Irish new mortgage lending rises by 29% in 2017 but affordability is deteriorating

Irish mortgage providers lent €6.4bn for house purchase in 2017, the strongest figure since 2008, with top-ups and re-mortgaging bringing the total to €7.3bn, a 29% increase on the previous year The final quarter was particularly strong, when adjusted for the usual seasonal effects , and we expect further growth in 2018, although affordability is deteriorating and the Central Bank’s modifications to its mortgage controls will no doubt have some impact on First Time Buyers , as Loan to Income is the main constraint for that segment of the market. Indeed, there was a notable slowdown in approvals in the last few months of the year, perhaps indicating that lenders are already adjusting to the rule changes.

Drawdowns were very strong in the final quarter, nonetheless, with over 8,700 mortgages for house purchase including over 5,000 to FTB’s, some 60% of the total. For 2017 as a whole 29,400 mortgages for house purchase were drawn down, still a far cry from the boom figures in excess of 100,000 but significanttly above the low recorded in 2011 (11,000) and 18% above the total in 2016. The value of lending for house purchase implies an average mortgage of over €217,000, against €200,000 in 2016, and a cycle low of €174,000 five years ago.

Interest rates on new loan have not materially changed over that period and household incomes have risen but the increase in mortgage size is such that affordability, the ability to service a mortgage, has deteriorated. Our own model compares  the annual cost of a new , 25-year repayment mortgage to our estimate of gross  borrower income, and shows that the ratio rose to 30% in 2017, the highest since 2009 and above the long run average (back to 1975)  of  29.5. The ratio is still well below the heights recorded at the peak of the boom ( over 40%) but our forecast is for a further deterioration in 2018, to 31.2 , and this assumes no change in interst rates, so any rise in the latter  would indicate a greater deterioration.

At the moment a rate rise looks unlikely until 2019, at least, and the affordability change expected does not look material enough to have a significant impact on lending, given the prospect of further gains in employment, an acceleration in wage inflation and stronger house completions. Against that, the Central Bank’s changes to mortgage controls are undoubtedly a policy tightening, in our view, although not  sufficient to prevent further growth in new lending, and we anticipate a figure around €9bn in 2018. Net lending has also started to grow in recent months, so the coming year will probably see the first rise in Irish mortgage debt in a decade.



State’s strange move into higher risk, high leverage mortgage lending

First Time buyers accounted for 11,896 transactions in the Irish housing market in the first eleven months of 2017, which is 1700 up on the same period in 2016 but still only around 20% of total turnover. The Government has sought to support that segment of demand via a tax rebate to help those seeking to buy or build a new home (the Help to Buy scheme) and has just announced a fresh initiative, this time in the form of State mortgage lending ( Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan) , although the scheme has a number of odd features and appears a strange step to take.

To qualify, would-be borrowers have to have been rejected by at least two lenders, which immediately implies that the State would be taking on if not sub-prime then certainly higher risk loans. The lending decision will be taken by local authorities, so someone in those authorities will be making credit risk decisions, raising the issue of the criteria that will be used to decide which applicant is successful.

Third, the State is driving a coach and horses through the Central Bank’s mortgage controls and one wonders what the Bank makes of it and whether it was consulted. Lending institutions are required to limit mortgage loans to  a maximum of 3.5 times  the borrowers income , with 20% of lending to FTB’s  per annum allowed above that. The  specific limit  for FTB’s has just been introduced and represents a de facto tightening of standards, as 24% of lending to that segment exceeded the limit in the first half of 2017. Yet the State scheme allows a LTI range from 3.8 to 5.0, which is much higher leverage than deemed acceptable  to private lenders, and therefore higher risk.

The scheme does have a loan to value limit ( 90%) and a maximum property price, so putting a cap  on a given loan, although it does differentiate by location; properties in the major cities and in the counties surrounding Dublin carry a  maximum loan of €288,000 as against €225,000 elsewhere. Over 60% of transactions are in the former areas so the €200m allocated implies that less than 800 loans could be granted in 2018. Total mortgage lending for house purchase this year is likely to be around €8.5bn so the scheme is not material in terms of the overall market.

Finally, we have the issue of funding costs. Successful borrowers will have three options, two fixed rates and one floating, all well below current market rates. For example, a 25-year mortgage would cost 2% fixed, and a fixed rate for that term is not available from Irish banks- in general, banks can’t borrow at that maturity, so 3-5 year fixed  is the most common (although some 10-year is now available). The State can and has borrowed for 25 years and longer, with a bond maturing in 2045 trading at around 1.8%, implying a very small margin if that was tapped to fund this initiative.

Successful borrowers will be getting a cheap loan with the State taking on a level of risk that the private sector is unwilling to bear, at least at that cost, and indeed  what the Central Bank is also unwilling for borrowers or lenders to countenance.

The exchange rate and oil price, not growth, key for ECB QE exit

The consensus was badly wrong on the euro zone last year, significantly underestimating the pace of economic growth and the single currency’s appreciation against the US dollar. This year, growth is expected to remain strong and the euro is generally forecast to appreciate modestly, while many believe the ECB will cease its net asset purchase programme by year-end, with a strong majority of analysts also expecting that to be followed by a rate rise in 2019.

The ECB staff forecast also projects above-trend growth for the next three years, resulting in a steadty decline in the unemployment rate to an average of 7.3% in 2020, from over 9% last year. Yet inflation is still forecast to be below target in 2020, at 1.7%, despite years of QE and negative interest rates. Indeed, the December forecast actually revised down the Bank’s projections for core inflation ( the headline rate excluding food and energy)  by 0.2 percentage points over the next two years.

In fact the ECB has significantly changed its forecast relationship between growth and inflation, as indeed have many Central banks. In their macro models, stronger GDP growth leads to lower unemployment  which in turn boosts wage inflation and ultimately price inflation via higher costs for firms, which are passed on to consumers. But, as is now well recognised,the relationship between unemployment and wage inflation has changed and the ECB is now adjusting its forecasts to reflect that fact. Two years ago, for example, an unemployment rate of 10% was expected to generate a 2.1% rise in wages but in the latest forecast wage inflation in 2019 is projected to be below 2% despite an unemployment rate as low as 7.8%.

So stronger growth. per se, is no longer  a sufficient condition for a meaningful acceleration in price inflation in the Staff forecasts, with the path of inflation strongly influenced by the exchange rate ( with a quick pass through to import prices ) and the oil price ( energy accounts for about 10% of the CPI). Oil prices in the current forecast are expected to decline modestly over the next few years (based on the futures market) to $57 a barrel by 2020, but if they fell further, to say $50, annual inflation would be 0.2% lower in 2019 and 2020. On the exchange rate, the euro/dollar is forecast to be broadly unchanged at $1.17 but if it appreciated to , say,  $1.35 over the next few years it would reduce the forecast CPI  in 2020 by  0.6 percentage points.

The ECB’s forecasts could well be wrong, of course, and  inflation may pick up by more than expected but they highlight the risk of what could be a huge policy dilemma later this year.The Bank probably wants to call a halt to asset purchases for a variety of reasons but what if the euro does indeed appreciate and oil prices decline, so leading to lower forecast inflation? Awkward for a Bank that has argued that QE is crucial in getting inflation back up to target.