Let's be clear about one thing: just about everyone agrees that the federal government is providing too much direct support to the mortgage market today. That support should be scaled back over time, but it cannot be eliminated entirely.
We believe, as do many others across the political spectrum, that a modest level of government support is necessary to promote a stable, accessible and affordable housing market. That includes an explicit guarantee on certain kinds of mortgage debt – but not the financial institutions that issue that debt.
Rather than keeping taxpayers on the hook for every dollar of loss on mortgage-backed securities – as we do now with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – we would rather see private capital take losses first. Financial institutions should have the opportunity to buy limited government insurance on those securities in exchange for a fair and financially responsible fee, much like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. offers on bank deposits.
Regardless of whether you own or rent, a government guarantee is critical to your economic well-being. Here are two reasons why.
First and foremost, the guarantee plays a crucial role in preventing and lessening the intensity of boom-and-bust cycles in the housing market. When private capital retreats from residential mortgages during a downturn, government-backed entities stay open for business, ensuring that money keeps flowing into housing. First-time homebuyers can still get a home loan. Homeowners can still refinance or find a buyer if they're looking to move. Developers can still access the capital they need to start construction on new apartment buildings. Each of these activities sends ripples throughout the economy – new construction jobs, more demand for household goods, stronger and more stable home values – which improves everyone's bottom line.
In the most recent example, purely private mortgage lending basically ground to a halt when the financial crisis began in 2008. Ever since Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration have backed roughly 9 in 10 mortgages made in the U.S., saving the market from even worse collapse.
According to a recent analysis from Moody's Analytics, a fully private market would have "difficulty providing stable mortgage funding during difficult financial times." The authors concluded that "the resulting credit crunch further undermines housing demand, driving down prices and unleashing a vicious cycle." That's not good for anybody.
Second, it's important to note that government-backed mortgages don't just help homebuyers – who benefit from lower interest rates and access to longer-term, fixed-rate mortgage products. They also help the one-third of the U.S. population that rents.
In addition to their homeownership operations, Fannie and Freddie guarantee so-called "multifamily" mortgages, which finance apartment buildings with five or more units. That guarantee plays an important role in ensuring that quality, affordable rental options are available for low- and middle-income families. In 2009, the first full year of the financial crisis, Fannie and Freddie backed 85 percent of new multifamily mortgages; today that number is closer to 50 percent.
According to a recent analysis from Freddie Mac, if the government guarantee on multifamily mortgages were to go away, the market would shrink significantly. New construction on rental housing would plummet by as much as 27 percent, while average rents would rise by as much as 2 percent.
It's clear that America's families, regardless of their housing situation, benefit from an explicit, limited and paid-for government guarantee on mortgage debt. And a growing bipartisan consensus agrees: of the 25 plans for housing finance reform reviewed by the Center for American Progress, all but five preserve some sort of government guarantee.
Now, if only Congress could come to a similar agreement.
About John Griffith Analysts at Enterprise Community Partners
About Andrew Jakabovics Analysts at Enterprise Community Partners
Julia Gordon Director of Housing Finance and Policy at the Center for American Progress
Chris Estes President and CEO of the National Housing Conference and Center for Housing Policy
David Min Assistant Professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law
Scott Garrett Republican Representative From New Jersey
Mark Calabria Director of Financial Regulation Studies at the Cato Institute