The Financial Times has kindly printed my letter below, arguing that it seems the default answer to almost any economic question has now become “more stimulus” from the central bank.
After 15 years of subprime lending and then quantitative easing, last week’s warning from the Bank of England suggests there are fewer and fewer economic questions to which the default answer is not “more stimulus”.
But it is still disappointing to find the Financial Times supporting this reflex reaction when considering the risks associated with Brexit next month (“Bank of England must grapple with the risks of a no-deal Brexit”, February 6). Nobody would dispute that the bank has a critical role in terms of ensuring financial stability through the Brexit transition. As the FT says, the “potential outcomes are discrete and the impacts vary widely”.
But the bank has already fulfilled this role by publishing its November assessment of the no-deal risks for government and parliament to consider. There is therefore no justification for the bank to pre-emptively impose its views by deciding to keeping interest rates artificially low.
The political risks associated with such an intervention would be large, particularly if the bank’s assessment or its proposed solution proves wrong. And there is also the risk of unintended consequences.
The history of stimulus does, after all, suggest that the only certain outcome of lower interest rates would be a further rise in today’s already sky-high level of asset prices.
The pH Report
London house prices are “falling at the fastest rate in almost a decade” according to major property lender, Nationwide. And almost 40% of new-build sales were to bulk buyers at discounts of up to 30%, according of researchers, Molior. As the CEO of builders Crest Nicholson told the Financial Times:
“We did this sale because we knew we would otherwise have unsold built stock.”
They probably made a wise decision to take their profit and sell now. There are currently 68,000 units under construction in London, and nearly half of them are unsold. Slower moving builders will likely find themselves having to take losses in order to find a buyer.
London is a series of villages and the issues are different across the city:
Nine Elms, SW London. This $15bn (US$20bn) transformation has been ‘an accident waiting to happen‘ for some time. It plans to build 20000 new homes in 39 developments at prices of up to £2200/sq ft. Yet 2/3rds of London buyers can only afford homes costing up to $450/sq ft – thus 43% of apartments for sale have already cut their price.
West End, Central London. This is the top end of the market, and was one of the first areas to see a decline. As buying agent Henry Pryor notes:
“Very few people want to buy or sell property in the few months leading up to our monumental political divorce from Europe next March, which is why 50% of homes on the market in Belgravia and Mayfair have been on the market for over a year. Yet there are people who have to sell, whether it be because of divorce, debt or death, so if you have money to spend I can’t remember a time since the credit crunch in 2007 when you could get a better deal.”
NW London. Foreign buyers flooded into this area as financial services boomed. Rising bonuses meant many didn’t need a mortgage and could afford to pay £1m – £2.5m in cash. But now, many banks are activating contingency plans to move some of their highly paid staff out of London ahead of Brexit. Thus Pryor reports buying a property recently for £1.7m, which had been on the market for £2.25m just 2 years ago.
W London. Also popular with foreign buyers, even areas such as Kew (with its world-famous Royal Botanic Gardens) have seen a dramatic sales volume decline. In Kew itself, volume is down 40% over the past 2 years. And, of course, volume always leads prices – up or down. Over half of the homes now on sale have cut prices by at least 5% – 10%, and the pace of decline seems to be rising. One home has cut its offer price by 17.5% since March.
Outer London. This is the one area bucking the trend, due to the support provided by the government’s ‘Help to Buy’ programme. This provides state-backed loans for up to £600k with a deposit of just 5%. As Molior comment, this is “the only game in town” for individual purchasers, given that prices in central London are out of reach for new buyers.
