Berlin follows Caracas in goldbug repatriation

Why are they doing it? Because the conspiracists have won.

You may have heard that the Bundesbank is planning to repatriate its gold from the New York Federal Reserve to its own coffers in Germany.

The AP reports:

The Bundesbank plans to bring back to Germany some of its 1,500 tonnes of gold stored in the vaults of the Federal Reserve in New York, and the 450 tonnes stashed with the Bank of France in Paris, reported the German newspaper Handelsblatt.

The central bank declined to comment on the report but will on Wednesday outline a plan to manage the reserves, which total about 3,400 tonnes, or 270,000 gold bars.Most of Germany's massive reserves have been stored abroad since the cold war amid fears of a Soviet invasion.

It's a similar story to one from 2011, when Venezuela announced it would be repatriating up to 211 tonnes of its gold from various vaults around the world. Here's how the FT reported it at the time:

Venezuela would need to transport the gold in several trips, traders said, since the high value of gold means it would be impossible to insure a single aircraft carrying 211 tonnes. It could take about 40 shipments to move the gold back to Caracas, traders estimated.

“It’s going to be quite a task. Logistically, I’m not sure if the central bank realises the magnitude of the task ahead of them,” said one senior gold banker.

It feels — although I can't put my finger on why (no snark intended, for once) — that the tone of the reporting around the Bundesbank's decision has been far more respectful than it was eighteen months ago. Then, it seems to have been taken as a given that the move was a mad power grab on Chavez's part, and all the economics blogs focused on the difficulty of actually carrying out the pledge.

Take Felix Salmon:

It seems to me that Chávez has four main choices here. He can go the FT’s route, and just fly the gold to Caracas while insuring each shipment for its market value. He can go the Spanish route, and try to transport the gold himself, perhaps making use of the Venezuelan navy. He could attempt the mother of all repo transactions. Or he could get clever.

This time, however, the analysis is focusing less on how the transportation will work, and more on patiently analysing the Bundesbank's decisions. Ezra Klein, for instance, writes:

So what the heck is Germany doing? It is a nation with a deep-seated fears about the stability of its currency, no doubt in part the legacy of the Weimar hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The fixation on its gold comes at a time when the world of finance seems in chaos. Germans are being asked to help rescue Greece and other European nations with troubled finances. The European Central Bank has bought bonds from some of those nations, which Germans widely view as tempting enormous inflation. Against that backdrop, it is perhaps not shocking that there is political resonance to the theory that the New York Fed and Banque de France may be putting one over on the Bundesbank and that some of Germany's gold might actually be missing.

This is doubtless partly because transporting up to 1,500 tonnes of gold between New York and Berlin is — probably rightly — seen as less risky than transporting 211 tonnes of gold from London to Venezuela. But it's also because Germany is a Very Serious Country full of Very Serious People and Venezuela is the home of Wacky Hugo.

Germany is repatriating hundreds of tonnes of gold because economic conspiracy theorists have gained a relatively substantial amount of political capital in the country. Venezuela did the same thing in 2011. They are both very silly places.

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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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.