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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Why is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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