Power & Market

Central Banks and Housing Finance

Although manipulating housing finance is not among the Federal Reserve’s statutory objectives, the U.S. central bank has long been an essential factor in the behavior of mortgage markets, for better or worse, often for worse. 

In 1969, for example, the Fed created a severe credit crunch in housing finance by its interest rate policy. Its higher interest rates, combined with the then-ceiling on deposit interest rates, cut off the flow of deposits to savings and loans, and thus in those days the availability of residential mortgages. This caused severe rationing of mortgage loans. The political result was the Emergency Home Finance Act of 1970 that created Freddie Mac, which with Fannie Mae, became in time the dominating duopoly of the American mortgage market, leading to future problems. 

In the 1970s, the Fed unleashed the “Great Inflation.” Finally, to stop the runaway inflation, the now legendary, but then highly controversial Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, drove interest rates to previously unimaginable highs, with one-year Treasury bills yielding over 16% in 1981 and 30-year mortgage rates rising to 18%. 

This meant the mortgage-specialist savings and loans were crushed in the 1980s. With their mandatory focus on long-term, fixed rate mortgages, the savings and loan industry as a whole became deeply insolvent on a mark-to-market basis, and experienced huge operating losses as its cost of funding exceeded the yields on its old mortgage portfolios. So did Fannie Mae. More than 1,300 thrift institutions failed. The government’s deposit insurance fund for savings and loans also went broke. The political result was the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989, which provided a taxpayer bailout and, it was proclaimed, would solve the crisis so it would “never again” happen. Similar hopes were entertained for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991. Of course, future financial crises happened again anyway.

In the early 2000s, faced with the recessionary effects of the bursting of the tech stock bubble, the Fed decided to promote an offsetting housing boom. This I call the “Greenspan Gamble,” after Alan Greenspan, the Fed Chairman of the time, who was famed as a financial mastermind of the “Great Moderation” and as “The Maestro”—until he wasn’t. For the boom, fueled by multiple central bank, government and private mistakes, became the first great housing bubble of the 21st century. It began deflating in 2007 and turned into a mighty crash—setting off what became known as the “Global Financial Crisis” and the “Great Recession.” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both ended up in government conservatorship. U.S. house prices fell for six years. The political result was the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, which engendered thousands of pages of new regulations, but failed to prevent the renewed buildup, in time, of systemic interest rate risk.

Faced with the 2007-09 crisis, the Federal Reserve pushed short term interest rates to near zero and kept them abnormally low from 2008 to 2022. It also pushed down long-term interest rates by heavy buying of long-term U.S. Treasury bonds, and in a radical and unprecedented move, buying mortgage-backed securities. As the Fed kept up this buying for more than a decade, it became by far the largest owner of mortgages in the country, with its mortgage portfolio reaching $2.7 trillion, in addition to its $5 trillion in Treasury notes and bonds. This remarkable balance sheet expansion forced mortgage loan interest rates to record low levels of under 3% for 30-year fixed rate loans. The central bank thus set off and was itself the biggest single funder of the second great U.S. housing bubble of the 21st century. 

In this second housing bubble, average house prices soared at annualized rates of up to 20%, and the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National House Price Index (Case-Shiller), which peaked in the first housing bubble in 2006 at 185, rose far higher—to 308 in June 2022, or 67% over the peak of the previous bubble.

The Fed financed its fixed rate mortgage and bond investments with floating rate liabilities, making itself functionally into the all-time biggest savings and loan in the world. It created for itself enormous interest rate risk, just as the savings and loans had, but while the savings and loans were forced into it by regulation, the extreme riskiness of the Fed’s balance sheet was purely its own decision, never submitted to the legislature for approval.

Confronted with renewed runaway inflation in 2021 and 2022, the Fed pushed up short-term interest rates to over 5%. That seemed high when compared to almost zero, but is in fact a historically normal level of interest rates. The Fed also began letting its long-term bond and mortgage portfolio roll off. U.S. 30-year mortgage interest rates increased to over 7%. That is in line with the 50-year historical average, but was a lot higher than 3% and meant big increases in monthly payments for new mortgage borrowers. A lot of people, including me, thought this would cause house prices to fall significantly. 

