SocGen strategist excoriates Osborne over Help to Buy

"He may really deserve to be called a moron".

Albert Edwards, a strategist at Societe Generale with a reputation for pessimism, has released a strategy note excoriating the Chancellor for the Help to Buy scheme, which will subsidise mortgages for buyers of new-build house. Via Business Insider and FT Alphaville, some of the choicest quotes:

George Osborne in his March budget proposed an unusually misguided piece of government interference in the housing market. The measures will see government provide lenders with a guarantee of up to 20 per cent of a mortgage in an attempt to encourage lending to borrowers with small deposits. This means that if a borrower defaults on a loan, the taxpayer will be liable for a proportion of the losses. Numerous critics of George Osborne's scheme range from the IMF to the outgoing Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, who said "We do not want what the US has, which is a government-guaranteed mortgage market, and they are desperately trying to find a way out of that position."

…What makes me genuinely really angry is that burdening our children with more debt (on top of their student loans) to buy ridiculously expensive houses is seen as a solution to the problem of excessively expensive housing. I would have thought the lack of purchasing power should contribute to house prices declining or stagnating (relative to incomes), hence becoming affordable once again…

Why are houses too expensive in the UK? Too much debt. So what is George Osborne's solution for first time buyers unable to afford housing? Why, arrange for a government guaranteed scheme to burden our young people with even more debt! Why don't we call this policy by the name it really is, namely the indentured servitude of our young people…

I don’t think Andrew Bridgen at Fathom Consulting was strong enough when he described George Osborne’s scheme as “reckless”. I believe it truly is a moronic policy that stands head and shoulders above most of the stupid economic policies I have seen implemented during my 30 years in this business. It ranks above some of Alan Greenspan’s very worst blunders. And when so many highly regarded commentators speak out against it, only to be totally ignored by George ‘I know better’ Osborne, he may really deserve to be called a moron.

Hell hath no fury like a strategist scorned.

The debate around Help to Buy appears to be settling, and the consensus coming out of it hews close to Edwards' conclusion: Help to Buy will help people who want to own a new house buy one (including as a second home, although thankfully, even Osborn was warned off extending the scheme to buy-to-let landlords). But it will do so by putting the government balance sheet to work, increasing house prices without meaningfully changing the number of houses being built.

Housing supply, particularly in the South East and London, where the largest effects of the policy will be felt, is constrained by land, planning rules and construction times; overheating demand will do little to solve that.

So prices rise, household debt rises, and government debt rises – off-balance-sheet, of course. The question which remains is whether this is malice or incompetence. Was the plan genuinely, if ineptly, aimed at increasing the quantity of housing? Or was it designed to prop up house prices for another five years, keeping homeowners onside into the next election at the expense of the young and the poor?

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.