Stop the housing Ponzi scheme

The government's new housing policy will collapse sooner or later like a fraudulent investment strat

Yesterday the government unveiled its housing strategy to "get the housing market moving again". The centrepiece was a mortgage indemnity scheme to help first-time buyers to get on the property ladder. But this policy is a disastrous waste of taxpayers' money that will satisfy nobody.

The mortgage indemnity scheme is set to make it possible for first-time buyers to borrow if they can find a deposit of just 5 per cent of the property value. Lenders, meanwhile, will offer the remaining 95 per cent, safe in the knowledge that the first 14 per cent of losses on a house that later sells for less than its initial price will be taken by either the buyer's deposit, or the taxpayer and house-builder's guarantees that cover the other 9 per cent. Whatever happened, you might ask, to the Government's mantra that "you can't get out of a debt crisis by taking on more debt"?

This is a bad deal for taxpayers. There are good reasons why lenders are currently unwilling to offer 95 per cent mortgages on the open market, and 90 per cent loans are rare. Mortgage providers are signalling that they expect prices to fall, and don't want to lose their money when they do. The current housing market very closely resembles a Ponzi scheme where new investors to the scheme (in this case first-time buyers) pay for the returns to existing members (higher house-prices for owners). As with all Ponzi schemes, this scam can't go on forever -- sooner or later you run out of unsuspecting new investors and the whole thing collapses. It's unfortunate, then, that the Government feels that it's wise to devote taxpayers' cash to one final round of pumping up the property bubble.

For similar reasons, the scheme is a false friend for first-time buyers. The current scarcity of highly leveraged loans for first-time buyers is a helpful signal to them to stay away from the precarious housing market. By meddling with those signals, the indemnity plan risks tempting hard-up young people into a falling housing market -- fodder for the last round of the Ponzi scheme.

Even business is likely to be disadvantaged by the scheme. With government offering attractive guarantees for residential mortgage lending, it would be unsurprising to see banks diverting funds away from vital lending to UK businesses in favour of unproductive property. This is the last thing we need in the current business lending drought.

Meanwhile, the real beneficiaries of the policy will be house-builders, who will be able to continue to sell over-priced property. But then there's always someone who benefits from a Ponzi scheme.

So at best, by buttressing house prices with taxpayer cash, this policy will be a simple transfer of wealth from young people without assets to older citizens with lots of housing wealth. At worst it will tempt vulnerable young buyers with little money into a falling market, wiping out their nest-eggs, and making the rest of us pay for it through our taxes.

Instead of this we need a real solution to the problem of unaffordable housing. House prices are high right now for two reasons: the emergency measures in place to deal with the credit crunch, and excessively restrictive planning laws. Rock-bottom interest rates are allowing existing home-owners to sustain huge mortgage debts -- for now. But this support for prices is temporary, simply postponing the day of reckoning when some owners will have to crystalise the losses on their over-priced properties. When that happens first-time buyers will find property much more affordable.

In the medium term, if we want our citizens to live in civilised conditions, the answer is to liberalise planning laws to allow house-builders to create homes where people actually want them. How often do you appreciate, say, the fallow scrub land of the green belt just south of Junction 26 on the M25? And now contrast this with how often you lament the absurd sums needed to afford that bigger house that would better suit your family's needs.

Until we recognise that these things are connected and have a level-headed discussion about the trade-offs, we will never be able to give our citizens the "dream of home-ownership" the Prime Minister aspires to, at a reasonable cost. But whatever your view on the long-term trade-off, one thing we should all agree on is that politicians should stay out of housing finance. It's time the government stopped trying to prop up the absurd UK property Ponzi scheme.

Ian Mulheirn is Director of the Social Market Foundation.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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.