Robert Murphy

Of course not. The reason borrowers agree to adjustable rates (which have the possibility of skyrocketing) and to pledging their home or other assets as collateral, is that this allows them to receive concessions from the bank—in particular, it allows them to borrow a great deal more money than would otherwise be possible. Very few people would persuade a bank to lend them money to buy a house, if the bank didn’t ultimately have the right to take ownership of the house in the event that the borrower couldn’t make the mortgage payments. Yes, borrowers would prefer that they get a $300,000 mortgage with no strings attached, but lenders wouldn’t be too happy with this arrangement. The beauty of a capitalist system is that property owners must compromise to reach mutually beneficial arrangements, since private transactions are voluntary.

Now after individuals enter into these voluntary arrangements, what happens if the government swoops in and invalidates them? There will be short term winners and losers, naturally. And most Americans have no problem with this, because it seems fair to help struggling homeowners at the expense of Wall Street fat cats.

Yet this conclusion is very superficial. Lenders will learn the lesson that their contracts aren’t safe; contrary to popular belief, the government will not serve to enforce the law. (Or rather, the “law” can change on a dime, depending on the public’s mood.) Lenders won’t simply shrug their shoulders, say “aww shucks,” and continue with business as usual.

No, lenders will rationally respond to the new environment, by being much pickier in giving new loans. After all, it becomes much riskier to grant a mortgage to a young couple with little job experience, if the government will shield them from the consequences of default on the loan. Many people say that “the American dream” involves homeownership, yet this will be harder to achieve if the government introduces yet another uncertainty for lenders.

I am aware that the real world process of home buying and financing has its share of shysters and shady practices; every human enterprise does. But the recent proposals aren’t merely about prosecuting outright fraud; no, the politicians want to grant a mulligan to hundreds of thousands who bought homes they couldn’t afford.

Such a move seems generous and noble, but in practice it will prevent true reform of the mortgage industry. Especially in light of the artificially low interest rates in the early 2000s that fueled the housing boom, politicians are the last people we should trust to restore integrity and soundness to the mortgage industry.

Robert Murphy

Robert Murphy has a Ph.D. in economics and is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism (Regnery 2007).

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