The Politics of Four Percent Mortgages

However, the Democrats have a problem. Lower interest rates don't help everyone equally. If you have a million dollar mortgage, then a 2% mortgage rate drop will save you $20,000 per year. But if you only have a $100,000 mortgage, then the savings is just $2,000. And you only receive the reduction in mortgage rates if you are able to refinance your loan. If your credit is bad, or you have no equity in your home or cash to bring to the table, then you're out of luck. Your only hope is that someone else with good credit may be able to use that 4% mortgage rate to buy your home and take it off your hands at a reasonable price.

Thus, the availability of lower mortgage rates is a benefit that encourages and rewards financial responsibility and helps wealthier borrowers the most. What's wrong with that? If you're a liberal, everything. Free markets are unfair, we're all victims of evil corporations, America's racist, etc. This ideology leads directly to the latest mortgage relief plan, a well-intentioned mess that encourages borrowers to cry poverty to their lenders and then understate their income in order to get the largest government subsidy.

But while we scratch our heads and wonder why the so-called intelligentsia can't understand basic concepts like financial responsibility and incentives, the good news is that as the mortgage relief package stands now, 90% of homeowners won't be eligible to take advantage of it. So let's get back to lower mortgage rates.

The Wall Street Journal has published two Republican op-eds on the subject recently, one titled "Low-Interest Mortgage Are the Answer," by R. Glenn Hubbard and Christopher J. Mayer, and a second titled "The GOP Has a Dumb Mortgage Idea," by Ed Glaeser. Just from the titles you may have guessed that we don't quite have a consensus.

Hubbard and Mayer's viewpoint is pragmatic. Now that U.S. treasury rates are at historic lows, why not use some of this capital to benefit U.S. homeowners? They argue that lowering rates will help stabilize falling home prices and put more money into consumers' pockets, and also provide a nice boost to the mortgage industry. This is most likely the route that the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration will take: giving Americans mortgage rates of 4.5% or perhaps even 4.0% later this year.

Ed Glaeser's argument is that government intervention helped create this mortgage mess and we shouldn't expect more intervention to get us out. That's a principled criticism, but if you take that line of thinking too far, you're arguing against the Federal Reserve and its ability to set key interest rates and manage the money supply to regulate inflation and fight recessions.

Still, his piece does raise important questions as to whether politicians can be trusted to have their hands on the controls on the $10+ trillion mortgage market, especially given their failures with regulating Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. There's no indication that they've learned any lessons and certainly no admission of responsibility.

Refinancing mortgages to 4% is only effective if the new loans make economic sense. If, instead, we just put more people in houses they can't afford using taxpayer subsidies and guarantees, we will have squandered one of our best tools to lead a recovery and merely exchanged one crisis for another.