Help to Buy won't bring a sub-prime crisis to Britain – but it does move us closer to one

Boosting house prices is a funny way to solve the housing crisis, writes Preston Byrne.

As I write, a banner atop my Gmail account announces: “Help to buy... 5% deposit, 20% government loan, only 75% mortgage needed.” Gmail, of course, makes money by scanning user e-mails for key "phrases that a customer would use when referring to… products or services” and delivering the appropriate advertisements. The all-seeing eye of Google will long ago have figured out that (1) I am a renter, (2) I am a yuppie and (3) I have a keen interest in the Help to Buy program – admittedly, not yet as a consumer but as a writer.

Given Britain's seemingly insatiable demand for housing, I am therefore not at all surprised that this advert has appeared. The reasons should be plain enough. Housing is tremendously expensive, and “Help to Buy” is a convenient tagline for what are, in fact, two separate government programs to make it easier to access:

  1. An “equity loan” component where the Exchequer will top up a 5 per cent deposit with an additional 20 per cent of equity on a new-build mortgage worth up to £600,000, and
  2. A “mortgage guarantee” component which is in effect a state-backed insurance policy made available to banks lending into the sector where up to 80 per cent of their lending will be backed by the government for a period of up to 7 years after a relevant loan is originated.

Opinions on the wisdom of the scheme diverge widely. For its part, the Government “insists” that the scheme is benign, as the “intervention in the housing market is a prudent one,” “the scheme will run for only three years", and it will help “families who aspire [see what they did there?] to buy a newly built home, and the construction industry, too." Furthermore, as far as the mortgage guarantee is concerned, the Government argues that “evidence shows that loans are unlikely to default” after the seven-year lifetime of the guarantee has elapsed. Friendly media therefore gush that the program might “be [the] start of [a] renewed mortgage market”, and one which is “very welcome and will provide a real option for people currently unable to buy” at that.

The scheme is not without its detractors, who tend to take the view that the program is fuelling an already overheated housing market. One industry commentator describes it as “absolutely insane… building a sub-prime mortgage sector just as they did in the US,” and others accuse the government of creating “another housing bubble pushing prices up at the expense of buyers.”

The arguments on either side have their merits; in my view, neither is entirely correct. As to the Government, arguing that the scheme “only lasts three years” is a touch misleading; the taxpayer bears the downside risk on the mortgage guarantees over a seven-year timescale, a fact which acquires particular relevance when we consider that house prices in the United States, awash in cheap credit, took a mere four years to decouple from their underlying assets, grow exponentially and then collapse. On the equity loan side, the taxpayer eats the loss of the capital value of the each loan in its first six years (when it is interest free); interest thereafter is 1 per cent above RPI, hardly a market rate. As to the scheme's detractors, talk of sub-prime mortgages and housing bubbles are simply not appropriate analogies: the American securitisation markets did and continue to operate on a scale multiple orders of magnitude larger than the £130bn of guarantees and £3.5bn of equity lending entailed in Help to Buy.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. As subsidy, Help to Buy is likely to capitalize not only into the value of eligible new-build property, but also into the prices of existing housing stock to the extent that such housing is substitutable with the new-builds. As house prices rise, consumers will need to borrow more in order to enter into the market – and in the current low-interest rate environment, they will be pushed to pick variable- rather than fixed-rate mortgages.

Here the American comparison is more apt. In Bush's America, a low interest-rate environment encouraged borrowers to take advantage of adjustable-rate mortgages which would be prohibitively expensive in a higher interest-rate environment. However, as put by Adam Levitin and Susan Wachter, these “(were) a poor financing choice given that rates were likely only to adjust upwards in the future,” with the consequence that “housing finance was becoming relatively cheaper, even as it was becoming riskier.” And this, of course, risks, though does not necessarily ensure, a housing bubble: in another paper, Levitin and Wachter argue that “the (U.S. housing) bubble was, in fact… a supply-side phenomenon, meaning that it was caused by excessive supply of housing finance.”

Whether Help to Buy will constitute “excessive” supply remains to be seen; it is impossible to predict with certainty what the eventual macroeconomic outcome of the scheme will be, so I will not attempt it here. We do, however, know some things for certain: Help to Buy has been linked to a “surge in optimism over house prices,” though not a bubble; where interest rates are currently at historic lows, inflation is risinglaying the groundwork for interest rates to follow. What we are left with is a situation that bears some hallmarks of the American housing crisis, though not all of them.

This is not to say government has no role to play in easing the housing supply crisis: to the contrary, liberalising planning law would go some way to doing so without injecting mispriced credit into the market and incentivising highly leveraged house purchases which borrowers – including millions of yuppies with Gmail accounts – would, if interest rates were higher, be ill-able to afford. Given what we know about the American experience, though, if a long-term solution to the housing crisis is the Government's objective, Help to Buy seems a very funny way of going about it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder