(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions
expressed are his own)
By Ian Campbell
LONDON, June 14 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Houses and the UK
economy are still locked in their habitual unhealthy embrace.
The economy is recovering and so, too, are house prices. The
Halifax index shows the average price in May was 3.7 percent
higher than a year earlier. But house prices begin this recovery
unaffordably high, propped by ultra-loose money - just like UK
and German government bonds. What happens when monetary policy
returns to normal?
The problem is the price level from which this recovery
begins. Houses normally become affordable during big economic
downturns. They haven’t this time, by the conventional measure.
In the first quarter of 2013 the average UK house price was 4.5
times average earnings, above the average ratio of 4.1 since
1983, and far above the 3.1 of the mid-1990s after the big
housing bubble of the 1980s burst.
The resilience of house prices reflects inadequate supply
and monetary policy excesses. The Halifax reports that while
house prices are well above average, mortgage payments are well
below: 27.8 percent of earnings in the first quarter, compared
to the 36.2 percent average and not far above the all-time low
of 23.6 percent.
That’s what comes of a Bank of England base rate of 0.5
percent and the injection of 375 billion pounds of cash into the
financial system from quantitative easing. If that’s not enough,
the authorities want even cheaper mortgages. The Bank of England
has a Funding for Lending scheme and the government a
particularly ill-advised Help to Buy plan, which tops up
But UK interest rates won’t stay at 0.5 percent forever.
Mortgage rates could rise substantially when growth and
inflation go higher, as they may do by 2015. This could mean the
recovery in the housing market reverses, hurting borrowers,
lenders, the economy and the government.
There is no easy solution. Homes are a financial asset and
all asset prices are out-of-kilter. Building more houses,
reducing their scarcity and cheapening their real cost would be
wise. But even that would add to the risks for those who buy
overpriced houses in the next price upswing.
SIGN UP FOR BREAKINGVIEWS EMAIL ALERTS:
- The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors reported that
British house prices rose at their fastest pace in nearly three
years in May. RICS said that its seasonally adjusted house price
balance for May came in at +5, meaning that slightly more of its
members reported price rises rather than price falls in the
preceding three months. This was the strongest reading since
June 2010. In April the balance stood at +1.
- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can
click on [CAMPBELL/]
(Editing by Edward Hadas and David Evans)
Keywords: BREAKINGVIEWS BRITAIN/HOUSES
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