After three decades of stability, the national rate of homeownership suddenly began rising around 1995. The rush to buy homes fueled an enormous surge in housing construction and home prices. Experts differed on the cause of the increase in homeownership, from 64.2% of households in early 1995 to 69.1% in early 2005. Was it the aging of the population? Or was it an expression of what President George W. Bush calls the "ownership society"?
Neither. Surprising new research published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta concludes that the bulk of the increase was caused by innovations in the mortgage market, in particular the explosion of "piggyback" or "combo" loans that made it possible for people to make small or zero down payments. Young families with little savings flocked to those loans to buy first homes.
Trouble is, lenders aren't making many of those loans anymore because default rates on the smaller, second loans have been extremely high. That means that one of the main props of the housing market has been kicked away. If the homeownership rate drifts back to where it was in 1995, the outlook for housing construction and home prices could turn out even worse than the pessimistic projections.
The Atlanta Fed paper, "Accounting for Changes in the Homeownership Rate," was published in September. Its authors are Matthew Chambers, an economist at Towson University in Maryland; Carlos Garriga, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; and Don Schlagenhauf, an economist at Florida State University and a visiting scholar at the Atlanta Fed.
Many analysts have fingered easy lending as a contributor to the housing boom, but the Atlanta Fed paper may be the first to quantify its effect in a rigorous way. Using math-heavy econometric analysis, the authors conclude that the availability of new kinds of mortgages, mainly ones with low down payments, accounted for 56% to 70% of the decade-long increase in the U.S. homeownership rate, while demographic changes accounted for only 16% to 31% of the effect.
~ BusinessWeek, "A Troubled 'Ownership Society'," October 22, 2007, by Peter Coy