We were surprised again. Average U.S. house prices did begin to fall in mid-2022, and went down about 5%, according to the Case-Shiller Index, through January 2023. Then they started back up, and have so far risen about 6%, up to a new all-time peak. Over the last year, Case Shiller reports an average 3.9% increase. Compared to consumer price inflation of 3.2% during this period, this gives a real average house price increase of 0.7%--slightly ahead of inflation. How is that possible when higher mortgage rates have made houses so much less affordable? 

Of course, not all prices have gone up. San Francisco’s house prices are down 11% and Seattle’s are down 10% from their 2022 peaks. The median U.S. house price index of the National Association of Realtors is down 5% from June 2022. The median price of a new house (as contrasted with the sale of an existing house) fell by over 17% year-over-year in October, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and home builders are frequently offering reduced mortgage rates and other incentives, effectively additional price reductions, in addition to providing smaller houses. (Across the border to the north, with a different central bank but a similar rise in interest rates, the Home Price Index of the Canadian Real Estate Association is down over 15% from its March 2022 peak.)

The most salient point, however, is that the volume of U.S. house purchases and accompanying mortgages has dropped dramatically. Purchases of existing houses dropped over 14% year-over-year in October, to the lowest level since 2010. They are “on track for their worst performance since 1992,” Reuters reported.1  The lack of mortgage volume has put the mortgage banking industry into its own sharp recession. So, the much higher interest rates are indeed affecting buyers, but principally by a sharply reduced volume of home sales, not by falling prices on the houses that do sell-- highly interesting bifurcated effects. The most common explanation offered for this unexpected result is that home owners with the exceptionally advantageous 3% long-term mortgages don’t want to give them up, so they keep their houses off the market, thus restricting supply. A 3% 30-year mortgage in a 7% market is a highly valuable liability to the borrower, but there is no way to realize the profit except by keeping the house.

As for the Federal Reserve itself, as interest rates have risen, it is experiencing enormous losses. It has the simple problem of an old-fashioned savings and loan: its cost of funding far exceeds the yield on its giant portfolio of long-term fixed rate investments. As of November 2023, the Fed still owns close to $2.5 trillion in very long-term mortgage securities and $4.1 trillion in Treasury notes and bonds, with in total over $3.9 trillion in investments having more than ten years left to maturity. The average combined yield on the Fed’s investments is about 2%, while the Fed’s cost of deposits and borrowings is over 5%.

Investing at 2% while borrowing at 5% is unlikely to make money—so for 11 months year to date in 2023 the Fed has a colossal net operating loss of $104 billion. Since September 2022, it has racked up more than $122 billion in losses. It is certain that the losses will continue. These are real cash losses to the government and the taxpayers, which under proper accounting would result in the Fed reporting negative capital or technical insolvency. Such huge losses for the Fed would previously have been thought impossible.

When it comes to the mark-to-market of its investments, as of September 30, 2023, the Fed had a market value loss of $507 billion on its mortgage portfolio. On top of this, it had a loss of $795 billion on its Treasuries portfolio, for the staggering total mark-to-market loss of $1.3 trillion, or 30 times its stated capital of $43 billion.2

While building this losing risk structure, the Fed acted as Pied Piper to the banking industry, which followed it into massive interest rate risk, especially with investments in long-term mortgage securities and mortgage loans, funded with short-term liabilities. A bottoms-up, detailed analysis of the entire banking industry by my colleague, Paul Kupiec, has revealed that the total unrecognized market value loss in the U.S. banking system is about $1.27 trillion.3

If we add the Fed and the banks together as a combined system, the total mark-to-market loss- a substantial portion of it due to losses on that special American instrument, the 30-year fixed rate mortgage- is over $2.5 trillion. This is a shocking number that nobody forecast.

We can be assured that the profound effects of central banks on housing finance will continue with results as surprising to future financial actors as they have been to us and previous generations.

  • 1Home sales fell to a 13-year low in October as prices rose,” Reuters, November 21 2023.
  • 2Federal Reserve financial data is taken from the weekly Federal Reserve H.4.1 Release, and from the Federal Reserve Banks Combined Quarterly Financial Report as of September 30 2023.
  • 3Paul Kupiec, “Forget Climate Change and NBFIs, the Biggest Systemic Risk are the Unrealized Losses in the Banking System,” American Enterprise Institute, November 2023, and personal correspondence with the author.
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