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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation