Housing in south London seen from above. Photo: Getty
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Five signs the London property bubble is reaching unsustainable proportions

It's not difficult to see that London is facing a house price bubble. It's harder to say when it might pop.

Ed Conway is Economics Editor of Sky News. This article first appeared on his website, and is crossposted here with his permission

One of the biggest misconceptions in economics is that it’s difficult to spot a bubble. On the contrary: spotting a bubble is actually pretty easy. The difficult thing is predicting when it’ll go pop.

So let’s not beat around the bush. London is facing a house price bubble. House prices in the capital are rising at unsustainable rates. On almost every reasonable measure of affordability (we’ll get to them in a second) London property prices are at or beyond what would normally be considered danger levels.

The sensible questions to ask now are: how long the bubble continue inflating, how will it come to an end (a pop or a long period of relative deflation) and whether it will cause systemic financial turmoil elsewhere. It’s these questions the Bank of England’s financial stability team are privately investigating as they watch the rise in regional UK house prices with a mild degree of horror.

Evidence of bubbly activity in London’s property is nothing new. We first reported on the growing gulf in house prices about a year and a half ago. About six months ago our update showed that the affordability levels in the capital were at unprecedented levels (of unaffordability).

Since then, things have only become even more pronounced. Let’s run through the evidence.

1. Prices are rising very fast

Nationwide have reported that house prices in London are rising at a rate of more than 18 per cent – the highest rate since 2003. According to the building society the gap between London and the rest is greater than it has ever been before (though it was at a historic level even before the latest iteration of its survey).

2. Prices rises are no longer just in “prime” areas

What’s particularly interesting about the numbers is that what previously looked a lot like a well-contained bubble in prime London property prices (eg the smart parts of town where overseas investors are particularly keen to buy) has spread out into other parts of the capital. Just look at the table below: the biggest increases were in Brent and Lambeth, rather than Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham. Though Kensington & Chelsea prices are excluded from the Nationwide numbers, Land Registry data suggest house price growth has slowed there too.

However, rising prices are not, on their own, evidence of a bubble. Prices in Manchester were also rising by around 18 per cent over the past year. What makes London different is the performance of house prices in comparison with peoples’ ability to afford them. Now, there are a few ways to judge whether house prices are at sustainable levels. One is to compare them to the rise in other prices around the economy – in other words working out the real level of house prices, adjusted for inflation.

On this basis (see the above chart, which looks at real vs absolute prices in the London market since 1988), London house prices are still a touch below the levels they reached in late 2007. The recent rise looks far less pronounced. The important thing to note, however, is that remain considerably higher than they were in previous decades.

This is a useful yardstick, but a far better measure of affordability is to compare house prices with people’s earnings – after all, their capacity to afford a home will depend in large part on how much they earn. On this measure, the disparity between London and the rest (and, for that matter, history) is striking.

4. House prices vs earnings are at historic highs

According to this chart, house prices in London are now more unaffordable (compared to earnings) than ever before in recent statistical history. It’s often thought that the “safe” level for house prices vs earnings is about three times, and that once you get beyond four times you’re moving into difficult territory. These numbers show that for the first time, the average London house price is now eight times the average first-time buyer’s salary.

However, what this measure doesn’t show you is the impact lower interest rates have had on families’ mortgage payments. The Bank of England has cut Bank rate to 0.5 per cent; mortgage costs have fallen sharply in the past year or so thanks in part to Funding for Lending. And as a result, even though the absolute level of house prices is higher than ever before, is higher than ever before vs salaries and the necessary mortgage amounts are greater than ever before, the monthly mortgage burden faced by most first-time buyers is not.

5. Mortgage burden hardly dropped in London

This chart shows you mortgage payments as a percentage of take-home pay by region. As you can see, mortgage payments still account for an average of more than half of first-time buyers’ salaries, but this is considerably lower than in 2007 or, for that matter, the late 1980s. It’s this chart that many people refer to when arguing that house prices at their current levels remain sustainable. The problem with this argument is it ignores the fact that whereas in most periods when the mortgage burden was 50 per cent or more Bank rate was close to 5 per cent (or double that in the early 1990s), it is currently at a 320-year low. The only way is up.

Moreover, what’s striking in this chart, and in most of the others above, is how different the London story is to the rest of the country. Housing affordability in the capital is at its worst level ever, on most metrics. Even on the mortgage burden metric it is far, far above most of the rest of the UK, and never fell as much as it did in previous corrections.

It was possible to argue, until relatively recently, that this was merely a “prime central London” phenomenon – money rolling in from overseas investors to pay for nice, sparkling new apartments in Battersea. Not any more: prices across the capital are rising at unsustainable levels – not just in prime areas. There is growing evidence that households in London are having to take on unprecedented levels of debt to stay afloat – almost a fifth of new mortgages being taken out in London are for more than 4.5 times the buyer’s salary.

In other words, this is already a systemic financial problem. The London bubble has been growing for some time (and, by the way, Help to Buy is likely only to have had a marginal effect on this phenomenon, though it certainly won’t help). Other prices of the UK may well face their own bubbles, but right now they are not in that kind of territory. So contrary to what some commentators claim, there is no nationwide bubble. London is another matter entirely.

House prices in the capital cannot keep rising at this rate. At some point, either buyers will be unable to afford property or investors will be unwilling to accept falling yields (they’re already coming down) and will realise capital appreciation can’t carry on forever (whatever currency you’re buying in). However, saying all of the above is no guide as to when the moment of capitulation will come. No-one knows. It could be months; it could be another few years. The path will depend in large part on which party wins next year’s election and whether the winner imposes a mansion tax. It will depend on when interest rates go up and how quickly. 

Either way, it’s high time the Bank of England, and, for that matter, the Government, put a little bit more time into thinking whether they need more tools to try to deflate the capital’s bubble safely and smoothly, without making the rest of the UK’s regions suffer.

Ed Conway is Economics Editor of Sky News. This article first appeared on his website, and is crossposted here with his permission

Ed Conway is the Economics Editor for Sky News. He tweets @EdConwaySky and his website can be found here.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.