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.

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage