Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Johnson and Kwak: The home-buyer tax credit: Throwing good money after bad

by Calculated Risk on 10/27/2009 08:18:00 AM

While we wait for the August Case-Shiller house prices ...

Simon Johnson and James Kwak write in the WaPo: The home-buyer tax credit: Throwing good money after bad.

What happens when you artificially prop up housing prices? Imagine the credit were expanded to all home buyers and made permanent. This would simply boost housing prices at the low end of the market by close to $8,000, since all buyers would be willing to pay $8,000 more. (Prices would rise by a little less than $8,000 because at higher prices, more people would be willing to sell.) Whom does this benefit? Not first-time home buyers. It benefits people who already own houses (and their real estate agents) because it's a one-time boost in housing values. This would be just the latest chapter in a long history of government policies to boost housing prices -- the mortgage interest tax deduction, the capital gains exclusion on houses, the extension of the mortgage interest tax deduction to second houses, etc. Each of these policies pushes up prices just once; if you want to keep pushing up housing prices, you have to keep adding sweeteners.

A temporary tax credit has a similar effect, but for a shorter period of time. It boosts the price of a transaction that would have happened anyway. It may create additional transactions, but is that a good thing? If someone could not have afforded a house without the tax credit, then what is he or she going to do when the tax credit goes away and the price of the house falls? In effect, the tax credit is a way of making houses temporarily affordable that would not otherwise be affordable, and we know where that leads.
emphasis added