From John Cochrane at The Grumpy Economist, Missing mortgage contract innovation:

So why are we here, and given that we are here why does this strange contract seem so resistant to innovation. I think the answer is simple: 15 and 30 year fixed rate mortgages were a creation of the federal government during the Great Depression. And today the vast majority of mortgages are securitized via Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, VA etc, along with a generous government guarantee. Those have to conform to specific contract structures. You can’t innovate better contracts and then pass the loan on via government agencies. (Commenters, correct me if I’m wrong. My recollection of the history is foggy here.)

This all points to an interesting and usually unsung problem with extensive government intervention in the mortgage market: It freezes contract terms. Contracts that might be very popular — such as the right to transfer the mortgage to a new house, or the right to settle up in both directions, marking the mortgage to market so you can pay a new higher rate — don’t get innovated.

I once was at the Swedish central bank talking about monetary policy. They were worried about raising interest rates. I presumed they were worried that too big to fail banks would have trouble. No, they said. In Sweden practically all mortgages are floating rate. And you can’t just mail in the keys and default on mortgages. If you default, they take all your assets and garnish your wages. (So much for soft hearted socialist Scandinavia.  They are actually quite attuned to incentives.) The banks were going to be fine. They were worried that if they raised interest rates, people would do anything to pay their higher mortgage rates, and this would tank consumption. Talk about effective monetary policy! At the time however they were worried about house prices, and didn’t want effective monetary policy. Long story short, mortgage contracts matter.


In an effort to make housing more affordable federal regulators have done the opposite, but this cost is hidden by the lack of innovation which has locked the market for housing. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, by subsidizing the markers of success they have raised the cost in ways even they do not understand.  If you cannot afford a house one would be better served to rent than to add debt you cannot handle.  Somebody pays.