Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The housing market - where socialism meets capitalism

The UK housing market frightens everyone. Homeowners fear that prices will fall, wiping out billions of pounds of undeserved home equity gains. Renters fear that prices will not fall, thus locking them out of the opportunity to own a home. Banks are petrified that a housing correction will expose their balance sheets to unbearable losses. Meanwhile, the government is equally terrified. A housing slowdown threatens to push the economy into a recession, reduce tax revenues and generate a banking crisis that can only be resolved with a taxpayer-financed bail out.

How did the UK housing market become such a fearful monster? In my view, the answer is straightforward; our collective misery is the product of a grotesque union between unfettered finance and suffocating state control, which has distorted the UK economy into a mangled mess. Despite its dreadful nature, this desperately malfunctioning market is rarely described in such terms. Instead, demand, supply and above all a shortage of housing are believed to be the primary causes of our housing-induced anxiety.

Let us start by dismissing the notion that there is a housing shortage in the UK. Although rrices are a product of highly regulated supply and credit driven demand, the market "clears" at a price that equates demand with supply. In this sense, there is no "shortage" of housing.

There are, of course, millions of people who would like to buy a house but do not have the resources to purchase one at the prevailing price. There are also other people can buy, but only after taking out mortgages that diverts a huge proportion of their disposable income to debt servicing.

Over the last decade, banks mercilessly worked over this latter group. Banks have made available billions of pounds for mortgages. With a mixture of fear and greed, many first time buyers have signed away a lifetime of income in order to own a home. Today, personal sector debt has reached breathtaking levels. It is now highly doubtful that much of it can be paid back, and for the first time since the 1720 south sea bubble, the UK is on the brink of a systemic financial sector meltdown.

Housing supply is perhaps the most misunderstood part of the market. First, in terms of physical supply of dwellings, the UK has rather a lot of housing. In fact, it currently has around 26 million dwellings. There are around 60 million people living in the UK at the moment, which means that there is one dwelling for approximately every two people.

Furthermore, the number of dwellings is increasing. Back in 1991, there were about 23.5 million homes, so we are up almost 2.5 million homes in about 17 years. Unfortunately, housing construction is also the most regulated activity in the UK. A person may own a piece of land, but she can do nothing with it without the permission of the state. For the last twenty years, the state has used draconian planning procedures to limit the number of new homes to about 200,000 each year. Why it should be so is a mystery, but the quantity restriction is impervious to demographics, income growth or household size.

Recent construction activity has focused on flat conversions or multi-occupancy dwellings. There is a sad irony here. The vast majority of Brits would prefer to live in a house, rather than an apartment. However, people’s true preferences rarely figure in madhouse we call the UK housing market. Planning restrictions creates a nest of perverse incentives that pushes the construction industry into building what the state will permit rather than what people want.

The consequences of this socialistic control of supply and extravagant credit have been appalling. It has generated enormous wealth for older homeowners, while placing a generation of younger homeowners into a lifetime of crippling debt.

The housing market has also distorted the economy. It has promoted the financial sector, and crippled manufacturing. Instead of developing productive capacity, credit has been channeled into financing housing transactions, which has left some people richer than they should be, while leaving others with more debt than they can pay off.

Today, around one worker in five works in the financial sector while just one person in ten works in manufacturing. So far, the UK has got away with this lop-sided economic structure by financing today's consumption with tomorrow's expected income. However, it cannot go on for much longer. People simply cannot absorb any more debt.

It also created a new class of naive property speculators who believe that these distortions can be exploited to generate huge capital gains. In the past, this belief was vindicated. However, the UK housing market is treacherous terrain. The banks, which have driven up demand with easy credit, are now pulling away. Housing prices can not grow infinitely, and a reversal is under way, threatening to impoverish many buy-to-let investors.

The collapse of Northern Rock signaled the end of the credit-financed housing boom. Mortgage approvals are now down by around 40 percent. House prices began falling in July last year. UK banks are experiencing increasing mortgage default rates, while write-offs for unsecured debt have skyrocketed. Unsurprisingly, the first sector to show signs of a slowdown was financial services, while the rest of the economy looks likely to move into recession sometime this year.

Therefore, it is not hard to understand why people are so afraid. While the planning restrictions will survive, it alone will not prevent a dramatic reversal in prices. The unfolding housing market correction threatens to expose all the underlying weaknesses of the UK economy and all that fear will be replaced by pain and loss.

Data sources:

The numbers on house dwellings come from table 101 , which can be found on the misnamed Communities and Local Government website. Employment percentages were calculated using ONS data; LOMA for banking and finance and LOLO for manufacturing.


Anonymous said...

Great article and good to see somebody address the "supply shortage" meme with actual evidence. 1 house for every 2 people. Wow. I suspected the meme was off but not that far. Though of course a big question is where are the houses relative to the people.

I do question one paragraph though:
"The consequences of this socialistic control of supply and extravagant credit have been appalling. It has generated enormous wealth for older homeowners, while placing a generation of younger homeowners into a lifetime of crippling debt."

I still believe it is illusory "enormous wealth" for all but the tiny minority who sold and got out (rather than leveraged into even bigger houses). All this older generation think they have winning lottery tickets but they haven't checked the numbers. They CANNOT all get out.

Coupled with the pension timebomb and coming equity collapse, and possible serious inflation (which hurts people on fixed incomes) - well it looks like the problem of inter-generational theft is due for an ironic reversal.

Ask yourself these questions on who you would rather be:

1) Near the beginning of your earning career and just starting to accumulate asssets or approaching retirement and sitting on lots of non-income paying assets that you need to liquidate to generate income

2) Free to move wherever there's work, or locked to one home

3) On a low fixed cost base or a high one

Although the shat hasn't hit the fin yet, I think the younger generation (or at least the employed and debt-free ones) are about to realise that all those assets they thought were beyond them are about to be available for sale or lease at distressed costs.

All those oldies who figured they'd vote themselves entitlements and asset inflation are now figuring that those young people they need to pay the bills are about to refuse.


the last toryboy said...

Well, we can only hope.

The arguments are persuasive but are not really anything all that new - I'm afraid the government will find some way to bail the BTLers out and the merry go round will stagger on for another few years.

Andy said...


The planning laws are not particularily socialistic, they are authoritarian - a socialist* might approve of building decent quality family homes for the workers** with decent plots of land.

The planning laws have an awful lot of Nimbyism about them, and that's a very middle class thing. Personally, I think they should be much more relaxed outside of conservation areas. And we should allow councils to build houses where needed.

*This being the No True Socialist argument, of course. But it's wrong to conflate all government interferance with the left.

**Workers=people who don't work.

debt statistics said...

Thanks for your informative article. I was reading the other day that, to quote:

"According to the Office for National Statistics, the average income rose by 92% during the 10 years following 1995 – but the average house price rose by 204%."

People are mortgaged up to the hilt, struggling to make payments & should house prices fall, there's going to be trouble!

secured debt management said...

I thought that it was possible to add secured debt - like mortgages - to a debt management programme, but apparantly not. Read the article in my sig.