What can Iceland teach us about a wealth tax?

The country instituted an emergency tax for three years to sort out its problems. Should we?

Iceland’s remarkable recovery can serve as a lesson to the UK.

Having recently paid back its IMF loan quicker than was predicted, Iceland's unorthodox reaction to the crisis has been hailed by economists, policy-makers and the IMF itself. In addition to letting its financial system fail, the country introduced capital controls (which have been met with some skepticism as they arguably prevent foreign direct investment and therefore stunt growth) and leveraged its fiscal policy to pay off debt whilst sustaining consumption. It is this last point the UK should pay heed to, particularly as Clegg declares his support for a wealth tax.

The general theme of Iceland’s 2010 tax reform (pdf) is one of increasing tax revenue whilst offsetting the burden for lower income individuals. For instance, while fuel taxes and VAT were increased, the revenue was partially re-channeled towards public transportation and bottom-quartile households compensated for higher food, heating, and transport costs. Furthermore, in an effort to raise income without affecting consumption, the government implemented an emergency wealth tax rate for the period of 2010-2013. As of January 2011, one year after introduction, the tax rate is 1.5 per cent of net capital for single individuals with more than ISK 75,000,000 (£390,000) or 100,000,000 (£519,000) for married couples. By taxing the top 2.2 per cent of the population, the Icelandic government was able to raise 0.3 per cent of GDP in revenue every year.

However, an IMF report on the country's reform argues that the wealth tax should be abandoned as capital controls ease. Because the tax is recurring, the only thing that is stopping the wealthy from offshoring capital is the simple fact that they’re not allowed to. Therefore, IMF economists argue that the revenue from the wealth tax should be replaced by a less mobile base (i.e. real estate and high income). This does not, however, discredit the Icelandic wealth tax as a possibility in the UK; it just means that, as suggested by German scholars, it should be a one-off levy. (For an in-depth assessment of Clegg’s wealth tax go here)

Meanwhile, the biggest lesson the UK can learn from Iceland is that its recovery was at least partially fuelled by the government's struggle against depressed consumption.

Bloomberg's Omar Valdimarsson writes:

Iceland’s growth “is driven by private consumption, investment has picked up strongly and even though, when you look at net exports, those have a negative contribution to growth, it is mainly because imports have been strong, reflecting strong consumption and an increase in income and the healthy expectations of households,” Zakharova said. “Still, exports have been increasing very strongly. Last year was a banner year for tourism. These are all really positive things.”

A handful of Icelandic banknotes are withdrawn from an ATM. Photograph: Getty Images
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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.