The Fed has a difficult task ahead

Careless talk costs money.

One clings to the hope that Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues at the US Federal Reserve are some of the brightest economists in the world today and hence they know what they are doing because, be in no doubt, they have embarked on an ambitious journey, during which they intend to simultaneously burst bubbles, avoid a bond market rout, and maybe even at the same time encourage banks to use their cash to lend to people and businesses by making government bonds less attractive.

To achieve all of the above at the same time without causing excessive market volatility will indeed be an enormously difficult task. As Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England’s Executive Director for Financial Stability, recently observed rather pointedly, "we have intentionally blown the biggest government bond bubble in history".

Surely recent "Fedspeak", including Bernanke’s bombshell comment that Quantitative Easing, (QE), may be tapered "within the next few meetings" can’t just have been "careless talk". Given the quite extreme effect on US Treasury bond yields, (the 10-year yield climbed by 0.60 per cent in only five weeks), one can be quite certain that by now the Fed would have embarked on a coordinated program intended to correct market perceptions, if the Fed was unhappy with same. This has not happened, but there is just a chance that they take the opportunity next Wednesday at the regular meeting of their monetary policy committee, the FOMC, to do just this. However, I don’t expect this to be the case.

I feel that a large contingent at the Fed has become concerned that bubbles of the kind that brought the financial system to the brink of collapse in 2008 were re-forming and they needed to tackle this sooner rather than later.

The multiple and diverse incidental consequences of their change in rhetoric are plain to see. Credit spreads have widened, emerging markets and currencies have tumbled, and fear rather than greed has the upper hand. Most frustratingly for the Fed’s counterparts at the Bank of Japan, the Yen has strengthened, as its safe-haven status has trumped even their massive quantitative easing and this in turn has caused the Nikkei stock index to collapse.

I’m sure the Fed is watching these developments very closely, but I don’t believe they will be easily deviated from their path, as they fear delay will have far more serious consequences.

Ben Bernanke. Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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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.