By Simon van Norden
In my previous post, I wrote about some of the evidence linking serious banking crises to real estate market collapses. That evidence is far from iron clad; it is simply the observation that many banking crises in mature economies have their origins in a real estate boom and bust cycle. However, the idea is also intuitively appealing.
Remember that at the end of 2008, the Federal Reserve Board estimated that there was $12 Trillion of mortgage debt on residential properties in the US, with the Federal government and its agencies providing about 5% of the total, individuals 9% and the rest coming from the financial sector. The Case-Shiller composite index of housing prices has fallen 1/3 from its peak in 2006 and the latest the Mortgage Banker Association survey finds that 13.5% of residential mortgages in their survey are delinquent or in foreclosure.
Even if losses in the end are only 5% of mortgage debt, that’s a $600 Billion drop in equity on private sector balance sheets. It’s easy to see how losses of half a trillion dollars or more could push some banks into insolvency and many into illiquidity. That’s the recipe for a banking crisis. Remember that the FDIC’s Deposit Insurance Fund had reserves of just over $50 billion at the start of 2008 and of which approximately zero is left today. That’s the recipe for a costly banking crisis.
Like heart disease, there may be many different significant risk factors for banking crises. However, the evidence to date suggests that real estate volatility is one of the most important, if not the most important. Reducing the risk of future crises (and their drain on the public treasury) requires that something be done to address this risk factor. As I’ll discuss in a minute, there seem to be lots of ways to do this, but they boil down to some combination of (1) reducing the volatility of real estate prices, and (2) reducing banking sector exposure to real estate.
But first, stop and think about the kinds of proposals that are currently under discussion. There’s a long list that includes things like
- The creation of a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, a National Bank Supervisor, and an Office of National Insurance, which would join with several other agencies in a Financial Services Oversight Council.
- Requiring reporting of all OTC derivative transactions, as well as clearing and transparent trading of all standardized OTC derivative products.
- Expanding the mandate of the Federal Reserve to explicitly include all firms that pose systemic risks to the financial system.
- Requiring registration of advisors to hedge funds and other pools of capital.
- A reform of executive pay in the financial sector to reduce incentives for excessive risk-taking
- The provision of explicit government insurance to mortgage derivatives
- A ban on “naked” short-selling
- Restricting the sale of CDSs and similar instruments to those with long position in the underlying asset.
- [your favorite goes here]
Now ask yourself which of these will be effective in reducing the volatility of real estate prices? Which will effectively reduce the banking sector’s exposure to that volatility? With the exception of #6 on the above list, it’s not obvious that any of these proposals will do either (and #6 doesn’t appear to be high on the public agenda as far as I can tell.) Understand that the word “obvious” is an important caveat; for example, it’s conceivable that improving clearing of OTC derivatives might reduce the exposure of the banking sector to real estate collapses by preventing contagion within the banking sector, but it’s hard to know how much this will help. The same can be said for most of the items of the list; they might help or there might be other sound reasons for those reforms, but there is little that looks like it will reliably reduce volatility in the real estate market or reduce the banking sector’s exposure to those fluctuations.
What I find most surprising about the financial reform debate is that so much of it has focused on reform of regulatory agencies, banking laws and trading environments while so little attention has been paid to reform of mortgage regulations and mortgage-related securities. So to stimulate the debate on such reforms, let me suggest two kinds of measures that deserve further consideration.
1. Highly-leveraged mortgages increase the systemic risk in the financial sector and should be discouraged. This could be done in a number of ways, such as a tax on high loan-to-value mortgages, or compulsory insurance, or via regulation limiting the value of liens that can be attached to real estate, or simply by limiting mortgage-interest deductibility. Doing so should reduce the banking system’s exposure to the real estate market by ensuring that borrowers have greater equity investments (or are backed by insurance.) The reduction in leverage may also reduce real estate price swings.
2. The insurance of mortgages and mortgage-related products (including credit-default swaps on mortgage derivatives) requires tighter regulation. Such insurance is a critical buffer between downturns in the real estate market and the solvency of the banking system. While some mortgage risk is diversifiable, a substantial portion is a macroeconomic risk that is not diversifiable. This is particularly true for mortgage-backed securities, which pool risks across many individual mortgages. In the event of a national downturn in housing prices, it is not obvious that private-sector insurers will have the resources to honor their policies. At a minimum, the government needs to impose capital requirements for mortgage insurance and related financial derivatives that require a level of financial reserves commensurate with the degree of macroeconomic risk in this market. Others (such as Mehrling 2009) have argued that the government should simply provide such insurance themselves.
This post written by Simon van Norden.