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Monday, June 08, 2015

'Why the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction Should Disappear, But Won't'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Why the mortgage interest tax deduction should disappear, but won't: In the run-up to the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, Planet Money asked five economists from across the political spectrum for proposals that they would like to see in the platform of the candidates. The diverse group agreed, first and foremost, on the wisdom of eliminating the tax deductibility of mortgage interest. 
The vast majority of economists probably agree. We certainly do. But it won’t happen, because politicians with aspirations for reelection find it toxic. ...
The ... tax deductibility of mortgage interest ... raises inequality and reduces economic efficiency.
The source of increased inequality is simple. The private benefits of the mortgage interest deduction rise both with a person’s income and with the cost of their house. The higher your income, the higher your marginal tax rate; and the bigger your house, the bigger the possible mortgage. When either rises, the value of the tax deduction rises, too. ...
Aside from inequality concerns, there are other powerful reasons to dislike the mortgage interest deduction. Above all, it is inefficient. By subsidizing bigger, more expensive houses, the policy misallocates scarce savings away from productive investments that raise living standards through income- and job-creating innovations. It also makes our financial system more vulnerable: as we wrote in an earlier post, it encourages people to take on risks – in the form of large, subsidized mortgages – that they are not equipped to bear. In the recent crisis, risky mortgage debt was sufficient to put the entire financial system at risk. ...
Unfortunately, the tax deductibility of mortgage interest is here to stay. Nearly 50 million U.S. households currently have mortgages, and politicians don’t wish to alienate them.  
But the borrowers are only the most obvious beneficiaries.  In fact, all homeowners would suffer if the mortgage deduction were eliminated. The reason is that the value of everyone’s house would fall...
A simple computation allows us to estimate the economy-wide impact. ... If the subsidy were eliminated, homeowners would lose ... about $4.1 trillion. ... For comparison, the plunge of real estate value from the 2006 peak to the 2011 trough was $6.4 trillion. ...
Aside from the contractionary impact on the economy, many people would see such a drop in house prices as dramatically unfair. It’s true that the biggest losers in monetary terms would be the owners of the most valuable (oversized) houses; but the less well-off would suffer, too. While it is a progressive policy, all 80 million households that own homes would take a hit.
It is tempting to just give up and admit political defeat, but there may be a way out. Our suggestion is to build on past reforms that capped the tax deduction by limiting the size of eligible mortgages. ... Since roughly 10% of U.S. homes are worth more than $500,000, our proposal is to set the limit at the interest payments on a $400,000 mortgage (indexed appropriately). This would promote both efficiency and equality. ...
Policies that provide asset owners large “rents” (payments unwarranted by the scarcity of the asset itself) are incredibly difficult to eliminate, even when they are both unfair and inefficient. Such rents create an entire ecosystem of beneficiaries (in this case, ranging from construction firms and workers, to real estate brokers, to mortgage lenders and borrowers) who constitute a powerful political constituency blocking almost any reform. ...

    Posted by on Monday, June 8, 2015 at 09:47 AM in Economics, Housing, Politics, Taxes | Permalink  Comments (55)


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