Why we shouldn’t subsidize construction

By Felix Salmon
May 28, 2010
post on subsidizing construction loans, especially from Tom Lindmark, who points out that if you want a short-term jobs boost which doesn't increase US imports very much, then construction is a great area to subsidize. Lindmark cites Mike Mandel in support of his argument, which is always a good sign, but it's worth noting that Mike kicks off his post by noting that he's "never been a big fan of home construction as a driver of economic growth". It's a cheap high, and the hangover is always brutal.

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I’ve received some great feedback on my post on subsidizing construction loans, especially from Tom Lindmark, who points out that if you want a short-term jobs boost which doesn’t increase U.S. imports very much, then construction is a great area to subsidize. Lindmark cites Mike Mandel in support of his argument, which is always a good sign, but it’s worth noting that Mike kicks off his post by noting that he’s “never been a big fan of home construction as a driver of economic growth”. It’s a cheap high, and the hangover is always brutal.

Meanwhile, commenter winstongator points me to this article from today’s Raleigh News Observer. He does so because Brad Miller specifically singled out Raleigh as a city where new construction was needed. The first line says it all:

Hue, the multicolor building that is the largest condo project ever attempted in downtown Raleigh, closed its sales office without ever selling a unit.

Of course, one 208-unit condo is not necessarily representative of the new-construction market more generally. But its fate does help explain why lenders might be reluctant to throw good money after bad when it comes to construction loans.

Miller, too, emailed with some good points:

Subprime lending was not driven by home ownership; home ownership was the political excuse for it…

Only about ten percent of subprime loans were for the purchase of first homes. More than 70 percent, as I recall, were refinances… and the vast majority of homeowners who got subprime mortgages qualified for prime mortgages…

Oversupply undoubtedly was a result of the bubble in many markets. Of course home builders built like crazy when they could sell houses for much more than houses cost to build. But I suspect that an oversupply of houses is less of a factor in the collapse than is widely assumed…

When we come out of this we’re going to have to reinvent our housing market, by the way. Have you thought much about that?

This is all true; the peak level of home ownership in this country predates the subprime bubble, and the bursting of that bubble can’t credibly be blamed on too much construction.

So if home construction wasn’t to blame for the bubble and bust, and if it’s good for employment, then shouldn’t we encourage it, at least in the short term?

No: the fact is that we’re already plowing far too much in the way of government resources into the housing market. Virtually all mortgages these days are funded by some arm of the government, be it FHA or Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and the Fed of course is doing its job too by keeping interest rates at zero, just because the financial system might suffer a massive solvency panic all over again if interest and default rates were to rise again. The housing sector is keeping the government hostage, and the government should be withdrawing from it as much as possible, rather than feeding it even more than it’s doing already.

The difference between Germany and Spain, when you get down to it, is that Germans work for companies which provide goods and services that the rest of the world wants. In doing so, they make good money, which they save up. That’s how they became rich. The Spanish, by contrast, have massive unemployment, and most of the country’s GDP growth in recent years has come from the construction industry. Their main export is tourism, if that counts as an export, and the main way that Spaniards have become rich in recent years is by sitting back and watching the value of their real estate grow exponentially.

The U.S., going forwards, needs to be less like Spain and more like Germany. So let’s not subsidize housing. That way lies fiscal disaster.

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