The first-time home buyer tax credit is idiotic

Suppose one day the government decided to give $1 to every person who buys a screwdriver. What would happen?

The immediate effect would be to increase the price of all screwdrivers by $1. Why? If the going rate for screwdrivers is (say) $5, then that is what someone who actually needs a screwdriver is willing to pay. (Put another way, that is the “economic utility” of a screwdriver. Put yet another way, that is the “market clearing” price that balances screwdriver supply with screwdriver demand.) If you pay $6 for a screwdriver and get a $1 rebate, from your point of view that is identical to simply buying the screwdriver for $5; either way, you are parting with $5 and getting a screwdriver, which you do because $5 is the screwdriver’s economic value to you.

Any idiot can see that this hypothetical government policy is not a gift to screwdriver buyers; it is a gift to screwdriver sellers. That gift would be shared with buyers only to the extent that it encouraged the production of screwdrivers in excess of natural demand.

Which brings us to the first-time home buyer tax credit, where the government reimburses buyers 10% of the price of the house or $8000, whichever is smaller. By the screwdriver analogy, this should have the simple effect of increasing the price of every starter home by $8000, right?

Wrong. Nobody buys a starter home with cash. The tax credit does not add $8000 to someone’s capacity to buy a house; it adds $8000 to their capacity to make a down payment. Maybe they take out a loan with 20% down. Or maybe they get an FHA loan with 10%, 5% or even 3.5% down. So the tax credit increases their purchasing power by $40k (20% down) or $80k (10% down) or $160k (5% down) or more.

Thus the net effect is twofold:

  1. Increase the price of all starter homes by $100k or more
  2. Increase the supply of houses

Is the problem with the housing market too little supply? Because that is the only “problem” this tax credit is solving.

If you are considering participating in the frenzy, my advice is “don’t”. Sure, the $8000 will help with your down payment, but that is more than offset by the extra tens of thousands in debt you will incur by purchasing an overpriced house. (Plus there’s the general rule that “frenzy” is the antonym of “buying opportunity”.)

Why was this tax credit enacted? Here is a thought. Over the past several years, our banks made a large number of loans that could never be paid back and were secured by essentially worthless collateral (i.e., unnecessary houses). Once upon a time, if you were a bank, as soon as you realized a loan was never going to be paid back and the collateral was worthless, you had to recognize such on your books.

Now, thanks to the elimination of mark-to-market accounting, our banks can simply pretend that the loans will be paid back and/or that the collateral is worth a lot. Just one problem: Eventually the cash from a bad loan actually stops flowing. Then you must foreclose on the house and (gasp) try to sell it. Even “mark to management” accounting admits the truth at that point.

Enter the home buyer tax credit. First, banks can now offload their foreclosed properties at inflated prices. Second, they can issue fresh loans against those inflated prices, and they can pretend the new loans are worth something because they have not gone bad yet.

Like most of our government’s and central bank’s actions in the past two years, this is primarily a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to banks.

Bottom line: While the tax credit is in place, it is a good time to sell a house and a great time to be a bank. It is a bad time to buy a house and a terrible time to be a U.S. citizen.

Incidentally, the White House does not want the credit renewed. But that is irrelevant, since as near as I can tell Obama’s job description is “give speeches and sign whatever Pelosi and Reid cram through their respective chambers”. Too harsh? Read what Pelosi said yesterday. The tax credit will be renewed.

All that, and I did not even mention the fraud

What I do not understand is why so many people seem to think this is a good idea. Has the world gone mad, or have I?

3 comments to The first-time home buyer tax credit is idiotic

  • OregonGuy

    I’m over commenting on your blog today. Sorry.

    Monetizing an $8,000 tax credit for an immediate down payment doesn’t produce $859 in free cash flow per month to pay the additional $160,000 30-yr fixed loan @ 5%. The tax credit is a bad idea, but it doesn’t give Joe and Jane Rube 20x leverage on the $8k against the PV of the house. Unless the banks can’t be bothered with quaint notions like free cash flow. In which case, I need to buy some more ammo and canned goods soon…

    Best regards,

  • ftobin

    I’m sure you realize this, but the set of homes that first-time buyers and non-first-time buyers are in the market for are not mutually exclusive. The credit may rise the overall price of homes that first-time buyers might potentially be in the market for, but this would be more than offset by the credit, as non-first-time buyers would end up subsidizing and buying the homes at full price (in effect subsidizing the first time buyers).

    This implies that the credit does accomplish the task of providing incentive to purchase to first-time buyers more than non-first-time buyers.

    Regarding the screwdriver analogy, why do you assume that competition doesn’t keep the cost of the screwdriver at $5, maintaining a minimal profit margin? I understand the you think the balance of supply and demand kept it at the market clearing price of $6, but why isn’t this price driven down? If competition is effective and the market does keep the price at $5, then the $1 rebate remains in the hands of the purchaser.

  • The credit does increase buying power by a leveraged amount IF the buyer is limited by down payment and not by cash flow.

    I can’t explain it with economic rigor, but my thought is the value will be split between the buyer and seller. It’s similar to if the buyer and seller couldn’t agree on a price and the realtors agreed to drop their commission enough that both parties would get the deal they wanted.

    This will keep houses expensive for a little longer, protecting banks with loans collateralized by the houses. It’s bizarre that most people are okay with spending government money to keep houses expensive, since this is a bad thing for people moving up in house.

Leave a Reply