UK housing market ; short term blip or steeper fall in prospect?

The UK economy defied the consensus expectation of a slowdown last year following the Brexit vote, and fears for the housing market were not realised.  The last few months have reignited concerns about both, however, and the news that the Bank of England is  now split on whether to raise interest rates ( a 5-3 vote to maintain the status quo)  won’t help.

House prices have certainly cooled. The Nationwide index for May showed annual house price inflation at 2.1%, the softest pace in four years, with a clear slowing trend; the index has now fallen for three consecutive months, by a total of 0.9%. The picture from the Halifax index is similar, with annual inflation slowing to 3.3% in May, from 6.5% in December. Both indices are based on mortgage lending and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes a broader  but less timely measure, based on Land Registry transactions,  which shows an annual rise of 5.6% for April, albeit also pointing to a slowing trend.  The RICS data, based on a survey of chartered surveyers operating in the residential market.  also reveals a softer market. with a net 17% of respondents in May expecting prices to rise, the weakest reading since the summer of 2016. Buyer and seller inquiries were also seen to have cooled.

Are UK  house prices excessive? The average price in the UK is now £209,000 according to the Nationwide, or 48% above the cycle low in early 2009. Prices are also now well above the previous peak ( £186,000) and are 5.3 times the income of  First Time Buyers (FTB) against  a  long run average of 3.6.  However, interest rates are unusually low; the standard variable rate is over 4% but the effective rate on new mortgages is around 2% according to the BoE, reflecting discounts and lower fixed rates. Consequently , affordability measures do not suggest prices are overvalued; the Nationwide data, for example, shows mortgage payments at 33% of FTB income, bang in line with the long run average. Indeed, for most of the UK regions affordability is much better than the norm, the exception being London, although non-resident purchasers are  more significant in that market.

The supply of housing in the UK is widely thought to be persistently short of the demographic requirement, but completions also fell sharply after the crash, declining to 107,000 in England ( which has the most timely data)  from 170,000 in 2007. Completions have picked up again, in response to higher prices, rising to over 140,000 in England in 2016, and  the  housing starts data points to a higher total again this year. Yet few argue that supply is  still anywhere near demand.

Net mortgage lending  has been growing, in contrast to Ireland, although at a modest pace  relative to historical exerience, but  now also appears to be slowing, with annual growth at 2.8% in April against over 3% for most of the past year. Mortgage approvals for house purchase, a more forward looking indicator,  fell below 65,000 for the first time in six months in April.

This all may relate to uncertainty about Brexit and the short term economic outlook, with the election result also likely to weigh on sentiment. In our view the likelihood  of a more prolonged and sustained period of weakness depends upon the labour market, which to date has held up remarkably well;  the employment ratio is at an all-time high, while unemployment  is still making new cycle lows.  One suspects that UK  lenders and the Government  would only become seriously concerned about the housing market if cracks started to appear in employment.

What to do with the €3bn?

The Government has decided to proceed with the sale of 25% of AIB, and has indicated that it expects to raise around €3bn from the transaction. What to do with the money has been the source of some political debate, although the constraints imposed by the EU’s fiscal rules may leave the authorities with little room to manoeuvre.

The proceeds of the sale will not affect the General Government balance , as under Eurostat rules it is classed as a financial transaction , merely  exchanging one type of asset within general government for another, in this case cash. However, the €3bn inflow will impact the Exchequer Borrowing Requirement (EBR), the  deficit on a cash flow basis. The 2017 Budget made no allowance for  any sale proceeds and projected a €2bn EBR  so on the face of it the Exchequer may now emerge with a €1bn surplus at end-year, assuming the initial underlying target is achieved .

The Budget also indicated that the NTMA would  over-fund in 2017 (i.e issue more debt than required to finance the EBR and to cover redemptions)  so in sum gross Government debt was projected to rise by around €4bn, to  €204.6bn or 72.9% of forecast GDP. Adding in the AIB proceeds would therefore reduce the forecast debt level to €201.6bn, or 71.9%.

The limited impact on the debt ratio ( just 1 percentage point) has prompted some to question whether the money might be better utilised to fund capital or even current spending, with most of the argument centred on the former. Whether this would be wise given that the economy is operating at or even above potential is one consideration, albeit not an argument one often hears from politicians, but there is a more significant constraint; Ireland is subject to the budgetary rules of the EU’s Preventive Arm, designed to reduce the risk of utilising one-off receipts, like the AIB monies, to fund increases in spending.

To that end an Expenditure Benchmark is in place setting a limit on the level of General Government spending ( Fiscal Space) allowed, net of any taxation changes, and the AIB  proceeds are not classed as General Government revenue. Capital spending, it could be argued, differs from current spending in that an asset for the State is created, but total capital spending is not exempt from the spending rule, only any increase relative to a 4-year average. For example, if the Government announced it intended to spend €6bn next year and the 4-year average was €4bn, a net €2bn would be exempt from the Expenditure Benchmark, However, the €6bn would obviously boost the  Budget deficit, which is also subject to EU rules, in this case a requirement to reduce it by at least 0.5% of GDP when adjusted for the economic cycle.

Putting the money aside or into a special fund would make no difference in terms of the above constraints. Ireland could simply ignore the rules, of course, and de facto there seems little prospect of any State being fined for a breach, but one doubts if there would be any appetite from the current Administration for such a move, as it risks alienating  key European partners amid Brexit negotiations .

Stronger euro and weaker oil bad news for ECB hawks

Last December the euro briefly traded below 1.04 against the US dollar and few forecasters envisaged a short term recovery, with a number calling for parity against the greenback. In the event the euro has appreciated, with the past two months seeing a notable rally, taking the single currency above $1.12. The consensus has also shifted, with many abandoning bearish calls in favour of further euro appreciation. Speculative positioning  has also tilted decisively, with the market now running modestly long the euro/dollar for the first time in over three years.

One factor driving the euro is the economic data, which has generally surprised to the upside,  in turn prompting analysts to revise up their GDP projections. As a consequence many now expect the ECB to shift its policy stance, moving initially towards less dovish rhetoric before changing its forward guidance, although a rise in the deposit rate is not fully priced in until the latter part of 2018. In contrast, the US data has tended to surprise to the downside and the market, which was effectively pricing in two further rate hikes in the US this year, is now much less confident about the second ( although  a rise this month is still seen as highly likely)

In its  Staff forecast in March the ECB projected inflation at 1.7% in 2019, predicated on a euro/dollar rate of $1.07 over the forecast horizon. The exchange rate is seen to have a significant impact on prices in the EA and if the next forecast ( due later this week) used a rate of $1.12 that , all else equal, may push the inflation forecast for 2019 down by as much as 0.2 percentage points.

Moreover, the March forecast assumed an oil price around $56 over the next few years, and that now looks too high, given developments of late , with  Brent crude prices falling to around $50 on market concerns that the OPEC cuts have not been sufficient to make an appreciable dent in the unusually high level of crude stocks. Again, a lower oil price projection, say around $50, would shave up to another 0.2 percentage points off the inflation projection.

Of course the Staff may revise up some other components ( wage growth for example) to avoid having to lower the inflation outlook, and one sometimes wonders if the forecast drives ECB policy or the other way round, but on the face of it the combination of weaker oil and a stronger currency should have a disinflationary impact.