Investors main buyers of new houses

Data on most aspects of the Irish housing market are now available for the first quarter of 2017 and  generally supports the conventional view that supply is  below that required to cater for the growing demand, albeit  also implying that policies designed to influence the market may not be working as intended.

Take rents. There is now a 4% annual cap on rents in designated ‘pressure zones’ and rental inflation, as captured monthly in the Consumer Price Index, appears to be slowing, with the annual increase easing to 7.9%, the slowest pace in three and a half years. The CSO data, and that from the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) , captures actual rents paid and both are closely correlated over time with the rent index published by Daft,ie, which is based on asking rents . The trend is similar on all three indices but the Daft index was weaker that the RTB during the recession, indicating that  landlords were having to offer lower rents to attract new tenants. The reverse is now the case, with Daft’s index rising at a double digit annual pace and therefore outstripping the RTB, implying that new tenants are having to pay a premium relative to those with existing leases.

House prices are still rising at a brisk annual pace, again supporting the excess demand thesis; the March figure for Dublin was 8.2% and for the rest of the country 11.8% . The CSO index is revised, however, and that pace is not as rapid as previously published. Indeed, prices ex Dublin rose by just 0.9% in the first quarter, implying a slowdown , although the March figure may be revised, this time upward.

The Government is seeking to support  the First Time Buyer (FTB) with the Help to Buy Scheme ( a tax rebate for FTBs purchasing a new home) and the Central Bank has eased its mortgage controls to allow greater leverage. Yet the  CSO Filings data on transactions for the first quarter show that  there was just 1445 new homes sold (defined as previously unoccupied) and that FTBs accounted for only 253 purchases or 17% of the total. In Dublin, FTBs secured just 80 of the 779 new homes sold, or 10%. Moreover, it is not Movers dominating this market; Investors ( non-household buyers) bought  two-thirds of new homes sold in Dublin, and 48% of the total nationally.

The mortgage data also indicates that  FTB’s and indeed Movers are finding it difficult to secure properties. Mortgage approvals for house purchase have been averaging over 8,000 in recent quarters yet the drawdown in q1 was only  5,853, an unusually low figure relative to approvals, again suggesting that buyers with mortgage approval may be being outbid by investors.  The ‘risk-free’ rate of return in Ireland,. as proxied by the 10-year Government bond yield, is less than 1% so FTBs are having to compete for a scarce commodity with those attracted by a rental yield in excess of  5.5%.   Total  mortgage drawdowns  appears to account for only 45% of first quarter transactions, so this is not a credit-driven market.

Irish Fiscal deficit may rise this year

Ireland’s GDP is unusually volatile, as is government revenue, which makes  for frequent forecasting errors in both. For the last three years the errors have proven positive, in that tax receipts have emerged ahead of Budget projections, resulting in lower than anticipated fiscal deficits as well as allowing the government of the day to augment spending in the latter months of the year.  Unfortunately that serendipitous trend appears to  be over, judging by the revenue figures available to end-April, and a tax undershoot for the year is looking more likely.

The 2017 Budget projected tax receipts of €50.6bn, and the Department of Finance still expects that to materialise, which requires a 5.8% increase on the 2016 outturn. Yet the annual increase over the first four months of the year is just 0.5%, with most headings actually down on last year, implying a serious risk of undershooting. Corporation tax has been the most difficult to forecast (exceeding the target by over €700m last year and by an extraordinary €2.3bn or 50% in 2015 ) and is currently some 23% down on 2016, with Stamp duty, Excise and Capital taxes also running well below the previous year in percentage terms.

The main exception is VAT, which is extremely strong, rising at an annual 14.5% or double the pace forecast in the Budget. This is curious given that retail sales grew by an annual  0.9% in the first quarter, but may reflect strong car imports and a rise in house completions. Income tax is also a puzzle, showing annual growth of just 1.2%, which appears at odds with other data implying a continuation of strong employment growth. The Budget forecast that Income tax receipts would end the year 5.6% above the 2016 outturn so , again, there is a lot of catching up to do if that target is to be hit.

The tax position against profile ( i.e. that expected on a monthly basis) is also  likely to be of concern to the Government, with a shortfall of €345m or 2.4%. VAT is running €257mn ahead but that has been more than offset by large shortfalls elsewhere, including €225mn in Corporation tax, €200mn in Income tax and  €120mn in Excise duty. The late Easter may be having an impact and Corporation tax is extremely lumpy on a monthy basis but the risk now is that the fiscal deficit will emerge above the current target of 0.4% of GDP. Moreover the 2016 outturn has now been revised down to just 0.5% so the 2017 figure may well be above this. A 2.4% shortfall in tax receipts at the end of the year, for example, equates to €1.2bn and all else equal would raise the deficit to 0.8% of GDP.

