Treasury's Plan for Mortgage Rates Could Be Costly

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Jae C. Hong / AP

A house is for sale in Las Vegas.

The Treasury Department's latest prescription for the ailing housing market could turn out to be more placebo than cure, and a costly placebo at that. Some economists question whether just lowering interest rates to a historically low 4.5% will be enough to boost housing sales or prices. What's more, the plan could end up costing $25 billion a year, using up valuable funds needed to fix the housing market and providing no relief to the millions of homeowners now facing foreclosure.

"It's an unmitigated mistake," says Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University economics professor. "The amount of help this plan offers is vastly smaller than the problem. It's just not worth the cost." (Read Four Steps to Ending the Foreclosure Crisis.)

At the heart of the plan that the Treasury is reportedly considering is the idea that lower mortgage rates will boost home sales and eventually house values. The plan hasn't been officially announced so it's not certain exactly what the Treasury would do, but one way it could work would be for the government to offer to directly purchase all newly originated loans by banks and mortgage lenders provided the loans carry rates of 4.5% or less. Proponents of the plan say the plan would be costless, and might even turn a profit. That's because based on current Treasury bond yields, the government can borrow money at 2.7% to fund the program, pocketing a profit of 1.8%.

"It raises the question as to whether the government should be offering low mortgage rates all the time, not just during a crisis," says Laurence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, which has been pushing for a plan to lower mortgage rates for the past month. Yun predicts lowering 30-year fixed mortgages to 4.5%, from their current rate of 5.5%, would produce an additional 500,000 home sales in the next year. "We need to do this because the economy will not stabilize until home prices stabilize," says Yun. "The way to do that is to get buyers back in the market." (Read States' Financial Outlook: Getting Worse Fast.)

But critics of the plan say that is will do little to boost sales, and could wind up being surprisingly expensive. Here's their math: In order to get lenders to make the loans at below market rates, the government would have to basically pay banks the difference between the market rate and the 4.5% they would like banks to lend at — currently 1%. That would still leave a profit of 0.8% on every loan the government helped originate through the program.

The government, though, would only be able to pocket that profit if everyone paid back their mortgage in full, which even in good times is not the case. Historically, about 1% of all mortgages end up in foreclosure. That would mean during normal times this program would end up costing the government 0.2% of all the loans it originates. (Read It's the Housing Market, Stupid.)

But these are not normal times. Right now the foreclosure rate is running at 3%, and it could ratchet higher in the next few years if the recession drags on. The government could mitigate its losses by only lending to people with high credit ratings. But even high quality borrowers will default at higher rates in a down economy. At a 3% default rate, the plan could cost the government as much as $25 billion a year. And that's only if 10-year Treasury rates remain at 2.7%. A year ago, the government bonds yielded 4%. At those levels, the 4.5% mortgage plan would cost nearly $50 billion a year. Treasury officials declined to comment on these projections.

On another troubling note, some economist question whether the lower mortgage rates would even boost sales or home values. A 2006 study of mortgage rates and New York City housing prices going back to 1975 by Lucas Finco of Quadlet Consulting found no correlation between lower mortgage rates and higher housing prices, or vice versa. "The relationship between mortgage rates and home prices is pretty obscure," says Jack Guttentag, a professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School of Business.

James Hamilton, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, says he used to think that lower mortgage rates were responsible for rising home sales in the first half of this decade, and for that reason he projected home prices would rebound in 2007. He now says rising home sales were the result of deterioration of lending standards and not lower mortgage rates. "I was wrong. The real story with home sales has to do with the availability of credit," says Hamilton. "And credit is tight now."

What's more, the Treasury's proposed program would only make the low-cost mortgages available to people making new home purchases. That would do little to help people who are already behind on their mortgage, or at risk of facing foreclosure. And many economists argue housing prices won't stop falling until foreclosure rates come down. On Thursday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said that he thinks the government should do more to stop foreclosures. He named a number of possible programs, including a plan floated a few weeks ago by Sheila Bair, who heads the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, for the government to pay mortgage servicers $1,000 per modification and split the default risk in order to encourage them to lower the monthly loan payments of borrowers at risk of foreclosure.

Harvard's Glaeser calculates that in a stable market reducing mortgage rates to 4.5% would boost home prices by 5.2%. But this isn't a stable market. Before the announced plan, housing prices were expected to drop as much as another 20%. That means the Treasury's proposed mortgage rate cut will fall well short of stopping the continued fall in real estate prices. "All of these subsidies end up with taxpayers holding the bag," says Glaeser. "It's a terrible idea."

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