Odd WSJ Story on Vermont

The Wall Street Journal has an odd piece on the Vermont mortgage market today. Odd in that the thesis appears to be completely unsupported by the rest of the piece. The story begins:

In plenty of other states, Andrea Todd would have been a homeowner years ago. Here, she bought just this month — a difference that helps explain how Vermont avoided the housing bust, and shows the possible pitfalls in President Barack Obama’s plan to tighten mortgage regulation…

…Vermont’s strict mortgage-lending laws largely prevented the state’s residents from signing the types of dubious home loans written in other markets across the country. Its 1990s legislation made mortgage lenders warn customers when their rates were relatively high, and put the brokers who arranged loans on the hook if their customers defaulted. Now, by at least one measure, the state has the lowest foreclosure rate in the U.S.

It came at a cost. The rules also kept some Vermonters like Ms. Todd from buying homes, keeping this rural corner of New England on the sidelines of the housing boom and the economic bonanza that came with it. Vermont’s 10-year growth trails the national average.

The tenor of the article is that Vermont has overregulated the mortgage market preventing…wait for it…the unforgivable error of restricting loans to those who can prove an ability to repay. Worse yet, consumers receive explicit notice of high rates and brokers are held accountable:

In laws passed between 1996 and 1998, Vermont required lenders to tell consumers when their rates were substantially higher than competitors’, with notices printed on “a colored sheet of paper, chartreuse or passion pink.” And in what officials believe is the first state law of its kind, Vermont declared that mortgage brokers’ fiduciary responsibility was to borrowers, not lenders. This left Vermont brokers partly on the hook for loans gone sour.

The insanity. The horror. Encourage personal responsibility? Hold people accountable for their behavior? Unthinkable. While of course such policies would limit defaults, the economic consequences would be disastrous:

Vermont’s economy grew 60% in the 10 years ending in 2008, just behind the 63% rate nationally, according to the Commerce Department. Vermont lagged Arizona, Nevada and California over the decade but outpaced most of its New England neighbors.

That’s right, Vermont’s growth trails the national average by an astounding 3 percentage points over a decade. They truly missed the economic boom. Why surely Vermont would have outpaced Arizona had it not been for the stunningly tight mortgage markets. The snow didn’t have anything to do with it.

Of course, homeownership rates in Vermont are dismal. A state of renters, virtual serfs in this medieval land. The author forges bravely ahead:

Vermonters didn’t see the same sharp rise in home ownership that swept much of America in recent decades, which, despite the bust, buoyed economic growth. And while part of the increase in U.S. home ownership reflected excesses in lending and borrowing, some of it represented real progress in the form of more Americans achieving the cherished goal of getting — and keeping — a home of their own. By 2007, the percentage of owner-occupied households as a whole reached 68.1%, up from 63.9% in 1990, according to U.S. Census data. Vermont started at a higher base but saw ownership rise just 1.1 percentage points in that span, to 73.7%.

The according to the article, the “pitfalls” amount to: Informed consumers, fewer foreclosures, healthier banks, higher rates of homeownership, and virtually no impact on average growth. Those are some “pitfalls” – truly, greater consumer financial protection would spell ruin for us all.

About Tim Duy 348 Articles

Tim Duy is the Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Department of Economics at the University of Oregon and the Director of the Oregon Economic Forum.

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