Popular Economics Weekly

The U.S. Treasury is in a bind. Everyone seems to agree that Fannie and Freddie, wards of the government should be downsized, but how to do it without damaging the housing recovery? Extreme conservatives even want to abolish them, along with the Federal Reserve, Departments of Commerce, Education, etc., etc. That isn’t practical, of course—especially abolishing Fannie and Freddie because they currently supply more than 90 percent of all mortgages!

That is one reason even a hint by Fed Chairman Bernanke and others that the Fed might “taper” QE purchases has caused interest rates to rise sharply. Because former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill and others have trumpeted that bond interest rates could reach 4 percent, if and when the Fed slows its QE purchases, returning to “more normal valuations” when the economy does recover.

This in turn means that mortgage rates would return to their recent 6 percent range for conforming 30-year fixed rates, from today’s 4 percent. But that would be devastating to a recovering housing market. Household incomes are still stagnant—in fact have been for the past 30 year, when accounting for inflation.

Keeping interest rates so low has made housing more affordable at these lower income levels. That is the major reason for the Fed’s QE3 buying program.

The Fed has also said unemployment has to fall further, as we have said, and there are few signs that GDP growth will be more than 2 percent this year.

Bond investors also watch inflation, and right now inflation is falling. The Personal Consumption Expenditure Index favored by the Fed is currently 1 percent, which is 1 percent below the Fed’s target of 2 percent. So why would the Fed even begin to “taper” their $85 billion per month in security purchases when neither is happening; and real estate is at the beginning of its recovery?

And sure enough, the Fed has just hinted in a recent Wall Street Journal Op-ed by John Hilsenrath that they aren’t in a hurry to taper their QE3 purchases—just yet. “The Fed, he (Bernanke) said in his March press conference and again at testimony to Congress last month, expects a “considerable” amount of time to pass between ending the bond-buying program and raising short-term rates. He seems likely to press that point at his press conference next week, given that the markets are telling him they don’t believe it.”

“In recent years, the search for yield has gone wider and deeper,” said O’Neill in the same Op-ed. “The resulting deviation from normal valuations has been amplified by the shift of pension funds and insurance companies out of equities into fashionable bonds, and by the lingering effects of the great financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. It seems inevitable that some version of the shock of 1994 is going to happen again.”

What “shock of 1994”? That was when Orange County went bankrupt because then Fed Chairman Greenspan boosted interest rates abruptly in the spring of 1994, after holding them at record lows in 1992-93, to cure the 1991 recession. But Greenspan did it without any warning, which is why Orange County lost so much money betting that interest rates would continue to fall.

So, really the panicked selling of stocks and bonds, and recent rise in interest rates are a sign that economic growth is still fragile, so that even a hint of credit tightening will depress markets. It is the Federal Reserve that is goosing growth, after all, especially in the real estate sector.

As if to corroborate the Fed’s efforts, Southern California home sales were the highest since May 2006, reports DataQuick, The median price paid for all new and resale houses and condos sold in the six-county Southland was $357,000 last month, up 23.1 percent from $290,000 in April 2012, and the highest since June 2008, when the median was $360,000. “What seems obvious is that if prices keep rising fast they’ll cause many more people to list their homes for sale,” said DataQuick President John Walsh.

But that can’t happen if interest rates continue to rise as quickly—and certainly not if they return to more “normal valuations”. So government shouldn’t be in a hurry to downsize Fannie and Freddie, either, since it doesn’t look like Wall Street or the banks are willing to support the housing market without Fannie and Freddie’s help.

Harlan Green © 2013

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