Europe sweetens the pill for Spain

Spanish bonds will get cheaper, but the EU wants control of the banks in return

At an extremely late hour in the day, the European summit appears to have agreed to modest, but important, changes in the structure of European bailouts.

The most important alteration for many is the fact that the funds provided to Spain by the European Stability Mechanism (annouced on the 9th and formally requested on the 25th) are to be provided without seniority. Previously, loans from the ESM are given subject to a proviso – enforced through convention rather than legality – that they are to be repaid before any other loans.

This is problematic for countries in trouble, since it makes it a lot harder for them to receive other funds. If you are a private investor, the last country you want to lend to is one which, if it goes bust, has to pay off a €100bn+ loan to the European Central Bank before you see a penny. As a result, when Spain first announced it was planning to seek a bailout, the first thing to happen was a spike, of around 5 per cent, in its bond yields (the cost of borrowing).

It now appears that seniority is to be "renounced" for the ESM's loan to Spain. It may still have implicit seniority – in any bankruptcy, the debtor has some choice of the order in which they pay off creditors of equal status, and Spain is unlikely to want to piss off the EU too much – but private lenders will be able to feel slightly more comfortable in giving money to the country. The question for the ESM now (and there are always further questions) is whether this is a one-off exemption, or new policy. And if it is new policy, can it be applied retroactively? Spain is, after all, not the only country with a bailout from the EU.

The summit also agreed to allow funds from the bailout to be injected directly into Spain's banks. The statement from the summit affirms that "it is imperative to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns," and that the ESM should be allowed to recapitalise banks. Previously, the money would have gone directly into a Spanish government vehicle, which would have paid out to the banks; the ESM is now capable of skipping that step, which should save everyone some time and money.

More important than what the EU has allowed, though, are the concessions it has demanded. Instead of there being 17 different banking supervisors throughout the eurozone, there will now be just one, a major step towards the creation of a pan-European banking union. The big change is that Eurozone authorities –  for which, read "Germany" – will now be able to force struggling banks throughout the Eurozone to recapitalise, rather than waiting for the individual sovereigns to decide. 

Angela Merkel is happy. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.