What Hollande should do now

How the new French president can oblige the Germans to play their part in Europe's growth strategy.

Francois Hollande comes to power at an interesting conjuncture, with Europe in crisis and the political mood on the move. It is a shift of mood not just amongst the electorate - most of whom have long been opposed to austerity (all we saw last Sunday was their chance to express their views in elections) - but amongst the political class and the technocratic elites. Voices arguing that Europe needs a growth strategy as well as a fiscal consolidation strategy are finally emerging from the IMF, from the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, as well as from a growing number of European leaders.  Angela Merkel swept everyone before her when she demanded a new European Fiscal Compact only months ago, but today is beginning to look surprisingly isolated with calls for a re-think coming not just from Greece and France, but also from Belgium, Spain and Italy.

Politically, Hollande therefore has more potential clout than might initially appear. Despite this the reality remains that, financially, virtually all the economic power in Europe lies in German hands and, hardly surprisingly, the German Chancellor has rapidly stated that as far as she is concerned, austerity rules. At the same time Hollande can hardly go off on a spending spree of his own. The markets would pulverise him. 

What then can Hollande do?  Pre-election, he was hardly a radical on curbing the calls for deficit reduction, merely saying that France should go slower and have a further year to consolidate. But there is one significant other possibility. In consultation with like-minded colleagues, he should turn the discussion on its head and say to Germany: we fully support the need for fiscal consolidation, but, as good Europeans, we all expect equality of treatment. In particular, you will understand that 2+2 must equal 4 and so if there are to be no deficits there must be no surpluses either.

More precisely, he should direct attention to the current text of the Fiscal Pact. Title III, Article 3, sub-clause 1 (a) reads as follows:

the budgetary position of the general government of the Contracting Parties shall be balanced or in surplus*

*[emphasis added]

The removal of these last three words would make a fundamental difference. Not only is it the case that, economically, the removal of deficits will in any case require the removal of surpluses - but more importantly, it would place on Germany the obligation to play its part in financing the growth strategy without which such fiscal consolidation is impossible.

To underline his point, Hollande might add some history. The error in the current European Fiscal compact is identical to that made at Bretton Woods in 1944. That discussion was about balance of payments surpluses and deficits, but apart from this shift of focus, the problem is identical. Those at Bretton Woods insisted on countries acting to correct deficits but without placing a reciprocal obligation on surplus countries. There is still the widespread view that Bretton Woods worked smoothly from the start. It did not. It was massively breached by the UK in 1947, when as the Bretton Woods arrangements required, we liberalised capital flows - but then, against the rules, had to re-impose them virtually straight away to prevent a forced devaluation. The system was only saved when in 1948 the US launched Marshall Aid, a stimulus of a kind not even contemplated by the Bretton Woods agreement.

Reminding Germany of this history would be salutary; at least some of their current prosperity stems from how their post-war recovery was financed. And Hollande’s pressure in this direction can hardly be too uncomfortable for the German Chancellor. Asking for less taxation and more spending is not the most difficult of messages to deliver to a politician – even in Germany.

 

Photo: Getty Images

 

Andrew Graham is the former Master of Balliol College, Oxford, and from 1988 to 1994 was Economic Adviser to the shadow Chancellor and Labour leader, John Smith.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.