Think tank slams Help to Buy: "government is the housing crisis"

The Adam Smith Institute has accused the government of propping up the housing bubble.

The Government's Help to Buy scheme has come under sharp attack from the Adam Smith Institute, which writes that it:

will raise the height of all the rungs on the housing ladder by boosting house prices… [and] redistributes wealth from taxpayers to house buyers.

The key to the Institute's analysis is that the British housing market is suffering a problem of supply, not of demand. That's an analysis which bridges the normal left-right divide, and puts the ASI on the same side as many on the left (indeed, that coalition is also why the ASI's Preston Byrne has written for the New Statesman on the housing crisis several times). And the report lays out compelling reasons to support that analysis:

A 2010 House of Commons briefing paper wrote, “it has been clear for some time that housing supply is not keeping up with demand,” adding that there are “significant levels of overcrowding in the private and social housing stock.” However, the briefing continues, reductions in the price of housing accompanying the recession have done little to improve its affordability, as price falls have been accompanied by “by tighter lending criteria, particularly larger deposit requirements,” such that poor working families in rented accommodation, even assuming spartan personal budgets with little or no provision for incidentals, would need to save for several decades in order to purchase a house in most major urban centres…

Housing stock in the capital’s 10 most expensive boroughs is now worth more, taken together, than the entire property markets of the rest of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland combined.

The government's approach to fixing the housing supply problem is to boost demand, in the hope that builders will follow through. And to a certain extent, their analysis of what's holding back demand is correct:

The 2013 Budget makes it clear that the government believes lack of access to finance is the primary problem.

Once prices reach the sky-high levels they currently sit at in the south east of the country, then the big bottleneck is likely to be access to finance. In 1997, "the average house cost 3.54 times the median wage" but "by 2011 one cost 6.65 times the median wage". Lenders who may have been happy to loan four times someone's salary are likely to be considerably less happy to offer seven times that.

Help to Buy sets out to improve that situation, but does so in two ways which are woefully substandard. One, an equity loan, subsidises the homeowner in their purchase by offering an interest-free loan on up to 15 per cent of the value of the house; the second involves a guarantee to the lenders of up to 80 per cent of the value of the homes they have lent against.

The latter is most punishingly described as Britain's Fannie Mae. That organisation, as well as its sibling Freddie Mac, both played a similar role in the US mortgage market for years leading up to the crash. But when the housing bubble popped:

the extent to which the taxpayer was potentially liable was the difference between (1) the prices at which Fannie and Freddie issued their debt, and (2) the price Fannie and Freddie would have to pay the private sector to take on those risks in the event of a default.

In the US, that difference was 0.4 percentage points, but "with combined assets of over $5 trillion, 0.4 percentage points represents a very substantial figure".

That risk to taxpayers represents an all-or-nothing gamble. If the bubble pops, we'll be firmly out of pocket, but it's possible that the risk will end up coming to nothing. The same is not true of the equity loan. Although it is being written off the books (the government will bank the value of the assets they now "own" to prevent the Help to Buy scheme affecting the bottom line), it remains the case that billions of pounds are going to be "invested" in an asset class with no return on investment at all. On top of that:

this aspect of the Help to Buy scheme will take effect as a subsidy, meaning in practice that non-participating taxpayers, in addition to paying for the loans, will have to work against them as the infusion of government liquidity increases competition for limited supplies of land.

That is, insofar as help to buy merely subsidises a particular group to buy rather than boosting building, it is zero-sum: renters who can't afford even the subsidised deposits will lose out. The hope is that increased building will offset that effect, but that hope is looking slim.

What could work instead? It's in the proposed solutions that the ASI becomes most noticeably libertarian; the fact that there is broad agreement that interventions need to be on the supply side does not mean that there's broad agreement about what those interventions should be. And so the report suggests:

Releasing limited amounts of farmland for suburban development… radical liberalisation of urban planning laws… and the abolition of mandatory affordable housing provision in new housing development.

Of those, the liberalisation of urban planning laws is the most likely to get widespread support: from maximum height restrictions to requirements for car parking, there are a number of regulations which prevent us from making the best use of inner-city space. But to the ASI's suggestions might be added a nationalised programme of housebuilding, either paid for with a land value tax or deficit funded as a stimulus measure, or major investment in public transport, opening up greater areas of the outskirts of cities to inner-city population density. The institute probably won't like those ideas as much, but even they might agree they are better than what we have at present.

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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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?