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President Obama: Leave Well Enough Alone

In the State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama laid out his plan to rebuild the economy – an economy that is built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and stabilizing the nation’s housing market – “an economy that is built to last.” President Obama is correct in saying “the housing crisis remains the single biggest drag on our recovery,” but his plan does not address one of the biggest obstacles facing the housing market – credit availability.

The President’s proposal to revive the housing market is two-part. The first part is a mass refinancing program of underwater mortgages to help homeowners lower their mortgage payments. While the attempt to allow homeowners to refinance at today’s low rates will stimulate the economy, it does so through increased government mortgage-backing – a mini bail-out that may support short-lived economic growth at the expense of longer lasting negative consequences.

The second part of the administration’s plan would allow Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA to sell foreclosed homes to investors to rent out. This proposal aims to stabilize home values in neighborhoods with vacant houses, but in its current form is too vague to estimate any kind of positive impacts on economic growth.

But the President’s proposal merely shifts the burden from banks to the taxpayers, with government lending and deep involvement in mortgages. This is fascinating to me because the federal government is quick to “blame” banks and lenders for making non-creditworthy loans, causing the housing crises, while at the same time writing regulations mandating that banks and lenders loan to credit-risky borrowers to eliminate “red-lining” areas in a community.

The central question that should be before us at this point, however, is not to revisit the “why” of the collapse in housing prices occurred – as we unfortunately cannot go back in time to correct what has already occurred.  Many theories have been put forward as to the “why” and policymakers, politicians, and academics will likely be debating the true causes for decades. Rather, we should focus on how best to move forward in the most constructive manner with what is currently known as fact at this moment.

Although some will try to guess at whether the President’s plan helps or hurts a turnaround in the housing market, at this point unfortunately neither he nor we can know the true impacts or outcomes of the proposal on the housing market.

For example, President Obama states that “it is wrong for anybody to suggest that the only option for struggling, responsible homeowners is to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom.”  For all we know, this may have already happened – the housing market may have already bottomed.

But we do know a few trends occurring in the housing market right now:

  • There is pent-up demand from several years of below-trend new housing unit construction, and we are just beginning to see “green shoots” trends in new construction;
  • Mortgage interest rates are at historic lows, leading to greater housing affordability; and
  • The overall economy is improving, especially the job market and employment outlook.

All these key indicators lead us to believe that the factors that drive a healthy housing market are starting to move in the right direction. How best to “fix” the housing market for the long-term? Ensure that these fundamental drivers of a healthy housing market continue on a positive course. And the last thing it seems we need now is to institute untested policies that have potential for uncertain results and unintended consequences. Thus President Obama’s plan should be rejected.

This blog was co-authored by Lucy Dunn, President and CEO, and Dr. Wallace Walrod, Chief Economic Advisor, Orange County Business Council.


Posted on February 28, 2012


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