A Post-Debate Interview with Glenn Hubbard on Housing Policy

By Mike Konczal |

There were no serious housing questions at any of the presidental debates. Given how important the housing market is for both voters and the economy, this is surprising and disappointing. As Zachary Goldfarb noted, “here are a few words that surprisingly have not shown up through much of this debate: housing, mortgage, refinance, underwater.” 

I attended last Tuesday’s presidential debate at Hofstra University as press for Al-Jazeera English, providing TV commentary on economic issues. It was my first debate, so I took some time to wander around. While exploring after the debate was over, I found the Spin Alley area, which is the area where politicians and campaign people stand by to give quick media responses. Handlers held large signs advertising the people in question. I saw a “Hubbard, Glenn” sign in the air, and the Columbia economist and Romney economic advisor standing by to give spin on the debate.

I decided to get some housing questions on the table. When some people, notably Josh Barro, argue Romney has a secret economic plan, and in particular a secret housing plan, they cite Hubbard, who has been very vocal on boosting demand through interventions in the housing market. I’ve noted that his plans might not be that different from what Obama is currently doing.

Below is a transcript of what I got a chance to ask him:

Mike Konczal: In 2008 you co-wrote a plan with Chris Mayer on the housing market that called for mass refinancing and principal reduction through the GSE. In 2011 you released another plan with Mayer that just featured the mass refinancing. Why was there the change?

Glenn Hubbard: It wasn’t principal reduction; it was setting up a Home Owners’ Loan Corporation model.

There was a debt-to-equity swap in your proposal.

Right. What we focused on in 2011 was trying to give direction to the Obama administration, which was bungling the mass refinancing so badly. That’s why we focused on that. I still think it would be a good idea to have a Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. But the point of that piece was that the Obama administration had bungled every housing plan, so we were trying to provide some guidance.

Earlier this year, HARP, the Home Affordable Refinancing Program, was relaunched as HARP 2.0.

It’s still a failure.

After the relaunch, we are seeing a large increase in refinancing on very underwater homes, particularly those with loan-to-value over 125 percent.

It’s still a failure. If you compare it to the number that Chris Mayer and I had argued, it’s trivial.

Compared to the number of possible refinancing?

Yes. The reason is the GSEs have stood in the way, and the Obama Treasury has not managed the GSEs in such a way as to facilitate its own policies. It’s really quite sad.

But that’s an FHFA problem, is it not?

I’m sorry, but you can’t duck the FHFA.

So you think President Obama should have done a recess appointment [to replace Ed DeMarco] at the FHFA?

I don’t manage the Obama appointments, but I do know that the FHFA has mismanaged the president’s own plan.

What would a President Romney put forward in the housing market?

What Governor Romney wisely is focused on is the long term in housing. We need to wind down the portfolios of the GSEs and reassess the government’s role in such a way to get more private capital back into housing.

In 2008 you argued that cramdown, or some sort of bankruptcy reform, was a bad idea because it could impact long-term growth. In retrospect, do you still think that?

Yes. I still believe that. I absolutely think that was the correct call.

Thank you for your time.


Mike here, with a few notes. According to the latest data from FHFA, there have been 118,470 refinances of mortgages with an LTV over 125 percent between February, when HARP 2.0 allows for these seriously underwater refinancings, and now. Here’s a graph from Dan Green’s Mortgage report:

Matt Zeitlin has more on the initial successes of HARP 2.0 at the Daily Beast. Rather than the legal issues at FHFA, it seems that the next big blockages in turning record low mortgage rates into increased consumer demand through refinancing are applications overwhelming banks, the financial sector collecting oligopolistic rents from not passing along low rates to consumers via their pricing power, and lack of competition on HARP refinances.

Hubbard is correct that Ed DeMarco is blocking principal reduction at FHFA, preventing the adminstration from pursuing their own plans. I was surprised to see Hubbard pushing for a a Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) structure now, and I wonder if he’d fight for what Senator Merkley is currently proposing. An HOLC model could bypass some of these new blockage problems we are seeing on record low interest rates, benefiting homeowners.

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.