Does it matter?  The Exchequer’s cash position will  likely  be boosted by proceeds from the  sale of shares in AIB , so the debt ratio may well continue to fall. That transaction will not benefit the General Government balance, however, although Ireland has no longer to meet a  headline target for the latter under EU fiscal rules. In fact there are two, related constraints, which will come into play for 2018. One is that the deficit adjusted for the economic cycle  (the structural balance) has to fall by over 0.5% of GDP, and to aid in that process  a limit is put on government spending ( the famous Fiscal Space). The latter is already closing given an array of  spending commitments carried over into 2018 but the Government would not be able to use all the available space anyway if the  tax base emerged below forecast in 2017.


Census confirms Irish Housing stock per head is falling

The Irish housing market seems to lurch from feast to famine, often prompting Government intervention, in turn exacerbating rather than ameliorating the volatility. For some time now it has been clear that the market has moved from one of excess supply to one of excess demand, and the 2016 Census data confirms that annual supply  fell to such a low level over the past five years that it was barely offsetting the obsolesence rate , with the result that the housing stock has only marginally increased, against a background of  a rising population and a recovery in household income.

The stock stood at 1.995 million according to the 2011 census and some of this will become obsolete over time. A commonly used figure in Ireland is 0.5% annually, implying the loss of around 10,000 housing units a year. Yet completions ( itself a less than perfect proxy for actual new supply)  fell well below this in 2012 and 2013 and although  they have picked up the figure for 2016 was  less than 15,000.  Indeed, total completions between the 2011 census and  April 2016  amounted to some 51,000, implying little or no change  in the net stock. In the event the Census revealed a figure of just over 2 million,  a rise of less than 9,000 over the five year period.

The population was not static, of course, rising by 174,000 or 3.8% over the five years , with the result that the housing stock per head of population actually fell, a reversal of the normal trend.The number of households also rose substantially, by over 48,000, which alongside the absence of any meaningful increase in housing supply resulted in a 47,000 fall in the number of vacant properties ( excluding holiday homes). The latter figure stands at 143,000 nationally, or 9.1% of the housing stock, although this masks huge variations across the country, with the ratio being much lower in and around Dublin, including 4.7% in Fingal and only 3.6% in South Dublin.

One ‘solution’  to the supply issue is to simply wait and rely on the market to function, on the basis that rising prices will bring forward new builds. The evidence does point to this happening, although it may well take a few years for supply to match annual demand, let alone eat in to the cumulative excess that has arisen over recent years. There is also  a case for the State to fund housing on a much larger scale, on the basis that large numbers will never afford their own home, although euro fiscal rules are a constraint. Unfortunately, the policy response has been to either address the symptoms of excess demand ( by seeking to control rents for example) or to boost demand further by giving subsidies to certain types of buyers. The former does seem to be having an effect in that data from the CSO shows rents rising by just 1.5% in the three months to March. Moreover,Dublin apartment prices  actually fell in the three months to February, which if maintained is unlikley to encourage supply.



Irish Commercial property market may need Brexit inflow

Commercial property markets are heavily cyclical, which is usually the case when there is a long lag on the supply side- rising rents and prices prompt new construction but by the time this hits the market demand may have cooled. Ireland provides a good  recent example of what that means for the sector; commercial property generated a 75% investment  return in the three years to end-2007, according to the MSCI index, but returns then fell by 34% in 2008 alone and by over 60% in the four years to end-2011.

The  global financial crisis and plunge in Irish economic activity precipitated a collapse in property demand, with the result that the  vacancy rate soared- by 2010 it had reached 24%  in the Dublin office market. Bank lending , the  main source of commercial property funding at the time, also collapsed, contributing to the effective absence of any commercial construction activity for four years, with 2014 seeing the first tentative signs of a pick up in supply.

By that time demand has recovered, particularly for Office space, and investors, largely foreign and non-bank, had been buying property, seeing it as cheap following a peak to trough fall in capital value of 68%. Investment returns on Irish commercial property turned positive again in 2013 (12.7%) followed by some spectacular gains in the next two years (40% and 25%). Commercial rents also started to pick up appreciably from 2013, according to the Lisney index, led by the Dublin Office market, which saw rents almost double in the three years to end-2015.

The Dublin Office market also provides a clear picture of the impact of stronger demand and little or no supply, with  the level of vacant  office space falling from around 9 million sq.ft  in 2010 to around 3.2 million at present, according to JLL, with the vacancy rate falling below 10% for the first time in 2015.

