Saturday, January 23, 2010

Great interview

with Steve Waldman, who I should read more.  Excerpts:
I think the government should define vanilla mortgages, whose terms are standard and widely understood and vary in a single dimension. For example, “vanilla” 30 year fixed mortgages from different banks would be identical except for the interest rate. Consumers would not be compelled to stick to the vanilla contracts, and it might not be necessary to compel banks to offer them. But since the terms of the vanilla contracts would be widely understood, risk-averse customers could comparison shop loans without fear that lower apparent costs are offset by some tricky hidden “revenue enhancer”.

I think the government has chronically oversubsidized mortgage lending and homeownership. We cannot know what would have been, but I think we’d have a different and better housing market if we didn’t tilt the scales of the buy/rent decision towards BUY BUY BUY. The business of shelter provision for middle class families is horribly inefficient, literally a cottage industry. Absent all the subsidies, middle-class housing might have become professionalized by now, which could lead to enormous savings in money and aggravation for people who now waste time fighting with plumbers and roofers on an ad hoc basis. It’s remarkable that homeownership rates have kept rising even as people’s tenure in jobs has fallen and mobility has grown more valuable. We’ve made homeownership a totem of middle class prosperity. In doing so, we may have, um, foreclosed consideration of a variety of superior arrangements.

I agree with both of these ideas (but am still troubled by the notion of "walking away" as something that's morally acceptable).

Hat tip:  Felix Salmon

Also hope to respond to Felix's post on neg am mortgages in the next day or two.  I can't get on board with his simple solution of simply banning neg am mortgages - I think it's both intrinsically a bad idea and politically impossible.  But more on that, hopefully, later.

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