The key issue is highlighted in the charts above – affordability:
- The first chart shows how prices were very cyclical till 2000, due to interest rate changes. They doubled between 1983 – 1989, for example, and then almost halved by 1993. In turn, the ratio of prices to average earnings fluctuated between 4x – 6x
- But interest rates have been relatively low over the past 20 years, and new factors instead drove home prices
- The second chart shows the impact in terms of first-time buyer affordability and mortgage payments. Payments were 40% of take-home pay until 1998, but then rose steadily to above 100% during the Subprime Bubble. After a brief downturn, the Quantitative Easing (QE) bubble then took them back over 100% in 2016
The paradigm shift was driven by policy changes after the 2000 dot-com crash. As in the USA, the Bank of England decided to support house prices via lower interest rates to avoid a downturn, and then doubled down on the policy after the financial crash – despite the Governor’s warning in 2007 that:
“We knew that we had pushed consumption up to levels that could not possibly be sustained in the medium and longer term. But for the time being if we had not done that the UK economy would have gone into recession… That pushed up house prices and increased household debt. That problem has been a legacy to my successors; they have to sort it out.”
- The 2000 stock market collapse and subprime’s low interest rates led many to see property as safer than shares. They created the buy-to-let trend and decided property would instead become their pension pot for the future
- The 2008 financial crisis, and upheavals in the Middle East, Russia, and parts of the Eurozone led many foreign buyers to join the buying trend, seeing London property as a “safe place” in a more uncertain investment world
- Asian buyers also flooded in to buy new property “off-plan”. As I noted in 2015, agents were describing the Nine Elms development as: ” ‘Singapore-on-Thames’. Buying off-plan was the ultimate option play for a lot of the buyers [who are] Asian. You only need to put down 10% and then see how the market goes. A lot of buyers are effectively taking a financial position rather than buying a property”“
But now all these factors are unraveling, leaving prices to be set by local supply/demand factors again. Recent governments have taken away the tax incentives behind buy-to-let, and have raised taxes for foreign buyers. As the top chart shows, this leave prices looking very exposed:
- They averaged 4.8x earnings from 1971 – 2000, but have since averaged 8.7x and are currently 11.8x
- Based on average London earnings of £39.5k, a return to the 4.8x ratio would leave prices at £190k
- That compares with actual average prices of £468k today
And, of course, there is the issue of exchange rates. Older house-owners will remember that the Bank of England would regularly have to raise interest rates to protect the value of the pound. In 1992, they rose to 15% at the height of the ERM crisis. But policy since then has been entirely in the other direction.
Nobody knows whether what will happen next to the value of the pound. But if interest rates do become more volatile again, as in 1971-2000, cyclicality might also return to the London housing market.
The post London house prices slip as supply/demand balances change appeared first on Chemicals & The Economy.
2000 should have been the natural end of the BabyBoomer-led economic SuperCycle. The oldest Boomer (born in 1946) was about to leave the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group that drives consumer spending and hence economic growth. And since 1970, Boomer women’s fertility rates had been below replacement level (2.1 babies/woman). So relatively fewer young people were joining the Wealth Creator generation to replace the Boomers who were leaving.
But instead, central banks decided that demographics didn’t matter. They believed instead that monetary policy could effectively “print babies” and create sustainable demand. So instead of worrying about financial stability – their real role – they aimed to stimulate the economy by boosting financial asset prices – primarily shares and housing markets.
London’s housing market was a key target as the Bank of England’s Governor told Parliament in March 2007:
“When we were in an environment of global economic weakness at the beginning of the decade, it meant that external demand was declining… We knew that we had pushed consumption up to levels that could not possibly be sustained in the medium and longer term. But for the time being if we had not done that the UK economy would have gone into recession… That pushed up house prices and increased household debt. That problem has been a legacy to my successors; they have to sort it out.”
But instead, when the Subprime Bubble burst, policymakers did even more stimulus via Quantitative Easing (QE).
The chart of London house prices since 1971 (in £2017) therefore shows 3 distinct phases:
- 1971-1999. Prices were typically Cyclical – (1) up 51%, down 31%; (2) up 37%, down 15%; (3) up 109%, down 43%. But they averaged around 4.8x average London earnings
- 2000-2007. Central banks panicked after the dotcom crash and kept interest rates artificially low – creating the Subprime Bubble as prices rose in more or less a straight line, till they were up 196% from the previous trough
- 2008-2017. The market tried initially to return prices to reality, and they slipped 10%. But then central banks rushed to flood it with liquidity and created the QE Bubble, causing prices to soar 46%
Now, however, the Stimulus Bubble is ending and a “perfect storm” is developing as 3 key myths are exposed:
The end of the ‘London is a global city’ myth. The house price/earnings ratio averaged 4.8x between 1971-1999. But it then took off into the stratosphere to reach 11x today, as the myth grew that Londoners weren’t relevant to the housing market. Instead, it was said that London had become a “global city” where foreigners would set the price.