Yet there are signs that the boom is over, at least in investment terms. 2016  returns eased to just over 12% and the Lisney index shows a sharp slowdown in Office rents in the second half of 2016, albeit less so in terms of retail , with the annual rise in the former slowing to  6% in the final quarter, from 28% in 2015. The take-up of Office space in the capital was strong, at an estimated 2.7 million sq.ft in 2016, but  supply is once again responding to the price signals. Estimates vary , but it is clear that there is now a  very substantial increase in construction activity in the Office sector in and around the capital. Savills, for example,  put the amount of potential supply at some 10 million sq.ft. over the next three years.  Some of that is pre-let, of course, and not all that is planned sees the light of day, but with a longer term average demand  of less than 2 million sq.ft the potential for a supply overhang is certainly there. Demand could well be stronger, of course, and indeed may well be if Brexit results in an appreciable increase in demand for Office space in the capital. In that sense it may well be that the Irish commercial propety market now requires that boost to maintain strong returns.

Euro rate rise expectations overdone

Just over a year ago the ECB cut its main refinancing rate to zero and its deposit rate to -0.4%, having first shifted the latter into negative territory in June 2014. As a result money market rates have also been negative for some time while longer dated  rates only turn positive at a maturity above 3 years. Yet March saw a change in the market view with regard to the ECB’s monetary policy and the possible timing of an interest rate rise, reflecting  both incoming data and  what were perceived as less dovish comments from Frankfurt.

The  euro composite PMI has  certainly continued to strengthen, reaching a six-year high in March,  and points to 0.6% rise in GDP in the first quarter given the past relationship between the two series, with the prospect of even stronger growth in q2. That, in turn, would point to a significant  upward revison to the current consensus growth  forecast for 2017 of 1.7%. Headline inflation also surprised to the upside, reaching 2% in February,  slighly above the ECB’s target.

The market also reacted to President Draghi’s comments that the ‘risks  of deflation have largely disappeared‘. The Governing Council still expects rates to remain ‘at present or lower levels for an extended period’  but Draghi also said that there was a ‘cursory’ discussion  at the March policy meeting about removing the prospect of a further rate cut while also stating that no Council member favoured any additional long term lending to the banking system . The market responded by giving a much higher probability  of a 0.1% rise in the deposit rate  this year and certainly by mid-2018.

The  ECB later let it be known that it felt the reaction excessive relative to the message it was seeking to deliver and rate rise expectations have been pared back somewhat, with a rise of 0.05% priced in by March 2018. The data has also been less suppotive and indeed worrisome for the ECB. The flash estimate for March inflation was much lower than expected, at 1.5%, and if one excludes food and energy the rate fell back to cycle low of 0.7%. Moreover, the modest uptick in credit growth that had been apparent appears to have stalled, with the annual rise in loans to the private sector easing in February, to 2.3%. These figures  impacted the euro, which is now trading back at $1.065 having spiked to over $1.08. The ECB also puts some store on the 5 yr 5 yr inflation swap as a measure of inflation expectations ( albeit less so now than in the past) and that has fallen back below 1.6%.

Some claim the March inflation data owes a lot to the timing of Easter ( in March last year ) and that there will be a seasonal rebound in April, including the core measures.  Unemployment in the euro area is also falling steadily, which might be expected to push up wage inflation ( although the latter has continually disappointed  forecasters) and that view is reflected in ECB projections, which envisage core inflation picking up to average 1.8% in 2019.

On market rates themselves, the level of excess liquidity ensures that short rates do not stray too far from the deposit rate , which is -0.4%. That excess, which tops €1,500bn, is the amount the ECB is pumping into the banking system, via QE and the TLTRO, over and above the liquidity  banks need to meet normal requirements. The Governing Council hopes this will be used to boost bank lending but so far the impact is limited, and one wonders what the ECB would do if credit growth slows in a material way. That issue may not arise but unless core inflation picks up appreciably any rate rise speculation is premature.


Irish Mortgage arrears; pace of decline is slowing

Irish mortgage arrears are still extraordinaily high by international standards , although the past few years have seen a significant decline. The  number of  Principal Dwelling Home (PDH)  loans in arrears over 90 days  , the standard measure, peaked in the autumn of 2013 at just under 99,000 , equivalent to 12.9% of the total  outstanding. and in the final quarter of 2016 had fallen to some 54,000 (7.4%). The trend in the Buy To Let (BTL) sector is broadly similar, although the peak there was later, in the second quarter of 2014, at some 32,000, equivalent to more than 1 in 5 of the outstanding stock. The BTL figure has now declined to 15,500 or 15.7%.

