Could the Fed Spark the Housing Market?

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Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has called the buying-up of mortgage-backed securities a "viable option."

Is the Federal Reserve going to start buying bonds again to stimulate the economy? Some 69% of economists polled in a Bloomberg News survey think so, with 36% of those tagging the first quarter of 2012 as the time for such action.Some suspect the Fed might start buying mortgage-backed securities. (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called that a “viable option” at a press conference Wednesday.) As such, the purchases would represent the third round of “quantitative easing,” thus QE3.” If it took the shape of MBS purchases, though, it would be more like QE1 redux — an echo of the program that the Fed undertook through 2009 and 2010 to purchase some $1.4 trillion of mortgage-backed securities and “agency debt” (securities from Fannie Mae and the like).

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Pushing monetary support through the mortgage channel would be aimed at keeping long-term mortgage rates low in order to prop up the beleaguered housing market. But would that work? As far as home sales are concerned, history can’t really tell us. The year of QE1 (2009) was also the year of the first-time homebuyer tax credit. (To muddy the waters further, both programs were extended into 2010.) That combination stimulus almost certainly had some effect on sales, since the number of homes sold in the U.S. in 2009 rose nearly 5% from the year before, to 5.16 million.

Post-stimulus, home sales volume has slipped below a 5 million annual rate. September numbers from the National Association of Realtors, the last we’ve seen, were at a pace of 4.91 million. This as the economy grew at a pace of 2.5% in the third quarter, up from 1.3% in the prior quarter.

Why the disconnect between decent economic growth and home sales? Real estate industry pros blame the current slow sales on tight credit. Some 16% of realtors polled in a recent NAR survey report that they had at least one contract canceled in the previous month, symptomatic of the difficulty involved in getting mortgages.

Noah Rosenblatt, the publisher of, a macroeconomic blog focused on Manhattan real estate, argues that an MBS-focused QE3 wouldn’t change that lending climate. “They’ve been trying that for two years and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “Banks don’t want to lend in an environment where consumers are deleveraging. You can’t force borrowers to borrow, and you can’t force banks to lend.”

Possibly, though, the federal government can arm-twist some banks to support refinancings. That’s the hope behind the expanded terms of the federal Housing Affordable Relief Program, nicknamed “HARP 2.0.”

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At present, many homeowners with good credit and continuing income have already refinanced as mortgage rates have dropped from around 6% to around 4%, so in a sense, many of those cherries have already been picked.

But if the underwater homeowners who may be newly eligible under HARP choose to refinance, the next wave of refinancings could be the route to stimulus.

The argument, recently posited in Businessweek, goes something like this: If rates are low enough, current homeowners will refinance and spend the extra cash flow, thus buoying the economy.

That spending-fueled economic growth would lead to job creation, and, ultimately, rising housing prices. That’s the hoped-for upward spiral — though it could take years to play out.

Or, as Rosenblatt puts it, “Housing won’t be the rising risk asset that it was in 2002 through 2007 for a long, long time.”