Public Service Announcement: There Is No Health Care Tax on Home Sales

The 2010 health reform legislation introduced a new 3.8% tax on the net investment income of high-income taxpayers. That tax, which I suspect you will hear more about in coming months, goes into effect on January 1, 2013.

This tax raises important policy issues, not least of which is whether Congress should give the name “Unearned Income Medicare Contribution” to an investment tax whose proceeds have nothing to do with Medicare.

The most pernicious myth, however, is that this new tax will apply to home sales. This meme appears regularly in the blogosphere. I even encountered out at the Kauffman bloggers conference. But it’s completely untrue.

As Howard Gleckman explains over at TaxVox:

Yes, the health law will impose a 3.8 percent tax on investment profits and other non-wage income starting in 2013. But that tax applies only to couples with adjusted gross income of $250,000 (or individuals with AGI [adjusted gross income] of $200,000). About 95 percent of households make less than that, and will be exempt from the law no matter what.

In addition, couples who sell a personal residence can exclude the first $500,000 in profit from tax ($250,000 for singles). That would be profit from a home sale, not proceeds. So a couple that bought a house for $100,000 and sold it for $599,000 would owe no tax, even under the health law.

If that couple had AGI in excess of $250,000 and made a profit of $500,010, it would owe the new tax. On ten bucks. That would be an extra 38 cents.

The Tax Policy Center figures that in 2013 about 0.2 percent of households with cash income of $100,000-$200,000 would pay any additional tax under this provision. And they’d pay, on average, an extra $235. Keep in mind that is added tax on all sources of non-wage income, not just home sales.

In short, the tax applies to capital gains, not home sales. Most capital gains on primary residences are exempt from tax. And it only hits high-income taxpayers. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. But opponents really need to get their facts straight.

P.S. For more information about the tax, please see my recent Tax Notes article: “Health Reform’s Tax on Investment Income: Facts and Myths“.

Another Record Low for Homes Under Construction

Today’s housing data showed that the number of single-family homes under construction hit another record low in July:

Ten years ago, America’s home builders were in the midst of constructing 689,000 single-family homes. Five years ago, they were building 913,000 homes. Last year, they were building 278,000. And now that figure is down to a mere 243,000.

Homes Under Construction – Still Falling

Wednesday’s housing data showed that the number of single-family homes under construction fell again in February:

Ten years ago, America’s home builders were in the midst of constructing 672,000 single-family homes. Five years ago, they were building 990,000 homes. Last year, they were building 304,000. And now that figure is down to 252,000.

How is Housing Affecting Inflation? An Update

A few months ago, I argued that housing was messing up inflation measures, in particular the core CPI. With last week’s release of fresh CPI data, I decided to check in to see if that’s still true.

Answer: Yes, but less so. The cost of housing is still rising slower than for other core goods and services, but the gap has narrowed.

In my earlier post, I found that year-over-year core inflation through October was a remarkably low 0.6% and that housing costs (as measured by the CPI for shelter) had fallen 0.4%. As a result, core inflation less shelter was 1.3% — low, but not remarkably so.

We now have data through January: core inflation has picked up a bit to 0.9% over the past 12 months. Shelter costs rose 0.6% over the same period, and core inflation less shelter is 1.2%.

As you can see, the big change is that shelter costs over the past year are now rising, not falling:

Bottom line: Housing costs have dragged the core CPI down over the past year, but not as much as was true a few months ago.

P.S. My earlier post provides details about the BLS measure of shelter prices.

Treasury Offers Some Good Ideas on Mortgage Finance

Today was a big one for housing finance. Treasury kicked things off with its much awaited report to Congress on “Reforming America’s Housing Finance Market.” And then the Brookings Institution hosted a full day conference on “Reforming the U.S. Mortgage Market.

Both Treasury’s report and the conference showed that there’s still important debate about the potential merits and demerits of a continued government backstop in the prime mortgage market. Treasury’s three options, for example, run the gamut from no guarantee to a backstop guarantee that kicks in during bad times to a permanent, broad-based guarantee. I’ll have more to say on these options in the future.

For now, I’d like to highlight several other aspects of the Treasury report and the discussion at Brookings that I found encouraging. Based on what I heard (and what I read between the lines of the Treasury report), there appears to be near-consensus on five important issues:

  1. The multi-trillion dollar investment portfolios of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were a mistake. As the Treasury report puts it: “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were allowed to behave like government-backed hedge funds, managing large investment portfolios for the profit of their shareholders with the risk ultimately falling largely on taxpayers.” Such government-backed portfolios have no place in our future mortgage finance system.
  2. Any future government assistance must be better targeted. For example, the conforming loan limit (and its FHA counterpart) need to come down.
  3. If there are any future government guarantees for prime mortgages, they must be protected by greater private capital.
  4. If there are any future government guarantees for prime mortgages, they must be explicit, and financial firms must pay at least actuarially fair rates to purchase them.
  5. Affordable housing programs should be transparent and on budget, rather than embedded in regulatory requirements on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or any successors.

