Sunday, August 22, 2010

Notes from the Sixth Row

Last week, my friend Phill Swagel attended an event to hear about the future of policy toward housing finance.  He sends along the following.  (By the way, here is Phill's own proposal for GSE reform.)

Notes from the Sixth Row: The Treasury-HUD GSE Conference
Phillip Swagel
I took away four main points from Tuesday's Treasury-HUD GSE conference:
Hints of reform. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that the administration supported fundamental GSE reform but with still a government guarantee for housing finance in some form. The GSE portfolios, however, would disappear. None of this is a surprise, but it was still novel—especially in contrast with past policy efforts such as stimulus and healthcare, where the administration allowed the Congress to take the lead on policy formation.
Industry participants love government guarantees. Conference participants from industries involved with the financing and construction of homes assert that no American will ever buy a home again if the government does not provide a full credit guarantee against the financial market consequences of people defaulting on their mortgages. And that guarantee needs a fair (that is, low) price. Bill Gross made some news in calling for full nationalization of housing finance and complete guarantees on mortgage capital. He prefaced this by saying that he was speaking on behalf of public policy and not his firm. Mr. Gross is smart and was exceedingly public-minded during the financial crisis (even, yes, while profiting from some astute investment calls). There is no doubt that he means well. But it’s scary to think about what he might suggest when he speaks for his book of business instead of the public interest.
Blowback from the left. The administration is scared of its own shadow with respect to flak from the left—the White House staffer’s introductory remarks were an awkward ode to inclusion and conference guidelines such as time limits went out the window when advocates of affordable housing subsidies were speaking (As a note, I very much support these subsidies and think that an important element of GSE reform is to make the subsidies more effective. But this still does not mean that the people making that point should have had carte blanche to long-talk while avoiding answering direct questions.) Amidst the long-talking, it turns out that there is good reason for the administration’s trembling. To the limited extent that advocates of affordable/low-income housing participated in the conference, they vehemently opposed scaling back any form of government support, including reducing the activities of the portfolios. It was impossible to tell what the affordable advocates were for other than “more.” The administration’s GSE reform plan could come down on stone tablets from Mt. Sinai – and still be attacked by the advocate community as "not enough." GSE reform thus represents yet another conflict brewing between the administration and its frenemies in the “professional” left. And yet the President's political tactics of late center on demonizing the moderate/responsible Republicans (“privatizers”) with whom he might form a centrist coalition to actually move forward with a housing finance overhaul. GSE reform could be a long ways off—until we have a President who seeks to lead in a bipartisan fashion.
Settle in; this is going to be a long process. Yesterday's conference was a show of attention to the issue but not more. And next on the agenda are several regional conferences—perhaps the hotel and travel spending is a form of stimulus (or better—it’s time for Congress to shut off Treasury’s unlimited authority to spend money through the Office of Financial Stability). The wheels of GSE reform are turning, but the vehicle is moving forward at a crawl.