To fix the housing market, the government needs to do nothing at all

Just stop trying.

In November, planning minister Nick Boles tackled the country's housing crisis — caused, he said, by a decade-long invasion of propertyless aliens — head-on, announcing he would seek powers to build 100,000 homes a year on Green Belt land. Shortly afterwards, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, reinforced this message, warning us of the imminent danger that migrant homebuyers pose to the “national interest” – "without the demand caused by mass immigration," she said, "house prices could be ten per cent lower over a twenty year period."

The Conservative grassroots, mortified at what they apparently see as the sheer illiberality of building on the Green Belt, moved swiftly to an ostrich position to undermine the proposal.

"The notion of a housing shortage in London… is, and always has been, a myth," read Andrew Lilico's riposte. "Surpluses of dwellings over households actually increased everywhere".

It is almost impossible to be more wrong. The immigration argument has been debunked so comprehensively that, in its 2012 report on the housing shortage (pdf), the IEA casually dismisses it as an "oft-repeated non-issue". Similarly, the effort to use simple mathematics to describe a notoriously variegated and illiquid asset class ignores the fact that neither property nor its occupants are homogenous and freely exchangeable: an abundance of one- or two-bedroom flats in a given area at a range of prices, for example, is useless if the majority of demand is for family homes (pdf).

There is, in fact, a fairly robust consensus across the political spectrum that the United Kingdom is in the grip of an acute housing supply shortage with many causes, among them NIMBYism, speculation, capital flight from southern Europe, over-taxation, land use controls, and failure to implement comprehensive welfare reform. In the absence of a credible policy proposal from the Coalition, however, the left has assumed the mantle of leadership on the issue by setting itself in diametrical opposition to austerity, demanding more central government funding for affordable housing – and lots of it.

Unquestionably, the money could be put to good use. Shelter, the housing charity, predicted in 2010 that (pdf):

"cuts to housing benefit and the slashing of the affordable house building subsidy will be devastating for the housing aspirations of thousands of young people consigned to increasing costs."

Those costs are the third-highest in Europe, 40 per cent of net income for over 15 per cent of the population. Sensing the undercurrent of popular anger, Labour has promised funding for the same 100,000 homes a year as Nick Boles – except these are “affordable” ones. Unfortunately, these counterproposals only draw battle-lines for the next election. They address the question of how taxpayers should step in to reinforce the safety net, but do nothing to tell us how to rein in the cost of the safety net itself.

The key question is this: would building more “affordable housing”, either in the Green Belt or in our cities, actually end the housing crisis? In my view, probably not. Housing was a risky enough business before the recession; today, with scarce financing, high material costs, narrow profit margins, and downward pressure on public finances for the next decade at least (£), developers face additional disincentives. If anything, affordable housing prevents developers from meeting market demand while concurrently increasing their costs — and as such it has become a significant part of the supply problem.

Many English councils mandate that developers designate a certain proportion of units in any new construction as "affordable," i.e. earmarked for social tenants or a social housing provider. Taking the London borough of Newham as an example, that locality aims to provide "the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing when negotiating on (the approval of) individual private residential and mixed use schemes". By “reasonable,” however, Newham means 50 per cent of the total, with the affordable component supported mostly by government subsidies.

This has serious implications on any proposed scheme's economic viability. Without government grants, affordable housing in Newham is completely uneconomic at the 50 per cent target (pdf) and remains so even at lower targets, for example with 35 per cent or 25 per cent provision. Viability is further impaired where build cost per square metre rises (as occurs when a development is denser) or sale price per square metre falls (meaning the proposed unit would be affordable in a free market). To wit, the economic viability of housing schemes in England is low if you intend to build units that constitute ordinary working- and middle-class housing in most of the English-speaking world, because local planning policies force developers to only embark on those projects which realise relatively higher marginal returns and command a higher market price.

This is a fact of which local governments around the country are aware (pdf); Newham's viability assessment, for example, points out that "50% affordable housing is unlikely to be viable in all market conditions", and that "in some circumstances... sales values would need to increase beyond the 2007 peak for 50% affordable housing to be achievable."

But this is not 2007, and we would be mistaken to believe that the social housing crisis is separable from the supply problem in the wider private markets. British social housing policy is itself heavily reliant on private sector provision; a crisis in one begets a crisis in the other, or as put by the IEA (pdf):

If social housing in Britain is under strain – and it clearly is – it is because the housing market as a whole is under strain.

When we consider that fully 20 per cent of the nation's residential property is directly or indirectly supported by the state and virtually the entire private sector housing supply process — design, location, construction, profit margin, and post-completion tenant allocation — is regulated and made more burdensome by the state, it does not take much to see that virtually all state intervention in the UK housing market should in theory, and does in fact, constrain supply or inflate demand. Certain aspects of the problem arise from pet policies of the right; others, of the left. What they have in common is that they disincentivise new housebuilding while making existing housing more expensive at the same time, to the detriment of low- and middle-income earners, the propertyless and the young.

Neither redistributive taxation nor piecemeal tinkering are well-suited to solve this problem. An iconoclastic, no-holds-barred programme of liberalisation, however, is. Like fuel shortages in the America of the seventies or bread shortages in the USSR of the eighties, the British housing crisis is government-led. If the government is serious about solving it, the first thing it should do is get out of the way.

The Carpenters estate in Newham, London. Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

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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?