Sandy cost the US $50bn, could have been averted for $15bn

Prevention is better than cure.

The FT's Jason Abbruzzese has posted the Moody's Analytics estimates of the economic damage of Hurricane Sandy. The firm puts the cost of lost output at $19.9bn, and the damages at a further $30bn:

Abbruzzese writes:

If the $50bn total turns out to be accurate, it will make Hurricane Sandy the fourth costliest US disaster behind Hurricane Katrina, the attacks of September 11, and Hurricane Andrew.

Putting a dollar amount on a disaster which has claimed nearly 100 lives in the US, and almost as many in the other countries throughout North America which have been hit, may seem distasteful, especially since the death toll is likely to continue rising. But that figure helps put in context stories like this, by Matthew Yglesias:

A 2009 seminar hosted at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University considered several options for major infrastructure upgrades to combat storm surges—a barrier at the south end of the Arthur Kill that divides Staten Island from New Jersey, an East River barrier to prevent surges up that narrow waterway, a barrier perpendicular to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn, and most ambitiously a “Gateway Barrier System” stretching from Sandy Hook to the Rockaways. Engineers don’t believe it would be feasible for the Gateway system to entirely block storm surges, but it could weaken and deflect them—significantly reducing the flood risks to the entire New York Harbor…

It would, of course, be expensive. The estimates presented at the seminar suggest a ballpark figure of $15 billion. But even if that turns out to be a substantial underestimate, it’s a bargain compared to the cost of widespread flooding.

Compared to $50bn, that $15bn looks increasingly tempting.

Cars float in a flooded garage. 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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.