U.S. Homeowners Are Repeating Their Mistakes

To diversify risk, American families need less home and more cash
Photo illustration by 731: Hand: Getty Images

If there’s one thing Americans should have learned from the recession, it’s the importance of diversifying risk. Middle-class households had too much of their net worth tied up in their homes and were too exposed to stocks through 401(k)s and other investments.

Despite the hit many Americans took, there’s little sign they’ve changed their dependence on homes as the mainstay of their wealth. Last year, Christian Weller, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, looked at Federal Reserve data for households run by those over 50. The number of families with what Weller calls “very high risk exposure”—a low wealth-to-income ratio, more than three-quarters of their assets in housing or stocks, and debt greater than a quarter of their assets—had almost doubled between 1989 and 2010, to 18 percent. That number didn’t decline during the deleveraging years from 2007 to 2010; its growth just slowed to a crawl.

The Fed will conduct a new wealth survey in 2013, but don’t look for a rational rebalancing. The same pressures that drove families to save less before the recession are still in place: low income growth, low interest rates, and high costs for health care, energy, and education. Families have been borrowing less since 2007, but the rate of the decline has slowed. As soon as banks start lending again, Weller says, people will put their money back into housing. “The trends look like they’re on autopilot,” he says. “They don’t suggest that people properly manage their risk.”

In a 2012 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, economist Edward Wolff concluded that from 2007 to 2010, the median American household lost 47 percent of its wealth. Average wealth—a number that includes the richest Americans—declined only 18 percent. Houses make up a smaller share of the wealth of a rich family. The wealthy also benefit from better financial advice, Weller says.

A home is what economists call a consumption good; you have to live somewhere. It’s also a store of wealth. Unlike other assets, you can’t buy a portion of a house. “You want to consume a big home,” says Sebastien Betermier, an assistant professor of finance at Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. “But if you want to buy that home, it’s a huge investment—probably more than you really want.” Betermier, who studies consumers’ financial decisions, says homeownership makes it harder to diversify risk. Since 1983, for the richest 20 percent of U.S. households, the principal residence as a share of net worth has been around 30 percent. For the next 60 percent—most of us—housing has risen from 62 percent to 67 percent of total wealth.

To compound the problem, home equity dropped for this middle group even as home values rose. Rising house values, low interest rates, and easy refinancing encouraged property owners to take out home equity loans. And Wolff’s analysis shows the middle class reducing their cash cushion from 21 percent of assets, starting in the early 1980s, to 8 percent just before the recession. Cash is bad luck insurance; you pay a premium because you don’t earn a return on it, but it’s available in case of an emergency. Americans borrowed against their homes, spent the cash, and were left only with risk.

How can the middle class manage risk better? Financial education would help. Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, is alarmed at how few people understand basic principles. “What we do know is that people who are more financially literate … do accumulate more wealth,” she says.

The other option is for banks to devise ways to reduce housing risk. When Weller worked as a banker in Germany in the 1980s, the bank would set up a savings account with automatic deposit for every mortgage customer. That way, the client would build up a cash reserve to pay the mortgage in a bad month. This remains a common practice in Germany, where banks hold on to their mortgages rather than securitize and sell them.

Weller, Betermier, and Mitchell agree that the mortgage interest deduction contributes to the problem, as it encourages families to move their assets into housing. “When people think about renting vs. buying, the tax subsidy looms large,” says Wharton’s Mitchell. Weller endorses an approach suggested by Senator Barack Obama in 2008: Turn the deduction, which lowers taxable income, into a flat credit, which cuts your tax bill by a fixed amount. That would lead to slower growth in house prices, says Weller, since the credit wouldn’t rise even if people took on a bigger mortgage to buy a more expensive house. As the price of housing climbs more slowly, the shift of a family’s savings into housing would slow.

In 1999, Robert Shiller of Yale University proposed a way to hedge house values. New owners would buy an option with their mortgage, tied to an index of house prices (such as the one developed by Shiller and Karl Case). The option would function as home value insurance. But “when you buy insurance and you don’t die,” says Shiller, “you think how I spent all this money and got nothing. It takes sophistication.” The problem with his idea, he says, as with similar approaches by the Bank of Scotland and Bear Stearns, was that house prices were rising. People don’t buy insurance for a risk they don’t see.

This leaves Shiller, like Wharton’s Mitchell, pushing for education. At the Obama Treasury several years ago, he suggested the White House hold conferences on housing risk. “They would invite top financial organizations,” he says, “and ask them ‘What are you doing about this?’ ” At the time, Treasury and the banks had more pressing things to do. The federal government could also resort to regulation. Shiller points to the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who mandated that homeowners buy fire insurance with their mortgages. “I think it could be expanded to home value insurance,” he says.

The best remedy of all would be a higher savings rate. Mitchell tells her daughters, who are in their twenties, to hold off buying a house and save 25 percent of what they earn. But, she says, “They don’t find this very helpful.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.