Where do house prices go from here?

The figures tell us that house prices are unsustainable at current levels and are likely to head dow

A big question is: where do house prices go from here? According to Halifax, house prices peaked in December 2007 and have fallen 17 per cent since then. Real house prices have fallen even further -- by around 27 per cent. Homeowners on trackers have done really well. Their payments fell sharply as interest rates fell to historically low levels after the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) cut the Bank of England rate to 0.5 per cent. This has kept delinquencies down but it is unlikely to continue when interest rates rise. This will inevitably have a downward impact both on house prices themselves and, inevitably, on consumption also.

Based on house-price-to-earnings ratios (HPE), a measure of affordability, it does look as if house prices are unsustainable at current levels and hence still have quite a long way to fall.

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Chart 1 (click here for a bigger version) illustrates this, using data from the Halifax. The index stands at 4.45, compared with a peak of 5.81 in July 1987 and a long-run average from 1983 to 2000 -- prior to the house price boom -- of 3.64. The question is by how much. These numbers suggests that house prices have another 20 per cent or so to go, with the concern that, as has occurred in other house price corrections, there is a bigger overshooting before prices return to the long-run equilibrium. Interestingly, a comparison of gross rental yields, relative to a long-run average, also indicate that housing is at least 20 per cent overvalued.

But claims about the sustainability of HPEs come up against the counter-claim that low interest rates have made valuation metrics less useful as a guide to the sustainability or otherwise of prevailing house prices. Compelling new work by Paul Diggle from Capital Economics sheds some light on this issue. He argues that comparing house prices to equity prices, which should also have benefited from low interest rates, still suggests that house prices are about 15 per cent too high.

There are similarities, he suggests, between how equities and property "should" be priced. As a claim on a company's future earnings, the price of a share, he claims, should equal the present discounted value of the expected earnings to which it entitles the owner, with a suitable allowance for risk. An equivalent way of determining the "fair value" price for property is by using the present discounted value of the future stream of rental income, adjusted for risk and the costs of owning and maintaining property. So, Diggle argues, by lowering the rate at which future income is discounted, low interest rates should have benefited both asset classes. Even so, relative to a simple long-run average, the ratio between house prices and equity prices seems to suggest that either equities are around 15 per cent too cheap or housing is around 15 per cent too expensive. (See Chart 2 -- click here for bigger version).

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Given that the FTSE all share price/earnings ratio indicates that stock market valuations are very close to average historical levels, Diggle argues, there is little evidence for the former. The house-price-to-equities ratio seems to imply that house prices are higher than can be justified by low interest rates.

It is significant that the extent to which housing is overvalued on this new measure is similar to other measures, such as the HPE and rental values. The house-price-to-equities ratio adds to the case that a downward adjustment in prices is required. House prices look to be headed down.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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