What drives arrears?  Research has generally shown that there are three main factors; unemployment, house prices and interest rates. Indeed, we developed an equation predicting PDH arrears based on these variables which performed very well for a time, capturing the decline. That fall was largely driven by lower unemployment, but the recovery in house prices was also important, with a resultant reduction in the numbers in negative equity. The latter peaked at over 300,000 in 2012, according to the ESRI, and on our estimate fell to around 50,000 at the end of 2016.

Unemployment is still falling, of course, but the number in arrears has been consistently higher than our predicted figure for some time now. In fact it is clear the pace of arrears decline has slowed; the  PDH fall in the second half of 2016 was just 3,300  against over 8,300 in the same period a year earlier. The BTL decline in the latter half of 2016 was less than 1500.

This suggests that the arrears issue is moving into more intractable territory, with the  total numbers (PDH plus BTL) in arrears  for more than 720 days still over 47,000. Moreover, the flow of mortgages into arrears ( i.e. in arrears for less than 90 days ) actually rose for both PDH and BTL in the final quarter of 2016, the first rise in four years.

Reposessions are also rising in Ireland, for a variety of reasons, although about half are voluntary, with the quarterly flow now at around 700, from less than 400 in 2014. This is equivalent to less than 4% of the arrears figure and again unusual relative to elsewhere, this time very low.

The arrears issue is not going away any time soon.

The Return of Inflation?

Inflation in the Euro Area has risen sharply of late, with the flash estimate for February at 2%, from 0.6% in November, and is now  at the highest rate in four years. Consumer prices have also picked up momemtum in the other major economies: In the UK the inflation rate has accelerated from 0.9% to 1.8% in four months while in the US the increase is from 1.6% to 2.5% over the same period. As a consequence markets have shifted away from the fear of deflation and now the issue is whether this upturn in prices will prove short-lived or is it the beginning of a more sustained period of inflation, ultimately requiring  a faster policy response than currently priced in to markets. That change is clearest in the US, with the Fed now expected to raise rates again this month.

The more benign interpretation of the inflation trend  is supported by measures of core inflation, which exclude volatile components like Food and Energy. On that definition, the euro inflation rate is at 0.9%, unchanged over the last three months, and so the rise in inflation is due to a rebound in energy prices ( up an annual 9.2% in February) and unprocessed food ( plus 5.2%). These changes partly reflect base effects ( large monthly falls a year ago now dropping out of the annual figure) and the recent increase in global commodity prices, notably crude oil. In the US the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation is the core consumption price deflator, and that is rising at an annual rate of 1.7%, or at an annualised  rate of 1.6% over the past three months, again not flashing red.

What determines core inflation? Profit margins have an impact ( can firms pass on higher import prices in the UK for example) but the main factor is labour costs, and in most countries wage growth remains subdued and is much lower relative to unemployment than in the past. Why this is the case is the subject of much debate but in the absence of a pronounced pick up in wage inflation it is difficult to see price inflation accelerating for a prolonged period.

Headline inflation is what matters to consumers, of course, and the recent rise will dampen real incomes and  probably reduce real consumption and hence GDP growth. A 2% inflation rate is therefore  worse for the economy  than a 1% rate, yet Central Bankers have argued the opposite, as most use a 2% inflation figure as their definition of stable prices. How this became conventional wisdom is hard to fathom ( prices rise by 22% in a decade and just shy of 50% in 20 years, hardly a good measure of stability) while the fear of deflation is strong, even though Japan, the land of falling prices, has not really suffered in terms of its real GDP growth per head. Inflation at 2% may be fine with wage growth of 4%, as was the case , but not if wage growth is 2% or below, as appears to be the ‘new normal’. There is not much central bankers can do in the short term to influence energy or food prices, of course, but higher headline inflation will dampen real spending in the absence of an acceleration in nominal wage growth.

Irish labour data another indicator of capacity issues.

Ireland’s GDP, the international standard for measuring economic activity, may cause puzzlement to many and amusement to a few but it is difficult to argue with the labour market data as provided in the Quarterly Household Survey, and that continues to point to a buoyant economy. Indeed, it supports our view that Ireland is currently facing capacity constraints on many fronts,  stemming from years of under investment coupled with very strong growth in the population – the latter has risen by half a million over the last decade and double that in less than twenty years, a fact perhaps obscured by the emphasis in some quarters on emigration alone.

