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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Analysis: Mark Zandi wrong about housing tax credit

by Calculated Risk on 9/30/2012 12:40:00 PM

Some of Mark Zandi's analysis has been excellent, but I think he is wrong about the housing tax credit and confused about some of the timing of the housing bust.

First, from Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics in the WaPo: Obama policies ended housing free fall

Temporary tax credits also enticed home buyers to act sooner rather than later, breaking a self-reinforcing deflationary cycle in the housing market. Prospective buyers had remained on the sidelines, waiting for prices to stop falling, and their reluctance caused prices to drop still more.

The tax credits didn’t spark additional home sales so much as pull sales forward from the future; sales weakened sharply as soon as the credits expired. The credits also were expensive, costing the Treasury tens of billions of dollars, and much of the benefit went to home buyers who would have bought homes anyway. But the tax benefit gave buyers a reason to stop waiting, ending the downdraft in prices.

Critics charge that the government’s intervention was costly and ineffective, that the administration should have let the housing market sort things out on its own. This would have been a reasonable position if house prices had been too high when Obama’s policies kicked in; but they weren’t. By the time Obama took office, prices had fallen substantially; with low mortgage rates factored in, homes were as affordable as ever. Investors knew this, and as soon as they saw prices nearing the bottom, they began snapping up distressed properties. These investors weren’t house flippers, like those who fueled the housing bubble, but long-term players seeing bargains. Obama’s efforts to shore up housing were well timed.
First, house prices declined about 7.5% from January 2009 to the recent low earlier this year. In real terms, house prices declined about 16% from January 2009 to the recent low!. How can Zandi say the tax credit ended "the downdraft in prices"? That is incorrect.

Most of the decline in house prices happened before January 2009, but the decline since early 2009 would still have been the largest decline in house prices nationally from the Depression through 2006. Only a few regional house price declines (like California in the early '90s) were larger than the 16% real decline over the last 3+ years!

In fact the housing tax credit was expensive and ineffective. I opposed the tax credit early and often. The tax credit for buying new homes was especially dumb. A key problem during the housing bust was the excess supply of vacant housing units, and incentivizing people to buy new homes (and add to the supply) made no sense at all.

Of course the Obama Administration doesn't deserve all the blame for the housing tax credit blunder; the tax credit was originally proposed by Senators Johnny Isakson (R) and Joe Lieberman (I). 

Zandi makes another mistake when he conflates investor buying and affordability: "with low mortgage rates factored in, homes were as affordable as ever". The buy-and-rent investors really started buying in late 2008 and early 2009 - and those investors paid cash (low mortgage rates were NOT a factor). At that time the private label securities (Wall Street) were dumping foreclosed properties in mostly low priced areas, and investors responded by buying for the cash flow opportunity. It is correct that prices bottomed earlier in many of those areas (the "destickification" of prices due to PLS dumping), but prices declined in most areas for a few more years.

By now I'd hope that everyone would realize 1) that the housing tax credit was a policy mistake, and 2) most house prices declined significantly over the last 3+ years.

Summary for Week Ending Sept 28th
Schedule for Week of Sept 30th