Chinese and Asian buyers boosted this myth as vast new apartment blocks were sold off-plan in the main Asian cities – often to buyers who never even visited their new “home”. But the myth ended last year when China introduced severe capital controls – capital outflows collapsed from $640bn in 2016 to just $60bn in 2017.
The scale of the this retreat is overwhelming as The Guardian reported recently:
“The total number of unsold luxury new-build homes, which are rarely advertised at less than £1m, has now hit a record high of 3,000 units, as the rich overseas investors they were built for turn their backs on the UK due to Brexit uncertainty and the hike in stamp duty on second homes….
“Henry Pryor, a property buying agent, says the London luxury new-build market is “already overstuffed but we’re just building more of them. We’re going to have loads of empty and part-built posh ghost towers. They were built as gambling chips for rich overseas investors, but they are no longer interested in the London casino and have moved on.””
The end of the buy-to-let mania. Parents of students going away to college began this trend in the mid-1990s, as they bought properties for their children to use, rather than rent from poor quality landlords. After the dotcom crash, many decided that “bricks and mortar” were a safer bet than shares, especially with the major tax breaks available.
Banks were delighted to lend against an asset that was supported by the Bank of England, finding it far more attractive than lending to a business that might go bust. And so parents held on to their investments after their children left college – further reducing the amount of housing available for young people to buy. But as The Telegraph reports:
“Buy-to-let investors now face tougher conditions. A weakening housing market, tough new legislation and the tightening of affordability checks by lenders are but a few problems causing landlords to run for the hills. According to the National Landlords Association, 20% of landlords plan to sell one or more of their properties in the next 12 months.”
Interest rates will never rise. Of course, the key to the Subprime and QE Bubbles was the Bank’s decision to collapse interest rates to stimulate the economy. Monthly payments became much more affordable – and ever-rising prices meant there was no longer any need to worry about repaying the capital.
But some people still couldn’t afford to buy even on this basis, and by 2007 around 30% of mortgages were “interest-only” with no capital repayment at all. These buyers should have been forced sellers when the Subprime Bubble burst; prices would then have returned to more normal levels. But instead, the Bank of England stepped in again, as the Financial Times has reported:
“During and after the 2008 financial crisis Britain’s mortgage lenders took a more tolerant approach to non-payers through the use of forbearance ….at the height of the housing market troubles in 2011 Bank of England research suggested that as many as 12% of all UK residential mortgages were in some form of forbearance. This helped prevent the downturn from developing into a 1990s-style crash, the Bank suggested.”
PRICES WOULD FALL 60% IF THE HOUSE PRICE/EARNINGS RATIO “REVERTS TO MEAN”
All “good things” come to an end, of course. And the London property bubble is probably no exception. Its 3 key drivers are now all reversing, and there seems little sign of any new factors that might help to keep the bubble inflating.
The risk is that interest rates continue to rise, forcing many owners to sell and bursting the Stimulus Bubble. UK 10-year rates have already trebled from their 0.5% low in Q3 2016. Most rates seem likely to go much higher now the 30-year downtrend has been broken, as I discussed last week.
Today’s high prices will also make it difficult for sellers to find local buyers, as the number of homes being bought/ sold each year has fallen 25% since the 2007 peak. Most young people cannot afford to buy. And if many people do decide to sell, potential buyers might panic, causing the slump to continue for many years – as happened before 2000.
Nobody knows how low prices might go, if they start to fall. But ‘reversion to mean’ is usually the best measure. If this happened, today’s average London home, selling at 4.8x earnings, would cost £193k – a 60% fall from 2017’s average price of £475k. This figure also highlights the risk that policymakers’ denial of demographic realities has created.
