As the housing market crashes at an unprecedented rate, the UK banking system is staggering towards the abyss of insolvency. How did this happen? Didn't New Labour set up a special agency. the FSA, that would regulate the financial system? Wasn't there a promise of "no more boom and bust?"
How did the FSA fail to pick up on the potential for a banking crisis? Unfortunately, we will be much older before the FSA ponies up an answer to that question. However, recent data from the Building Societies Association offers an intriguing insight into how UK banks operated during the huge run-up in housing prices.
This data also suggests how an inexperienced agency like the FSA could have placed too much weight on loan to value ratios (LTV), and allowed itself to be taken in by unscrupulous bankers determined to expand their lending books without much regard for the long term risks.
Low LTV good, high LTV bad
During the housing bubble, banks pointed to loan-to-value ratios as evidence that their lending books were in good shape. Sure enough, over the last 7 or so years, the proportion of loans with LTVs lower than 90 percent increased, while the less than 2 percent of loans had LTVs greater than 95 percent.
When the FSA came to do their regular check-ups, Banks no doubt pointed to these ratios and said "we can easily handle a fall in house prices, most of our borrowers have at least 10 percent equity." In other words, all the risks were with heavily indebted home owners. With huge amounts of accumulated housing equity, the banks had nothing to worry about.
21st century banking; income multiples don't matter
There was, however, another number that should have scared the living daylights out of the FSA. It was the income multiples that banks were using when originating their loans. The proportion of borrowers taking out loans with ratios greater than 3 increased from about 30 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2007.
If the FSA questioned this alarming development, banks could point to the low interest rate environment; "our borrowers can carry higher debt, because debt servicing costs are so much lower".
Wakey, Wakey, the credit crunch has arrived
When the credit crunch began, everyone in the world of banking suddenly woke up to the fact many of those borrowers enjoying the "low interest rate environment" had taken out mortgages that would shortly reset at much higher interest rates. Suddenly, those income multiples began to look very dangerous.
Now events are conspiring to undermine the viability of UK bank balance sheets. Since the peak of the housing bubble, prices are down about 9 percent. The LTV comfort zone is about to be invaded. As negative equity begins to accumulate, it will interact with those huge income multiples and interest rate resets. Added to this, we have the highest inflation rate in 20 years which is eating into real incomes. The economy is slowing, and unemployment is beginning to rise. It all points in one direction; struggling borrowers, higher default rates and huge losses for banks.
Could this have been foreseen? Of course it could. Rapid credit growth coupled with heavily indebted borrowers should have warned the FSA that something nasty was cooking on bank balance sheets. However, the FSA were probably paying too much attention to LTV ratios. They had a comforting "we don't need to act" feel about them.
As the debt piled higher, the FSA did not act. The banks carried on lending, the risks accumulated; and now, the whole house of cards is about to fall.