Is London's property market about to grind to a halt?

A slump in the pound could slow down the market.

London estate agents do not lose a minute pumping out press releases in reaction to new laws or regulations that appear in some way to threaten their business.

The format for these releases is always the same: when the new law is proposed, the agents cry in agony that it cannot possibly be allowed to happen because it will destroy the property market. Then when it does happen, they put out another set of press releases claiming it really won’t make much difference after all and that the party can go on.
So it was with the EU’s campaign to slash bank bonuses. When first mooted, this was portrayed as a measure that would destroy the London market. According to figures from Savills, 52 per cent of the money that goes into the prime central London property market and 62 per cent of the money that goes into the south-west London market for houses worth £2 million and above originates in the bonus packet of somebody who works in the financial sector.

That is an awful lot of money. Take it away and you would have an awful lot of unsold properties. But now that the bonus cap has made it into EU law — the European Commission to include in its Capital Requirements Directive a clause limiting bank employees to a bonus of no more than 100 per cent of their annual salary, or 200 per cent if they receive special permission from their shareholders — the well-groomed Ruperts and Samanthas who make their living selling top-end properties don’t seem too bothered.

They have a point. As with so much the EU does, there is a gaping hole in the proposal to limit the size of bank bonuses: it doesn’t say anything about limiting salaries. Rich people are in the habit of employing brainy accountants to pick at loopholes, but in this case there doesn’t seem to be much need to spend a great deal on accountants’ fees. Why not just take your bonus in twelve monthly instalments and call it a salary rise instead? Logically, banks will move to a model of remuneration based around annually renegotiated salaries.

What is potentially more damaging is the banks’ own decision to cut their remuneration pools. Bonuses have already fallen sharply — by 9 per cent last year. As they did, so buyers in the prime central London market became increasingly reliant on borrowed money.

According to Cluttons, 74 per cent of buyers bought with a mortgage in 2012, up from 49 per cent in 2011. Perversely, the EU’s rules might actually make it easier for some bankers to buy high-end properties. If it leads to an increase in salaries to compensate for a decrease in bonuses, it might make it easier for bankers to persuade lenders to give them large mortgages, the assumption being, rightly or wrongly, that while a bonus is a one-off, a higher salary will go on year after year.

If I made my money selling London property, the other thing which would worry me is the slide in sterling. Over the past decade, the prime London market has become ever more reliant on foreign money. One estate agent in Mayfair claims not to have sold a single property to a Briton since 2005.

Developers of London apartment blocks no longer bother hawking their wares to British buyers, instead folding up the plans and taking them to roadshows in Singapore and Hong Kong. Buyers from those two countries accounted for 23 per cent and 16 per cent respectively of all new building sales in central London, according to Knight Frank.

Thanks to their interest, property prices in London rose by an average of more than 7 per cent last year. If that seems a good return — certainly compared with property outside London — it has to be remembered that the dynamics of the British property market are quite different from the perspective of an overseas buyer. If you are out in Singapore, that 7 per cent profit has been almost completely wiped out by the slide in the value of the pound, which a year ago was trading at over two Singapore dollars but is now down to 1.87.

If you are expecting the pound to slide, it makes no sense to invest in London property. When it slumped in 2008, London property prices sank sharply with it. Now that expectations are forming once more that the pound will sink some way into the future, overseas investors have a double incentive to bail out of the market. If fellow overseas investors lose interest in London’s new-build market, it is hard to see how frothy prices can be sustained. Falling prices, compounded with a currency loss, could make a very nasty dent in their investment.

To which, inevitably, the estate agents have an answer: the London property market, they say, holds more attractions than simply financial gain. London is a pleasant and safe environment in which to live and own property. The world’s wealthy feel at home in London. Of all property hotspots, it is the one where you can feel most secure that your apartment will not suffer collateral damage from tanks rolling down the streets.
Perhaps, but I can’t help thinking that the promise of capital gains comes into the calculations, too. If you were especially keen to live somewhere but were convinced that the value of the property there was going to fall, you might just be minded to rent instead.

The boom in top-end London property over the past four years has been stoked partially by quantitative easing — printing money, to you and me. That has kept asset values pumped up. But you can’t keep inflating a market without consequences, and the debasement of the currency is ultimately undermining the value of investments made by overseas investors. Property might still be preferable to cash in many ways, but if you want an inflation-proof asset it is better still to have one you can at least stuff into a bag and take out of a country with a soft currency.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ross Clark is the author of How to Solve It, which is published by Harriman House (harriman-house.com)

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

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