July 11, 2008

Republicans Mortgaged the Future

After the American Century

The US housing market continues to falter. When houses are worth less than people paid for them, some owners will conclude that declaring bankruptcy is their best, perhaps their only option. In June, 2008, one out of every 501 homes in the US was foreclosed - a total of 252,000 properties. That was 50% more than June the previous year. If that monthly rate continues for a year, then 3 million homes will have been given up for auction or sale at reduced rates by the repossessing banks. That represents housing for about 10 million people.

December 12 last year I wrote in this space that "Bush Administration policies encouraged housing prices to soar while undermining the strength of the economy as a whole. A correction is unavoidable. One hopes it will not be too severe." In the ensuring 7 months the correction has continued, and now seems to be nearing a crisis. The news today is that many analysts are worried about the financial health of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - names which make them sound like two people. But these are billion dollar institutions that back up the mortgage lending of banks. Both are traded on the stock exchange, and in good times they are stable, safe investments. But their stocks have been falling steady for months, and yesterday each dropped by more than 15%. That's one sixth of their value lost in a single day. Government spokesmen are all "walking on eggs" - treading with the utmost caution, trying to put the best face on how the continuing foreclosures are affecting these institutional cornerstones of the economy. On the bright side, the rate of foreclosure in June was lower than the month before, so the worst may have passed. On the dark side, interest rates already are quite low, so there is not much the Federal Reserve can do to stimulate the economy or make home-buying more attractive.

Everyone assumes that the Federal Government will pour additional money into these institutions if they need it. But the US government is already running a large deficit, borrowing money from abroad to pay some of its bills. In 2007 the deficit grew by $162 billion, an impressive figure, but nothing compared to 2008, which may be the worst year of overspending in US history at more than $410 billion. The worst so far was 2004, when Bush spend $413 billion he did not have. Much of that was for the wonderful war in Iraq. It is easy to forget now that this was the war which we would win quickly and that would pay for itself, because all that oil would be sold to pay for redevelopment. Well, this was not what happened, but the oil has certainly increased in value. All oil producers are benefiting, but not US home and car owners.

Probably the economic storm will pass, housing prices will stabilize and prices will climb again. In that case, the dip in the market has been good for people who wanted to get into the market like my niece who just bought her first house. But if the market continues to fall, at some point the dead weight of unpaid mortgages will put tremendous strain on the economy as a whole. How does anyone sell a house, in order to relocate for a new job, for example, if there are several million foreclosed properties on the market? What happens to the older couple who expected to sell their large house to downsize into an apartment, now that the kids have grown up and moved away?

The crisis is hardly over, in other words. The worse it gets, the more Republicans running for re-election will take the blame in November. Because they mortgaged the future.

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