Employment bottomed in the autumn of 2012 on a seasonally adjusted basis  and has since risen by 212,000 . The numbers in work grew by an annual 65,000 in the fourth quarter of 2016, or by 3.3% , with the gains spread across all economic sectors. The Labour force is also growing again, albeit modestly, rising by an annual 25.000, with the result that unemployment fell by an annual  40,000 in Q4, taking the total to under 150,000  for the first time since mid-2008.

The unemployment rate peaked at 15.1%  a full five years ago, and  has been falling since , with the pace of decline accelerating of late,  from 7.9% in August to 6.9% in December, while January has now been revised to 6.8%. It is difficult to say what unemployment rate is consistent with full employment ( the rate fell below 5% during the last boom) but it is now likely that some sectors are experiencing labour shortages. Experience in other countries with low unemployment rates ( notably the US and the UK)  suggests that we may not see a generalised accleration in wage growth , although sectoral differences are already apparent.

The tightening labour market is another indicator of the constraints existing in the economy, as evidenced by the shortage of housing, overcrowded hospitals and clogged roads. Yet official policy appears to remain focused on attracting FDI at all times, irrespective of whether the economy can absorb such flows.

Savers Have Feelings Too

It is a curious fact that following any rate change by the ECB the headlines in Ireland always focus on the impact for mortgage holders. Curious , because there will also be an impact on deposit rates and there are far more savers than borrowers. Indeed, that is now also true for the the sums of money involved; Irish household deposits in the Irish banking sector amounted to €97bn in December, against €88bn in loans to Irish households, a divergence that began to open up from last July.

About three -quarters of these deposits are defined as ‘overnight deposits’ and the interest rate is just 0.12%. This  is a gross figure, and the DIRT rate payable is currently 39% , reduced from 41%, so savers only receive 0.07% i.e. next to nothing. Rates are historically low across the developed world,  of course, but the Government is adding to the squeeze on savers, leaving aside the DIRT issue; the Bank Levy,  which raises €150m a year from Irish banks, is based on the amount of DIRT collected by each institution, and as such provides a disincentive for banks to pay for deposits, particularly as the overall loan to deposit ratio for Irish headquartered banks has been below 100% for some months now. Banks can also access four-year cash from the ECB at a zero interest rate, so have even less reason to seek out deposits. A Levy based on bank profits might have a less distortionate effect on the savings market.

At its core the banking system merely transfers money from savers to borrowers, with the margin received for this intermediation dependent on the degree of competition in the market. That relationship  is often forgotten , with so much emphasis on borrowers, an emphasis not readily observable in other countries.

Irish Household deleveraging may be over

The last few years have seen some recovery in new mortgage lending in Ireland, although  it has not been strong enough to offset debt repayments, with the result that the outstanding stock of household debt has been falling now for almost seven years. That may be about to change, however, reflecting stronger growth in new lending.

New loans for house purchase have been on an upward trend over recent years, albeit from a very low base, but  actually fell by an annual 9% in the first quarter of 2016 , to well under 5,000,  no doubt impacted by the Central Bank’s mortgage controls, before returning to growth again  in the following months, with the final quarter showing a 12% annual rise, to 7,600. This brought the full year  figure to 24,891, or 5.2% above the 2015 total. To put this in context, the cycle low was around 11,000 in 2011, with the cycle high in 2006  at over 110,000.

The average new mortgage for house purchase also rose in 2016, by 6.8% to just under €200,000 , bringing the value of new lending  for house purchase to €5bn. First Time Buyers accounted for just over half that total, with most of the remainder down to Movers, as Buy to Let lending is still extermely low, at just €159m. On the non-purchase side,Top-up loans are also around €160m, albeit rising strongly in percentage terms, as is remortgaging, which increased by 80% to over €500m. The latter figure is less than a tenth of  the sums recorded at the peak of the boom but the pick up implies a stronger degree of competition in the mortgage market.

In sum, then, total mortgage lending ( including top-ups and remortgaging)   amounted to €5.7bn in 2016, or €900m more than the previous year and the strongest reading since 2009. Moreover, the pace of growth is accelerating, with the fourth quarter of 2016 at €1.8bn, a 26% annual increase. We expect this pattern to continue. with  new lending set  to rise to €7.2bn in 2017, driven by double digit growth in house prices, a rise in new housing supply and greater leverage as a result of the Central Bank’s decison to ease mortgage controls.

New lending on that scale may well be enough to offset ongoing mortgage debt repayments, particularly as the final three months of 2016 showed flat net  lending , although the annual change was still negative, at -1.4%. Non-mortgage lending to households has already turned positive again, reflecting PCP funding of new cars, so on a further recovery in new mortgage lending  Ireland  in 2017 could experience the first growth in net  household debt since 2009.