could cause an implosion of the derivatives market at any moment. […]

Most Americans don’t realize that Wall Street has been transformed into the largest casino in the history of the world. Most Americans don’t realize that the major banks are literally walking a financial tightrope each and every day.

All it is going to take is one false step and we will be looking at a financial crisis even worse than what happened back in 2008.

So enjoy this little bubble of false prosperity while you can.

It is not going to last for too much longer.

October 12, 2011

So, if it wasn’t Wall Street, then who inflated the US housing bubble anyway?

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:03

Peter Wallison has the answer:

Beginning in 1992, the government required Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to direct a substantial portion of their mortgage financing to borrowers who were at or below the median income in their communities. The original legislative quota was 30%. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development was given authority to adjust it, and through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations HUD raised the quota to 50% by 2000 and 55% by 2007.

It is certainly possible to find prime borrowers among people with incomes below the median. But when more than half of the mortgages Fannie and Freddie were required to buy were required to have that characteristic, these two government-sponsored enterprises had to significantly reduce their underwriting standards.

Fannie and Freddie were not the only government-backed or government-controlled organizations that were enlisted in this process. The Federal Housing Administration was competing with Fannie and Freddie for the same mortgages. And thanks to rules adopted in 1995 under the Community Reinvestment Act, regulated banks as well as savings and loan associations had to make a certain number of loans to borrowers who were at or below 80% of the median income in the areas they served.

May 31, 2011

How do you say “Doom!” in Chinese?

Filed under: China, Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:32

Remember that calm, reassuring phrase “don’t worry”? Okay, time’s up. You can forget it now:

Falling land prices may prompt Chinese property developers to write down the value of their assets, forcing a sober reassessment for those with vast land holdings, according to a survey released Monday by Credit Suisse.

Most at risk are those mainland Chinese and Hong Kong developers who added aggressively to their land banks in 2009 and 2010, the prices of which could come under pressure amid Beijing’s ongoing credit tightening, the investment bank said.

[. . .]

Prices for land sold at auction were down 20% so far this year, the report cited one industry expert as saying. Other data indicated price declines of up to 50% for the year to date, although the figures were affected by slumping transaction volumes in cities such as Beijing, possibly overstating the true rate of declines, the report said.

Meanwhile, the tighter credit conditions are having a “double impact” upon developers, Credit Suisse said.

On one hand, delays in mortgage approvals mean developers are having to wait longer to get paid than they did in earlier times. Today’s leaner environment has also resulted in a rise in buyers backing out of purchasing commitments on new projects because they can’t secure financing.

Remember that old joke about it being time to get out of the market when even the cab drivers have stock tips? It’s been time to get out of the Chinese real estate market since every small-time operator started buying up “choice” plots of land. It’s a classic sign of a bubble (when uninformed buyers are rushing in to get in on the “sure thing”), and those who can read the signs before they become ubiquitous are those who survive the collapse of the bubble in the best shape.

May 27, 2011

Colby Cosh: It wasn’t a market failure that caused the sub-prime fiasco

Filed under: Economics, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:52

He’s quite right, not that the powers-that-be will take away the correct lesson from the experience:

What I see when I look at the origins of the financial pandemic is the story “government-sponsored enterprises that subsidize crazy lending practices and puppetize legislators fail.” Mortgage-writing institutions did things throughout the late 1990s and early oh-ohs that weren’t just likely to turn out badly; they made enormous amounts of loans that were practically certain to go bust in the short-to-medium term, loans that your mother could have told you would go sour. It wasn’t a “free” market that relaxed mortgage underwriting standards to the point of annihilation; it wasn’t a “free” market that put unskilled workers in million-dollar homes in the Sand States, or that spent too long ignoring the rising default rates that resulted.

We know this, in part, because we know how slightly freer mortgage markets traditionally behaved; they “redlined” the living heck out of low-income neighbourhoods. Because redlining resulted in racial discrimination — critics would just say it is racial discrimination — there has been a concerted attempt among economists to absolve the major U.S. anti-redlining statute, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, from any role in creating the housing bubble. Obviously it won’t do to pin the crisis on a 1977 law, but there is such a thing as the straw that broke the camel’s back; the CRA was followed by an even more intense fusillade of statutory and regulatory measures consciously designed to increase home ownership in America without making homes less expensive and valuable per se.

February 3, 2010

Paul Volcker praises Canadian banking system

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:50

Expect this to continue to be the story of the week in Canadian newspapers:

Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve Board chairman who’s now a key economic advisor to the White House, told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday they ought to learn from Canada’s banking system as they seek to overhaul rules governing the biggest U.S. banks.

Speaking at a hearing to tout his proposal to rein in risky investing activities by large U.S. commercial banks, Mr. Volcker said the life’s work of Canadian banks is retail banking: “That’s no longer true of great big American banks.”

With just five or six banks dominating the industry, Canada’s banks benefit from having less competition, Mr. Volcker said. “It’s a stable oligopoly.”

There’s a mixed blessing in that: fewer banks means less competition, so there’s less need for banks to compete for customers in meaningful ways. Look at the feeding frenzy once banks were allowed to buy trust companies . . . partly because trust companies were more actively competing for business. Having a “stable oligopoly” has benefits, but consumers have fewer choices on where to bank, and banks have far less pressure to lower fees or increase services.

Here’s what Americans may find the most unexpected part of the story:

Canada’s banking system also has been shielded by the fact that it has less government interference in its mortgage market, unlike in the United States, where banks have been pressured by the government to make low-cost loans to the economically disadvantaged, he said.

Mr. Volcker’s endorsement of Canada’s banking system — the only Group of Seven nation that didn’t need taxpayers to bail out its banks — came two days after The New York Times published a piece by Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist Paul Krugman that said the United States should emulate Canada’s financial regulatory regime.

Unfortunately, the wrong lesson is likely to be drawn from this: much of the reason Canada’s banks didn’t need to be bailed out was the much lower political interference in their lending policies. Instead, US politicians are likely to insist on even more political interference to achieve the “right” result.

December 8, 2009

This is what qualifies as “toughened” standards?

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:58

An aside in this week’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column by Gregg Easterbrook caught me completely by surprise. I had no idea that the US housing market was quite this dysfunctional:

As Part of Tough New Standards for Subsidized Mortgages, Home Buyers Will Be Required to Rub Their Heads and Pat Their Stomachs at the Same Time: The Federal Housing Administration underwrites mortgages for people having problems. Before 2008, the FHA supported about 2 percent of the nation’s mortgages, now the number is nearly at 30 percent, which shows how deep the subprime mortgage issue runs and how much taxpayers now subsidize home ownership. Last week, the FHA said it will toughen lending rules. Borrowers will now be required to put up 3.5 percent of the mortgage as cash or gifts from relatives, and there will be a cross-check against the down payment’s appearing to come as a gift from a charity but actually coming from the seller or builder through a middleman disguised as a charity. A generation ago — a decade ago! — home buyers were expected to have a 20 percent down payment; that made them unlikely to try to buy something they could not afford, and banks wouldn’t be exposed if something went wrong, since they were lending only 80 percent of the value of the property. Now requiring 3.5 percent down is viewed as “toughening” standards. Isn’t this an invitation for yet another cycle of mortgage problems?

Absolutely mind-boggling.

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