The post London house prices risk perfect storm as interest rates rise appeared first on Chemicals & The Economy.
Global interest rates have fallen dramatically over the past 25 years, as the chart shows for government 10-year bonds:
UK rates peaked at 9% in 1995 and are now down at 1%: US rates peaked at 8% and are now at 2%
German rates peaked at 8% and are now down to 0%: Japanese rates peaked at 4% and are now also at 0%
But what goes down can also rise again. And one of the most reliable ways of investing is to assume that prices will normally revert to their mean, or average.
If this happens, rates have a long way to rise. Long-term UK interest rates since 1703 have averaged 4.5% through wars, booms and depressions. If we just look more recently, average UK 10-year rates over the past 25 years were 4.6%. We are clearly a very long way away from these levels today.
This doesn’t of course mean that rates will suddenly return to these levels overnight. But there are now clear warning signs that rates are likely to rise as central banks wind down their Quantitative Easing (QE) and Zero Interest Rate stimulus policies. The problem is the legacy these policies leave behind, as the Financial Times noted recently:
“In total, the six central banks that have embarked on quantitative easing over the past decade — the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England, along with the Swiss and Swedish central banks — now hold more than $15tn of assets, according to analysis by the FT of IMF and central bank figures, more than four times the pre-crisis level.
“Of this, more than $9tn is government bonds — one dollar in every five of the $46tn total outstanding debt owed by their governments. The ECB’s total balance sheet recently topped that of the Fed in dollar terms. It now holds $4.9tn of assets, including nearly $2tn in eurozone government bonds.”
The key question is therefore ‘what happens next’? Will pension funds and other buyers step in to buy the same amount of bonds at the same price each month?
The answer is almost certainly no. Pension funds are focused on paying pensions, not on supporting the national economy. And higher rates would really help them to reduce their current deficits. The current funding level for the top US S&P 1500 companies is just 82%, versus 97% in 2011. They really need bond prices to fall (bond prices move inversely to yields), and rates to rise back towards their average, in order to reduce their liabilities.
The problem is that rising yields would also pressure share prices both directly and indirectly:
Some central banks have been major buyers of shares via Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) – the Bank of Japan now owns 71% of all shares in Japan-listed ETFs
Lower interest rates also helped to support share prices indirectly, as investors were able to borrow more cheaply
Margin debt on the New York Stock Exchange (money borrowed to invest in shares) is now at an all time high in $2017. Ominously, company buy-backs of their shares have already begun to slow and are down $100bn in the past year.
House prices are also in the line of fire, as the second chart shows for London. They have typically traded on the basis of their ratio to earnings
The average ratio was 4.8x between 1971 – 1999
But this ratio has more than doubled to 12x since 2000 as prices rose exponentially during subprime and then QE
The reason was that after the dotcom crash in 2000, the Bank of England deliberately allowed prices to move out of line with earnings. As its Governor, Eddie George, later told the UK Parliament in March 2007:
“When we were in an environment of global economic weakness at the beginning of the decade, it meant that external demand was declining… One had only two alternatives in sustaining demand and keeping the economy moving forward: one was public spending and the other was consumption….
“We knew that we had pushed consumption up to levels that could not possibly be sustained in the medium and longer term. But for the time being if we had not done that the UK economy would have gone into recession, just like the economies of the United States, Germany and other major industrial countries. That pushed up house prices and increased household debt. That problem has been a legacy to my successors; they have to sort it out.”
Of course, as the chart shows, George’s successors did the very opposite. Ignoring the fact that a bubble was already underway, they instead reduced interest rates to near-zero after the subprime crisis of 2008, and flooded the market with liquidity. Naturally enough, prices then took off into the stratosphere.
Today, however, the Bank is finally recognising – too late – that it has created a bubble of historical proportions, and is desperately trying to shift the blame to someone else. Thus Governor Mark Carney warned last week:
“What we’re worried about is a pocket of risk – a risk in consumer debt, credit card debt, debt for cars, personal loans.”