Each of these would be a substantial improvement from the old GSE system.

CBO Weighs in on Fannie and Freddie

Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released its long-awaited report on the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Role in the Secondary Mortgage Market (written by Deborah Lucas and David Torregrosa, with input from a cast of dozens — including, full disclosure, me as an outside reviewer) provides an outstanding overview of Fannie and Freddie’s history, the arguments for and against a government role in the secondary mortgage market, the flaws of the precrisis structure of Fannie and Freddie, and the pros and cons of possible reform models.

Readers may recall that last spring Phill Swagel and I proposed a reform in which Fannie and Freddie would be privatized, the government would sell guarantees on mortgage-backed securities composed of conforming loans, and that this guarantee would be available not only to Fannie and Freddie but also to qualified new entrants. (Here’s the blog version; here’s the full paper.)

CBO provides a thoughtful overview of such hybrid models:

A Hybrid Public/Private Model

Many proposals for the secondary mortgage market involve a hybrid approach with a combination of private for-profit or nonprofit entities and federal guarantees on qualifying MBSs. At its core, the hybrid public/private approach would preserve many features of the way in which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have operated, with federal guarantees (combined with private capital and private mortgage insurance) protecting investors against credit risk on qualifying mortgages. However, most hybrid proposals would differ from the precrisis operations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in several important ways: A possibly different set of private intermediaries would participate in securitizing mortgages backed by federal credit guarantees, the guarantees would be explicit rather than implicit, and their subsidy cost would be recorded in the federal budget.14 As the public-utility and competitive market-maker models illustrate, a hybrid approach could be implemented in a way that involved more or less federal regulation of participants in the secondary market and a smaller or larger number of competitors in that market.

Advantages of a Hybrid Approach

Regardless of its exact design, a hybrid model with explicit federal backing for qualifying privately issued MBSs would have several advantages over the precrisis model, as well as over either a fully federal agency or complete privatization (approaches that are discussed below). An explicit federal guarantee would help maintain liquidity in the secondary mortgage market, in normal times and particularly in times of stress, and could retain the standardization of products offered to investors that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bring to that market. Compared with the precrisis model, imposing guarantee fees would ensure that taxpayers received some compensation for the risks they were assuming.

Compared with a fully federal agency, a hybrid approach would lessen the problem of putting a large portion of the capital market under government control, encourage the inflow of private capital to the secondary market, and limit the costs and risks to taxpayers by having private capital absorb some or most losses. Putting private capital at risk would also provide incentives for prudent management and pricing of risk.

Compared with a fully private market, hybrid proposals would give the government more ongoing influence over the secondary market and an explicit liability in the case of large mortgage losses that would be reflected in the budget. That arrangement might have the advantage of leading to a more orderly handling of crisis situations.

Disadvantages of a Hybrid Approach

Relative to other approaches, a public/private model has a number of potential drawbacks, the importance of which differs depending in part on the specific design chosen. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices for guarantees and probably would shift some risks to taxpayers. A hybrid approach also might not eliminate the tensions that exist—with regard to risk management and pursuit of affordable housing goals—between serving private shareholders and carrying out public missions.

Another concern is that over time, the secondary-market entities might push for broader guarantees of their product lines and attempt to reestablish themselves as too-big-to-fail institutions backed by implicit federal guarantees. Consequently, regulators would need to be vigilant to control risks to the financial system and avoid regulatory capture, while also being open to market innovations.

Is Housing Messing Up Inflation Measures? Yes, But …

Here’s the simplest argument in favor of the Fed’s decision to restart quantitative easing:

  1. The economy remains very weak. Unemployment, for example, is still almost 10%, and the underemployment rate is close to 17%.
  2. Key inflation measures are exceptionally low. The core consumer price index (CPI), for example, is up only 0.6% over the past year.
  3. It’s unlikely that Congress and the White House will do anything to stimulate the economy.

In short, the economy is struggling, inflation appears tame, and the Fed is the only game in (Washington) town.

Items (1) and (3) are, I suspect, not controversial. Moderate economic growth is moving us in the right direction, but has done little to create jobs or reduce the yawning output gap. And given the Republican’s election gains, it’s hard to imagine a new round of fiscal stimulus (except an extension of the expiring tax cuts — a form of anti-anti-stimulus).

