The tax credit has had a strange effect on existing home sales in the US. While new home sales have failed to get off the canvas, home prices in properties where buyers qualify for the tax credit (as first home buyers) have gone mad. The tax credit has been overwhelmingly derided by economists and the true cost per house has been estimated to be a higher by a factor of five or more due to the actual number of sales generated. Extending it will cost even more per household. Not exactly efficient stuff. Here's an article by Simon Johnson and James Kwak in the Washington Post:
The main argument for the tax credit is that it stimulates the economy and stabilizes the housing market. Seen purely as a stimulus, the tax credit is highly inefficient. The National Association of Realtors claims that the credit created 350,000 new sales; the Calculated Risk blog calculates that this means the government is paying $43,000 for every extra house sold (since most sales would have happened anyway). According to the Wall Street Journal, Goldman Sachs estimates 200,000 new sales, implying a cost of $80,000 per marginal sale.The leaks about the extension of the housing tax credit have come in conjunction with the news that another company perennially looking for handouts, GMAC, is asking for another bailout:
Even at a price of $43,000, what are we getting? Given that these are first-time home buyers, and given the glut of homes on the market, most of these are financial transactions where a house changes hands in exchange for cash (and additional transaction costs). The $43,000 is not being invested; it isn't buying anything for the public, like a new road. It's just cash going into people's pockets.
Putting cash in pockets does have a stimulative effect because some of that cash will turn into consumption. But as far as stimulus measures go, it has a low multiplier (the ratio of new economic activity to stimulus spending). By contrast, we could take the same cash and hire more teachers, police officers or soldiers to fight in Afghanistan. We would get more economic activity, and the government would get something for its money.
But the tax credit stabilizes the housing market, people say. What does this mean? It means that the credit keeps housing prices artificially high. But housing is something that all people need. Why do we want it to be expensive? Would we want government policies that artificially push up the price of food?
In a stark reminder of how some battered financial firms remain dependent on government lifelines, GMAC Financial Services Inc. and the Treasury Department are in advanced talks to prop up the lender with its third helping of taxpayer money, people familiar with the matter said.GMAC has obviously been declared to big, or more likely too politically connected and important to fail.
The U.S. government is likely to inject $2.8 billion to $5.6 billion of capital into the Detroit company, on top of the $12.5 billion that GMAC has received since December 2008, these people said. The latest infusion would come in the form of preferred stock. The government's 35.4% stake in the company could increase if existing shares eventually are converted into common equity.
The willingness by Treasury officials to deepen taxpayer exposure to GMAC reflects the troubled company's importance to the revival of the auto industry. Founded in 1919, GMAC has $181 billion in assets and is a major financier for 15 million borrowers and thousands of General Motors and Chrysler car dealerships in the U.S.
In other news, the equity price action of the last few days is clear proof to the now widely held thesis that markets have been driven by a weak dollar of late.