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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”