Item (2), however, is highly controversial. Some commentators argue, for example, that it’s not appropriate to focus on core measures of inflation, which exclude volatile food and energy prices. Others argue that the government systematically (and, perhaps, intentionally) understates inflation.

I will leave those old debates to the side today and focus on a third, more contemporary question: Is housing messing up inflation measures?

Although the housing bubble popped several years ago, America is still adjusting to its aftermath. Falling house prices don’t directly show up in the CPI, but over time they do result in lower rents and lower estimates of the rental equivalent for owning a home. My question is how big an effect those falling housing prices are having on measured inflation.

To start, note that the core CPI really is running at exceptionally low levels:

Indeed, core inflation is well below the levels that inspired the previous round of deflation worries back in 2003.

Now let’s look at what’s happening with the shelter component of the CPI, which tracks the cost of owning or renting a home:

The CPI for shelter has fallen off a cliff. Shelter price inflation averaged about 3% from 1995 through 2007. Over the past year, however, it’s negative.

Shelter makes up almost a third of overall consumer spending, so you might expect that weak shelter prices are having a big effect on measured inflation. They do:

If you strip out shelter from the core CPI, you find that the remaining consumer prices have risen at a moderate pace over the past year (1.3%) – low, but not exceptionally low. Indeed, the economy came much closer to deflation back in 2003, by this measure, than it has so far today.

In short, the ongoing weakness in housing is a key reason why measured inflation is so low. But — and this is an important but — inflation still appears quite moderate even when you adjust for this effect. At 1.3% over the past year, the core CPI less shelter certainly doesn’t inspire concern about inflationary pressures. And if you look more recently, you find that this measure of inflation has been falling (e.g., the pace of inflation was about 1% annually over the past six months).

Bottom line: Housing weakness has indeed pushed measured inflation down a great deal, but it’s not the only factor at work.

Note 1: BLS tracks four costs of shelter: rent of primary residence (for renters), owners’ equivalent rent of residences (for homeowners), lodging away from home, and tenants and household insurance. Lodging and insurance account for only 3.5% of shelter, so it didn’t seem worth the trouble to strip them out to get a housing-only measure. You will sometimes see analysts do this comparison using the BLS measure of housing costs. Housing is about one-third larger than shelter because it includes household energy and utilities purchases, furnishings, and other household operations. For that reason, I think shelter is a better measure for exploring the relationship between the housing market and measured inflation.

Note 2: According to BLS, food comprises about 14% of consumer expenditures, energy about 9%, and shelter about 32%. So the core CPI less shelter covers about 45% of consumer expenditures. So use it with care.

Home Construction Hits Yet Another Low

Housing starts and permits usually dominate the headlines on residential construction data day. In September, for example, single-family starts increased a healthy 4.4% (total starts increased 0.3%), and single-family permits rose 0.5% (but total permits declined 5.6%).

Those are certainly important measures, but I also like to look at a third measure of residential activity in the report: the number of single-family houses under construction.

That measure suggests that the housing market has continued to deteriorate in recent months:

The number of single-family homes under construction at the end of September fell to just 269,000, down about 14% from a year ago. I had once hoped that the housing market was putting in a bottom, with homes under construction plateauing at about 300,000. But we’ve now witnessed five straight months of declines.

House Prices: Demographics Giveth and Taketh Away

Over at the Bank for International Settlements, Elod Takats has a new working paper that examines how demographics may affect asset prices (ht Torsten Slok). As he notes, standard economic theories suggest that aging will lead to lower asset prices. In an overlapping generations model, for example:

[T]he young save for old age by buying assets, while the old sell assets to finance retirement. This asset transfer can happen directly or through institutions such as pension funds. In this setting, the changes in the relative size of asset buyers (the young) and sellers (the old) have consequences for asset prices. In particular, the asset purchases of a large working age generation, such as the baby boomers in the United States, drives asset prices up. Conversely, if the economy is ageing, ie the subsequent young generation is relatively smaller, then asset prices decline.

Takats tests this theory on international data on house prices and finds a significant link with population age.  He uses that relationship to estimate how much demographics affected house prices in recent decades and to project, based on demographic estimates from the UN, how population aging will affect house prices in the future:

He concludes that demographic trends boosted U.S. house prices by almost 40% over the past four decades. Given current population trends, however, his model predicts that aging will trim about 30% off of house prices over the next forty years.

I should emphasize that this does not mean that house prices will actually fall over that period. Other factors, e.g., growing incomes, should continue to boost prices. But house prices will now face a demographic headwind–blowing at about 80 basis points per year–rather than a demographic tailwind.

These headwinds will be even stronger in Europe: