Friday, 23 October 2009

The real issue is house prices, not bank regulation.

This week the FSA published proposals to increase and improve the regulation of mortgage loans, principally by banning self-certification mortgages where applicants were not required to provide any proof of income. At the same time much of the wider political discussion has been about more general regulation of the banking industry. Unfortunately, both this strategy of the SFA and the wider discussion seem to me a bit weak at best. They are both based on the flawed assumption that the current economic crisis was caused by the reckless behaviour of banks and bankers, when in fact it was at least partly caused by an unregulated house price bubble that, together with the securitisation of debt, encouraged bad lending practices. To suggest otherwise is to put the cart before the horse. Banks like Northern Rock, HBOS and RBS did not collapse or require government intervention because they indulged in the reckless trading of derivatives. The problem was they borrowed in order to lend into an inflated property market, and it was the rate of inflation of that market that encouraged them to borrow so excessively.

The issue is this. Fundamentally, there are two distinct problems that need to be solved, not one. These problems are the risky lending practices of banks as they sought to inflate their profits, and the boom in house prices that both underpinned those policies, and was driven to even greater extremes by them. In this chicken and egg world, it is both of these failures that need to be addressed. Unfortunately our politicians and regulators so far only seem interested in tackling the first of these. They are only interested in saving the banks and the financial system while appearing quite happy for laissez faire free-market ideology to go on unchecked in the rest of the economy, and particularly in the housing market. This is partly because in doing so such actions reinforce the current received wisdom that all the current economic woes are the fault of nasty, greedy bankers, and not the way banks and bankers were (or were not) regulated, because obviously if it were the latter then politicians would also have to share in the blame, and that would never do.

So, one year on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the almost complete nationalisation of Scottish banking, and it seems it is not only bankers who have learnt nothing from the experience. Listening to the latest proposals from the FSA on the regulation of mortgages, it is clear that most politicians and regulators still haven’t got it either. What is worrying about the latest FSA announcement is not so much the proposals that are being advocated: it is the total disregard for the ones that were omitted. Fundamentally, though, it is about the complete failure to even acknowledge the elephant in the room that still no-one will talk about. That elephant is house price inflation and how to control it. The conventional wisdom is that such control is beyond the power of governments or regulators. I disagree. I believe it is both possible and essential that this rampant source of inflation is killed off once and for all time if we are ever to return to sustainable economic growth, or if Gordon Brown’s dream of no more boom and bust is ever to be realised. Moreover, I will demonstrate precisely how it can be done.

This antipathy towards controlling house price inflation also highlights the hypocracy of our politicians and leading economic thinkers. If economic stability is so critical to ensuring long-term economic prosperity, and if the control of inflation is so critical to maintaining economic stability, why is the control of house price inflation not sought with equal enthusiasm? After all, was it not the housing boom that ultimately caused our current economic problems? And it’s not the first time such a boom has been the cause of recession in this country, is it? So, unless we do something to change things, it won’t be the last either. So why the reluctance amongst so many politicians to do anything to change things?

Maybe the obvious answer is that there were too many vested interests in politics, business and the media that were benefiting from the boom, or at least thought they were. And with so many MPs using their second home allowance to play the property market themselves, perhaps it is understandable that there was little appetite amongst many of them to kill the goose that was (temporarily) laying the golden egg for the privileged few. Yet in 1997 we were told that things would be different. As Gordon Brown stated in his first budget speech as Chancellor: “I will not allow house prices to get out of control and put at risk the sustainability of the recovery”.
The mistake Gordon Brown made was the same one that many others continue to make. He tried to counter house price inflation through taxation. In 1997 he reduced mortgage tax relief and raised stamp duty. Unfortunately neither measure had any effect. Nor could they, because the plain fact is that you do not dissuade people from speculative behaviour merely by taxing a proportion of the profits of that speculation. That is why stamp duty doesn’t work, nor capital gains tax, nor a land value tax. In order to control inflation in house prices you have to get back to fundamentals and control supply and demand.

Many on the Left have been advocating house building as a solution, particularly the building of more social housing. While this supply-side approach would have many benefits, it is also very slow to implement. On average it takes between three and five years for a house to get built, so a supply-side solution will always lag behind the market and will always be playing catch-up. When the market turns, the change will be exacerbated and the boom and bust cycle maintained.

The only viable solution is to control demand. Traditionally governments have done this using interest rates with some limited success, but this approach also damages the wider economy, particularly with regard to business investment. What is needed is a lever that the State can pull that only affects the number of potential house-buyers. That lever is the one that controls the supply of mortgages. If you control this, you ultimately control the number of buyers in the market. Unfortunately, the Government and the FSA have just rejected the two measures that would do just that. As Lord Myners said last week, “...we’re not going to have a mandatory limit on loans to value or loans to income but rather a prudential limit...

Yet it is only these policies of either a manditory limit on loans-to-value or loans-to-income that can ever work. They can, after all, be defined and quantified objectively within a legal framework. How do you define and quantify prudence? More importantly, however, by setting changeable limits on what people can borrow for a mortgage you can adjust those limits and thereby adjust the qualifying criteria for mortgages as economic circumstances change.

As the deposit required for a mortgage goes up, the number of people who can summon up such a deposit will decline until the balance between buyers and sellers shifts in favour of the remaining buyers. Therefore the price of housing will eventually stop rising and begin to fall. Similarly, if the criterion is the ratio of earnings to mortgage value, reducing the ratio removes lower income applicants from the bidding process for each house and also reduces the eventual sale price. Thus both mechanisms should result in lower house prices and a control of inflation in that sector of the economy.

No doubt the naysayers will ask, how do you know such a policy would work? Where is your evidence? Has it ever been applied anywhere?

Well the answer is yes, right here, right now.

Why do you think house prices have crashed over the last two years?
  • Was it because of higher interest rates? No!
  • Was it because of higher tax rates? No!
  • Was it because of increasing supply of houses? No!
  • Was it because of a shortage of potential buyers? No!
  • Was it because of a shortage of mortgages? Not exactly.
It was because the banks raised the deposits that prospective buyers needed to provide in order to qualify for a mortgage. A year ago this deposit was so large that most prospective buyers were forced out of the market. The result was that house prices crashed. Now, though, those deposits have fallen from over 20% last year to as little as 5% in some cases this month. And the result? Well over the last six months house prices have been on the rise once more as the buyers have returned. If that isn’t convincing what more evidence do you need?

The problem is that all this has happened by accident, or at least in a haphazard and totally indeterminate manner. Yet it needn’t be so. All that is required is for the Government to give the Bank of England (or some other independent financial authority) the power to set these deposit levels on a monthly basis, in much the same way as Bank of England interest base rates are currently set, and then house prices can be brought under control once and for all.

So if this Labour government is truly interested in delivering economic stability and a fairer society then it must commit itself to the control of house price inflation. Without such a commitment any housing policy it tries to implement in the future will at best be no more than mere palliative care, and any economic policy will ultimately be wrecked on the same rocks that scuttled the last policy.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more.