Underwriting the Next Housing Crisis


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WASHINGTON — SEVEN years after the housing bubble burst, federal regulators backed away this month from the tougher mortgage-underwriting standards that the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 had directed them to develop. New standards were supposed to raise the quality of the “prime” mortgages that get packaged and sold to investors; instead, they will have the opposite effect.

Responding to the law, federal regulators proposed tough new standards in 2011, but after bipartisan outcries from Congress and fierce lobbying by interested parties, including community activists, the Obama administration and the real estate and banking industries — all eager to increase home sales — the standards have been watered down. The regulators had wanted a down payment of 20 percent, a good credit record and a maximum debt-to-income ratio of 36 percent. But under pressure, they dropped the down payment and good-credit requirements and agreed to a debt-to-income limit as high as 43 percent.

The regulators believe that lower underwriting standards promote homeownership and make mortgages and homes more affordable. The facts, however, show that the opposite is true.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, down payments were 10 to 20 percent. The homeownership rate was 64 percent — about where it is now — and nearly 90 percent of housing markets were considered affordable (that is, home prices were no more than three times family income). By 2011 only 50 percent were considered affordable, and by 2014, just 36 percent — even though down payments as low as 5 percent are now common.

How could this be? Consider this: If the required down payment for a mortgage is 10 percent, a potential home buyer with $10,000 can purchase a $100,000 home. But if the down payment is dropped to 5 percent, the same buyer can purchase a $200,000 home. The buyer is taking more risk by borrowing more, but can afford to bid more.

In other words, low underwriting standards — especially low down payments — drive housing prices up, making them less affordable for low- and moderate-income buyers, while also inducing would-be homeowners to take more risk.

That’s why homes were more affordable before the 1990s than they are today. Back then, when traditional standards for “prime” mortgages prevailed, homes were smaller; they had fewer bathrooms, and the kitchens were not appointed by Martha Stewart. A family could buy and live in a “starter home” for several years before selling it and using the accumulated equity to buy a bigger or better appointed home.

In a competitive housing market not subsidized by lax standards, home builders would similarly adjust by reducing the size and amenities of new homes to meet the financial resources of home buyers entering the market. Home prices would stabilize and not rise faster than incomes. Low- and moderate-income families and millennials might have to wait to save for a first home, but they would be able to afford it.

If the government got out of the way, would sound underwriting standards come back? History suggests yes. Although Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were government-backed, they were shareholder-owned, profit-making firms. They adopted strong underwriting standards to avoid the credit risk of subprime and other high-risk mortgages. But after Congress enacted affordable-housing goals, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 1992, underwriting standards declined.

Republicans generally favor eliminating the government’s role in housing finance, while Democrats worry that without government support, mortgages would be too expensive for low- and moderate-income families. Although it runs counter to the current Washington view, good underwriting standards can satisfy the objectives of both parties.

It’s clear that today’s policies create winners and losers. The winners include real estate agents and home builders, who want to increase borrowing and sell ever-larger and more expensive homes. The losers, as we saw in the financial crisis, are borrowers of modest means who are lured into financing arrangements they can’t afford. When the result is foreclosure and eviction, one of the central goals of homeownership — building equity — is undone.

After the financial crisis, Representative Barney Frank — the Massachusetts Democrat who led the House Financial Services Committee during the crisis, and a champion of credit programs for low-income buyers — admitted, “It was a great mistake to push lower-income people into housing they couldn’t afford and couldn’t really handle once they had it.” Policy makers who support homeownership would be wise to consider who is hurt and who is helped when we abandon traditional underwriting standards.

Peter J. Wallison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the forthcoming book “Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World’s Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again.”

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