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.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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