Home ownership has been elevated to an American right. This belief, directed at mortgage companies and lenders, has fueled the Alt-A and sub-prime mortgage explosion. The results were predictable. The unpredictable part was that the securitization of debt, its aggregation into trading instruments, and the resultant distribution of risk penetrated so deeply into the world financial markets. Unfortunately, distribution of risk is not elimination of risk, as we are now seeing.

The US Census Bureau establishes current home ownership at 68.9%, up from the level sustained from 1980 to 1995. (current US Census data and sustained level.)

Looking at these data, we note that up to Bill Clinton’s effort to provide housing to all in the late 90’s, the percentage of ownership was 64.5%. After Clinton, Bush, the Federal Housing Authority, Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac got into the picture, the US Census numbers (2006) showed 68.9% ownership, a whopping increase of 4.4%. Let’s pull some quick facts from the census. Round off the population to 300,000,000. Of these people, there are approximately 105,000,000 housholds (or potential homeowners). Figure the median value of a home, again approximating the census data, as $120,000. Do the math and you can see that 4.4% increase in home ownership resulted in about 4.62 million new homes or about $554.4 billion in new loans.

Now while this is more pocket change than I’ll ever carry around, it doesn’t quite add up. The 2007 estimate of the US GDP was $13,790 billion. The newly originated loans constituted only 4% GDP. This is approximately the same cost as the annual defense budget as a percent GDP — hardly something that could tank the world financial market.

Yet we see the numbers in the papers all the time. Banks have liquidity problems. Credit default swap derivatives exposure is estimated at $26 trillion.

  • 2/28/2008 Fannie Mae posts $3.56 billion loss
  • 1/25/2008 Societe General posts $7.2 billion loss
  • 2/27/2008 Bond Insurer MBIA default loss estimate $13.7 billion
  • 2/25/2008 Bond insurer AMBAC looking to raise $3 billion in capital
  • 2/18/2008 National Rock bank London nationalized to secure $107 billion
  • 2/22/2008 Credit default swaps loss is $2 trillion

The answer to this is clear. The current mess has very little to do with homeownership per se and everything to do with investing. If we only had an increase in 4.4% ownership, then the additional debt must have been acquired by people purchasing real estate for investment purposes and homes to flip, also for investment purchases. Add to that the clever derivatives instruments, where a lot of financial engineers and derivatives traders boasted of their multi-million dollar salaries, and you can see that the core of the “irrational exuberence” is based on making very risky bets on an upside market.

When the bubble bursts, and the risk becomes apparent, and bites you in the ass, the taxpayers of the United States are once again called upon to bail out Wall street and stupid, greedy investors. So now we are engaged in assuading the market through rate cuts to resolve liquidity problems, forcing the dollar lower and inflating the cost of essentials like food and energy. All because of the dictum:


What affects Wall Street eventually affects Main Street


Thanks to the Angry Virginian for comments and suggestions as to breaking this rant into digestible chunks.

Home ownership has been elevated to a quintessential American right. Having a home (and a mortgage) is proof of your worthiness as a person and as a citizen of the United States. This belief is driving much of the legislation directed at mortgage companies and lenders, and in fact has fueled the Alt-A and sub-prime mortgage explosion. But how reasonable are these expectations?

The National Association of Realtors puts the current ownership (without factoring in foreclosures) at 68.9%. This is confirmed by US Census data. An earlier report of the US Census Bureau data established the home ownership rate at between 64 and 65% up to 1995. Some economists have suggested that the sustainable level of home ownership is around 60%. This means that 40% of the population of the United States should not own a home. At least some local governments appear to understand this. It is illustrative to consider the composition of this 40%.

There are valid life choices that mitigate against home ownership. A young and very mobile population are not good candidates for the commitment that owning a house requires. The real-estate taxes I pay on my house alone would rent a nice apartment for a year. Then there is maintenance, lawn care, etc. Your mobility is restricted if you own a home by the market conditions. Many homeowners are saddled with dual homes and payments when they relocate to change employment until the market improves or the price is reduced to sell. For highly mobile members of the workforce, homeownership is not warranted.

There are also what I classify as two types of mental deficiency: functional and dysfunctional. The functional type includes people who are otherwise normal appearing who can participate in society yet are incapable of planning and making the long term strategies and commitments required to own a home. (Britney Spears comes to mind). They have no awareness of the consequences of their actions in the long term. These people are better served by the rental market.

As for for those with dysfunctional mental deficiencies, state institutions existed in the United States up through the 1950’s to house people with behaviors which were deemed problematic in a free society. These problems could be related to alcoholism, pharmacological dependency, or pathological conditions such as Downs. A lot of these facilities were of the “out of sight, out of mind” class and were bastions of repression and intolerance. (Nursing homes enjoy the same status today.) Coinciding with new liberal thought and an era of enlightened psychological analysis, many of these facilities were shuttered and razed. The result, as should be unsurprising, is that many of the former occupants reverted to their inclinations and live on the streets of our cities — the homeless.

Since they are no longer out of sight, and indeed far too visible, many well-intentioned efforts to provide for them have been initiated. Care for the homeless has been a hue and cry of the liberal left for the last twenty years, interesting in that the ‘problem’ was created by their meddling in the state institutions in the first place. The cynic in me questions why they even bothered since the majority don’t vote anyway. Nonetheless, they are homeless, and well-intentioned people are tasking our legislatures to provide for them. Providing a means for these people to obtain a mortgage is idiocy.

Seattle Hobo
Seattle near Pike’s Place Market, August 30th 2007

Finally there are the homeless by choice. These are the people who would prefer not to appear on the tax rolls and registries of governmental units for whatever reason. To some, it is enduring freedom to do whatever they want, and to do it whenever they please. These have been around for a long time probably commencing with the Revolutionary War — certainly since the Civil War and demonstratively so after the Great Depression. They constitute the tramps, hobos, and sadly, even the bindlestiffs (hobos who robbed the bindles of other hobos).

From these observations, it should be apparent that many citizens are homeless by choice and that no government policy is going to change this. Trying to increase home ownership over a demonstratively sustainable level has accomplished nothing except contributing to the current subprime mess.