The Fed was just trying to keep a low profile

Last Wednesday’s FOMC statement was a classic of the genre, but it won't stop the New Year’s renewed debate over government funding and the debt ceiling from hovering into view.

If nothing else, I think we’d all agree that drafting the post-FOMC statement must surely be a huge lexicographical challenge, with tens of thousands of teenage scribblers, traders, investors and politicians crawling over every word to try and discover significance where, in many cases, none may exist. In this sense, last Wednesday’s statement was a little classic of the genre.

Some were surprised to see the pace of expansion of economic activity still described as "moderate" rather than "modest". True, the housing sector had now "slowed somewhat", whereas last time it had "been strengthening", there was even debate over whether the inclusion of the word "some" in the FOMC’s assessment of the labour market as having "shown some further improvement" was a downgrade.

The truth is, this was just a holding statement, and we should watch their lips - any change in policy will be data dependent. They dropped the previous comment which suggested that tighter financial conditions could damage the recovery-hardly surprising since 10-year yields had virtually doubled from the Spring's low of 1.6 per cent to 3.0 per cent just before the September meeting, but they have since dropped to 2.5 per cent and the stock market has resumed its climb.

It’s also possible that the FOMC was keen to sound tough in advance of the Senate confirmation hearings on Janet Yellen’s candidacy as Fed Chairman. Not all FOMC members may like her dovish stance, but she’s one of theirs, and they certainly don’t want to encourage the sort of uncomfortable scrutiny of the Fed advocated by Senator Rand Paul and his father. Hence their assiduous and conspicuous failure to suggest tapering would be further delayed.

The week of 4th November will be key, recent data having been somewhat contradictory, with weak consumer confidence, but a rather robust Manufacturing ISM Survey; the former may portend a weak non-Manufacturing ISM report - much the larger part of the economy, and then of course, the most important data of the week, October's employment report, due on the 8th. We may see some asymmetry in market reaction here again, with a strong report being dismissed as distorted by the shutdown, whereas weak data would support a further delay in tapering.

It is also certainly the case that by the time of the next FOMC meeting in December the Fed will have little, if any, further clarity on the economy’s health and the New Year’s renewed debate over government funding and the debt ceiling will be hovering into view.

Traders react to the Federal Open Market Committee report, 18 September 2013. 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.