Political Economy

The Big Problem With Low Interest Rates

December 05, 2008

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Government and mainstream economists have erroneously concluded that the key to reversing the financial free fall can be found in stopping the plunge in home prices. (I would offer the corollary that the key to reducing injuries in auto accidents is to suspend the laws of inertia). But to accomplish the improbable task of re-inflating the housing bubble, the government appears ready to announce a coordinated plan to push down mortgage rates to just 4.5%. Of course, this is precisely the wrong solution to the housing crisis, but when it comes to bad ideas our government has been remarkably consistent.

The plan would require the newly created Federal agencies of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lower rates to 4.5%, and then require the Fed to directly buy the loans after they were made. The idea is that by lowering mortgage rates, current homeowners will be able to afford to make their payments, and new buyers will be more likely to qualify for larger loans, provided of course they do not have to come up with a burdensome down payment. If 4.5% is not enough to convince reluctant borrowers then look for the mandated rate to drop further. Perhaps there may come a time where the interest flows to the borrower instead of the lender. Anything to get Americans borrowing again.

But artificially suppressing mortgage rates will encourage risk taking and debt assumption at a time when consumers and lenders should be acting prudently. By setting rates below market levels, and buying mortgages that no private funder would want to touch, the government is creating a mortgage entitlement. Given the size of the home mortgage market, the program could eventually become one of the largest entitlement program on the federal books.

The most obvious problem is that the Government has no money. All it has is a printing press. So the more money it provides for cheap mortgages, the higher the inflation tax will be for all Americans. Higher inflation will cause the difference between where rates should be and where the government sets them to grow wider, and the entitlement to become more costly to provide.

Assuming $5 billion in mortgages are refinanced at 4.5% in an environment where the unsubsidized rate would have been 10%. The annual cost to the government in such a scenario would be $275 billion. But the subsidy will have to be provided in perpetuity, as the minute it is removed, mortgage rates would surge and housing prices would plummet. Of course, the mere existence of the subsidy will continue to create demand for mortgage credit, which the government will be forced to provide by printing even more money. This would set into place a self perpetuating spiral of rising inflation and mortgage demand, with practically 100% of mortgage money being provided by the government. Ultimately the whole scheme would collapse, as run-away inflation would completely destroy what would be left of our shattered economy.

Some argue that since the government can now borrow for 30 years at 3%, issuing mortgages at 4.5% is a winning trade. There are three problems with this analysis. First, just because money is cheap does not mean we should borrow it-you think we would have at least learned that by now! Second, this analysis does not factor in default related losses. Finally, there is no way the government would be able to borrow that much money at the long end of the rate curve without driving interest rates much higher. The only reason long-term rates are so low now is that the government is concentrating its borrowing on the short end of the curve. So to pull of the trade, the government will have to finance it with treasury bills. If we turn the government into a massively leveraged hedge fund that cycles a multi-trillion dollar carry trade of short-term debt used to finance long term mortgages, then I think we already know how that movie ends.

In the final analysis the market must be allowed to function. If real estate prices are too high they must be allowed to fall, regardless of the consequences. Lower prices are the market’s solution to housing affordability. Government attempts to artificially prop up prices will have much more dire economic consequences then letting them fall. Until we figure this out, there will be no escape from the economic death spiral the government is setting in motion.

Peter Schiff is the president of Euro Pacific Capital and the author of Crash Proof: How to Profit From the Coming Economic Collapse and The Little Book of Bull Moves in Bear Markets.

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