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Harvard Researcher Shares Insights on Housing Comeback

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By Kathleen Lynn

RISMEDIA, August 19, 2010—(MCT)—As director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, Nicolas Retsinas has had a front-row seat for the real estate market’s dramatic boom and bust. After 12 years at the center, Retsinas left the director’s job to teach housing finance at Harvard Business School. He spoke recently with New Jersey’s The Record about why buyers got mortgages they couldn’t afford, and why real estate matters so much.

Were you surprised by the magnitude of the housing bust and how long it has lasted?
Nicolas Retsinas:
Yes, by the severity of the housing bust but even more so, how credit just seized up.

When do you see any kind of loosening-up of the credit markets?
I would suspect we’re likely to see the same dominance of the government at least through the balance of this year. One of the big issues facing public policymakers is what to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If we want to attract private capital, not only from this country but also global capital, some part of that credit risk has to be borne by the government.

One of the biggest factors in the bust was that credit standards got too easy. Buyers who weren’t qualified got mortgages. Do you have any ideas about why this happened?
In part, people were granted mortgages not on their ability to repay the mortgage, because it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. But there was an expectation that even if they couldn’t pay, the future increase in the value of the property would end up being the collateral for that loan. For a long time, that was a formula that worked. But we reached a point where even with these exotic—what turned out to be toxic—mortgage terms, they just weren’t affordable.

What has been the biggest human cost of the housing bust?
The biggest human cost is the millions of people who have lost their homes. One can look back coldly and say, “Well, maybe a lot of them shouldn’t have bought a home in the first place.” But a lot of people lost their homes the old-fashioned way: they lost their jobs.

Who has benefited from the bust?
Beside the investors who played with different sorts of financial products, I think the key winners probably have been first-time home buyers, who have maybe longed to buy a house but could not afford to. Now we’ve essentially transferred wealth from existing homeowners to new homeowners.

Some observers have been disappointed by the number of homeowners helped by the federal loan modification program.
In defense of the government, when they designed this program 18 months ago, they based it on a premise that the principal problem in the housing market was egregious mortgage terms. And if those mortgage terms could be reset and recalibrated to more typical mortgage terms and could be afforded, through subsidy or whatever means, by the borrower, that would stem the hemorrhage of the defaulted loans and foreclosures.

As we moved into 2009, the problem was less about the subprime loans and more the traditional reason why people have problems making ends meet—which is that they lost their jobs. If you modify the loan so that your monthly payments are only 31% of your income, and your income is zero, that’s probably not going to work. The problem outran the solution.

Will home-price appreciation return anytime soon?
The next couple of months will be an interesting test because we’ve had the withdrawal of the home buyer tax credit. I think we’re likely to have a sort of trawl-along-the-bottom type of recovery, a little bit lumpy for a year or so.

Congress is looking at new financial regulations. What effect are these likely to have on mortgages?
I think it’ll make it more difficult to go back to the Wild, Wild West. There will be a new consumer financial agency, and I think that will be more likely to look at some of these (mortgage) products. I think that’s going to be critical. RE

(c) 2010, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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