Of course, the biggest “pocket of risk” is in the housing market:
Lower interest rates meant lower monthly mortgage payments, creating the illusion that high prices were affordable
But higher prices still have to be paid back at the end of the mortgage – very difficult, when wages aren’t also rising
The Bank has therefore now imposed major new restrictions on lenders. They have ordered them to keep new loans at no more than 4.5x incomes for the vast majority of their borrowers. And lenders themselves are also starting to get worried as the average deposit is now close to £100k ($135k).
Of course, London prices might stay high despite these new restrictions. Anything is possible.
But fears over a hard Brexit have already led many banks, insurance companies and lawyers to start moving highly-paid people out of London, as the City risks losing its “passport” to service EU27 clients. Over 50% of surveyors report that London house prices are now falling, just as a glut of new homes comes to market. In the past month, asking prices have fallen by £300k in Kensington/Chelsea, and by £75k in Camden, as buyers disappear.
The next question is how low could prices go if they return to the mean? If London price/earning ratios fell back from today’s 12x ratio to the post-2000 average of 8.2x level, average prices would fall by nearly a third to £332k. If ratios returned to the pre-2000 level of 4.8x earnings, then prices would fall by 60% to £195k.
Most Britons now expect a price crash within 5 years, and a quarter expect it by 2019. Brexit uncertainty, record high prices and vast overs-supply of new properties could be a toxic combination, perhaps even taking ratios below their average for a while – as happened in the early 1990s slump. As then, a crash might also take years to unwind, making life very difficult even for those who did not purchase when prices were at their peak.
Unsurprisingly, Friday’s US GDP report showed Q1 growth was just 0.7%, as the New York Times reported:
“The U.S. economy turned in the weakest performance in three years in the January-March quarter as consumers sharply slowed their spending. The result fell far short of President Donald Trump’s ambitious growth targets and underscores the challenges of accelerating economic expansion.”
And as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) added:
“The worrisome thing about the GDP report is where the weakness was. Consumer spending grew at just a 0.3% annual rate—its slowest showing since the fourth quarter of 2009… As confirmed by soft monthly retail sales and the drop off in car sales, the first-quarter spending slowdown was real“.
The problem is simple. Economic policy since 2000 under both Democrat and Republican Presidents has been dominated by wishful thinking, as I discussed in my Financial Times letter last week.
The good news is that there are now signs this wishful thinking is finally starting to be questioned. As the WSJ reported Friday, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who runs the world’s largest asset manager, told investors:
“Part of the challenge the U.S. faces, Mr. Fink said, is demographics. Baby boomers, the largest living generation in the country are aging, reaching retirement age. “With our demographics it seems pretty improbable to see sustainable 3% growth.””
And earlier this year, the chief economist at the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, suggested that the importance of:
“Demographics in mainstream economics has been under-emphasized for too long.”
Policymakers should have focused on demographics after 2001, as the oldest Boomers (born in 1946) began to join the low-spending, low-earning New Old 55+ generation. The budget surplus created during the SuperCycle should have been saved to fund future needs such as Social Security costs.
But instead, President George W Bush and the Federal Reserve wasted the surplus on futile stimulus policies based on tax cuts and low interest rates. And when this wishful thinking led to the 2008 financial crisis, President Obama and the Fed doubled down with even lower interest rates and $4tn of money-printing via quantitative easing.
