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By G. Steven Bray
Get rid of the 30-year mortgage? So says Ed Pinto, a resident fellow and the co-director of the Center on Housing Markets and Finance at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In a recently posted article, Mr. Pinto argues that a 30-year term greatly increases the risk of foreclosure and has led to higher home prices for entry-level homes.
He cites statistics showing that foreclosure rates were almost zero during the 1950’s (prior to the advent of the 30-year mortgage) and that a 30-year loan is about twice as risky as a 20-year loan. He also notes that in the 50’s the median price of a home was roughly two-times median income. Today, the ratio is over 3.5.
Mr. Pinto’s arguments are thought-provoking, but I’m not sure the proposal, elimination of the 30-year mortgage, is reasonable. A 30-year term results in a lower monthly payment, making it possible for someone to purchase a higher-priced home than if she used a 20-year mortgage.
The issue of risk in my mind comes down to a question of public policy.
- If 30-year loan rates reflect the higher associated risk of foreclosure, should that be acceptable?
- If as a society we’re not willing to accept any risk of foreclosure, then are we willing to accept a higher interest rate (or government subsidy) to internalize the costs associated with supporting those who lose their homes?
Finally, Mr. Pinto argues that the 30-year mortgage has made entry-level homes less affordable. I’m not buying his correlation. While it makes economic sense that a lower monthly payment would lead to more demand for homes pushing prices up, the market would correct for that by creating supply to meet the demand. Moreover, there are too many other factors that could explain the fact that entry-level home prices have increased more quickly than move-up home prices, such as mortgage programs that target and subsidize first-time homebuyers.