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Threat of housing bubble pushes Britain to act

June 26, 2014

LONDON (AP) — Can Britain avoid bubble trouble in its economy?

Concerns are mounting that the country’s housing market is overinflated, with London house prices rising almost 19 percent in 12 months. Experts fear it is fueled by debt and the market might ‘pop’ and come crashing down, as it did in the U.S. during the financial crisis, dragging the country into recession and leaving millions of homeowners with properties that are worth less than their mortgages.

In an attempt to avoid such a scenario, the Bank of England on Thursday announced measures to tighten credit and cool off the sector. The move is of interest globally, as it will show how much a major central bank can keep a specific sector from overheating in an economy that is otherwise still recovering.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said that while he did not see a bubble in the property market now, the recent surge in prices warranted preventive action.

“This is the limit of our tolerance,” Carney said after a meeting of a Bank of England committee created to prevent a repeat of the recent financial crisis.

The Bank of England said mortgage lenders must make tougher affordability tests on potential homebuyers. It also said lenders should limit the size of their mortgage loans when compared with borrowers’ incomes. The British government separately said it would impose the same limits to its Help to Buy program, a scheme that helps prospective buyers.

Central bankers around the world often face a similar problem — how to cool off a specific sector without disrupting the wider recovery. Experts say that the low interest rates in Europe, the U.S. and other major economies have encouraged investors to seek out returns in new sectors. Property is considered a good bet. Bond markets in developing countries have also seen a surge in recent months, as have stock markets.

But raising interest rates can be a blunt instrument to control these trends, as it can hurt other sectors of the economy that have not yet fully recovered from recession. Central banks in the U.S., Europe and Japan are aware of that danger, promising rates won’t be increased any time soon.

The question is how to cool off investor interest in these sectors without causing a market rout.

“You want to apply the brakes,” said Bob Pannell, chief economist at the Council of Mortgage Lenders. “But you don’t want to fly over the handlebars.”

In Britain, the property market has been driven not just by low interest rates, but also interest from wealthy investors and pent up demand in a country with a chronic housing shortage. House prices rose 18.7 percent in the capital and about 10 percent in the rest of the country in the year ending in April, according to official statistics. That far outstripped the 0.7 percent increase in wages including bonuses during the same period.

That means Britons have to borrow more to buy a home. Homeowners in Britain often get new mortgage loans every two or three years to take advantage of fluctuating markets — rather than a fixed longer-term system common in the United States. Carney recently described over-extended borrowers as a threat to the financial system, largely because households make up the bulk of domestic borrowing.

Figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a policy watchdog for the 34 most developed countries, suggest property prices in Britain are about 30 percent too high when compared to wages. In the United States, by contrast, most homes are valued correctly while Japan remains the cheapest market among OECD members after years of deflation.

While Carney said the current British market was not a bubble, other economists disagree.

“This may not be the mother of all house price bubbles, but it may be the sister,” said David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee who now teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

The froth can be seen in the explosion of real estate agents. In a country where neighborhood retail shops often struggle to survive, realtor shops are a fixture, particularly in desirable neighborhoods.

PricedOut, a group that campaigns for affordable house prices, says people with steady but modest jobs — nurses, teachers and engineers — have little hope of buying a home, especially in the south. In Oxford, Britain’s least affordable city, the average house price — at about 340,000 pounds ($578,000) — costs 11 times gross average earnings, according to the Lloyds Bank Affordable Cities Review.

Take the experience of Daniel Philpott, 35, of London, who has been sleeping on the sofas of friends and family for two years in hopes of saving enough money for a down payment. He makes 40,000 pounds a year designing air conditioning units for commercial buildings. If he had to pay rent, there would be no hope of saving enough to buy what he wants: stability for the future.

“These high prices are just completely untenable,” he said.

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