The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on November 5, 2013, during a conference entitled “Dodd-Frank: A Law Like No Other,” co-sponsored by the Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig Von Mises Lecture Series.
With all the new buyers entering the market because of the affordable housing goals, housing prices began to rise. By 2000, the developing bubble was already larger than any bubble in U.S. history, and it kept growing until 2007, when—at nine times the size of any previous bubble—it finally topped out and housing prices began to fall.
Housing bubbles tend to suppress delinquencies and defaults while the bubble is growing. This happens because as prices rise, it becomes possible for borrowers who are having difficulty meeting their mortgage obligations to refinance or sell the home for more than the principal amount of the mortgage. In these conditions, potential investors in mortgages or in mortgage-backed securities receive a strong affirmative signal; they see high-yielding mortgages—loans that reflect the riskiness of lending to a borrower with a weak credit history— but the expected delinquencies and defaults have not occurred. They come to think, “This time it’s different”— that the risks of investing in subprime or other weak mortgages are not as great as they’d thought.
Housing bubbles are also procyclical. When they are growing, they feed on themselves, as buyers bid up prices so they won’t lose a home they want. Appraisals, based on comparable homes, keep pace with rising prices. And loans keep pace with appraisals, until home prices get so high that buyers can’t afford them no matter how lenient the terms of the mortgage. But when bubbles begin to deflate, the process reverses. It then becomes impossible to refinance or sell a home when the mortgage is larger than the home’s appraised value. Financial losses cause creditors to pull back and tighten lending standards, recessions frequently occur, and would-be purchasers can’t get financing. Sadly, many are likely to have lost their jobs in the recession while being unable to move where jobs are more plentiful, because they couldn’t sell their homes without paying off the mortgage balances. In these circumstances, many homeowners are tempted to walk away from the mortgage, knowing that in most states the lender has recourse only to the home itself.
With the largest housing bubble in history deflating in 2007, and more than half of all mortgages made to borrowers who had weak credit or little equity in their homes, the number of delinquencies and defaults in 2008 was unprecedented. One immediate effect was the collapse of the market for mortgage-backed securities that were issued by banks, investment banks, and subprime lenders, and held by banks, financial institutions, and other investors around the world. These were known as private label securities or private mortgage-backed securities, to distinguish them from mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie and Freddie. Investors, shocked by the sheer number of mortgage defaults that seemed to be underway, fled the market for private label securities; there were now no buyers, causing a sharp drop in market values for these securities.