On Friday Warren Buffett released his annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway owns Clayton Homes, a major manufactured home manufacturer. In the letter, Mr. Buffett laments that “very few factory-built homes qualify for agency-insured mortgages”
Mr. Buffett compares the market rates of 9% on manufactured housing loans to the current rate of 5.25% and states “If qualifications [on conforming loans] aren’t broadened, so as to open low-cost financing to all who meet down-payment and income standards, the manufactured-home industry seems destined to struggle and dwindle.” In doing so, he implies that the 375 basis points (bp) (3.75%) differential between manufactured home loans and conforming loans is due to market intervention by the “all powerful” FHA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.
Mr. Buffett is being disingenuous. The current market rate on “non-conforming” site built housing is about 80 bp (0.8%) higher than conforming loans. This 80 bp is the interest rate subsidy provided to loans purchasable by Fannie Mae. The other 295 bp is the market discount for manufactured housing.
Why does the market discount manufactured housing?
Research by Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, shows that prices of manufactured homes over time have more volatility than conventional homes. (Full disclosure, I was the leader researcher on Consumers Union’s Manufactured Housing Research Project and author of the linked report.) This means that a greater percentage of manufactured home buyers are under water at some point in the life of a loan. Homes worth less than the loan balance have a higher risk to the lender. Ergo, they demand a higher interest rate.
But Mr. Buffett must know this, because he also owns Vanderbilt Mortgage, a manufactured home lender. And with $30.5 Billion in cash on hand, if he wanted to make cheaper manufactured home loans, he would do it. If the subsidy was the only difference, he could be making loans at 6.05% on all manufactured homes and profiting tidily.
But he’s not.
We should note that manufactured homes can be eligible for conforming loans. They generally have to have a permanent foundation and meet other guidelines. Even more subsidy is available through the USDA 502 loan program, which accepts new manufactured homes on permanent foundations, and offers highly subsidized interest rates for very-low, low, and moderate income borrowers. However, this program is almost never used: in 2008, USDA made or guaranteed just 9 loans in Texas.
The reality is most dealers and consumers don’t structure their purchase transactions to meet the lending requirements of these programs. For example, they may place the home on a short-term foundation and lease in a park rather than on a permanent foundation on owned land. Such homes are generally not eligible for subsidy.
Whether or not the government should provide an 80 bp subsidy to all manufactured homes would need to be the subject of a much longer blog post. (The short version: the answer depends on whether the purpose of the lending subsidy is to put roofs over peoples’ heads or to promote access to the asset building opportunity of homeownership. (see this report)) But what Mr. Buffett says the industry needs to stay alive is not an *equal* 80 bp subsidy, but a much larger 375 bp subsidy.
In short, he wants a 468% higher loan subsidy for manufactured housing than conventional housing. And that’s not leveling the playing field, that’s tilting the table.