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Crises in the Housing Market: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Lessons  

Carlos Garriga and Aaron Hedlund

The global financial crisis of 2007–2009 helped usher in a stronger consensus about the central role that housing plays in shaping economic activity, particularly during large boom and bust episodes. The latest research regards the causes, consequences, and policy implications of housing crises with a broad focus that includes empirical and structural analysis, insights from the 2000s experience in the United States, and perspectives from around the globe. Even with the significant degree of heterogeneity in legal environments, institutions, and economic fundamentals over time and across countries, several common themes emerge. Research indicates that fundamentals such as productivity, income, and demographics play an important role in generating sustained movements in house prices. While these forces can also contribute to boom-bust episodes, periods of large house price swings often reflect an evolving housing premium caused by financial innovation and shifts in expectations, which are in turn amplified by changes to the liquidity of homes. Regarding credit, the latest evidence indicates that expansions in lending to marginal borrowers via the subprime market may not be entirely to blame for the run-up in mortgage debt and prices that preceded the 2007–2009 financial crisis. Instead, the expansion in credit manifested by lower mortgage rates was broad-based and caused borrowers across a wide range of incomes and credit scores to dramatically increase their mortgage debt. To whatever extent changing beliefs about future housing appreciation may have contributed to higher realized house price growth in the 2000s, it appears that neither borrowers nor lenders anticipated the subsequent collapse in house prices. However, expectations about future credit conditions—including the prospect of rising interest rates—may have contributed to the downturn. For macroeconomists and those otherwise interested in the broader economic implications of the housing market, a growing body of evidence combining micro data and structural modeling finds that large swings in house prices can produce large disruptions to consumption, the labor market, and output. Central to this transmission is the composition of household balance sheets—not just the amount of net worth, but also how that net worth is allocated between short term liquid assets, illiquid housing wealth, and long-term defaultable mortgage debt. By shaping the incentive to default, foreclosure laws have a profound ex-ante effect on the supply of credit as well as on the ex-post economic response to large shocks that affect households’ degree of financial distress. On the policy front, research finds mixed results for some of the crisis-related interventions implemented in the U.S. while providing guidance for future measures should another housing bust of similar or greater magnitude reoccur. Lessons are also provided for the development of macroprudential policy aimed at preventing such a future crisis without unduly constraining economic performance in good times.


Housing and the Labor Market  

Robert R. Reed III

Since the experiences of the housing boom and bust in the first decade of the 21st century, there has been growing interest in studying the connections between housing markets and labor market activity. Notably, a number of theoretical works have attempted to understand how housing tenure affects labor market outcomes. Interestingly, despite the inherent appeal of the logic that homeownership reduces worker mobility, much of this research does not predict that homeownership is associated with inferior outcomes when compared to renting. Thus, it is important to also examine the implications of homeownership empirically. Although initially focused on macroeconomic studies looking at owner-occupation rates and unemployment across countries, the empirical literature expanded by introducing microeconometric research that examines an individual’s tenure status and labor market results. To begin, it appears that unemployed homeowners may not necessarily suffer from longer unemployment durations than other workers. Further, they may also be less likely to become unemployed; however, homeownership might be associated with lower wages because homeowners are limited in their job searches. In particular, homeowners suffering from negative equity seem to approach search efforts and job acceptance rates differently from other workers. Yet, such individuals are unlikely to default on their mortgages unless they experience adverse labor market shocks.


Credit Ratings and Rating Agencies  

Miles Livingston and Lei Zhou

Credit rating agencies have developed as an information intermediary in the credit market because there are very large numbers of bonds outstanding with many different features. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association reports over $20 trillion of corporate bonds, mortgaged-backed securities, and asset-backed securities in the United States. The vast size of the bond markets, the number of different bond issues, and the complexity of these securities result in a massive amount of information for potential investors to evaluate. The magnitude of the information creates the need for independent companies to provide objective evaluations of the ability of bond issuers to pay their contractually binding obligations. The result is credit rating agencies (CRAs), private companies that monitor debt securities/issuers and provide information to investors about the potential default risk of individual bond issues and issuing firms. Rating agencies provide ratings for many types of debt instruments including corporate bonds, debt instruments backed by assets such as mortgages (mortgage-backed securities), short-term debt of corporations, municipal government debt, and debt issued by central governments (sovereign bonds). The three largest rating agencies are Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch. These agencies provide ratings that are indicators of the relative probability of default. Bonds with the highest rating of AAA have very low probabilities of default and consequently the yields on these bonds are relatively low. As the ratings decline, the probability of default increases and the bond yields increase. Ratings are important to institutional investors such as insurance companies, pension funds, and mutual funds. These large investors are often restricted to purchasing exclusively or primarily bonds in the highest rating categories. Consequently, the highest ratings are usually called investment grade. The lower ratings are usually designated as high-yield or “junk bonds.” There is a controversy about the possibility of inflated ratings. Since issuers pay rating agencies for providing ratings, there may be an incentive for the rating agencies to provide inflated ratings in exchange for fees. In the U.S. corporate bond market, at least two and often three agencies provide ratings. Multiple ratings make it difficult for one rating agency to provide inflated ratings. Rating agencies are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission to ensure that agencies follow reasonable procedures.