George Osborne recently tried to assure us. "I don't think in the current environment a house price bubble is going to emerge in 18 months or three years," or so he told parliament this week. The Bank of England governor promises us he won’t let it happen – no bubble here, thank you, not today, tomorrow, or for as long as he is boss. Yet a poll among economists found that around half reckon a new bubble in the market is likely. The latest survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) may even provide evidence that such a bubble is underway right now. Why then, do we see such complacency? And how dangerous is it?
Actually the no bubble here argument seems to come from two different sides of the spectrum of economic thought. There are those, such as Capital Economics, who tend to be on the bearish side. House prices won’t shoot up in price, it suggests, because prospective new home owners can’t afford higher prices, and real wages are, after all, still falling. From the other side of the spectrum seems to come the view that there is no bubble because the very word bubble seems to suggest something negative. It may be true to say that this other side of the spectrum sees rising house prices as a good thing.
Okay, let’s look at the surveys. The latest Residential Market Survey from RICS may or may not provide evidence of a bubble but it certainly seems to provide evidence of a boom. The headline index, produced by taking the percentage number of surveyors who said prices fell in their region from the percentage number who said they rose, hit plus 40 – that’s for the month of August. It was the highest reading for the index since November 2006. The survey also found a rise in supply as more properties come on the market, but that the rise in demand was even greater.
As has been pointed out here before, the RICS index is not only a good guide to the housing market, it seems to provide a good barometer reading of the UK economy. The trajectory of history of this chart, and its correlation with the GDP a few months later, suggests the UK economy is set to see growth accelerate.
Now let’s turn to the other survey. This one comes courtesy of Reuters. A total of 29 economists were surveyed and asked about the prospects of another housing bubble. Nine said the chances are small, seven said the chances were even; 11 said likely; two said very likely.
Mark Carney suggests, however, that he won’t let it happen. He recently told the ‘Daily Mail’: “I saw the boom-bust cycle in the housing sector, the damage it can do, the length of time it took to repair.” These are encouraging words. He is saying trust me. Just bear in mind however that a housing bubble appears to have developed in Canada during his time as boss of the country’s central bank.
George Osborne turned his attention to the topic. On the subject of loan to value ratios, and the way in which first time buyers have had to find such enormous deposits in recent years, he said: “This change is not something we should welcome. It is both a market failure and a social problem – imagine if you’d had to find twice as big a deposit for your first home. 90 per cent and 95 per cent LTV mortgages are not exotic weapons of financial mass destruction. They are a regular part of a healthy mortgage market and an aspirational society.”
Here are two observations for you to ponder.
Observation number one is the British psyche. It is as if it is hardwired into the DNA of the British public. They are driven by fear to jump on the housing ladder, driven by more fear to rise up it, yet without questioning the view they believe that when the equity in their homes rises, they are better off, have more wealth, meaning they don’t need to save so much for their retirement. In short the UK housing market is prone to bubbles. The UK economy can often boom when house prices rise, and the reason is deep rooted in the British psyche. Whether this is good thing or not is open to debate. However, this point about the psychology does not seem to be understood by many economists, the markets or the government.
Observation number two: The new governor of India’s central bank Raghuram G Rajan used to be the chief economist of the IMF. Between his stint at the IMF and his new role in India, he wrote a book called ‘Fault Lines’. In it he suggested that rising house prices was the way in which democratically elected government were able to compensate their electorate for the fact that their wages had only risen very modestly. Mr Rajan was not suggesting a conspiracy; merely that the economic fix found by authorities proved to be the path of least resistance.
A boom in which the UK economy becomes more dynamic, maybe one in which QE funds investment into infrastructure, entrepreneurs, and education, creating a work force better equipped to cope with the innovation age we now live in, would be a wonderful thing. A boom based on rising house prices, however, would be a much easier thing to create, so no wonder Mr Osborne is so keen on the idea.
© Investment & Business News 2013