This wishful thinking has therefore created a debt burden on top of the demographic deficit, as the chart confirms:
Between 1966 – 1979, each $1 increase in US public debt created $4.49 of GDP growth, as supply and infrastructure investment grew to meet the needs of the Boomer generation
Debt still added to GDP in 1980 – 1999 during the SuperCycle: each $1 of debt created $1.15 of GDP growth
But since 2000, debt has risen by $13.9tn, whilst GDP has risen by just $4.6tn
Each $1 of new debt has therefore only created $0.33c of GDP growth – value destruction on a massive scale
It is therefore vital that President Trump learns from the mistakes of Presidents Bush and Obama. Further stimulus policies such as tax cuts will only make today’s position worse in terms of debt and growth. Instead, he needs to develop new policies that focus on the challenges created by today’s ageing population. as I suggested last August:
“3 key issues will therefore confront the next President. He or she:
□ Will have to design measures to support older Boomers to stay in the workforce
□ Must reverse the decline that has taken place in corporate funding for pensions
□ Must also tackle looming deficits in Social Security and Medicare, as benefits will otherwise be cut by 29% in 2030
It has always been obvious that the Fed could not possibly control the economic fortunes of 321m Americans. Common sense tells us that demographics, not monetary policy, drive demand. Unfortunately, vast amounts of time and money have been wasted as a result. The path back to fiscal sanity will be very hard indeed.”
US GDP growth is slowing, again, as the chart of the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s “GDP Now” forecast shows:
Forecast Q1 growth has slipped to just 0.6% from an initial 3.4% at the end of January
Consensus economic forecasts are still much higher, but even they have fallen to 1.7% from 2.2%
The decline has been accelerating, due to disappointing data from a range of key indicators. as the Atlanta Fed note:
“The forecast for first-quarter real GDP growth fell 0.4% after the light vehicle sales release from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the ISM Non-Manufacturing Report On Business from the Institute for Supply Management on Wednesday and 0.2% after the employment release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the wholesale trade release from the U.S. Census Bureau this morning. Since April 4, the forecasts for first-quarter real consumer spending growth and real nonresidential equipment investment growth have fallen from 1.2% and 9.7% to 0.6% and 5.6% respectively.”
Worryingly, therefore, we seem to be repeating the usual pattern of disappointment – with New Year optimism being followed by harsh reality – as the US Federal Reserve’s deputy chairman, Stanley Fischer, noted nearly 3 years ago:
“Year after year we have had to explain from mid-year on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back.”
The key issue, of course, is that policymakers have still not accepted that the US economy is inevitably moving into a low-growth mode, due to its ageing population. As the Chief Economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane noted recently, the impact of:
“Demographics in mainstream economics has been under-emphasized for too long”
There is little sign of the new policies that are urgently required to take account of the changes that have taken place in life expectancy and fertility rate. As a result, forecasts continue to be made on the basis of wishful thinking at the start of each New Year. As I noted in December:
□ Increasing life expectancy means people no longer routinely die around pension age. Instead, a whole New Old generation of people in the low spending, low earning 55+ generation is emerging for the first time in history. The average western BabyBoomer can now expect to live for another 20 years on reaching the age of 65
□ Fertility rates in the developed world have fallen by 40% since 1950. They have also been below replacement levels (2.1 babies per woman) for the past 45 years. Inevitably, therefore, this has reduced the relative numbers of those in today’s Wealth Creator cohort, just as the New Old generation is expanding exponentially
Friday’s US jobs numbers confirmed this obvious truth, as the second chart shows:
□ Less than 2/3rds of the US over-16s population now have jobs. The current percentage of 62.9% is back at 1978 levels – when the median age was 30 years, compared to today’s 38 years – and so relatively more young people were still in school and college
□ The picture for men is particularly worrying, with just 68.9% at work, an all-time low. The dcline seems to have accelerated since the Finanical Crisis began, with the participation rate falling from 73.2% in 2007
□ The percentage of women working is also still in decline, although at a slower rate. It is at 57.2% today compared to the 60% peak in 1999 before Boomer women began to retire
Even more worrying is the data shown on the 3rd chart, which highlights the changes in real wages, adjusted for inflation, since records began in 1979:
□ Average earnings in 2016 were only just higher than in 2009, at $347/week versus $345/week
□ Average earnings for men at $381/week are well below the peak of $402/week in 1979
□ Only women’s earnings are moving in the right direction, with 2016 at a new high of $312/week
□ But, of course, this highlights how women’s earnings still average only 82% of men’s earnings
It is no great surprise that US and global GDP continue to disappoint, given this evidence from the jobs market. And nothing will change until policymakers accept that today’s ageing populations require completely new policies.