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Repeating the Mistakes of the Mortgage Crisis

The Federal Housing Administration seems intent on repeating one of the key policy errors that played a major role in causing last year’s financial crisis. One of the main causes of the mortgage crisis that led to the broader financial crisis of 2008 was government subsidization of risky mortgages for people who were unlikely to be able to pay them back if real estate prices fell. Investors bought up dubious mortgages supported by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because they correctly perceived these “government-sponsored entities” as having an “an implicit government guarantee.” See this account by Charles Calomiris and Peter Wallison. Wallison also presciently warned of the possible dangers back in 2005. Government backing for dubious mortgages was a bipartisan policy backed by many Republicans as well as Democrats. President Bush, for example, sought, in his words, to “use the mighty muscle of the federal government” to expand homeownership by giving GSEs incentives to ease credit requirements.

Unfortunately, policymakers have still not learned their lesson. As columnist Steve Chapman points out, the FHA is again subsidizing the same types of dubious mortgages that the federal government backed with disastrous results in the years leading up to 2008:

Watching Washington policymakers in action, I sometimes think they make mistakes because of unrealistic goals, flawed thinking, blind obedience to party, or dubious information. And sometimes I think they make mistakes because they are—how to put this?—clinically insane.

There is no other way to explain what is going on at the Federal Housing Administration, which provides federal guarantees for home mortgages. Given the collapse in real estate prices, the weak economy, and the epidemic of foreclosures, banks are acting with more caution than before. They now commonly require home buyers to make down payments of 20 percent to qualify for

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