Clegg's policy to take money from pensions to pay for mortgages is madness

It's housing market madness, writes the IEA's Philip Booth

It is difficult to think of a policy that is as ill-conceived on so many levels as the coalition's announcement on Sunday to allow parents to guarantee their children's mortgages.

Housing is unaffordable today not because buyers are unable to secure yet more credit against the value of their house but because supply is constrained. Not long ago, the average house would have changed hands for three-to-four times average earnings; today, the vast majority of buyers have to pay five-to-seven times average earnings. If you pump more finance into a supply-constrained system, there can be only one result - yet higher prices.

Views differ on the causes of the financial crash and how to deal with the problems that the economy faces today, but one reaction of the government has been to bind banks up in ever-more regulation. Whether that is right or wrong, it is a deliberate policy decision in order to ensure that banks do not fail at the expense of the taxpayer in the future. This has made banks more risk averse. The response by the government has then been to directly take on the risks that the banks have refused, through schemes such as funding for lending or the proposed business bank. This is a bizarre policy. Banks are constrained in their own business models in order to prevent them failing at the expense of the taxpayer and, instead, the taxpayer is now taking on the risks directly.

Clegg's proposal to guarantee mortgages with pensions is another such instance of incoherent policy. In addition to the regulation of bank's capital discouraging banks from risky lending, the FSA is increasingly trying to rein in the provision of mortgage finance at high earnings multiples or high loan-to-value ratios. The government's new proposal seems to work precisely in the opposite direction. Clegg seems to be reasoning that, if everybody can secure their debts on everybody else's assets, then everything will be okay. Is that not the logic that gave us the financial crash in the first place?

Even in terms of the practical details, Clegg's plan seems crazy. Any pensioner who has already reached the age at which they can take their pension is entitled to secure their children's lending on any lump sum they choose to keep as an asset. As such, this proposal is only relevant to future pensioners. If a potential pensioner secures their child's mortgage on a lump sum which legislation prevents them from accessing until at least age 55 what will happen if the child defaults on the mortgage?

Presumably, either the lump sum will have to be taken early - which will cause havoc in terms of the relationship between the lump sum and the rest of the fund which is strictly controlled to prevent tax avoidance - or some complicated contingent loan arrangement will have to be set up. This will all require reams of legislation.

Clegg might also want to ask how many prospective pensioners are so well pensioned that they would be happy to put their pension pot at risk in this way. And, in turn, how many of those prospective pensioners would not, in any case, have a house against which they (or their children) could secure an additional loan for their children if they were so minded?

This is a completely crazy policy which actually works against many of the other things that the government is doing (in some cases probably wrongly) to try to create a more stable financial sector. Parents with assets should have no trouble securing loans for their children if they wish to do so. If banks and parents wish to freely enter an arrangement whereby a pension lump sum is taken into account when negotiating a loan, then so be it - but let's not have the government specially encourage it. The fact that policy proposals in the housing finance area are becoming more and more bizarre ought to focus people's attention on the real problem - the affordability of housing. We cannot make housing more affordable unless supply can respond to demand. Some readers may object to the policy consequences of liberalising development restrictions. However, we should be clear about the housing affordability consequences of not doing so.

Mortgages are advertised in a Halifax window. Photograph: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

 

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump